By Keith Elliot Greenberg
His eyes bulging and face contorted into a fevered grin, “Woken” Matt Hardy stops to contemplate the 25th anniversary of Monday Night Raw.
“Raw has been around for 25 years,” he declares with an authoritative flourish. “And I am in my 25th year in sports-entertainment. It is an honor and a privilege. And whomever my opponent might be on this very special evening…” he pauses, as his smile grows wider, then strikes a finger across his throat, “I sentence you to … deletion.”
Hardy’s exuberance is not only infectious, but shared by his fellow Superstars on the Raw roster, as television’s longest-running weekly episodic show commemorates its silver anniversary tonight on USA at 8/7c.
Along with the regular names the WWE Universe watches each week, the unique program features a number of rare and intriguing guests.
After a long, mysterious absence, The Undertaker returns, while Chris Jericho’s recent international odyssey will lead him back to New York, where Raw will be broadcast from two locations: the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, as well as the site of the original live Raw telecast in 1993, the Manhattan Center.
Among the WWE Hall of Famers expected to appear on the program: “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Godfather, Sergeant Slaughter, Teddy Long, Trish Stratus, and Jacqueline.
For at least one night, WWE COO Triple H will conjure up the subversive spirit of the “Attitude era” when he and Shawn Michaels reunify as DX. Joining them will be a number of classic WWE tag teams, including the Dudley Boyz, APA (Ron Simmons and JBL), and the New Age Outlaws (the Road Dogg and Billy Gunn), who -- as recently as 2014 -- made a comeback to capture their sixth tag team title in WWE.
Of WWE’s female greats, the Bella Twins, Michelle McCool, Torrie Wilson, and Kelly Kelly are all scheduled to participate in the 25th anniversary show, along with such memorable personalities as the Boogeyman, Brooklyn Brawler, and Brother Love.
And, in an ironic twist to sports-entertainment history, the former head of what was then WWE’s primary rival, WCW, Eric Bischoff -- who once tried driving Raw off the air -- will partake in the commemoration of the show’s quarter century on television.
At the announcer’s table, the reintegration of Hall of Famers Jim “JR” Ross and Jerry “The King” Lawler behind the microphone comes at a much needed time: Last week, menacing Braun Strowman opted to snatch Michael Cole out of his commentator’s chair and launch him from the stage area. It was a protest against Raw General Manager Kurt Angle, who earlier in the evening, barred the Monster Among Men from participating in the Royal Rumble on Sunday, Jan. 28.
By the time Raw ended -- on advice from Raw Commissioner Stephanie McMahon -- Angle reversed his decision.
But the reprieve did little to mitigate Strowman’s rage. He continued to wreak havoc on Raw, bursting into the production truck at one point, then flipping the vehicle on its side.
This just a week after he used a grappling hook to pull Raw’s towering set down onto the prone bodies of his scheduled Royal Rumble opponents, WWE Universal Champion Brock Lesnar and Kane.
Because of this sequence of events, Angle may be the one legend present at the 25th anniversary show who may not be looking forward to the broadcast. Not only is Angle preoccupied with the next inhumane act that Strowman may spontaneously perpetrate, but the General Manager is also concerned about the behavior of his own flesh and blood.
In July, Angle announced that Jason Jordan, a former tag team co-titlist on Raw’s companion show, SmackDown Live (seen on USA Tuesdays at 8/7c), was his long-lost son. At first, the two, united by their shared talent and passion for the sport of kings, appeared to reconnect smoothly. But after a series of close losses, Jordan became frustrated and anxious to make an impact quickly.
On Christmas night, he appeared to realize this goal when, substituting for the injured Dean Ambrose, Jordan and Seth Rollins toppled The Bar, Sheamus, and Cesaro to capture the Raw Tag Team Championship.
Yet, in the weeks that followed, his partner seemed to worry about Jordan’s new “win-at-all-costs” attitude. Last week, without informing Rollins, Jordan left the dressing room and distracted The Bar -- the Champions’ slated Royal Rumble foes -- during their clash with Titus O’Neil and Apollo Crews. Although The Bar was defeated, Rollins was visibly uncomfortably with the tactics employed.
Later, while Rollins was tangling with Finn Balor in a single’s match, Jordan tripped The Demon, bringing about a victory for The Architect.
The problem was that neither the referee nor Rollins realized that Jordan had broken the rules.
Meanwhile, WWE Intercontinental Champion Roman Reigns intends to use the 25th anniversary show to prove that he’s a fighting kingpin. After dispatching The Miztourage (Curtis Axel and Bo Dallas) last week, The Big Dog will defend his gold against the unit’s leader, The Miz -- a seven-time Intercontinental titlist himself.
With her eye on winning WWE’s first Women’s Royal Rumble on Jan. 28 and securing a WrestleMania 34 title shot, Asuka is determined to intimidate all potential rivals on tonight’s Raw. Last week, “The Empress of Tomorrow” sent a clear, ferocious message to the highly skilled WWE women’s division by deliberately trapping Nia Jax’s leg between the steel steps and the ring post. As a result, the referee later ruled that the limping Jax was in no condition to continue the match.
Bizarrely, though, one of the Superstars who seems most excited about appearing on the 25th anniversary edition of Raw sees the show as a platform for both his wrestling prowess and singing abilities.
“It took WWE 25 years to find Elias,” pronounced the company’s bearded troubadour, “so fans should be excited they have me on this historic episode.”
KEITH ELLIOT GREENBERG is the co-author of the third edition of the WWE Encyclopedia of Sports Entertainment, as well as the autobiographies of WWE Hall of Famers “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, “Classy” Freddie Blassie and Superstar Billy Graham.