World Wrestling Entertainment made a major announcement last week during USA’s upfronts: after 19 years, their weekly cable program will expand to 3 hours. The change will take place when WWE airs their 1000th episode of Monday Night Raw on July 23 2012. 1000 episodes is a remarkable milestone for any program. When you consider that there are no re-runs and no summer vacations, you can’t help but marvel at the incredible work ethic of WWE’s writing staff, superstars and technical crew. They’ve strung together over 94,000 minutes of original programing every Monday for nearly two decades!
While there is no official season premiere or season finale for WWE Raw, there is a discernible cycle. Wrestlemania usually serves as the cumulation of a year’s worth of story lines. For example, the 2011-2012 season began with the Rock and John Cena agreeing to a match at Wrestlemania 28. In sticking with that logic of story arcs, April 2nd, the night after WM28, was the beginning of this WWE season. Eight Raws and 2 pay-per-views into this season, there are a lot of things to be excited about as a WWE fan. Here are my top 5 stories to pay attention to as we move towards Raw’s 3 hour expansion and WWE’s annual tentpole pay-per-view SummerSlam…
5: Christian’s Road to Redemption
How We Got Here: When Edge was forced to suddenly retire last year due to complications from repeated neck injuries, his charismatic compadre Christian, seemed poised to step into his best friend’s shoes. Christian was able to capitalize on this opportunity by defeating Alberto Del Rio for the vacated World Heavyweight Championship. His title reign was cut short when Randy Orton defeated Christian to win the title after only 5 days as champ. From there, Christian took on a crybaby persona thus turning him heel. After a few failed attempts at recapturing the gold from Orton, Christian faded in the background until injury sidelined him in late 2011.
Christian re-surfaced for in-ring action at Over the Limit this past Sunday. Captain Charisma was able to the win the 20 man Power to the People Battle Royal and in the process gaining a shot at Santino Marella’s United States Title or Cody Rhodes’ Intercontinental Title. To the surprise of many, Christian opted for the latter then to the surprise of just about everyone he defeated Rhodes to win his 4th Intercontinental Championship.
Where Are We Now: The Intercontinental Championship used to be the launching pad for WWE Superstars to the main event. With the title now around babyface Christian’s waist, we may be seeing a new direction and dedication to the mid-card. There are a plethora of heels on the roster for Christian to feud with if WWE decides they want to enter him into a prolonged story arc with an up and comer. By the same token, the vast pool of competition for the IC belt could simply lead to a variety of quality matches between the veteran Canadian champion and various superstars who are in desperate need of TV time. Which ever direction they decide to go, look for Christian to become a staple of the mid-card and a regular presence on both of WWE’s weekly programs.
4) The Desperate Giant
How We Got Here: Big Show is one of the few active leftovers from WWE’s Attitude Era. It’s easy to take Show for granted and view him as just another big guy, but he’s a seasoned vet who works well with almost every superstar. In the past year, his work with Mark Henry legitimized Henry as a true main eventer after a decade of irrelevance. After finally overcoming Henry and winning the World Heavyweight Championship at the Tables, Ladders and Chairs PPV in December 2011, the 7 footer became the latest victim of a Money in the Bank winner. With Show unconcious, Daniel Bryan took advantage, cashed in his title shot and left with the belt. In the process, Show recorded the shortest WHC title reign in the history of WWE and made a superstar out of Bryan.
Show got a few more shots at Bryan but he was cheated or bested each time. His quest to avenge his embarrassing defeat ended at the Elimination Chamber pay-per-view when Cody Rhodes eliminated him with a DDT. Those two then entered a program leading to matches at Wrestlemania 28 and Extreme Rules. During this time, Show was repeatedly ridiculed by Rhodes for his poor track records at previous Wrestlemanias. The world’s largest athlete gained the victory over Rhodes at the grand daddy of them all in early April but lost in their rematch at Extreme Rules, ending the feud between the two men. Weeks later Big Show found himself in hot water after making fun of Raw General Manager John Laurinaitis’ distinctive voice. Despite begging and pleading, Johnny Ace sent Big Show to the unemployment line on May 14th. Six days later during Laurinaitis and Cena’s main event bout at Over the Limit, the big man reappeared to presumably seek revenge on his boss. However, instead of beating on his former employer, Big Show shockingly knocked out John Cena giving the win to Laurinaitis.
