The Monday Night Raw after WrestleMania felt just a little bit different this year. It could've been any number of things, from the sheer volume of debuts and returns, to the melancholy nature of Paige's forced retirement, or maybe the clear message that broke during the afternoon that pointed strongly to the fact that Universal champion Brock Lesnar wouldn't be on the show. It's probably a little bit of all of those reasons, and then some.
But the biggest reason the wildest version of Monday Night Raw of the year didn't quite feel like it measured up to previous versions was that it didn't feel like there was much in the way of stakes at hand. Two matches were lined up for May's Backlash pay-per-view, the card for the "Greatest Royal Rumble" in Saudi Arabia got a little more stacked with a Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns rematch inside of a steel cage, and an eliminator tournament to determine the next Raw tag team champions got underway.
But outside of the opening segment, when Ronda Rousey cemented the early stages of a Steve Austin vs. Vince McMahon-esque relationship with Stephanie McMahon, there was very little in terms of paying off what happened Sunday night at WrestleMania. There were no title matches, or No. 1 contender's matches for that matter. With the announcement that the Superstar Shakeup will return next week on Raw and SmackDown to shuffle up the rosters, it almost felt as though WWE was simply trying to bridge the gap between WrestleMania and the new stories they want to tell going forward.
That's still not to say it was a bad Monday Night Raw by any means. If it happened in the middle of June, it would've been downright spectacular for a random Monday night. Because the expectations for what this show should be have become astronomically high, however, this Raw felt like a bit of wind-down from WrestleMania rather than an exciting, eclectic epilogue like in previous years. But enough about the disappointment -- let's dig in to the many interesting nuggets we were given on Monday night.
Ronda Rousey's popularity surge in full swing
Few expected more than a somewhat fun match and a few interesting spots between Rousey and Triple H in Rousey's debut match at WrestleMania 34. Almost no one could've predicted the tag team match that also featured Kurt Angle and Stephanie McMahon would be a solid contender for match of the night on a card that was that stacked on paper, and yet, that was the reality of what was delivered on Sunday night.
Monday was a real test for who Rousey would be going forward as a member of the WWE roster, with her in-ring promos standing as her most glaring weakness to date. If the WWE handles things like they did to open up this edition of Raw, at least in the short term, they'll continue to highlight the best of what Rousey has to offer.
McMahon appeared at the start of the show, to a familiar chorus of boos, and proceeded to boast that she knew exactly what she was doing when she contributed to the making of the tag team match. Even as she had her arm in a sling, McMahon claimed she masterminded it all in order to pull the very best performance out of Rousey that was possible, and that it had all worked to perfection.
When she brought out Rousey, to thunderous applause, McMahon extended her good hand as an olive branch of sorts, despite all of the underhanded things she did in the lead-up to the match at WrestleMania and especially during it. Rousey, without a word, brought it in for the hug while keeping a giant smile on her face until McMahon was in tight. In that moment, a deadly serious look took its place, and in a matter of seconds Rousey had ripped off the sling and arm brace and locked in an armbar for the second time in as many nights.
You're never quite going to get Austin-Vince, but that kind of power dynamic between boss and employee seems likely to resonate in a big way. Keeping the talking to a minimum and getting down to business suits Rousey, as we saw on Sunday night.
Familiar faces, old and new
There was a lot to keep track of in terms of fresh faces on Monday Night Raw, so let's run down everyone who popped up throughout the show, starting with the returns.
Bobby Lashley appeared on WWE television for the first time in almost 11 years, interrupting Elias and holding him up in the air with one arm on a delayed suplex. His generic entrance music aside, Lashley is a much more complete wrestler than he was when he left the WWE in 2007. He's far more polished because of a couple of runs with TNA/IMPACT wrestling as a top guy, as well as a 15-2 record as a professional MMA fighter (most recently with Bellator), but Lashley still has a fair bit to prove to the WWE audience. His last run was highlighted by his involvement with Vince McMahon getting his head shaved, a puzzling run with the ECW championship and one particular world title challenge against John Cena that gave fans hope just before Lashley departed WWE while injured.
Jeff Hardy returned to action seven months after going down with a shoulder injury. He helped balance things out between Finn Balor, Seth Rollins and The Miztourage (more on that later), and reunited with both his brother Matt and Matt's new disciple, Bray Wyatt. For now, Jeff's towing the line between his traditional WWE character and the Brother Nero persona -- but the sooner he leans more towards the latter, the better for all involved.
Samoa Joe returned from injury to call Reigns out, cut a promo by proxy for the absent Lesnar and lay out a challenge for Reigns at Backlash. His foot injury, which he suffered in early January, sadly made it two straight WrestleManias on the sidelines for Joe.
There were also three NXT acts who got the call that they were moving to the Raw roster in the last few days.
