Raw brought out the big guns on Monday night, and from the opening segment of Raw it was clear that this wasn't going to be any ordinary edition of WWE's flagship show.
What looked just a few weeks ago to be a relatively straightforward Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns showdown has instead become a four-way battle of the titans in the main event of SummerSlam, which is quickly sneaking up on us all.
There were two women's matches, including a show-stealer between Bayley and Sasha Banks (and a deeper dive into the Raw women's roster), as well as some complex bad guy vs. bad guy dynamics in both the tag team and cruiserweight divisions.
Elias Samson had a lengthy showcase No-DQ match in the first match of the night and, oh, that's before we even get to a main event that prominently featured Curtis Axel and Bo Dallas, as well as a complex, evolving dynamic involving the former members of The Shield.
Three hours is a long time to carry a show, and it's a big ask to put out this level of quality on a week-to-week basis, but Monday Night Raw was something special this week. Let's dig in.
- WWE (@WWE) July 25, 2017
Battle of the titans
The moment that Braun Strowman inserted himself into last week's main event, it was clear that we weren't simply going to get a business-as-usual Universal title match at SummerSlam. After laying the groundwork with some great storytelling to get to this point, Reigns, Strowman and Samoa Joe were each able to make salient points before beating the crap out of each other.
Strowman pointed to his defeat of Reigns, Joe talked of pushing Lesnar to the brink and Reigns, well, rained on the parade by asking what kind of credentials either of them had in terms of titles or achievements. Angle threw his hands up into the air, lit the match, and called for a Fatal 4-Way match between the four massive stars in a main event that should be worthy of a show as crucial as SummerSlam. With that out of the way, Strowman, Reigns and Joe had a violent pull-apart that cast aside a half-dozen security guards and most of the Raw roster before getting marginally under control -- and that set a frenetic pace and energy for the rest of the night to build upon.
There are a lot of things to like about this change in direction. It keeps Samoa Joe in the spotlight as his star continues to rise, it makes it easy to patch over the times where Lesnar won't be there, and it should allow for a lengthier Universal title match without having to push Lesnar's endurance too hard. There's a danger in returning to the multi-way match too often (as you can see with the SmackDown women's division), but this particular match feels as though it's been earned.
With a triple threat set for next week, it looks like full steam ahead from here on out.
Bayley sneaks out a win in return to Sasha Banks rivalry
Bayley and Sasha Banks have a tremendous chemistry, provided all of their current niceties can be put aside. They showed it over the course of their lengthy rivalry in NXT, which culminated in a landscape-shifting match in Brooklyn that catapulted both women to an entirely different level.
With Bayley languishing of late, a match of the caliber we got Monday night was exactly the kind of reminder that fans needed that she's just as much an in-ring presence as any of the other Four Horsewomen. Given ample time in the 10 p.m. hour, this match told a story of former rivals, now friends, stripping away the kid gloves and really going at it. A full wind-up, open handed slap to the face by Banks triggered something in Bayley, who returned the favor in an uncharacteristically violent reply, and then all bets were off.
Bayley picked up a fluky win, without hitting the Bayley-to-Belly and instead rolling through after a frog splash from Banks for a quick pinfall, and while Bayley vs. Alexa Bliss is the immediate result, the change in dynamic between Banks and Bayley could be the biggest change of all going forward.
Blurring the lines between good and evil
The faster that the WWE realizes that traditional good guy/bad guy dynamics are only going to work in specific situations, the more likely they'll be to roll with punches and maximize on the assets they have. If Monday was any indication, they're starting to get the message.
The ongoing dynamic between Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose has been done masterfully, as Rollins has had to work far harder to earn back Ambrose's trust than he had to with Reigns. The subtleties and attention to detail in off-hand comments and gestures, whether it's a credit to performers, agents or a little of both, are a breath of fresh air.
Even as they came together to dispatch The Miz and his Miztourage, going so far as to hit synchronized suicide dives, Rollins taking things a step too far by trying to do the Shield-style meeting of the fists was a step too far. There are so many directions this odd couple can go in the coming weeks and months, and seems just what the doctor ordered in terms of revitalizing Ambrose.
- WWE (@WWE) July 25, 2017
That wasn't it, though. As Raw's tag team division continues to pick up the pieces, the balance between "heel " and "face" tag teams is way out of whack. For the time being, a clash between The Revival and Gallows & Anderson makes sense, and though the match left a little something to be desired, The Hardy Boyz getting into the middle of things sets the stage for figuring out who will challenge Cesaro & Sheamus next. The Hardys have had their chance, and it seems like a prime opportunity to see what they have in The Revival; how they get there is anyone's guess.
Finally, in the cruiserweight division, opening up the list of potential challengers to Neville's crown is a creative way to put a lot more targets on his back. Ariya Daivari instantly inserted himself into the title picture by laying out a battered Neville and Akira Tozawa (who is in the midst of an interesting dynamic with Titus O'Neil in his own right), and the Daivari-Neville match on Tuesday's 205 Live should prove an interesting test.
Elias Samson beats Finn Balor
There's an increasing anxiousness among WWE fans about Finn Balor's place on Monday Night Raw, and while he racked up another "L" against Samson thanks to Bray Wyatt's interference, things may not be as bleak as they appear. Samson appears to have some of the most legitimate heat of anyone on the Raw roster, and him getting a cheap win after an absolute war with Balor is only going to augment that.
Balor's aggression picked up in a big way in this match, and he's playing every bit of a man being pushed further and further to the brink every week. We're coming up on the one-year mark of Balor's meteoric rise to Universal champion and devastating injury at SummerSlam, and while he's unlikely to be in the title picture in the near-future, building something significant with Wyatt (and perhaps bringing the demon out of its cage) seems a likely salve for some of Balor's biggest issues of late.
Jason Jordan gets back in the ring
The match with Curt Hawkins wasn't much, in and of itself, but it was great to see Jason Jordan back in the ring after such a lengthy stretch of inactivity. His new hybrid finisher, which starts out looking like an Angle Slam and finishes with a neckbreaker, looks okay, but in the end-game, it likely makes the most sense if Jordan embraces the Angle Slam (which was already a part of his move set) going forward.
Where are Enzo and Big Cass going?
In what was likely the most consistently good top-to-bottom edition of Raw in at least a year, it's hard to find much to complain about. The only outlier on the night was another turn on the merry-go-round with Enzo Amore, Big Cass and Big Show, with no great ending in sight. Amore got another sound beating and a loss at Cass' hands, and then when Big Show came out to save him, he got completely destroyed by Big Cass as well.
But where does it go from here? Cass has a look and good size, but he's still raw in terms of what he does in the ring and on the mic. Being saddled with a bad entrance theme isn't likely to help his cause either, but the most immediate concern is how long this three-way dance can carry on, and where it'll lead any of them going forward.