Although most hardcore wrestling fans can admit that WWE programming has been much better as of late—thanks to the rise of The Shield, Dolph Ziggler and others—there is absolutely no question that tonight's edition of Monday Night Raw ensures that the product will reach an entirely different level of entertainment value.
Above all else, The Rock will make his long-awaited return to the company as he prepares for his WWE Championship match at the Royal Rumble pay-per-view. The Rock announced on the 1,000th episode of Raw that he would challenge for the title at the WWE's January event. And with the evnt drawing closer and closer, he will be much more visible moving forward.
Speaking of the WWE Championship, CM Punk has been cleared to compete (h/t TWNP News.com) and will defend his title against Ryback in a TLC match. This particular bout has been in the works for weeks, but it was uncertain if it would come to fruition due to Punk's knee injury. Now that Punk is supposedly 100 percent, it looks like he and Ryback will close the show.
If those two massive events aren't enough, there is plenty of other buildup that needs to be done for the Royal Rumble as well. The World Heavyweight Championship picture is still unsettled, the mid-card titles are uncertain and only a small handful of superstars have been announced for the Rumble match itself.
Here are the top five things that you should be on the lookout for during what is sure to be an entertaining episode of Raw.
The Rock has only made a couple appearances since defeating John Cena at WrestleMania XXVIII, but Monday will mark his return over the long haul, as he is scheduled to make seven appearances during the lead up to Royal Rumble and also during its aftermath. That starts tonight, as The Rock will be the main attraction on a stacked episode of Raw.
While the Royal Rumble is still a few weeks away, it's important that the WWE begins preparing for it now, as it is one of the most popular pay-per-views on the calendar. Also, the fact that The Rock is competing at the event this year puts it on a level rivaling WrestleMania. The fans want to see a lot of The Rock if he is going to be receiving a title shot, and it appears as though they are going to get their wish.
It remains to be seen exactly what The Rock will do on Monday, but he'll obviously play a huge role on the show. One of his signatures promos is almost a given, and I wouldn't be surprised if he opened the show. A segment involving The Rock, CM Punk and Ryback at the beginning of the show would be ideal in order to hype the main event of the evening.
Also, The Rock ought to be at ringside during the WWE Championship match. From a storyline perspective, he could face either man at the Royal Rumble, so he would want to be out there in order to scout potential opponents. I doubt that The Rock will involve himself in the match, but it wouldn't surprise me one bit if The Shield were to attack him in order to make Punk look like the favorite heading into the pay-per-view.
The WWE Championship has been in a state of flux since prior to TLC after CM Punk was shut down due to a knee injury. Although it was a preexisting condition, the ailment was pinned on Ryback because he put Punk through a table.
Punk was originally scheduled to defend the belt against Ryback in a tables, ladders and chairs match, but it was canceled and replaced by Ryback and Team Hell No vs. The Shield since Punk wasn't medically cleared.
It could simply be part of the storyline, but it was announced last week that Punk had healed enough to grant Ryback his rematch in a TLC match on Raw. It seems a bit fishy, though, since Punk was still on crutches as of last week. But at this point, it looks like the match is going to happen. If Punk vs. Ryback does come to fruition, then it's obvious that there will be an unfair ending to the match that results in Punk retaining his title.
Since turning heel, Punk has used every dirty trick in the book to win, and while some fans haven't enjoyed that, it's clearly part of his character. Also, Punk can't defeat Ryback cleanly because it would essentially destroy the big man's mystique. Ryback has lost a few pay-per-view matches, but he didn't actually take the fall in two of them, and the other was due to a crooked referee.
There are definitely a lot of possibilities when it comes to how this match will play out, but I'm going with Brock Lesnar interfering on Punk's behalf. Most are expecting The Shield or Brad Maddox, but either would be too predictable. Bringing back Lesnar would boost ratings for next weeks Raw and the Royal Rumble, and it would potentially set up a big-time WrestleMania feud between Lesnar and Ryback.
