THE RAW REVIEW - PART TWO
Note: This RAW REVIEW has been divided into two parts, each a separate article/link.
Part One addresses the issues with the WWE’s flagship broadcast - particularly its problematic three-hour time-slot and continued misogyny toward the main roster women's division. It is a call to action for passionate wrestling fans to find a creative way to affect lasting change in the WWE, to push through dejection and arrive at a new solution.
Part Two is my attempt at a solution - I do not want The Raw Review to devolve into yet another column of complaint. And so part two is simply an examination of the main event match between John Cena and Cesaro. CLICK HERE TO READ PART ONE.
Good art makes you grateful.
Last night, when RAW went off the air, I was nothing but grateful for what John Cena and Cesaro gave me. This is easily my favorite match since John Cena’s United States Open Challenge began. Along with The Royal Rumble Triple Threat Championship Match between Brock Lesnar, John Cena, and Seth Rollins, it is easily my favorite match of the year.
But “favorite match” and “match of the year” are familiar phrases that often fail to adequately encapsulate why such a match is worthy of such praise.
And professional wrestling matches of this caliber do not lend themselves to the same kind of critical approach with which an analyst unravels the deeper meanings of a film or a novel or a poem or a painting. Pro-wrestling discussion of a critical nature is often best had by veteran pro-wrestlers who can adequately articulate why a particular sequence transitions into another sequence. We fans have to simply reminisce about how “awesome it was when Cesaro gave John Cena that European uppercut!” The magic of pro-wrestling takes our language away, replacing it with sounds of wonder and awe, exclamations of happiness and triumph. And that’s beautiful and the way it should be. But I think that’s also why those who are predisposed to write wrestling off as “fake” don’t quite get it. They don’t know why we pop, and so they regard our beloved art as "soap operas for men".
So let’s tell them why we pop, and let’s also let this explanation stand as an argument in favor of what Monday Night Raw should be doing on a regular basis.
The United States Championship now possesses meaning. It represents, as John Cena stated a few weeks ago, “a symbol of excellence”. This statement is supported by the variety of truly excellent matches John Cena has had over the past several weeks, defending that championship against strong opponents.
Enter Kevin Owens, a villain who wants to shame John Cena. A villain who regards John Cena as everything that is wrong with the world, and everything that has stood in the way of Kevin Owens ascending through the WWE ranks for the past fifteen years. A villain who needs to take the United States Championship from John Cena because the title has come to represent the excellence and the benevolence (or the lie, from Owens' perspective) that John Cena stands for.
All of this exists in a fictitious world of competitive, professional wrestling sport, where championships hold the same symbolic significance as the real-world championships of the NFL or the MLB or the NHL.
The conflict is instantly recognizable, but it’s colored by the unique psychology of the characters.
Where real-sport fails to encapsulate the depth of human drama (we are not concerned with the motivations or the personal histories of the quarterback and the receiver in the moment they score a touchdown), professional wrestling’s narrative component makes the battle for championship gold personal. This narrative component is what inspires the audience to cheer louder than any audience in the world. This narrative component, told by skilled performers like John Cena and Kevin Owens, encourages the suspension of disbelief. You succumb to the flow of pro-wrestling. You find yourself in a state of absolute conviction, where every word spoken and every move executed expands upon the human truth of these rivals, so that when it comes time for the three-count, you are not simply witnessing a title retention or a title gain, you are witnessing the human triumph or the human defeat.
All of this was the foundation of Monday Night Raw’s main event, the thirty-minutes' traffic of professional wrestling’s stage.
Owens, angry from his recent defeat in Japan, decided not to wait until Battleground to take Cena’s title, when, reflecting the twists and turns of any good drama (and reality), a third element appeared to disrupt the flow of events. The conflict intensified.
Cesaro, who would have beaten John Cena for the title last week if not for the interference of Kevin Owens, ordered Owens out of the ring so that he could fight Cena again for the title he felt he was owed.
