No one can say what the future holds on a week-by-week basis, let alone months down the line, but if Monday was truly the final significant appearance inside a WWE ring for Ric Flair, he went out the way that every legend who has truly appreciated professional wrestling dreams of doing it -- on his back, benefitting the next generation.
There are plenty of reasons why a 71-year-old Flair shouldn't have been a part of Randy Orton's story at this moment. He's had multiple health scares in recent years, including a stretch in the ICU that saw him placed into a medically-induced coma, and he's in a high risk category during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic due to his age. Flair's wife has also tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks, according to Flair himself.
But in this final, flawed moment between two men who have each shown plenty of flaws throughout their lives and pro wrestling careers, Orton and Flair had a moment of raw emotion that directly struck a nerve. After Orton put away Kevin Owens in an entertaining main event, Orton started a promo in which he seemed to try to convince himself not to do what he was inevitably bound to do.
After striking down legend after legend during his initial ascent to stardom, Orton has again ridden that wave of momentum to the crest of one of the most successful stretches of his career. And there Flair was, having run his mouth to put Orton into the mess against Owens, and for a moment, there was conflict.
Orton waxed on poetically about how Flair had saved him and stood by his side when he was a 22-year-old making stupid mistakes in Peoria, Illinois. How much love and respect there was between the two men over the last 20 years. But Orton's tone quickly shifted, as he said the love and respect was gone -- that Flair was a liability, and standing in the way of everything Orton was trying to do.
Orton even went as far to say that the only reason Flair took a young Orton under his wing at the start was that Orton was the son that Flair wished he had -- an especially cold remark, considering Flair's two sons, one of whom died tragically. He tore down the broken down Flair that stood in front of him, who needs a pacemaker, who grips tightly with everything he has left onto whatever spotlight splashes off Orton.
A teary-eyed Flair begged Orton to see the truth. That Flair saw so much of himself in Orton, and wanted to be there when Orton hit 14, 15, 16 and finally 17 world title reigns to break Flair's record, rather than John Cena doing it. Flair called back to how much he sacrificed during the peak of his career, driving 3,000 miles a week for 150 bucks, just as Orton's father had done. Flair even reflected on his 31 days in the ICU, and how it was a wakeup call to remind all the people he loved what they meant to him.
And after a half-hearted hug, Orton did to Flair what Flair has done to thousands of people over the years -- he dropped to a knee and swung his arm swiftly upwards for a low blow. The lights flickered off and the kick to Flair's skull ultimately happened in the dark, thanks to some as yet puzzling maneuvering by the mysterious faction known as Retribution (more on that in a bit). But the deed was done, and Drew McIntyre's run to the ring was far too late to have any tangible effect.
With Flair gone, there are simply no legends left for Orton to conquer. And that's where McIntyre enters the picture. McIntyre made an especially poignant point one week ago about how stars like The Undertaker helped make Orton's career by pulling Orton up to their level, and how Orton had failed to do the same with the generation that followed. With Orton seemingly near the peak of his powers at the age of 40, he's now in a position to actually follow through and elevate a guy like McIntyre who is also operating on an extraordinarily high level, considering all of the circumstances.
For all of the chaos and scrambling that has gone on in recent months to keep WWE moving forward, the stars have aligned to put Orton and McIntyre opposite one another with the WWE championship hanging in the balance. The rest of 2020 will swing on the result of their match at SummerSlam, and with plenty of material to mine and a truly fresh matchup -- the pair has only wrestled one-on-one three times on TV, once since 2013 -- this story could carry through the rest of the year as well.
Retribution - for what?
After sporadically interrupting Raw one week ago, and ending SmackDown with a chainsaw-wielding fracas on Friday, the mysterious group calling itself Retribution threw cinder blocks through the front entrance window of the WWE Performance Center, flipped a car and once again messed with the electricity throughout the show. The group's goals are unclear, so we'll have to wait and see how the weeks and months to come play out with this faction.
It could be subterfuge or misdirection, and Retribution could be connected to Shane McMahon's "Raw Underground," which debuted the same night. For the moment, Raw Underground continued for its second straight week of matches inside a ring with no ropes or posts and shined the spotlight on Shayna Baszler, Arturo Ruas, Riddick Moss and Dabba-Kato.
