The night started off the right way, with Real American playing Hulk Hogan down to the ring for his first appearance in a WWE ring in seven years. ‘The Hulkster’ ran through his usual routine of cupping his ear and posing for each side of the ring. This usually guarantees a loud, sustained crowd response but it didn’t here. Yes the audience reacted but they were nowhere near as loud as I’d expected them to be. Considering Hogan’s name value and the fact that he’s not been on a wrestling show people actually watch in well over half a decade I’d expected an explosion of noise. This was closer to being polite.
|Hulk Hogan: back on RAW, brother!|
Hogan started off by saying his return to WWE was the turning point of his career. Even for a man known for hyperbole and straight out lies that was ridiculous. He spent several minutes putting over the WWE Network and WrestleMania, saying that it was the “WWE Universe” and all his Hulkamaniacs that had made both possible. That’s true, but coming from Hogan it felt like a lie.
His delivery seemed off. It felt less like he was speaking from the heart (something that used to be a strength of his) and more like he was rattling through bullet points handed to him earlier in the day. Which was the case, but it shouldn’t have been so obvious. As Hogan promos go it was not the best.
After his infomercial Hogan posed his way to the back, leaving Cole, 'King' and JBL to shill hard for the WWE Network. Get used to it. We'll be seeing a lot of this. They also announced Bryan v Kane, a Batista v ADR rematch and acknowledged the "rumour" of Lesnar and Heyman being in the building. Which is essentially the same as announcing that Lesnar and Heyman would appear. I think it’s supposed to seem more exciting and spontaneous if it’s labelled a rumour.
Alberto Del Rio got a subdued response from the live crowd when he walked out moments later. Batista heard nothing but boos. He pointed out a "Bootista" sign near the front row, finally acknowledging the elephant in the room. He’d do so again in a far more obvious fashion after the match.
The bout wasn't as good as the one they’d had at Elimination Chamber but I've seen worse. Del Rio won when Randy Orton strolled out and distracted 'The Animal'. Orton said that the fans don't like Batista much and asked if he was sorry he came back. Batsy stupidly decided to take a while to answer, which gave the audience the chance to kick off a CM Punk chant. When he did speak it was to say he loves the business and that if the fans cheer him he'll cheer them back, but if they boo him he'll boo them back. He described himself as real and honest, which made him sound like a Big Brother contestant, and ended off by calling Orton a whining, snivelling kiss ass suck up and declared, to the arena at large, that he will be the next WWE champion. The worrying thing is that he might be.
Match two saw Big E wrestle Cesaro in a non-title match. The match was just as good as E's match with Jack Swagger the previous evening but it suffered from a less enthusiastic crowd. It was also harder for the two to impress because Cesaro is generally held in higher regard than Swagger. You expect high quality showings from him. The match ended with a disqualification when Swagger randomly got into the ring and applied the Patriot Lock on Big E. The tag partners had words and the IC champion blasted Swagger from behind. Cesaro made the save and performed a botched Neutralizer on the champ, dropping him directly onto his head. Nothing seems to have been posted about Big E being hurt so presumably he’s fine.
The second hour opened with a John Cena promo. He seemed in a surprisingly chipper mood considering he'd been denied a championship win the previous night. Like 'The Hulkster' he started off by talking up the Network. He did a better job, perhaps because he’s been cutting promos more frequently than ‘The Immortal One’.
He also once again mentioned that anyone who wants to be WWE's top star has to go through him. That got him onto the subject of Bray Wyatt. He said Bray had made a bold move by costing him "a title match at WrestleMania" (which seemed an odd way of phrasing it: surely the title itself is what Cena should have been aiming for and more upset about losing out on) and then invited him out to make another (bold move that is).
