By Jason Powell, Prowrestling.net Editor (@prowrestlingnet)
WWE Raw Hits
Bobby Lashley returns to WWE: A great signing for WWE. Lashley never lived up to the hype during his first WWE run and he had a forgettable first run with TNA/Impact Wrestling. However, something really clicked during his most recent Impact Wrestling run. The same guy who spent years looking like a deer in the headlights whenever he was asked to look into the camera suddenly developed confidence and delivered some top notch heel promos. He was a huge part of Impact’s 2016, which I consider the most entertaining year in the company’s history. I hope WWE has been paying attention because Lashley doesn’t need a mouthpiece, and he was far more effective as a heel than he was as a babyface in Impact. I don’t make too much of Lashley destroying Elias on Raw as far as the direction of his character is concerned. They knew he would be cheered on night one and it’s possible that they simply decided to play into that. For that matter, it could also be the Raw creative team’s way of writing off Elias prior to a move to Smackdown in the Superstar Shakeup. I’ll never understand why they make talent look weak before they move to the other brand when both are under the WWE umbrella, but they have taken that approach before. It’s one thing to wrap up a feud before a wrestler switches brands, but it’s pointless to make a departing talent with no program look soft.
Ronda Rousey and Stephanie McMahon: WWE did a WrestleMania repeat of Rousey wrenching Stephanie’s arm on Raw. Rousey was super over with the WrestleMania crowd on Sunday and again on Monday. All signs point to Stephanie being a long term rival for Rousey and it will be interesting to see if they cast one of the female talents as her chosen one to counter Rousey.
Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn for a spot on the Raw roster: The backstage angle that led to the match was great. Kurt Angle making reference to TNA was comical and got a great reaction from the crowd. I can’t help but wonder if WWE suddenly feels better about saying those letters now that the company has been rebranded as Impact Wrestling. Owens going into self preservation mode was true to his character and his ongoing dynamic with Zayn. I also can’t remember seeing a match that resulted in both men being counted down in the ring. I’m sure it’s happened during my nearly 40-year run as a pro wrestling viewer, but it’s an infrequent match finish that worked nicely for this story.
Paige retirement speech: A classy speech confirming that WWE will no longer clear her to wrestle. It’s a shame that her in-ring career appears to be over at age 25. I reached out to WWE to confirm whether she is leaving the company and have not heard anything back as of this update. It sure sounded like this was her swan song. She kept her composure as much as anyone could in that situation and the crowd treated the moment with the respect it deserved.
Samoa Joe: A strong promo on Roman Reigns that was so good that I’m not sure if even Paul Heyman could have said it better.
The Authors of Pain vs. Heath Slater and Rhyno: Undercard wrestlers have the worst luck. The only time they seem to make cocky challenges is when a new or returning act or a monster is there to hand them their asses. What an amazing coincidence, right? The AOP act in NXT was great. They were very green initially, but they clearly benefitted from working with some great teams. Initially, the other teams got all the credit for the quality of their matches, but AOP improved and just continued to deliver with a wide variety of opponents. Both have the potential to be real players in the company and hopefully they will be cast as the dominant team on Raw just as they were in NXT. There are some acts that really click in NXT that you just know won’t get the same creative love from Vince McMahon on the main roster (see The Revival, sigh). It’s hard to imagine the AOP having that problem as they seem right up Vince’s alley. The decision to write off Paul Ellering is likely due to him not wanting to work a full-time schedule. If he wants to continue working, he could be a good fit with the incoming War Machine tag team in NXT.
Braun Strowman and Nicholas: Strowman’s line about Nicholas having a scheduling conflict otherwise known as the fourth grade was laugh out loud funny. This quirky 24-hour story wasn’t for everyone, but I got a big kick out of it. I’ll bet young Nicholas has never looked forward to going to school more than he does now due to his newfound celebrity status. Good for him.
Ember Moon and Nia Jax vs. Alexa Bliss and Mickie James: A hot debut for Moon with the crowd popping huge for her being the first of the NXT call-ups to debut on this episode. On the flip side, the fact that Bliss was pinned rather than protected when they had James in the match left me wondering if Alexa is Smackdown bound.
