Previously on the Best and Worst of Raw: Steve Austin The Cable Guy showed up to an empty gym to do a Blue Collar Comedy Tour routine about 3:16 Day. Edge also made an appearance, and The Undertaker showed that he doesn’t need fans around to teleport around using a Darkness Gong.
One more thing: Hit those share buttons! Spread the word about the column on Facebook, Twitter and whatever else you use. Be sure to leave us a comment in our comment section below as well. I know we always ask this, and that this part is copy and pasted in every week, but we appreciate it every week. It’s almost time for a WrestleMania that will reportedly be, and I want to make sure I’m quoting accurately here, “too big for just one night.”
And now, the Best and Worst of WWE Raw for March 23 2020.
Best: Fixing A Few Problems With The Empty Arena Concept
From this week’s AEW Dynamite recap:
The setup for the show made some major improvements on WWE’s model. Firstly, they blacked out the stands so you didn’t have to constantly notice how empty all the chairs are. Secondly, they made the smart decision of positioning the hard cam opposite the video screen and spending most of the matches filming in that direction, keeping the admittedly very disheartening empty arena as a thing you mostly only see in the background in passing. Corner shots and low angles and such. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, they had other wrestlers from the company sitting in the crowd, loosely divided up in heel and face groups, to react to the matches and give the show some energy and life. Even a few people cheering is better than dead fucking silence and pretending fans are in the stands when they aren’t. Putting characters who aren’t wrestling on the show in the crowd also sets up a lot of chances for character moments like MJF betting on the matches with Shawn Spears, or Jake Roberts and Lance Archer maintaining their shadowy watch from last week, and so on.
I think what I was trying to say in that opening section is that it feels like AEW looked at the concept of an empty building and said, “okay, how do we make this work,” instead of just doing what they always do and pretending it still works.
This week, Raw (1) blacks out the stands so you don’t have to constantly notice how empty all the chairs are, (2) positions the hard cam opposite the video screen and spends most of the matches filming in that direction, and (3) has the Street Profits sitting in on commentary to loudly react to the only full-length match on the show.
Let me be frank: none of this is a new idea. Ring of Honor and Impact have been pointing their hard cam at the stage for years, and even WWE themselves used to have a similar setup at Madison Square Garden before they homogenized everything. I won’t even write a gag about WWE, the billion-dollar Worldwide Leader In Sports Entertainment®, doing two two-hour Smackdowns and an entire three-hour Raw and only “independently” coming up with the “obvious” better way to film empty arena shows a few days after Dynamite improved upon what they were doing. I don’t care who came up with what when, or why. I’m just happy the quarantine shows aren’t quite as lonely and depressing anymore.
Don’t be afraid to change and adapt, WWE. You’ve got more talent, production know-how, fans, and resources to do so than anyone.
Best: From The Archives
WWE’s been using matches from their archive to fill time on the Performance Center shows, because it’s hard to fill two and especially three hours with a skeleton crew. Smackdown’s shown the Smackdown Tag Team Championship Elimination Chamber from Elimination Chamber 2020 and Bray Wyatt versus John Cena from WrestleMania 30 in full, and last week’s Raw aired the entire men’s Royal Rumble match from this year. This week’s Raw improves upon that concept by airing two of the best WWE matches from the past five years that also happen to be topical: Brock Lesnar versus John Cena versus Seth Rollins from the 2015 Royal Rumble, and Charlotte Flair versus Asuka from WrestleMania 34.
That Rumble triple threat still rips. It’s legitimately in the conversation as one of the 50 or so best matches WWE’s ever done, and easily their best triple threat match ever for me. Cena’s at the peak of his “everyone pay attention, I’m actually great at this” run, Rollins is still hungry and desperate to prove himself as a singles star roughly six months after breaking up The Shield, and Lesnar is just inhuman here. The German Brock gives Seth to stop the pin at the end is maybe my favorite German ever thrown in a wrestling match. Flair versus Asuka lived up to the hype it’d built up for itself with Asuka’s 900+ day winning streak going up against Charlotte’s freight train of dynastic entitlement, and managed to be the best match on a card that had Daniel Bryan’s return from retirement, Ronda Rousey’s shockingly great debut, and really good Intercontinental Championship triple threat.
I think airing a classic match like this every week would be a good idea even when we aren’t in global quarantine. It’d be a fun way to promote the history of the brand and sell the Network, but it’d also be a way to fill an hour of Raw so you could keep your advertising dollars but still book Raw like a cohesive and watchable two-hour show. I don’t know. Maybe it’d get old, and maybe I’m in the minority, but I’d much rather re-watch a great match I’ve already seen than get 52 weeks of “new” matches that get cobbled together and rushed through at the last minute because they need 60 unnecessary extra minutes of anti-vaping and Frank Thomas dick pill commercials.
