Signs of Life at Monday Night Raw

Signs of life on Raw
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It’s been a troubled year for World Wrestling Entertainment’s flagship show, USA network’s Monday Night Raw. The three hour showcase has been dogged by diminishing ratings and poor reviews within the pro wrestling industry and from fans for its repetitive match combinations and intricately meandering supernatural storyline featuring Alexa Bliss. However, the build up to July 18’s Money in the Bank event continues to reinvigorate Raw. The June 28 broadcast featured fresh match pairings and built on promising storylines, although it still had its weak spots.

What Works:

Nikki Cross’ new superhero gimmick quickly became a social media sensation, rapidly  spawning chatter and fan art. Who couldn’t use a little inspiration right about now? Nikki’s plucky monologues about the spark in the human heart are endearing, and her costume and persona are very marketable towards the WWE’s youngest consumers. Cross faced Shayna Baszler, for a study in contrasts. As Raw viewers have come to expect, there was some magical interference from Bliss, but for the time being she has reunited with Cross and aided in her favor. Nikki got the victory, another win for the newly minted Almost Superhero (A.S.H).

Like Cross, Ricochet is an NXT transplant who’s struggled to find his footing. He was a surprising early qualifier for Money in the Bank, defeating A.J. Styles, and on June 28 was paired against fellow Lucha Underground veteran John Morrison. Their ire stemmed from Ricochet making off with Johnny Drip-Drip’s dripstick, and spraying him and the Miz with it. After a bit where he stole Sheamus’s coat and hat before their match, this is the second beef for Ricochet stemming from his thieving from another superstar. Perhaps it’s a riff on his ‘swift as the wind’ moveset-freewheeling pickpocket Ricochet is better than nothing for a pretext to enter the ring, and once inside, Ricochet and Morrison were able to show each other’s acrobatic skills off to good advantage. With Miz out of action, Morrison is able to carry their comic act on admirably, and seeing two performers who have never been opponents before was refreshing after Raw’s recent slump of repetitive pairings.

The Doudrop and Eva Dynamic

Eva Marie’s return was anticipated by no one, applauded by few, and angered many. Her “match” against Naomi, in which her acolyte Doudrop (Piper Niven) literally did the heavy lifting, struck many as unfair to fan favorite Naomi, and her “Eva-lution” gimmick a reductive retread to the Divas division days. This seemed a tone deaf direction to steer the women’s division in, in light of the way it was gutted by releases in April and June.

However, all of these valid points are what grounds the storyline and makes it work. Eva Marie’s ego is insufferable, as it is meant to be. She somehow did even less in her and Doudrop’s rematch against Naomi and Asuka than previously; leaving Doudrop in a de facto handicap match, and shrilly claiming Doudrop’s victory. Given how the women’s division has grown in relevancy and athleticism since Eva Marie’s absence, her vanity and idleness truly do strike a chord of repugnance – and Doudrop is feeling it right along with the viewer. Any victory for the beloved and talented Asuka and Naomi will be cheered, as will the moment Doudrop snaps on her so-called partner. Kudos to the WWE for building up Doudrop by pairing her with someone the audience would love to hate, and utilizing the fans’ support for Naomi savvily, as well.

Riddle’s Endearing Efforts

Riddle had a lot to carry on June 28’s Raw, and not once did he let the ball drop. In Randy Orton’s absence, he took his RKBro partner’s place in a battle royal, lasting admirably with his engaging and effective fusion arts, until coming down to the last hours against the returning Damien Priest. Priest’s Raw run has been a series of misfortunate events after the high points of Bad Bunny’s guest spot – just as his feud with Miz and Morrison was heating up and even featuring a trilingual tete-a-tete with Maryse. He and Miz were both injured in the infamous zombie lumberjack match at Wrestlemania: Backlash.

Back in action, Priest traded martial arts inspired moves with his fellow NXT alumnus Riddle, with Riddle coming out the victor, and striking Orton’s signature pose to his entrance music. There were no hard feelings, however, as the two showed good chemistry in a backstage segment before Riddle’s MitB qualifying triple threat against AJ Styles and Drew McIntyre, where he was again filling in for Orton. Their unlikely bond continues to be endearing, even when Riddle is on his own, trying to make Orton proud.

Against Styles and McIntyre, Riddle put up a hard fight with his jujitsu informed skillset; surviving Styles’ calf crushing submission but being taken out of commission by a gnarly collision with the steel steps. However, as the contest came down to McIntyre and Styles one on one, a bandaged Riddle returned to take one last shot at getting Randy Orton into Money in the Bank. Styles was rescued by Omos before Riddle could end the proceedings with a pinfall victory, and Riddle was put away by McIntyre’s Claymore and a pin from the Scottish warrior.

Though he didn’t get his bestie into Money in the Bank, Riddle took part in two significant matches and was a fierce competitor in both showings, offsetting his hints of nascent savagery with his endearing backstage persona.

Kofi Kingston and the “KofiMania Revenge Tour”

However, the highlight of the evening was the parlay between MVP and Kofi Kingston. After months of promoting the interests of Bobby Lashley, the Goliath in his pocket, MVP has met his David in Kofi, and he was throwing stones. Kingston, fired up after Lashley and MVP’s brutality towards New Day comrade Xavier Woods, killed the noise on MVP’s manipulations and shortcomings, even exposing his fake injury, leading to an attack from the Hurt Business impresario. Kingston felled the charging MVP, scoring some justice for Woods and reminding the WWE universe who he is: perhaps not since  Bret Hart in his New Generation prime has anyone played the heroic babyface role with such a compelling combination of heart and grit, both an inspiration and a true threat to any opponent. Kingston is most definitely coming for Lashley, and his pursuit may end in gold: a second championship reign.

What Didn’t Work:

The rivalry between Charlotte Flair and Rhea Ripley continues to be built on contrived cheap shots rather than digging deep into the history between them. Viewers of NXT saw how her WrestleMania 36 loss devastated Ripley – so why not have Charlotte cruelly, incessantly taunt and undermine her with it? The lack of emotional context devalues not only the storyline, but Ripley’s Raw women’s championship reign; unless Charlotte is a red herring, a placeholder until a returning Becky Lynch can challenge Ripley for the belt she vacated last year, at the start of her pregnancy.

As for Dana Brooke and Mandy Rose’s beef with Natalya and Tamina, the newly aggressive Rose and Brooke continue to have no stones to lob at the women’s tag team champions but that their family names helped them get ahead. Yes, AJ Lee said as much roughly a decade ago, to Natalya, at least. This isn’t breaking any new ground, or setting the Thames on fire.

Despite some weak spots – most troublesomely from the women’s division – trying a few new ideas, like Cross’s gimmick, and bringing the best out of talents like Kofi Kingston and Riddle is breathing a stirring of new life into Monday Night Raw.

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