It was a delight this last week to see the continued experimentation with the format of Monday Night Raw (MNR) take another new form, with a full two thirds of the whole show being spent on a single match featuring its seven top male stars. I can’t recall ever seeing something like that in the history of MNR (not to sound like Michael Cole…) and, following on from the Reigns / Wyatt opening a couple of weeks ago, it renewed my hope that WWE might just be shaking off its strictly formulaic approach to television, at least when it comes to Team Red.
I’m sure we haven’t seen the end of twenty minute opening promos, but for now at least it seems WWE are feeling a little braver with their flagship show, which has benefitted greatly for it. So too has it benefitted from the fact that this latest experiment, a near two hour long Gauntlet Match, was a roaring success for them, and I’m here to take you through all seven character-driven chapters!
My name is Samuel ‘Plan, and this is the Performance Art Raw View.
Chapter I: Roman Reigns’ Achilles Heel Lives
It was an entirely unapologetic, even gloating Roman Reigns who told booing fans he would have beaten Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 31 and who paused as if to blame Seth Rollins outwardly for his resultant defeat, before the Kingslayer’s music hit. A tell, if ever I’ve seen one, that, despite the latter’s journey toward redemption and their famous group’s reunion last autumn, there remains hostilities between them yet to be resolved.
Yet for all that familiarity, something had changed.
“Burn it down!” chants seemed to get underneath the skin of a Roman Reigns used to soaking up the universal response of the WWE Universe alone, be it positive or negative, and the very way the Big Dog carried himself felt noticeably different from the man Seth Rollins once stood undefeated against. This was a Reigns visibly taking himself more seriously, with greater confidence that bordered on hubris whenever he asserted an advantage over his more cerebral brother-in-arms. He swaggered whenever he walked, he trash talked whenever he locked on a hold, and his apparent shock at Rollins eventually gaining a pin fall victory over him betrayed the Big Dog’s presumptive arrogance that even an accomplished and elite world class talent, who was once his Achilles Heel no less, stood no chance against him.
Ultimately, Reigns’ greatest strength, being his confidence that has carried him to historic career-defining victories throughout 2017 over the likes of The Undertaker and John Cena, proved here to be his undoing. His learning curve from those victories was deployed unapologetically in plain sight with an almost boastful sense of self-importance; but Reigns fell victim to his focussed brother when his Cena-like showmanship overtook his ‘Taker-like focus, thus creating an opening for the chess master to checkmate him.
By its conclusion, it proved to be an encounter that only furthered the fateful symmetry of Reigns vs. Rollins, the premier feud of their generation in WWE. For not only was this a new Reigns for Rollins, so too was it a resurgent Rollins for Reigns. While Reigns was wrestling in singles main events, Rollins busied himself pursuing tag team success instead – last Monday’s leviathan story started with Rollins beginning to once again readjust to life in the singles division, and it was in the opening chapter against Reigns that Rollins’ singular indomitable will power began to reassert itself. It carried him to a victory over the widely recognised top dog in WWE today, and held promise that, despite Reigns’ win over Rollins last spring, the Big Dog’s Achilles Heel lives once more.
Chapter II: Relentless – The Seth Rollins Story
If the resilience of an apparently injured Rollins winning out over Reigns wasn’t enough of a convincer for the viewer that the man’s iron will was resurgent, then the Architect’s 2015-like cut-throat ambush of an unprepared John Cena should have been. It was a moment that, while morally questionable (and especially so when followed up with an attempted count out victory during the advert break), evidenced Rollins was tapping into a part of himself he hadn’t dared to touch for a long time; that part of himself that carried him to the first age of ‘Monday Night Rollins’ three years ago.
It was a dangerous game he began to play, doing that, without the influence of a good brother like Dean Ambrose around to keep him in check afterward. It will be telling if accessing that murkier aspect of his own self comes with repercussions tonight, but certainly repercussions of a kind followed last Monday: like Reigns before him, it was Rollins’ lust for success that not only eventually proved his undoing in the Gauntlet but might yet prove to be his ultimate undoing in the Chamber.
“Don’t get greedy, Seth!” Corey Graves exclaimed on commentary as Rollins’ effort opposite Cena began to look uncomfortably like a rout. His force of will kept him in the game long after Cena was driven to desperation, but his exhaustion meant that he could never gain a sustained upper hand. Cena found himself provided a multitude of late game opportunities as Rollins pushed beyond his human limitations, opportunities a fresher, less battle crazed Rollins might have had the savvy to deny.
