This past Sunday, the WWE’s Raw brand held its final pay-per-view on the Road to WrestleMania® and it….wasn’t great. Fastlane has a reputation for being little more than a souped-up edition of Raw, and this year’s event did nothing to combat that stigma. Was there any redeeming quality to what was certainly a throwaway event?
- You know this is going to be a lackluster event because in the first few minutes of the pre-show we learn that Stephanie and Trips will not be at the show, and instead are calling into a speakerphone to belittle Foley from afar. At one point, Stephanie tries to hint at some sort of WrestleMania plan and demands to be taken off speaker, but Foley picks up the receiver and pulls it off the cord and then he walks away. Uh, that wouldn’t hang up on her Mick, and she had already said that she’s watching the event on her tablet so she sees what you’re doing. What was the goal there?
- Jinder Mahal wanders into Foley’s office to break up with Rusev officially and request a match of his own. He’s followed by the Bulgarian Brute himself (sporting a slick new fade), who says the same thing. Foley pitches a best of seven series that no one would want to see, but cooler heads prevail and Foley says that he’ll give them both one-on-one matches later if they go down to the ring at the same time. You’d think this would be another pre-show match, but prepare to be disappointed!
- The only actual pre-show match is a Cruiserweight tag bout pitting Akira Tozawa and Rich Swann against Noam Dar and (The) Brian Kendrick. Before the match there’s a backstage segment where Dar hints that–if they win–he and Kendrick will celebrate by having a three way with his girlfriend Alicia Faaaaaaaawwwwwwkkssss. While Alicia seems on board for the idea, Kendrick says he “doesn’t do crazy.” Classy. Anyway they lose when Swann hits a really high phoenix splash on Dar for the pin. Largely unmemorable match, but Tozawa looked great. He’s wasted as a babyface in peril, though. He should be an athletic heel like Seth Rollins or Kenny Omega.
Match 1: Samoa Joe Vs. Sami Zayn
Much like their work together in NXT, this match was good but somewhat forgettable. Storyline wise, this match was always going to be Joe destroying Sami–and logistically it made a ton of sense. Recently rechristened “The Destroyer,” Joe is a beastly hoss going up against a guy whose role in the company is to sell every punch he takes with ragdoll physics. It’s such a shame that Sami’s so good at selling, because it means he’s destined to get bodied in pretty much every match.
Anyway, there were some decent spots in this match. Joe hits this weird drop down somersault thing that takes out Sami’s legs (btw, Zayn’s tights look like trash) and he falls flat on his face. At one point Sami plays possum with an injury only to sucker Joe in for a rollup for 2. The finish comes after a few minutes is spent in the corner, with a teased Muscle Buster serving as part of that back and forth. Sami goes for the Helluva kick but gets caught in Joe’s uranage slam, gets put in the Coquina Clutch and passes out in the middle of the ring. It’s a good dominant win for Joe without burying Sami, which is what should’ve happened. Still, for two performers of this caliber it is a little disappointing that they never seem to produce memorable matches.
Match 2: Enzo Amore and Big Cass Vs. Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson (c) (Raw Tag Team Championships)
Enzo comes out in a red velvet onesie with gold trim in the shape of those sexy lady silhouettes from every trucker’s mud flaps. It’s like he’s wearing the carpet from the game room of the Playboy Mansion circa ‘98. He and Cass do their whole song and dance, go for the cheap pops of comparing themselves to the local sports teams (the Brewers reference felt particularly shoehorned in), and that brings out Gallows and Anderson for a match that could easily fit on Raw–except that The Club won.
Despite the outcome, the Good Brothers were only barely made to look competent in this match. Whenever Cass was in the ring he was wrecking shop and was unstoppable, and Enzo got to show some creative babyface ingenuity in a lot of the heat segments. That being said, Anderson did get two moments to shine, most notably when Enzo made an attempt to dive into a hot tag to Cass only to get caught by a shotgun dropkick in the face in mid air. Probably the best move Anderson has made since he came to WWE.