Big Show has been the World Heavyweight Champion since defeating Sheamus at Hell in a Cell, and the two of them have feuded over the belt throughout the past few months. Big Show and Sheamus continue to tussle, and Sheamus even beat Big Show in a lumberjack match recently, but it seems likely that Big Show will move on to greener pastures in terms of his Royal Rumble opponent.
It looked like Sheamus was in store for another rematch, as he and Big Show were still getting involved in each other's business. But things have changed over the past couple weeks.
Alberto Del Rio's face turn has been cemented thanks to Big Show picking on Ricardo Rodriguez. Del Rio has rushed to Ricardo's aid on a couple occasions and has suddenly inserted himself into the world title mix.
When you add to that the fact that SmackDown's other two top faces, Sheamus and Randy Orton, announced their intention to compete in the Rumble match, there isn't another real option aside from Del Rio. Nothing has been determined from a storyline perspective yet, but it seems likely that Del Rio will be named as the No. 1 contender on Raw or soon after.
I haven't been interested in Del Rio in quite some time, as his heel character was stale as can be, but it's clear that his turn has reinvigorated him. It has been refreshing to see him stick up for Ricardo, and he suddenly seems cool, slick and regal, rather than boring.
I don't see Big Show dropping the belt until Elimination Chamber at the earliest—barring a Dolph Ziggler cash in—so Del Rio would simply be a transitional contender in order to test the waters in terms of his face turn.
One of the main feuds on WWE programming for the past several weeks has been Dolph Ziggler vs. John Cena. It started with Ziggler and Vickie Guerrero trying to expose an affair between Cena and A.J., but things escalated at TLC, as A.J. turned on Cena and pushed the ladder over while he was going for the win. Ziggler capitalized and was able to retain his Money in the Bank contract in the main event.
Since TLC, Ziggler and A.J. have become a couple, and they have also welcomed in Big E Langston, who has served as their personal security guard. Langston has already helped Ziggler on a number of occasions, including laying out Cena twice.
On last week's New Year's Eve edition of the show, however, he was unable to prevent Cena from getting the last laugh.
Ziggler cut an entertaining promo that highlighted Cena's troublesome 2012, as he showed clips from some of Cena's high-profile losses. Ziggler seemed to be rolling until Cena appeared and began to utilize his signature brand of humor that isn't funny unless you're still in elementary school. Cena capped things off by dumping what we can only assume was supposed to be crap on Ziggler and A.J. in the ring.
It wasn't the best way to ring in 2013, but it did further the Ziggler vs. Cena feud, and it ensured that we'll be seeing more of them moving forward. One thing of note that Cena did say last week was that he would be entering the Royal Rumble match. That wasn't particularly surprising, since he is the odds-on favorite, but at least it was significant.
Perhaps on Monday night, Ziggler will make the same announcement in an effort to get under Cena's skin even more.
The Royal Rumble is now just three weeks away, and while there is obviously plenty of time to get things settled, only three men have been confirmed for the Rumble match at this point.
John Cena was the first to throw his hat into the ring on Raw, while both Sheamus and Randy Orton followed suit on SmackDown. Announcing entry into the Rumble is a fairly common practice during this time period every year, so we're likely to see some more of them on Monday night.
Generally speaking, only the bigger stars are given a platform to say that they'll be in the Rumble. Guys like Ryback and Dolph Ziggler could potentially make announcements soon, but I'm not sure we'll see much aside from them. One thing that I would like to see, however, is the return of Royal Rumble qualifying matches, as it's a good way to get some of the lower-card talent some exposure.
Aside from that, I don't mind the mystery involved with Royal Rumble participants. We already know that Cena, Orton, Sheamus, Ryback and superstars of that caliber are going to be in the match, so there's no harm in announcing them. If the WWE were to announce that someone like Jinder Mahal is going to be in the Rumble match, though, then it wouldn't make an impact.
I would much rather see the possibility of absolutely anyone entering the match than knowing ahead of time that someone insignificant is going to be in it. Qualifying matches are an exception since they help build some anticipation for the Royal Rumble, but I'm hopeful that the WWE is light when it comes to announcing entrants ahead of time.