Doctor's Orders: March 27-29, 2017 - Why Raw Is As Good As Smackdown Lately & Why I'm Looking Forwarding To Smackdown Post-WrestleMania, Raw Before WrestleMania Review, & WWE Months-in-Review For February and March
By The Doc
Mar 29, 2017 - 4:00:38 PM
”The Doc” Chad Matthews has been a featured writer for LOP since 2004. Initially offering detailed recaps and reviews for WWE's top programs, he transitioned to writing columns in 2010. In addition to his discussion-provoking current event pieces, he has written many acclaimed series about WrestleMania, as well as a popular short story chronicle. The Doc has also penned a book, The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment, published in 2013. It has been called “the best wrestling book I have ever read” and holds a 5-star rating on Amazon, where it peaked at #3 on the wrestling charts.
Smackdown Has Lost Its Identity Lately
Go-Home Raw Review Ahead Of WrestleMania 33
WWE Months-in-Review For February and March
QUESTION OF THE DAY: Which wrestlers needs to win his/her match at WrestleMania the most?
WrestleMania 33 is on Sunday! From now until then, you will have no shortage of prediction columns to read and podcasts to listen to which will collectively help get you primed for the weekend, so I thought today that I would offer a change of pace and zero in on a topic that I have found increasingly interesting over the past month or so. (Doc’s Note - If you want my concise thoughts on Mania or need help getting excited, check out “The Doc Says” podcast linked at the top of the page)
One of the things that has become obvious these last eight months since the brand split is the difference in the expectations of what fans feel like Raw should be versus what they feel like Smackdown should be. I would be lying if I told you I knew exactly what fans thought Raw should be, aside from being an hour shorter and featuring a heel Roman Reigns, but I would feel fairly confident in saying that fans have come to expect from Smackdown a simply-booked show that makes the most of nearly all its segment time and puts together a quality running narrative week-to-week. Fans do not expect from the blue team a lot of Attitude Era-ish swerves – i.e. big things – as they perhaps do from their Monday night counterpart, but a program that plays to the strengths of its characters and concentrates on developing them – i.e. little things. You could say that Raw is supposed to be more flamboyant, while Smackdown is supposed to deliver its usual steady, engaging, and compact presentation.
While watching Kentucky vs. North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight last weekend, I saw a parallel to WWE’s brand extension 2.0, specifically between the one-and-done program that the Wildcats have become, living and dying each season with a crop of freshman destined to declare for the NBA Draft as soon as their lone season ends, and the type of program that the Tar Heels are presently, focusing more so on building a roster steadily through the development of upper-classmen. At the end of the day, both approaches can be successful, but purists tend to favor North Carolina’s strategy and celebrate it when it proves superior (as it did on Sunday). Obviously, in this analogy, Carolina is Smackdown and Kentucky is Raw.
With differing expectations comes a different attitude toward each brand. Personally, I have come to review Raw based on its best 90-minutes, the total run-time on Tuesdays taking commercial breaks into account, making it easier to compare Raw to Smackdown. So, as a for instance, the best 90-minutes of Raw this week featured the Rollins-Triple H, Goldberg-Lesnar, Taker-Reigns, and Owens-Jericho hype (the latter including the KO-Zayn match). Put that up against Smackdown’s entirety and you’ve got yourself a more viable discussion for the superior brand.
Strength against strength, the best from each show were of near-equal quality, as the war of WWE “it” couples yet again showcased last night why we should never judge a feud by the way it looks on paper; the manner in which Cena ripped into both Miz and Maryse was harsh but gripping television, laced with the kind “Reality Era” barbs that strike a chord with my smarkier side, while Triple H and Rollins were just as good within the context of their own story on Raw. The next best segments were fairly standard fare, but each had their strong points that were quite noteworthy; promos delivered by Shane McMahon and AJ Styles were just fine, with the intriguing thing we learned being that their match would be just a regular wrestling match and, though I suspect a ref bump will allow some shenanigans ala the Triple H-Undertaker match at WrestleMania X-Seven to take place after all, the point is that the interaction on Tuesday night, overall, was pretty safe, just like the final bit of Undertaker-Reigns hype (Roman’s most heelish promo yet notwithstanding). Smackdown’s filler and Women’s Title match-related stuff was about as paint-by-the-numbers as Raw’s closing segment and the spotlight match from each brand – Zayn vs. Owens on Raw, Luke Harper vs. Bray Wyatt on Smackdown – both acted as vehicles to effectively wrap up pre-Mania angles in fashions that certainly did not attempt to reinvent the storyline wheel.
