HERSHEY, Pa.–Once upon a time, one of the most common criticisms of the WWE was that the promotion wasn’t succeeding at developing the next generation of wrestling stars. With “Attitude Era” headliners like Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, The Undertaker and Triple H all gone or nearing the end of the road, there was a sense that there wouldn’t be enough hands to accept all those torches when they needed to be passed.
Judging by the reactions of the crowd inside the Giant Center on Monday night, it’s safe to say newly crowned WWE Champion CM Punk isn’t just destined to reach the same level of popularity as those aforementioned grapplers, he may already be there. Fans began chanting his name before the televised action even started, and his most recent “Best in the World” shirt (easy to spot as it’s white in a sea of black wrestling tees) could be seen in large numbers in every section of the arena.
A big part of Punk’s continuing rise is due to his promo-cutting prowess, his willingness to call out anyone and anything that works as well now that he’s the company’s primary face as it did during his heel run earlier this year. Whether he’s dishing out sarcasm at his foes or earnestly recalling how he wanted to be a professional wrestler from the time he was in grade school, Punk has a knack for pushing all the right buttons.
Yet the WWE also deserves credit for framing his anti-hero persona in a familiar way, giving him a sinister authority figure to butt heads with in the form of Interim General Manager John Laurinaitis. The interplay between the two men was one of the highlights of Monday’s installment of Raw, and while it’s got a long way to go before it approaches the Austin-McMahon relationship, this budding rivalry is following in those footsteps.
Punk’s performances in the ring have always been lauded going back to his indy days, and he put on an excellent match on this particular night with rapidly improving United States Champion Dolph Ziggler. Punk eventually prevailed by pinfall after hitting his Go To Sleep finisher, and he already knows who he’ll face next week in Columbia, South Carolina: Alberto Del Rio, in a rematch of their title clash at Survivor Series.
The other wrestler to strike a chord with the fans in Chocolatetown was Zack Ryder, the subject of more signs than any of his fellow performers. He didn’t fare as well in his match, tapping out to Del Rio in just a few minutes, and it remains to be seen if he can transition from what is essentially a comedic gimmick to something more serious. But he’s clearly a big fan favorite at the moment, and his inevitable program with Ziggler seems promising.
As for the king of the mixed reaction, John Cena, Monday was, in his own words, “business as usual.” His appearance in the show’s final segment earned him a mix of boos and cheers. The difference is that the mix used to be about 50-50 and now sounds more like 75-25 in favor of the boobirds. The WWE has continually declined to have Cena do a heel turn since he’s a merchandising machine, but one gets the impression that it’s right there if the creative team wants to do it. And it could be huge.
After the televised portion of the show wrapped up with the apparent end of the Awesome Truth team, Cena teamed with Randy Orton and the Big Show to defeat Ziggler, The Miz and Jack Swagger. Orton got the pin, while Cena got to hear it from his detractors one last time.
The fans also got three matches before Raw went live on the air, with Epico and Primo defeating Percy Watson and Titus O’Neill, Ted DiBiase (who got a good crowd reaction considering his lowly role in the event) beating Drew McIntyre and Michael McGillicutty taking down Alex Riley, all by pinfall.