The Magnificent Seven: The Top 7 Raw Promos
Sometimes, I come up with an idea for a countdown and almost immediately realize that it’s problematic, whether it’s because the topic is too multifaceted to evaluate, or there are too many contenders (some of which I’m surely forgetting) to ultimately feel that confident in my final list.
Sometimes, that makes me back off from a list concept.
Sometimes, I dig in and give it my best shot, accepting the list won’t be perfect, but that I nonetheless have some great picks that are worth sharing with anyone who cares to read. This is one of those weeks.
For this week’s column, I’m counting down the seven best promo segments on Raw. For the purposes of this countdown, I’m considering any segment on Raw that was not a match and not all physical altercation (though an altercation may be involved, in the segment). Criteria for ordering included entertainment value, historical importance, memorability, and quality of performance(s). It is, of course, highly problematic to evaluate largely comedic segments alongside violent ones and ones meant to function in earnest tribute, so I did my best to strike a balance. As always, my personal opinion weighed heavily.
#7. Daniel Bryan’s Retirement
As an active wrestler, Daniel Bryan was a truly special performer. He was a wizard when it dame to in-ring work, but what may have been even more impressive about him was his ability to manipulate an audience based on a combination of wrestling, charisma, and timing. For example, his “Yes!” chant doesn’t exactly bespeak tremendous wrestling acumen, nor great skill as a talker, but rather a certain it-factor that allowed him to connect with audiences on a level that few wrestlers before or since have ever touched.
For a special performer like this, who had worked his way around the world on the indie circuit and then spent three years working his way up the card to earn his spot as a main event guy in WWE, only to win the world title in a WrestleMania main event, it was profoundly sad to watch his career then succumb to injuries. That WWE Championship reign was cut short when Bryan went out to injury for over half a year. He came back and immediately reentered the main event picture as a new WrestleMania season took hold, but promptly found himself pushed back to Intercontinental Championship contention, only to get sidelined by injury again a few weeks into that title reign.
And so, there was a lot of baggage, turmoil, and frustration going into the announcement of Daniel Bryan’s retirement, and very real emotion in Washington when he set foot in front of his home state fans and gave his farewell address to the crowd. What followed was not exactly a pro wrestling promo, per se, but rather came across a lifelong fan, student, and practitioner of the wrestling business speaking earnestly to his brethren. There were no pyrotechnics, but rather a regular guy—the character Bryan had, at his best, played to a tee—expressing a lot of gratitude and a bit of sorrow before leading the crowd in one last “Yes!” chant before he and his wife walked toward the back.
I know some folks would rank this retirement speech higher, or at least above some of the others listed, and I very much get that for the moment’s emotional impact, and perhaps most remarkably Bryan’s ability to hold it together for the time he was in the ring.
#6. Rock, This Is Your Life
On September 27, 1999, the oddball partnership of The Rock and Mick Foley reached its apex. Their dynamic as a team was always centered on Rock being too cool for school, Foley being an uncool goofball, and the two of them being irresistible forces in the ring such that, despite their personality differences, they were a super team to be reckoned with. That, and the fact that they were both so very good at their roles that, together, they created comedic gold.
On that fateful September night, Foley hosted a celebration in tribute to The Rock, bringing back figures from his childhood on down for a nostalgia trip that Rock repeatedly defused by dismissing the figures from his past in comedic fashion. The segment reportedly ran well over time, ultimately going for over twenty minutes. Despite not going according to plan, and reportedly infuriating Vince McMahon at the time, the promo was a smash success—not only objectively entertaining, but drawing an 8.4 in the ratings that translated to over ten million viewers hanging on Rock and Foley’s every word (generally cited as the highest rated segment ever on Raw, though that stat is a bit spurious and debated on different corners of the Internet).
One of the big criticisms of the contemporary WWE product is that everything is too tightly scripted and managed such that performers rarely get a chance to get themselves over. It’s debatable whether many talents would be capable of getting themselves over at the highest level, but the “This Is Your Life” segment stands as an example of how veering off script and out of the time constraints originally applied can result in special performers creating special moments that no one could have planned for.
