A lot can happen in five hours of weekly WWE main-roster television. Here are our thoughts on the biggest moments from the February 25 edition of Monday Night Raw and February 26’s SmackDown Live.
There may be no more an emotionally-charged time of year in pro wrestling than the lead-up to WrestleMania and everything that entails. While the biggest event in the genre is indeed WWE’s flagship pay-per-view event, it’s a high-stakes time of year for the entire industry. There will be at least 40 live wrestling shows by numerous promotions in the New York-New Jersey metro area the week of WrestleMania and now, with AEW’s Double or Nothing set for Memorial Day weekend in Las Vegas, springtime is more important in the world of pro wrestling than ever.
The WWE certainly delivered its fair share of emotional bomb-dropping this week, starting with the Monday Night Raw return of Roman Reigns and his revelation that his leukemia — which he had battled for 11 years and which returned in 2018, resulting in Reigns stepping away from the ring and abdicating the WWE Universal Championship in October — was again in remission.
Though the WWE released the news that Reigns would be showing up on Raw (and, ostensibly, to provide a positive update on his health) the previous week, it was still no less of an impactful moment when Reigns said that he had yet again beat back his cancer. Indeed, it was a massive moment from the second that Reigns’ music hit as Raw went live, a testament of how much pro wrestling fans (can) care about wrestlers-as-people as much as wrestlers-as-characters, even if the former is not as frequently on display as the latter.
And it was also a reminder of just how crucial Reigns is to the ecosystem of the WWE; he’s a star, and a Superstar, in every sense of what those words mean. Maybe there’s something to be said about fans’ reactions to Reigns going from the loudest boos to the loudest cheers because he’s again cancer-free, but it’s easy to be cynical. A counterpoint to that cynicism: Of course the WWE Universe would cheer his return as lustily as they used to tear him down; Reigns makes us feel, and feel strongly. That much hate for his character is the other side of a coin in which we love him as a person. Perhaps this is just the optimism talking. But there’s nothing like someone beating cancer for a second time to bring on the optimism.
Regardless: Welcome back, Roman Reigns. We are all so happy for you.
Vince McMahon takes away yet another title shot
We all also know that the biggest of the WrestleMania storylines is rife with emotion, given how Vince McMahon took away Becky Lynch’s shot at Ronda Rousey’s Raw Women’s Championship and handed it to Charlotte Flair last month in the midst of everyone losing their minds over Lynch’s, well, everything. This storyline has produced some of the most compelling WWE television product in years, though, and has positioned three women atop the company’s hierarchy, helped further the star-turn Lynch spent the better part of a year (if not longer, really) cultivating and has turned both Raw and SmackDown Live into appointment viewing for those of us who have become personally invested in the storyline. And while Lynch isn’t yet back in the main event, now set to feature just Rousey and Flair, we all know she’ll be part of it; the question is how we get to that point.
But, now they’re doing it again, except to Kofi Kingston, who had initially earned the right to challenge for Daniel Bryan’s WWE Championship on March 10th’s Fastlane pay-per-view thanks to making the very-very, most-most of his fill-in spot for Mustafa Ali in the Elimination Chamber event and its buildup. Kingston finally was given an opportunity to showcase, at length, his strong in-ring ability and the result was the WWE Universe realizing that Kingston is kind of where it’s at. But, alas, as Kingston and Bryan were set to put pen to paper in a contract signing that opened this week’s SmackDown, (Vince) McMahon trotted out to announce that, no, Kingston will not be getting the Fastlane title shot, thanks to him somehow lacking sustainable star power, similar to what he said of Lynch. Now, it will be Kevin Owens facing Bryan.
On the one hand, this seems to be good news in the long-term for Kingston; there were numerous initial reports that Owens would be Bryan’s challenger at WrestleMania. But now that there is so much fan and backstage support for Kingston, it’s now looking more like Kingston will get the WrestleMania shot at Bryan’s belt.
On the other, it’s mighty strange that McMahon has affected two title matches (albeit at different pay-per-views) by coming to the same conclusion about the respective challengers. There is, hopefully, something longer-term at foot; perhaps some sort of “You’re out of touch, old man!” coup staged by Stephanie McMahon, Shane McMahon and Triple H (especially as these challengers were the trio’s personal choices) that leads to Vince’s (kayfabe) ouster as the head of the company.
