Friday 14 February 2014

First RAW of the Network Era

February 24 2014 is going to be one of the most important dates in WWE history. It's the Monday after the Elimination Chamber pay-per-view, which means an episode of RAW that's more eventful than the average instalment. It's a night six weeks out from WrestleMania XXX, which should mean the line-up for that show is finalised and storylines are ready to start moving towards them. And then of course there's the thing that makes it a really big day: the launch of the WWE Network.

WWE will obviously do everything they can to ensure the launch is a success. I've no idea what that will require from a technical position. Lots of servers being online or something I s'pose. Content-wise it will involve decent numbers of worthwhile shows being ready to watch for people who sign up. As for RAW it should involve a strong line-up. That means every major star currently on the roster, part-timer Brock Lesnar, cameos from past stars, and some significant returns.

Four names spring to mind when I think of significant returns. Of those two seem very likely to pop up, one seems unlikely, and one seems impossible.

The men in the first category are Hulk Hogan and The Undertaker. Despite creating a number of top stars since Hogan made his first high profile split two decades ago (he wanted to crack films but ended up in WCW) WWE seems unable to completely sever the link they have with him. This is partly because to many, including the media, Hogan is still a comfortable shorthand for the pinnacle of the wrestling business. With WWE being the biggest wrestling company in the world and an organisation that started their rise to dominance with ‘The Hulkster’ as their figurehead the linking of the two parties is natural and understandable. To people with only a basic knowledge of wrestling Hogan and WWE are inseparable entities. With WWE always hungry for media coverage it makes sense that they’ve never gone out of their way to attempt to alter this perception.

It's a link both WWE and Hogan benefit from. WWE gains access to a man who can still draw in the punters. Hogan gets paid lots of cash to spout whatever company line he's asked to and the spotlight. With Hogan it always comes back to the spotlight. It’s a setup that works for both parties, basically. That Hogan’s been away from WWE for seven years won’t hurt either. Comebacks mean more when the person coming back has been away for a long time.

Undertaker’s is a different situation. Over the last several years he has dropped into a pattern of making annual returns before WrestleMania. As such his comeback is to be expected and can be relied upon to boost the rating of RAW. Timing that boost to coincide with the Network is a smart move. Pairing it with the return of Hogan is smarter still. It would encourage a large audience, something WWE wants because they’ll be plugging their new streaming service all night long.

Be aware that he looks very different now
The name who seems unlikely is The Ultimate Warrior. Announced for a Hall of Fame induction in New Orleans we know Warrior will be appearing at WrestleMania. It’s entirely possible that part of the deal he’s struck with WWE is an appearance to coincide with the Network launch. He’s not appeared for the promotion since the summer of 1996. For many people who grew up watching WWE in the late eighties and early nineties Warrior is either the equal or superior of Hulk Hogan. It’s those lapsed viewers with a love for or interest in nostalgia WWE are hoping to entice to subscribe to their Network. With that in mind Ultimate Warrior would be a very significant figure to reintroduce after an eighteen year absence.

The final name, the man whose return would be significant but whom I can’t imagine WWE getting, is CM Punk. The reasons for this should be obvious. ‘The Second City Saint’ walked out without a goodbye after Royal Rumble. Since then audiences have chanted his name at every televised WWE show. It’s only been a few weeks but it’s been made very clear that fans want him back. He’s still under contract and if WWE could sort out their creative differences then they could get Punk to appear. That doesn’t seem likely though. The problems are too deep and fresh to be overcome in time for the post-Chamber RAW (unless it’s all been a part of a worked shoot conspiracy theory all along; not something I seriously expect).

Whoever they get to appear alongside the core members of their roster the fact that the Network is so important to the future of the company makes me think that WWE will do everything in their power to make the February 24 RAW exciting and memorable. It’s a chance for them to advertise their new venture for three hours. A good show is going to energise regular viewers and, more importantly, possibly trick those tuning in for the first time in a while that WWE is just as exciting as ever. It’s the first RAW in a while that we can expect to be great before it airs.

Will WWE make a similar effort when the Network launches in other territories later in the year or early next year? Somehow I doubt it.

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