#5. The Beer Bath
March 22, 1999, the WWF was well on its way down the road to WrestleMania. Steve Austin would be challenging Vince McMahon’s proxy, The Rock, for the WWF Championship. While that confrontation would close WrestleMania, the Austin, Rock, and The Corporation got the opening segment on this Raw with McMahon and company setting up the night’s Raw and talking trash on the way to the big dance.
Steve Austin responded by driving a truck full of beer to ring side, and proceeding to hose down his rivals.
The Rock was very good on the mic at this point, though not yet transcendent, and McMahon and the rest of the Corporation played their parts well (in addition to Mick Foley who came down to talk guest referee shenanigans). Austin’s words with his rivals were good, but this segment became iconic for the beer—escalating from Austin pouring beer over himself and rivals as he messily guzzled the stuff down to the spectacle of driving in the truck and sending McMahon swimming in the beer on the mat for a WrestleMania-caliber moment. This was Attitude and Austin’s character pushed to their outrageous extremes, and an underrated component of why Austin was so awesome in this era was how good the heels were that he had to play off–McMahon and Rock playing their parts masterfully as exactly the sort of men who wouldn’t drink cheap beer, and who’d be positively disgusted to get soaked with it. While I will always contend that the WrestleMania 15 rendition of Rock-Austin, in terms of build, heat, and quality of match, was the weakest of their trilogy, there’s very real argument that this was the best promo segment the two were ever involved in.
#4. Mankind’s Origin Story
Mankind debuted as a fascinating and unique monster heel—not supersized, but super vicious, super able to absorb punishment, and fighting with all of the persistence of a horror movie villain who refused to stay down. He proved a capable foil for The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels during his initial stretch with the company.
A year in, the WWF decided to test the limits of Mick Foley’s work though in changing his character’s direction. He engaged in a series of backstage promos, framed as intimate conversations with Jim Ross. Therein, he discussed his origins, blending fact with fiction, growing up a wrestling fan, learning to love to bleed, denying psychiatric issues, innovating the Dude Love character, and the history of the Cactus Jack persona. The series of promos were emotionally affecting, proving Foley as not only a great wrestler in his style, but also one of the great actors of the wrestling world who simultaneously pulled off crazy and sympathetic in a perfect balance to help get his character even more over with the WWF audience and, attuned to the Attitude vibe, even make the strange promos that culminated in attacking Good Ol’ JR into grounds for a face turn.
There’s a very real argument that the WWF has never used the pre-taped backstage interview to greater effect than in these segments, and cumulatively, I place them as one of the very best promos in Raw history.
#3. Tyson and Austin
On the Raw immediately after the Royal Rumble, in the build to WrestleMania 14, Vince McMahon made what history has told us one of the most shrewdly calculated gambles in wrestling history, and particularly in terms of incorporating a celebrity into the wrestling business—he brought Mike Tyson into the WWF.
From a creative standpoint, the WWF was on a roll, with Shawn Michaels set to formally pass the torch to Steve Austin as the new face of the company at ‘Mania when he dropped the title to him in the presumptive main event. From a wrestling fan’s perspective, they were set. But in the ultra-competitive days of the Monday Night War, the trouble was making sure that not just current WWF fans, but fans who had been away for a while, curious prospective fans, and fans who favored WCW all looked the WWF’s way to see what was happening. Mike Tyson was a lightning rod for mainstream media attention at that point, so having him appear live on Raw drew eyeballs, and having him get into a confrontation with Steve Austin elevated the promo segment to newsworthy at the time and historic in retrospect.
The Tyson promo was perfectly fine, McMahon played his heel businessman/promoter part as well as ever, Austin played his fearless badass role to perfection in not hesitating to get in Tyson’s face, and Jim Ross added to it all from the play-by-play position, offering the iconic “Tyson and Austin!” sound bite. The real magic of the segment lay in the synergy of all of these factors and the careful planning that surrounded it. For Tyson to have not actually taken or thrown a single punch in this segment, but still manufactured all of the electricity hinting he and Austin might throw hands was a masterstroke of booking. The segment suggested fans really ought to keep tuning in, and particularly buy WrestleMania, because surely Tyson would wind up getting physical. So, this promo gets the nod less for any particular talking performance (though they were all very good) than the genius booking around this moment, using it to propel the entire WWF product.