Once the hot tag gets made, Cass rolls in and starts wrecking shop, setting Anderson up for the Bada-boom-shakalaka in the southwest corner so that Gallows can break up the count. This leads to he and Gallows getting into it on the outside, with the champ managing to knock down his larger opponent, only to then eat a running nothing (like was it a crossbody? An inverted diving DDT?) from Enzo. As the realest guy in the room tries to get back into the ring, Anderson catches him with a running Busaiku knee and goes for the pin. Zo gets his foot on the rope, but Gallows manages to push it off before the ref can see it, giving The Club the win.
Not a bad match for these two teams, but–again–it felt like one of their Raw matches, which is something of a theme for this event in general. Also shoutout to the guy with the “Jack Tunney is my President” sign.
Match 3: Nia Jax Vs. Sasha Banks
For round three of this incredibly one-sided feud, Nia once again dominated the smaller Banks for a solid seven of the eight minutes that this match ran. The only real offense that Sasha get in is a nice little counter sequence in the middle where the Boss manages to trap Nia in a guillotine choke, Nia powers out of it, but she snaps it on again. Nia breaks free again, but Sasha converts to a sleeper hold. Jax again breaks out of it by slamming Banks in the corner, who then turns it into a tornado DDT and moves seamlessly into the Bank Statement. Jax again powers out of it, lifting Banks into this crazy choke slam and follows it up with a leg drop on her back.
Honestly that should’ve been the end, as it was a great counter wrestling sequence. Alas, they have Nia gloat too much about being in control and she gets rolled up for the win. Now if you believe the rumors, Banks was supposed to have grabbed the ropes for leverage to cheat to win the match, setting her heel turn in motion and making the ending of the women’s title match make a little more sense (more on that later). Alas, it looks like she may’ve been out of position and too far from the ropes, so she misses her opportunity to cheat and just scores a clean win.
Now, the ending as it was does accomplish a few positive things that the WWE is clearly looking for. It gives Sasha some much needed momentum, given that she’s spent the past several months getting wrecked by Nia and just altogether being injured. Nia looks like a monster who just got overconfident and paid for it. Still, the end they had (possibly) written seems like it would have been a much better fit.
Match 4: Jinder Mahal Vs. Cesaro
The next two matches are some nonsense lingering over from the pre-show and clearly added to pad for time. As I mentioned above, Jinder Mahal and Handsome Rusev are no longer a tag team and both want singles matches. They both come out to the ring and get into a little fight amongst themselves leading to Jinder–a man I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen win a match–giving this dainty skipping knee to Rusev to knock him out for the next 10 minutes so he can fight Cesaro.
Man, Cesaro is desperately trying to pull some sort of enthusiasm out of the crowd, but he’s in there Jobber Mahal (I almost went with Jinder MahJob, but it felt like a stretch) and it’s stretching the suspension of disbelief that he would struggle with this guy rather than giving the Indian (by heritage at least, dude’s from Canada) the rub. After a few minutes of unconvincing offense, with Jinder focusing on Cesaro’s back, Rusev wakes up and mean mugs Mahal, which distracts him long enough for Cesaro to hit the super European uppercut for the win.
Handsome Rusev takes the opportunity to wreck Jinder for a minute and toss him out of the ring to wait for his opponent. Who will he be facing tonight? Wellllllll….
Match 5: Rusev Vs Big Show
I guess I should spell that: “WEEEEeeeeeeEEEEEEEeeeeelllll!” Well it’s the Big Show coming down with his newly trimmed down 360lb frame for what–on paper–should have been a comparable athletic competition to his bout with Strowman. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.
Instead Big Show just wears out Rusev for around 12 minutes, with RuRu only managing the most bare bones attempts at offense. When he does manage to get a strike in, it’s usually to Show’s knee, which only ever momentarily brings him down. To his credit, Rusev gets Show down to one knee and then hits him with three straight super kicks for a near fall. An exasperated Bulgarian Brute bemoans loudly into the camera “Three kicks! Three Machka kicks!” which is a little funny. Rusev tries to use this momentum to put Show in the Accolade, but the giant fights out and hits three consecutive chokeslams.
