THE RAW REVIEW
Time is precious.
This is a fact I become increasingly cognizant of as I get older (especially following my three-part conversation with Al Monelli about Monday Night Raw on The Work of Wrestling podcast).
For this reason, I will continue to watch the 90-minute HuluPlus version of RAW and I will only watch those segments and matches that I feel I must pay attention to.
For this RAW REVIEW that means writing about John Cena, Kevin Owens, Brock Lesnar, and, finally, Paul Heyman.
The United States Championship has become more valuable than any other title on the card.
That does not necessarily reflect any nefarious design on the part of the bookers/writers to undermine the value of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. Seth Rollins’ title is still main-eventing and the entire show revolves around whatever quandary the cowardly-heel-champ finds himself in. I genuinely believe whoever is booking RAW's A-story thinks they're doing what's best for business and what's best for that title.
But the biggest draw on the main roster (apart from the recently returned Brock Lesnar) is easily The United States Championship.
And after last night’s simple yet powerful speech by John Cena, it is the only championship that represents what a championship is meant to represent.
Holding the title next to his face, John Cena proudly stated, “This is a symbol of excellence.”
That is not often made explicitly clear by main roster champions. And, oftentimes, when such is stated by midcard champions the booking doesn't actually reflect that statement.
Not too long ago after winning the NXT Championship, Sami Zayn cut a promo about his prize, opening with “Let’s talk about what this means!” And then he proceeded to connect his fans with the title, his triumph became their triumph. That's the function of a well-represented Championship - it forges a bond between the title holder and the audience. The title becomes a symbol unique to each individual who holds it, indicative of that performers relationship with the crowd. The significance of that symbolism must be rooted so deeply in the soul of that title-holder that the image of the belt becomes synonymous with the face of performer, whether villain or hero.
For this reason, The United States Championship is now, surprisingly, the best title on the main roster for it is the only championship that reflects the soul of its owner and its the only championship that now exists as an actual “prize” indicative of success (the same is true of Kevin Owens' NXT Championship, but I do not consider this a main-roster title despite how prominently featured Owens has become on RAW and SmackDown).
By simply and directly stating “this is a symbol of excellence” and in watching Kevin Owens change his tune over the past several weeks, to hear that Kevin Owens now wants The United States Championship because the title means so much to John Cena, elevates the championship and this narrative to a place of instant-classic status.
We have witnessed, since the beginning of John Cena’s United States Championship open challenge, the best main-roster booking we’ve seen in years. And it’s all culminating in a truly engrossing conflict of good versus evil, with shades of internet-age reality coloring the proceedings.
Owens continues to undermine the value of John Cena, attempting to dismantle the corporate lie of Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect while John Cena defends the meaning of those words just as he defends the meaning of his title, arguing that his slogans and his tee-shirts are less the product of a corporate infrastructure and more the result of a life-affirming ethos.
This rivalry has been booked in a shockingly sense-making way, running like a fiery locomotive with a very clear money-making purpose straight through a landscape of chaos and clouds.
Owens wins the first match.
Shocks the world.
His stock skyrockets.
Smarks get what they want and think, "Man...I should probably keep watching RAW."
Non-smarks think, “Who is this Kevin Owens guy? I should probably start watching NXT.”
Cena wins the second match, satisfying his fans, but Owens hurts Cena in a post-match beat-down indicating that this fight is far from over and that Owens can be booked for a loss but remain strong and bankable.
Naturally, since both have a win and a loss, there needs to be a rubber-match.
Beyond the moral-war and the ideologically struggle and the reality-bending mainstay modern theme of wrestling vs sports entertainment, this story is a perfect draw, leading into a must-see third match where the stakes are now astronomically high.
As I watch Kevin Owens and John Cena work in the ring and work on the mic, as I listen to them play off each other, weaving in and out of English, French, and mandarin in the midst of their promos so as to more effectively trash-talk, I feel as though I am seeing the most important thing on television. And that’s the feeling we need in the main event. That’s the feeling that results from straightforward storytelling where the conflict is clear and the conflict can only be resolved inside the wrestling ring.
