‘WWE Raw’: The Last Temptation of AJ Styles
The first Raw of the “New Era” began with a Stephanie McMahon promo and featured a feud built around the destruction of a potted plant (R.I.P., Mitch). In other words, we aren’t exactly witnessing a wrestling revolution here.
And yet, coming off of Payback, a PPV that featured very little in the way of retribution (but plenty of interesting developments), last night’s show still managed to rise above all the prefab talk of changing the game – and set the table for a series of compelling matches at Extreme Rules, which goes down in less than three week’s time. And, to be fair, the McMahon clan was barely on screen last night, which put WWE’s ever-expanding roster of talent front and center…now that’s a revolutionary concept.
So while I continue to mourn Dean Ambrose’s set decorations, here’s my five-point takeaway from the May 2 edition of Raw.
5. “Don’t Hurt Yourself”
It was fitting that last night’s New Day segment began with all that Beyoncé talk – for the record, she did not slide up in Xavier Woods’ DMs – because what followed was the definition of turning lemons into lemonade. Someone needed to address Enzo Amore’s frightening injury at Payback and assure us that everything was going to be all right (both for him and his tag team partner, Big Cass), and who better to do both than the Positivity Posse? So the New Day paid tribute to his toughness, sent “a box of Booty-O’s and a little dash of unicorn magic” his way and expertly set the table for the team that injured Amore – the Vaudevillains – to soak up the residual heel heat. And boy, did they ever, with Simon Gotch boasting, “We made Enzo Amore the Realest Guy in the Emergency Room.”
That brought out Cass, who talked tough, and the Dudley Boyz, who fanned the flames, and in the resulting tag team turmoil – Cass and the New Day vs. the ‘Villains and the Dudleys – the WWE Universe got to see the big seven footer run roughshod through the bad guys, bury D-Von Dudley with his ferocious finisher and earn Seth Rollins status as an honorary member of the New Day. At least until Enzo’s back, and the Realest Guys challenge for their Tag Team titles, anyway. In short, though Amore’s concussion left them scrambling, WWE found the best possible outcome, reinvigorating a pair of flagging heel teams and turned the tag team division into serious business. Well done.
4. “Daddy Lessons”
Good developments in the Women’s Division, too, where we actually seem to have three viable feuds running at the moment, two of which got considerable screen time last night. First, Becky Lynch and Emma took their war of words – and photos – to the ring, in a match that saw the Lass Kicker talk trash and work angry but ultimately fall victim to the most heelish of moves, an eyepoke from Evil Emma. Really liked seeing this pissed-off version of Lynch, as the disdain she showed for her opponent only made this rivalry feel more personal, which is always a plus. And Emma continues to be great in her return to the main roster. Here’s hoping we get a blowoff between the two at Extreme Rules…and none of that preshow bullshit, either.
Meanwhile, Women’s Champion Charlotte was on hand to keep her Chicago Screwjob storyline with Natalya moving, as the Queen addressed her “controversial” win at Payback by rehashing the history between the Flair family and WWE referee Charles “Lil Naitch” Robinson. Of course, it all led to Nattie storming the ring to defend her Uncle Bret Hart’s name and lock a Sharpshooter on Papa Ric, which set up a championship rematch at Extreme Rules. Do I wish the main rivalry in the division didn’t revolve around the actions of three men? Absolutely. But I’m glad to see Natalya get a run at the belt, and after Charlotte’s cocky promo last night, I’m probably not the only one counting down the days until she gets her comeuppance. Now where’s Sasha Banks to give it to her?
3. “Boy, Bye”
OK, so last night’s battle royal to determine the new Number One Contender for the U.S. Championship was nothing special, though it did tick off all the prerequisite boxes – Damien Sandow is still on the roster! Titus O’Neil is out of Vince’s doghouse! – and reached the best possible conclusion, with Rusev eliminating a (very over) Zack Ryder to earn a shot at Kalisto’s gold. With Lana once again by his side, and the U.S. title in reach, maybe we’re finally getting the band back together, which means it will only be a matter of time until we see the Rusev Flag unfurled from the rafters. I can’t wait.
But the most interesting thing about the match was that it didn’t feature Ryback, who was definitely shown in the graphic promoting the bout but was reportedly sent home from Raw by WWE officials. The details are scarce, though apparently the two sides are at odds over his contract, and the Big Guy has been none-too-shy about expressing his displeasure over how he’s been used on the roster recently. What’s more, he wore a “Pre-Show Stopper” weight belt during his match against Kalisto before Payback, which probably didn’t do him any favors. Is this the end of his time in WWE? We’ll just have to wait and see, though it’s difficult to argue that Ryback wouldn’t benefit from a fresh start elsewhere.
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As in, things are starting to line up in the Intercontinental ranks, where challengers continue to arise for the Miz’s belt. The rivalry between former champ Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn spilled over into his supposed Number One Contender’s match against Cesaro – who had the Awesome One beat at Payback before shenanigans cost him the title – and last night’s bout ran off the rails when all four men took to the ring. It ended with Zayn cleaning house and holding the Intercontinental belt aloft, and it was hard to argue with the response he got from the St. Louis crowd. It only makes their inevitable Fatal 4-Way at Extreme Rules more interesting…you know, as if you needed any extra incentive to care about a match featuring three of the best wrestlers in the world (and, uh, the champ).
1. “Hold Up”
Minutes after A.J. Styles and Roman Reigns’ epic, overbooked main event at Payback had ended, we knew we’d be getting a rematch at Extreme Rules (it’s a New Era, indeed), so the job last night was to make us care about another match between the two. Mission accomplished. After winning a six-man tag against Reigns and the Usos, the Phenomenal One – paired with his former Bullet Club mates Gallows and Anderson – was forced to make a decision: give in to the dark side by walloping the weakened WWE Champ with a chair, or continue to walk the straight and narrow, and try to take the title his way. Much to Gallows and Anderson’s dismay, Styles chose the latter, but he once again paid the price for doing what was right. He was laid out by the Usos, stuck back with a steel chair, then walked right into a vicious spear from an angry Reigns, who only witnessed the assault on his family (and not Styles’ act of mercy minutes earlier).
What followed was an absolute decimation by the champ, who tossed Styles through a table outside, and while it probably wasn’t a heel turn, well, don’t bother telling that to folks in St. Louis. Reigns continues to work in shades of gray, and Styles continues to be pushed towards a darker path – and what’s more, if (or when) he decides to finally join forces with the Club, his decision will actually make sense. After all, he’s tried to walk the high road…maybe it’s time to try to tread through the gutter. Extreme Rules can’t get here soon enough.