After spending the better part of the past three years on the outside looking in, Roman Reigns finally owns one of WWE's two major men's championships. There were stops and starts along the way, detours like Seth Rollins' Money in the Bank cash-in at WrestleMania 31 and the controversial ending to the Universal championship match against Brock Lesnar at April's Greatest Royal Rumble.
Not only has Reigns assumed the throne on Monday Night Raw, but WWE also has pushed all of its chips into the middle with a bold move to counter Braun Strowman's march toward the championship -- reuniting The Shield. Though the first attempt at bringing one of the WWE's hottest acts of the past decade back together was marred by injury and bad timing, bringing Reigns, Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose back together as a unified force opposite Strowman feels strangely balanced.
What makes this such a bold move is that it risks sapping the value and momentum from Rollins and Ambrose, two of the hottest characters on Monday Night Raw in their own right, in order to keep fans off of Reigns' back. There's plenty of wiggle room to take this conflict in a hundred different directions over the course of the next few months, especially with the wild card of Constable Baron Corbin as the new de facto authority figure on Raw, but the potential of taking the Intercontinental championship out of play or stunting Ambrose's potential just after his return still lingers.
Regardless of which direction this story is heading, in two nights of action -- two matches and one big moment -- Reigns stepped up and proved how strong a commodity he is to the WWE. Seemingly 100 percent of the crowd was reacting to what Reigns was doing, and even if it was a 70-30 split between negative and positive (though those numbers might be skewed by which people were doing the cheering and booing), Reigns is in a position the WWE has wanted him in for a long time.
It's easy to slip into hyperbole, but with four of Raw's biggest performers converging at such a critical time in their respective careers, this conflict feels like a do-or-die moment for Reigns and a key time for Strowman, Ambrose and Rollins. If Reigns plays up to more of a dark persona, and drifts into heelish territory with moments like a coordinated 3-on-1 attack, that combined with his reunion with Ambrose and Rollins could well shift audience reaction and give Reigns a desperately needed depth of character.
Up against The Shield, Strowman finally has an opposing force that seems to have him at a disadvantage because of the numbers game. If he hopes to carry a singles title at some point in the near future, which hasn't happened at any point thus far, giving Strowman a situation he struggles with should be a way to learn more about him than his undying desire to destroy everything in his path.
Should this rivalry go sideways, however, there are very real risks in play. Outside of Finn Balor, who could easily get involved directly or tangentially, the "face" personnel on the men's side is paper thin at this moment. If Ambrose and/or Rollins get burned along the way, they could struggle to recapture what they have right now.
None of The Shield's trio of Reigns, Ambrose and Rollins said a word on Monday night, but there's little doubt that they'll be the central figures on Raw for the foreseeable future. The uncertainty is gone, as is Lesnar, and Reigns finally can show what he's capable of when given the ... reins to lead the show as Universal champion. Where things go from here is anyone's guess, but if this ultimately leads to another split and an epic Shield triple threat, it could change the course of each of their careers. -- Tim Fiorvanti
Rankings are based upon the perceived value of a superstar to the on-screen product of WWE, which is determined by the voting of a panel of WWE on ESPN contributors. Number in parentheses indicates first-place votes.
You love him or you hate him -- let's face it, there's no gray area left. Reigns deserves the Universal championship, and he deserves it for a long run -- maybe even through WrestleMania. If anything, the decibel level over the two nights he was in Brooklyn reminded us Reigns is the backbone of the WWE. Now he has the hardware to prove it. -- Matt Wilansky
The feud against Samoa Joe is a great blend of personal psychology and in-ring brilliance by two of the best in the business. Styles might not have the main event potential that Roman Reigns or Ronda Rousey bring to the table, but no one outside of maybe Seth Rollins or Daniel Bryan is more capable of having four- or five-star matches on a regular basis. -- KC Joyner
Strowman added another dimension to Brock Lesnar-Roman Reigns that kept an antagonistic crowd from overwhelming the SummerSlam main event. Strowman, the next night, seemed to be the catalyst for the seeds of a Roman Reigns heel turn, as his mere presence made Reigns resort to a 3-on-1 attack from a reunited Shield. Now his delay in becoming champion has become incredibly compelling, as he finds himself in an unusual role as the underdog. Those are all key pieces of evidence that prove why Strowman is the most valuable asset to WWE's flagship show right now. -- Matt Willis
It's incredibly hard to prove yourself in this industry in just a few months -- but Rousey has done it. It's clear the company is behind her, the locker room is ready to support her, and in terms of entertainment, there's no one else I'd rather see at the moment. Ronda's future looks bright; she'll be the face of the WWE's upcoming Evolution pay-per-view -- and quite possibly WrestleMania 35 in 2019. -- Andrew Feldman
The newly crowned two-time Intercontinental champion was part of the best match on the SummerSlam card, along with Dolph Ziggler. What else is new? Rollins has been the standout in-ring performer of the year in the WWE. His matches are consistently excellent, and while he holds Intercontinental gold right now, it shouldn't be too long before we see Rollins creep into the Universal championship picture, whether his Shield compatriot Reigns has the title or not. -- Sean Coyle
It's really tough to like The Miz, but that's the point. His ability to get under everyone's skin with ease brings to mind Rowdy Roddy Piper's skill at irritating audiences and getting the exact reaction he was looking for in a way that looks easy. -- Joyner
This trio is simply the best act in WWE now, in singles, tag team or whatever other kind of action they find themselves in. It doesn't matter which New Day member it is, either -- each shines with power, athleticism, in-ring acumen and an innate ability to entertain. Big E, Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods make everyone around them better. Let's not take their SmackDown titles away from them anytime soon. -- Wilansky
Now, more than any other time in the history of the WWE, it appears as though the creative forces behind Raw and SmackDown are determined to make their vision for the shows a continued reality, live crowd reactions be damned. But you only had to be inside the Barclays Center on Sunday night (or watching at home) to hear Lynch get one of the (if not the) loudest positive reactions of the night when she attacked Charlotte Flair after the latter won the SmackDown women's championship at the former's expense. For too long, Lynch has been building toward a moment that's never come; after becoming the first SmackDown women's champion, Lynch hasn't had much in the way of something substantial to sink her teeth into. Whether the WWE is dead set on keeping her character evil, or can work toward a "Stone Cold" Steve Austin-esque approach that showcases Lynch's versatility and talents to their fullest, it's clear WWE has a white-hot star that they should be taking full advantage of on SmackDown. -- Fiorvanti
Bryan didn't get his comeuppance on The Miz at SummerSlam, and that's OK. It wasn't time for that story to end with a simple 1-2-3 victory for Bryan, getting his hand raised and moving on. Bryan-Miz is possibly the storyline of the decade in WWE, and hopefully will carry on until the stakes at their highest. -- Willis
Samoa Joe has shined as the villainous adversary of WWE champion AJ Styles. He has found a way to strike an emotional chord and combine that with a fierce in-ring style. Joe seems destined for a WWE championship run. Whether that happens during his current rivalry with Styles remains to be seen, but Joe has proved that he is championship material in every ring he has wrestled in. -- Coyle