SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
Set Up – HIT: WWE made some big improvements in the set up at the Performance Center which many of us fans and analysts had been recommending, especially since we saw how well AEW handled the empty arena set up for Dynamite last week. WWE moved the hard camera to face the big screen and entrance ramp and not the empty seats. They darkened the arena and had red flags hanging around to give some decoration without the chairs. They did not have any wrestlers around the ring to add ambiance and noise like they could have, but maybe that just wouldn’t be safe. At least this was a much better presentation.
Openings Segment – HIT: Raw started off with the same video about Brock Lesnar and Drew McIntyre which played a few weeks ago. It was a bit odd to start off with a replay of a video package, but that package was very well done so I didn’t mind sitting through it again. The opening segment continued nicely with the in ring promo from Paul Heyman with Lesnar. This was a good promo, but nothing that special.
Lesnar vs. Cena vs. Rollins – HIT: This was the best replay match that WWE has had so far. I remembered this match being very good, but hadn’t seen it since it first aired five years ago. I enjoyed watching it again. It was a good way to build up Lesnar in the way he was able to overcome a huge threat to his Championship run from both John Cena and Seth Rollins. It was also one of his best matches since his return to remind fans how good his matches can be.
A.J. Styles – MISS: I continue to not be a fan of most of what WWE has done with the build towards A.J. Styles vs. The Undertaker at WrestleMania. We got much more humanizing of the Dead Man than we had already gotten. I don’t need to see Undertaker and Michelle McCool in a pool with a tiger from some YouTube video. None of this is doing anything to actually put some momentum behind Styles as a wrestler. He and the rest of The OC have been destroyed physically at every opportunity by Undertaker. A boneyard match? Why can’t they call it a graveyard match? Styles made that announcement as if it would get some great reaction, but even if the arena was full of fans, I feel strongly it would have gotten the exact same reaction.
Andrade & Garza vs. Ricochet & Alexander – HIT: I wish WWE would do something more with Ricochet and Cedric Alexander. But, at least they got to show off their in ring skill in what was the best match so far in the empty arena setting. Other than the botched ending, this was a very good match. Hopefully with WWE pre-taping the upcoming shows inducing WM, we won’t get any more botched endings like this. I don’t want to dwell on that as it was very enjoyable otherwise. The Street Profits added a huge amount of energy to the match on guest commentary. That has been missing in all the other matches in the empty arena (they tried and failed with Asuka). Even Zelina Vega at ringside added a lot of noise and energy. The director did a good job with the cutting during the match which also added to the ambiance. They can’t have The Street Profits there for every match, but this is a good example of the types of things they can do to liven up the presentation even more.
Squashes – HIT: WWE had some effective squashes, making use of wrestlers from the PC as they did not have had as much talent from the main Raw roster as usual. The Street Profits got a strong win over Shane Thorne & Brendon Vink and later, Aleister Black got a squash win over Leon Ruff. That match pointed to an advantage of the empty arena where we could hear Ruff trying to get Black on his feet and interacting with the referee. They can play around with that more. Angel Garza did it also with his great use of the tag rope and interacting with the ref in his match earlier in the show (seriously, moving the rope to the other corner was such a great moment and being able to hear him talking to the ref about it made it better). Getting back to the squashes, the Black Mass was awesome to end this one move squash.
Baszler Interview – HIT: Shayna Baszler came across like such a menacing, imposing dominating figure in this in ring interview with Charlie Caruso. The staging was well done to add to that feeling. She and Caruso played their parts well. I liked her line about destroying Becky Lynch by taking her Title. I assumed that the darkened ring lighting was strictly to take away from the empty arena feel to the PC, so they totally fooled me when Lynch came out and hit Baszler from behind with the chair. I did not see that coming. It was very effective. Again, it was a case of WWE using the setting to its advantage.
Owens – Rollins – HIT: WWE is telling the story that Seth Rollins is taking credit for everything that has come after him, from the PC, to the current NXT product, to the Women’s Evolution, to NXT graduates like Kevin Owens himself. That fits in with his Monday Night Messiah persona. He came across as the alpha here, not allowing Owens to get in any lines when he tried to interrupt. Rollins’ performance was very strong. Owens was great in showing doubt in his facial reactions to what Rollins was saying about him not ever having a WM moment. Now they can build their match not only around the long feud that they’ve had, but around Owens trying to finally have his big WM moment which adds another dimension to the match.
Charlotte vs. Asuka – HIT: This was another good choice for a match to replay. I still think it might be better going forward (after WM) to do two hours of new Raw followed (or preceded) by an hour of classic content of some type (or 100% classic content, shutting down new shows through April). But given that they are using these replays to hype WM, this format does make sense. This was another good match to rewatch, and it helped to remind the fans how dominating Charlotte Flair has been in the past, and how much trouble Rhea Ripley and her NXT Championship are in at WM. Her follow up interview was also good.
Orton Responds – HIT: This was a much better Raw than last week in so many ways. It had a strong ending with Randy Orton addressing Edge and accepting his challenge for a Last Man Standing match at WM. Orton has been great since The Royal Rumble and this was no exception. I wasn’t sure about the short video clips that were edited into his promo when they first started, but by the end they won me over by the end. They were effective in adding to his words to tell his side of the story. This has definitely been the best build to any match at WM.
Jon Mezzera is PWTorch.com’s WWE Hits & Misses Specialist, providing his point of view for Raw and Smackdown each week. Email him at email@example.com. Follow JON on Twitter @JonMezzera.