For a B-PPV in the doldrum between SummerSlam and Survivor Series, WWE’s Raw brand sure went all-out building the No Mercy match card. The event was headlined by dual main events that had been dubbed “WrestleMania worthy,” with shaved gorilla (and Universal Champion) Brock Lesnar taking on (somewhat) shaved bear Braun Strowman and Roman Reigns Vs. John Cena serving as the big draws. With a solid, if unremarkable, undercard and two killer matches to cap of the event, things were all set to a great match, right? Well…
- Though this is a Raw PPV, the announce and production teams are sure plugging the hell out of the upcoming SmackDown PPV, Hell in a Cell. Most of these are mentions of the KO/Shane match (man, do they think Shane is a draw) but more interesting are a commercials for the tag title match between the Usos and the New Day. That will likely be the best match of that night – so, yeah. Keep putting that at the front of your advertising, WWE.
- They run a new Asuka promo that is more of the same, except that it spells out exactly when the Empress of Tomorrow will debut: the next Raw PPV, Tables Ladders and Chairs* in October. Given that they imply that Bliss will face off with Mickie James in the next cycle, I imagine Asuka will debut by squashing Emma or something before any potential championship opportunities. (*Event may also contain Stairs)
- Our only match in the pre-show is Elias Vs. Apollo Crews and it’s okay for what it is. Elias does his “this town sucks” song, Apollo smiles a whole bunch, and the guys put on a pretty competitive match that would have gone the other way if this were still NXT. Still, I love the confluence of factors that come from the announce team. Graves absolutely hates Elias’ music, so Cole and Booker keep comparing him to Dylan, Neil Young and all these other auteurs to piss him off. Then there’s Apollo’s manager Titus, who Booker absolutely hates, so Graves and Cole speak of him like he’s the second coming of Ari Gold to piss him off. Maybe Heidenreich will return and Corey and Book can talk about how “he’s the best big man since Bam Bam Bigelow” while Cole is paralyzed by the memory of Heidenreich’s first run with the company. Anyway, Elias wins with the Drift Away, puts the boots to Crews till Titus makes the save, and it looks like the Drifter may be feuding with Titus Worldwide moving forward.
- Speaking of the production team, man, the opening package is lame as hell. You don’t need to aggrandize every event like it’s friggin’ Mortal Kombat, WWE. Sometimes you can trust the matches to sell themselves and don’t have to make it seem like Neville vs. Enzo Amore is some kind of Lovecraftian struggle between the forces of light and darkness.
Jason Jordan vs. The Miz (c) for the Intercontinental Championship
In the pre-show, Miz antagonized Kurt for…no reason I can surmise. I mean, The Miz has been on the hottest run of his career over the past few years – and I definitely agree with AiPT!’s own Patrick Ross’s assertion that the man is headed for the hall of fame one day – but I don’t see him being the guy to bring Kurt back to the active roster. Instead, I just assume this will be the second time this year that Miz gaslights us about a feud with an inactive General Manager that fans desperately want back in the ring. For now we will have to be content to see the greatest IC champ of the modern era face off against possibly the most talented Jannetty ever to come through the NXT system (Sorry, Dash Wilder, but we all know it’s true).
Tonight’s event is in Los Angeles and though Miz is like Mr. Cleveland, he’s been living in the Golden State for years so he gets a pretty good pop when he comes out. Jason Jordan, on the other hand, evokes almost no response. You could hear crickets chirp if it weren’t for the loud farting Casio trumpets of his still-not-good theme music. After the match he cuts the whitest of white meat babyface promos and the crowd is similarly dead, which is a bad sign if this is how they want to push him. Realistically, he needs to adopt the idealistic oblivious heel character that Kurt Angle used when he first joined the fed in 1999, or else he’s going to be an incredibly athletic and immensely talented but bland as fuck addition to the Impact Zone.
