With Daniel Bryan, Brock Lesnar, and Paul Heyman all prominently involved to go up against the College Football Championship game, Raw was a full show without much unnecessary filler. The reaction from the New Orleans fans showed that Bryan can rejoin the main event at any time, while Seth Rollins was the young wrestler who actually had the chance to do so. With a cheap win over John Cena and a fantastic performance at the contract signing, Rollins more than held his own with two of the most established stars in all of wrestling.
It was clear from the start of the show that WWE wanted to hook viewers in the 30 minutes before the football game started. To do so, HHH and Stephanie McMahon offered Cena a match against Rollins in which he could earn the reinstatement of Ryback, Dolph Ziggler, and Erick Rowan with a win. The catch was that it would be a lumberjack match, and all of the lumberjacks would be Authority-friendly heels.
For most of the match, Cena was able to overcome interference by the lumberjacks and kept himself focused on Rollins. After some counters back and forth, he managed to hit a Five Knuckle Shuffle and an Attitude Adjustment, only for J&J Security to run interference while the other lumberjacks pulled Rollins outside to recover. Cena stayed on the attack and jumped from the top turnbuckle to the mass of lumberjacks and Rollins on the floor. The move did as much damage to Cena as it did to Rollins and Rollins was able to respond with a superkick and a running buckle bomb in the ring. When Rollins argued over the speed of the ensuing count, Cena came back with a throw into a powerbomb. He tried to follow that with another AA, but Rollins landed on his feet and answered with a shiranui for two. Once again, Cena recovered and hit an AA, but J&J Security pulled him out of the ring to prevent the cover. He crawled back in and locked in an STF and Kane helped Rollins reach the ropes from the outside. Finally, Cena went to the outside and Big Show hit him with a KO Punch. The lumberjacks rolled Cena’s limp body in the ring and Rollins covered him for the three count.
It was a very good match to open Raw and rope in as many viewers as possible in the first part of the hour. Rollins and Cena have worked together enough that they have developed excellent chemistry. Rollins also remains in a great position as a true heel- he simply avoids any behaviors that would earn him cheers. Even when Rollins celebrated his victory backstage and Lesnar confronted him, Rollins came off as the less likable one. Heyman kept them apart, but only by the skin of his teeth. The sparks flying between Rollins and Lesnar were substantial and immediate.
The show ended with a contract signing for the triple threat main event at the Royal Rumble. Given the formulaic nature of the contract signing, the wrestlers needed to come up with something to make this one stand out. Fortunately, Rollins elevated his mic skills to the level of his earlier match and got in a memorable verbal showdown with Heyman. In the end, he vowed to leave the Royal Rumble as the WWE Champion, either through the main event match, or by virtue of his Money in the Bank contract. Lesnar heard enough and attacked both Cena and Rollins with German Suplexes. Cena got back to his feet and hit an AA to Lesnar through the table set up in the ring. Rollins also recovered and Curb Stomped Cena as he got back to his feet. The grand finale was an extremely stiff Curb Stomp to Lesnar to shatter the fragile alliance between Heyman’s team and The Authority.
Even with the monster heel as the WWE Champion, Rollins came off as the target of the fans’ ire. It makes sense, too, that the sniveling opportunist would receive more heat than the unstoppable champion, even if that champion retreats from a fight every now and then. The dynamic creates many new possibilities at the Rumble and beyond. In the short term, Rollins will likely be the heelish focal point of the match. He creates an opportunity change the championship course headed towards Wrestlemania without Lesnar taking a pin. On the other hand, I do not think Lesnar beat the Undertaker and squashed Cena at Summerslam to lose anywhere but Wrestlemania. The twist on that account is that Rollins has created enough tension between the Heyman-Lesnar pairing and The Authority to take their rivalry in a new direction, as well. WWE’s goal at the Rumble is to set the stage for exciting, dynamic stories headed toward Wrestlemania. With Rollins in the main event, I would say they have a two week head start.
Match of the Night – Roman Reigns def. Luke Harper
Reigns started his night with an embarrassing promo but he had a chance to redeem himself with a match immediately following it against Harper. They traded big blows early until Reigns caught Harper in a rear facelock and kneed him repeatedly in the face. Harper responded with a dropkick and some abuse outside the ring. Reigns rallied with a neckbreaker, but Harper got out of a Samoan Drop with an eye gouge and a big boot to follow. After a sidewalk slam by Reigns, a Big Show distraction from ringside allowed Harper to counter the Superman Punch with a side slam of his own. Reigns recovered and hit a Superman Punch and apron dropkick. Once again, Big Show distracted Reigns and Harper hit a superkick. Harper set up for a discus clothesline, but Reigns caught him with a spear as he spun around. Reigns got the pin and Big Show immediately attacked him in the ring. He hit a KO punch to create more animosity between them. Big Show’s involvement added to the match because it made Reigns respond more creatively. Harper also deserves a lot of credit because his unique offense makes everything he does more interesting. Ultimately, the big takeaway is that Reigns has looked progressively better in the ring against non-Big Show opponents the last few weeks in spite of his atrocious mic work.
