Monday night, WWE Raw celebrated its 25th anniversary, and by coincidence it was the go-home show setting up this Sunday’s Royal Rumble PPV. It was a perfect storm of overinflated expectations: a New York crowd, split between the Barclays Center and the Manhattan Center, site of the first episode of Raw. The most die-hard of fans scooped up tickets to the show, and the litany of stars of yesteryear that WWE already announced for the show goosed expectations. If the company was just straight up telling us about the Undertaker, what big surprise was it saving in reserve? On the eve of the Rumble, the most over-anticipated event of the year, fan (over)expectations were at a fever pitch for Raw. It turns out WWE didn’t have anything up its sleeve, and it turns out that (like WrestleMania II), the multiple-venue concept leaves a little to be desired. But it was a fun night of wrestling reminiscence, and there’s plenty to digest. Let’s jump right into it.
1. Welcome to the Manhattan Center, one of the live-wrestling treasures of the venue world, and an oddball diorama version of WWE in the modern era. When Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler opened the night from there, it was a smart throwback to a bygone era. When Raw debuted there 25 years ago with Vince McMahon, Randy Savage, and Rob Bartlett as the hosts, it was borderline inconceivable that the show would still be on the air a quarter-century later, and probably even more wild to think that it would be airing live from a different NBA arena every week. The cut to Barclays with Stephanie and Shane McMahon in the ring was slightly jarring. If you had told me 25 years ago that Vince would still be alive and playing an evil version of his real self and casually eating Stone Cold Stunners for the enjoyment of the crowd, I would have been, well, stunned.
2. Vince looked old under the bright lights and through HD pixels, and Steph saying “Dad, I know you’re a little hard of hearing right now” didn’t help. She was letting him know that the crowd was chanting, “Thank you, Vince,” and he deserved it. But despite his age and potential hearing issues, there’s nobody better in the world at working a crowd’s emotions. With a curled lip and a little Brooklyn bashing, he turned the “Thank yous” into “Ass-hole!” in record time. (Also, I’m pretty sure if Vince drew a map of Brooklyn, it would be Barclays up top, Coney Island down at the bottom, and a giant gray area in between labeled “rappers.”)
3. The heel turn was masterful and expected, but the 72-year-old totally roped me into thinking that there’s no way he would get involved in a physical altercation, even after the glass shattered and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin came out. After Austin Stunned Shane, he lured in Vince and stunned him, too. And maybe it was unnecessary — Vince was never great at selling the Stunner, and he took this one like he was sleepwalking. But Austin-on-McMahon violence is the stuff Raw was built on, and it was a gruesomely touching way to start the night.
4. Vince may drink beer more weirdly than Vin Diesel, but Austin hasn’t lost a step in his amazing beer-catching-and-guzzling routine. Looking to be in the best shape he’s been in in years, Austin came out and, without saying a word, had the in-ring performance of the night.
5. The first sequence of Raw that dealt with actual current product was a four-on-four women’s match that served to hype up the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble on Sunday. Sasha Banks got the win for her team by tapping out Alicia Fox, but the star of the segment was Asuka, who turned on the rest of the white-hat crew to demonstrate her dominance — and call her shot for the Rumble. It would’ve been a big moment on any other Raw, but it was unfortunately overshadowed by the McMahon-Austin melee that preceded it. Just like Austin, the crowd loved seeing Asuka squash her erstwhile teammates. It wasn’t a heel turn; it was a statement. (And maybe a reverse forecast of Sunday’s match.)
6. Raw GM Kurt Angle met backstage with Jonathan Coachman, Harvey Wippleman, the Brooklyn Brawler, Teddy Long, Brother Love, and the Boogeyman. I’m pretty sure WWE spent more time promoting these appearances than it did with the segment on Raw.
7. In a universe where legends return semiannually and history is commerce on the WWE Network, the ICOPRO banner at the Manhattan Center — that hilarious house ad for the official supplement of Vince McMahon’s World Bodybuilding Federation — might have been the purest throwback of the night.
8. The Undertaker made his promised return to WWE at the Manhattan Center and cut a promo in which he said … something. Last year at WrestleMania, he seemingly retired after losing to Roman Reigns, but rumors have swirled that he might have another match (or two) left in him. His monologue Monday didn’t formalize a comeback — if I had to guess, neither he nor WWE has decided for sure what the plan is — but it was a signal that he might not be done Resting folks In Peace just yet. Hair extensions aside, he looked to be in great shape, and his ominous words would make a lot of sense woven into a video package for a Reigns rematch.
9. Is it sacrilege to suggest that Ted Dibiase Jr. has a more substantial Raw legacy than his dad, the Million Dollar Man? I had that thought for about 10 seconds before I realized I’m always happy to see Ted Sr. cackling.