Brock Lesnar Makes $100,000 To Briefly Visit The Performance Center
Speaking of the same thing every week, here’s Paul Heyman doing the normal Brock Lesnar Is Great promo, only in front of no one and with nobody singing along. Watching Paul get through his “my name is” and “reigning, defending” bits without people chanting the phrases is almost jarringly weird at this point. Like, imagine Road Dogg doing his “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages” spiel into a microphone with nobody around. It’s fine, and even understandable given the circumstances, but also akin to watching a dog wear clothes and walk around on its hind legs. Congratulations to Brock for making considerably more money than I make in a year to stand in an empty gym for a few minutes and do nothing, I suppose.
Best/Worst: AJ Styles Versus Tiger King
So, AJ Styles is currently doing that suspicious WWE thing where they have a villain say a bunch of true, non-canon shit about the product you or I might say to our friends and type on the Internet, and then pretend like they made it up as part of a story and that only bad people would think it. They take real-life criticisms about WWE and turn them into passive-aggressive, often hateful fiction. See also: The New Daniel Bryan, or pretty much anything heel Sami Zayn says ever.
Here, Styles’ ongoing point is that The Undertaker stopped being “The Undertaker” a long time ago and is now just weird-ass old Mark Calaway, an increasingly sad shell of his former self who has completely abandoned the kayfabe of being a supernatural zombie wizard or whatever in favor of taking Instagram selfies and hanging out with his wife at the pool. Noticing this is bad, I guess? But that shit’s true, man. Undertaker’s been consistently shitting the coffin since his streak and motivation to perform well unexpectedly died at WrestleMania 30, and now he’s just kind of a sad nostalgia act the prince of Saudi Arabia hands a sack of gold coins with a dollar sign on the front every six months to fly to the Middle East to accidentally hurt people and almost die.
And hey, maybe they’re not doing what I feel like they’re doing. Maybe they’re just trying to make their heel character have some believable motivation, and compel The Undertaker to prove him wrong by kicking his ass at WrestleMania. I don’t think the best way to rebuild the mystique of the Undertaker is to say his real name a bunch and show social media videos of him looking like Hank Hill got molested by a dolphin, but we’re working with what we’ve got.
Anyway, Styles ends up challenging Undertaker to a BONEYARD MATCH, which the announce team doesn’t understand and Styles doesn’t explain beyond it sounding vaguely like a Buried Alive match. Presumably they’re going to do WCW’s Graveyard Match from 20 years ago on a closed set and treat it like a genius idea they just had because they write their own history and make movies. Don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather see this than the Undertaker trying to have another real one-on-one match, and I am beyond hyped to get pissed about another House of Horrors match. I want cameos from Kane and Mordecai and a somebody dressed as Paul Bearer, and Gallows and Anderson getting possessed by evil spirits so Undertaker can back a ghost tractor over Styles’ body to win the match. Make this and Cena vs. Wyatt the dumbest, most Lucha Underground shit imaginable. Why not? This is your best-ever chance to make wrestling the “action-adventure series” you always wished wrestling was, Vince.
What I’m saying is that WWE should make WrestleMania 36 the Night That The Skeletons Came To Life.
Best: Keep Rollins Rollins Rollins Rollins
Here’s something I never expected to type: Seth Rollins showed up and completely dunked on Kevin Owens with the best promo of the night.
Not everyone will agree with me on this, but I think it’s a fascinating place to take their rivalry. The rise of NXT in popularity has a lot to do with people like Sami Zayn, PAC, Cesaro, Finn Bálor, and a handful of former SHIMMER stars validating the worth of the independent scene and non-WWE promotions to WWE. Remember, WWE is the company who once put Low Ki and American Dragon Bryan Danielson on pro wrestling game shows so they could be embarrassed and run down by Matt Striker by way of Michael Cole by way of Vince McMahon every week. WWE’s stance used to be that you should forget everything you learned before you got there, because none if it matters, and none of it’s worth a shit, and nobody will ever pay to see it. Bryan Danielson was too small and too pale and couldn’t cut a promo and didn’t have a personality. Samoa Joe would never work in WWE. Kevin Steen’s a fat guy who can’t follow orders. You can believe the revisionist history now, but WWE’s refusal to accept anything but their own tunnel vision of professional wrestling broke the spirit and wasted the primes of a generation of performers.
