Hello ladies and gents, and welcome to the final recap before Payback, or as I like to call it, Extreme Rules Part 1 1/2. Last night's show emanated from Cincinnati, Ohio, commonly known as that major American city we always forget is perilously close to Kentucky. Or the place where Pete Rose made his bones as the all-time MLB hits king, only to wind up getting Tombstoned by Kane for his troubles years hence and, now, suffer the ultimate indignity of being dissed during a New Day promo.
But the Queen City is also where Triple H made his return to helm the Authority, mostly resulting in the obligatory, overlong opening segment and a lot of uncertainty about exactly who Kane will be Tombstoning come this Sunday (more on that in a moment). So without interruption to remind Reds fans that they're already nearly eight games back of perpetual division leaders St. Louis, here are the five key things I took away (in addition to the usual accompaniment of Twitter-friendly sidebar fodder) from the May 11 edition of Raw.
5. Wildcard Kane Strikes Again!
If memory serves, it was merely two-weeks-and-change ago (I repeat: two weeks) that, at Extreme Rules, Kane was deemed "guardian of the gate" during Seth Rollins and Randy Orton's steel-cage title match. The fate of those two men potentially rested on whomever the Director of Operations felt like abetting as the match reached its apex. And just 12 hours ago, Kane stood tentatively outside the ring as Payback Fatal Four-Way participants Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns and Orton decimated Rollins. The implication, of course, is that in five days we have no idea where the devil's favorite demon's loyalty will lie as Seth tries to keep his World Heavyweight Championship in-house with the Authority. That sound you hear would be wheels spinning. That slight chill at your back? It's just a passing sense of déjà vu. For the love of God, just let Kane decisively chokeslam somebody other than J&J, put on his mask and underworld tights for one last ride and find a new wildcard to keep us on our toes.
4. What in the Name of the Ascension and Mandowxelmania?
So, were Konnor and Viktor being self-referential when they called out Curtis "Axelmania" and Damien "Macho Mandow" for biting familiar gimmicks as a shortcut to getting over? Is this really where Damien Sandow's headed after finally extricating himself from months of pretending to be somebody he's not? Were the Ascension really just asked to job that segment rather than it being a victimless opportunity to begin their push up the tag-team ranks in earnest? Cheap comedy-pop value of having Sandow and Axel reenact the Mega Powers formation notwithstanding, did that fiasco accomplish anything for anyone, including the fans? Welcome to the wasteland, indeed.
3. Selfless Cena Strikes Again!
If people still question what makes Cena the everlasting face of WWE, look no further than these past two weeks of Raw. All told, the U.S. Open Challenge has been a mixed bag of hokey speeches, Heath Slater, inevitable outcomes and, at its best, a showcase for young talent to shine. But in his successive marathon matches with Sami Zayn and Neville, the champ has given NXT's two most promising and ready renegades a chance to hit every spot and demonstrate the limitlessness of their resilience against a man who can make or break up-and-comers as he sees fit. It absolutely stretches credibility that either Zayn or Neville (let alone both) would escape STFs and kick out of AAs with the poise of seasoned vets, but these bouts have served as the definition of a bulletproof main-eventer taking two for the team and getting the next generation over. And this, like it or not, is what makes him the man in WWE and awfully hard to objectively disrespect.
2. Those NXT Guys Know How to Work
The one thing Cena can't actually get in the ring and do for guys like Zayn and Neville is wrestle. And if one element of the Full Sail Formula has proven successful, it's letting their elite talent develop over the proper incubation period, taking advantage of NXT's more flexible format and building their endurance and skillset for lengthier matches. Once they make it to the main roster, they won't always be afforded that kind of screen time (something Raw fans who pine for NXT's aura must come to terms with), but it's why both Zayn and Neville seemed utterly prepared to go 15-20 minutes with John Cena when their number was called. After what we've seen these past two weeks, it's clear that the best thing Triple H can do for viewers of both programs is continue allowing new recruits to simulate old-school Iron Man (and Woman) workouts down in Florida so they can modify and adapt it to any scenario on the road with Raw.
1. Bryan's Song
In the words of Elton John (or, more accurately, Bernie Taupin): "Oh, and I can see Daniel waving goodbye/God it looks like Daniel/Must be the clouds in my eyes." Nope, Elton/Bernie, it's Daniel all right, and that was him vacating the Intercontinental Championship last night and holding back tears as he and fans remain uncertain about whether the folk hero can ever do what he loves again. There didn't seem to be much scripted about Bryan's ode to the fans and subsequent, gracious relinquishing of his second major title in as many years. But I think what DB (or BD, should you prefer we defer to his given name of Bryan Danielson at this juncture) and the WWE Universe should take from this saga is that, up to this point, he has provided more than "Yes!" chants and underdog narratives. And there's a reason his popularity began transcending pro wrestling.
Daniel Bryan was (and, hey, still is) a true 21st century sports phenomenon, like a bearded, much less devoutly Christian Jeremy Lin. Or, if you'd rather, an even more accomplished Mark Prior. No one's relegating DB/BD to secondary status or permanent retirement in his early 30s just yet, but if the latter comes to pass, don't worry. Bryan's passion for pro wrestling is rivaled only by his exceptional levelheadedness and well-rounded priorities, and a certainty that life means more than just wins and losses. Just over a year ago, he shared with me that should wrestling run its course, he'd consider running an organic farm with wife Brie Bella and embark on a new, self-sufficient life before adding, "You never know what the world's gonna be like." Whatever becomes of Daniel Bryan's in-ring future and Bryan Danielson's next steps, the wrestling community and, for a shining moment, pop culture at large, reaped the benefits of a singular superstar's hard work.
Below the Belt:
- Hey, WWE, I've been a paying Network subscriber for the better part of a year. Can I get a month free?
- Too bad we missed the initial pop for Dean.
- I do enjoy the Triple H/Jamie Noble comedy hour.
- Ewwww, Ambrose's snot rocket.
- Yeesh, Tamina looked rusty.
- Ryback shoulda done some talking last night. Him upping his promo game's the only real thing anyone has to gain from this feud.
- How about Burger King Barrett?
- Shouldn't Sheamus' street clothes better reflect his new attitude?
- And Dolph's looks less cannily evoke Wet Hot American Summer?
- So is every retired PPV gonna get repackaged as a WWE Network special?
- Line of the Night: JBL again for the win! Dolph = "Suzie Chapstick." Lol.
- In Case You Fast-Forwarded Through Commercials: Wal-Mart makes living possible; anti-smoking PSAs: still weird; and see, Burger King Barrett could plug this!
- Noticeable In Their Absence: Big Show, Stardust, Bo Dallas. Also, was Renee Young even in attendance last night? It's all a blur. And where the eff is Jack Swagger?