Most wrestling fans don't like it when a story, a match or result is too clearly telegraphed. Sure, there are those who revel in figuring out what's going on before everyone else, and others who enjoy watching WWE for any number of other reasons. But with a match like Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns for the Universal championship at WrestleMania 34, which was locked into place Sunday night at the Elimination Chamber pay-per-view, the long, drawn-out road to the match picked up more than its fair share of detractors along the way.
The task of kicking off this renewed rivalry, with six weeks to go until WrestleMania, was thus a tall order for Monday night's edition of Raw. There had to be an electricity to the situation -- would they insert Braun Strowman, either in the short term or the match itself? No, it seemed as though there was a commitment to paying off this one-on-one story that dates back to WrestleMania 31 and unfinished business, and a face-off (like the one that was scheduled) seemed the likely go-to method to reignite the simmering tensions between Lesnar and Reigns.
But a funny thing happened along the way. Despite Lesnar and Paul Heyman being advertised for the show from Sunday night on, Reigns was never joined in the ring once he made his way down the ramp. Reigns briefly started into a fairly straightforward speech, paused, and then began spinning the most technically sound promo of his career. Painting the situation as one where "they're not going to like it back there," referring to the "powers that be," Reigns revealed that Lesnar wasn't there. He even went so far as to say Lesnar was supposed to be there, even as of 30 minutes prior, but simply didn't show.
Reigns used the opportunity to speak more naturally, passionately and pointedly than he's ever done in front of a camera. Sure, there were great moments in his brief rivalry with John Cena, and it'd be hard to top the reaction Reigns got on Raw the night after beating the Undertaker in Orlando last year. But in taking shot after shot at Lesnar, playing on the general feelings of a lot of fans who don't love Lesnar's part-time schedule and the sparsity of Universal title matches over the last year (there have been four since Lesnar beat Goldberg at WrestleMania, excepting a handful of live events), Reigns made as good an effort at positioning himself as the "good guy" in this rivalry to come as he could've possibly managed.
- WWE (@WWE) February 27, 2018
"Brock Lesnar is an entitled piece of crap who hides behind his contract," said Reigns. "We are six weeks away from WrestleMania, and the Universal champ is not here today. We were in Vegas last night -- Brock was in Vegas, he wasn't at the Elimination Chamber. Guess where he was? He was running around the Strip, taking pictures with Dana White and the UFC on social media. You want to know why? Because he doesn't respect me, he doesn't respect any of you, and he doesn't respect anyone in that locker room. And I'm sick of it -- we're all sick of it."
Reigns waxed poetic about he and everyone else going all over the globe all year working night after night to entertain fans, while Brock "only shows up when the money's right or the city's right." He talked about his history in the business, his family's history in the business and the respect he was taught from an early age. But he'd been pushed too far. "I'll say this right now -- I don't respect Brock Lesnar -- and I damn sure don't fear that b----."
Now, was Lesnar ever truly going to show up? It's certainly possible that something went awry over the last 24 hours, that travel plans or life events kept him from being in Anaheim. But whether this was all a setup to help get Reigns the opening volley of this rivalry, and a platform to tee off on the Universal champion, or a real life conundrum solved creatively on the fly, the blurred lines and the overall execution has people buzzing.
There are real feelings and real heat in play, even if this has all been carefully set up from the get-go. You're never going to win everybody over, especially when it comes to Reigns, but if he can spend the next five weeks turning fans who were booing him when he walked out of Elimination Chamber to cheering him when he left Monday night, we may be in for an entirely different kind of build to WrestleMania 34.
Rousey, Miz, Cena, Bliss and Wyatt get in on the fun as well
One week after in-ring action dominated nearly the entire three-plus-hour block of Raw, there was a lot more in the way of talking this week -- and Reigns was far from the only one to nail his message.
The Miz railed on Kurt Angle for being unclear about his future, about dangling who would face him for the Intercontinental championship and about the consistent disrespect he suffers despite being such a huge asset to the show.
"I have carried Raw for the last year on my back. I've made this title more relevant than the Universal championship. I'm the Miz. I've been here for 12 years. And 'might' is all you're going to give me?" cried The Miz.