10. The last time we saw John Laurinaitis on Monday Night Raw was when he was auditioning for a GM job prior to the brand split in 2016. The last time I saw Johnny Ace was across a hotel bar after Raw in L.A. a few months back. He’s worked backstage as an agent and is married to the Bella twins’ mother, so he has no shortage of reasons to be around, but he’s just one example. A bunch of the old stars who “returned” to Raw this week are often just an arm’s length away, be they road agents or executives or professional legends or the company concierge.
11. In the run-up to his epic win at WrestleMania 30, Daniel Bryan was either being held down by WWE (who had different plans for the Mania main event) or being held down in story line to drum up interest in his underdog story. Several years later, I’m not sure we’ll ever know the truth — or whether, in a world of blurred lines like pro wrestling, there’s even a distinction. But at Raw in Brooklyn just a couple of weeks before Mania, Bryan didn’t even make an appearance. The story was that he was hurt, but it felt like a slight to deprive him of the Brooklyn ovation (and to deprive the fans of his presence). I heard from someone at WWE that it was to “keep up the heat,” but whether they meant playing up the injury or amplifying the feeling that Bryan was being buried by WWE was unclear. And, of course, whether there’s any distinction.
His rise to the title was a shotgun wedding between WWE and die-hard fans, and WWE would probably have been content to keep teasing it had everything else not fallen apart on the way to WrestleMania. It’s that tease that has led fans to buy into the conspiracy theory that Bryan has another run left in him, despite WWE’s doctors’ refusal to clear him to wrestle. (He’s been the GM of Smackdown Live for 18 months, keeping him on screen but out of the ring.) And WWE is keeping the tease alive, having him go nose-to-nose with the Miz on Monday. And the tease will keep going until he leaves WWE. (Or, you know, until he wrestles again.)
12. Despite being a straight-up 1980s villain — and the respectful boos he usually garners, even from hard-core fans — the Miz is one of the most beloved characters in WWE. Rolling Stone made a solid case for him as 2017’s wrestler of the year. He’s so good at being a midtier villain that he’s undeniable. WWE knows this, which is why it gave him the biggest match at the Barclays Center on Monday night and why it let him beat Roman Reigns and reclaim the Intercontinental title — and why it sent him to the Manhattan Center to trash talk the angsty crowd into submission after the show went off the air. Don’t get it twisted: He’ll be a bad guy at WrestleMania, and he’ll probably get a lousy position on the card. But for one night only, he was the biggest babyface in the promotion.
13. WWE didn’t even try to make Roman Reigns cheerable. He may not have been the biggest heel of the night — it was close — but it was notable that WWE chose the 25th anniversary of Raw to take the IC title off of him. And it didn’t even try to make him sympathetic in the process. I mean, sure, he lost when the Miz sent him headfirst into an exposed turnbuckle. But Roman walked into Barclays to a chorus of boos, and he didn’t try to dissuade them. And the turnbuckle stunt was revealed only after the match, which means the crowd got to cheer Miz as if he’d won clean. The dirty-finish aspect was just for posterity.
14. Last week I heard there was a surprise return at Raw I’d be excited about. Two days later MVP revealed on Instagram that he would be at Raw, and, MVP mark that I am, I knew my surprise had been spoiled. What I did not know, though, was that he’d be a bit player in a recurring backstage segment featuring various WWE stars past and present playing poker with the APA. He was half-man, half a second from not being on screen at all. Suffice it to say that it wasn’t quite the triumphant return I was hoping for.
15. I was happy to see the Peep Show back in action, and Christian is somebody that WWE should find more use for. That said, the decision to opt for that interview segment when the Brother Love Show was just sitting there is indefensible, both because it’s a much more iconic part of WWE lore and because Something to Wrestle With Bruce Prichard, the man beneath the redface, is the most significant wrestling podcast in the world. (Bruce was on my podcast a couple of weeks back.)
16. My only real disappointment of the night is that WWE didn’t find a way to get Jason Jordan and X-Pac in the same room for Pac to pass the torch of go-away heat on to its rightful heir. Jordan has been working as an anarcho-villain over the past couple of months, but sitting in the ring alongside his partner, Seth Rollins, Jordan was working pure heel. He might as well have been singing the alphabet, because the crowd didn’t even give him an inch; the boos were so (beautifully) disrespectful that it’s hard to think of a better characterization job WWE has done in ages.
17. Sometimes WWE puts wrestlers on boxes backstage to make shorter wrestlers taller or tall wrestlers gigantic. And sometimes they go au naturale and you realize that Charlotte is, like, two Alexa Blisses standing on each other’s shoulders. Also: Ric Flair is back!
