Last night I did something I hadn’t done in four months. I watched Monday Night Raw.
What a mistake.
For more than three hours, there was little to get excited about. Judging by much of the reaction of the audience who attended the show, I’m not alone.
So why did I give Raw another chance after all this time?
1) Hulk Hogan was going to be on.
2) I was curious how the build to WrestleMania 30 would begin.
3) Mick Foley said it was going to be the “Raw Of The Year”.
Hogan hasn’t worked for Vince McMahon Jr. in seven years. For much of that time, he was wasting his talents with the poor man’s WCW, TNA. Now he’s back to host WrestleMania 30, a nothing role for a legend.
But his real purpose in opening Raw was to shamelessly shill for the WWE Network, the long delayed on-demand video service that finally launched before the broadcast. Sadly, it wasn’t the only pitch we heard for it last night.
Look, I get it. This is a big commercial venture for the company. Its debut was delayed for two years and now that it’s available, they want everybody to know about it. Understandable. But when you spend the entire three-hour broadcast talking about it you’ve turned your already overlong, uninspired flagship wrestling show into an epic infomercial. The constant selling was smothering last night.
Furthermore, only Americans can order the service right now. Everybody else has to wait, including Canada. The WWE Network won’t be launched here until late 2014/early 2015. However, if it generates the kind of longterm buzz and positive attention the company hopes it will, the wait will be worth it for fans eager to pay to devour a considerable amount of videotaped history of professional wrestling at their leisure. (In the meantime, they can enjoy the vast number of DVDs and Blu-rays already available not to mention all those free tube videos all over the ‘net.)
In a way, it’s fitting that the WWE Network talk dominated the show. It perfectly symbolizes the current problem with the WWE: its hopeless addiction to its own nostalgia.
From a boa-wearing Hogan cupping his ear to the strains of Rick Derringer’s Real American to his famously liberal use of the word “brother” in his sales pitch to the New Age Outlaws doing their tired Degeneration-X schtick to the world title rivalry between former Evolution compadres Batista and Randy Orton to the returns of Ric Flair, Booker T and The Undertaker, the company continues to let its past overshadow its future.
You know I really shouldn’t include Taker in that list since his show-closing segment with Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman was the only one that held my interest from start to finish. The Beast Incarnate is the next man to attempt to break The Streak and the start to this story was strongly booked, teased a compelling drama and made perfect sense. How many other current storylines meet that criteria?
And nearly three decades later, I still enjoy seeing Hogan doing his 80s babyface routine. The ear cupping, the “brother” antics, the “whatcha gonna do” stuff, even the Derringer song (which was actually written for Barry Windham & Mike Rotundo). It all appeals to my inner 10-year-old.
But I’m 38 now and I stand by my point. The old is getting far more play on TV than the new.
I mean just look at the younger talents that didn’t appear on Raw last night: Cody Rhodes, Damien Sandow, Tyson Kidd, Titus O’Neill, Darren Young, AJ Lee, Kofi Kingston, Dolph Ziggler, Natalya, Brodus Clay. And don’t forget CM Punk who left the company in a frustrated, injured huff a few weeks ago.
True, we did get The Shield, The Wyatts, Cesaro, Big E, Emma, Sheamus and an Alexander Rusev vignette. But who got the biggest pops last night, aside from the unstoppable Daniel Bryan? Hogan and The Undertaker. That’s a big problem.
An even bigger problem is the renewed rivalry between recent Royal Rumble winner Batista and the WWE World Heavyweight Champion Randy Orton. Ever since The Animal returned last month as a good guy (he exited as a self-victimized villain in the summer of 2010), increasingly disgruntled audiences have showered him with so much hatred the WWE’s creative forces have had to make immediate changes to this angle in order to appease them, a tall order if ever there was one.