Then–in a maneuver that isn’t being treated as a heel turn, but is certainly a dick move–Big Show throws a WMD knockout punch to an already knocked out Rusev who is defenseless and slumped in the corner. Way to literally hit a man when he’s down. Be A Star. Anyway, that’s obviously enough for a win and the burial of Rusev continues.
This match and the one that preceded it were needless and definitely made this event feel like little more than an episode of Sunday Night Raw. Boo to this booking team. Also, boo to the guy holding up the “CNN is Fake News sign.” Cheers to the guy with the “311 was an inside job” sign, though.
Match 6: Neville (c) Vs. Jack Gallagher (Cruiserweight Championship)
If I told you that the best match of the night was for the Cruiserweight title you’d assume I was lying…well unless I was reviewing a WCW PPV from the 90s, but you catch my point. In a match between the Pringles guy and the Goblin King, we get the best Cruiserweight match since last year’s CWC Tournament. It’s a pretty physical match, with Gallagher hitting some convincing strikes (especially his headbutts) and Neville performing one of the most beautiful release German suplexes of the year, following up with a phoenix splash from the middle rope. At one point Gallagher hits an amazing high back superplex that gets both men glassy-eyed for 2.
Eventually Neville takes control and starts torturing the smaller man with rest holds and chain submissions. Gallagher avoids a baseball slide, hits a headbutt only to get caught with a superkick and hit a second, even rougher headbutt to flatten the champ. He collapses on Neville for a 2 count and the crowd chants “this is awesome.”
The finish see Neville fight off a superplex attempt from Gallagher only to eat the most vicious headbutt in the match thus far and lay prone on the turnbuckle. Once Gallagher collects himself enough to get back in the fight he goes back up for the superplex, but Neville tosses him off with an X-plex and then hits the Red Arrow for the first time in forever and bounces like four feet off of Gallagher for the win. Fantastic match from these two, played to both guys’ strengths. Gallagher looks gutsy and tough for hanging in there with Neville and being competitive, and Neville does a great job of putting his opponent over by actually busting out his biggest move to beat this guy.
The other development coming out of this match is the transparent face turn of Austin Aries. Throughout the match he plays up the positives about Gallagher’s offense, while badmouthing the heelish mannerisms and tactics of Neville. He also turns down Corey Graves’ praise of the champion, making it unclear if Graves is supposed to be the heel commentator he is on Raw or the tweener he typically is on 205 Live. Anyway, I imagine Aries will be popping up in some non-commentary form tomorrow during Raw or Tuesday on 205 Live.
The New Day comes out to talk up their ice cream bars an make out with the cooler they trot out to the ring. And…that’s sort of it. They make a joke about skeeting, Big E sings part of Randy Orton’s theme song, and….it’s not funny. It’s not informative or entertaining. It’s just…kind of there. They really can’t think of anything better to do with these guys? This was entirely needless.
Match 7: Braun Strowman Vs. Roman Reigns
Strowman’s continued ability to pleasantly surprise fans with his performances in the ring continues with this good (not great) match with the Big Dog. Reigns–wearing his Air Force Ones instead of his usual boots for some reason–enters to a mixed, more positive pop, but when Braun’s music hits (and more so when he does his pose at the top of the ramp) he gets a huge face pop, potentially the biggest one for anyone not named Goldberg all night.
As with the Nia Jax bout, the match sees Braun just manhandling Roman for like 90% of the match, only pausing momentarily to eat some offense to help make The Guy look strong before going right back to wrecking shop. After Roman misses a Samoan drop, Braun hits one that shakes the ring and he sits up with a great heel snarl. Dude’s mannerisms are on point–he’s maybe the best monster heel working today, which says a lot about how far he’s come in such a short time.
The story they try to spin in this match is that while Roman has been in these high pressure, challenging matches–Strowman’s still kind of a noob. As such, Strowman makes a few big mistakes and tries moves he’s not done before to his inevitable downfall. The first big mistake comes when he tosses Reigns into the steps, only for Roman to make a last minute dive over them, Braun chases after him and ends up eating the stairs. Moments later Strowman reverses a corner splash into a spinebuster and regains control.