18. The Manhattan Center didn’t get much in-ring action Monday (there was apparently a cruiserweight match that didn’t make it on TV to tide over the grappling-starved crowd), but it did get Bray Wyatt vs. Matt Hardy in a seeming blow-off to their seemingly percolating feud. Hardy’s “Woken” character, which was a sensation in TNA wrestling before he re-signed with WWE, has gone over well, and his seriocomic chemistry with Wyatt has been refreshing for both men. It was a fine pivot, but it was a five-minute match that came out of nowhere, and on a night that was notably short of big moments, it was hard to tell if we were seeing something noteworthy here or not.
(Also, fans, stop doing the delete gesture upward. I know it’s hard to do it properly when you’re crammed into an arena, but it doesn’t look the way you think it does.)
19. The meta-narrative of the night was the way time ravages even the heartiest among us, but Chris Jericho still has whatever “it” is. He was the star of one of the most memorable moments in Raw history in 1999, and somehow in 2018 he’s still one of the most vital wrestlers in the world. In a backstage segment with Elias, Jericho made the wrestling world bite its collective tongue as he sang a song with an inevitable chorus. (He also wore the T-shirt he was hawking in his recent New Japan run, a small, badass move.)
20. If there was a breakout star of Raw 25, it was Elias, who got to share camera time with Jericho, got to mouth off at a ringside Jimmy Fallon, and then got into it with none other than John Cena. Cena was game as always, and he was expecting the abuse he got from the crowd. But that segment Monday belonged to Elias, and Cena let him have it. Elias has an old-school charisma (and an uncanny resemblance to Randy Savage) that fans of every ilk eat up, and, despite his lack of high-flying moves or an above-average singing voice, it’s not hard to imagine him as an anchor for the company in the years to come. Seeing him smash Cena with his guitar to end the bit, the question that occurred to me is whether we’re witnessing the second coming of the Macho Man or the Honky Tonk Man. The truth, as always, is probably somewhere in the middle.
21. The Godfather — the Attitude Era’s resident pimp, who went on to manage a strip club after his wrestling career — showing up with his wife may be the greatest long-term storytelling in pro wrestling history.
22. “Lemme tell you something, Mean Gene,” growled AJ Styles in a backstage interview with the Hall of Fame inquisitor. That was the closest Hulk Hogan got to Raw 25.
23. Degeneration X — Shawn Michaels, Triple H, X-Pac, Road Dogg, and Billy Gunn, along with their off-screen compadre Scott Hall — had a reunion concert in the Manhattan Center, and they posted a group photo on social media afterward:
What? Oh, sorry, here it is:
The whole thing was somewhere between a Lynyrd Skynrd concert and the Senior Olympics. I loved seeing all of these guys, but their shtick is so steeped in antiestablishment youthfulness that seeing them crotch-chopping their way across a ring with glow sticks in 2018 felt a little embarrassing. The interpersonal moments — Shawn telling Triple H, “I used to be the boss of this group and now you’re the boss of everything” — were nice, and the shout-outs to the late Rick Rude and Chyna were touching. But in a night of throwbacks, DX felt like a bunch of old men putting on their letter jackets for homecoming and getting shitcanned.
Oh wait, here’s one more pic of HBK backstage:
24. The most touching moment of the night was when X-Pac — who, despite all odds, seems to have found real peace and happiness in his post-career life — was yanked out of the moment as he was introducing Hall by a wave of “1–2–3” chants from the Manhattan Center crowd. (He earned his old moniker, the 1–2–3 Kid, in one of Raw’s seminal moments.) When he paused to thank the crowd, it was more real than any worked shoot promo.
25. Finn Bálor and the Balor Club coming out for “a too sweet” moment with the Klique was a supremely cool and meta note in a show steeped in history. Sure, the Balor Club is a reference to the three guys’ time together in the Bullet Club in New Japan, where they tossed up the “too sweet” gesture as a kind of ironic Americanness, but in WWE terms this felt like a christening. Despite an uneven year, Bálor is one of WWE’s top prospects for superstardom, and despite being a foot shorter than most of the old-timers in the ring, he seemed right at home.
26. Overall, Raw 25 struggled to find the present tense, but with the Club and the Klique leading into the closing segment with Brock Lesnar, Kane, and Braun Strowman — the three men competing for the WWE Universal title at the Royal Rumble — the current product finally started to feel like it mattered. Too bad for the three headliners, there wasn’t much time left for them to work after all that nostalgia. Strowman put Lesnar through the announcer’s table moments after he came out, and the show was over. But even rushed, it was a lovely, violent symbol. Twenty-five years after that first Raw, sweaty people are still smacking each other around for our enjoyment every Monday night, and it’s still a good time.