Cesaro’s speech was simple and believable. He insulted Owens for complaining, and then he threatened Owens if he did not leave the ring. This is the competitive world of the alpha male jockeying for a strong position, clamoring for dominance.
Owens, ever the good heel, slinked away, biding his time, knowing that he would return later when the hero was vulnerable.
And then we had our match, a match where each move is informed by this easily comprehended, emotionally engrossing story that has been carefully outlined prior to the ringing of the bell.
The groundwork laid, the success or failure of the story now relies upon the execution of the wrestlers - their ability to sell, their displays of athletic grace and athletic power, their ability to read the crowd so as to determine the next sequence, their expertise at weaving together a physical tapestry that ebbs and flows with the cheers and jeers and dictates the cheers and jeers, culminating in an explosion of ecstasy.
Cesaro and John Cena achieved this.
Their improvisational, simulated war stands as a testament to the effectiveness of the pro-wrestling art’s traditions. Their experience, their knowledge of the crowd and how to work that crowd, resulted in one of the finest pieces of theater you can see today. The flaws (a slightly botched move here, a noticeable “call” there) become insignificant when considering how effectively these two performers moved you to the moment of pop (it’s also important to remember that the live audience in attendance is not privy to what the television audience sees - the cameras often undermine the fiction with ill-timed closeups on mouths and mics around the ring that reveal what the pro-wrestlers are saying to one another).
I could detail the entire match for you, or write about the greatness of this match in vague terms, recounting spots and facial expressions that sold the narrative. But specificity is key to successfully supporting the argument that pro-wrestling is art, and that this match between John Cena and Cesaro is a perfect example of that art. For this reason, I have identified one particular sequence that exemplifies this truth.
The match had already been underway for fifteen minutes or more. John Cena and Cesaro had beaten each other from one side of the ring to the next, weaving in and out of grounded holds and faster leaps and punches and kicks. This salvo of lower-level moves set a quick pace, positioning both contenders in a position of power - as though neither could really gain the upper-hand due to their balanced athletic strength. Then the bigger moves and the bigger spots began - brawls outside the ring, leaps off the top rope, and the like.
The crowd was positioned in a place of heightened intensity where every big move seemed as though it could be the end of the match considering how much damage had already been done by both competitors.
It was at this point where the best, most complex sequence in the match began, a sequence that moved the audience through nearly every conceivable emotion.
John Cena went to give his finishing move to Cesaro, The Attitude Adjustment.
Cesaro countered by holding the ropes, a counter that the viewer is accustomed to. The viewer, familiar with this counter expects the sequence to end in Cena’s favor, that Cena will counter Cesaro’s predictable defense. Cesaro slipped off Cena’s shoulders, Cena bounced against the ropes to come back for a shoulder tackle, and that’s when Cesaro’s pushed Cena off the mat, high into the air, and struck him with the most powerful European uppercut (and the most visually spectacular move) in the match to that point.
Expectation was shattered. It now seemed possible that Cesaro could win, for a spot that typically ends in Cena’s favor resulted in Cena’s most definitive decimation in the match thus far.
It is important to note that the reason this move is so visually spectacular and shocking is due in large part to John Cena’s legs.
Cena, in mid-air, accentuated the perception that he had been tossed into the sky and that he had lost control of his body by kicking his legs in a bicycling motion. This is a subtle and fast motion, but it’s one of the primary reasons the crowd comes unglued when they see it.
Cesaro landed the uppercut on Cena’s shoulder, went in for the pin, and then Cena kicked out. The live audience likely didn’t perceive Cesaro didn’t really land the move, but the cameras revealed as much for the television viewer.
And this is where the importance of good commentary is revealed, commentary rooted in the fiction of the match, commentary that helps ground the action in believability.
Professional wrestling does not succeed merely because of the performances of the wrestlers.
