Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to WrestleMania 31 (or WrestleMania Connect, as this year's atypically non-Roman-numeral logo would suggest) we go…in 12 days.
Hard to believe, huh? Just a dozen days for Roman Reigns to convince the world he can; Los Matadores to flourish as a heel team in the wake of the Ascension's burial; John Cena to convince Hollywood executives he's the next Arnold Schwarzenegger; and Daniel Bryan, Dean Ambrose and Dolph Ziggler to determine who truly is the biggest turd.
Meanwhile, Sting showed up in-ring for the Des Moines crowd (woo-hoo!), Randy Orton and Seth Rollins continued their game of intellectual checkers, and the Divas division got some shine. So without further interruption for the groundbreaking announcement of how you can experience WrestleMania week on the WWE Network for just $9.99, here are five key things I took away – in addition to the usual accompaniment of Twitter-friendly sidebar fodder – from the March 16 edition of Raw.
5. Tag-Team Turmoil = Anchorman
When Los Matadores' music hit and the duo (plus El Torito, of course) strode down to the ring, interrupting odd-couple Tyson Kidd and Cesaro's match against Saturday-morning-approved sermonizers the New Day, I half-expected Diego to declare, "Cómo están, bitches?" As the tag-team landscape gets increasingly chaotic, with every Raw and SmackDown devolving into some kind of gimmick free-for-all, the division's action more closely resembles Anchorman's epic fight scene than anything with WrestleMania-worthy stakes. Mmmm, steaks.
4. It's Time For Bryan vs. Ziggler
Sometimes, you gotta give the people what they want. Just ask Al Snow. And even though Dolph Ziggler and Daniel Bryan are both over as can be, there were what Jennifer Lopez might call some serious goosies among the Des Moines ticketholders when Dolph and DB went at it at the culmination of the Intercontinental title six-man tag. Besides, it's not as if Ziggler's getting that ultimate face push up the ladder (no pun intended) any time soon, and we know the guy can be an asset as hero and villain. So flip the switch, turn the two loose on each other after WrestleMania, set the stage for some truly show-stealing matches to carry fans through to SummerSlam and figure out the rest as you go along. Do it.
3. OK, Heyman's Mic Issues are a Work
That much we now know. Ya know what would be fun, though? If it turned out all along that Reigns was behind the technical difficulties, adding a bit of playful mischief to his already more humanized character (amazing how he's gone from the Kevlar killer to Mr. "I Can. I Will."). Much as the Des Moines crowd did their worst to the wannabe Heavyweight Champ, bellowing Daniel Bryan's name during his promo with Heyman and acting like local-news pranksters making spastic gestures in the background, Reigns pulled off his most confident verbal confrontation yet. Regardless of whether Heyman's ongoing mic malfunctions are ever explained or left implied as someone's right to censor, the strategy of having Lesnar's mouthpiece sound off on – and stare down – his client's latest threat week after week has benefitted everyone. Fans have been spared two silent behemoths bumping noses for the past month, we've gotten priceless material from Heyman and Reigns has clearly made huge leaps in carrying himself via this antagonistic apprenticeship. So the irony is, as Heyman's mic periodically cuts out, the spark inside Roman seems to have come alive.
2. For Two Smart Guys, Orton and Rollins Are…
Pretty dumb. Not the actual Colby Lopez and Randy Orton, mind you. I'm sure they're wonderful people who have no reason to think I'm smearing them or baiting their hostility in any way. But as for the Architect and Apex Predator, it's a little hard to fathom how a feud that forewent feral vindication for a battle of wits has failed so miserably at stirring intrigue. Or, more to the point, how both Rollins and Orton have been made to look like such simple patsies for the other's parlor tricks.
First, Orton pulled a Daniel Bryan/Wyatt Family faux-initiation plot, somehow slipping by Rollins' suspicions even after arousing those of "backwoods True Detective" (nice one, Seth) security man Jamie Noble. Then, the following Monday, Rollins successfully turns the tables by duping his foe into believing the Authority imploded and they'd have a true one-on-one to close out Raw. Granted, all of that was intended to get us off the scent that Sting would eventually come out of the shadows as an equalizer (just in case that steel chair of Randy's wouldn't cut it). And while Michael Cole was a bit premature in decreeing it "one of the greatest moments in Raw history!" it was pretty cool. Not cool enough, however, to make us overlook how Orton vs. Rollins has lost nearly all its heat.
1. Taker or Leave It
Another week, another set of talking points from Bray Wyatt about his destiny to overcome the WWE's bona fide bogeyman, the Undertaker. And unlike last Monday, the Dead Man elected not to engage via pyrotechnic trickery or ominous voicemails from beyond. For the first time in a very long time, Taker's annual 'Mania moment lacks real juice. It's not his, nor Wyatt's, fault, nor a direct result of Brock Lesnar having conquered the Streak. (Although, admittedly, Taker and Reigns swapping opponents and spots on the card may have been more enticing.)
The buildup to Bray vs. the Phenom suffers from what bedevils much of WM 31's booking: The rivalries feel more symbolic than personal. One big exception may actually be John Cena vs. Rusev, which – tiresome rhetoric aside – Cena's made more intimate by putting the entire onus of American pride on his shoulders. Otherwise, it's Reigns and Lesnar both looking to demonstrate how much they don't care what the world thinks; Sting and Triple H representing the dueling legacies of WWE and WCW (or, if one prefers, ego vs. integrity); and several men vying to personify the once-storied significance of the Intercontinental belt.
Not that every 'Mania can benefit from its Hulk Hogan/Macho Man payoff (I still can't believe Hulk didn't even hook the leg) or even Daniel Bryan slaying a tyrannical Authority's two-headed beast. But what makes a great 'Mania stand out isn't a bunch of guys pointing their finger Babe Ruth-style toward the bleachers or the mere fact that it's more affordable than pay-per-views past, but an indescribable, competitive mystique. That, like Wyatt's charred wicker chair, feels transient as dust.
Below the Belt:
- Are we to assume Sheamus returns at Andre the Giant Battle Royal?
- Cool beans giving AJ and Nikki the opening bout.
- But if we're being honest, does AJ look a bit rusty?
- Was Reigns overtly referencing his infamous fairy-tale promo?
- Great, effective Lesnar vignette.
- It's OK, Eden, we all make mistakes.
- Rusev dropping the "E" in "WWE" reminded me of this (NSFW).
- Interspecies match. Oy.
- Heath Slater!
- Move of the Night: Yep, it's going to Stardust's cartwheel.
- In Case You Fast-Forwarded Through Commercials: So, Jimmy Dean, if we're too far from the sea to order tuna, where, exactly, are you sourcing your pork? And is Coca-Cola suddenly inspired by Radiohead?
- Noticeable In Their Absence: Man, they've really thinned out that roster.