Back in 2002, just a few months after WWE’s first ever brand split, the company pulled off perhaps the greatest Summerslam of all time. From Kurt Angle and Rey Mysterio setting an impossibly high bar with the opening match, to Brock Lesnar taking his place at the top of the company with a win over The Rock while an electric crowd turned on the face of the company before he’d head off to Hollywood, it was a night filled with memorable moments from top to bottom. PPVs that consistent are rare, but something about 2002, and all the change and upheaval in the company, created something special. The weeks leading up to Summerslam were used to make sure the matches on the card had huge stakes. Brock vs. Rock felt like a changing of the guard, especially with Brock demolishing Hulk Hogan only weeks before the PPV. Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H was built on years of history. Edge and Eddie Guerrero put on a clinic in intensity and grappling.
WWE now finds itself in a similar position. A recent brand split has proven to be creatively stimulating. Admittedly, the sample size is small, but so far both Raw and Smackdown have benefited from new looks, be it in the form of sets, commentary teams, roster changes, or new production tricks. Raw has been engaging in storytelling that’s clear and fresh, not unlike the 2002 version of Smackdown that led into Summerslam, where Paul Heyman took over as head writer and instilled a sense of real-life competition into the card each and every night. Smackdown is off to a rockier start in 2016, but certainly finding its identity with every passing week.
As great as Raw has been since the brand split, WWE needs to be careful that it doesn’t just fall back into a predictable pattern. A certain amount of predictability is necessary—it’s what garners pops, boos, and creates feuds, after all—but the real reason the last few Raws have been so engaging is the fact that they’ve felt fresh. This week’s show practically falls off a cliff when it comes to the quality of the matches and the intrigue of the segments. In the first 90 minutes alone there are two rematches from last week’s Raw, some fumbled storytelling, and far too much repetition. It’s a shame, because on paper there’s still some semblance of innovation and creative inspirations.
For instance, the notion of Chris Jericho and Enzo Amore feuding is great because it establishes that any guy on this roster can feud with any other guy just because they don’t like each other. There’s layers that we can read into their conflict, with Enzo closely resembling early WWE Jericho, except he’s the babyface version, and the two sparring over who’s the better talker. There’s generational anger, the fight for spots on the show, and the idea that Jericho has proven himself whereas Enzo is just spouting off with little to back it up. That’s all well and good, but the execution in the opening segment isn’t quite there.
Having Kevin Owens back up Jericho is a great touch; again, it establishes that these are all guys who work together and have colleagues they love and hate. WWE can too often isolate its feuds, as if they’re happening in a vacuum, so showing that just about anyone can feud with someone else is a good precedent to set. Unfortunately, Enzo and Cass drop the ball tonight. Not only do they drop some casual homophobia just for the hell of it, their whole promo is overly stilted and rehearsed. The energy and cadence that’s typical of an Enzo promo isn’t there, and the entire segment suffers because of it. It also doesn’t help that the lengthy promo segment is followed by a singles match between Enzo and Jericho. Simply put, Enzo isn’t great in the ring. He’s getting better, but he can’t carry a singles match. That’s why him and Cass work so well together. The match is really only compelling because Kevin Owens is creating beautiful theatre outside the ring the entire time.
So, Raw is already off to a sluggish start after spending the first 30 minutes of the show setting up a tag match for Summerslam in clumsy fashion. Then, because WWE loves its tailspins, two rematches from the previous week follow. Darren Young and Titus O’Neil face off because the latter cheated last week, leading to the former cheating this week, and Sheamus and Cesaro battle once again because…well, there’s not really a reason. Michael Cole mentions that the match was sanctioned by Mick Foley, and Corey Graves says that the Raw GM wants to see “dominance,” but that’s all pretty flimsy. The first two post-brand split Raws largely succeeded because the matches had purpose. There was a reason behind almost everything, from the matches to the backstage segments. So, even though Cesaro and Sheamus put on another good match, the lack of motive behind their fight leaves it feeling rather pointless. That’s fine every now and then, but this week’s Raw is filled with these types of matches, weighing down the entire show.
The plain and simple truth is that this week’s Raw doesn’t have anywhere near the inspiration and coherence of previous weeks. The whole show is all over the place, with very little intrigue behind the matches and segments. There’s a whole lot of bluster, but no follow through. Want a few examples? Well, WWE builds up Neville’s tag team partner only to reveal that it’s Sin Cara. Golden Truth have a run-in with Scooby Doo. Dana once again can’t hit her spot and Charlotte’s left waiting for her (and, it should be said, the ref). Raw is mostly a mess this week, as even Sasha Banks seems to flub her segment, asking Mick Foley for a handicap match at Summerslam only to be awarded that match if she loses.
