THE RAW REVIEW
What was the last pay-per-view you remember where the main event was set well in advance and the WWE expanded upon that main event story for several weeks?
I remember the build into that now-infamous and incredibly satisfying SummerSlam encounter between Brock Lesnar and John Cena. It was consistent, enjoyable, and straightforward. There was never any doubt that you were going to see John Cena defend his championship against Brock Lesnar. Even if you hated the idea of Lesnar vs Cena, you had seen the promotional packages for a solid four weeks.
And then, after having adequately absorbed that information, you experienced the payoff. The rug was pulled out from under you in a narratively powerful way. The booking didn’t change. Not once. You still got Lesnar vs Cena, but you got it in a way you could not have possibly anticipated. You watched the most one-sided decimation of a babyface in WWE history. It was thrilling. Shocking. Everything a main event at a big pay-per-view should be.
Would it have been as shocking and narratively satisfying had The Authority added a bunch of stipulations to that match every single week on RAW going into SummerSlam? Would it have been satisfying if, at any point during the build into that main event, The Authority suggested on television that maybe Brock Lesnar didn’t deserve to face John Cena at SummerSlam?
Would the outcome of SummerSlam have been nearly as memorable had it become a triple threat match or had John Cena needed to overcome some obnoxious obstacle prior to defending his championship or had Lesnar needed to qualify to face Cena prior to facing Cena?
The answer, very simply, is no.
SummerSlam’s main event was so powerful not simply because you saw John Cena take a shellacking in a way you’ve never seen before. SummerSlam could have very easily been a straightforward match where either Cena or Lesnar came out victorious, and it still would have been satisfying.
The reason that match was good was because it was set in motion well in advance, the booking never suggested the match might not happen or that the match might change as a result of fan feedback, and, most importantly of all, it was a fight between two men for the WWE’s greatest prize. You knew the stakes. You knew the story. Every moment mattered. All sixteen suplexes told that story.
Not since has the WWE managed to book a pay-per-view main event match and stay the course in a credible way.
(And prior to SummerSlam 2014, the WWE's booking for the past several years has been similarly ludicrous, undermining any and all of its own potential along the way).
Every single pay-per-view following SummerSlam and leading into The Royal Rumble had a main event that was either unceremoniously announced online or stitched together in the 11th hour (in the first draft of this review I walked readers through every single main event booking decision following SummerSlam and it was honestly just too depressing).
And that leads us to The Royal Rumble.
Immediately, when the WWE finally got back on the track of Brock Lesnar vs John Cena for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, they booked the match as “The Final Chapter”. This is something only a handful of people will even remember at this point - John Cena vs Brock Lesnar at The Royal Rumble was supposed to be the epic final battle between good & evil, fantasy & reality, the deciding moment in their careers.
In fact, Paul Heyman immediately sent out a Tweet following TLC calling the match “The Final Chapter”. The company caught on and the promotion seemed to be set.
Then, after only about a week, The Authority returned and put Seth Rollins in the match and changed that “Final Chapter” story into a triple threat.
Certainly, it wound up being one of the best matches in a long time, but that doesn’t change the fact that the WWE has been completely unable to book a main event, tell that story, and build on that story since July of last year.
This is, very simply, egregious, and it reveals that the company's priority is as follows: sell the next pay-per-view instead of telling a story that sells the next pay-per-view.
This is made all the more egregious when this style of schizophrenic booking affects the most important main event in the WWE’s calendar year - the main event at WrestleMania.
For the past several years the main event at WrestleMania has been disgraced by this bad booking. I write about this not because I’m a smark who never got to see his guy in the main event. I write about this because I care about pro-wrestling storytelling. I care about getting invested in a story. I care about having my intelligence respected and I care about seeing a satisfying match at the most important moment of a WWE fan's year, regardless of who's in that match.
Keep in mind, the main event for WrestleMania 30 wasn’t set until Occupy Raw on March 10th. That’s only nineteen days away from when WrestleMania 30 actually took place. And there still were extra stipulations involved - Daniel Bryan had to beat Triple H in order to qualify to be in the main event. So there was always, within the fiction, lingering doubt about what the main event would actually be.
Many fans loved last night’s RAW.
Many fans see this number one contender’s match between Roman Reigns and Daniel Bryan at Fastlane as hope, as the WWE listening to that Philadelphia Royal Rumble crowd and planting the seed for a possible Daniel Bryan main event ‘Mania match.