#2. The Pipe Bomb
I was a CM Punk fan, but being a CM Punk fan in 2011 meant watching WWE with a certain degree of weary resignation. Yes, he was treated as an upper card talent. But no, you never really trusted that WWE would go full-tilt in booking him like a world-beater, or take off the reins for him to really shine as the individual he was, who got himself over on the indie level, and had continued to get himself over in WWE almost in spite of the booking.
But in the summer of 2011, with his contract expiring, WWE plugged CM Punk into a main event match challenging John Cena for the WWE Championship in front of Punk’s hometown crowd in Chicago. On paper, it looked to be a forgettable confrontation on Punk’s way out the door—maybe a four-star match, but one with a predictable outcome of Cena reigning supreme.
On the way to Chicago, however, WWE did the unlikely and gave Punk the mic and the opportunity to cut a worked shoot promo—framed within the context of a heel challenging Cena, but with content that was predominantly true about the state of WWE, vocalizing the frustrations he and a significant amount of the fanbase shared about milquetoast booking and misuse of talents.
Punk was always a top-tier talker and impressively stayed focused enough to remain a heel in the context of the promo, though what he was saying resonated enough to all but force WWE to turn him face based on the reactions he was getting for a promo that even mainstream media outlets like ESPN (which didn’t yet have its working relationship with WWE) felt compelled to cover it.
Punk’s outspokenness and principled disagreements with WWE would ultimately lead to the business relationship and Punk’s wrestling career coming to a close two and a half years later, but this main event promo in which Punk non-traditionally sat cross-legged on the ramp wearing a Steve Austin t-shirt, launched the hottest period of Punk’s career on a national stage, and led to his over-year-long reign with the company’s top title. Moreover, in terms of paradigms, this was WWE tapping into the IWC’s collective psyche in a constructive way—something the company has so rarely managed to do—and delivering an unforgettable moment for hardcore fans.
Ric Flair's Farewell Address by WrestleMediaClips
#1. Ric Flair’s Retirement
Say what you will about Ric Flair, but objectively speaking it’s hard not to place him among the top five all-around performers in professional wrestling in the past fifty years, and all the more impressive that he performed at a high level for almost forty of those years. Thus it was only fitting that when his retirement came, WWE sent him off in grand fashion.
Though most of Flair’s glory years happened outside of WWE, the promotion typically treated him with respect—immediately inserting him into the world title picture in his first tenure in the early 1990s and then consistently plugging him as a legend when he came back for six years toward the end of his career. The capstone was an angle in which he needed to retire the next time he lost a match, capped by a Hall of Fame induction and one last classic opposite Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 24.
Then, Flair appeared the next night on Raw.
Flair cut a brief, gracious promo to say farewell, only to begin to leave, at which point Triple H cut him off. Over the minutes to follow Triple H introduced a cast of characters to the ring—old rivals like Ricky Steamboat, Harley Race, and Dusty Rhodes; old allies like different generations of Horsemen; people whom Flair had influenced or mentored like Shawn Michaels, Batista, and Chris Jericho; Flair’s family. The whole process was a wonderful nostalgia trip as forty years of wrestling history filed down the ramp to pay their respects to an all-time great, and Flair grew increasingly emotional, all but sobbing and cutting off guys before they could get in the ring to hug them. Finally, the locker room emptied out for dozens more wrestlers and crew members to fill the stage and aisle to applaud Flair, before Vince McMahon himself came out to raise Flair’s hand victoriously, and cheer on the crazy old man as he dropped and elbow and a knee on his suit jacket.
I know there are those fans who feel the segment went too long or that there were better-focused retirement segments (Daniel Bryan, Shawn Michaels, Edge) but from where I’m sitting, the raw emotion and volume of people involved made this moment absolutely unforgettable, and quite possibly my favorite non-wrestling segment on a wrestling show ever. Though Flair continuing to wrestle a few spots on an Australian tour that Hulk Hogan assembled and for TNA took away from this segment’s sense of finality, the segment nonetheless offered closure for Flair’s time as an in-ring performer on the biggest of stages, and offered that rare promo that got me misty-eyed the first time I watched it, and still gets me a little choked up each time I’ve revisited over the years to follow.
Which promos would you add to the list? Let us know what you think in the comments.
Read more from Mike Chin at his website and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.