By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
Raw is the worst pro wrestling show on television.
This isn’t news. This isn’t even debatable. Ring of Honor. Impact Wrestling. AEW. NJPW. I don’t know. A YouTube video of dudes wrestling in a backyard without shirts for 20 minutes is better than whatever the hell it is WWE continues to put out most Monday nights.
It’s sad, too, because there’s a certain breed of wrestling fan that will forever hold reverence in his or her heart for that first day of the work week. There were times when two shows running on Monday nights pulled a combined rating that would make any promoter salivate these days. Outside of pay-per-views, Mondays were easily the most decorated day of the week for wrestling, and it was like that for decades.
These days? You’re lucky if you watch the opening segment and they give you something intriguing enough to keep you around for the next three hours. Matches are barely advertised ahead of time, and in moments of desperation, the show continues to just give away what could be marquee matches (if you had “Drew McIntyre vs. Randy Orton will main event a Raw, but you won’t know about it until the second hour of the show on which it will appear,” on your WWE bingo card, congrats. You win a free ticket to Fastlane).
Yet for all its well-documented failures in the last few years, one thing became so glaringly obvious on Friday that it warrants further examination. That thing?
A REVEALING REVEAL
Characters. It seems like low-hanging fruit to pick on Raw and that’s because it is. But even if you’re a WWE apologist, or, let’s say, you happen to work for or run the company, you’d have to have moon-sized blinders on to somehow miss the fact that when the rubber hit the road, your two Royal Rumble winners picked two champions to face at WrestleMania, and neither one of those champions appear on Monday nights each week.
Furthermore, the decisions made by Bianca Belair and Edge have felt like such foregone conclusions since they won the Rumble matches that having either one of them face Asuka or Drew McIntyre (sorry, The Miz isn’t going to Mania with that belt) wasn’t even on anyone’s radar. And that’s not to knock either Asuka or McIntyre, two of the best in the company. Instead, it’s to spotlight how neglected that roster of talent has been for months if not years.
At the end of the day, it had to be Sasha vs. Bianca and Roman vs. Edge. There’s nothing better the company could put together to sell seats or Peacock subscriptions because the company has forced our hand when it comes to trust on Monday nights. As in, well, you know: we don’t have any left. The show is in such a hole that, short of a Brock Lesnar or Dwayne Johnson return, I don’t see how they can dig out of it.
Such was never more apparent than it was on Friday night, when Bianca and Sasha stood in the ring and pointed at that dumb sign — and this came in the midst of a series of interviews and segments dedicated to Edge insisting he’s going to face either Daniel Bryan or Roman Reigns at WrestleMania. And … wait. Maybe I missed something. Does Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns wrestle on Raw?
Oh, right. They don’t.
So that makes a total of five wrestlers wrapped up in high-stakes championship storylines on one brand while the other … well, the other has Miz TV. And Bad Bunny. I guess.
Now, it’d be both easy and logical to point the finger at booking. And to a degree, that’s right. As I wrote last week, the antiquated formula for a wrestling company is to allow one to three (often) white men sit around in suits and play God with people’s livelihoods for their own entertainment. Booking is of course a factor in this. But beyond that …
I wonder how much blame should be given to character. And that can be addressed a couple ways, but we’ll start here first: If you listen to all the podcasts from all the legendary old-time guys — or hell, even if you just read any of their books — you’ll sometimes hear that there’s only so much booking can do for a wrestler. It’s the whole lead a horse to water thing. “We can give you opportunities,” they say, “but at the end of the day, it’s up to you to get over with the fans.”
If that’s true, then I guess Raw isn’t just the worst show, but it’s also the unluckiest because from top to bottom it’s filled with people about whom nobody cares. Which is odd, because when you look at the list on paper, the roster is packed with wrestlers who have a solid history connecting with its audience. McIntyre is a hell of an asset to any wrestling company, and I still think it’s one of the crudest, most unfair realities of wrestling in the COVID-19 era that he has still yet to get to win a significant match in front of a live crowd.
Asuka, meanwhile, was the most popular thing in NXT while she was there, and even when she made it up to the main roster, she made her streak must-see TV. The Miz is as polarizing as it gets in mainstream wrestling, but there was a time when he was the best promo in the business and I’d be willing to bet that there’s going to be a time when we miss him. Randy Orton is a marquee name that has always seemed to find itself in a main event for the last 20 years or so. The Fiend started out hot (pun intended). Charlotte is a Flair. The New Day had its own cereal line, for God’s sake.
So, it’s not like these people are incapable. And it’s not like they don’t have proven track records. You can probably examine each one and find a time or period when these wrestlers were at the tip-top, carrying the women’s division or the men’s division or the tag division in their own ways, subsequently becoming the hottest acts WWE has for a minute or six. So, what’s the problem?
Ambiguity. Charlotte might be the best in the world but you’d be hard pressed to find a significant variation from her character in NXT to today. Her gimmick is “Ric Flair’s Daughter.” Royalty. Queen. Whatever. Asuka was a badass and Alexa Bliss was a brat. Now one just yells a lot while the other sits in a swing-set in a wrestling ring. McIntyre’s great, but at this point, he’s doing little more than embodying the white-meat babyface role that was great in the 1980s, brother. I don’t even know what Orton’s deal is anymore, because if he’s not lighting someone on fire, he’s cutting 18-minute promos and flipping out at the sight of Bliss.
