The Road To WrestleMania 35 ran through Chicago, Illinois, traditionally one of the hottest crowds for WWE, with this latest episode of Raw.
Brock Lesnar/Paul Heyman Segment
We opened up with a rare Brock Lesnar appearance, flanked as always by Paul Heyman. As always, Heyman did the talking, though the crowd booed them more than I was expecting. Paul noted how Seth Rollins had brought up Lesnar struggling against smaller, faster competitors, but emphasised that Brock still won all of those matches. Heyman questioned the wisdom of Rollins challenging Drew McIntyre (in response to Drew destroying Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose, neither of whom appeared in person during the show), which led to Drew himself coming out. He suggested that after he’s finished with Rollins, Lesnar would need a new opponent for Mania. But before he could throw down a full-on challenge, Seth ran out and pounded McIntyre with a steel chair, serving the dual purpose of punishing Drew for last week and sending a message to Brock ahead of April 7.
Finn Balor & Braun Strowman vs. Bobby Lashley & Lio Rush
After the usual uneventful verbal sparring match between Balor and Rush (concerning how Lashley defeated him to become Intercontinental Champion last week), Finn introduced Braun as his not-so-mystery partner, since Michael Cole blatantly telegraphed it on commentary. The match was watchable enough, though not something that you’ll remember three weeks from now. A Running Powerslam by Strowman pinned Lio (after Bobby had left him to take the beating alone) for the victory. Later, Strowman vowed to enter the Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal, and to confront the SNL boys again at Mania if need be. As for Finn, an IC Title rematch with Lashley at MetLife Stadium seems most likely at this point.
A Moment Of Bliss w/ Elias
WrestleMania host Alexa Bliss had Cole run down the WM card so far before introducing Elias. Elias: “Hello, I am Elias!” Bliss: “Hello, I am Alexa!” Elias got straight to the point and noted how he keeps being interrupted, as well as noting how his major performance at Mania 34 didn’t go quite as planned. Therefore, he revealed that he would be the main musical act at WM, and that nobody had better interrupt him that night, no matter who it is (start your predictions now as to who it will be that does interrupt him). And he was interrupted here too by No Way Jose’s dancing crew, led by Heavy Machinery, but without NWJ in sight. Bliss humorously suggested that this was planned, but not until the end of the segment to provide comic relief. Meanwhile, one of the, erm, costume guys blindsided Elias, and it turned out to be Jose, disguised in a hamburger costume, coming off the attack last week.
Elias vs. No Way Jose
A match happened immediately, and ended almost as quickly, with Elias polishing Jose off with the Drift Away. Something strange to point out: Jose was sporting tight jeans when he attacked Elias, yet he had his loose-fitting ring attire on after the bell sounded. Perhaps Jose could become a magician if this wrestling doesn’t work out.
Kurt Angle vs. Chad Gable
Before this match, Angle (who marched out as Jose’s dance crew were still consoling their leader) revealed who he wanted to face in his farewell match at WrestleMania: Baron Corbin. More on that shortly, but in the meantime, we had a minor dream match between Angle and Gable, himself an Olympic wrestler. The two meshed very well, and though this obviously wasn’t as good as it would have been when Kurt was still able to excel on the big stage, this was still a pretty good encounter. Indeed, it was the best Angle match in some time on WWE TV, and Gable came close to capturing the upset win. But it wasn’t to be, as Kurt made Chad tap to win. Post-match, Baron vowed to humiliate Kurt at Mania (backstage, he mouthed off to Apollo Crews too, who challenged him to a match later on).
There are two ways of looking at the Angle-Corbin pairing for Mania. The most obvious is that it’s a bit of a letdown for Kurt’s last ever match at a milestone Mania. Indeed, Corbin’s run as Raw’s lead heel (at a time when the red brand roster was in flux, admittedly) led to plummeting ratings and people genuinely suggesting that the product was at a many-years low. He’s competent in the ring but nothing more, and his persona is not one that will attract many new fans. But on the other hand, Corbin is a young talent with many years ahead of him, and there is a history here (Baron basically got Angle fired as General Manager of Raw). More to the point, is Kurt capable of having a great match, or even a very good bout, in 2019 on a stage like Mania? It’s possible that a five-minute run-through of his signature moves is the best we can expect, and that he can get a relatively straight-forward feel-good win to bow out with.
Nevertheless, I’m convinced that there’s a twist coming. Indeed, WWE had to know that fans would not be happy at this announcement, and Cole even noted later on how there was a major online backlash to (a babyface) Kurt’s announcement. Certainly, the Chicago fans weren’t pleased, as their energy levels dropped for quite a while. The chants of “We want Cena!”, whilst incredibly ironic given his history, left no doubt as to what fans really want to see. I am predicting that a) Angle faces Cena, with John Boy returning on Raw next week in Boston (in his home state of Massachusetts), and finds a way to take Corbin out in the process, or b) we get Angle vs. Corbin on the night, Kurt wins easily, and Cena then comes down to give him a “real” farewell. The alternative is that Kurt just gets a basic win over Baron. If Corbin ends up cleanly pinning Angle at MetLife Stadium, despite it being well-intentioned, there’ll be a lot of pissed-off fans during Mania.
Bayley/Sasha Banks Promo
The Boss ‘N’ Hug Connection came out to chat with Charly Caruso. They confirmed that they will appear on SmackDown this week to hear the challenge of The IIconics for their Women’s Tag Team Titles, before they were interrupted by Natalya and her bestie, Beth Phoenix (who resurfaced on WWE TV after Nia Jax and Tamina attacked her at Fast Lane). Beth noted how it was always a dream of her and Nattie to be champions together, but there weren’t any female doubles straps during her career. Now that there is, and with Nia and Tamina having “awoken the dragon”, Beth announced that she is coming out of retirement, and that she and Nattie want to challenge Bayley and Sasha at Mania. Some harsh words were exchanged, leading to Natalya slapping Banks, and an immediate match.
