This year's Road to WrestleMania feels like a construction zone.
Momentum is stalled, speed is halted and the scenery doesn't seem to change. Despite all the negatives, the promise of a new, improved motorway lies ahead in the future.
Coming off the heels of the Royal Rumble pay per view, Raw delivered a highly entertaining episode that seemed to kick the product into high gear.
Monday's Raw was a letdown, and tonight's Smackdown, while not as bad, still failed to reignite interest as WWE moves toward Elimination Chamber and, ultimately, WrestleMania.
Many of the issues stem from root problems addressed in the past. WWE continues to have the same superstars compete week after week, the Great Khali is being treated as a featured attraction and the in-ring action is being limited, while some deserving talent - including WWE Tag Team Champions Epico and Primo - are being excluded from the shows.
Without running the risk of sounding overly negative, however, there are several positives to look forward to as the red and blue brands move ahead.
The top of the card on each show is providing engaging progression, drawing viewers into the drama and building tension. Raw's main attraction interaction between CM Punk and Chris Jericho has had the wrestling world talking.
Friday's Smackdown featured a main event between World Heavyweight Champion Daniel Bryan and Randy Orton that continues building the realistic possibility that the heavily pushed Orton will dethrone the independent wrestling darling before the biggest show of the year.
Many do not believe WWE will have the faith to allow Bryan to carry the title into April, and at this point, Orton appears to be his biggest threat. The mere thought of another Sheamus vs. Orton match, however, is not appealing.
Hopefully next week's shows, which will be the go-home editions heading into the Elimination Chamber pay per view, will step up the quality, knock down the time spent on vignettes and video packages and deliver four hours of solid wrestling entertainment to the fans.
- The Orton-Bryan match, much like last week's CM Punk-Bryan match, was a good tease of what these two superstars would be able to accomplish given more time and a proper pay-per-view stage. I admit I had skepticism about the chemistry these two would have, but I've been sold on the pairing.
When Bryan tried to run away from the match, Big Show threw him back into the ring, where Orton hit an RKO on the champ. Bryan earned another victory by disqualification, and Orton and Big Show got into a scuffle. This kind of show ending sequence is the way to build anticipation for pay per view, as it keeps everyone's character looking strong.
- They announced last week that Sheamus would wait until after the Elimination Chamber pay per view to choose which champion he will face at WrestleMania. So why exactly is he being given promo time on every show? Also, hearing Sheamus, who spent his first year roughing up every babyface on the roster, talk about being bullied and standing up for himself is a bit laugh-inducing.
Seeing Wade Barrett, Cody Rhodes and Big Show get involved in Sheamus' opening promo was not unexpected, but none of the men really had a chance to stand out on the microphone. This was kept as a very basic segment featuring three of the Elimination Chamber participants and the Royal Rumble winner to set up an obligatory tag team match later in the show.
As for the match itself, the foursome put on a solid tag team match that received about 12 minutes of TV time. It's questionable why Rhodes and Barrett, who will be competing in a World Heavyweight Championship match in nine days, are jobbing. Big Show is automatically a threat because of his size, and Sheamus looks strong by nature of his Royal Rumble victory. Rhodes and Barrett, meanwhile, could stand to benefit from looking strong heading into the pay per view.
- Ted DiBiase earned a sense of retribution against his rival Hunico by scoring a pinfall victory. Hopefully this is the end of the feud, as no one is clamoring to see these two wrestle again. DiBiase still had a cast on his wrist, and if you look closely enough, you'll see that it's signed. At the DiBiase Posse Party before the Royal Rumble, he was allowing kids to sign it, as he autographed photos for them. DiBiase came off as a real class act that afternoon.
- The Great Khali and his brother-in-law Jinder Mahal rekindled their feud, as Khali defeated his opponent in a glorified squash match. If WWE is insisting on putting Khali on television, it's better that he beat a jobber like Mahal than defeat a rising talent like Rhodes. Mahal, meanwhile, makes a credible enhancement talent, as his size and look at least makes him seem potentially intimidating.
- Beth Phoenix made quick work of Alicia Fox. Phoenix continued the assault after the match, bringing out Tamina for a stare down. WWE has at least spent a few weeks building Tamina up as a credible challenger, so this feud may have some legs until Kharma can return full time or Natalya turns babyface.
- AJ made her first public comments since being injured by Big Show in an interview with Michael Cole. AJ stood up to Cole, who was harassing her, and relinquished the Big Show of all responsibility for her injury. WWE seems to be treating AJ as a babyface, despite her alliance with Bryan, which fits well with his character. He's manipulated her into loving him and doing his bidding, while she still remains a good-natured person at heart. This relationship has also paid off more than the Gail Kim-Bella Twins love triangle ever could have dreamed.
- Barrett's comment to Big Show that "even Snooki has had a better WrestleMania career than you" doesn't hold much weight, considering very few other people have perfect records on the grandest stage of all. The Undertaker, Michael Cole and Floyd Mayweather spring to mind immediately.
- Bryan brought up recycling, fuel efficiency and other environmental topics during his promo. I wonder if animal cruelty is on his list, and if so, what does he think about the dead animal Fox wears on her head while making her ring entrance?
- A pre-taped promo with John Laurinaitis aired as if Cole was speaking to the interim Raw general manager live from the United Arab Emirates. There was nothing earth-shattering to the segment, but it was a different and unique way to plug Raw along with the Middle Eastern tour. And it saved us from seeing another John Cena hype video.
- The fart jokes continued this week, bringing Tyson Kidd and Hornswoggle into the fold. This segment deserves no more attention than just recognizing it happened and moving off with life. Maybe if we begin to ignore it, it will just go away.
Great Khali d. Jinder Mahal
Beth Phoenix d. Alicia Fox
Big Show and Sheamus d. Wade Barrett and Cody Rhodes
Ted DiBiase d. Hunico
Daniel Bryan d. Randy Orton by disqualification
Like Monday's Raw, the main event proved to be the highlight of an otherwise lackluster show. In my opinion, Smackdown topped Raw this week, but it still wasn't what one would expect on the Road to WrestleMania. There just seems to be too much reliance on the same undercard being used on both shows, when there was ample time for the tag team champions or someone like Brodus Clay, who has gone from having a presence on both shows each week to being completely absent. Next week has early signs of promise, but we'll have to wait and see if WWE can live up to the hype.
Comment of the Night
"It's official. AJ is a 100-times better girlfriend than Eve." - Podswoggle.com, @Podswoggle