Overall, the above comparison for this week’s shows illustrated that, blue may generally be better than red from top to bottom but, in the past month, Raw’s best has been about as good as Smackdown, and I think that the reason stems from a trend we have begun to see in 2017 of co-branded pay-per-views deemphasizing the importance of Smackdown. As good as Smackdown has been – and I’ll reiterate that, for the most part, I have consistently found Tuesday night WWE viewing to be some of my favorite nights produced by WWE TV in years – when it joins forces with Raw for a Big 4 event, the red hued spotlight consumes that of the blue hue. Raw had three matches on the main Royal Rumble card to Smackdown’s one. At WrestleMania 33, Raw will have six matches on the main card to Smackdown’s four, and the general consensus seems to be that the vast majority of the most interesting matches are from Raw.
Maybe it is just me, but I feel like Smackdown is at its best when building to its own pay-per-view. The strength on Tuesday nights is the manner in which the roster is deployed, sans for the sporadic use of the Tag Team Title division. Some of the following statement is influenced by my negative perception of the pre-show – my general stance: a pre-show match is not a PPV match, but this generation’s version of a Sunday Night Heat match – but when WWE has structured recent Big 4 PPV cards to have Smackdown’s mid-card relegated to cluster matches that are not scheduled for the special event itself, it takes the wind out of the blue brand’s sails. Smackdown is not built for spending all of its creative attention on just the top matches like Raw has become over the past decade. Post-Summerslam through the end of last year, Smackdown actually only had three or four bonafide main-event talents and had to rehab a couple of careers to earn some depth; it became the toast of the town by attention to detail not just for headliners, but for the women’s division and Intercontinental Title scene and for the advancement of an angle across each quarter hour with minimal filler. Since cluster matches on the pre-show suggests filler, a lot of Smackdown during these recent weeks has seemed more like Raw, with Shane taking the creative emphasis typically placed on the women’s division or mid-card angles.
Contrary to the popular narrative, I don’t think Smackdown has been necessarily better than Raw recently. Especially in the month of March, Smackdown is channeling its inner-Kentucky Wildcats and trying to do more of what Raw does best, but at heart it’s the UNC Tar Heels and is better suited for a slower-paced development. So, I’m looking forward to WrestleMania, but I’m also looking forward to Smackdown returning to its regular format after WrestleMania. Hopefully, come Summerslam, the trend we have seen for Smackdown with the Rumble and Mania will be gone.
Many would claim that WWE has been on a bit of a modern creative hot streak over the past several weeks, building to WrestleMania matches successfully even in the face of fundamental disagreements that some fans have about certain matches in principle. There was an expectation, accordingly, of a strong go-home episode of Monday Night Raw to put the final touches on a Road to WrestleMania as full of strong hype as it has been of controversy.
The segment to usher in the 10PM eastern hour between Roman Reigns and Undertaker served as a microcosm for the entire show. Reigns came out to a thunderously negative reaction and proceeded to cut probably the most authentic promo if not of his entire headlining career than certainly in recent memory. Listening to the vociferous Philly audience without the visual acknowledgment of the Raw set, one might have mistaken their TV to be replaying Royal Rumble 2015. Roman’s response this time, though, was full of the attitude and swagger that he should rightly have in March 2017 after having been increasingly booed out of every arena in the world for the last two years since that fateful January Classic. Organic, for lack of a better word, is good. However, in contrast with Roman’s words, Undertaker’s dialogue was the kind of safe and predictable jargon for which The Phenom has become associated in his rapidly advancing years. Overall, then, the segment was noteworthy in some ways and paint-by-the-numbers in others; and that, ladies and gentlemen, pretty well describes the final Monday Night Raw before WrestleMania.
Fortunately, what worked was very engaging. Unlike the man with whom WWE wants Reigns to mirror in John Cena, Roman is outwardly displaying the defiance that he and the company have shown in not altering his character dynamic with a full-on heel turn; if they plan to continue their stubborn streak, at least Reigns is reminding the fanbase that he can be interesting when not reciting unrelatable, whitemeat babyface scripts. Though, in the past, I have been vocal in pointing out that Reigns does not earn near the volume of mixed reactions (nor the volume of merchandise sales) to be considered anywhere close to Cena, recent weeks have shown as much as ever before that Reigns could indeed become as divisive as his predecessor and, most importantly from a creative standpoint, that his powerful mix of anger and frustration in reply to his naysayers will not further antagonize an already jaded anti-Reigns camp with perceived fictional/on-camera ignorance of the situation. WWE and Cena were notorious for years in that department, thumbing their nose at the so-called anti-establishment via statements such as “Cena is unorthodox” or “Cena is controversial.” I think, for many, the rigidity in Cena’s persona created apathy instead of vitriol; Roman, as Cena’s successor as the company’s lightning rod, being flexible enough to adapt his character to fit each opponent will more readily spark a more productive ire, as well as more creative diversity.