By the time Rollins was hitting Cena with apparently impossible moves – like his own AA delivered with immense irony – and by the time Rollins had driven Cena to double-taps previously reserved only for the elite ranks of men like Brock Lesnar, it seemed clear that, while the Kingslayer’s fully re-emerged will power was carrying him to superhuman accomplishment in the present, it would need to augment itself further if Rollins was wanting to enter the Chamber tonight without being handicapped by the lingering effects of his war against WWE’s two biggest heavy-hitters.
Victory over Cena came at a cost. By the time an impatient Elias was entering fresh, Rollins’ leg was on the verge of giving out, his body wracked with exhaustion. Counters he usually relied upon to shift the momentum of any given combat were outright failing on him and his instincts and addiction were becoming as much a danger to himself as to his opponents. Every passing second chipped away at his chances of victory later tonight as Elias mercilessly sought to tear the Architect’s foundations apart, and while Rollins fought back even then like a rabid Hound, hurtling headlong into defeat with a defiant death cry of “Come on, Elias!” the physical toll of his new pursuit, and how obsessive he had so quickly become over it, proved to have robbed even this phoenix of his last dregs of strength.
Elias was able to take Rollins out with a single Drift Away; an unlikely image, you might imagine, under normal circumstances, but one we are now in danger of seeing tonight, perhaps because of the after-effects of, as Graves contextualised it, ‘Rollins getting greedy.’
“I guess that’s something,” Rollins told Rene Young upon hearing his record-breaking stint in the ring, before going on to add, in further sign of his obsessive compulsive behavioural pattern, that “it doesn’t mean anything if I don’t win the Elimination Chamber on Sunday.”
Today, then, is a moment of truth for this newly proven Big Match Seth: will he die by the sword he lived by last Monday? Just how deep does that will power of his run?
Chapter III: John Cena Doesn’t Belong
Following his own defeat at the hands of Seth Rollins, John Cena was confronted, not for the first time, with the inescapable reality that he was struggling to adjust in this newly emergent landscape of WWE. In his own post-match interview with Rene Young, Cena spoke of his torn priorities, of his need to refocus and his desire to demonstrate that he’s not done yet. Tonight, though, might be a last chance saloon for him.
This is not because without a victory tonight Cena won’t be at WrestleMania, but rather because without a victory tonight Cena will only continue to strengthen the apparent facts of the situation he has been facing for a year now: as WWE’s latest generation matures, he’s swimming out of his already impressive depth. It was clear in his match with Roman Reigns at No Mercy, and it was made clear again during his stint in the Gauntlet Match last Monday.
There was something ugly in the basic desperation of Cena’s effort opposite Rollins. He took minimal risks, attempted to grind the freshly reawakening Rollins he’s familiar with down with suffocating, simplistic offence to apparently uncharacteristically take the shortest straight line to victory over a tired opponent. It was an approach long removed from the Franchise Player of Yesteryear, capable of overcoming all odds and relishing the challenge of doing so.
Cena tried his own count out victories over Rollins, who responded by repeatedly telling Cena to “bring it,” thereby switching what was once the traditional roles of the two in their previous encounters from three to four years back. Cena now looked like the incapable one, continually coming up short as Rollins’ will power gained traction and entrenched itself.
Even his once proven US Open Challenge method, that carried him to a seemingly ceaseless string of victories as recently as 2015 and 2016, outright failed him. Despite using some out of the box moves both we and Rollins had never seen him use before, Cena continued to come up short, as Rollins simply returned from the jaws of defeat again, and again, and again, forcing Cena to a whole other level each and every time; until, eventually, despite having started with a twenty minute handicap, Rollins had dragged Cena to an equal level of exhaustion as his own!
That, by his departure, Cena ended last Monday by being asked by Rollins “What do you have left?” despite having himself started the match by asking Rollins that same question was not just a remarkable testament to the dangerous capabilities of the Kingslayer, but a potentially terrifying glimpse into the bleak future of Cena’s twilight if, later tonight, he finds himself unable to once again muster up an appropriate and equally capable answer.
Chapter IV: Learn With Elias
Elias showed last Monday night, with his own performance in the Gauntlet Match, why he should not simply be discounted in tonight’s Elimination Chamber Match. The Drifter enters with a final entrant advantage over his opposition, and though his victory over Rollins last Monday no doubt benefitted from the sheer exhaustion that plagued the Kingslayer at the point of their meeting, the symmetry is clear: that exact same situation could be exactly what Elias walks into tonight, and if he does we could be walking out alongside him towards a Universal Championship match with Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania.