Jeff Hardy, Seth Rollins, and Finn Balor vs. The Miz, Bo Dallas, and Curtis Axel: A bit of a letdown main event if only because the rest of the show was so damn hot. It gets a minor Hit because they ended a great show with the feel good moment of the babyfaces beating Miz and then destroying Axel and Dallas with repeated finishing moves. My guess is that this was also creative’s way of writing off Miz and his minions prior to the Shakeup. On a side note, the message of inclusion is great and I hope WWE finds other ways to incorporate it, but here’s hoping that this was a WrestleMania weekend thing for Balor and that he’s not going to be a walking PR campaign going forward.
Matt Hardy and Bray Wyatt vs. Titus O’Neil and Apollo: A minor Hit for the new Hardy and Wyatt duo and their comical exchange with Jeff Hardy backstage. It looks like Jeff will be flying solo rather than joining his brother in the Woken Universe. Jeff Hardy doesn’t look his age, but that 40 year-old body has a lot of milage on it from all those crazy bumps over the years. I like the idea of giving him a singles push because the guy still has that rock star appeal. I just hope his body can hold up.
Overall show: WWE finally figured out how to tame the beast that is the Raw After WrestleMania crowd. It’s actually very simple, you give them a strong show filled with moments that keep them engaged. There was absolutely no need for that lame statement from the Raw broadcast team at the top of the show. The viewers know what the Raw After WrestleMania crowd is all about. The line about how those fans “sometimes cheer who they normally boo and boo who they normally cheer” was absurd. No, those fans cheer the acts regardless of whether they are babyfaces or heels, and they are not afraid to let WWE know when they don’t like what they are being presented with. The line came off as if these same fans were watching at home then they would cheer for the wrestlers they were booing and boo the wrestlers they were cheering, which is completely ridiculous. And on this night, they cheered everyone that WWE wanted them to cheer with one exception…Roman Reigns.
WWE Raw Misses
Roman Reigns promo: The good news is that Reigns was able to deliver his promo without the Raw After WrestleMania crowd cutting him off. They booed the hell out of him, but it could have been worse. The bad news is that I have no idea what his new conspiracy theorist act is all about. No one told him that Brock Lesnar re-signed? So? No one told him that he’s getting another title shot against Lesnar in a cage match at the Greatest Royal Rumble event? Poor baby. Really, they want viewers to feel sympathy for a guy who was rewarded with an unjustified high profile title rematch less than 24 hours after he had his ass handed to him by the champion? My WrestleMania 34 Hit List suspicions appear to be well founded. Vince McMahon didn’t throw in the towel on Reigns by having Lesnar beat him, he is simply holding off a few weeks with the idea of booking the title change to occur in front of a more Reigns friendly crowd. This won’t address any of the ongoing issues of Reigns best miscast as the top babyface when he could be an amazing top heel, but Vince is a 72 year-old billionaire who stubbornly won’t give up on his failed concepts (see the XFL).
No Way Jose vs. John Skyler: It seems like I have been higher than most when it comes to Jose as energetic mid-card act. And while I’m still high on him in that role, I hope the retread Rosebud gimmick was a one-off moment. There’s nothing cool about a babyface having a group of dorky conga dancers who come to the ring with him and and hang out at ringside during his matches. Maybe it’s the old school fan in me, but I want to believe that a wrestler’s highest priority is winning matches to put himself in line for title shots. It’s one thing to have a cool entrance, but when a wrestler has an entourage of dancing goofballs it sends the message that the wrestler is more concerned with being an entertainer than a wrestler, which creates a real disconnect for me. Jose has enough charisma that he doesn’t need whatever it is that WWE feels the dancing dorks provide.
Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson vs. The Revival: A flat match between two creatively damaged teams. Gallows and Anderson have been abused to the point that I have no hope for them unless they get a heel run with Finn Balor. Meanwhile, I’m still hopeful that The Revival will be moved to Smackdown since there don’t seem to be any plans for them on Raw.