The next time, Braun goes for a running big boot in the corner but Roman ducks it and the big man’s momentum is enough to drive him over the top rope and out to the floor. Though he goes on to eat a drive-by from Reigns, Braun recovers and catches Roman as he tries to spear him through a barricade and turns it into his running powerslam through the Spanish announce table. Huge pop.
To the booker’s credit, they do have Braun eat a lot of offense as well. He enters the ring still selling the knee from his trip to the outside only to be caught by a spear for two. He goes on to eat two superman punches and block the third with a shoulder tackle. Having hit all of the finishers he’s used since his debut, Braun goes to the top rope to attempt maybe the biggest top rope splash I’ve seen. Unfortunately, it’s his last mistake as he whiffs the splash, landing relatively gingerly for that sort of thing (but given his size, I think it was probably for the best) before getting up moments later and getting hit with a second spear for the loss.
Like a lot of Braun’s recent matches, this was better than it had any business being. A good amount of back and forth, both guys looked strong, Strowman only loses because of a rookie mistake–and yet I’m still not that happy with the result. Not just because I’m a mark for Braun (I am) or that I dislike Roman (I do), but because it felt like just a stupid status quo decision. Roman wouldn’t be hurt by losing to Braun; honestly I don’t think Braun is hurt too much by this loss either, but the rub he would get by walking away with a win would be immeasurable. Add to that the fact that nothing is clearer about what is happening with either guy at WrestleMania (the much anticipated interference from the Undertaker never happened) and this feels like a good match with a good finish, but a bad result.
Match 8: Bayley (c) Vs. Charlotte Flair for the (Raw Women’s Championship)
From a good match with a good finish and bad result comes an okay match with a bad finish and bad result. The storyline coming into this match is that Bayley, the purest babyface in the game, recently won the Women’s title on Raw with help from her friend Sasha Banks. Now, in that instance, former champ Charlotte Flair had her buddy Dana at ringside to cheat for her, so while it wasn’t the cleanest win, it was a case of turnabout being fair play. In a brief interview during the pre-show, Bayley challenges Charlotte to leave Dana in the back for their rematch tonight–and despite being a total heel, Charlotte actually does it.
What proceeds is a typical Bayley-Charlotte match–competently wrestled, occasionally sloppy, mostly good but forgettable action. Bayley hits all her signatures, Charlotte manages to connect with her perfect-form moonsault (if just barely), and they hit all the typical heel-face dynamics you’d expect from them. Charlotte snarls and yells “you’re just a fan” throughout, Bayley makes that beaten-up-but-not-broken face and fist shake thing perfected by Sting back in the 80s. Again, everything is as it should be.
Then it happens. Charlotte is in control and signals for the finish when out comes Sasha Banks. Now mind you, Charlotte hasn’t really cheated yet in this match. She’s done some heel shit, sure, but she’s broken no rules. Still, Sasha comes out and directly attacks Charlotte in full view of the referee, a move that–for some reason–doesn’t result in a disqualification. While dealing with Sasha, Bayley comes back to life and hits a Bayley-to-Belly on the outside to flatten the challenger. She rolls her back into the ring, but Charlotte does a quick rollup on Bayley as soon as she’s through the ropes. With the ref counting, Sasha pops up and yells to the ref that Charlotte’s pulling the tights, ending the pin. Charlotte gets in Sasha’s face for interfering allowing Bayley to hit another Bayley-to-Belly for the win.
So here we have a squeaky clean babyface bad mouthing her heel opponent for needing her friends to cheat for her to win. The heel agrees to leave her buddy in the back, ACTUALLY DOES SO, only for the babyface to then have HER friend come out and cheat for her. Like…Bayley just cheated to win. Right? I’m not wrong here am I? She’s supposed to be the perfect good guy (gal?) who always does what’s right, but she had her friend come out and help her win a match. If you think they could resolve this on Raw by saying that Bayley didn’t know Sasha was coming out and thus feels bad about the ending then you’re wrong. Not only does she clearly see Banks interfere, later on the post-show they’re joking about the outcome in matching sweaters.