It isn’t just luck that has benefitted Elias. The Drifter has demonstrated a fiercely swift adaptability. He demonstrated that adaptability on Monday. A less intelligent competitor might have rested on his laurels and thought that Rollins’ fatigue alone was enough of an advantage. Elias proved not to be quite so simple-minded, and instead made a point of not only hastily assaulting a weakened enemy but prioritising the weakest part of that weakened enemy too: the knee.
This was proven to be more than instinctive opportunity on the Drifter’s part too during his second round opposite Finn Bálor – a man with a history of shoulder injuries that Elias was sure to target in equal fashion, and almost immediately. His attacks on Bálor’s shoulders were obsessive, and pushed the Ordinary Man Capable of Extraordinary Things to his physical limits almost immediately. That’s not an Elias to take for granted, but a man rapidly climbing an important learning curve heading into the biggest match of his career.
Whether it was the instinctive opportunism, the rapid adaptability or the hungry desire, an Elias guaranteed to enter the Chamber’s warzone from the relative safety of his pod last of all is an Elias who could, if left unchecked or unconsidered, shock the rest of the field and walk away with a paradigm-altering victory in just a few hours.
Chapter V: The Continued Bitterness of Bálor
Tonight is not just a moment of reckoning for Seth Rollins, but could prove to be the biggest moral test of Finn Bálor’s career too. I have chronicled for weeks now the breadth of reasons Finn has to resent the recurring thorn in his side that is the Kingslayer, and this last week has only added even more fuel still to that fire.
After applauding a departing Seth Rollins – one wonders whether there was a little glee mixed in with that clap’s begrudging respect – Finn quickly found himself enduring a not entirely dissimilar test of endurance and push against his physical limits. Finn’s previously injured shoulder was targeted mercilessly by his first opponent Elias, who put the first ever Universal Champion through his paces from the off. This was furthered still more by a career-best Intercontinental Champion Miz, who in turn was sure to pile upon the withering physicality more than a few unfair shenanigans courtesy of interference on the part of the Miztourage.
Yet despite Finn surviving Elias’s assault in equally noble fashion, and despite wrestling to a point of exhaustion himself against Miz, once again he finds himself sitting cold in the shadow of Seth Rollins. Nobody has talked about Finn’s own fighting effort last Monday, and nobody has given him any credit despite the similarities in both men’s stories. I’m certain there’s only so much of this any man might be able to take.
It is therefore the continued developing story between these two men I will be keeping an eye on most of all later tonight; not least of all because it is a contest that could be decided before the bell even rings.
While questions hang over whether or not Rollins’ characteristic will power has any deeper level to plumb in tonight’s Chamber, we know for a fact that Finn – even in spite of the fierce capability he demonstrated last Monday in managing to not only survive Elias but then despatch him quickly with a couple of comeback moves that furthered pre-existing damage to the Drifter’s ribs – has an augmented version of what he displayed several days ago that can not only enter the dangerous environment of the Chamber fresh, but that possesses a victorious history against the Kingslayer too: the Demon King Bálor.
If the Demon is unfurled in a few hours, putting him in a dangerous place like the Chamber, that so encourages a man’s basest instincts, is bad enough. If that Demon, with all its heightened capability, emotion and senses, then finds itself somehow being slighted, cheated, perhaps undercut by Rollins in some form or another yet again then, this time, the so far silent bitterness of Finn could erupt into the unremitting rage of Bálor, and it’ll be a war-beaten, presumably exhausted Rollins sitting square in that Demon King’s sights.
Chapter VI: The Miz’s Solitary Confinement
Reigns and Rollins weren’t the only men to unfortunately show their hand in last Monday’s Gauntlet Match, with their greatest strength similarly proving to be their greatest weakness. The Miz joined them in his late effort too.
The Miz is a man who, perhaps more than any other, knows his limits, and he is a man who isn’t afraid to use what he can to help find a way past those limits in order to overachieve. That was immediately clear the moment he utilised the Miztourage to distract Finn long enough to ambush him from behind. So too was it clear as Miz’s game plan revealed itself: the collected mercilessness of Elias was replaced with a man urgently clawing and grasping at an injured arm, not so much merciless as feral in his pursuit of the quickest possible victory he could gain.
Just as Miz knows he isn’t the strongest or perhaps even most capable, so too does he know entering the Chamber still feeling the pains of an exhausting effort in the Gauntlet would put him at a major disadvantage, especially in lieu of his forced placement as the first entrant. Calling his pursuit of eliminating Finn urgent, therefore, would be an understatement. He took any advantage he was offered, be it by chance, by Finn’s mistakes or by the Miztourage, without apology and with all the charmless arrogance we have come to know him for.
