Due to a sub par episode of Smackdown, there were no individuals with impressive performances throughout the last week. Instead, WWE built toward a big episode of Raw from Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Much like we used to expect a big main event, a surprise return, or a swerve in the storyline when Raw would take place in Madison Square Garden, the new home of TV shows broadcast from New York is likely to consistently host special episodes. Despite some notable low points, there were two elements that made Raw from Brooklyn special. One was another creative attack by Dean Ambrose on The Authority with a New York hot dog cart and bottles of ketchup and mustard. The image of Ambrose attacking Seth Rollins with hot dog tongs is likely to live for quite awhile, but the bigger impact of the show was the surprise return of The Rock.
There were two goals for Rock’s appearance and I believe it accomplished both of them. The segment had to be entertaining on its own to make the Barclays show live up to the standard of big New York cards and it had to make Rusev look and feel like a major player in WWE. There is doubt that he got the first part done. The crazy pop from the Brooklyn crowd the moment his music hit (and the several rewinds on the DVR that I’m sure I shared with many other viewers) showed how significant Rock still is to WWE fans. He was funny, charming, and exciting despite typically sophomoric material (would we even laugh if John Cena called Lana a “Soviet street walker?”). The brief physical confrontation at the end of the verbal back-and-forth was enough to whet the appetite for more, but will not seem out of place if Rock does not return imminently. For all of the former wrestlers who have tried to make it as actors, you can clearly see why he was the one who truly made it as a major star.
The question of how much Rusev benefited is more questionable, but I believe the association with Rock was ultimately very positive. Although Rusev came out weaker from their brief fisticuffs, the fact that he stood up to one of the biggest stars in the history of wrestling helps maintain his badass reputation. From jobbers to Big E to Jack Swagger to Mark Henry to Big Show, Rusev has worked his way up the card very deliberately. On the other hand, the one thing he has not done is work in any sort of main event. Rock gave him a taste of the main event. Rusev seemed like he belonged, albeit very briefly. Moreover, Lana got out of her typical banter and had a more natural conversation. She stayed in character and made me think there is more to the pairing with Rusev when he moves into the next phase of his career. What he does after he is an unbeatable monster will show whether he has a long-term future with the company. Their interaction with Rock started to engage my imagination about potential directions for feuds for the first time. That spark makes me hopeful that there is more of a future to Rusev than there was for the likes of Muhammad Hassan or Great Khali.
Whether Rock’s return is a one-off or part of a longer story that includes official matches, his work on Monday hit the nail on the head. He set himself up so he has the option to come back with the skeleton of a feud with Rusev and Lana already in place. If WWE has a long-term plan to put Rock in a match with Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania- either for the WWE Title or not-, Rusev could serve as a reasonable adversary in a needed tune-up mach. Rock could even stay quiet until Wrestlemania and resume a program with an unbeaten Rusev to culminate in their own match at Wrestlemania. I think they key to why Rock’s appearance was so strong is that he does not need to even wrestle to make it worthwhile. Even if he does not appear on WWE TV at any time in the next year, the segment was highly entertaining, it gave the episode of Raw the special feeling it needed, and Rusev came out looking like a more important player. In a week that was otherwise fairly pedestrian, that accomplishment is crucial.