Everyone knows how this episode of RAW closed (hey, it’s pictured above!), and looking back, the whole episode was geared towards that moment; it wasn’t a show only made up of unrelated segments building individual stories, but a whole piece in itself. This story carries so much ‘baggage’ and has to straddle such a thin line between a sandbox style setting (Punk appearing away from WWETV) and keeping him at the forefront of fans’ consciousness by having him on WWETV, and for that reason, it must be a nightmare to book. Last night’s RAW, to be sure, progressed the story in an excellent way.
I loved the cold open. It made the opening match seem very important in a way that was lacking last week. I don’t know what it is, but WWE have re-jigged the set in some way that really added to the space, and gave the opening match a big-match PPV atmosphere. I also liked the WWE superstars backstage huddled round a tv screen – it’s a great way of getting over the ‘crisis’ in WWE. I’m a big fan of the Miz, but of late i’ve really had little interest in Rey Mysterio; this is something, however, that has changed a little since last week where Mysterio really got the crowd behind him with some great victories. Something about him since Money in the Bank has really pulled his character away from the staleness he has been trapped in for months. His match with Miz was fantastic – great back and forth, great drama. Both men were doing their best, through their reactions, to sell the gravitas of the match was very successful and there were lots of intelligently placed near-falls in a brilliantly-paced match. It was dominated for the majority of the match by Miz, but it wasn’t the boring underdog-comeback story that Rey has sometimes gotten in to a rut telling, it was Rey helping Miz look good, and may I say that the springboard sitout powerbomb is a move Miz should incorporate more – it’s unique and impressive. Shortly after Rey survived this, Miz charged him for his turnbuckle clothesline with Rey in the tree of woe, missing as Mysterio sat up. This aggravated Miz’s knee injury from MITB and allowed Rey to hit a rana on Miz before a 619 and a splash for the victory. This was a nice finish, and after the match was the first example of one characteristic I liked about the show: a subtle but constant palpable feeling that something was awry, that the pretense that everything in the WWE was fine and ‘business as usual’ was just that – a thin pretense. Following the match, Miz attacked Rey with a forearm, which was enough to bring Del Rio to ringside with his MITB briefcase, but Rey wasn’t hurt enough to be cashed-in on and fought him off. Del Rio cashing in had again been widely speculated upon, and I think this failed attempt was used in a similar way to at MITB, as a red herring to first make the fans react wearily before allowing them to be even more pleased that the predictable had been rejected. Even following the match, when Rey was received like a hero, almost out of relief that WWE had a champion again, there was an intentionally palpable sense of doubt in the scene, especially when John Cena showed up and broke the celebration for just a few seconds before congratulating Mysterio too.
Next up was Dolph Zigger, with a more intimidating but generic version of his ‘I am Perfection’ theme, against Evan Bourne. Short but entertaining match where Bourne missed a Shooting Star Press and ended up receiving a Zig Zag, which would have been enough for Ziggler, and a Sleeper just for good measure to see Ziggler go over strong. He followed that up by getting a mic and shouting defiantly ‘follow that!’ That was a great little touch as, without hurting Bourne, it put over the champion well and made Ziggler seem like a very hot prospect.
At the top of the hour we had Triple H’s state of the WWE address, which really turned in to him marking his territory and cleaning house. When I saw that the championship match would open RAW, twitter followers (@RTVWOW) will have seen that I saw that as near proff that Del Rio would cash in to close the show, but when a second title match was announced to close the show, that added an extra layer of complication to the situation, as well as a sense of inevitability when it was announced that the man to be getting the shot, receiving his statutory re-match, would be John Cena. Hunter thrived as the boss and was completely believable in that role, never seeming like just a wrestler in a suit. It was billed that HHH would announce the surprise return of a man who had been on everyone’s minds for weeks. This obviously made people think of CM Punk, but it was a classic bait-and-switch as he called out probably the only other man who could satisfy the fans: Jim Ross! For keeps! A move which, unsurprisingly, made the following matches exponentially better and more meaningful. This led to a back and forth between Cole and Trips which was entertaining but lasted too long; at a time when fans are being promised changes, there shouldn’t be 5-10 minutes of Michael Cole, entertaining as he is, on the mic, and when Triple H told him to go and get ready for a match, that was the most downcast i’ve been about WWE in a very long time. I was more happy to see R-Truth come out to talk to Trips. They had a really funny back and forth about Truth and imaginary friends. This too probably lasted a bit too long, but at least it led to another surprise return, of John Morrison, who fought with Truth and hit a Starship Pain to revive their feud, though not in a particularly spectacular way I have to say.
Cole came out to HHH’s music, dressed in HHH’s attire, which surprised me. Why would HHH want Cole in his attire, eventhough the entrance (especially the water spit) was funny? Surely that would usually be an insult? Anyway, Cole took on Internet Champion Zack Ryder and was squashed (though I was impressed by Cole’s ability to take a Rough Ryder). On a night where there is strong competition for TV time, this is good for Ryder. It will be hard to book for him though, and that’s what he needs: a nicely booked storyline.