Anyway, this is a fairly standard match for both guys. JJ tosses Miz and company around with remarkable ease, and Miz hits all his standard stuff until it’s time for Axel and Bo to interfere and set up the finish. At one point, Jordan hits an exploder on Bo Dallas and tosses him into Miz and the Axe Man and it’s ALMOST enough to get a reaction from the audience. Alas, tonight is not JJ’s night as the finish comes when Jordan crotches Bo on the turnbuckle which distracts the ref, even as he rolls Miz up. Miz kicks out, driving JJ into a sucker punch from Axel, knocking him loopy enough to fall to a Skull Crushing Finale and the loss. It’s an okay match and all, but Jordan’s continued bland babyface shtick just isn’t working. The kid is dynamite in the ring; he’s just missing that all-too-important promo work. As for Miz, he returns to antagonize Kurt again near the end of the show and set up Miz TV for tonight’s Raw which…why did that need to be set up? It’s Miz TV. There is literally no reason it should even exist – and I say that as someone who loves The Miz. Still, you can look forward to seeing Roman Superman Punch one or all three members of the Miztourage in the context of a phony talk show tomorrow. So you know…tune in, guys!
Finn Balor vs. Bray Wyatt in a Man-to-Man Match
First off, it has to be said that “Man-to-Man match” is not a thing. Literally every match that isn’t a handicap match is man to man (or woman to woman #Feminism) — this is just a “no makeup” match, which…actually sounds even lamer. Maybe this branding is as good as it could be, it’s just needless. Anyway, this is (hopefully) the blowoff match between Finnzie and the Psychlo form of Husky Harris and it was easily the best in the trio. This was the most compelling Bray has been throughout this program and Balor’s out here bumping his ass off to make Wyatt look like the world killer he always claims to be. I mean, Bray still eventually loses, but it’s the journey, man, not the destination.
So Finn comes out second in a slick new baby grey trunks/kick pads combination, and before he can raise his hands triumphantly in his truncated version of the YMCA dance Bray rushes him and ferociously beats him down, even hitting an uranage onto (but not through) the announce table. So badly rattled is the non-Demon King that he is helped toward the back as Bray laughs and waves. Wyatt grabs a mic and runs Finn down by calling him a coward until he can’t stands no more and rushes the ring to start the match in earnest. Bray dominates the match in a fairly satisfying manner, and Finn actually busts out some new (to him) moves — even trapping his swamp-dwelling nemesis in the ring skirt to set up his apron punt maneuver. He hits a diving stomp to a doubled over Wyatt for a close 2 count, and ducks out of a few Sister Abigail attempts to keep the proceedings exciting, leaving some mystery into what (going into this) felt like a foregone conclusion. That conclusion, it turns out, was indeed foregone as Balor eventually hits his basement dropkick and Coup de Grace for the win.
For what it was, this was a satisfying end to this feud. It’s not all great: Balor staring agape as Bray does his crabwalk was silly and Booker admitting that he doesn’t know what the 1916 is (It’s one of Finn’s finishing moves, Book. As a commentator, you should probably know that), but it’s a much better match than everyone probably anticipated. Now, for the love of god, let Finn move on to something better. Remember all the enthusiasm and hope for him you had last year? Let’s bring some of that back and put him in a program that people will actually care about. As for Bray…I dunno, give him a lower midcard feud that – and this is the important part – he can actually win? For once? Please?
Cesaro and Sheamus vs. Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose (c) for the Raw Tag Team Championship
This was probably the best worked match on the card and though the right team won for the WWE’s long term plans, the performance of Sheamus and Cesaro (especially Cesaro) were strong enough to make me think twice about that outcome. For one, Seth and Dean have taken to having their own separate entrances rather than come out as a team. It kind of bugs me that a cohesive team like The Bar (who have added matching trunks to their ever expanding list of friendship-themed clothing items) loses to two individual guys thrown together because both were floundering as singles stars. I mean, that’s exactly what The Bar is but, at least those dudes made the effort to become a cohesive unit. Does that excuse my hypocrisy?