All three members of the Wyatt Family joined Cena at ringside. Bray said a bunch of stuff that was only loosely connected: the human race is a virus; people need heroes, which is what Cena paints himself as; Cena is a hollow man; The Wyatt Family are the reapers who bring death to lies. Cena said if the Wyatts started something with him they might be unable to finish it. They slipped into the ring and triple teamed Cena.
|Cena v Wyatt is happening|
Predictably Cena made a couple of Spirited Comebacks but the segment ended with Bray kneeling over him and shouting "Follow the buzzards!" Cena was stretchered out during the break. It was revealed later on the show that he'd been taken to a local hospital. Looks like the Wyatts can finish things with him, doesn’t it?
Christian and Sheamus followed that with a fun match that played to extended periods of silence. 'Great White' won when he brogue kicked 'The Instant Classic' as he leapt off the middle rope. It was a better finish than their match on the previous Friday's SmackDown but I think the SmackDown bout as a whole was better.
That was followed up with a video from earlier in the evening where Daniel Bryan interrupted a tedious and smug interview in which The Authority were discussing the WWE Network launch. D-Bry challenged Trips to a fight and said he'd face him at WrestleMania. 'The Game' said that wasn't going to happen but that he'd try and find a spot for him on the card. It wasn’t the greatest segment but it did the job it was intended to. Specifically it let us know that Bryan v Triple H is the match we should be expecting on ‘The Grandest Stage of Them All’.
After a black history month video that looked at Tony Atlas and Rocky Johnson's Soul Patrol (yeah, really) tag team The Shield were shown in the back. Ambrose went off on one about not being trusted by his teammates (because he disappeared at the finish of their six man tag loss the night before) and wandered off. Reigns and Rollins were then joined by The Wyatt Family. Reigns and Bray agreed to have a singles match. That got a roar of approval from the live crowd. The segment once again demonstrated that Reigns is being prepared perfectly for a singles run.
Bryan v Kane came next. It was a good match, as all Bryan matches are. Not only is he popular to begin with but he also throws himself all over the place: there's always something happening in his matches and it looks real. That’s why fans react to his performances. The audience got into the match, rallying behind Bryan and booing 'The Big Red Machine's' offence. They exploded when Bryan kicked out of a choke slam and burst into a yes chant when he hit his running knee finisher for the clean win.
After the match Bryan took a mic and called Triple H a coward. He said 'The Cerebral Assassin' hasn't listened to the fans since he became the COO and has instead pursued his own goals and hidden behind Stephanie. He demanded that Tripper give the fans what they want: Triple H v Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania XXX. The thing is, that's not what people want. They want Bryan to challenge for and win the WWE championship.
After a plug for a worked shoot promo from Batista on Fridays SmackDown and another for Alexander Rusev we saw Emma take on Summer Rae. The contenders for the low point of this match were Michael Cole desperately trying to convince people that Emma's dance move is insanely over with the NXT regulars in the hope it'll catch on on the bigger stage and Jerry Lawler claiming he used to be addicted to...wait for it... the hoakie koakie. Is it too much to ask that the commentators take women’s matches seriously? Actually, yes, it probably is. Emma won an average Divas match with a bridging STF dubbed the Emma Lock.
A recap of the Elimination Chamber tag title match revealed that Billy Gunn had grabbed a handful of tights to get the win. Why this wasn't revealed on the pay-per-view itself is a mystery to me. I’d say it was to avoid the restart it should have logically instigated but when does WWE ever bother about restarts after shady finishes?
The two teams clashed again on RAW, but not before Road Dogg had shooed the twins out of the ring to perform his pre-match shtick. That backfired on him when the Usos used it as an opportunity to jump him from behind and get a quick non-title victory. They were booed for interrupting Roadie but amazingly they won the crowd back by doing some dancing and shouting "Uce!"
There was more shilling for the Network after that. 'King' banged on about being able to watch old episodes of RAW, SmackDown and ECW (a company he used to be incredibly consistent about pretending to hate) and then mentioned Legends' House and the Hart and Michaels feud documentary. JBL looked like he was trying not to laugh while Cole feigned interest in Jerry's eulogising. ‘The Wrestling God’ revealed that he’d found an amusing selection of APA bouts. That he managed to work in a reference to The Mean Street Posse was the icing on the cake for the segment.