Where Are We Now: With 18 years in the business, one has to assume that Show is nearing the end of his wonderful career. That’s purely speculative but no one can last forever. It’s been 13 years since Paul Wight ripped through the ring at St. Valentine’s Day Massacre to make his WWE debut in an effort to help his boss win. It’d be fitting to see Show don that persona once more time before he calls it a career. Of course this iteration is different for two reasons. 1) His boss is no longer Vince McMahon and 2) This version has the fine tuning that only a pro of Big Show’s caliber is capable of. Look for Cena and Show to put on a few great matches then wait for the best part of any beloved vets’ heel run: his redeeming face turn. After that, he can ride off into the sunset and begin to utilize his massive personality on the big screen.
3) The Art of the Save Starring The Entire Raw Roster
How We Got Here: Back in the days of the Monday Night Wars between WCW and WWE, WCW had a stranglehold on ratings for quite sometime. Their formula was pretty simple. Let the nWo on the mic. Toss in a strong cruiserweight division. End the show with the nWo beating up a good guy then have Sting drop from the rafters to make the save. That’s how WCW utilized their three hours on Mondays over a decade ago. With the recent announcement of WWE’s expansion to 3 hours, they’ll need to utilize their entire roster. We saw them do that last night on Raw. Early in the night, John Cena was ambushed by sparsely used superstars Tyler Reks, Curt Hawkins, Titus O’Neil and Darren Young. Seeing these young guys on TV was a great step for WWE’s developmental efforts of young talent. Then unexpectedly, Sheamus made the save. This too was a nice departure from the recent booking norm of letting a superstar take a beating then roll around in pain until they went to a commercial break.
The extended TV time for the entire roster continued during the main event when Sheamus and Cena took on Tensai, Dolph Ziggler and Jack Swagger in handicap lumberjack match. With heel henchmen surrounding the ring, Cena and Sheamus found themselves on the receiving end of an uneven assault whenever they were tossed out of the squared circle. Just as Cena gained the upper hand in the ring, the meddling lumberjacks pulled Sheamus from the apron. Cena came to the defense of his tag team partner but they were impossibly overmatched. That’s when, to the delight of the crowd, the locker room emptied to even the score. CM Punk, Kofi and Truth, Christian, Santino, Brodus Clay, all the guys we love to cheer for were coming to the rescue of two of the company’s top good guys.
Where Are We Now: The save was a lost art for a long time. WWE usually opted to play up the underdog angle by letting a good guy get beat up a lot then finally gain the upperhand at the pay per view cumulation of a feud. Now with the brand extension meaning less & less each week and Raw going to 3 hours, there are opportunities everywhere for superstars that aren’t ready or cut out for main event status. Seeing superstars rush to the ring to save a fellow good guy is one of the most underrated things in pro wrestling but it’s a great technique. People love seeing characters that exist in the same universe cross paths. It’s why I love Batman/Superman crossovers and it’s why the Avengers has made $463 million dollars in less than 3 weeks.
2) The Looming Collision
How We Got Here: When John Cena asked for the Rock to come to the ring the night after Wrestlemania, some folks may have groaned, feeling that we’ve seen enough of Cena/Rock. When Brock Lesnar’s music hit instead, even casual fans couldn’t help but cheer. Lesnar had a relatively short but amazingly successful run in WWE for 8 years. His UFC career made him a mainstream star among the male demographic. When he announced his retirement from MMA, every WWE fan knew his return walked the line somewhere between possible and probable. With only a few short weeks to build a feud, WWE played their cards right with Cena and Lesnar. Lesnar said his return was about bringing legitimacy back to the company. John Cena, the most polarizing figure among fans, was the perfect target for Lesnar. Cena is the kid tested, mother approved, grown up boy scout of pro wrestling. He’s also one of the most talented, recognizable and respected superstars. Brock on the other hand is a warrior who you would probably be too afraid to speak to in real life in fear that he’d hurt you if you offended him. Their match at Extreme Rules worked perfectly for both of them. Lesnar showcased his brutality. Cena showed his guts. Both deserved praise for their efforts.