Anyway, this is a really active match and I give all the credit in the world to Sheamus and Cesaro for maintaining the pace — again, especially Cesaro. Early in the match, Dean slingshots the Swiss Superman into the ring post but Cesaro leaps a little too high and legit clocks his face on the ringpost, cracking a few of his teeth and driving them into his lip in the process.
Though he seems a bit gunshy and a little loopy for a little while, it’s to Cesaro’s eternal credit that he climbed back in the ring and kept going despite the injury. Credit due to Sheamus too, who saw his partner’s plight and spent more time in the ring to allow him some time to recover. Injuries aside, The Bar deserves a ton of credit for continually innovating their offense and adding new tandem moves with each match. Unless I missed it, the European duo debuted a new gutwrench Razor’s Edge move tonight that really has a cooler setup than a payoff, if I’m honest, but still looks great. At one point, the faces look like they’re about to turn the tide on our boys in team man kilt, but Cesaro catches Seth’s superkick while Ambrose is rebounding, allowing Sheamus to duck Dean’s clothesline and hit the Kingslayer with a Brogue kick. Great timing from all four men to pull that spot off.
I also have to shout out the biggest non-injury spot of the match, when The Bar attempted its assisted White Noise finisher. With Cesaro perched in the corner, Seth Rollins hops up to try and hurricanrana poor Cesario into Sheamus like the last time these two teams met. Yet he stumbles a little and more climbs on to Cesaro’s shoulders, which lets the toothless Swiss maintain his leverage and hold on to Crossfit Jesus while Sheamus hits the White Noise on Deano. Cesaro then power bombs Seth from the top rope ONTO a prone Dean. That move may have only earned the former champs a two count, but it definitely sold me (and a portion of the crowd) on The Bar winning this match. They didn’t, of course. The WWE’s nostalgia boner for The Shield is way too strong to have Ambrose and Rollins lose in their first title defense. That victory comes as Sheamus looks to hit Ambrose with a Brogue Kick while Cesaro holds Seth back, but Dean collapses before there’s any contact. Turns out he was playing possum, however, and rolls up Sheamus for a close 2. The pissed off Irishman goes for it again, but inadvertently boots Cesaro, allowing both Seth and Dean to hit their finishes on Sheamus for the clean win.
This was a really good match and put over the Shield boys something serious. Dean took a ton of punishment here but still kept kicking out to the point that it was almost frustrating to watch. Seth, on the other hand, was his usual self, hitting some familiar high spot moves, but not leaving much of an impression over all. I’d really like to see these two work on some kind of cohesive team elements. As is they very much feel like two different parts stuck together for convenience and not a real team. They come out separately, they don’t have unified merch – shoot, their finish is just each of their individual finishers performed one after another. Show us that you guys want to be a team, fellas, and not that your tag run is just because there aren’t enough credible solo midcard heels for you two to remain singles stars and maintain a place on the card. As for The Bar, I had initially wanted them to go their separate ways (and maybe become those solo heels the Raw brand so desperately needs), but this performance sold me on them as a team. I think they need to move past Dean and Seth, but there aren’t a lot of options for face tag teams – and don’t you dare put them against the Hardy Boyz again!
Emma vs. Bayley vs. Nia Jax vs. Sasha Banks vs. Alexa Bliss (c) for the Raw Women’s Championship
Much like Finn/Bray, this is another match that benefited from low expectations. It’s not that the performers aren’t talented, it’s that the matchups are uninspired and feel more like going through the motions than an actual fight. I’m pleased to say the Raw women really stepped up their games for this match, which — though not always smooth — kept the action moving, made (almost) everyone look strong and finally showed the world that Nia Jax isn’t one to sleep on. Yes, though she didn’t win, Jax was easily the star of the match, playing a fundamental role in all of the memorable spots and earning the second loudest pop in the match behind the inexorably popular Alexa.