I see only the same bad booking that led to that Philadelphia crowd booing Roman Reigns in the first place. I see only the WWE’s inability to commit to something, their inability to sell something, and the crowd’s inability to commit to an actual form of feedback.
Did you boo the bad booking or did you boo the lack of Daniel Bryan in The Royal Rumble?
Those are two very different things.
Do you just like Daniel Bryan or do you hate bad storytelling?
One of those things is much more important to professional wrestling.
The problem with the WWE is not that they’re not giving the fans the superstars that the fans are cheering for.
The most fundamental problem with the WWE is that the writing…the booking…the WWE's creativity as it relates to selling you a story is incredibly flawed and that results in bad, unintelligent advert-laced television.
That bad booking does often also result in the people's chosen wrestlers not getting a push, but the larger problem is that the bad booking results in people the company actually wants to push getting spoiled, in pay-per-views not being sold well, and in RAW being an ungodly bad television experience.
On SmackDown, Triple H gave a welcoming, entertaining performance as a babyface. He promised an announcement, he said, “Thank you” to the WWE Universe. He said “problems would be solved” and that the WWE would address the controversy surrounding The Royal Rumble.
The one thing I hoped the WWE would not do is exactly what they did do, and that’s use The Announcement as a bait & switch, and a way of selling Fastlane.
I’d hoped to see that same Triple H from SmackDown come out, nudge the forth wall, and acknowledge the actual controversy of the Rumble; that the people do not like the booking, that the people do not want Roman Reigns in that main event because he’s green and lacking in certain areas of performance.
I’d hoped to see something inventive or, at the very least, just a bit different from what I’ve seen from The Authority for a very long time now.
I wanted, like a normal human being, to just simply enjoy what I was watching and be permitted to enjoy what I was watching. Instead I was made to feel like an idiot.
Instead, in typical Authority fashion, the self-hating characters trudged their way through a blatantly bad script, the performers clearly aware that they’re engaged in an overly complicated, nonsensical booking mess, twisting the knife in smarks guts in a manner that has become old-hat at this point, while the babyfaces looked like fumbling, neutered buffoons.
Ironically, one of the most likable aspects of Triple H’s SmackDown promo and sit-down interview with Michael Cole last week was that he spoke with confidence, stating that the WWE “has balls”.
(Enjoy THE WORK OF WRESTLING - EP6 - I WANT TO LIKE TRIPLE H)
Hearing him say this, especially as a dig against a rival sports organization in the NFL, made you feel good about loving the WWE. It made you believe the WWE was strong and real and that Triple H was a good steward.
You completely forgot that he was a heel just days prior. You were treated with a semblance of respect, your desire to be entertained, your desire to feel good about loving the WWE, your desire to watch something that wants you to smile wasn’t purposefully toyed with and defiled to elicit heat. The old dynamic of purposefully grating television and grating stipulations was traded for a more straightforward, purposefully entertaining exchange.
In resorting to the same-old, same-old nonsensical plotting and planning and downright bad booking on RAW, the WWE revealed they have absolutely no balls whatsoever. No daring. No creativity. No interest in doing the hard thing and pushing themselves to make Lesnar vs Reigns the most interesting, appealing main event match you’ve ever seen.
Last week, in just seven minutes, Paul Heyman showed the WWE creative team how to make amends with discontented fans.
(This video has almost 1.5 million views)
Heyman showed that the way to make up for that terrible Rumble finish wasn’t to acquiesce to the dictates of an audience that loves a particular wrestler or to backpedal and negate the significance of the pay-per-view by re-writing the controversy as The Rock’s interference and not the fan’s discontent. Heyman took control of the situation and told a story. He focused on the actual problem; Roman Reigns didn’t have a relatable narrative going into The Rumble. There was no reason to care about him. The WWE had made no actual efforts to get you invested in the character. There was nothing about Roman, apart from his look and his heat with The Shield, that anyone could identify with. So Heyman stepped in, filled in those gaps with a human being, related it to pro-wrestling history, and made you understand why a fight between Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania needed to take place.
He immediately constructed the foundation for a feud that could be expanded over the course of the next two months, culminating in an epic, satisfying main event match between Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar.