Ultimately, however, as with Reigns and Rollins before him, this strength of the Miz’s came to be his undoing. His desperate effort to manipulate his way to victory left unforeseen the circumstance he had to face upon wiping Finn out of the race: a final and inescapable confrontation with Braun Strowman that, despite more of an effort than we might have been able to predict from the Intercontinental Champion, was far too much for him to be able to overcome. Couple this with the fact that Miz was quickly overwhelmed whenever Finn was able to mount a physical comeback against him and negate the extraneous influence of Curtis Axel and Bo Dallas and you reach one inescapable conclusion: in the isolated setting of the Chamber, Miz might struggle.
The more perceptive of his opponents – like the cerebral Rollins or the adaptable Elias – were therefore shown their best chance at taking Miz out. Tonight, inside the confines of a Chamber, there will be no outside interference for the Miz to take advantage of, and his sentencing to being the first man in the ring means he cannot rely on Lady Luck to do him any favours either. While mitigating circumstances are a dime a dozen in such a chaotic environment, Miz is still going to have to call upon every cunning thought he has in him to survive, let alone win tonight’s match; that, or find in himself a new level of physical capability we have reason to doubt exists because of his addiction to shortcuts.
It may be a touch of Fate, then, that Miz has been given reason to unearth such a part of him, in the form of finding himself replaced by an injured Dean Ambrose on the PPV posters up around tonight’s host city. Can Miz translate his resultant outrage into a stronger ring game that gets him past his otherwise reliance on an exterior support network?
Chapter VII: Strowman’s Self-Awareness
Braun Strowman showed last Monday why he should be considered an odds-on favourite for the Elimination Chamber Match tonight. His pursuit of an escaping Miz, in one brief moment, demonstrated the combination of monstrous physical factors that make him so dangerous: he’s fast, he’s focused, he’s destructive, he’s strong, he’s hungry and, above all else, he refuses to be denied. Putting that in the ring is bad enough. Putting that in an everyday environment is even worse – as evidenced by a trail of upturned trucks and ambulances, scaffolds and stages across the United States. Putting that inside of an Elimination Chamber?! That’s perhaps a worst case scenario for all involved.
But, as with a number of other participants in last Monday’s Gauntlet, Strowman needs to be self-aware tonight, lest he risk being undone by his greatest asset as he almost was several days ago. Strowman doesn’t just wreak destruction, he enjoys doing it. So much so, he isn’t adverse to taking his time and relishing the moment. He did exactly that with Miz on MNR – and, to the shock of many, it almost cost him.
It’s hard to believe a single Skull Crushing Finale could take out the Monster Among Men, but that’s not the point; the point is that Miz was allowed an opportunity to nail one, when such an opportunity should have been impossible. Instead of getting rid of Miz in short order, but alternatively taking the time to relish decimating the Intercontinental Champion, Strowman created an opportunity for his enemy.
Presenting opportunities like that for your opposition in an environment as dangerous as the Chamber is problematic. It takes but one second for Strowman to get speared through a pod door, for example, or hit with a Phoenix Splash and a Coup de Grace from an ungodly height. Doing that in an environment where you are facing not one but potentially up to six opponents drastically increases your chances to fail. One Skull Crushing Finale might be far from enough to pin Strowman, but a Skull Crushing Finale, a Drift Away, a Spear, an AA, a Coup de Grace and a Curb Stomp all working in harmony I’m sure would be plenty to win those three decisive seconds needed to wave goodbye to the Monster Among Men.
Strowman needs to curb his enthusiasm tonight, and be far more self-aware of his vice lest he risk an embarrassing failure in the face of an otherwise guaranteed victory. There’s no reason why this Monster Among Men couldn’t win tonight’s match in six quick Powerslams, other than his propensity to take too long to hit them.
Last Monday’s Gauntlet Match was a seven book library, each book telling the story of the field of seven about to enter the Chamber tonight; the story of their strengths, their weaknesses and their motivations. It was a tapestry of characterisation and narrative previewing tonight’s main event, and if that main event can capture just a little of the same magic we saw on display several days ago then, even in spite of so many feeling so tepid towards tonight’s pay-per-view, we should be in for a treat.
That’ll do it for this week’s instalment of the Performance Art Raw View. If you have any thoughts on the events currently transpiring on WWE’s flagship show, or if you have any thoughts on anything I haven’t covered, feel free to share them in the comments below, over on social media or even by signing up to our own LOPForums; just click here to sign up!
And be sure to check out our LOP Radio exclusive pay-per-view post-show airing immediately after Elimination Chamber goes off air: Aftershock, featuring Steve of The Late Shift fame and, tonight, making a debut appearance as Steve’s new co-host, yours truly! So I’ll ssee you there!
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