Enthusiasts would be well-served to adopt a new narrative about Reigns; he clearly is not intended to be a traditional babyface in the Daniel Bryan mold, hence the parallel with Cena. Thus, the door is wide open for a more universally-accepted hero to emerge and the question is: who will it be on Raw? If Seth Rollins can bottle up whatever he found within himself last night, reproduce it, and drink it every night from here on, it could be The Architect who emerges in that spot. Rollins cut a genuine babyface promo several months in the making that may prove as important to this phase of his career as his promo the week after he turned on The Shield was to the last phase of his career. The ready-fire!-aim mentality employed by WWE is consistently detrimental to their success, as Rollins basically wasted much of the last six months trying to convince people that they should cheer him without giving any sort of explanation. In June 2014, they wasted no time in allowing him to explain his change in tune. He needed the chance to do the same last year when he became a babyface over the course of a four-week period, post-Triple H betrayal. Rollins knocked it out of the park last night, though, so is this a case of all's well that ends well?
Combine the very effective Rollins-Hunter contract signing with the outstandingly well-produced hype video package for their match this Sunday and, without a doubt, all that was associated with their rivalry was the highlight of the go-home episode.
One of the best things about the last several weeks of Raw is how clear-cut the dynamic has become for Rollins and Triple H, in regards to their being a clearly demarcated line between who is the good guy and who is the bad guy – a basic element of storytelling that WWE often struggles to execute in the modern era of so many fans going against the traditional grain. Another feud that has benefited greatly from an obvious face-heel dynamic is Chris Jericho vs. Kevin Owens, who efficiently wrapped up the build to their much-anticipated US Title match last night. It seems strange that WWE went all this time without Jericho putting Owens on the famous “List,” but it was great timing to offer that measure of catharsis before the culmination. KO was, all-around, excellent on this year’s Road to WrestleMania and did not skip a beat on Monday, neither in his backstage interview with the gorgeous Charley Caruso or in his No-DQ match with Sami Zayn with The Underdog from the Underground’s career at stake (nice touch).
Unfortunately, Goldberg and Brock Lesnar were unable to continue their run of top notch segments. Despite heavily promoting their showdown throughout the broadcast, the payoff was mundane. Paul Heyman has reached a point where he has to be exceptional in order for his interviews to avoid blending together and last night’s was not of that extraordinary echelon. Lesnar, of course, stood there doing nothing. Goldberg Spearing Lesnar could have been a bigger deal if Michael Cole had not blatantly missed his call of it, referring to the Spear as a mere takedown as if we should have been anticipating something else instead of viewing it as the intended climax of the altercation. Elsewhere, the Women’s Title match participants continued to struggle to elicit any real emotion; they feel like they are stuck in first gear when by now they should have been in third or fourth.
Mostly, I felt WWE was dialed and focused on the task at hand for this week’s Raw. Every WrestleMania match got an opportunity to further its intrigue in prominent ways, including multiple segments for the Cruiserweight Title bout and a couple of spots for the otherwise lameduck Tag Team Title Triple Threat to possibly segue into a Ladder gimmick (prediction: New Day books it, as hosts, on the night of). Not everything was particularly stimulating, but there was a lot more positive than negative and a few subtle touches (like the return of the announcers running down the entire card that I actually talked about with someone on social media last week) that made the entirety of the presentation a solid victory.
WWE Elimination Chamber 2017 Review
Match of the Month (February): The Big Show vs. Braun Strowman on the February 20th Monday Night Raw
To be honest, I awarded a better star-rating to the Elimination Chamber Match, but part of what shapes the long-term conversation about a match is how re-watchable it is and, when I was looking at the competition that the Smackdown PPV main-event had from the month of February, Strowman vs. Show stood out to me as the match that, if push came to shove, I'd rather re-watch. Plus, from a historical perspective, it was kind of Strowman's coming out party, the night when even his biggest skeptics (or skeptics of giants in general after similar “Monsters Among Men” had flamed out for virtually all of this century) had to take notice. So, indeed, give plenty of credit to a very well-booked and well-worked Elimination Chamber Match, but I'm going to be bold and give the nod to one of the most pleasantly surprising examples of match quality that I've seen in years. Strowman vs. Big Show was outstanding in the same vein as Show vs. Mark Henry from Vengeance 2011, with two mammoths purposefully shying away from the format of a standard big man encounter to produce a sure fire TV Match of the Year candidate.
