Any “old-school” wrestling fan who has been bemoaning the state of WWE for the last eight years ought to be utterly delighted with some of the recent booking decisions from the team behind WWE Raw. Clash of Champions was dominated by long matches, while the most recent edition of Monday Night Raw opened with a long, 30-minute slugfest between Rusev and Roman Reigns.
For people, like myself, who yearn for Raw to open with a 30-minute match rather than a 30-minute promo, it’s a huge shame to have to complain about their execution.
Raw is completely lost in the abyss at the moment, and just doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be. It has been openly acknowledged, since the brand extension, that SmackDown Live is to be regarded as the “pure wrestling show,” while Raw is to continue to be rooted in sports entertainment. The problem with Raw is that it is doing neither particularly well, and the opening match from Monday infuriatingly proves that there is something in Vince McMahon’s professed disdain for wrestling for the sake of wrestling.
If Raw were to strike a balance between remarkable storytelling and the motivations of its wrestlers (and you don’t need Hollywood writers to achieve that), then there’d be no issue whatsoever with the vast majority of its weekly show being dominated by lengthy slugfests.
But let’s consider Roman Reigns vs Rusev. This is a feud that started out with worlds of promise, but ultimately was relegated into a second-fiddle sideshow. The moment that Reigns, at SummerSlam, obliterated Rusev before their match for the U.S. Championship even started, it was made clear that he didn’t give two hoots and a holler about that championship. He was then thrust into the main event scene in a series of qualifying matches on Raw, and every chance that Reigns has had for the WWE Universal Championship has been squandered by outside interference and shenanigans.
This, in the eye of the intelligent wrestling fan, suggests that as a competitor Roman Reigns is a big time player for the top gold on the Raw brand. He barely sells to even the top talents, and what this tells us is that if he made the effort, he could just swipe away any mid-card title (like the U.S. title) the moment he feels like pursuing it. Which he did.
So, he’s been overpumped like “Super-Cena,” and presented and delivered as indestructible. So why in the hell is anybody supposed to care about his 30-minute slugfest with Roman Reigns? If you’re going to have a long match with two behemoths smacking the crap out of each other, it had better be unpredictable, and it had better be worth investing money in either opponent.
And this is where Raw’s attempts at reconciling two opposing sets of audiences utterly fails. It is utterly failing to build up rivalries worthy of the matches that it puts on.
We had almost forgotten that The New Day were Tag Team Champions, and the The Club were serious contenders. With some decent, intense storytelling, their match at Clash of Champions could have been an epic, but instead it came within the context of some woefully unfunny comedy skits.
Charlotte and Sasha Banks could be a hugely impressive blood feud, but instead Raw has oversaturated it with the outside influence of Bayley, as well as the Stockholm-Syndrome angle between Dana Brooke and Charlotte.
Arguably the only truly compelling rivalry on Raw right now is ensuing between Seth Rollins and Kevin Owens, except the WWE has failed on two purely storytelling elements: Kevin Owens’s selection as the face of the company, and Seth Rollins’ general character. For years, the fans have been wanting Seth Rollins to represent the rebellious, anti-authority character who overcomes the corporate hurdles. As it stands, he’s still walking around as a tweener; lamenting his betrayal at the hands of Triple H, yet still clearly yearning for the days when he was the chosen one, for whom mountains were moved by the Authority to keep him at the top of the card.
It means that, however outstanding his matches with Kevin Owens are, they sorely lack that one final, emotional element that serves to culminate whatever has happened to him over the past month to make anyone give a damn about why he’s having them.
In any other climate, Raw would be hitting exactly the right notes right now, with its growing emphasis on more drawn-out wrestling matches. The trouble is, unlike on SmackDown, the motivations of the wrestlers in them are so poorly defined that they are no more impressive than a random encounter designed to fill TV time.