Of course, because this is WWE in the post-Shield era, the icing on this messy cake (literally) is Roman Reigns. For a minute there it really seemed like WWE had learned their lesson with Reigns. They saddled him with a few big losses and moved him down the card. They took him away from the mic and started leaning into his heel tendencies. But here he is once again being that same old Roman Reigns, the one who’s nearly impossible to cheer for. First, he comes out and spoils Lana and Rusev’s wedding celebration, once again proving that WWE has no real understanding of what makes their babyfaces likable. We should be far past any segment that has someone call Lana a “mail order bride,” but no, Roman is out here slandering a real-life married couple because he’s “the guy” or something.
The segment itself is bad, but what’s worse is the way WWE has done nothing to really suggest that Roman has lost any favor within the company. Sure, he’s been moved down the card, but he’s still getting title shots that he doesn’t deserve. Here’s the thing: you can’t decide to bring Roman’s wellness policy violation into the story and then just keep giving the guy opportunities. It defies logic. Why was he allowed to compete at Battleground? Why is Mick Foley giving Roman Reigns a shot at the US title? What has Roman done, other than interrupt Rusev on two occasions, to deserve a shot at the title? There’s a dissonance here that’s baffling.
So, when Foley, with a little goading from guest Daniel Bryan, schedules a US title match between Rusev and Cesaro at nearly 11pm, there’s the sense that maybe, just maybe, there’s more to the story here. Maybe this isn’t just Roman getting another opportunity that he doesn’t deserve, either in real life or kayfabe. Maybe this is Cesaro’s chance to grab the title, or at least push for a Triple Threat at Summerslam. Alas, Roman Reigns ruins this segment too. It’s unfortunate, because as sluggish and disappointing as this week’s Raw is, the final stretch is solid. There’s real chemistry between Cesaro and Rusev—Cesaro has chemistry with everyone, and both him and Rusev are still undervalued in WWE—and the match is the kind of fresh matchup that’s led to the brand split mostly succeeding in interesting ways.
Then, Sheamus costs Cesaro the match. Fine, maybe Cesaro losing the match through nefarious means is what we need to get him into a meaningful Summerslam match. But no, here comes Roman Reigns to spear Rusev, the Big Dog standing tall as an overlong Raw comes to an end. How is this image, of Reigns standing tall and smug at the end of Raw, with title opportunity on the horizon, still happening? In the ring lies the body of Cesaro, a man who’s proven time and again that he’s ready for something big. And yet, the focus is on Reigns, the man who’s proven time and again that, while he can deliver some solid matches, isn’t ready for the big event. Even in kayfabe he doesn’t deserve what he’s being handed. If this leads to Cesaro jumping ship to Smackdown, so be it. That’s a great angle, and opens up a lot of storytelling possibilities for both shows in the future. But it doesn’t change the fact that WWE refuses to learn valuable lessons from Reigns’ failures. This is the cycle of WWE, and we’re all trapped.
- Results: Chris Jericho defeated Enzo Amore via DQ; Braun Strowman defeated Jorel Nelson; Darren Young defeated Titus O’Neil; Cesaro defeated Sheamus; Neville and Sin Cara defeated The Dudley Boyz; Sasha Banks defeated Dana Brooke; Luke Gallows defeated Kofi Kingston; Rusev (c) defeated Cesaro (United States Championship match).
- As terrible as most of Raw was tonight, that Randy Orton-Brock Lesnar video package was outstanding. WWE is getting a ton of (deserved) mileage out of that shot of Brock wiping Hulk Hogan’s blood on his chest.
- Choice badass Brock Lesnar quote: “I’ve been doing this since I was five. I’m like a fucking robot.”
- Corey Graves is the only one who understands that we’re all blessed to be in the presence of Lana and Rusev’s love.
- I’ll take more of Gallows and Anderson being doctors and making testicle puns please.
- Rusev coming out and declaring that Raw doesn’t need a Universal Champion because it already has him is perfect.
- “I’m just giving him encouragement!”
- I love the “last week on Raw” video that opens the show. I’d be down for more of that every week.
- Puff Daddy kept saying French Montana’s name like that’s something we should pop for.