Missing the Mark – Big Show and Roman Reigns Wage a War of Corny Promos
Before Reigns faced off with Harper, Big Show came to the ring to cut a promo about how big he is and how easy it is for him to succeed in life. He said that he does not view Reigns as a threat and intends to show that he is as much of a loser as all of his fans. Reigns emerged from the crowd and Big Show retreated to the entrance ramp. Reigns answered Big Show with a cheesy fairy tale about how he climbed a beanstalk to beat up an evil giant. While the speech was better than his “sufferin’ succotash” promo on Smackdown, it was hard for me to pinpoint what positive reaction WWE thought it could get out of this segment. Fundamentally, Reigns is a tough badass, but this promo was neither of those things. It wasn’t creative, memorable, or funny, either, so I’m not sure how it made it into the show. As Reigns struggles to establish himself on his own, it feels like the writers are trying anything they can imagine to see if it resonates with fans. My suggestion would be to go back to basics and let him be the no nonsense brawler that got him over in The Shield.
Developing Story – Daniel Bryan Gets Physical
Bryan came to the ring and had a great interaction with the New Orleans fans who witnessed his Wrestlemania triumph. Stephanie McMahon interrupted him and questioned whether he had the resolve to go through the grind of wrestling again before she announced that he would wrestle Kane on Smackdown. Kane came to the ring and Bryan attacked the man who put him out of action (at least in the storyline). He fought his way out of another Tombstone and delivered a suicide dive through the ropes to assure fans that he is all systems go. As great as it was to see Bryan wrestling again- even if it was not in a match-, I was most impressed by how well he has learned to play the crowd. Bryan used to struggle with showing emotion and engaging the fans on the mic. Now, it is second nature to him. His growth in that area has to give hope to those of us who shake our heads at every Roman Reigns promo. On another note, Bryan’s in-ring return makes the first episode of Smackdown on Thursday night a must-see episode.
- The Ascension def. Jobbers
Another week, another squash win for the newest members of the tag team division. Every week, The Ascension somehow wrestle progressively smaller opponents. They also reiterated their superiority over the similar tag teams that have come before them. The matches have not been very interesting, but at least they have been short.
- Randy Savage to the Hall of Fame
Unlike most HOF announcements, WWE followed Macho Man’s reveal with a series of impersonations from current WWE wrestlers. It was a fun way to quietly show how much of an influence he had on this generation. There was also plenty of time for highlight reels of the man who is as deserving of a HOF induction as any wrestler who ever stepped in a ring.
Divas Division Update – Alicia Fox def. Naomi; Brie Bella def. Paige
Stephanie McMahon punished the Usos for their insubordinate comments on Smackdown by forcing Naomi to wrestle her match with a hand tied behind her back. Alicia taunted Naomi for the handicap early in the match and hit her with a big tilt-a-whirl backbreaker. While Naomi did her best to fight back, Alicia eventually nailed her scissors kick to finish the match. Naomi has been entertaining lately and I like how she has been used to make the otherwise vanilla Usos more stimulating.
Later, two of the better wrestlers in the Divas Division faced off to advance the nascent storyline between the Bellas and the combination of Paige and Natalya. Brie started out strong with a missile dropkick and a chin lock. When Paige started to rally, Tyson Kidd climbed on the apron and delayed the match. Brie rolled Paige up and got the win. Paige retaliated after the finish with a slap to Kidd. I don’t know how Kidd’s Divas Division meddling will end up, but it is funny every time it happens.
- The Miz def. Jey Uso
Miz and Damien Mizdow had a series of amusing Golden Globe After-Party segments. The best was when Mizdow broke his silence and announced that he made a candid documentary about Miz’s life with cameras hidden around his house. Miz was more serious when he got to the ring. After a tug-of-war in which Mizdow tried to help his partner, Miz was able to hit Jey with the Skull Crushing Finale. It will presumably give the A Listers another shot at the Tag Team Titles at some point down the road.
- A New Day def. The Uppercats/Masters of the Universe/Cesaro and Kidd
Cesaro and Tyson Kidd announced that they targeted A New Day to make a name for themselves in the tag division, which is as good of a reason as any. Once the match started, their double-team moves were on full display: Cesaro’s throw into Kidd’s kick, a swing into a dropkick, and an Irish Whip by Kidd to hurl Cesaro into Kofi Kingston. When Kingston finally reached the corner, Xavier Woods rallied with a series of kicks and clotheslines. He and Kingston combined for their backbreaker-stomp finisher to get the win. It was a fun little match and I would like to see more like it between the teams.
- Dean Ambrose Turns the Tables on Rusev and Psychologist
Stephanie McMahon ordered Ambrose to pass a psychological evaluation before he could enter the Royal Rumble and Ambrose put one over on the therapist. After a word association game let him tag both Jim Duggan and Stephanie as “Hoooooo,” he talked the psychologist onto the couch. Soon, the psychologist was sobbing and readily signed Ambrose’s evaluation.
After he was done with the evaluation, Ambrose interrupted Rusev’s diatribe against the fired Ryback. A match ensued, and Ambrose had some real success until the knee he injured against Bray Wyatt started to act up. Rusev went after the injury with a chop block and toe hold. Despite the injury, Ambrose managed to counter a superkick into a rollup for a near fall. After a clothesline and elbow drop, Rusev recovered to go after the knee with more kicks. As Ambrose struggled to make it to his feet, the referee stopped the match. It was a good finish to protect Ambrose, who has lost cleanly too often lately.