When John Cena’s theme hit and the WWE’s most popular contemporary star ran out between decorated trees and a pile of presents, donning a holiday-green shirt and hat amidst Monday Night RAW‘s red color scheme, the pro wrestling show seemed all-in on its first-ever live Christmas special. After all, despite being one of the longest running episodic shows on television, a primetime Christmas episode means going up against the NBA’s annual Christmas lineup and, this year, Monday Night Football.
But despite the return of its 16-time champion, WWE’s top-heavy attempt felt disastrous – using a large chunk of its highly touted commercial-free opening hour to promote its own product – until its second half.
While goodwill prevailed in Cena’s opening segment – he gave his shirt and hat to a kid sitting ringside and then stood up for the raucous Chicago crowd when bad-guy singer-songwriter Elias’ caroling turned into a Windy City diss track – the next hour and a half proceeded like any Monday Night RAW, making the live Christmas event feeling less “special” and more routine.
The crowd’s excitement immediately fell off after the WWE dangled Cena like a matador’s cape at the top of the show and then transitioned to a no-consequence cruiserweight match, losing all momentum. RAW spent most of its first “commercial-free hour” advertising its upcoming 25th anniversary show and the Royal Rumble pay-per view, while recapping again and again what’s happened on the show in recent weeks – a common fan complaint during the show’s regularly scheduled episodes. It took the cruiserweights’ electrifying three-on-three street fight to wake up the lulling crowd – right in time for Roman Reigns and Samoa Joe’s fast-paced, hard-hitting Intercontinental Championship match. It ended about 15 aggressive minutes later in a titanic beatdown that sent Joe running, while Reigns, the ruling Intercontinental champ, sought retribution for his counterpart injuring his Shield partner Dean Ambrose.
Enzo Amore had already reignited the crowd minutes earlier when he delivered a Christmas-themed promo, one of his funniest in a while, and then proceeded to go through the entire cruiserweights’ “Miracle on 34th Street Fight” in a Santa suit. The embattled WWE star has had his ups-and-downs with fans in 2017, but finally seems comfortable again in a cocky role as an undeserving champion of the cruiserweight division. Amore boosted the crowd even more after a near-pay off to an increasingly weird flirtation dance with women’s division enforcer Nia Jax. But much like most of the yuletide special, the mistletoe hanging above them was an empty promise.
But that’s the bait and switch that comes with a three-hour live action show that, essentially, operates on nothing more than a soap opera-structured storyline. While little develops, the payoffs are momentous, and anything out of the ordinary can be a home run. This time, things finally picked up again thanks to the unexpected team of Seth Rollins and Jason Jordan, who defeated Sheamus and Cesaro to become the new RAW Tag Team Champions. “Unexpected” is the most reliable route to satisfy a pro wrestling crowd, and for those who saw this episode through, the ending opened the door for interesting storylines down the road: when RAW general manager’s favoritism for Jordan, his on-screen son, is finally challenged, or when Ambrose, Rollins’ original tag team partner, returns from injury. Despite a struggle to regain its balance after a bombastic beginning, the RAW Christmas special proved to be a mini-miracle – satisfying fans in the short-term and planting promising seeds for 2018.