- WWE (@WWE) February 27, 2018
He then went on to have not one but two matches against potential WrestleMania opponents in Seth Rollins and Finn Balor. It wasn't Rollins' hourlong iron man performance of last week, but Miz had strong showings back-to-back against two of the WWE's best in-ring performers. The writing was seemingly on the wall that both Rollins and Balor will get in on the Intercontinental title match in New Orleans, but with so much else happening on the show.
Oh, and then there was Ronda Rousey. Yes, on a show this jam-packed, the closing moments of Raw fell far further than they usually would in this recap. But from the moment her music hit, and she locked her no-nonsense death stare on Stephanie McMahon and Triple H, Rousey felt as though she was in a far more comfortable place than 24 hours prior when she had to play the grateful signee for most of the "contract signing" segment.
After putting Triple H through a table and getting slapped by McMahon for the trouble, she had revenge on her mind. But with Kurt Angle playing peacekeeper, and backtracking all the things he said to stir the pot on Sunday night, there was something of a détente in place. McMahon made over-the-top, exaggerated apologies, and it all seemed to be moving along toward a peaceful conclusion when Triple H, unable to help himself, clocked Angle for causing all of the trouble he did at Elimination Chamber to close out Raw.
It could be Angle and Rousey, a pair of Olympic medalists, who ultimately battle Triple H and McMahon at WrestleMania. Angle or Rousey could find a proxy as well. Either way, a slow build to this match with more focus on Rousey as a destructive force instead of a talker seems to be the way to go.
Bray Wyatt destroyed Heath Slater and Rhyno and blamed it all on Matt Hardy, who wasn't in attendance. Alexa Bliss essentially turned Mickie James evil again in a single promo, and caused chaos and destruction against her presumptive WrestleMania challenger, Asuka, that ultimately took a back seat to what happened between Bayley and Sasha Banks.
Finally, there was John Cena. He teased a WrestleMania match with The Undertaker that got a massive pop, but in a bigger bait and switch than the one Bliss pulled off Sunday night, he immediately snatched that off the table and blamed the Raw powers that be, who said it was impossible. No, after talking about the loneliness of failure, Cena insisted on taking his ball back to SmackDown and trying to find a path to WrestleMania over there. What does that ultimately mean? Well, you'll have to tune in Tuesday night to find out.
Hits and misses
- This was such a dense and jam-packed edition of Raw that one moment of utmost importance falls this far down. After Sasha Banks went well out of her way to turn her back on Bayley on multiple occasions, including the big stages of the Royal Rumble and the Elimination Chamber, a fed-up Bayley finally had enough. As Banks reached out for a tag during their six-woman tag team match, Bayley dropped to the floor and refused to tag in.
Though the Rumble moment seemed somewhat fair, given the stakes and the circumstances, the moment Banks and Bayley had inside the Elimination Chamber was far less forgivable. It's one thing for it to be "every woman for themselves" -- it's another thing entirely for using a built-up trust and friendship to blindside a friend with a Disney-esque betrayal followed by a giant smile while overlooking the damage. Though Bayley is an innocent, easily forgiving character, having her stand up for herself rather than playing the perpetual doormat is a big step forward -- and a major move toward the inevitable showdown between the two longtime friends. Asuka ultimately pulled off the victory via submission over James, though, despite the friction.
- The Bar put all the doubts to rest against Titus Worldwide, successfully defending their Raw tag team titles in a 2-out-of-3 falls match. They won 2-0, thanks in large part to a first fall that was claimed in a matter of seconds thanks to some creative Cesaro misdirection. They then dismissed the rest of the tag teams in the WWE summarily postmatch, which is sure to put them on a path toward The Revival, if not a handful of other teams that could challenge The Bar at WrestleMania.
- Elias became one of the few men to ever escape the destruction of Braun Strowman, even temporarily, thanks to the creative use of a fire extinguisher. Strowman still chased him out of the building and cried "I'm not finished with you" as Elias fled.
- Jarrius Robertson is this year's Warrior Award winner -- the fourth-ever recipient -- and he'll be honored as part of the WWE Hall of Fame festivities in New Orleans.