In the short-term, though, as former WWE writer and occasional ESPN contributor Andrew Goldstein pointed out, having the same color palette and general look as the strange pack of roving ninjas led by Akira Tozawa seems to be a matter of poor planning. That is, unless this is all a big swerve to elevate Tozawa as an evil genius, in which case, all the more power to them. As clunky as the first few nights of Retribution have been, I am a fan of taking big swings in this moment, because anything big in the long-term that can come out of this difficult stretch of time will be worth it. It will ultimately come down to execution and who is under the masks when the reveal happens.
Around the ring
Speaking of big swings, Dominik Mysterio is a trooper. Seth Rollins and Murphy spent an uncomfortably long stretch battering Mysterio with a series of kendo stick shots that deeply bruised his sternum and back. Rollins menacingly looked down the barrel of the camera and said "Hi dad!" to Dominik's father Rey, who was sitting at home. The contract signing that preceded this attack and a match between Rollins and Humberto Carrillo was a stark reminder of how Samoa Joe on a microphone cutting a promo is pure poetry. Joe vs. Rollins down the line could be something special.
It's hard to say what the outcome of the inevitable clash between Braun Strowman and "The Fiend" Bray Wyatt will be at SummerSlam, but something has to give. Strowman adopting a more violent, vicious and reckless approach is a welcome shift from a character that was essentially in "happy to be here" mode as Universal champion, but how devastating would it be for Strowman to cast aside everything he cares about and still lose his title? Equally curious is how Alexa Bliss fits into this story long-term, especially with her seemingly affectionate gesture towards Wyatt and Strowman's dismissal of her importance to himself.
Asuka earned her match against Sasha Banks at SummerSlam in a fantastic match against Bayley. Asuka and Bayley clicked early on and built up to a well-executed finish. A sunset flip powerbomb into the turnbuckle gave Bayley a false sense of confidence, and after she mockingly performed Kairi Sane's stomp across the ring, Asuka was silky smooth in grabbing a flying armbar and transitioning it into an Asuka lock. And now that Banks' plans for SummerSlam are locked in, we'll await what's to come on Friday, as a tri-branded battle royal will determine who gets a shot at Bayley's belt.
If there were any doubts about where the confrontation between Adam Cole and Pat McAfee a few weeks ago was headed, they disappeared after Wednesday's edition of NXT. The All-Pro former punter for the Indianapolis Colts gave Cole a swift kick to the head and set up a match for NXT TakeOver XXX. McAfee has been training in the ring for this match, and it will be fascinating to see what he can do in a full match.
Pat McAfee accepts Triple H's challenge to fight Adam Cole
Pat McAfee joins Get Up to respond to Triple H's challenge to fight Adam Cole at NXT TakeOver: XXX on Aug. 22.
It was a breath of fresh air to see bad guys with different agendas clashing on SmackDown, as Sheamus and King Corbin got in each other's way. Even though the endgame appears to be a less than thrilling conflict between Corbin and Matt Riddle, if it gets us to Riddle vs. Shorty G along the way, it'll be worth it.
It was nice to see a lot of different stories going on at once in the women's division. Bianca Belair showed out against Zelina Vega, and the only thing that is standing in Belair's way to becoming a star is reps. The more she can get into the ring with established wrestlers, the steeper her ascent to the top will be. While it seems the Mandy Rose/Sonya Deville story will carry on into infinity, at least Rose is back with a new haircut. Mickie James, who hasn't wrestled on WWE TV since the WrestleMania 35 Kickoff show in 2019, returned to Raw and made a match for next week against Natalya. Finally, the Riott Squad reunion hit a snag when a series of unfortunate events led Ruby Riott to accidentally distract Liv Morgan and cause her to lose to Peyton Royce.
As good as the Hurt Business has been, where do they go from here? And how can Apollo Crews move forward? Beating Bobby Lashley would be huge for him, of course, but Crews lost to Shelton Benjamin by roll-up in a non-title match on Monday. We'll likely have to wait and see
One of the ninjas teaming with Tozawa in an 8-man tag team contest against the Viking Raiders, Ricochet and Cedric Alexander was R-Truth, and he managed to blindside Tozawa to win the 24-7 title for the 38th time.