As Wrestlemania approaches, "Raw" and "Smackdown Live" used brutal beatings to advance storylines. What makes a beatdown work, and what mutes the impact?

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Daniel Bryan's brief bout of offense against Kevin Owens

The WWE loves a good beatdown, and we how to do one the right way and wrong way this week on Raw and Smackdown Live. 

The right way: Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens shitkicking Daniel Bryan on Smackdown Live. 

Last week, they shitkicked Shane McMahon, and as much as I have ripped on McMahon’s heelish actions during his feud with Zayn and Owens, I love that he sells like a motherfucker. When Owens and Zayn put his head in a folding chair and slammed the chair against a ring post, McMahon sold a crushed larynx or some similar, very specific neck injury. When they slammed him on a scissor lift backstage, the weird mewling cry he made was affecting (and, simultaneously, hilarious). 

This week, Bryan once again restored face/heel balance to the feud by underlining the problem he had with Owens and Zayn—that they beat down Shane after they’d essentially won—before firing them. They responded by wrecking him too, likely setting up a tag team match between McMahon and Bryan against Owens and Zayn at Wrestlemania in the Superdome on April 8. This beatdown left room for Bryan to briefly show the audience what it had missed while Bryan was in retirement after having taken too many concussions (evidently multiple doctors have cleared him to wrestle, which is not a work), and that brief comeback reminded viewers how electric Bryan could be before he retired. What made the segment work wasn’t the destruction, though. It was the way Owens and Zayn did it. Owens kept making an anguished howl, as if he couldn’t understand why Bryan was forcing them to brutalize him like that, and Zayn was cool and collected as if this was the moment he’d played out in his imagination a hundred times before. 

Their specificity throughout has made this long, frustrating storyline compelling despite countless wobbles, and the return of Daniel Bryan makes this match—which has yet to be announced, but c’mon …—one of the ones I’m most looking forward to at Wrestlemania. The Dome went nuts for Bryan at Wrestlemania 30 in 2014, and at what will likely be his first match since his retirement, it should be insane.

The wrong way: Brock Lesnar crushing Roman Reigns on Raw. 

The suspended Reigns showed up and sat in a folding chair in the ring until Lesnar came out to face him. Cops came out to escort Reigns out of the ring, and when he wouldn’t leave, they arrested him and handcuffed him. They started to escort Reigns out of the ring, and when one touched him, Reigns said not to, that he’d get out on his own. When one did a second time, he threw elbows and fought off the cops while handcuffed. Then Lesnar came out to take advantage of the handicapped Reigns. 

This made story sense as the WWE needs to establish a clear heel/face dynamic for the match that will headline Wrestlemania, and since they’re still trying to make people get behind Reigns, they’re positioning Lesnar as a monster who’d take advantage of Reigns’ situation. The attack clearly establishes Lesnar as the heel, but it’s not clear that the attack will make viewers rally behind Reigns. It doesn’t help that the beatdown didn’t look that brutal. 

Because Reigns’ hands were cuffed, he couldn’t use his hands or arms to absorb blows, and that limited what Lesnar could do to him safely. Instead of going wild on Reigns as you might if you wanted to stop a rival from making it to Wrestlemania, he simply suplexed Reigns a lot and beat him across the back with a folding chair. I suppose going forward, they’ll sell Lesnar’s attack as an attempt to weaken Reigns’ back before Wrestlemania, but because he could only attack Reigns’ back safely, it wasn’t convincing and soon became repetitive. 

Lesnar didn’t bring the kind of individuality to his part in the beatdown because that’s not in his skill set. Paul Heyman serves as his “advocate” to loan Lesnar personality, and he was the best thing about segment. Heyman’s mic work on behalf of Lesnar has been less ferocious than it could be, so much so that he has teetered on the edge of getting face love in recent months. While Lesnar hammered Reigns, Heyman held Lesnar’s Universal Championship belt proudly and smiled approvingly. It was the note of specific darkness that sequence needed more of. Unfortunately, the sequence ended with Reigns strapped to a gurney by paramedics when Lesnar attacked again. Rather than take advantage of the helpless Reigns, he tried to push the gurney over and failed. It just rolled a little. Then he tried again, succeeded, and left Reigns in the awkward position of being strapped to a bodyboard sideways on a gurney. 

Lesnar beating down Reigns was a perfectly fine way to gin up the drama going into Wrestlemania, and it was professional that he took care of Reigns’ body in that situation. The handcuffs amplified the villainy in Lesnar’s attack, but they also made the moment a hard one to pull off well.

In other news: 

The Ultimate Deletion didn’t disappoint. To the WWE’s credit, they let it be the crummy, B-movie backyard wrestling sci-fi movie that it should be, even if it’s very different from the usual WWE programming. Wrestling on the ground and outside the well-mic’ed confines of a WWE ring can be a little unimpressive, but to the match’s credit, it didn’t rely on wrestling. Instead, we got the hysterical moment when Woken Matt Hardy called on Vanguard 1—his drone—to initiate the “Boomstick Protocol.” The Evil Dead fan in me went nuts, and I love that the protocol involved the drone shooting Roman candles at Bray Wyatt. Also great--Wyatt asking, "What is that?" as fireworks go off that we can buy at a shack on the West Bank side of the Crescent City Connection. Hardy threatening to run over Wyatt with a riding lawnmower—genius. The cameo return of Jeff Hardy as Brother Nero was perfect. I hope that Wyatt’s disappearance into the Lake of Reincarnation means that he’ll return as part of the Woken Universe with Brother Nero and that the three can become a nutty stable. 

I’d have more to say about the Alexa Bliss/Asuka match and Nia Jax’s pursuit of revenge, but I was too distracted by Mickie James’ Priscilla, Queen of the Desert hair. I’ve gone from mystified as to why she chose to side with Bliss to loving her role as a Heather in the Bliss/Jax feud, taking hard bump after hard bump for Bliss as if she were an existential punching bag. Like Wyle E. Coyote, the fun now is the imaginative way that we get to James’ beating and how comically over-the-top it is.