This week's RAW was the final one before Extreme Rules, which meant it was the last opportunity for WWE to provide reasons for people to be interested in the show's top feuds. They didn't pass it up. They know what they're doing when it comes to this stuff.
The opening segment was given over to the John Cena and Bray Wyatt rivalry. It was Cena who hit the ring (which was surrounded by a cage so as to subtly promote the Extreme Rules cage match) first and it was clear from the moment he walked out he had engaged serious mode. You see the previous week's episode had ended with Cena taking on the entire Wyatt Family in a three-on-one handicap match, something WWE fans (or those who have the WWE App at least) had voted for. Understandably Cena started off by asking why the fans had chosen to put him in that situation. Somewhat less understandably he revealed he actually knew the answer.
The reason is a simple one: Cena has been on top of the company for a decade. In that time, as he rightly pointed out, the fans, he himself, and the landscape of WWE have all changed. Tastes have evolved and while Cena has evolved too it has not been in line with what fans desire. Part of the problem is that most fans are simply keen on seeing new names at the top, which is something no established star can help with directly. They can help to make these new names but they cannot be these names themselves which means they will always, to some extent, be an obstacle in the star building process. Someone who's been on top for as long as Cena and is a polarising figure to begin with is going to find it extra tough to overcome the problem.
Cena recognised that in his promo. He named The Shield, Cesaro and Daniel Bryan as stars of the future, then threw in some NXT names too. Those men all have the same passion and drive to succeed as Cena considers himself to have, and it's that that makes him excited for the day he steps aside for such names. But according to Cena the leader of the Wyatt Family doesn't share this passion, only being interested in himself. Which is a nice way for the Cena character to address a man positioned as a cult leader. Of course Wyatt only cares about himself, and of course a company man like Cena would be upset by this.
|Wrestling doesn't get much creepier than this.
Naturally Cena found himself interrupted soon enough. But it wasn't Wyatt or any other wrestler doing it. It was a children's choir. They shuffled out on to stage (something that took a while to coordinate meaning we were treated to lengthy shots of Cena doing his best to look pensive) singing He's Got the Whole World in His Hands. Then Bray Wyatt joined them and led them to the ring while singing the song himself. The lights went out for a moment and then came back on to reveal the kids surrounding the ring wearing sheep masks. Wyatt, who had one nipper perched on his knee, laughed uproariously while Cena looked... well, to be honest it's hard to know what he was going for here. It was either betrayal or disgust. That I can't tell probably means he didn't do a particularly good job.
Later on in the show Cena's feelings would be explored a bit. Renee Young found him and asked what had happened earlier in the night. The former WWE champ told her nothing had happened and stomped off. Later still Cena apologised to Renee and announced that Wyatt's shenanigans hadn't gone down well with him. Then he promised Wyatt would not be singing his song after Extreme Rules. I hope that's not true. A man called 'The Eater of Worlds' singing children's songs is one of the best things about modern wrestling.
RAW's final two hours were where the other main event programmes were dealt with. First Daniel Bryan and Brie Bella received an apology from Stephanie McMahon for the rambunctious behaviour of Kane the previous week (he'd delivered three Tombstone piledrivers to Bryan, resulting in D-Bry sporting a neck brace here). Unsurprisingly the WWE champion didn't believe Steph's apology was sincere. The boss understood his attitude and granted Brie a Divas championship match to make up for it. That's as good a reason as any for getting a title match in WWE.
|Comic book poses, you say?
The match started immediately and featured Bryan at ringside because he was worried about 'The Devil's Favourite Demon' turning up. He was right to be concerned because Kane did indeed put in an appearance. Instead of walking down the ramp or entering through the crowd as he had the week before he came from under the ring. His attempts to drag Brie back under the ring with him failed: first Bryan hit him in the head with a wrench (where was Triple H's sledgehammer?) and then again when Brie kicked her way out of Kane's grasp and ran off. Which was necessary because Monster Mode Kane can no-sell wrenches and he'd made a ridiculous comeback to pester Brie again.
It was another segment designed to rebuild Kane so that he correctly functions as a monster for his match with Bryan. As far as achieving that goal went the segment was a success. It did considerably less well in the good taste department: a near seven foot man chasing down a woman a few inches over five foot is not a pleasant image, even when viewed through the prism of wrestling logic.
Finally there was the Roman Reigns versus Randy Orton main event. Before Evolution entered the arena we heard from The Shield backstage. They basically said that they are a greater force than 'The Cerebral Assassin' and his boys and that they're the future. Ambrose had the best line when he said that "evolution has passed Evolution by." It effectively reminded us of the key issues between the two factions and what The Shield perceive as their strengths. Good stuff, in other words.
Once Ambrose, Rollins and Reigns were in the ring there was a stare-down between the six men. We were supposed to think that the tension may boil over into a brawl but that at no point seemed likely. It was Tripper and 'The Animal' letting the side down there. They didn't look like they were ready to engage in a fight. 'The Viper' and all three members of The Shield did a far better job of seeming like they were on the cusp of coming to blows.
|Ric Flair: fan of The Shield.
Before the match started Ric Flair sauntered down to the ring. Because he doesn't get the chance to hog the spotlight any more he took his time, gobbling up several minutes of television before he'd even said a word. When he did it was to deliver a promo that was basically self-parody. 'The Nature Boy' is generally accepted as one of the greatest talkers ever. Old footage of him bears that out. He was giving excellent promos as late as the mid-2000s (as part of a Evolution, funnily enough). Judged on his RAW performance alone nobody would accept Flair as a good talker, let alone one of the best ever. He filled his speech with an excessive number of pauses and didn't seem particularly passionate about what he was saying. He was very clearly there to hang out with his mates and enjoy having spotlight shone on him.
There were a couple of problems here. The first was that, as I've already noted, Flair doesn't get to be in the spotlight much these days. He's always had a tendency to try and make himself the centre of attention as it is (and in fairness that's a large part of why and how he became successful) and that's only worsened when he doesn't get the opportunity to be adored on a regular basis. The second issue was that 'Naitch' was tasked with putting over The Shield. He did it, but in such a stilted, almost unclear, fashion that the audience was flat when he turned to shake hands with 'The Hounds of Justice'. The likelihood is that he wasn't entirely happy about having to endorse The Shield over Evolution. He really is friends with the three members of the latter team and was linked with them professionally for a fair amount of time. Having to snub Evolution on any level basically required Flair to acknowledge that another group was better than one he'd been in. That wasn't going to sit well with his ego.
So basically The Shield were endorsed by Ric Flair but in such a cack-handed way as to make it not worth bothering. A better use of Flair would have been to encourage him to parody his overblown flip out promos and declare that Evolution would destroy The Shield. It would have seemed less jarring considering the history of Flair and Evolution and would probably have been better received. Because everyone loves Flair flipping out.
Reigns v Orton didn't really last long enough to be considered a good match but it showed promise. It turned into an interference special fairly quickly, with Triple H, Orton and 'The Animal' taking The Shield apart for a few minutes before a comeback was made. The show ended with The Shield holding the ring (the ultimate sign of dominance in this overly common wrestling scenario) and Evolution backing up the rank. A good ending as it furthered the issue between the two units without actually favouring either too strongly, leaving the outcome of their Extreme Rules match as hard to predict as before the show.