Natalya vs. Sasha Banks
This didn’t last long enough to fully judge, partly because it was the set-up for interference: Nia Jax’s music hit and she cut a promo, allowing for distractions that could provide Tamina with an opening to attack everybody involved. Nia said “see you at WrestleMania”; a three-way tag match seems likely, but with Bayley and Sasha visiting Billie Kay and Peyton Royce on SD, a four-way tag is far more likely.
Ricochet vs. Jinder Mahal
After Mojo Rawley rediscovered his hobby for screaming at himself in a mirror, we got the latest showcase for Ricochet (Cole said that Aleister Black was busy back home in Holland). Given that Mahal’s profile has fallen extremely low (he has spent most of his time teaming with The Singh Brothers on Main Event lately), the result was never in doubt: with the Chicago crowd back to being fully invested in the show, Ricochet hit his big aerial moves, including a twisting moonsault onto Jinder and pals at ringside, and he polished off the Modern-Day Maharaja with a 630.
Raw Women’s Championship Match
Ronda Rousey (C) vs. Dana Brooke
Dana was destroyed last week by Rousey ahead of a challenge for a title match. We got said bout here, and Brooke vowed to shock the world. Instead, one slap led to her being pummelled in 19 seconds and losing via armbar. Ronda wouldn’t let go afterwards, which led referees and security to break things up. Earlier on, Ronda had arrived with her MMA-fighting husband Travis Browne, only to be told about the consequences of putting her hands on staff again, which she brushed off. She did so again here, flooring the refs, then approaching her hubby at ringside. When security intervened again, Rousey took one down, and even Travis socked another of the guards. Rousey and man left together. This didn’t progress her feud with Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair, but it did provide more of a spotlight on Ronda, who in the usual paradoxical manner of pro wrestling, was cheered more for acting heelish here than she had been previously when performing as a babyface. It still put over Rousey while giving the other players in her rivalry a break, which is just what was required. Those suggesting that perennial loser Dana was “buried” in this manner against legit bad-ass Ronda need to find something else to complain about.
Baron Corbin vs. Apollo Crews
This was a short, uneventful bout, and its result provided further reason to believe that Corbin is only a pawn in the Kurt Angle farewell storyline, as he lost cleanly, and to a straight-up small package at that. Angle celebrated (kind of) with Apollo afterwards, as Corbin looked aghast. Moving on.
We had a pre-taped promo with Batista, who looked cooler than the other side of the pillow in his office at home (in Tampa, Florida apparently; isn’t Batista a Washington native who spends most of his time in Hollywood, California?). The Animal noted how he had always disliked Triple H, even before the days of Evolution, pointing out how he has always been selfish and put his career first. Batista said that HHH was the reason why he left WWE in 2010 because The Game held him back, and he hopes that Vince McMahon fires him one day (hah!). Batista finished off by vowing again to end Trip’s career in their No Holds Barred match at WrestleMania. This was missing one or two key details (such as the potential meat on the bone behind HHH holding Dave back in 2010; namely, that HHH was accepted for a WWE Studios movie role over Batista, one which had previously been granted for him), as well as the fact that recent behind-the-scenes kerfuffle (Batista wanting to return but WWE/HHH seemingly ignoring him) wasn’t touched upon as much as it should in this reality-based feud. Nevertheless, it was still a step forward; chances are that HHH responds next week, leading to one final face-to-face confrontation on the Raw before Mania.
Drew McIntyre vs. Seth Rollins
Before our main event, McIntyre talked us through his destruction of The Shield, but in particular Roman Reigns. Drew challenged The Big Dog to a match at Mania, one which Roman is bound to accept, something that Drew even acknowledged as he vowed to beat him on April 7. As for this match, it was a pretty good one, though again somewhat forgettable with the shadow of Mania looming. The finish was a bit predictable, though: as Seth was preparing to finish off The Scottish Psychopath, Lesnar and Heyman resurfaced, distracting him long enough for Drew to hit a match-winning Claymore. This isn’t to say that it wasn’t a good match, but it didn’t stand out as much in the heart of Mania Season as it would have in, say, December or January.
On the whole, this was a bit of an underwhelming edition of Raw, given the proximity to WrestleMania. The big downer was the reveal of Corbin as Angle’s opponent, even if it does feel like we’re building to something bigger. Fans are starting to question whether John Cena or The Undertaker (the big notable absentees from Mania at this point) will appear at all, and were holding out hopes that one of them would be confirmed here. Of course, it flies in the face of those bemoaning part-timers on major shows (and the rumours that Taker might be done altogether), but for a card as prestigious as WrestleMania (and given the word that it could last eight hours including the Kick-Off Show), WWE still needs those truly big names to draw casual fans in. Right now, we have Lesnar, Batista, HHH, Rousey … and that’s it aside from the regular crew. Oh, and Angle, who is bowing out against somebody who viewers have not wanted to see a lot of in recent times. There is plenty to be excited about for WrestleMania, but the hype is in danger of levelling off. Perhaps Kofi Kingston moving towards a previously-unthinkable Mania title match against Daniel Bryan on SmackDown will recapture the buzz. Anywho, other than the Kurt announcement, there was little to note from this Raw, so I’m hoping that things move bac in the opposite direction next week.