That feeling of significance is arrived at when a powerful orator outlines why events matter, where events are going, what a symbol (like a championship belt) really means. When booking other championships and other performers in the future, I would hope that the WWE would look to their successes with Kevin Owens and John Cena and adhere to those good old-fashioned emotionally rewarding (and lucrative) tenets that move people to the moment pop.
And now that Paul Heyman has returned to grace us with his seductive, oratory stylings, perhaps the WWE World Heavyweight Championship-story will become grounded in a similar, straightforward, high-stakes, emotionally rewarding narrative-formula.
I feared that an apologetic Brock Lesnar would become a neutered Brock Lesnar, that the WWE’s PG-booking would find some way to sap Lesnar of even more agency and gravitas by having him renege on his delightfully volatile post-Mania-Raw attacks.
Kudos to the crowd for not booing when Lesnar actually did apologize to JBL and Michael Cole. The fact that they cheered him made it seem as though he was "doing the right and honorable thing".
Granted, Heyman and Lesnar did everything they could to ensure a positive response from the audience (when the crowd initially booed the notion of an apology Heyman outlined to the crowd that if Lesnar didn’t apologize Lesnar wouldn’t come back to RAW - it was almost like Heyman was stating “Yes, I understand you don’t like this part of the story. Don’t worry. It will go away soon and in the end Brock will be back and that's what you really want”). The apology also played into Brock's intimidating nature. To see everyone cower in fear around him, and to then see him give Michael Cole a noogie was the best way to move past this narrative hurdle without snatching away Brock's mystique. While I'd prefer to see a defiant Brock Lesnar hold RAW hostage until he got what he wanted, now that these apologies are out of the way and it seems as though the story is settling into a battle between Rollins & Lesnar, things should pick up, and Heyman can go to work selling Battleground.
And go to work he did.
Before Heyman began, I worried that my ability to fully appreciate his promos would be affected by the fact that I’ve heard him explain his promo-philosophy a few times on The Steve Austin Show.
Not the case.
I can’t even write that “knowing” Heyman’s promo-philosophy and style makes me "appreciate it even more", because as soon as Heyman’s lips hit microphone I forget it all - I’m just seduced into thoroughly enjoying every little thing I see and hear without thinking about what I'm seeing and hearing. There is no, “That’s him doing what he said he does!” And that’s a testament to his effectiveness on the mic - even after having explicated his own process for viewers, the viewer isn’t any less seduced by his masterful ability.
It was only after the promo was finished that I started to go over Heyman’s phraseology in an analytical way for the sake of this review. With a slowly widening grin, I asked myself, “Did I just hear rhythm, rhyme, repetition, assonance, consonance, and anaphoric construction?”
I went back and listened to Heyman’s promo again, this time transcribing his statements.
After reading the text of his speech, I realized something very clearly about Brock Lesnar’s Advocate...
Paul Heyman doesn’t cut promos.
Paul Heyman cuts poems.
SUPLEX CITY, BITCH
Seth Rollins, on July 19th, you may think
You’re flying into Battleground
Into St. louis Missouri
But what you have, my man, is a one-way
All-expenses-paid, first class ticket to Suplex City, bitch!
The accommodations are not courtesy of Mr. McMahon
And His Billions
The Authority and all of their Reign
It is not courtesy of J and J Security who beat you
Kane who wants to eat you
Or the WWE Universe whose dying for someone to defeat you
These accommodations are courtesy of the Conquerer of the Streak
The Beast of Battleground
And the former and future
Heavyweight Champion of the World
Within this poem exists everything needed to sell a pay-per-view, a match, and a performer. The who, what, where, when, and why is all covered. But his word-play, his construction, and his use of allusion and his various sonic and literary techniques elevate this sales-pitch to the mantle of spoken-word-poetry.
Heyman is treating us to the work of an artist.
His oration, working in tandem with the image of a bouncing, hungry, beastly Lesnar is a perfect representation of the art of professional wrestling.
Despite whatever booking woes or characterization flaws remain on the main roster, these moments must be recognized and appreciated for exactly what they are; a testament to the excellence of our beloved wrestling, proof that professional wrestling can be art and that Monday Night Raw can be rapturous when it wants to be.
These are the precious moments we must seek out and relish.
These are the precious moments that epitomize “must-see, can’t-miss”.
These are the precious moments that remind me why I keep watching.
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