At the time of writing, the ‘hottest’ post on r/SquaredCircle is a gif of a sequence from Riddle vs. Xavier Woods.
The New Day member fights off an attempt to take the match to the canvas, launches Riddle up onto his shoulders and nails a delayed vertical suplex.
It’s an ambitious spot, and an impressive show of athleticism from both men, but stands as just one of many highpoints in a fantastic match. In fact, the bout itself was one of several great contests from this week’s Raw, which comprehensively impressed in the ring. The show featured four vying match of the night candidates, although I suspect most would award it to the one I’ve already mentioned (myself included.)
But that’s not to say the rest were lacking. Drew McIntyre and Kofi Kingston kicked things off with a long, well-developed clash of styles. Cedric Alexander and Shelton Benjamin blended finesse and hatred. Charlotte Flair and Asuka proved yet again why they will go down as two of the greatest female Superstars ever.
In short, there was quality in abundance. Certainly far more than we’d typically expect from a weekly main roster episode.
Here’s the silly part: it was still a bad Raw.
The show was met with as much ridicule for its booking as it was praise for its in-ring action, and I believe the former outweighs the latter. Even its strong moments were constricted by illogical storytelling.
For example, Charlotte Flair’s victory over Asuka only evened the score after last week’s defeat, but the Queen was handed another title shot while the Empress found herself out of the picture yet again. It could be argued that WWE are intentionally painting Charlotte as an unfairly favoured heel, granted undeserved opportunities by authority figure Sonya Deville. But having the title scene so consistently dominated by the same Superstar is simply no fun, deliberate or not.
We’ve seen it a lot in the past, and we didn’t like it then either.
Shelton vs. Cedric also suffered from 50/50 booking, hampering a feud which is still yet to recover from the needless breakup of the Hurt Business. Meanwhile, at the top of the show, McIntyre and Kingston’s intriguing contest was ended by a Lashley run-in. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially with a rematch booked for next week, but Kofi’s involvement continues to confuse me.
Usually I’d be pleased about it, but his pre-match promo was full of far more valid points than that of the brand’s top babyface. He also continues to be inherently likeable, which again would typically be a good thing, but here he threatens to undermine Drew. Should the Scot come out on top in this mini-feud - as many would anticipate - I’m not sure how beating Kofi would convince us to cheer him more.
Riddle vs. Woods therefore stands as the only great match of the night unhampered by suspect booking, and that’s without mentioning the show’s very worst elements.
For the record though, the two-minute challenge between Rhea Ripley and Nikki Cross did neither woman any favours at all, while the Reginald-centric main event quickly descended into farce. The bad on this show was very, very bad.
So yes, despite all the exciting action, this week’s Raw was another substandard episode. That must be immensely frustrating for the talent involved, and it’s fitting to sympathise with them.
But hopefully it serves as a useful reminder to both ourselves as fans and to WWE creative: great wrestling can suddenly become pointless if it’s built upon shoddy storytelling.
It’s a lesson way may have forgotten recently. Look at WrestleMania Backlash for example, which was widely praised as one of WWE’s best shows of the year (zombies aside - and I talked about them last week). This was mainly due to the in-ring action on the night, because the build certainly wasn’t anything special, at least on the Raw side of things. The red brand has been critically eviscerated on a weekly basis since ‘Mania, but come the Network special, good wrestling saved the day.
But as we saw this week, good wrestling can’t save the day on TV. If PPVs are wrestling’s version of a stacked boxing card, weekly shows are more akin to a fictional drama series. Backlash succeeded because we expected a night of largely uninterrupted action, and that’s exactly what we got. This week’s Raw failed, despite being similarly full of great wrestling, because its emphasis has always been on narrative, on storytelling, on character progression. How much of that have we seen in recent weeks and months?
The structure of Raw means that plot and action are far more closely entwined than on pay per view. This is a very American perspective, and it’s useful to realise that methods of storytelling differ around the world. New Japan almost never utilises in-ring promos or mid-show angles. More often than not, storylines are tacitly driven by the in-ring action, with motivations and relationships changing based on what happens between the ropes.
Elsewhere, when the UK independent scene was booming a few years ago, most promotions were unable to hold events with enough regularity to develop complex feuds. Instead, many began to excel at using social media to add emotion to their marquee matches - again keeping the focus on the actual wrestling come showtime.
But when it comes to WWE’s booking, far more emphasis is placed upon the twists and turns of a feud than the action itself. Hopefully the alternative examples have illustrated that this is the most familiar method to most of us - assuming we first encountered wrestling through a mainstream American promotion - but it’s also a risky strategy. When the plot threads of a show are firing on all cylinders, it can make for an incredibly compelling hour or two (or, in Raw's case, three.) But when the booking is bad, the entire episode suffers regardless of its in-ring content. That’s exactly what happened this week.
At the moment, WWE finds itself in something of a reverse-Attitude Era situation. Back then, even though we certainly saw some great contests, the overall quality was nowhere near as consistent as today. This was especially true in terms of weekly TV, with Raw often becoming a downright mess in the ring.
That didn’t matter though, because the promos and angles were so strong they gave the matches a huge boost - whether it was required or not.
By complete contrast, compelling TV bouts in 2021 often feel as if they’ve taken place in spite of the booking, rather than being enhanced by it. That was the issue with this week’s show, and until the writing greatly improves, it’ll sadly continue to be the case.