It was the most hyped Raw of 2014 so far, will probably be the most talked about Raw aside from the night after WrestleMania all year, but did the crowd "hijack" it? No. Did CM Punk come back? No. Were my concerns about WrestleMania stifled? No. Was the show any good? Absolutely.
CM Punk was the elephant in the room and when Josh Mathews acknowledged the chants during the Pre-Show on the WWE Network, I was 99.9999999% convinced he was coming back. They've been so hush-hush about Punk since his departure, completely scrubbing him from the show, that I took any sort of acknowledgement of his existence as confirmation. I was wrong. Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong. WWE had to talk about it though, so they gave us the next best thing, Paul Heyman.
Heyman entered to Punk's music, encouraged the crowd to chant for Punk and then took a seat in the center of the ring and proceeded to drop his own "pipe bomb." I do find it suspect that WWE would allow Heyman to go out there, talk about how great Punk is and mention the size of his balls in the 8 o'clock hour. Contrast this to Austin's walkout, who was verbally annihilated by The Rock after he "took his ball [singular] and went home," they even put his domestic violence arrest on WWE Confidential. Meanwhile, Punk "has the balls" to tell WWE adios and sit on his couch when they roll into town. I don't take it as any sort of confirmation that Punk is coming back, but it is definitely confirmation that WWE still wants him back.
The brilliance of Heyman's promo is that he managed to turn Punk's walkout around on the fans, blaming them for the rift between the two of them and the loss to The Undertaker for Punk's disillusionment. The crowd was nuclear by the time Brock Lesnar came out and WWE managed to once again use real life events to hype the Taker match for Mania, and this was a lot classier than the Paul Bearer stuff last year. Lesnar and Mark Henry got into it a little bit as well, with Henry getting F5'd through the announce table. Ultra hot start to the show and set a pretty great tone for the night. They had to address the situation and they handled it masterfully.
The Usos vs. The New Age Outlaws was a great moment too. Before the match, I thought The Usos quest for the Tag Team Titles should've culminated at WrestleMania, but there it would've been what, the fifth or sixth biggest match on the card? If it didn't get bumped to the pre-show, that is. Here, it was a huge moment in front of an electric crowd who weren't hijacking anything, they were just cheering for the good guys. The Usos finally get their Tag Title reign, almost five years after debuting (that has to be some kind of a record in the modern era), and I love that suicide dive/tag thing they do. Yays! all around.
Big E vs. Cesaro (and later, Swagger) was all about the tension between The Real Americans, with both guys interfering in the other's matches. I know Cesaro is on the verge of breaking out as a major singles competitor, but there's too much splitting up going on. I'm not saying you can't split TRA, but don't do it at the exact same time we're splitting up The Shield and probably Cody Rhodes and Goldust sooner than later.
The Shield vs. The Wyatt Family was so hot, all it needed for hype was "#Rematch." This one was a lot heavier on drama than the action we got at Elimination Chamber, but that's okay because they told a hell of a story. I still think I'd rather see these teams go at it inside Hell in a Cell before it's all said and done for The Shield, but after Seth Rollins walked out on Mom & Dad for fighting all the time, I don't think that's going to happen. But if it means triple threat between Rollins, Ambrose and Reigns at WrestleMania, I'm cool with it.
Santino Marella & Emma vs. Fandango & Summer Rae brought the show to a screeching halt though and it never fully recovered back to its hour 1 levels of awesome. I love Emma, her character is awesome and she can clearly wrestle as we saw during Arrival, but the crowd needs to know more about her and she needs real matches. Two things that the Divas don't typically get on the main roster. Sigh.
Sheamus vs. Christian is where the crowd really started to get on my nerves. It's not cool to shit on two guys who have a perfectly good match just because it's not living up to four super-hot segments. There are a lot of complaints to level against WWE these days, but the in-ring product is arguably the best it's ever been, and to start chanting "END THIS MATCH!" during something as solid as this is incredibly disrespectful. This crowd was getting a ton of shit before the show even began and I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, even with "CM Punk" chants going on all night, but they lost all their goodwill here. In any other era, this match could've headlined Raw or Smackdown and it would've been a really good main event. I know they're falling into the WWE trap of "let's just have these guys wrestle a lot," but there was nothing wrong with the match.
The Bella Twins vs. Aksana & Alicia Fox was a match, I honestly don't even remember who won.
