Each year, WWE winnows its storylines down to a core few in the month leading up to Wrestlemania. While the shorter docket would make it hard to develop new characters if done year-round, it definitely makes Raw feel more important and unified, even spread out over three hours. With fewer minor storylines this week, Raw flew by. Seth Rollins was the common element through the episode as he dealt with a variety of challenges from John Stewart, Randy Orton, and Roman Reigns.
At the start of the show, Rollins insisted that he can out-talk Stewart, out-rap Wiz Khalifa, and “don’t let these abs fool you, out-eat Mark Henry.” He extended the brag to Reigns and asserted that he is the only wrestler who can beat both Reigns and Brock Lesnar. Reigns disagreed verbally and then cleared out Rollins and J&J Security physically. Backstage, Orton feigned support for Rollins when he suggested that he should demand a match with Reigns to prove his superiority.
Later in the show, Rollins brought his verbal feud with Stewart to Raw. He set up a fake Daily Show set in the ring and conducted a hackneyed fake news program. Stewart joined him in the ring as a guest and he had to maintain a difficult balance between the nebbish wrestling foil, the respectful fan, and the smug jokester.
As one of the best talkers in any segment of show business, Stewart navigated the difficult terrain as well as one possibly could. He won over the crowd with a tribute to the likes of Bruno Sammartino, Gorilla Monsoon, Steve Austin, Mick Foley, and the Undertaker. He said that Rollins did not earn his spot like all of those legends and compared his gear to a “SWAT team stripper.” He even planted the seeds of discontent within The Authority when he said that if HHH and Stephanie really cared about Rollins, they would have put him in the Wrestlemania main event.
Rollins and J&J Security cornered Stewart, but Orton’s music hit as Rollins was about to clock him. Stewart kicked Rollins in the groin and made a run for it. Later, Orton explained that his intervention was in support of Rollins because an attack on a star like Stewart would sidetrack his entire career. Once again, Orton’s explanation was just believable enough to maintain the guise of support for Rollins.
Finally, the Rollins-Reigns match came to fruition in the show’s main event. J&J Security with Kane and Big Show told Orton he would not be needed at ringside, but Orton made his way down early in the match anyway. Reigns was in control for most of what amounted to a decent match. He hit a nice tilt-a-whirl slam, but could not capitalize with the Superman Punch because Joey Mercury held his leg in the corner. He performed a back-body drop from the top rope and followed it with a sit-down powerbomb on Rollins for two.
As the match continued, the outside interference got more blatant. Kane hit Reigns with a chair while the referee dealt with Rollins in the ring. Reigns ducked the Curb Stomp and hit a Superman Punch to each of Rollins and Kane. As he set up for a spear, Orton tripped Reigns and allowed Rollins to get the roll-up for a win. Reigns went apoplectic after the loss and dove over the top rope for a splash on the whole group- a type of high-risk offense I do not recall from Reigns in the past. The assault culminated with a brutal spear to Rollins as he came off the top rope.
The main event was a reasonably effective way to show how dangerous Reigns can be when backed into a corner. Even so, the most memorable part of the show was Stewart’s participation. After so many guest stars and hosts of fallen on their faces, it was clear that Stewart has more than a passing familiarity with the WWE. Even if he simply watches with his children and decided to work an angle to impress them, it is clearly the WWE’s gain. His improvisational chops are so refined that he immediately stepped in and gave Rollins the sort of verbal rub that usually only comes from Paul Heyman. It isn’t entirely clear how and where Stewart could be involved if this story continues to Wrestlemania, but I hope WWE finds a way to do so if Stewart is interested.
Match of the Night – The Usos and Naomi def. Cesaro, Tyson Kidd, and Natalya
When Michael Cole tried to explain that the rivalry between these groups had become personal, JBL senselessly undermined him to destroy that narrative. Natalya bridged out of a jackknife and turned it into backslide for a two count. They went back and forth until Natalya hurt her ankle and had to tag out. Jey Uso tagged in and hit a corkscrew moonsault on Kidd. He tagged his injured wife back into the match. Naomi rolled her up and pinned her and Kidd had to diffuse the situation with a hug. It’s tough to keep things fresh with so little happening between the same six wrestlers each week. Nonetheless, on a show without a lot of great wrestling, the solid work here deserves acknowledgement.
Missing the Mark – John Cena Paints by Numbers
Cena again promised to overcome the odds and said that he would enter the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal since Rusev refuses to face him. Stephanie McMahon responded that he does not get to book his own matches and that he would not be allowed into the match due to his lack of respect for Andre. Curtis Axel responded that he deserves to challenge Rusev instead as part of his Axelmania campaign. Stephanie made a match between the two and told Cena he must get Rusev to agree to a match to get on the Wrestlemania card.
