By Will Pruett
If wrestling television shows were eligible for major awards (aside from Slammys), I would encourage WWE to submit the first 15 minutes of Raw for both the Golden Globes and Emmys. I have never seen anything like this and WWE, foregoing their usual pattern of playing against a rebellious crowd, fully embraced it. Roman Reigns soaked in hate and seemed to have the star quality he’s been missing.
Let me set the scene for you. It’s the night after Undertaker, the long-term hero and conscience of WWE, left his gloves, jacket, and hat in the middle of the ring. He sadly walked up the ramp and was lowered into his career’s final resting place. WWE recapped this in photos at the beginning of Raw, then let the crowd take control.
This crowd didn’t disappoint. They picked up on the cues of chanting “Thank you, Taker” and “Undertaker” for a long time, then, as the show went on and nothing happened, the chants for Undertaker organically turned to hatred for Roman Reigns. In the dueling chant pattern made famous on a national level by John Cena and the crowds who hated hated him, we heard “Thank you, Taker” and “Roman Sucks.” This was not a duel. This was every fan in the building chanting every word.
I go to a ton of theatre and produce live entertainment for a living. I can promise you that this kind of emotional engagement is something every artist dreams of.
As the chants for Undertaker and against Roman Reigns started to peak and looked like they may fall off, the music of Roman Reigns hit. He walked to the ring without a smile. He was serious. This wasn’t the winking Roman Reigns who once roofied Stephanie McMahon’s iced coffee. This was the all new all serious Roman.
Once he was in the ring, the fans were reenergized by his presence. This is among the most brilliant theatrical moments I’ve ever seen in wrestling. Without a word, Roman spurred them on. He didn’t antagonize the crowd in an overt way, but simply stood there. He took the flack for retiring The Undertaker and manage to absorb it. Every time it looked like Roman might speak, the fans got louder. The chants shifted from “Roman sucks” to the more profane and delightful “Fuck you Roman.” (Profanity, when used in this way, is the best. I’m pretty sure the first time I swore in my entire life was chanting “asshole” at Vince McMahon. It was the first of billions of swears.)
Finally, when he spoke, Roman didn’t deliver a ten minute promo. He didn’t wax poetic about what Undertaker meant to him. He didn’t lay out a challenge for any one human. He simply repeated the claim that began his entire feud with Undertaker. He let us know that the ring was his yard, dropped the mic, and walked away.
Why did this work so well? WWE has evolved to being able to predict and manipulate the Night After WrestleMania crowd. The unruly fans who once outright rejected a Sheamus vs. Randy Orton match after WrestleMania 29 are now the fans WWE can grab. The fans who spend a ton of money to attend all the WrestleMania weekend events are happy to play into WWE’s narrative and it works! Look at this reaction for Roman. Look at how well it lines up with all of WWE TV.
No one is pretending fans like Roman Reigns anymore. No one is pretending he isn’t being booed. WWE embraced the reaction and let Roman live in it. When WWE embraces these reactions, they build goodwill with their most ardent fans. Instead of feeling silenced while the corporate public relations line is “you can cheer and boo anyone,” fans will feel compelled to actually express their feelings. This is only good for WWE.
Do I think WWE wants “fuck you, Roman” chants on a weekly basis? Probably not, but I do believe they, like any artist, would love this level of passionate engagement every night. The first 15 minutes of Raw were the most compelling 15 minutes of WWE television since the heartbreaking retirement of Daniel Bryan.
And now for some random thoughts:
– Vince McMahon appeared on this show and announced the 2017 WWE Draft Superstar Shakeup. I have no idea what the Superstar Shakeup is or if it is supposed to help market the new WWE Superstar Shakers coming to a kitchen near you. What I assume will happen is a bevy of roster moves made to help each show seem fresh. I like the idea of doing this just after WrestleMania as a means of carrying over the post-WrestleMania excitement through another week.
– McMahon also announced Kurt Angle as the new General Manager of Raw. This is a good move on a number of levels. Kurt being back in the WWE family is awesome. Giving Raw a babyface authority figure and assuring that Stephanie McMahon is absent is necessary. WWE’s biggest mistake in the last decade has been making their own brand a heel in their stories. If WWE can use Angle, without the overbearing presence of Stephanie, to correct this on their number one brand, they’ll be much better for it. If they can restore a sense of fairness to WWE’s core storytelling (like we see in NXT), WWE will be much easier to watch.
– The Revival were called up to the WWE main roster on this show and entered into what could be a feud (unless one of these teams is shaken to Smackdown) with The New Day. This is perfect. The Revival is a serious team who can get over by opposing the silly antics of The New Day. This will build some credibility for Dash and Dawson and build a bonus feud in the tag team division away from the tag titles.
– Finn Bálor’s return to Raw to help Seth Rollins fight Kevin Owens and Samoa Joe in the main event was delightful. The crowd responded to him like a major star and Bálor soaked it in. The combination of Rollins and Bálor seemed a little odd, but they played on it well.
– I’m glad Samoa Joe wasn’t involved in the decision in the main event, simply because he’s still the unbeatable monster. Even without a WrestleMania match, Joe is still a very important piece of the roster.
– Emma’s return as Evil Emma made my heart smile. The women’s rosters on both brands need depth and Emma offers it to Raw. She should be a major challenger for Bayley in the next few months and get WWE out of the odd feedback loop they have going with Bayley, Sasha, and Charlotte.
– It’s interesting to note that the Women’s Division received very little airtime on Raw. Looking at the Raw Breakdown Project for this week, we only had six percent of the show dedicated to the women’s roster. WWE can and should do better.
– Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman’s victorious promo was fascinating. It’s obvious that WWE is building towards WrestleMania 34 already with a possibly ill-advised Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar main event. The crowd in this building didn’t want to see it, but that’s fine. They don’t have to. WWE can make fans want to see this match over the coming year, especially if the continue down the road Roman started on tonight.
– Braun Strowman as a challenger for Brock Lesnar looks and feels awesome. I want to see this hoss fight and I want to see it as soon as possible (okay, well likely at Payback).
– The Hardy Boys (No, I will never spell “boys” with a Z) had a fine comeback match for them. I didn’t expect much as they spent the last two nights in Ladder Matches, but this was alright. I know some fans are broken hearted about the lack of Broken Matt, but this is the right way to reintroduce Matt and Jeff. When the time comes and the nostalgia run is over, Matt and break and Jeff can be the main eventer he was in 2009.
– This crowd may have had some great moments, but breaking out a beach ball (which WWE glorified on a documentary and on this show) is absurd. Doing it during a good Mustafa Ali vs. Neville match is infuriating. I get turning on Sheamus vs. Randy Orton, but turning on a good match with two great competitors is ridiculous.
– I want to see what the next few months hold for Sami Zayn. If I were WWE, I’d be aiming to do Zayn vs. Lesnar on a Summer or Fall Raw pay-per-view. Sami could be built up to it and finally overcome something huge, then eventually show heart and guts in getting killed by Brock.
– A crowd booing Roman Reigns relentlessly, then treating the man who is making Roman inherently boo-able, Vince McMahon, like a god among men is absurd. It’s proof that many of the hardcore fans are bigger fans of WWE than anything else. They lost a lot of street cred.
Got thoughts on this show or my review of it? Hit me up with them! Check the Twitter @wilpruett, leave a comment, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.