Jax moved through her competition like a predator, eating double, triple and even quadruple teamings, but usually steamrolling her foes. At one point Alexa tries to hit a diving DDT on her, but just doesn’t weigh enough to take Nia down. She tosses Bliss up on her shoulder for a Samoan drop but notices Banks climbing the corner and swings Alexa into The Boss, crotching her. Jax then tosses Banks ON TOP of Bliss on her shoulders, does a squat with both ladies still in position and hits a double Samoan Drop. It must be kind of fun to be someone like Nia, who I have to assume is more than twice the weight of most of her competitors (she’s billed as 272, and most of these women — no matter how muscly — can’t be much higher than 130lbs at most) and can just toss these ladies around like children. Jax also proved she can take punishment as well as she dishes it out, when all four of her competitors come together to power bomb the Samoan Superstar off the apron and to the floor. Nia lands hard and earns a “this is awesome” chant from the crowd.
With the biggest threat down for the count, the remaining ladies kick it into high gear, with a string of near falls and finisher exchanges until Nia gets back up and drops a leg on Banks for a very close 2 count. Jax does the traditional “missed shoulder block into the ring post” spot the WWE trots out to keep people that aren’t about to win looking strong, allowing Bliss to toss Bayley into Emma then hit a DDT on the Hugger for the win. This was a great outing for the women overall, but realistically, this match was all about Jax. The other women had their moments, but none of them really stood out, with Sasha in particular blending very firmly into the background.
Obviously Bliss came away looking good too. The crafty champion may be the smallest woman on the red brand, but she’s proven to be a conniving and cunning heel who backs her boasts up with decisive, if somewhat underhanded, victories over all of her competitors. On Raw Talk, Bliss claimed that she cleared the women’s locker room with this victory, to which Renee Young posited: “Well, not the WHOLE women’s roster.” Bliss then expertly throws shade at the scrubs of the division by saying “Oh who am I going to face next? Alicia Fox? Dana Brooke?” When the discussion turned to former 5-time Women’s Champion (and one time Divas Champion) Mickie James, however, things got serious. So I guess that’ll be the holdover feud for the champ until Asuka climbs into title contention, perhaps at Royal Rumble.
Match 5: John Cena Vs. Roman Reigns
This, the first of the night’s “WrestleMania worthy” main events, is where the evening takes a sour turn. This match pits the company’s two biggest names against one another in a bid to see ‘who the true face of the company’ really is. After weeks of Cena embarrassing Roman on the mic with worked shoot promos that have seemingly become a requirement for all of the Doctor of Thuganomics’ feuds, now was the time for Roman to prove that he belonged at the top of the card with a definitive statement victor. Now, Reigns did win, but was this really the declarative statement that the WWE wanted? Not by a long shot. What we got was a slow-paced slog of a match almost entirely devoid of high spots and featuring the typical Superman booking of both men that somewhat exposes the business.
It should also be said that, unlike many of my contemporaries, I absolutely hate the character that Cena has been since he came to the Raw brand a few weeks back. He’s gone from “Old Man John” on SmackDown, where he was a gruff but experienced superstar willing to put young talent over and working his ass off against everyone, to smug dickhead John Cena, who revels in his privilege, shits on his opponents for weeks, doesn’t take them seriously in the match itself and generally just comes off as a douche. Before the match even starts, for example, the fans are chanting “You both suck,” which prompts John to just get out of the ring and start walking up the ramp. To Roman’s credit, he’s yelling at Cena to pay attention to him, not the crowd, but has to run up the ramp and hit one of his weird uppercut chops before John even turns around. Oh yeah, evidently this match is no count out, because they spend nearly half of it working around the ring and the ref literally never counts.