You could have gone on booing Reigns if you wanted to, just as you booed Cena versus Lesnar. You could have gone on hating that match if you wanted to. But your intelligence wouldn't be disrespected by snap-decisions and misleading matches. You would have known, for sure, that it was going to happen and you would have gradually learned the stakes involved and you would have picked a favorite and you would have been treated to Paul Heyman promos along the way.
And the payoff would have been a ‘Mania Main Event that had been established and built well in advance without any hiccups along the way, without any deviations in focus, without any nonsense. It would have been a story that sells itself, not a pandering pitch. It would have been a fight between two men, two athletes. It would have been a battle between a young man and a seasoned veteran, a young warrior and an old beast. We would have learned what Roman Reigns was all about. We would have been able to formulate some kind of relationship with him, positive or negative, over the next two months, and we would have seen Brock Lesnar evolve as well.
It’s important to remember how much people hated the idea of Brock Lesnar vs John Cena at SummerSlam.
I was one such person, and that feud has come to define a pivotal moment in my life. It’s a feud I absolutely loved because I was open to it. I was open to the story, to the way Heyman sold it week after week.
And even if you weren’t open to it, even if you hated it, you were shocked by that SummerSlam match. You were moved by it. And it’s because it was well-booked and well-executed. The actual WWE World Heavyweight Championship wasn't disgraced in any way. The main event of SummerSlam was a significant moment because it was earned by everyone after a solid build.
Now…I’m not sure what the WrestleMania main event means anymore.
It has quickly become a monster of the week episode.
It’s obvious The Royal Rumble now means even less.
And the fans cheer on, because Daniel Bryan is back in the title hunt, showing the WWE that all they need to do is negate one bad decision in favor of a quick fix, a quick fix that in no way cures the bad-booking disease that festers in the soul of this corporate monster.
You should know, right now, who is going to face whom at WrestleMania.
Without a doubt. It should be set, and the WWE should have had the guts to stay the course, but to use the feedback in such a way that the course was corrected not completely abandoned.
There should be no number one contender’s match at Fastlane.
The hope you feel for a Daniel Bryan ‘Mania Main Event should not exist, especially because the company is probably going to go ahead with Roman Reigns vs Lesnar anyway. They’ve manipulated you into thinking you were heard. They manipulated you into thinking that you were booing The Royal Rumble finish purely because Daniel Bryan didn’t win it, not because the writing and the booking has been terrible and continues to be terrible as we head into Fastlane.
This RAW reveals, perhaps better than any other, just how much the WWE does not listen. Or, it reveals that they listen in the wrong way.
The result is that The Royal Rumble is damaged, ‘Mania is damaged, Daniel Bryan is damaged (for if he wins, what does that mean? How is that better than just committing to a main event and building a good story over the course of two months?), Roman is damaged (if this is all to turn Roman heel...what makes that a success, especially when a vocal part of the audience cheers him and boos Bryan), and anyone with any talent whatsoever is damaged because they have to work in an environment that cuts them off at the knees at every turn.
This week’s RAW almost entirely negated Paul Heyman’s fine work from last week.
That’s like a totalitarian regime burning the art of Da Vinci or an unruly youth painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.
The same is true of almost any good match that takes place on RAW.
The job of today's WWE fan is to either ignore the badness or sift through the badness week after week after week, struggling to find a grime-coated diamond amidst the refuse.
This could very easily be the greatest era in the history of professional wrestling.
The roster is overflowing with young talent and veteran talent on the verge of tapping into the pop-culture consciousness of that pesky millennial generation.
The in-ring work from performers like Daniel Bryan and Seth Rollins is unmatched.
Brock Lesnar has transformed into one of the greatest pro-wrestling characters in the medium’s history, and he could easily become a transcendent baby-face who redefines the way we think about the top WWE Superstar.
And the greatest orator in the history of the medium is turning in the best work of his career every time he does...anything.
So why, after almost every RAW, do I feel like my brain has been syphoned out of my skull through my nostrils?
A disservice is being done to the excellence of today's roster and Paul Heyman by surrounding them with the stupidity and the mediocrity of others.
A disservice is being done to the intelligence of all wrestling fans.
A disservice is being done to the art of professional wrestling.
And that’s what needs to be mended immediately, because these great talents won’t be around forever. The art of wrestling can’t afford (figuratively and financially) to devolve into an assembly-line of broken geniuses and wasted potential.
We need someone to stand up to the booker and say, very simply and honestly, “Fix your broken show or leave. You're not welcome here anymore."
The time has come for a new generation to rise.
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