A few months ago, HHH told Grantland’s David Shoemaker that WWE has a never ending focus group at every live show and through reactions online. That focus group made it clear over the last week that it does not accept Roman Reigns as the top babyface wrestler to challenge Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania, and WWE at least made some concession in that direction.
The Authority conned Reigns into doing the honorable thing and accepting a match at Fast Lane with the winner of a Daniel Bryan-Seth Rollins match with his Wrestlemania title shot on the line. HHH first explained that the result of the Royal Rumble was questionable due to interference by the Rock. Reigns responded that nobody has the right to take away his title shot, and Bryan and Rollins chimed in with their own claims to the main event. Eventually, Stephanie McMahon baited Reigns into accepting the play-in match by appealing to the honor of his family.
The match between Bryan and Rollins in Raw’s main event was the type of matchup that could headline Wretlemania on its own. I feared that it might get watered down with too many narrative theatrics, but the wrestlers delivered the second excellent match of the night.
With J&J Security and Big Show at ringside, Bryan fought against the odds throughout the match. Rollins cut off a rally with an STO into the turnbuckle and rolled through Bryan’s top rope hurricanrana into a cover for a near fall. Bryan fought off J&J Security and then hit both of them and Rollins with a suicide dive. He brought Rollins to the top rope and delivered a belly-to-back suplex that hurled them both across the ring. Bryan went for the running knee, but Rollins caught him and turned it into a buckle bomb and a superkick for a two count. Bryan applied the Yes Lock for a long time, though Rollins got out when his foot made it to the bottom rope.
Reigns emerged from backstage, and despite his coldness to Bryan earlier, he helped even the numbers. He attacked Big Show and J&J Security to prevent more interference and delivered a Superman Punch to Rollins while Noble inadvertently distracted the referee. Bryan took advantage with a running knee to Rollins to get the pin and go to the Fast Lane match with Reigns.
It appears that WWE’s goal is to address the complaint that Reigns was undeservingly cast in the main event role ahead of Bryan. If Reigns pins Bryan cleanly at Fast Lane, it would theoretically put to rest the notion that Bryan should have been in that slot ahead of Reigns.
The problem with that reasoning gets to an interesting topic that HHH addressed on Steve Austin’s podcast after Raw- the blurred lines between kayfabe and reality. My perception is that fans care less about the kayfabe version of Reigns and more about the reality that he works bland, predictable matches and cuts awful promos. Fans want Bryan in the main event simply because Bryan is more fun to watch from week to week. Working with an artist like Bryan should at least help Reigns get one great match under his belt, which will allay some of the concerns, but I remain skeptical that Reigns-Lesnar can deliver as one of the best matches of the show.
That critique aside, Raw was very strong. There were few wasted segments, as nearly everything delivered on the wrestling, the storyline, or both. Two slow burning tag team disintegrations started to come to fruition, Bray Wyatt and Dolph Ziggler stole the show, and even guys like Ryback, Cesaro, and Dean Ambrose settled into appropriate lanes for Wrestlemania season.
Match of the Night – Bray Wyatt def. Dolph Ziggler
Stephanie McMahon gave Dolph Ziggler, Erick Rowan and Ryback tough assignments on their first night back on Raw. None was more difficult than Ziggler’s, as even the fans were split between the two stars. Ziggler had to wrestle from underneath for most of the match as Wyatt physically dominated.
Wyatt hit a vertical suplex on the floor and a huge running elbow. Ziggler sold damage to his collarbone and Booker T highlighted the injury on commentary to tell the story of his struggle. Ziggler managed a neckbreaker and an elbow drop, but Bray answered with a high-impact clothesline. He went for Sister Abigail and Ziggler countered with a leaping DDT. Ziggler proceeded to duck a clothesline and hit a superkick for a near fall. Back on his feet, he hit the famouser. Wyatt instantly sprung to his feet and nailed Ziggler with Sister Abigail to get the win.
The match was a perfect way to use Wyatt. He should not be in the ring every week so it means something when the fans get to see him wrestle. Wyatt’s powerful offensive style is a good match for Ziggler’s willingness to sell. His mystical and often nonsensical promos hit home when they back up dominant performances in the ring. For instance, I found myself far more interested when he proclaimed himself the “new face of fear” in a promo seemingly targeted at Undertaker later in the show.
Missing the Mark – Roman Reigns Cannot Shake Big Show
Despite his Royal Rumble win and the storyline over whether he will get to keep his Wrestlemania title shot, the task in the ring for Reigns remained unchanged. Big Show went into the bear hug early in the match. J&J Security broke up a rally by Reigns and Big Show speared him for a two count. Reigns fought back with a Superman Punch and set up for a spear, but another distraction allowed Seth Rollins to hit him with his Money in the Bank Briefcase. Big Show followed it with a chokeslam and Big Show got the pin.