Though he does put Roman over clean in the end, this match is just loaded with ego stroking for John. The dude is a phenomenal performer, but there are some things he just can’t do and he needs to accept those limitations. One of them is the spot where he goes for his diving leg drop only to have it turned into a powerbomb. He’s tried it a few times and it just never looks good. He just weighs too much — you need a smaller guy to be essentially caught for the move to look like the guy throwing the power bomb is doing anything. At over 250 lbs, Cena’s just too large to make the move work, much like the old Code Red he used for a little while a few years ago that he seems to have since abandoned. He needs to put this spot next to the Springboard Stunner on his “you tried, you failed, move on” list.
The slow pace and lack of intrigue actually provokes boring chants a few times throughout the bout, and the few big spots we do get are all super predictable. Cena catches a crossbody from Roman and tosses him into the AA? Roman kicks out. Cena’s first attempt at the 5-Knuckle-Shuffle? Turned into a Samoan drop. Cena clears off both ringside announce desks to set up for an AA? Roman wriggles free and spears the leader of the Cenation through a table. Even the end is predictable, with an incredulous Cena struggling to comprehend how Reigns kicked out of his double rolling AA for so long that Roman hits a Superman punch and spear for the win. Yeah, Roman took a couple of John’s “mega finishes” (including a super AA from Bret’s rope), but it never really feels earned. Roman tanks these attacks and it feels like it’s more because of plot armor, rather than resiliency and toughness. It’s the problem with Reigns’ push being so transparent. Like Cena, he’s also a really strong (in-ring) performer, but his overt status as company golden boy makes him hard to root for in a predetermined contest because we already know he’ll win — especially when we know Cena’s about to leave to film a couple of movies. It just feels hollow.
Speaking of hollow, the ego stroking continues post match with the needless and hollow aggrandizing of John Cena. John’s now firmly a part timer, though more on the Chris Jericho end of the spectrum than The Undertaker’s. Jericho comes and goes when he can, has runs of varying quality (this past jaunt being maybe his best since his feud with Shawn Michaels in the early oughts) and quietly heads back out on the road with his band, to host a TV show or whatever the hell else he is doing that time. Yet whenever Cena leaves, they act like it was his last match ever. Seriously, dude lingers in the ring (after a slow and mediocre match) for like eight minutes soaking in the adulation of the crowd, who chants “thank you Cena” and gives him a standing ovation like it was The Undertaker’s retirement all over again. Like, why? That wasn’t a good match. You all just spent the past 22 minutes of its runtime shitting on it — even booing when Cena raised Roman’s hand in a sign of good sportsmanship — why are you thanking him? Dude is going away for like 6-8 months to do a few movies, but he’ll be back. He’s not The Rock – shit, even the Rock comes back when he can square it with his business partners and insurers. You’ll be seeing him on TV and in advertisements all the time in the interim. He’ll be on talk shows, hosting Good Morning America, doing press tours. He’s the central figure in a major movie franchise with one of the biggest marketing pushes of any IP in the world. He’ll be everywhere. So why treat him like he’s Lou Gehrig saying goodbye to Yankee Stadium just because he ate a half-assed spear and laid down for the guy who beats everyone?
Enzo Amore vs. Neville (c) for the Cruiserweight Championship
Ugh, Neville’s out first. I get that Enzo’s annoying “Promo on the way to the ring” shtick works best when there’s someone to actually cut down waiting for him, but the Champion always comes out second. That’s nitpicking, I suppose, but it barely scratches the surface of the complaints I (and likely the rest of the IWC) will have about this match. If you didn’t see it, Enzo Amore is your new Cruiserweight Champion. He won it by cheating, by hitting only two offensive maneuvers (one of which was very illegal) and while dressed as friggin Beetlejuice with a green shit emoji on the back of his trunks. He then went on Raw Talk where he shat on the Cruiserweight division as a whole, said the title was ugly but also implied that he was going to fuck it (because he has only the one line of analogy), and just came off as an unbearable douche.