The other little post-script thing to consider is that going into this match, there was a lot made of Charlotte’s unbeaten streak on PPV. In 16 consecutive PPV singles matches Charlotte has won, only losing in tag team bouts where (to my recollection) she never ate the pin. Yet here, this woman who–though a total jerk–fought a fair match is cheated out of her streak by the good guys? We’re supposed to cheer that fact? This is wrestling, not Game of Thrones. Good guys should be good guys and bad guys bad. I don’t need this shades of grey nonsense when I’m watching athletes in glittery spandex pretend to punch each other in the face.
Match 9: Kevin Owens (c) Vs. Goldberg (Universal Championship)
Ugh, this match. There’s been a huge argument in wrestling fandom over the past several years about the WWE being over-reliant on part-time talent when it comes time for their big shows. Though obviously fans like seeing guys like the Undertaker or Bill Goldberg come back for special attraction matches at shows like WrestleMania, the complaint is that it’s always at the expense of the guys (and gals) that bust their ass to make a name for themselves for the rest of the year. Historically the biggest argument against this was with CM Punk and The Rock back in 2013. Punk had largely been carrying the company on his back for over a year heading into his match with the biggest movie star in the world–defending it day-in, day-out for 434 days. The problem being, The Rock is the biggest movie star in the world, and no matter how talented Punk was, the people in the front office knew that having Dwayne as the champion at their biggest show of the year would pop ratings a lot more than the Straight Edge Superstar. Many credit the decision to move the title off of Punk and onto The Rock as one of the straws that broke the camel’s back and forced the longest reigning WWE Champion of the modern era into early retirement.
Believe it or not, what happened in the “main event” of Fastlane was even more egregious.
While not the strongest champion in recent memory (WWE has been terrible at writing stories for heel champs for the past several years), Kevin Owens had been the Universal champ for around eight months, putting on good to great matches with the likes of Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Sami Zayn and more. He appears on house shows and rarely if ever misses Monday Night Raw. On Sunday he lost to a man who has wrestled only one one-on-one match in the past 15 years, in like eight seconds. A 50-year old man who has yet to actually take a single bump since he “returned” a few months back. A man who was last relevant when the current champion was barely 18 years old. The entire match is literally .gif length.
Regardless of the outcome of this match, Goldberg has been set to face Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania for weeks now. It was already going to be a big match with a ton of eyes on it, it did not need to add a title stipulation to make it interesting. So instead of trying something different or unexpected, WWE instead had the man who has been their most prestigious champion for most of the year go down like a chump in only a few seconds to a man whose shelf life with the company includes just a handful of appearances. How do you expect to build new stars if you’re making your top guy get mulched by a 50-year old former football player who hasn’t wrestled a single match in 14 years? I just don’t get it.
Compounding this lunacy is the fact that Owens’ former best-friend-turned arch rival Chris Jericho showed up to distract KO just as the opening bell rang. Now, that he’d want to screw over the man that wronged him is not entirely crazy. That is, unless, you are a wrestling fan and understand that Jericho’s and Owens’ personal issues pretty much assure that they will be fighting each other at WrestleMania. If KO had still been champion, you could safely assume that that match would have been for the title. Jericho’s actions made sure that it won’t be. In fact, it pretty much ensures that the match will instead be for the United States Championship currently held by Jericho. So…yeah. Smooth move buddy.
It’s hard to say that this PPV felt like anything other than an episode of Monday Night Raw–and not a particularly good one. The only difference is that all of the matches had endings–but many of those were garbage. The Neville/Gallagher match and Roman/Strowman were really quite good, but the rest was either good but forgettable (Zayn/Joe) or just not very good at all (Certified Gs/The Club). With WrestleMania looming in a few days, we as fans just want to put this one behind us and move forward to what will hopefully be a better build to the show of shows.
Final score: 5/10