Previous winners: AJ Styles vs. John Cena at The Royal Rumble (Jan)
Wrestler of the Month (February): Braun Strowman
Recalling that the Wrestler of the Month award is given to the superstar who put together the most complete 30 days (or in this case 28 days), in terms of his/her character performance, in-ring achievements, and even kayfabe accolades, February 2017 was sort of a wildcard, with no truly obvious choice in my opinion but several really good candidates. AJ Styles (for consistency across the board), Bray Wyatt (for winning his first WWE Title), Neville (for bringing the Cruiserweight Title and division to a greater level of respectability), Luke Harper (for emerging as a force to be reckoned with), and Samoa Joe (for such an impressive debut for his persona) all seemed like logical choices, but Braun Strowman dominated Raw throughout February, owned all his opponents (including Roman Reigns throughout the build to their Fast Lane match), and wrestled the (albeit potentially controversial) Match of the Month. Booking will not always so heavily influence a WOTM decision, but in this case it was about how well Strowman handled what he was given as much as it was about the creative decision to put him in that position.
Previous winners: John Cena (Jan)
WWE Fast Lane 2017 Review
Match of the Month (March): Roman Reigns vs. Braun Strowman at Fast Lane
Strowman's outing with Big Show in February raised the expectations for his showdown with Roman and both he and Reigns rose to the occasion at Fast Lane to deliver one of the best big man brawls in recent memory. I described it the week after as a comic book battle come to life in a wrestling ring and, upon re-watch, it maintains that same kind of aura. Reigns-Strowman was Thor against The Incredible Hulk. Selling was at a premium whereas power moves were aplenty and the end result was a titanic clash that may well end up being Strowman's coming out party should history continue to celebrate pay-per-view matches over that which takes place on television (and, in fairness, the match with Roman was just a tad better in hindsight). It marked the second time since 2015 that Reigns has had a match with a super-heavyweight that much of the critical fanbase groaned about when announced, only for that match to earn best of the month honors in WWE (the other was against Show at Extreme Rules two years ago). We've reached that point in the timeline when fans hating Roman matches merely for Reigns being in them has gotten as ridiculous as it was when Cena was so hated for all those years; the only time that he has not delivered in a big match scenario was at WrestleMania 32.
Previous winners: AJ Styles vs. John Cena at The Royal Rumble (Jan) and Braun Strowman vs. Big Show on 2/20 Raw (Feb)
Wrestler of the Month (March): Roman Reigns
I started handing out monthly awards in late 2014; as much as February was a wild-card, March was probably the most difficult pick for Wrestler of the Month that I can ever recall because, frankly, nobody had a complete month. Kevin Owens has been lights out as a persona, but nothing he has done in-ring has been particularly noteworthy. The Miz was brilliant on the microphone, creating one of the surprises of the WrestleMania Season on the strength of the verbal barbs he's been hurling at John Cena ahead of their mixed tag match, but his in-ring work has been scarce. AJ Styles has been even better than his usual rock solid self in the character department this month and he did have a good match with Randy Orton, but was he definitively better than Miz or Owens overall? Braun Strowman has arguably the two best matches of the month to his credit, but he has been reduced to an intimidated, defeated monster courtesy of everyone's favorite Undertaker.
So, that left Roman Reigns. It has never been popular when I have picked him in the past, but read me out for a moment. While most have been thumbing their noses as usual about Roman’s character dynamic and WWE’s creative deployment of him, Reigns has been acting like a heel and doing a nice job of it throughout this program with Taker. He is not lighting the world on fire like some of his peers, but he has been interesting; anytime he shows attitude, it is far more organic than what has become his bog standard. When combined with the improvements as a personality, his being the other half of those aforementioned bouts with Strowman gave him a slight edge on the field this month.
Previous winners: John Cena (Jan) and Braun Strowman (Feb)
I’ll keep this brief because I find post-Mania predictions to be so difficult, but I am going to predict that WrestleMania 33 turns out to be a very good edition of “The Show of Shows” and perhaps one of the best examples of Mania being a variety show that we have ever seen. On Raw, Seth Rollins will lose to Triple H and start building toward a rematch sometime in the near future, Brock Lesnar will become champion and enter right into a program with Reigns, Owens will defeat Chris Jericho, and (boldest) Bayley will come out of WrestleMania weekend as truly the female Cena by way of getting booed by our community against cheers from young girls, exemplified by Sasha turning on her to a massive babyface reaction on Sunday. On Smackdown, Wyatt will remain WWE Champion and enter a feud with Dean Ambrose, Styles will beat Shane and start a lengthy series of matches with Randy Orton, Naomi will win back the Women’s Title, and The Miz will continue to engage with Cena. The post-Mania debuts will be a mixed bag, as Asuka will stay in NXT through Summerslam and The Revival will continue on in developmental as well, but Shinsuke Nakamura will debut on Smackdown to everyone’s delight; bank on at least two other call-ups that fall into the Apollo Crews category of “Why in the heck did they call him up?”
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