Roman Reigns and Bray Wyatt had a split crowd when they faced off in the evening's in-ring main event. They started out slowly with Bray in control and gradually sped things up with comebacks, cut offs and near falls. The crowd was irritatingly unresponsive until Reigns signalled for his Superman punch. Such a good job has been done building that move up that it wakes people up and let’s them know matches are about to get interesting.
|Look at all that hair!|
The Superman punch was delayed because The Wyatt Family cut the lights and teleported to ringside. Any interference they had planned was thwarted by Rollins, who also teleported down to the ring and threw himself over the top rope to take out Harper and Rowan. The Shield member was double teamed at ringside until Ambrose dashed down the aisle and saved him. Back in the ring Reigns finally connected with his Superman punch but got disqualified when Ambrose rolled into the ring and started pummelling 'The Eater of Worlds'. A brief rumble saw the Wyatts expelled from the ring. Surprisingly little dissension was teased between 'The Hounds of Justice'. Rollins gave Ambrose a funny look and that was about it.
The evening ended with Brock Lesnar. He stood smirking as Paul Heyman explained that 'The Pain' had been awarded an open contract for WrestleMania XXX, something that was considered a consolation prize by the pair. Why? Because they consider Lesnar to be the number one contender to the WWE championship and feel Batista v Orton should happen before 'Mania, with Lesnar facing the winner on the supershow. You know what? With the reactions Batista and Orton have been receiving during the last month I don't think that would be the worst thing WWE could do.
We were told what Lesnar wants is history to conquer. Heyman mentioned Lesnar's amateur wrestling, being the youngest WWE champion ever and moving from wrestling to MMA, saying he'd conquered it all and that the only reason he wouldn't conquer the challenge of becoming the WWE champion again was because The Authority wouldn't put the chance in front of him. They declined the open contract, reasoning that Lesnar doesn't have to choose his opponents, he gets what he wants by being Brock Lesnar.
They went to leave and the predictable happened. The lights went out and a gong sounded.
Several minutes later The Undertaker had joined Lesnar and his advocate in the ring. He is currently sporting his Ministry of Darkness era chin beard, a look I've never been mad about. It ages him. 'Taker and Lesnar had a staredown before 'Taker glanced up at the WrestleMania sign and Lesnar nodded towards, and then signed, the open contract. 'The Phenom' responded by stabbing Lesnar's hand with the pen and choke slamming him through the table.
It was the best segment to end with. Heyman gave a reasoned, logical explanation of what motivates Lesnar. It’s doing something simple very well that makes Heyman so enjoyable. Saving The Undertaker until last was also smart, because he’s one of the safest names WWE has when it comes to getting a positive reaction from the crowd. They needed a safe person like that to close the show to ensure it ended on a good note.
It was also a good decision to close with a WrestleMania match being announced. With six weeks to go WWE needed to start announcing the card here and Lesnar v Undertaker was the logical thing to go with as everything else they’re building towards involves a gradual process in some way.
As episodes of RAW go this was good. But as the first show of the Network era? I expected more. They delivered all the big names and furthered all of their top feuds but it didn’t feel quite like I’d expected it too. The main example of that is Hogan. I thought he’d do more than promote the Network and WrestleMania. I suppose there’s plenty of time left for him to do that, but as a big return his use here seemed underwhelming.
There’s time for things to change but right now it looks like WWE are planning to do Triple H v Bryan and Batista v Orton as separate matches. Doing that would entice hostility. The sensible thing to do at this point is accept that Bryan is the guy people want to see on top and add him to the WrestleMania title match. As I noted in the Chamber write-up, they could do that and the Triple H match. Keeping Bryan out of the title scene altogether in favour of the former Evolution boys is about the worst thing that could be done.