Next up was a rematch between Kofi Kingston and Alberto Del Rio, and they had another really nice match, with Kofi being dragged up by association to Del Rio and being booked to be roughly on par with the Mexican aristocrat. I have always loved Kofi’s cross body, but he did a springboard cross body which only made it more spectacular. Unfortunately, even after this, Kofi couldn’t put Del Rio away and Del Rio eventually locked in the cross arm-breaker making Kingston tap. Now, I understand that Del Rio has to look strong, but coming off a victory against him last week, Kingston’s momentum was shot, especially seen as he had to submit. I’d have kept Del Rio appearing as a MITB threat but maybe thrown him an interview too instead of taking so much time to Cole and Truth. Meanwhile i’d have given Kofi an equally competitive match with Drew McIntyre or Jack Swagger and had him go over to continue his momentum.
All through the night there had been deliberately fleeting references to CM Punk, making a point of worrying about mentioning his name in a way that really added to the myth currently surrounding Punk. These were all well and good, but Miz’s backstage interview did the best job with this. Understandably frustrated and free of an obligation to a paper championship, broke through a seemingly unwritten veneer of artificial confidence around the company, losing his rag with how it is John Cena’s fault that the company was in crisis, all because ‘he who shall not be named’ walked out with the title. This was a great way of revealing that the empty celebrations surrounding Rey as a new champion was just all part of the nervousness about the future of the company that has now been sent in to flux.
The main event was our second WWE Championship match, and it was another stellar affair, doing well to seem important as two matches for the same title in one night usually detracts from that effect. Again, both guys got over the importance of the match and made it a very dramatic back-and-forth match. What was notable though was that Cena seemed to be working with more heel-like tendencies; there was just something about the way he exectuted some of his moves, especially the clotheslines which seemed heelish. One really cool progression came when Rey secured Cena in an STF, which was a fantastic display of schadenfreude regarding Cena, and which left Cena unable to hit an AA to Rey shortly after when he managed to pick Rey up from the hold on the mat. Cena fell in to 619 position and ate one, but managed to block the splash with his knees. Excellent, sensical stuff. Another progression around finishers saw Cena eventually hit an AA for the win and the championship.
Now, at this point, i’m sure many fans were worrying about ‘business as usual’ at WWE, but despite the fact that he wrestled a pretty grueling match, it was at the forefront of my mind that despite losing the title to a better man, he was basically just having it handed back to him, which really is unsatisfying. This reassured me that it wasn’t ‘business as usual’ but I was, quite frankly, relieved when we heard the first riffs of ‘Cult of Personality’ because I knew what it meant straight away, that Cena winning the belt was another swerve (in the sense that it wasn’t simply him becoming ‘the man’ again). I expected that either the music would run on its own (though admittedly, probably not enough people were aware that ‘Cult of Personality’ was Punk’s music in ROH for it to have the desired impact), or Punk would emerge from the crowd. Incidentally, the change to ‘Cult of Personality’ has been a little controversial, just because ‘This Fire Burns’ fit him so well and serves better, objectively, as a wrestling theme. I think that Cult of Personality is the only song that could have replaced This Fire Burns, and fits his charismatic voice of the people character brilliantly; he is vindicated now he’s won the title, and has changed from a song all about frustration and determination to succeed, to one that symbolises someone with more of a mandate to act as a representative of ‘the people’. I still think emerging from the crowd may have been preferable, but to be honest, just seeing Punk in the flesh was great. The crowd, again, popped big time for him, and he made his way down to the ring again, the real WWE Championship around his waist. Cena’s response of raising the paper championship came across as a toothless attempt to assert legitimacy as champion and was greeted mostly with boos. Punk smiled and raised the true belt higher than Cena’s to another huge pop. This was great metaphor, and only got better as we cut to Cena, holding his belt lower and looking like he knew exactly that Punk was the legit champion, before Cena backs down and leaves the ring as the show fades to black. This was not an equal champion vs champion scenario, it was Punk showing that the whole tournament and the phoney prestige that had been attributed to it with ceremonies like the champagne bath. Just excellent storytelling at the end, and not even reliant on Punk talking.
Now a lot of people have said that Punk has returned to quickly, and I think that, in an ideal world, Punk’s return could have waited. However, here is the dilemma WWE must have been in: we keep Punk away, eventhough he’s currently the biggest draw, and sell his absence with the title, or bring him back to interact on TV and start building for Summerslam, but risk short-changing the storyline a bit – after all, Punk only missed one RAW. Ultimately, I think they made the right decision, because I don’t think the excitement of Punk being AWOL necessarily has to end. After RAW went off the air, Punk got on the mic and simply said ‘I’m baaaaack’, but I would be careful about reading too much into this. For one thing, Cena is listed as the only WWE Champion on WWE.com while CM Punk hasn’t been restored to the site’s roster page. This, among other things (I have lots of theoretical evidence i’d be happy to discuss if you want a discussion about it – just ask), could mean that he’s not really ‘back’ in the conventional sense as a superstar. But even if he is, there is nothing to stop him doing some of the viral/guerilla stunts that people want from him. As an agitator, it would suit his character to do his own thing like, for instance, going to other promotions and cutting promos about how he speaks for the average fan, from the grassroots before reiterating that he is the true champion, and will show that every week on RAW. This sort of thing could be the compromise needed to retain the special nature of this angle.
We needed to hear from Punk in some way, and WWE achieved this in spectacular fashion, adding layers to the storyline as they went. For weeks now, WWE have been shattering the cynical predictions of certain negative fans, so it is best not to enter in to what they do with a cynical pre-disposition, because it risks ruining it. Despite what you might think, almost literally anything could happen in the coming weeks, and if it’s something Punk has agreed to, the chances are it’s gonna be great, so just sit back and drink it in!