Common wisdom is that you should always start with a compliment, so let me begin by lauding the bright parts of Extreme Rules, the Raw-exclusive pay-per-view that aired this past Sunday: the show was tightly focused, well-paced event with surprises and well-executed story beats. And though its 165-minute runtime puts it on the shorter end of WWE's recent shows, having less time made for a much leaner, better show than the meandering pace typical of the company's flagship Monday show. Completely removed from the context of what Extreme Rules shows typically entail or the past several weeks of Raw, this is one of the better shows the Raw brand has put on in some time. One could even make the argument that it could be a decent PPV.
But there's the rub - context is everything, and Extreme Rules comes with the context of weeks of Raw that have run near-identical versions of these match-ups several times before, to say nothing of certain outright travesties that have buried whatever goodwill many people had for certain competitors. It brings with it the baggage of weeks of meandering storytelling leaving Raw in stasis. Extreme Rules needed to be a clear indication for where Raw sees itself going in the next several months and to give characters new life. To WWE's credit, they indicated where they see themselves going; the problem is, where they're going seems to be "continuing to meander with these characters and do very little."
Perhaps the most telling moment of the night was Elias Samson's brief musical interlude during the middle of the show. The Drifter took to the ring to generate some cheap heat for a few minutes with a poorly performed song about his low opinion of Baltimore, which got the crowd expectedly riled up. And then, nothing. Before the segment could truly build to anything, WWE had already cut back to the announce team to begin hyping the next match. There was no greater motivation for bringing Samson and his still mysterious character out than to kill some time between matches. It would be one thing if Samson was an outlier, but practically everyone else on Extreme Rules is in the same boat. Everyone is meandering; no one gets to stand out; no stories move forward and nothing of value is accomplished. Even without the twenty extra minutes, Extreme Rules could not be any more like Raw if it tried.
Kalisto def. Apollo Crews
Rating: THE WORST
Sorry everyone, but it actually would not be possible for me to care less about Kalisto, Apollo Crews or any of this Titus Brand nonsense even if I tried. The finish, where Kalisto used O'Neil as a launching pad to hit Salina del Sol on Crews, was a neat visual but neat visuals are seemingly all Kalisto has in his repertoire. That, to be fair, is more than Crews has going for him.
Intercontinental Championship match (title changes hands on disqualification)
The Miz def. Dean Ambrose (c)
There's a lot to like in this match, by which I mean there are a lot of great Miz moments that are incredibly fun. The man has wonderful chemistry with Dean Ambrose, and he continues to come into his own as Daniel Bryan's internet troll equivalent with his own, pretty good looking version of the running knee finisher. Unfortunately, the match also did little with its premise of the title changing hands on disqualification. Sure, Miz makes some attempts to goad Ambrose into making a wrong move, but for the most part the match is a shockingly standard wrestling match. There's the tease at the end when Miz attempts to get Ambrose disqualified by having Maryse slap him and then throws Ambrose into the referee when that fails, but it all amounts to nothing when the finish involves Miz hitting a distracted Ambrose with the Skull Crushing Finale, something that could have happened any time before the twentyish minutes this match got were over. The match we got was fine, but the smell of wasted potential is all over it.
Mixed Tag Team match
Rich Swann & Sasha Banks def. Noam Dar & Alicia Fox
With the exception of the Kickoff match, this was the most "Raw" match on the show - it had little build, less reason to happen, was short and didn't serve any real purpose. It was the most ignorable match of the night by far, perhaps not the least of which because the two women in the had very little to do but catfight and pull each other's hair like the bad old days of Divas wrestling. And yet I'm compelled to give it a thumb in the middle. That amazing double knees from the top rope to outside the ring that Sasha Banks hit on Noam Dar towards the end of the match is one reason. The fact that Rich Swann is just so dang affable and that he and Sasha dance like goofballs is another reason. What can I say? I'm a man of simple pleasures sometimes, and ridiculous athletic moves followed by nerdy dancing just happens to be one of them.
Raw Women's Championship match (Kendo Stick on a Pole match)
Alexa Bliss (c) def. Bayley
Rating: THE WORST
If there's one thing this match made clear, it's that Bayley truly is Lady John Cena, just not in the way we were expecting. Well, that and the fact that WWE has a very skewed perspective on what constitutes "going extreme."