But there certainly needs to be some type of logical payoff for why Vince would make these parallel decisions. Because, without it, we can only assume that the writing team (or Vince, or both, or some combination of backstage entities — who knows) simply got lazy and wrote the same story twice. In the spirit of ongoing optimism, let’s continue hoping that the parallel stories are purposeful and will come to make sense as we move into March.
Hey, it’s Batista!
We also learned this week that the WWE still finds value in the long-term storyline, as evinced by the surprise return of Batista, who took out Ric Flair in the backstage area of Raw on Monday before Flair could hit the ring to join his 70th birthday celebration. The attack was designed to provoke Triple H, Batista and Flair’s (and Randy Orton’s) partner in Evolution and calls back to the group’s reunion at last fall’s 1,000th episode of SmackDown in which Batista noted that Triple H had yet to defeat him one-on-one.
It also should be noted that Batista was initially floated as a tag team partner for Rousey at last year’s WrestleMania before the WWE apparently ghosted him. He made it clear at the time that this year’s event would likely be his last chance to get in the ring on such a big stage, and the result led to the WWE spending months setting this particular table. Now, it wouldn’t be a WrestleMania without Triple H getting a match, replete with his usual gaudy, lengthy entrance and making him part of the nostalgia act that invariably occurs every year makes sense. And basing the match around a truly personal rivalry between two massive men and their massive egos does allow the WWE to tell an entertaining story.
Plus, Batista’s involvement in the waning moments of Raw was unexpected. The prevailing assumption at the time was that Lynch would escape the Atlanta police or that an angry Rousey, with her demands that Lynch be put back in the match between she and Charlotte Flair would result in Ric Flair ending his night in an arm bar. Having him dragged through the backstage area by Batista was — hey! — something fresh.
Other notes: A little push for Rush, The Revival gets pinned again, The (fixed?) Hardy Boyz team up, Asuka gets back on PPV
Seeing Lio Rush get actual time to work and show off against WWE Intercontinental Champion Finn Bálor on Raw was refreshing. Rush was able to showcase just why he was such an exciting signee, despite not much being done with him in the year and a half he’s been with the company. And it’s clear that at some point, WWE will commit to the Rush-Bobby Lashley breakup (they tried it at Elimination Chamber but walked it back on Raw the following night).
By building up Rush in matches against Bálor and his ilk, we can start to think it believable that Rush will someday get the better of the much larger Lashley. When that will happen, though, is anyone’s guess, as Lashley seems set to be part of a trio with Drew McIntyre and Baron Corbin (or a quartet, with Elias added in) for the foreseeable future. But getting eyes on Rush and having the brains attached to those eyes think, “yes, this is good,” is a good step forward for him no matter where his relationship with Lashley heads.
Yet again, The Revival have lost on Raw to two fresh NXT arrivals. Last week, it was to Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano and this week it was to Aleister Black and Ricochet. Apparently, the Raw Tag Team Champions are being used as enhancement talent for the two front-runners in the NXT Dusty Classic? The Classic is a major yearly tournament for the black and yellow brand, and making its top teams legitimate in the eyes of the main-roster viewers (and, perhaps, luring a few over to the WWE Network as a result) seems to be part of the purpose of these wins.
But wins for Black/Ricochet and Ciampa/Gargano in this context also means losses for one of the two very best main-roster tag teams (if titles are supposed to mean anything). Putting the belts on The Revival three weeks ago was supposed to be a sign that the WWE was recommitting itself to quality tag-team wrestling; having those same champions keep losing, even to shine up the NXT roster at an important time for its tag team division, is a “one step forward, two steps back,” situation.
There are ways in which these NXT teams can look good and attract a wider audience without having to sacrifice The Revival, of all things, to do it. Bobby Roode and Chad Gable were champions before The Revival; setting the NXT teams against them would more than suffice. For example, Black and Ricochet didn’t need to pin The Usos to look viable on SmackDown. Defeating Shinsuke Nakamura and Rusev sent the same message just as effectively.
And speaking of tag teams: The Hardy Boyz are together again, with Matt Hardy making his SmackDown return this week and back to teaming up with his brother Jeff. The pair defeated The Bar on Tuesday night in a match that had been initially advertised as between Gargano and Cesaro (with Ciampa and Sheamus in each man’s respective corners).
Oh, and this is happening at Fastlane next week:
Wait a second …
What were your standout moments from Raw and SmackDown this week? Give us your take in the comments below.