Commentary must contribute to this sports story so as to effectively create the illusion of athletic reality.
During the replay, Michael Cole emphasized that Cesaro hit Cena in the shoulder, that he didn’t completely land the move. This statement helps explain why John Cena was able to kick out at the two-count. Cena is not superhuman, able to comeback from any physical offense no matter how powerful. He becomes a human being in a believable athletic competition who benefited from his opponent's mistake.
“...if he hit him in the jaw there this one is over,” Cole continued, not only preserving the reason for Cena’s kickout, but preserving the perceived power of Cesaro.
Following this kickout, Cesaro slowly got to his feet, winded, exasperated with Cena’s resilience, and then signaled for one of his signature moves, “The Big Swing”. This is a beloved move that the crowd is always anticipating in a Cesaro match. And so, when the crowd sees Cesaro’s finger twirl and hears him scream, the crowd roars with excitement.
That excitement is twisted in an entirely different direction as Cena quickly leaped to his fit and hit Cesaro with The Attitude Adjustment - the finisher that was teased at the outset of this sequence. Doubt is quickly cast in the crowd’s mind. The dominant Cesaro has been cut down by Cena’s most powerful move.
And then the crowd roared again when Cesaro kicked out, revealing his tenacity, his resilience in the face of Cena's best offense.
When Cesaro kicked out, he rose, wobbly, to his knees the way a stunned athlete would after a tough fall or a rough hit, and then collapsed, face-first, on the mat. This motion sells the devastation of Cena’s finisher, making you believe that every move saps each competitor of more and more energy, thus resulting in even greater shock when they’re able to perform another feat of strength.
As Cesaro and Cena lay on the mat, regaining their breath, commentary then emphasized the “tradition” of great matches in Chicago. Commentary discussed the pro-wrestling lineage and how what viewers were witnessing contributed to that great history. This auditory accompaniment helped the viewer regard this exchange as a deeply significant moment in pro-wrestling history, a moment that inspires pride in the viewer. The viewer then feels privileged and special for having witnessed this moment. The viewer is rewarded for their love of wrestling.
After Cena and Cesaro finally regained their footing (it’s important to note that Cena is first to rise) that’s when Cesaro finally latched onto Cena’s legs and twirled him in the much-desired Big Swing.
The crowd, previously positioned to pop because the move was teased, releases their biggest roar yet.
Each move prior has built toward this moment of ecstasy. Cesaro and Cena manipulated this crowd, teasing and teasing until finally permitting them to unleash their pent up joy.
Each performer tried for their finisher or signature, was interrupted, and then eventually managed to execute. This back and forth is the same sort of careful juxtaposition one experiences in well-crafted film or an intelligently structured poem.
The viewer is taken through a series of highs and lows, each sight and sound building and building to the point of such intensity that all that comes out is the fervent cry of a believer.
Following The Big Swing, Cesaro took Cena into a Sharpshooter, now taking the match in an entirely new direction of holds and winces and cries for pain, each competitor displaying a new kind of resilience and a new kind of offensive intelligence. The drama became a race for the ropes, the struggle to find a way out of someone’s torturous grasp.
These moments represent the art of professional wrestling.
These moments are synonymous with the craft of poetry.
Every move matters just as every line matters.
One misstep and the fiction, the emotion, would crumble.
If commentary does not accentuate the action in the proper way, the fiction and the focus is lost.
If the competitors do not adjust to the crowd at the perfect moment or if the competitors do not cover-up the other’s slight botch, the story unravels and all becomes a poorly conceived dance. If there is no foundation for that in-ring competition, no emotional center or recognizable psychology that propels the characters forward then there is no reason to watch.
But in the right hands, told the right way, the story of professional wrestling is an inspiring tale that rivals anything else on television or the silver screen.
John Cena and Cesaro gave the world a wonderful example of a very simple truth:
Professional Wrestling is art.
And it deserves respect from those who watch it and from those who create it.
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