The Lesnar-Cena program accomplished it’s goal so swiftly, there was no reason to continue it. That left the high-priced Lesnar without a new opponent but it gave the WWE a great opportunity. Triple H hadn’t been seen since his Wrestlemania bout with Undertaker. Bringing him back without purpose would have been anti-climatic. Using Lesnar on a weekly basis would ruin his aura of importance. So it was logical for these two to begin a patiently, developed feud. Triple H resurfaced to confront Lesnar about his contract. Lesnar attacked. Since then, fans haven’t seen Lesnar but we have been treated to the return of Paul Heyman. Heyman is one of the best ever on the mic. Seeing him in a WWE ring as a rogue, representative of his good friend Brock Lesnar is the absolute best way to utilize his skills while also keeping Lesnar relevant.
Where Are We Now: Brock Lesnar and Triple H are on collision course. The best bet is to assume that they won’t face off in the ring until SummerSlam in August. Between now and then, we’ll surely hear several memorable Paul Heyman promos and perhaps see a few appearances by Brock himself. Legal battles rarely make good TV in the WWE universe but with such big players involved in this one, expect to see some compelling segments throughout the summer.
1) The Indy Boys Reign Supreme
How We Got Here: We could say that this began a few weeks ago when Daniel Bryan won the Beat the Clock Challenge to earn a shot at Punk’s WWE title. We could even say this began the night after TLC when Bryan and Punk stood in the ring together holding the industries’ top two titles. Truth be told, this began long before either of those moments and well before either man joined WWE. See, Punk and Bryan are the indy darlings of the internet wrestling community. Their amazing successes over the past year bring joy to the long time fans who have seen twice as many shows in bingo halls and VFWs than we have in big arenas on Monday nights. We’ve connected with these guys because they personify some of the things we hold dear.
First, they came from the places we’re from. They wrestled at venues in our neighborhoods that don’t have parking lots or concession stands and they did so for maybe a couple hundred bucks a match. Yet they performed like it was a main event at Wrestlemania. They earned our respect because they showed how much they respect us as fans. Secondly, they are wrestlers. WWE is the industry leader in sports entertainment but in recent years they’ve moved away from using wrestling as their primary method of story telling and they’ve focused more on in ring promos. The benefit in this is less impact on the performers’ bodies which means less injuries and less negative long term effects. It’s important to respect that decision and it’s hard to argue it, but the 21 and older crowd grew up in an era where wrestling meant wrestling. Guys like Punk and Bryan have a style that reminds us of the wrestling programs we watched as kids. They invoke nostalgia. Finally. They’re good. They’re damned good. Long time WWE broadcaster Jim Ross said Bryan and Punk’s Over the Limit match would have held up in any era. That’s a major compliment from a pro wrestling historian who has seen it all.
Where Are We Now: Punk beat Bryan at Over the Limit but the end of the match brought with it some controversy. After a hard fought battle, Punk found himself in the Daniel Bryan’s Yes Lock (formerly the Labell Lock). The WWE Champ was able to shift his weight enough to get Bryan’s shoulders down. The WWE official noticed, counted 1..2..3 and Punk was the winner. As the bell rang however, Punk tapped. There was no question that Punk was the winner but it did make you wonder whether Bryan could have gained the victory had Punk not forced him to make a mistake. The ending almost ensures that the straight edge superstar and the American dragon will cross paths again at WWE’s No Way Out PPV in June, most likely in a submission match!
WWE Raw airs every Monday on the USA Network @ 9PM. Additional WWE programming is also featured on the SyFy network, YouTube and WWE.com. All photos have been borrowed from and remain property of WWE.com. Ryan Simmons (RySimmons@gmail.com) has no affiliation with WWE though he totally plans to apply there eventually. If you are reading this and your name is Vince McMahon, Triple H, John Laurinaitis, Stephanie McMahon or you have any hiring power at WWE Inc., feel free to shoot me an email and I can drive up to Stamford, CT in about 3 hours and 4 mins according to Google Maps.