According to one online dirt sheet, Batista’s heel turn was originally planned for WrestleMania 30. But because he was reportedly booed so mercilessly at the Rumble and the Elimination Chamber, as evidenced by his out-of-breath promo last night, it’s been expedited to this week. (He’s scheduled to do another one on the next Smackdown which was hyped as being a “candid” moment with the audience.)
Channelling John Cena throughout the exchange with The Viper (after he distracted him to lose against Del Rio), it’s clear that this program is in serious trouble. The fans want Daniel Bryan in the main event challenging for the strap. They don’t want “Bootista” battling the defanged Orton, an old pairing from a decade ago.
And who can blame them? Batista did not look good in his Elimination Chamber rematch with Alberto Del Rio on Raw. He was sluggish and unpolished, a far cry from his original run with the WWE. As for Orton, while I was glad to see him become a villain again last summer, his most recent title push at the 2013 Hell In A Cell was one of the reasons I stopped watching Raw in the first place. As I’ve said before, he represents the past not the future.
As for the annoyingly downgraded Bryan, he’s taking CM Punk’s place at WrestleMania. It was The Straight Edge Superstar who was supposed to renew his very good feud with Triple H for the event, not the Yes Man. And while there is a history between the two that goes back to the aftermath of last year’s SummerSlam, will a regular one-on-one encounter with The Game really make up for all the horrible ways the WWE has treated Bryan during his meteoric rise in the eyes of the fans?
No, of course it won’t. It’s not a title match, it’s a delayed grudge match that probably should’ve happened at the end of 2013. But because of Punk’s sudden exit, it’s happening now. What possible bump could Bryan get out of it other than the kayfabe satisfaction of beating Vince McMahon’s son-in-law?
Which brings me to Mrs. Foley’s baby boy. On his Facebook page yesterday, he had high expectations for Raw. “…I really believe tonight’s episode of ‘RAW’ has a chance to be the episode of the year.”
To be fair, Foley has been very critical of the WWE lately, as he noted in that entry. (He was so upset that Bryan didn’t appear in the Rumble match he wanted to break his own TV.) But the optimist in him led him to believe that “the people in charge at WWE are just too smart to allow Wrestlemania – their biggest event of the year to take place with so much of [its] fanbase down on the product.”
He further remarked, “Timing in the wrestling business, as in much of life, is everything. If WWE has that magic bullet in its chamber they NEED to fire that shot that will be heard around the world TONIGHT! Waiting any longer would, in my opinion, greatly harm that essential timing, and make the process of getting the WWE Universe motivated for Mania far more difficult.”
They didn’t listen.
Instead of a hot show that thrusted The Bearded One into the Batista/Orton title match and set up some fantastic conflicts for WrestleMania 30, we got a forgettable broadcast with only a few, short-lived bright spots – the fans booing Batista and chanting for CM Punk, Bray Wyatt’s incisive promo to John Cena, Cesaro’s incredible in-ring strength, parts of the Christian/Sheamus match (especially that stiff knee lift and creative finish) and the final segment with Taker, Lesnar and Heyman – and next to no buzz.
This nostalgia addiction is not a new problem for the WWE. As others online have pointed out, it’s been a significant issue these last few years, especially when it comes to booking the company’s biggest supercard. Instead of getting the next generation of full-time superstars over to the point where they’re ready to be positioned for higher profile matches at the event, they bring back already established part-time talents from the past: The Rock, The Undertaker, Brock Lesnar, Chris Jericho, Triple H and Batista. Granted, some of these guys can still go (when’s the last time Taker had a bad Mania match?) but The Dead Man aside, they’re taking up key slots that should be filled by guys like Ziggler and Bryan.
Let me put it this way. When two of your best new talents, Bray Wyatt and Roman Reigns, are having a boring match that generates no reaction from the paying crowd while an old-timer like Hulk Hogan can just show up and get thunderous cheers, you have a serious problem.
It’s a problem new subscribers of the WWE Network will be repeatedly reminded of as they immerse themselves in the very nostalgia that threatens the longterm future of the WWE itself.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, February 25, 2014