By Will Pruett
Full disclosure: To retain his sanity, Will Pruett watches the 90 minute edit of Raw on Hulu. He has no regrets.
I have mentioned in this space multiple times how much I love Shane McMahon. It probably isn’t healthy. I know I have a problem and I freely admit it. If there’s one active wrestler I love more than I love Shane McMahon, it’s Sami Zayn. I once braved a 100+ degree fever on a January night to see Sami’s lucha counterpart El Generico (who is now retired and helping the orphans in Mexico) wrestle his final PWG match. I cried when Sami finally achieved his dream in NXT and won the NXT Championship from Neville. On the short list of wrestlers I believe in, Sami is at the top. Comparing Sami and Shane is like comparing apples and superkicks, but the two are linked in my mind (and not in a positive way).
It looks like WWE is planning another multiple man match for the Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania. We’ve seen Kevin Owens feud with and/or trade victories with Neville, Dolph Ziggler, Sami Zayn, and others going into the show of shows. We saw his last year with a hilariously bad “belt theft” story revolving around Wade Barrett’s title. The Intercontinental Championship was hung up in a Ladder Match and seven wrestlers had a crowd pleasing dangerous match to capture the title. None of those seven wrestlers have significantly improved their place in the last year (one of them retired).
This match is being filled with the wrestlers WWE expects fans to see in main events on house shows, in featured matches for 11 months out of the year, and in long six man tag matches during the third hour of Raw. Shouldn’t we care about these wrestlers and their struggles? Shouldn’t we be told, during the most important period of the year, these individual feuds matter? What does a multi-man ladder fiasco do, aside from make the fans yell while the wrestlers take extraordinary risks?
I understand the appeal of this type of match at WrestleMania. Money in the Bank began the tradition of lazily booking the upper-mid-card into a five, six, seven, or eight way crazy match at WrestleMania. It’s easier for WWE’s storytelling machine to take and randomly pair these talents without a story. Live fans get into it because people fall off of tall things (sometimes, they fall with style). It’s the perfect train-wreck to open WrestleMania and, when it was gone (WrestleMania 27-30), people missed it. I understand all of this.
At the same time, there is a suffering mid-card in WWE. There is an absolute lack of main eventers. Three key injuries hurt the WrestleMania card this year, but WWE also failed themselves. They didn’t have the talent waiting in the wings to take on the role of the injured main eventers. They didn’t have a well-protected Intercontinental Champion to take on Brock Lesnar. The didn’t have a well-protected wrestler fans were dying to see take on The Undertaker. They didn’t have a natural WWE Champion or challenger to fill a role. This is an issue.
WWE’s roster, as far as wrestling talent goes, is probably deeper than it has ever been. They just added A.J. Styles and are adding Shinsuke Nakamura. They have Samoa Joe and Finn Bálor killing it in their feud on NXT TV. They have the talent depth to tell stories fans care about up and down the WrestleMania card. They have misused a lot of this talent for over a year. They have annually pushed this talent to the side for Undertaker, Brock Lesnar, a McMahon family member, The Rock, and anyone else returning. It’s no wonder they aren’t growing a TV audience. Fans are taught not to care about individual feuds not involving these wrestlers.
I love Sami Zayn more than I should, but this sort of multi-man match is the exact reason Shane McMahon had to make a nonsensical (and wonderful) return to face The Undertaker in the biggest wresting storytelling non sequitur in a decade. I’m personally happy for Sami Zayn getting a spot on the WrestleMania card, but I’m also sad about what his spot means.
WWE storytelling and star-making has been poor for a long time. Roman Reigns (who was hardly mentioned on this show, despite being less than a month away from main eventing the biggest show of all time) is a victim of it. Kevin Owens has become a victim of it. Neville (who had a fantastic match with Owens) is a victim of it. Now, this sort of disappointing storytelling is coming for Sami Zayn as he is thrust into the fifty-fifty mid-card mix.
How much longer will WWE rely on nostalgia and affinity for partially retired stars during their biggest season of the year instead of making their current stars feel important? I love Shane McMahon. I love Sami Zayn. We shouldn’t need Shane this year, though. If WWE was telling stories the right way, we wouldn’t.
Sami Zayn’s return on this show both depressed me and delighted me. I am a wrestling fan in conflict with myself.
And now some random thoughts:
– How great was the A.J. Styles and Chris Jericho vs. Big E and Kofi Kingston Tag Team Championship match? Seriously. How great was it? I’ll wait while you tell me how great it was. Cool? Cool. It was one of the best Raw matches of the last few years.
– A.J. Styles proved to be on another level while it came to wrestling in this tag match. When he is in the ring with guys who can match his pace (like Kofi and Big E), he delights. A.J. didn’t have to slow down and we found out why he is the best in the world today. The turn of Chris Jericho (presumably leading to a WrestleMania match between them) was well executed. My only concern is A.J. having to slow down for Jericho. Jericho hasn’t looked to be in his best shape in previous encounters with Styles. Hopefully he can summon the ability to keep up with A.J. for one night.
– Shane McMahon was on this show and his dancing and promo ability delighted me once again. His punching ability was less than amazing. I wouldn’t have had Shane do anything physical until Undertaker closed the Hell in a Cell door at WrestleMania. It’s not just because Shane is bad at punching, but because him getting physical should be part of the mystery. WWE can’t help but remove the mystique from its characters sometimes.
– Did Shane McMahon actually say Roman Reigns’ push would stop if he won? WWE outright scripting a credible protagonist to call their current storytelling bad is something else. I’m not sure what exactly I should feel about it.
– Vince McMahon probably still has the negatives for that picture. I’m not worried about it.
– Triple H and Dean Ambrose should feel like a natural feud. Ambrose is the anti-authority rebel with a cause. Triple H is the stuffed suit using his power to prop himself up. It should be an easy story to tell. I have been shocked by how throughout unenjoyable Triple H and Ambrose’s segments together have been. The promo between the two was simply depressing. There isn’t any sort of magic between them. Ambrose is trying too hard to be funny. He isn’t treating Triple H as a serious opponent. It hasn’t worked for a few weeks and will hopefully end on Saturday.
– Charlotte laying out Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks made sense on this show. Hopefully the build to this triple threat match gets better as WrestleMania approaches. I’d like to see less painting by numbers and more unique storytelling. This match should be positioned as a top three WrestleMania match.
– Big Boss Man is a perfectly fine WWE Hall of Fame member.
– Dean Ambrose vs. Bray Wyatt filled time admirably.
– Neville vs. Kevin Owens and New Day vs. Styles and Jericho were highlights on this show and absolutely need to be watched.
– Chanting C.M. Punk at a wrestling show is a stupid thing to do. It’d be different if he wanted to be there and was fired. He’s not interested in being in WWE. It’s not like they fired him.
– I hope we at least get a video package about the Owens and Zayn feud in the next week.
This was not my favorite episode of Raw, but a hot crowd combined with some good wrestling made it delightful. Critical as I may be of how Sami Zayn is likely to be used, I’m still happy to see him make the WrestleMania card. Maybe Roadblock has been a literal Roadblock for WrestleMania build and we will kick everything into gear next week. If not, WWE is in some WrestleMania hype trouble. I’d hate to see them go into WrestleMania with a major disappointment like last year.
Got thoughts on this show or my review of it? If they aren’t super annoying thoughts (and please don’t ignore this and post super annoying thoughts), hit me up with them! Check the Twitter @itswilltime, leave a comment, or email me at email@example.com.