There’s no depth. At some point, the minds that run Raw lost the plot and it’s clear they don’t know how to get it back. Nobody is an established anything. For the life of me, I still can’t properly digest the Bliss/Fiend thing, and I even had high hopes for it. Throw the dumpster fire that is Retribution in there, too. When they first appeared, cutting up ring ropes, I was willing to give them a chance as some outlaw faction that would make things interesting. Now, they’re just a joke.
The only long-term storytelling that the show has pulled off with any amount of success is the build of Bobby Lashley. That’s obvious. At some point, someone had the idea to truly give him an honest go at being a monster, and he’s made the most of it. In fact, his build is the only thing intriguing about the potential and supposed McIntyre vs. Lashley showdown at WrestleMania. Does it feel random? Kind of. But is it working? Well, it’s working better than anything else they got.
Still, even though he’s done a good job of being a monster, and the powers that be have done a good job making sure he is seen as a monster, he continues to be just that. A monster. With no real tangible motive and no real ability to speak for himself. Nothing against MVP, who’s had a welcome resurgence and has made the most of his latest chance in WWE, but it’d be nice if we knew a little bit more about this guy because for so long, he felt like an afterthought, a secondary champion who was only going to be a secondary champion. Then, out of nowhere, he got mad?
I guess so.
But that’s my point. There’s no forethought put into the details of what these wrestlers are expected to be on this show. Part of that’s booking, sure, but part of that is also the inability for any of the talent to expand on what they already have. It almost feels like nobody is trying. Even Miz, who has that gift of gab, doesn’t exude the fire he once did on the mic. Plus, there’s no showdown feel to anything that happens, match-wise. Think about it. You mean to tell me a six-month Shayna Baszler vs. Asuka program, if done well, couldn’t be the sleeper candidate for match of the night at a WrestleMania?
Of course, none of this would feel as bad as it does if only …
… Smackdown wasn’t doing such a good job at achieving what Raw can’t. And it’s not even that Smackdown’s great, but consider:
Apollo Crews just had the night of his life, and color me intrigued with this new Chad Gable/Otis pairing. But it’s impossible not to think that if any of those three were on Raw, they’d be randomly paired with Retribution for three-minute matches where everyone traded wins and losses. And don’t even get me started on the top of the card. Cesaro is finally getting some love, Roman Reigns’s act continues to shine and Daniel Bryan is still one of the best in the business. Oh, and don’t forget Seth Rollins is there, too (even if this pseudo-messiah gimmick isn’t clicking quite yet).
Smackdown’s success makes Raw’s failures all the more frustrating. There’s focus on the blue brand, there’s direction. Compelling stories exist each week, and even if that show has an off-night, it’s still leaps and bounds better than the blue brand’s red counterpart. It makes no sense that one company can be responsible for two programs that are so far apart in quality. I won’t claim Smackdown to be the best pro wrestling show on TV, but there’s no denying the discrepancy between the two series and it’s baffling.
Is it a Fox thing? Is it a writing team thing? Is it a Paul Heyman thing? How is it that Raw and Smackdown can be so far apart, when they run in the same building, under the same boss, and are all employees of the same company? It’s almost miraculous, when you think about it, that the Roman Reigns and Paul Heyman “Head Of The Table” story is still compelling all these months later. It’s simple. A guy declares his superiority over everyone else. People challenge that. People fail. He’ll sacrifice family members if he has to. He commands respect. He earns respect.
Now, can you imagine something like that on Raw? The closest thing you have right now is Lashley, but Lashley doesn’t talk. Plus, as Lashley was being built, he was beating people like Matt Riddle and Jeff Hardy, while Roman has been working with the likes of Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens and his own cousin Jey Uso — all three of whom have proven to be fantastic dance partners for the Universal Champ. Roman beats proven contenders. Lashley beats an assortment of Lucha House Party members.
Which, naturally, brings me around to the second way that character plays into this mess.
A CRIMINAL FAILURE
If Raw has character issues with its wrestlers — and make no mistake, it does — then it also has a character issue with itself. The show’s character, and not those who compete on it, has proven to be the bigger damning element of this entire equation. Name one positive defining aspect of Monday Night Raw these days. You can’t. That’s because when you go to define it in any way, positivity is typically the furthest thing from your mind.
I’m hard-pressed to find a single valuable character trait in Raw these days. It underutilizes great talent. It insults the intelligence of any viewer. It’s three hours, which most of us agree is far too long for a weekly professional wrestling television show. There is little to no continuity when it comes to anything that happens on it. Wrestlers change clothes in the middle of matches because I guess everything’s a cinematic match now because no fans are in the building. There’s way too much fire-breathing. And Retribution.
Still, come to think of it, perhaps the lack of character on Raw is somewhat of a metaphor for WWE as an entity. Nobody would accuse the company of being the best place in the world to work, from what I understand, and the issues that have matriculated their ways out through the years via stories from former employees, hungry journalists, or any other form of communication suggest that there are morally bankrupt moments that happen behind the scenes more often than anyone would like to admit.
And so maybe we shouldn’t expect much more than what we’re getting. The company is making more money than it ever has in its history, yet the product we’re getting is far from the best and maybe, in the modern day at least, it’s the worst it’s ever been. Hey. I’d take Tugboat over Tucker (where the hell has he been hiding anyway?). Plus, if you find a way to mess up a wrestling show and you have AJ Styles, Ricochet, and Drew McIntyre on it, you should be required to spend at least 90 days in jail.
Yet here we are. In 2021. Allowing those proposed inmates to run an asylum that shows no signs of returning to the prominence it once held. A failure in character? Yes. A criminal outcome? Indeed.