Daniel Bryan calling out Triple H and Stephanie McMahon was one of the craziest damn segments I've ever seen. I lived the Attitude Era, I remember the crowd wanting Vince McMahon's head on a pike, but I'm not sure I've ever heard boos so persistent that they nearly drowned out the PA for an entire promo.
This was the best mic work of Stephanie McMahon's career, insisting to Bryan that he shouldn't even want to be the face of WWE because the crowd will turn on him in an instant (probably true) and insisting that they've given him more than he could ever ask for. Like I always say, the best heels tell the truth in the worst way possible and Steph did so here.
And Triple H going full hypocrite, continuing to beat the "B+ player" drum despite the fact that he's the most successful B+ of all-time is great stuff. And slamming Bryan as "immature" when he suggested that Stephanie put on HHH's gear and HHH put on her skirt, might be the first piece of genuine character development HHH has had since 1999. He just insulted someone else for being immature when he's the guy who put his father-in-law's head up another man's ass. Let that sink in for a minute.
Bryan attacking Kane and being held back by security also finally gave him a bit of an edge for the first time. Usually this ends with Bryan immediately being put in a match, but here he looked like he was ready to fight any and everybody. This was a genuine Austin vs. McMahon moment when the last 15 years have been loaded with people trying to recapture the magic of Austin vs. McMahon.
Excellent use of Aaron Paul as Dolph Ziggler's running buddy for his match against Alberto Del Rio. It was definitely the Battle of the C+ All-Stars, but if it's the first step to getting Ziggler back on track, it was better than the last 15 times they've tried to get Ziggler back on track. Poor Del Rio though.
The John Cena/Wyatt Family stuff didn't work nearly as well as last week's segment. They both basically said things they've already said, with no actual face-to-face confrontation, just a TitanTron staredown. I have no doubt they'll bring the goods in the four Raws they have left before WrestleMania, but I am a bit concerned about the match itself. Cena has had a really unfortunate WrestleMania track record since 27 and Bray has only had a handful of high-profile singles matches, but we'll see. I can't imagine the crowd being anything less than explosive for it, so that calms my nerves significantly.
Daniel Bryan vs. Batista was the main event and clearly a sign that WWE is fucking with us at this point. Ended in a huge clusterfuck with Orton interfering, then Bryan fighting off Orton, Batista, Kane and Triple H before ultimately succumbing to a Batista Bomb and a Pedigree. I saw a lot of folks griping that Bryan looked bad here, but c'mon, he was fighting off Evolution and Kane and holding his own until the numbers game caught up to him. It was a classic "bad guys win" episode, the nWo and Corporation had them all the time. Nothing wrong with how the final segment played out at all.
Unfortunately, this doesn't really help my worries about WrestleMania. Bryan vs. Triple H is a good, logical feud and if HHH feels like coming to work, I'm sure they'll have a fine match, but it's not the WWE Title match, which is where people want to see Bryan. And I have no hope for this leading to a Triple Threat of Bryan pulling double duty, I've gotten my hopes up for Bryan's big moment way too many times since SummerSlam, I'm done even entertaining those idea. Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H is happening, no doubt and apparently, so is Batista vs. Orton, which doesn't make a goddamn bit of sense, but they've already got your six-month commitment for the WWE Network, so they can do whatever the hell they want.
As of now, the only match at Mania I'm 100% stoked about is Lesnar vs. Taker, and that's not even the match I wanted to see Taker in. I expressed my concerns for Cena vs. Wyatt, Bryan vs. HHH is a consolation prize the crowd will likely be torn on because it's not the match they want, and Orton vs. Batista is going to make Goldberg/Lesnar look like Rock/Hogan in terms of crowd reaction. Not to mention they have nothing set so far for guys like Ziggler, Cesaro, Swagger, Del Rio, Big E, Mark Henry, Big Show, Cody Rhodes, Goldust, and Mysterio. Rhodes & Goldust were the hottest act in the company just a couple months ago and now they're teaming with El Torito on Superstars with only four Raws left until WrestleMania. It's Mania, it's always about the main events, but I'm just not feeling it yet.
Between the stellar in-ring product lately, NXT Arrival and last night's awesome handling of the "hijacking" that amounted to WWE getting the crowd to do exactly what they wanted them to do, WWE has earned a ton of goodwill back from me post-Rumble, so I'm still optimistic, but still... only four Raws left.