Looks like a week off made WWE's Monday-night TV crew a little rusty. Last night's Raw started ominously, thanks to a seemingly unintended and unceremonious commercial break in the midst of an opening confrontation between the Authority, Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins and Daniel Bryan. And there were a few other production hiccups, too (the camera cutting sharply away from Rusev right before he unloaded a Muay Thai kick to Erick Rowan's skull, the Russian flag getting caught in the rafters following their non-match, JBL referring to quadruple-IC-title honoree Dolph Zigger as a three-time champ, etc.). Good thing the action was smooth and crisp where it counted: between the ropes.
Despite that, all anyone's likely talking about is the revelation of how creative plans to reassert Reigns as a worthy opponent for Brock Lesnar while satisfying fans' thirst for Yes!-lemania. But what they should be discussing is Triple H's revealing Q&A with Steve Austin after the show.
So without any further hesitation for fear of seeing my own shadow, here are five things I took away (in addition to some sidebar observations) from the Groundhog's Day edition of Raw.
5. Better Stipulate Than Never
Now that successive Royal Rumble winners have had to either make space for a third competitor in their WrestleMania headlining bout or outright defend their privilege to it – the latter being the determined outcome of last night's opening segment – maybe it's time to rethink the Rumble's signature reward.
All anyone was talking about in any positive light after last month's PPV fiasco was the title clash between Lesnar, Rollins and John Cena anyhow, so why not move the battle royal down the card a bit and have it be more novel? Not in the sense that there'll be more gimmick entrants, but simply so there might be opportunities for less likely victors to shine. And it wouldn't be without prestige. Like last year's inaugural Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, it can be presented a presumed anointing of good things to come. (Even if, in Cesaro's case, that eventually results in a random tag-team pairing with Tyson Kidd.) There's plenty of time to sort out the details, but any alternative would be preferable to the logic-defying hoops writers have jumped through to unburden themselves of the Rumble's volatile stipulation.
4. Dolph Is a Big Boy
So why do the commentators still patronize him like he's a persistent underdog? During Ziggler's standout match against Bray Wyatt, Michael Cole applauded the four-time Intercontinental Champion and two-time World Champion's effort as being "valiant." JBL likewise commended Dolph's never-say-quit scrappiness as "phenomenal." Last time I checked, Wyatt has yet to claim a single gold strap in the WWE. Nor has he risen as the last man standing at a Survivor Series. So why are we still treating Ziggler like a David against a gauntlet of adversarial Goliaths? Bray's on a roll, and Ryback picked up his return win over Luke Harper, so the writing was on the wall that Ziggler would be a team player and take the loss. But it'll be impossible to ever put Dolph over as a preeminent babyface if the narrative surrounding him insists he's just a plucky kid. Maybe it means we need to see the one-time Kent State amateur standout's mean streak again. Or maybe that means he shouldn't be a babyface at all?
3. Nikki Is the Heir Apparent
Maybe not to AJ Lee, who's one of a kind, but the current Divas champion has developed a body of work solid enough to suggest she and Paige (and just about anyone) can sustain a compelling feud if given the time. Nikki was heartfelt and on-point in her rant against the fans' token embrace of every "anti-Diva," humorous and off-the-cuff when musing about social-media trends and has been consistently hard-hitting and impressive inside the ring since being given the title. You can detect flashes of latter-period Trish Stratus in her overall performance, but she's got enough confidence to stand alone, which can only help push and encourage Brie toward her own identity as well. After all, Twin Magic will always be there if and when it's needed.
2. Let the Briefcase Theories Commence!
So, now we know: In a canny bit of re-direction, Triple H and Stephanie McMahon manipulated Roman Reigns into "earning" his spot at WrestleMania, and in the process threw another lifeline out to Daniel Bryan, who toppled Seth Rollins last night for a shot to snag Reigns' title opportunity at Fast Lane.
It'd be hard to imagine this turning out any other way than Reigns besting Bryan fair and square, thus simultaneously regaining any skeptics' respect and quieting Bryan supporters who felt he never got his second chance. Or maybe DB goes heel, screws Reigns and wins it all at WM XXXI, but as a villain? Who knows? The more pressing question is: Now that Rollins is out of the picture for Fast Lane, when and how does he make good on his Money in the Bank contract?
It is, after all, the only storyline contract that's still honored as intended these days. At WrestleMania, most likely (or the Monday after?). But against the Beast Lesnar? Less so. Does he cash in on Reigns, who so many felt wasn't qualified, thus launching an inevitable rivalry that shoots both participants into the stratosphere of top heel and face? Or on Bryan, continuing his snake-bitten saga and finally delivering on a fated, long-arc feud between he and Seth? Or might a returning Randy Orton sabotage Rollins' moment and spark their long-simmering violence? It's a terrific card that WWE can keep close to the vest and play however they want, because it's the one thing smarks and cynics have yet to be positive they've already mapped out. Let's just hope J&J Security's deloused it in the interim.
1. Central Podcasting
I'm not saying a company executive or talent should join The Steve Austin Show podcast live every week following Raw on the WWE Network. Actually, that's precisely what I'd recommend (unrealistic as that may be, given this occasion's exceptional "State of the WWE" pretense). When Triple H pulled back that curtain at roughly 11:10 p.m. to sit across from his old sparring partner and absorb questions about everything from the Royal Rumble to over-scripted promos, it was as much a symbolic gesture as mundane production detail. Which very well may have been its winking intention.
For a solid hour, the Game addressed trying to outsmart (or simply tune-out) the smarks, sticking to your vision, ceding ultimate authority over Raw to Vince while flexing a more laissez-faire attitude toward NXT and lamenting the demands of a three-hour broadcast. (Plus, that little word-association game they played was pretty fun.) It took a few minutes to adjust after having just witnessed the Game in character (perhaps it would be less disorienting if Austin Show guests weren't doing double duty as performers earlier on), and HHH and Stone Cold no doubt discussed certain parameters going in. But it didn't make what ensued any less insightful, not to mention it completely authenticated the real-life Paul Levesque as someone with a true pedigree, if you will, for this business. So in a sense, while storyline Triple H did damage control on Roman Reigns, the man himself helped his own cause with a bit of positive corporate PR on the podcast. Who says kayfabe is dead?
Below the Belt
- The Miz/Mizdow story continues to be executed just right.
- I liked that little heel touch of having Tyson Kidd get a post-match cheap shot in on the Usos.
- Is Bray talking to Taker?
- Really thought Randy was coming out last night.
- That time away hurt Ryback's momentum most.
- How can no one telegraph Ambrose's springboard clothesline by now?
- For the record, Rusev is not undefeated.
- Can someone explain how a Big Show spear barely flusters Reigns, but Roman's spears all but knock the giant out?
- Move of the Night: Above criticism aside, that Reigns spear on Show outside was pretty sweet.
- Sign of the Night: Whoever's simply said, "Boo!"
- In Case You Fast-Forwarded Through Commercials: If you smoke, the Predator will kill you. And hey, Cinnabon coffee! At Taco Bell!
- Noticeable In Their Absence: Adam Rose, New Day, Brock Lesnar (not that I expected his presence), Randy Orton.