'WWE Raw:' No CM Punk? No Problem

Chicago wanted the return of Punk, but Randy Orton stole the show on Monday night

Randy Orton poses over John Cena in the main event of Raw. Credit: Courtesy WWE

From the sounds of swelling CM Punk chants to the sight of what might be Justin Gabriel in furry-fetish attire hand-in-hand with former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, last night's Raw did not disappoint.

Unless, of course, you're still smarting over Roman Reigns' momentum-killing hernia surgery, skeptical that Rosa Mendes can help carry the Divas division or yearn for a time when in-ring antics were more provocative than booby-trapped briefcases.

But in the interest of time, brevity and the basic truth that one cannot – nor should – be compelled to dissect every promo, cross-promo, minor conflict and errant microphone moment (of which there were many) over the program's three-plus hours, we've broken last night's episode into five essential moments. And, as a bonus, thrown in a bunch of stuff that may have taught us nothing, but looked like it hurt, made us laugh or particularly strained our suspension of disbelief.

Here's what we took away from the September 29 edition of Monday Night Raw.

5. Stephanie is the Best
Mrs. McMahon-Levesque-Helmsley flipped the script on a Chicago crowd attempting to "hijack" the broadcast by clamoring for a hometown performer who quit the company without so much as a farewell to his fans. Sure, Steph has learned from the WWE's Mount Rushmore of microphone mastery: her husband HHH, manager extraordinaire Paul Heyman and her Chairman dad, Vince McMahon. But credit her for pulling it off without losing her cool, an essentiality for any performer, but especially one whose character is defined by confidence and malice.

In last night's opening segment, Stephanie glanced at her husband as the thousands in attendance (and, presumably, millions watching at home) wore themselves out bellowing the name of a certain WWE refugee, before transforming their orchestrated invocation into chaotic boos by deriding them as quitter-advocates. Before they knew what hit 'em, the company's Chief Brand Officer swerved into her intended lecture on thievery, specifically as it relates to Dean Ambrose and the always-polarizing Money in the Bank briefcase (more on that in a minute). With the exception of Heyman – and, in his own way, the irrepressible John Cena – no one is more commanding of our attention right now, allowing HHH that much more leeway to focus on "what's best for business."

4. Not Long for This Briefcase
Is there anything that challenges fans' cognitive dissonance more aggressively than that dinged-up Money in the Bank briefcase's supposed singularity?

Every year, whether its inheritor is Damien Sandow, Dolph Ziggler, the Miz or Daniel Bryan, the same scenario tends to play out: At some point, said briefcase is tarnished or snatched by a potential opponent, sending its rightful owner into an inconsolable tizzy, desperate for its secure return. This, of course, leads to a nation of curious viewers rightly wondering why WWE can't simply purchase a new piece of luggage, spray paint it gold (or black or blue), certify it with a MITB insignia, print up a new championship-match contract and call it a storyline.

The answer, naturally, is so Seth Rollins and HHH can authorize inept security stooges to chase Dean Ambrose around the concession stands, set up a couple of sight gags and create tenuous rationale for sending Kane and Randy Orton to fight Rollins' battle once more, thus further teasing an eminent divide in a faction that's already been arbitrarily assembled at best.

Yes, as the briefcase absorbs continuing damage, it becomes more of an enduring symbol. But when guys like Rollins start crying over spilled soda and green mist, it just feels like baggage.

3. Rusev Crushed
Poor Rusev. First, he's asked to fudge his character's place of "residence" to comply with current events (a decision which overlooked the pace at which global headlines move all over the map), then he's given the thankless task of facilitating jingo loonies Jack Swagger and Zeb Colter's queasy face turns. And while he continues to pick up wins while letting Lana pick up where his personality lacks, the Bulgarian brute has already been typecast as a catalyst for dated, pandering rhetoric from opponents that trades nuance for a cheap pop.

The Big Show, stepping in for pal Mark Henry (who now, thankfully, appears to be swinging heel once more after his unprovoked backstage brutality on Bo Dallas), stirred the crowd and riled Rusev after interrupting his tirade to remind him, "We don't speak Russian!" Actually, there's a decent chance many who were in attendance do, but that's not the point. This kind of Cold War-era, Us vs. Them material is anachronistic at best. At worst, for Raw's purposes, it can dull sympathies on either side and render a rivalry dead on arrival.

2. Harper's Bizarre
It'd been a while since we remembered what made Bray Wyatt and his namesake family more than just B-movie clichés and conspicuously perma-sweaty laundry. Last night's promos focusing on Luke Harper (who'd been pegged as the breakout auxiliary Wyatt member for some time), while a bit random, were a kind of clean slate for the whole clan. Bray gets to re-establish his aura as shaman pulling the strings, Rowan recedes a bit into the background and we get the inevitability of watching Harper flourish in the ring as a singles competitor. Granted, "Peekaboo: You're doomed" isn't exactly the stuff of nightmares, but something was required to re-arouse our interest in a gimmick that had lost its mystique.

1. Orton Hears a Who!
Or, more accurately, a "What?" One-time golden child Randy Orton has gotten accustomed to being razzed and antagonized by audiences who've felt that maybe his time has passed. And even though we've seen HHH and Stephanie implore him time and again in recent months to bring back the ruthless viper, and he's capably obliged, WWE's apex predator hasn't quite found his niche among the burgeoning youth movement.

But with an ongoing spate of injuries hobbling young and veteran talent alike, and World Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar largely in absentia, Orton came through with greatness last night. As the bell rang on his headlining tag match, pitting he and Kane (ugh) against Ambrose and Cena (who remains on fire in the ring), Orton was locked in character, flexing, slithering and flashing his signature god-like pose. His RKOs on both adversaries amid the melee sparked by Rollins' ho-hum interruption lit up the Chicagoans, who were vocally nonplussed by the match's conclusion. And as Rollins barked orders and delivered curb stomps, Orton was there less to abet than motivate and lead by example.

There's no reason not to expect Orton and Rollins to square off down the road, setting up the third-generation former "legend-killer" as a conqueror of up-and-comers. Even if that means slogging through a PPV contest with Kane first or figuring out how to turn him face without making him soft. But on this evening, Orton filled the void of Lesnar, Chris Jericho and Roman Reigns, and carried the climactic heel triumph on his shoulders, just as fellow Authority principal and WWE lifer Stephanie started out Raw putting the onus on hers.

Below the Belt:

  • Great move having Ziggler be a fighting (and winning) champion. Lesnar's scattered appearances make it the perfect time to re-establish the IC title.
  • A messy night for the Divas, particularly that silly business with Tyson Kidd and his video games.
  • Speaking of which, while Alicia was a wiser choice to face AJ Lee, keep the match moving and thwart CM Punk chants, Tamina might have been a more intriguing opponent.
  • Mizdow is finally making his boss/partner must-see TV again.
  • No one delivers the hot tag quite like Cena.
  • Move of the night: Ziggler slinging Cesaro's bald head into Miz's other money maker.
  • Line of the night: While I enjoyed the Miz taunting Michael Cole for being a "nerd," the superlative goes to Ambrose for asking the Authority's henchmen, "Are you guys real security, cause I could have sworn you were rosebuds last week." The best lines are always the ones that you're not sure were scripted.
  • I'd be remiss not to mention the WWE's annual cause this time of year. Supporting breast-cancer research through the Susan G. Komen foundation, is, as the Hulkster deemed it, a worthy effort.
  • Wish for next week: More Heyman, more Slater Gator, some tweaks to this Bellas rivalry and a main event worth its muscle.