The build for this match was built around the question of whether or not Bayley can get "extreme," which for some reason translates to "who can climb a pole to get a wooden stick first?" The answer comes when Bayley is the first to grab the kendo stick, but hesitates in using it against Alexa Bliss; the hesitation gives Bliss the opportunity to turn things around on Bayley, at which point she unloads on the challenger with the kendo stick and gets the pin. On its own, this could be a fine character arc for Bayley if they were to lean into Bayley not being willing to do certain things to win the championship, no matter her opponent's morals. But that's a strangely narrow definition of "extreme," isn't it? And why is this the line for Bayley? We've seen her help her Survivor Series team get the jump on their opponents, win the first ever 30-minute Iron Woman match, choke out Nia Jax, win her first Raw title after an outside competitor interfered and then refuse to drop said title, similarly interfere in other people's matches by laying hands on their opponents, and sucker punch people for insulting her. But hitting people with a piece of wood is a bridge too far for her?
It makes Bayley's hesitation look less like an actual moment of character building and more like one of those hackneyed character moments that suggest drama but ultimately mean nothing that defined the worst of John Cena's "super-Cena" run. Remember his WrestleMania XXX match against Bray Wyatt, where the story was based around Wyatt trying to get Cena to give in to his sadistic urges, which amounted to Cena hemming and hawing over hitting Wyatt with a chair despite having hit tens of people with chairs over the years? The Bayley moment is a lot like that, a brief glimpse of goodness rendered unbelievable by the characterization that's come before, and will likely be made irrelevant by whatever comes after. Even without that moment, the match was relatively boring and felt light on drama (thing-on-a-pole matches always seem better in idea than execution, as the low/hanging pole makes the tension feel more contrived); making that moment the lynchpin of the entire match, however, ultimately craters the whole thing to the point where not even Bliss going to town on Bayley with the kendo stick again is enough to maintain interest.
Raw Tag Team Championships match (Steel Cage match)
Sheamus & Cesaro def. The Hardy Boyz (c)
Everything about this match was predictable as all hell, from Jeff Hardy's swanton bomb off the top of the cage that inevitably cost the Hardys their title to the fact that Sheamus and Cesaro would win the titles by escaping the cage first. (How else were they going to beat the people they've lost to, like, six times in a row before this?) But for as little as I care about Matt and Jeff Hardy in their non-broken variants, Cesaro and Sheamus are just badass enough to keep things interesting and fun. They may not be able to make a match great on their own (they ain't miracle workers) but they certainly prevented this match from being too trite. Plus, now they have the titles back, so hopefully we can move on to the rebreaking of Matt.
Cruiserweight Championship match (Submission match)
Neville (c) def. Austin Aries
Here's a rhetorical question: what makes a submission match in the cruiserweight division different from a submission match between heavyweights? The answer, like the cruiserweight division in general, is there's no real difference between these guys and the heavyweights aside from the unspoken rule that these guys are "too small" to be "legitimate" champions. And so we get Neville vs. Austin Aries, once again, in a match that isn't much different from their last several matches except this time they have to use the submission finishers they probably would have used anyway. We've seen it all before, even down to Neville tapping out to give Aries the "visual victory" but the match continuing because they weren't in the ring. And with the match ending with Neville tapping Aries out clean in the ring, it's starting to feel less like the King is crafty and willing to do whatever it takes to win and more like Austin Aries is a dope who can't account for Neville's obvious attempts to cover his ass. I'm glad to see that Evil Neville will get a chance to keep doing great work, but destroying Aries' credibility in the process helps no one.
Winner faces Brock Lesnar for Universal Championship at WWE Great Balls of Fire
Samoa Joe def. Finn Bálor, Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins & Bray Wyatt
Rating: REALLY GOOD
I'll admit, this match was better than I expected after weeks of seeing permutations of this exact match for the past few weeks on Raw. That's what I get for doubting the the ability of four of Raw's best wrestlers (and Roman Reigns) to put on a compelling match when given a ton of time to work with.
The time is an important factor - the match was close to forty minutes long, and while it wasn't rip-roaring throughout the entire time, it kept a great and exciting pace. Having seen these five men fight each other several times before meant that we weren't likely to see anything truly new or out of the ordinary from this match-up, and while that definitely ended up being the case, the Superstars made up for it with a ton of goofy spectacle. We may have seen guys get blasted through announce tables and ringside barricades a bunch of times before, but the talent made these spots work and still seem exciting.
Having Samoa Joe win was strange call, especially in having him choke out Finn Bálor, the guy Paul Heyman majorly put over a few weeks ago. I'm not disappointed and Joe certainly deserves it, but it comes across as WWE trying to do something shocking and unexpected rather than what actually makes the most sense storywise. Nonetheless, if "wrestling for wrestling's sake" is what you're after, this is the one match on the card that really delivers.
That said, one has to wonder why you didn't just watch a better show if all you want is wrestling for wrestling's sake.