Given the recent problems with Reigns, it is peculiar to make him look weak. I believe the feeling is that WWE wants to show that it is not “shoving him down the fans’ throats.” Still, unless the plan for Reigns to go to Wrestlemania has genuinely changed, it is peculiar for him to take losses to the likes of Big Show. Maybe more importantly, the match simply was not very interesting.
Developing Story – Dean Ambrose Seeks the Intercontinental Title
Curtis Axel embraced the internet meme about how he was never eliminated from the Royal Rumble (to be clear, wrestlers have failed to enter in past years and were considered eliminated when they did not make it to the ring before the next entrant, such as Spike Dudley in 2004). Axel said he would have gone to Wrestlemania and posed in the ring to point at the Wrestlemania sign.
Ambrose used Axel’s preening as an opportunity to “eliminate” him by throwing him to the floor. He said he saw pictures of old champions on the walls when he visited WWE headquarters and he wants to join them with an Intercontinental Title win. He called out Bad News Barrett and said he deserves a title shot after his recent win. Axel tried to ambush him and Ambrose hit him with Dirty Deeds.
Ambrose’s pursuit of the Intercontinental Title makes perfect sense. His feud with Bray Wyatt was a challenge match to join the main event picture and Wyatt won. That leaves Ambrose at the very top of the mid-card for now, which is precisely where the Intercontinental Title should be. I love when wrestlers explicitly seek secondary titles because it enhances their desirability and importance. Ambrose as a fighting Intercontinental Champion would be good for him and the belt.
- Rusev Annihilates Erick Rowan
After John Cena welcomed Rowan, Ryback, and Dolph Ziggler back to Raw, Rowan tried to do Cena a favor with a solid performance against Rusev. Instead, Rusev attacked Rowan before the bell and held him in the Accolade until he was defenseless. Lana took the opportunity to introduce a video package of Rusev’s conquests. They stood proud in the ring, but the Russian flag failed to unfurl behind them. Rusev recovered well and grabbed his own Russian flag to wave.
- The Ascension def. Goldust and Stardust
Another easy win for The Ascension via the Fall of Man was the appetizer, but the fallout between Goldust and Stardust was the main course. After Booker T’s support and JBL’s derision made it unclear whether The Ascension are faces or heels, Stardust lashed out as his brother for taking the pin. Goldust tried to calm him down backstage by calling him “Cody,” which only made Stardust more irate.
Divas Division Update – Paige def. Alicia Fox
The Bella Twins joined the commentary team and fulfilled their roles as obnoxious heels. Alicia controlled most of the match with a Northern Lights Suplex and a Tilt-a-Whirl Backbreaker. Paige awkwardly rolled into a cover and got a quick pin on Alicia. After the bell, Alicia put Paige in a surfboard and the Bellas sprayed her with either spray paint or artificial tanner. Neither the match nor the post-match story worked very well, though I still believe that Paige will manage a great match.
- Cesaro def. Jimmy Uso
Jimmy hit his customary plancha to the floor early in the match and Cesaro responded with a Big Swing into a half Boston Crab. Cesaro tried to come off the top rope and ate a superkick. Jimmy went to the top rope himself looking for a Superfly Splash. A scuffle between the tag partners outside distracted him long enough for Cesaro to recover and catch him with a European uppercut to get the pin. Even if the overkill booking can diminish the tag team division, Cesaro is so entertaining when he gets a chance to wrestle that I have no complaints.
- Ryback def. Luke Harper
The first match of Stephanie McMahon’s series of quasi-punishments pitted Ryback against Harper in a fresh singles matchup. They traded powerful offense for a few minutes- a delayed vertical suplex, side slam, and spinebuster by Ryback against a big boot and a superkick by Harper. Ryback set up for Shell-Shock and Harper countered into a sunset flip. Ryback kicked out and put together a Meathook and Shell-Shock to get an impressive win in a solid match.
- Miz Fires Mizdow
The recent tensions between Miz and his stunt double exploded when a fan asked Mizdow for his autograph rather than Miz’s. He fired Mizdow as a stunt double- while Mizdow continued to mimic Miz’s anger- and offered to keep him only as a personal assistant. As such, Mizdow suppressed his desire to act along while Miz wrestled Sin Cara. When he finally answered the crowd’s cheers, Miz stopped wrestling to chastise him. Sin Cara took advantage with a rollup for the pin to drive a wedge deeper between Miz and Mizdow.
It feels a bit awkward that Miz and Mizdow are splitting at the same time and in much the same way as Goldust and Stardust. If both angles are set to build to a match at Wrestlemania, there will be considerable overlap and the WWE will have to carefully distinguish the storylines. Then again, they could simply switch partnerships and see if anyone notices.