It’s hard to call this a match, really, as it was an assault by Neville until Enzo cheated, kicked him in the dick, and won with the title. Enzo, who doesn’t even pretend to be an athlete on the level of the division’s other competitors, literally just absorbs punishment until he hits one move (a diving DDT that looked good live, but less so on the slow mo replay; maybe don’t use those on moves that don’t connect, guys) that he can’t even capitalize on. At one point, Neville tosses Zo into the timekeeper’s area and casually slides back in the ring as the ref starts counting. At the 9 count, however, dude pops up brandishing the title he hadn’t won yet, and the ref…stops the count? Like I guess Neville was pissed and moving to attack him, but then why did the ref stop him from doing it? It’s a match, he can attack Enzo on the outside. Amore is the one brandishing a foreign object, why stop Neville from going out after the guy touching his stuff? The ref finally seems to understand this when Zo brings the belt into the ring and feigns like he’s going to hit the King of the Cruiserweights with it. He pulls the tin coated purple Band-Aid off of Amore, which allows Enzo to punt Neville in the balls and win.
Where do you go from here now that, in effect, David Arquette is the Cruiserweight Champion? He instantly brings down the credibility of the rest of a division that has been struggling to establish itself with fans as something to care about. I hope it works out for you, WWE. I hope that Enzo as champ boosts the numbers of 205 Live and gives amazing wrestlers like Cedric Alexander or Mustafa Ali a higher profile because of it. I really want to believe that this will be a boon for the show…I just…don’t see it. Enzo’s shtick is tired, he’s not a strong performer and he has already dragged his opponent, the division and the belt within 40 minutes of winning it. Is it too much to ask for a Stone Cold injury angle where Amore gets hit by a car and we have a tournament to name the new Cruiserweight Champion? Have the final be Neville vs. Cedric? Have Cedric win? Pretty please?
Braun Strowman vs. Brock Lesnar (c) for the Universal Championship
In a bubble, this match could serve as a microcosm of the event as a whole. The bout started hot, there was an awesome middle part, then some stumbles and a flat, uninteresting ending that left the crowd deflated. Much like Brock’s last singles defense against Samoa Joe, this was a bout where a new up-and-comer got a chance to go one-on-one with the Beast, gets in some good offense and then goes down like a schmo to a random (and in both cases, sloppy) F5. Braun got in a lot of good shots, even hitting his running powerslam finisher five or six times, but he comes out of this match looking like he can’t hang with Brock, while Brock seems like he can weather the storm long enough to hit his finish and walk out with a win. It’s not just me saying that this was deflating, by the way, as the crowd literally went silent after the bell. There was an initial pop for the result and then all of LA just sat on their hands.
Aside from the finish, the one biggest complaint I have is again centered around the officiating. At one point Brock gets Strowman in a Kimura Lock and holds onto it for long time. The thing is, Brock slaps it on while Braun is standing and he stumbles, using the top rope to stabilize himself. That should force a break of the hold, right? He got to the ropes. Then again, Strowman drives Brock into the turnbuckle (which you may notice is attached to the ropes), still no break. Then they somehow manage to get closer to the middle, only for Braun to stretch out and grab the bottom rope to finally break it. Like…what? He was literally in the ropes three times, why does this one break it? It was this process that started to wear down Strowman and set him up for a four German suplex run that began to slow the big man down.
Still, even with that slower period, the ending is super abrupt. There’s little immediate build and if you weren’t paying close attention, it would have been easy to miss. That’s a bit of a problem for Braun. Where does he go now? Your only upper midcard faces are Reigns (who has fought Roman way too much this past year), Finn (who is a poor fit for a feud with Braun) and MAYBE the Hardy Boyz? I guess? It’s hard to say who needs them more, the singles division or the tag one, but there are just not a lot of options for a super heavyweight of Braun’s caliber unless they slide him back into the multi-man squashes. As for Brock, he goes back into hibernation until, let’s call it, Royal Rumble.