While NXT was doing “Redemption” and leaving a bunch of talented but confused developmental kids to fend for themselves, Dusty Rhodes and William Regal and Triple H and others were creating a hybrid of WWE sports-entertainment and independent pro wrestling in FCW. That group was led by people like Jon Moxley, Tyler Black, “Leakee,” and others. That became Full Sail, non-game show NXT, and WWE developmental became this weird mash-up of styles and ideas. Folks like Tyler Black, now Seth Rollins, were the faces of that. I’d argue that no real change started to gain traction until Sami Zayn and Cesaro showed that the new style could work for a WWE audience, but the first Full Sail generation and its creatives and advocates convinced the decision makers to embrace it. The group that had to have independent wrestling beaten out of them and have their names changed to dumb shit like “Kassius Ohno” gave way to a group of independent stars who got to be themselves with minor branding changes. Kevin Steen became “Kevin Owens,” for example, but he was mostly just Kevin Steen. Prince Devitt was Finn Bálor, KENTA was Hideo Itami, KANA was Asuka, and so on. The success of THAT generation gave way to the next era of independent stars who got to show up as fully formed characters with their histories, reputations, names, gear, and movesets intact. Samoa Joe was the first major one, but it’s how we got Adam Cole and Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa and Matt Riddle and on and on.
That’s a really sparse outline of what actually happened and why, but it’s able to be charted and documented well enough that someone like Rollins can legitimately claim to have had a hand in changing WWE for the better, and creating a new kind of environment that would not only ACCEPT people like Kevin Owens, but embrace them. Without FCW rising above its station, there’d be no Performance Center. Without FCW and the Performance Center, NXT probably wouldn’t have been able to become what it became, and without NXT being NXT, everything would be different. Some of what he’s saying is exaggerated — talented performers would still find way to break though like always (see also: The Old Daniel Bryan or AJ Styles) and I think people wanting women’s wrestling to be treated with respect and created with the intent to be worth a shit would’ve come along with or without AJ Lee and Paige and Emma and Bayley and Sasha Banks to help it along — but it’s true enough to give a brilliant, clever talker like Kevin Owens pause. What’s he gonna do, say Seth’s wrong?
And all of that’s not even addressing how Rollins ends the promo: by citing observable WrestleMania history. Rollins has “become a God” at WrestleMania to defeat everyone from the New Age Outlaws and Kane to Finn and Miz to Brock Lesnar and Triple H. Aside from a win over Chris Jericho in a match Vince McMahon hated for some reason, Owens’ WrestleMania history is losing to Zack Ryder and Shane McMahon. He wasn’t even on last year’s card.
I could take or leave Rollins’ delivery sometimes, but from structural and informational standpoints, this, at least for me, is one of the best mic drop promos in years. Why are you booing him? He’s right.
Best: Snakes One To Know One
Randy Orton ends the show with a similar promo, accepting Edge’s Last Man Standing challenge for Gym WrestleMania and refuting Edge’s claims that he’s had everything “handed to him” by citing historical evidence to the contrary. People with famous last names get opportunities not afforded to others, sure, but there’s a laundry list of famous last names who got into wrestling and left it without half of the honors and accomplishments Orton’s earned. Not like David Sammartino, David Flair, Shawn Stasiak, Wes Brisco, or even Cody and Dustin Rhodes ended up 13-time World Champions in WWE, and they’ve got way more famous last names than “Orton.” You could argue that things were “handed to” Orton for a variety of complicated real-life attitudes and reasons, sure, but from a kayfabe perspective you can count on maybe one hand the amount of people who’ve done better at this job than Randall Keith. Pro wrestling is 100 times better when you remember what’s happened before right now and think about it constructively. Using your brain is a feature of entertainment, not a bug.
Note: I imagine Edge could gain the upper hand with, “I’ve done all the same things as you AND I’ve had more than like a dozen watchable matches total in our 20 years of working here and I never made people sit through Houses of Horror, Punjabi Prisons, or WrestleMania main events built around long chinlocks and slow stomping,” but that’s beside the point.
Secondary note: WWE should stop doing promos in front of live audiences. They trained their fans to do dumb shit like “what” chants during promos, and this episode shows how good WWE mic work can still be when it’s not made to swim against the tide. You need fans. You especially need fans to react to matches and make the product feel alive and kinetic. You do not need 11,000 Iowans chanting “what” because they’ve never heard someone use complete sentences or speak in a foreign language before.
Worst: Lowered Bexpectations
The Raw Women’s Championship built didn’t get 1% the effort of Rollins or Orton’s segments. Shayna Baszler gets interviewed by Charly Caruso in a suspiciously darkened ring and puffs up her chest about how tough and scary she is, and then Becky Lynch sneaks up in the shadows and hits her in the back with a chair. Nothing says WWE babyface like literally crawling through the darkness to attack your opponent from behind with a weapon and then run away. Becky Lynch is great, but “Becky Lynch” needs to get choked out. Stone Cold Steve Austin without a Vince McMahon to rage against is just a belligerent asshole heel.
