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WWE kicked the build to WrestleMania into high gear on last night’s Raw

The Road to WrestleMania has been surprisingly uneventful — until last night.

This week’s episode of WWE Raw was one of the most eventful and important on the road to WrestleMania thus far from a storytelling perspective. There weren’t any memorable wrestling matches, which sort of precludes it from being a great wrestling show, but in a WrestleMania build that has at times seemed aimless and subsisting off backstage rumor and innuendo rather than on-screen drama, this week’s episode was a welcome step in the right direction.

Roman Reigns is back, and obviously needs a spot on the Mania card. WWE addressed this immediately, kicking off Raw with a Roman promo that teased a groan-worthy shoehorning of the Big Dog into the Universal Championship picture, only to pivot instantly to a much more palatable Shield reunion. Sure, this is now the fourth incarnation of the most important faction of the 2010s, but the first two reunions were prematurely ruined by outside forces (viral meningitis/injury and leukemia, respectively), so WWE can be forgiven for wanting to going to the well once again. And considering both the in-universe and out-of-kayfabe (or is it?) developments around Dean Ambrose since Reigns has been on the shelf, a Shield story is the most natural move for both.

The Hounds of Justice are penciled in at Fastlane to face midcard goons du jour in Drew McIntyre, Bobby Lashley and Baron Corbin, a slapdash faction that nevertheless carries some star power and has been built as a dominant force as of late. But the true story will undoubtedly be Dean Ambrose and his mindset. Ambrose has been marketed as “unstable” for years now, but finally his character is living it. The Lunatic Fringe has really sold the inner turmoil of his character, both because of the flood of emotions Reigns’s sickness and subsequent triumphant return have caused, and his own “should I stay or should I go” dilemma within the company. Smart money would bet on Ambrose to lose his cool at Fastlane, betray Reigns and Rollins once again, and set up for Roman Reigns vs. Dean Ambrose at WrestleMania — a perfect use for the Big Dog, as it’s meaningful and emotional without thrusting him immediately back into the Universal Championship picture that Rollins spent the better part of 2018 scratching and clawing toward.

Meanwhile, in the women’s division, the sometimes uneven build toward Becky Lynch’s WrestleMania moment finally kicked into high gear to close last night’s Raw. Chief Brand Officer and ostensible liaison to all women Stephanie McMahon reinstated Becky Lynch as a result of Ronda Rousey’s actions last week. However, this reinstatement didn’t come the way Ronda envisioned: Stephanie interpreted Ronda’s actions as vacating the Raw Women’s Championship, and set up Becky Lynch vs. Charlotte Flair at Fastlane for the title. This brought out Rousey (from the parking lot, for some reason), who was not in a good mood.

In an instant, gone was the smiling, “happy to be here,” “living my dream” Ronda fans have been subject to for the past year, in her place the bitter, angry monster hellbent on proving her worth by any means necessary fans have been clamoring for all along. While Ronda’s first year is in the conversation for greatest rookie year in pro wrestling history, the character presented always seemed at odds with what should have been. In the octagon, Ronda was a bloodthirsty killer who didn’t respect her opponents and was only fueled by winning. In a WWE ring, her demeanor was far more reserved and gracious.

And against all odds it worked, but in a feud against current golden child in both the eyes of the audience and the office Becky Lynch, there is no way Ronda was going to get cheered. The fear that WWE would present her as a Roman Reigns/John Cena type who “evokes emotions” instead of turning her heel was real, but thankfully, WWE pulled the trigger on Monday night and unleashed the real Baddest Woman on the Planet, angry at the fans for turning on her at the drop of a hat and certain that she is leagues above her competition. However you feel about Ronda’s kayfabe-busting tweets over the past week, the way that character manifested on television this week was a much-needed character tweak that makes the situation concerning the Raw Women’s Championship infinitely more intriguing.

We also now have a clear, logical path for Becky to be added to the Raw Women’s Championship match (even though she won the Royal Rumble match…even though she wasn’t even technically in the match…wrestling is complicated): at Fastlane, if Lynch loses to Flair, she’s “done” in Stephanie’s words. But if she wins, the WrestleMania showdown for the Raw Women’s title becomes a triple threat.

Finally, following up on last week’s cliffhanger, Triple H delivered an impassioned speech (that, like a lot of stuff lately, was bizarrely tiptoeing the line between kayfabe and reality) that made Triple H vs. Batista a must-see matchup. The story of “you attacked my friend, prepare to die” is one as old as pro wrestling itself, but Hunter’s excellent promo last night proved that the classic tropes still exist to this day because if done right, they work.

On paper, WrestleMania 35 has seemed like it’ll be a great show since at least January; problem was, the weekly drama on Raw and SmackDown wasn’t building on the hype. This Monday, WWE used its time wisely, thrusting multiple storylines further ahead than they have in months.

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