By Jason Powell, Prowrestling.net Editor (@prowrestlingnet)
WWE Raw Hits
Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns, and Paul Heyman: A good show closing angle designed to give Reigns his first bit of momentum throughout the buildup to the WWE Universal Championship match, only to have Lesnar reclaim it at the very end with that F5 out of nowhere. Heyman did a fantastic job of setting the stage for the WrestleMania main event and he even cashed in on his previous WrestleMania “spoiler” line by using it again here while proclaiming that Lesnar will be victorious on Sunday. I love the way Heyman essentially guaranteed victory, yet still worked in the line that he and Lesnar are finished on Raw should Lesnar lose on Sunday. Heyman was so good that even as someone who has been convinced for a year that Reigns would win the title at WrestleMania 34, I still had a brief “well, maybe…” moment during the promo. I also liked that Heyman worked in a jab at Kurt Angle for being a lousy mentor to Ronda Rousey, as it’s something they could go back to if they ever flip Rousey heel and make Heyman her mouthpiece.
Ronda Rousey, Kurt Angle, Stephanie McMahon, and Triple H: An excellent final push for the mixed tag match. It was jarring to see Stephanie exuding confidence in last week’s video package, but it warmed me up to her bravado in this exchange. The live crowds have been lukewarm for some of Rousey’s segments, but they have been 100 percent behind her whenever she’s shared a ring with Stephanie and Hunter, which reenforces the idea that they are the perfect opponents for her debut match if the company wants Rousey to be a babyface. Stephanie putting Rousey through the table at the end of the segment was really well done. This wasn’t a case of Stephanie overpowering or dominating the UFC legend. Rather, it was opportunistic Stephanie catching Rousey off guard and thus garnering more heat heading into WrestleMania.
Seth Rollins vs. Finn Balor: It was hard to care about the match going in when nothing was at stake and it felt like a simple preview for the Intercontinental Title match on Sunday. The early commercial breaks didn’t help increase my interest in the match, but the work of Rollins and Balor more than won me over by the end. They worked a pay-per-view worthy match and set the bar high for the Triple Threat on Sunday. The Miz’s changed man due to fatherhood routine on commentary was distracting, but I hope it turns out to be a swerve with Miz doing something even more villainous than usual. By the way, the work of Rollins and Balor in this match has to add even more pressure for Miz to hold up his end of the Triple Threat.
Bayley vs. Sonya Deville: A nice match before they got to the post match angle involving Sasha Banks. It was hard not to view Banks as the heel this week. Babyfaces don’t grab their friends by the face and demand to have a hand raised for making a save. Of course, this could be one of those illogical swerves and a moment they will want us to forget if Bayley ends up turning while Sasha remains a babyface.
Nia Jax sit-down interview: A minor Hit. Jax needed to be featured in this setting and she did a good job of establishing that she was hurt by Alexa Bliss and is now out for revenge. The missing element was Jax making a strong connection with the fans. Sure, many fans can relate to being picked on the way Jax was and they have embraced her to a point, but the promo never incorporated the fans by having Jax play to them directly. Jax spoke about herself, but she still came off as a loner rather than a babyface who wants the fans on her side.
WWE Raw Misses
No Undertaker: Before we get to the negatives, Cena did a fantastic job of working up the live crowd and was top notch in this segment. Here comes the hate. WWE has dedicated weeks of television to teasing live crowds and television viewers that each week might be the week that Undertaker would show up. It felt like they pushed it as far as they could last week and even then it felt questionable to wait until the go-home show to announce the long awaited Undertaker vs. John Cena match at WrestleMania. I wasn’t sure if we would actually see Undertaker last night, but I certainly assumed there would be some indication that the match was on. Instead, Undertaker didn’t show up and there was a dark cloud of disappointment that hung over the remainder of the show.
It’s probably safe to assume most viewers still believe Undertaker will show up and do something on Sunday, but the idea of going with this longtime dream WrestleMania match without actually advertising it in advance is insane. Of course, this could be a sign that they won’t actually have a match and this will end up being more of a brawl than an official match. Even so, the damage is done in that they disappointed fans more and more each week at a time when they should have been amping up the excitement level of fans heading into their biggest event of the year.
The WrestleMania brand certainly sells WrestleMania to many fans. And some fans are attempting to justify all of this by stating that it will lead to Undertaker getting a great reaction at WrestleMania. First, Taker always gets a great reaction, particularly at WrestleMania. Second, these fans are thinking as people who have already made the decision to watch the show. You have to wonder how many casual fans were on the fence and are passing on WrestleMania due to the uncertainty regarding Undertaker. For that matter, you have to wonder how many more network subscriptions or pay-per-views the company could have sold if the company had advertised the actual match well in advance. Yes, the WWE Network approach gives the fans a built-in audience that didn’t exist in the pay-per-view days, but they obviously want as many subscribers as they can get.
This angle didn’t leave viewers with hope that Taker would appear on Sunday. It was not a cliffhanger angle with the idea being that you had to see WrestleMania in order because there’s a strong chance he will show up. Rather, it was framed as Cena and the broadcast team giving up all hope. This is a tremendous WrestleMania card with or without Cena vs. Undertaker. It’s just a shame that they managed to shift the focus away from the many positives of the card to something that left so many fans feeling let down. Many fans will simply forgive and forget if Taker shows up on Sunday or there’s some indication even tonight on Smackdown that he will appear. Even so, there’s no denying that these segments left a number of viewers feeling disappointed and created a lot of negative feelings at a time when fans should be at their peak of excitement for WrestleMania.
Brains Strowman: A minor Miss. Most of the past comedy involving Strowman has worked for me because it didn’t feel like his character was intentionally seeking laughs as much as he just ended up in comedic situations. That wasn’t the case this time around when he put on a shirt and glasses while claiming to be Brains Strowman. The reason it’s only a minor Miss is that I like the idea of making the reveal of Strowman’s tag team partner a WrestleMania Sunday surprise.
Asuka and Dana Brooke vs. Alexa Bliss and Mickie James: A longer than necessary tag match with the fans having no reason to care as the heels worked over the ice cold Brooke character. The post match angle was solid with Bliss escaping Jax while James took the beating.
Matt Hardy vs. Goldust: A throwaway match with Hardy getting a win and then marveling at the Andre the Giant trophy. It doesn’t seem like the company had anything planned for Hardy following his Ultimate Deletion win over Bray Wyatt. Perhaps we’ll find out otherwise soon, but at this point he feels directionless. Michael Cole stating that Goldust had been “deleted” after Hardy pinning him left me feeling like they are softening the word to mean “defeated” so that it won’t seem as awkward when Bray Wyatt returns to television and it’s business as usual for him.
Elias vs. Heath Slater: The third hour of the show was once again atrocious. The Undertaker letdown segment was preceded by Hardy and Goldust, and followed by this match and the long women’s tag match. The matches would be viewed as filler on a typical show, but they were especially frustrating on the go-home show for WrestleMania.
Check out the very first edition of the “Pro Wrestling Boom Podcast with Jason Powell” below. My first guest on the free, weekly series is former WWE creative team member and current NWA content producer Dave Lagana. If you enjoy the show, please give us five stars in iTunes and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
The new edition of the Pro Wrestling Boom Podcast with Jason Powell and guest Brian Pillman Jr., who discusses his training, following his father's footsteps, his own career aspirations, being part of the Hart Foundation faction, his big match at the MLW Saturday Night SuperFight pay-per-view, working with Jushin Liger, touring the WWE Performance Center, and much more...