Live Matches Happened On This Show, We Swear
The only thing I’d call a “real” match on this week’s Raw is Andrade and Angel Garza getting 20 awesome empty arena minutes with Ricochet and Cedric Alexander while the Street Profits sit in on commentary. In case you didn’t hear, The Street Profits are suddenly defending the Raw Tag Team Championship against Andrade and Garza at WrestleMania, and Aleister Black’s got a one-on-one WrestleMania match with Bobby Lashley despite them never meeting or interacting. These matches are like when you watch an old pay-per-view and there’s a Dino Bravo vs. Outlaw Ron Bass match on there and nobody knows why, not even them.
Anyway, the match is really good, as you’d expect, and helped a lot by Montez Ford and Angelo Dawkins doing the work of like 3,000 wrestling fans. The sad thing is that nobody’s going to remember how good the match was or how sweet this sequence setting up Andrade’s Judas Effect was, because Cedric Alexander doesn’t pay attention to the referee’s count and gets shoot pinned when the referee doesn’t count three, then does. Here, in case you missed it:
Referee non-counts are the most brutal way to kill a good match, and I appreciate that the ref realized what he’d done and was just like, “nope, sorry, that was actually three, kick out next time.” If the wrestlers don’t kick out or get back in the ring to beat the 10 count or put enough effort into cheating that the referee isn’t directly looking at them when it happens, that’s gotta be the end. If you don’t maintain the integrity of the referees, the whole thing falls apart. Also, pour one out for six more months of Cedric Alexander being treated like garbage for messing up the finish of the one important match on an entire quarantine Raw.
After the match, the Street Profits hit the ring to brawl with Andrade and Garza to either build some heat for their inexplicable “Rey Mysterio’s staying at home” WrestleMania match, or to kill whatever time was left before Cedric botched that finish. They end up sticking around to wrestle their own match against [checks notes] Shane Thorne and Brendan Vink. I mean, all right. Referring to Brendan Vink as being “from NXT” is a bit of an overstatement, as you’ve probably never seen him unless you’ve been to a live event in central Florida. I saw him tag with Thorne against the BrusierWeights in Cleveland a few weeks ago, but otherwise, [shrug]. I guess Raw and WrestleMania are both becoming the Showcase Of The Immortals Who Aren’t Sick And Live Near Orlando. (h/t to @Jello224 for setting me up to paraphrase that one).
The only other match we get from the Performance Center this week is Aleister Black doing an anime villain introduction against EVOLVE’s Leon Ruff, who you may remember from such films as losing to the Forgotten Sons back in December.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say this wasn’t supposed to happen, and only went on to fill that extra tag match time. Why, you might ask? Because it’s the same match they just did at the Performance Center for Main Event. I don’t mean they did Aleister Black vs. Leon Ruff already, I mean they did the exact same entire match. Same threatening sit, same strike exchange, same everything.
Here’s a clipped version of the Main Event match, which I’m going to assume you haven’t seen.
That’s a new level of WWE doing the “same thing” every week. Congratulations to Leon Ruff using a Main Event match to main event Raw, though.
Best: Top 10 Comments Of The Week
Man…I sure wish I had a service I paid for where I can watch these old PPV matches without any commercials.
Petition to have Andrade and Angel Garza’s tag team name be “Too Hot for One Night.”
There’s so much random yelling during this tag match it should take place on Twitter
They should have 2020 Asuka commenting on this match.
Tom Philips: “Hey, six feet, Byron!”
Byron Saxton: “Oh right, because of the virus.”
Tom Philips: “… yeah, that’s why.”
Pretty savvy of Asuka to use a counter that relied upon Charlotte missing with the moonsault.
usually good guys aren’t written to stoop to the same actions that their foes would take
i guess WWE is just breaking the moldhahahaha
Since it’s an empty arena, taped match, Undertaker is just going to let that tiger loose on the Club, isn’t he?
Does Orton own street clothes? If you go in his closet is it all leather trunks, knee pads and sleeveless hoodies?
Give us SHIELD vs. Wyatt Family you cowards.
That’s it for this week’s attempt at a Best and Worst of Raw. Comments and social media shares are deeply appreciated, and any other kind of love you’d like to show is going to mean more than ever in the current climate. Especially if we don’t have anything to write about for a couple of months. Not that I don’t enjoy writing about Nitro for like 1/3 the traffic.
Join us next week as the Cul-de-sac To WrestleMania continues. Maybe AJ Styles and Undertaker will tiger fight in a Boneyard Grill.