Cena turned serious and easily dispatched Axel. He hit an AA and put him in the STF to make him tap out. Rusev emerged and milked the crowd before he insisted that he would not grant Cena a rematch. I don’t understand the point of Cena teasing entrance in the ATGMBR if it was revoked before there was any chance to build anticipation. Conversely, there is so little “will they or won’t they” tension between Rusev and Cena that the story feels like a waste of time.
Developing Story – Intercontinental Title Picture Evolves
Another match between Dean Ambrose and Bad News Barrett was the backdrop for another twist in the strange road to the Wrestlemania ladder match. Ambrose diversified his offensive attack with a stepover toehold fishhook and a bulldog out of the corner. Barrett slapped R-Truth- sitting in on commentary- and Ambrose hit a suicide dive and an elbow drop to the outside.
Truth retaliated by stealing the Intercontinental belt again. Barrett hit the Winds of Change while Luke Harper emerged and loomed over Truth. He stole the belt from Truth, which distracted Barrett enough for Ambrose to hit Dirty Deeds and get the win.
Through the night, the belt passed from Harper to Barrett to Ambrose to Truth back to Harper and finally to Dolph Ziggler. While Barrett’s interminable losing streak makes him look bad, at least he has the excuse of the missing belt. On a more positive note, the widespread pursuit of the Intercontinental Title gives it meaning and raises the stakes for what should be a fun ladder match.
- HHH Flexes His Corporate Muscle
After Michael Hayes and Arn Anderson put over Sting’s uniqueness in an interview, HHH came to the ring and invited Booker T to join him. Booker said that he suspected that HHH used his influence to keep Sting out of WWE because no one can control Sting. In response, HHH fired Booker, only to rehire him after he made his way sadly up the ramp. He said it was a way for him to show that he is truly in control.
Hall of Fame Update – Alundra Blayze to the HOF
Blayze/Madusa was certainly WWE’s top woman star in an era of minimal focus on the women’s division. I was surprised that WWE would have her back at all after she threw the WWE belt in a trashcan on WCW Nitro. Not only does this induction function as a welcome back, the HOF promo even acknowledged that incident. Due to the poor competition and booking in her time, it’s hard for me to imagine her as a Hall of Famer. This class- beyond Randy Savage- continues to disappoint.
- Miz Lashes out at Mizdow
The commercial role that Miz stole from Mizdow turned out to be for a humiliating erectile dysfunction ad. The rest of the roster pointed and laughed at Miz while he blamed his assistant. Mizdow was on the verge of standing up to Miz, but he calmed himself and apologized. Even as a joke angle, Miz and Mizdow are making the silliness work.
- Bray Wyatt Plays His own Mind Games
Wyatt brought a plywood casket onto the ramp and said that he built it to impress Undertaker. He insinuated that Undertaker’s silence is a psychological ploy of his own, which is a clever way to explain his absence. He finished the segment by lighting the casket on fire, which was augmented by an awkward cut to commercial that left the screen ominously blank for several seconds.
Divas Division Update – Paige def. Nikki Bella by DQ
The #GiveDivasaChance Twitter trend got a Divas Title match on Raw. It wasn’t long, but got about twice as much time as the average women’s match on Raw, and that was enough to make a big difference.
Nikki hit an Alabama Slam and a spinebuster early, but they both went to the ground on a double clothesline. Paige recovered and hit a series of clotheslines. She superkicked Brie off of the apron and hit another on Nikki to set up the PTO. Brie broke up the hold before her sister submitted to save the title, and the Bellas ganged up on Paige.
The segment would have been better than usual if it ended there (and even elicited some “Paige” chants), but AJ Lee made a very surprising return. She rushed the ring and attacked the Bellas. In an interview, AJ said that the Bellas are bullies and that Paige is the enemy of her enemy, which makes them friends. A Bellas vs. Paige and AJ match at Wrestlemania would be a great way to utilize the women’s division.
AJ is also a great example of how a little more depth goes a long way for women’s characters. All wrestlers are painted in broad strokes, but she is more than a painfully obvious stereotype. That, more than her association with CM Punk, is why fans are always happy to see her.
- Daniel Bryan def. Luke Harper
In furtherance of the developing Intercontinental Title program, Bryan faced off with Harper, who was in possession of the title belt. Harper went hard after Bryan’s neck. He bodyslammed him to the floor, hot shotted him onto the top turnbuckle, and dropped him on his neck with a stiff 50/50 suplex. Bryan struggled to get Harper in the Yes Lock to win a short match that looked like it might have really hurt him.
- Paul Heyman Verbally Eviscerates Roman Reigns
Heyman delivered the best promo of Wrestlemania season. He worked the rumors about Lesnar’s contract status into the story and said that Lesnar will go wherever he pleases. When he had trouble with his microphone, he ad libbed by blaming Lillian Garcia and getting even more heat. He said that Lesnar will annihilate Reigns and sidetrack the plans for a celebration. With no personal story between Reigns and Lesnar, it makes sense to paint the match as a true fight.