It’s impressive that after 25+ years, Raw can still surprise audiences. It’s especially impressive when you consider the show week-to-week is generally as surprising as your dad asking for another t-shirt for his birthday. Wrestling in the age of 2021 is all about knowing surprises before they happen—returns, debuts, music changes. It was someone’s job to speculate which theme song CM Punk was going to use for his big AEW debut, and I love that for them. But sometimes when the stars align, something very special happens, and you wake up on a Tuesday morning to find Twitter blasting off about a shoot fight on Monday Night Raw.
As the longest running live entertainment show in television history, we’ve all become accustomed to the WWE style over the years: talent playing to the hardcam, stumbling through stilted promos, standing still for a minute and a half of piped in cheers anytime someone says the word “bitch.” As a result, it’s often hard to decipher what’s going on when WWE dares to break that mold, even momentarily. Throw in two wrestlers who spark plenty of strong opinions, and you’ve got material to tweet about for at least four to five hours.
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Monday night gave us plenty of Nia Jax, as she dropped both Nikki ASH and Rhea Ripley after the two former champs had a match earlier in the night. To hit the trifecta of the Raw women’s division that creative still knows exists, she also faced Charlotte in a match, and the fists went flying. In case you’ve never tuned into wrestling fan’s opinions (in which case, I’m very jealous), Jax and Flair are two of the most polarizing superstars WWE has today. People still talk about Jax breaking Becky Lynch’s nose four years ago, and just searching Flair’s name will result in a lot of people using the term “overpushed.” Just give it a Google. I’ve never had a day of wrestling training in my life, so I’m definitely not qualified to declare someone unsafe or not, but with that info in mind, you can already imagine there was plenty to say about this one.
Things started off with your typical heel vs heel shenanigans; Charlotte tried to escape to the outside, refusing to engage with Jax. Hoisting Flair up on her shoulders, Jax dropped the Queen in a bump that wouldn’t have looked out of place at your local indie show, but seemed less choreographed than most of WWE’s spots that grace the USA Network. Flair slapped Jax clear across the face, so Nia eagerly returned the favor. Jax drive her back into the ropes and the two exchanged messy punches and trash talk, both trying to shove the other one away. The match ended with a huge spinebuster from Jax to pick up a win, but that was hardly what got people talking. The fistfight between Jax and Flair took clear center stage here, sparking a debate about whether or not both women were genuinely trying to beat the crap out of each other.
Jax and Flair have always had an awkward sort of chemistry together; they just don’t work as well as other pairings. We’ve seen stilted matches between them before, but this one really took the opportunity to lean into that uncomfortable quality. Playing up the unpolished bumps, the kind we just don’t see someone like Charlotte take very often, gave it a rough feeling, another quality frequently missing in the glossy, overproduced WWE programming. WWE usually prefers to do the opposite—if something gets over organically, if two wrestlers have natural chemistry, they find a way to drive it into the ground. Most often the culprit is forcing the audience to sit through the same match for weeks on end—Gargano/Ciampa, McIntyre/Lashley, Flair/Ripley, I can go on and on. Here, they’ve twisted the formula; they’ve stumbled on something so bad, it almost got good. It’s the Lifetime murder mystery of Raw matches, right down to the wooden acting. Things seemed truthfully messy as the two devolved into their slap fest, both wearing genuinely pissed off looks. For lack of a better term, it felt real.
So, was it? Putting aside the fact that shoot slapping someone as valuable to WWE as Charlotte Flair is would probably land you in sports entertainment jail, I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t really matter. Wrestling, like Santa Claus or Tinder on a Saturday night, works best when you believe. And not in the snarky, Twitter thread of botches way. It’s the utmost basic rule of wrestling: if you buy into Flair and Jax legitimately wanting to tear each other’s hair out, the feud naturally becomes a lot more interesting. After all, why wouldn’t I, as a fan, want to get worked? “Real” or not, it was more entertaining than most segments that air at 10:15. It accomplished all it needed to; I was actually interested to see their title match the following week. Would we get some more fists flying? Would Charlotte take more than two bumps? Would somebody get their nose broken?
Actual Interest, Squandered
Flair and Jax are your two basic flavors of bad guy—the obnoxious, entitled legacy, and the big monster heel. Jax, who WWE has often struggled to book within her wheelhouse, is best when she’s playing to her strength- literally. Your average heel vs heel, particularly in the hands of Vince McMahon, doesn’t always stir interest. But watching these women, who generate legitimate heat simply at the thought of their name, throw hands like they’re closing down the bar is a different story. Flair, one of WWE’s most decorated superstars of all time, gets the clear disadvantage in a fight like that. She can hit pretty moonsaults and crack people’s backs, but if it comes down to a knock down drag out fight, my money would be on Jax every time. This makes Flair the underdog, and isn’t that just the darnedest thing.
Both women struggle to play a babyface—their styles, their gimmicks, just lend themselves to playing the rude customer demanding to speak to your manager. A longer feud that played into their messy chemistry could explore that—who do you root for when both wrestlers are the bad guy? Do we sympathize with Jax, who can slap some sense into the cocky Flair? Or do we feel bad for Charlotte as the underdog, going up against someone clearly able to overpower her? Or are we simply content to watch two nasty people get what’s coming to them?
The unfortunate answer is no. This weeks match sadly fell back into regular Raw territory, complete with some shenanigans from Shayna Baszler. While I’m always happy to see Baszler earn an appearance check, I was thoroughly disappointed. Their re-match was bad, and definitely not so bad I could call it good. The brief set up last week was a reminder that WWE is capable of shaking things up—they just prefer not to. After a very flat match, Alexa Bliss and Lilly interrupted, which shot down most of my hopes of seeing Charlotte and Nia scrap it up any more. Not to repeat myself for the upteenth time, but here’s yet another case of WWE making a choice—a strong one, whether right or wrong—and then chickening out. The safe option is Bliss and her creepy doll winking at the Queen. The more interesting decision is to give us the awkward mess of Charlotte and Nia, to let it be stumbling and uncomfortable. A thirty second slap fest may not be five star wrestling, but it is leagues above a CGI doll, at least in my book.
With the playground gang’s challenge, Jax seems to be firmly on the back burner for Charlotte. Which is a bummer, because it could have been campy fun. Maybe someday we’ll get that back room brawl. Or maybe we’ll be stuck on an endless loop of doll winks forever.