Recently dethroned NXT women's champion Ember Moon served as new Raw women's champion Nia Jax's tag team partner. Moon, who only two days prior dropped her title to Shayna Baszler at NXT TakeOver, had an impressive showing in a rather one-sided match against Alexa Bliss and Mickie James. She hit her Eclipse top-rope stunner on Bliss to pick up the victory for her team. Moon had standout rivalries with Asuka and Baszler during her time in NXT, and her exit officially turns a page on a long chapter in the NXT women's division.
Speaking of book-based puns, the Authors of Pain stormed out of the gate with a victory over Heath Slater & Rhyno on Monday, but they then inexplicably left their long-time manager Paul Ellering in the dust. Whether it's a scheduling issue or a continuation of some crazy predilection for hating managers on Raw and SmackDown, Akam and Rezar are going to have quite a challenge on their hands after having Ellering do most of the talking for them on NXT TV. It took AoP quite some time to garner respect from the NXT fans, but in rivalries with #DIY, TM-61, The Revival, SAnitY and the Undisputed Era, they won people over; their War Games performance in Houston was a major turning point
Finally, No Way Jose had a blink and you'll miss it victory over John Skyler in his Raw debut. His song and the conga line he brought along with him are crowd pleasers, but Jose faces a lot of the same traps and issues that ultimately made a guy like Adam Rose only a short-term success. Transitioning an act that relies heavily on direct crowd work, like he was doing in NXT, and taking it to big arenas will not be easy.
Paige's premature retirement
After Mandy Rose pinned Sasha Banks following a lengthy match, Paige grabbed the microphone and delivered news that many have dreaded was coming for months. After her year-and-a-half battle to return to WWE cut short just three weeks after Paige's first match back, Paige told the crowd that doctors have advised her that her neck injuries are too severe for her to every be cleared for in-ring competition again.
She thanked Edge and Daniel Bryan for their kind words, advice and guidance, and at the age of just 25 marked the end of what seemed destined at times to be a legendary wrestling career. That announcement came four years after Paige made her Raw debut on the night after WrestleMania XXX, in the very same building, and defeated AJ Lee to win the then-Divas championship.
It cannot be overstated how much Paige meant to the current state of women's wrestling in the WWE. She was the first NXT women's champion, and Paige's tournament finals victory over Emma and their rematch at the NXT Arrival (the first live show that ever aired on the WWE Network) set the tone for all of the amazing things that followed.
For someone who was involved in professional wrestling since she was 13 years old, Paige's next step will be crucial. A pair of WWE wellness policy violations, as well as other personal drama, marred her year and a half away during her injury, surgery and recovery -- and her return to the ring was a testament to how hard Paige had worked to turn that all around. Whether she continues to serve as Absolution's manager, or is stepping away from wrestling for good, here's hoping that Paige finds her place, wherever that may be.
Hits and misses
Reigns dropped a fourth-wall breaking promo in the ring, in between a showering of boos from the crowd, in which he claimed Vince McMahon "couldn't look me in the eye and smarten me up" about what was going on heading into the WrestleMania event and that Lesnar is a smart businessman. Samoa Joe interrupted that moment, though, to one of the loudest reactions of the night, claiming Reigns was wearing a tinfoil hat, and that he was both a liar and a failure. Joe will either get to pick up the pieces after the "Greatest Royal Rumble," or he will back right into a Universal championship match at Backlash. Either way, it's a strong rivalry for each to revisit.
Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn showed up to Raw begging for a job, and Kurt Angle dropped the most shocking line of the night when he said he heard TNA was hiring. Because of the lengths WWE has gone to in the past to avoid naming that brand, in whatever name or state they exist in, it was jarring -- especially to a well-educated crowd like there was at the post-WrestleMania Raw. He offered a match between the two of them with the winner earning a contract. It was ultimately a great match that really woke people up, but each eventually hit their finishers and left their opponent struggling to get to their feet; when neither could answer the ref's 10-count, the match ended as a "no contest". The ongoing journey of Zayn and Owens continues without a job to speak of, but they once again proved on Monday that they're great whether their next to or opposite one another.
Rollins commanded the crowd on Monday better than anyone outside of perhaps of Elias. It's always a hard crowd to please, and he's had some negative experience with such crowds, like at SummerSlam 2016. But the new Intercontinental champion had his audience in the palm of his hand throughout the night. Balor, and later The Miz, each came out with their respective challenges for the title, and one night after all three men elevated the Intercontinental championship, their three-headed promo made it feel all the more special. Sadly, it ended with a six-man tag team main event that was essentially a glorified Live Event match, but with Miz's rematch at Backlash and Balor's shot coming in the not-too-distant future, the IC title's future still seems bright.
Braun Strowman and WWE fan Nicholas vacated the Raw tag team title because of scheduling conflicts, blaming Nicholas' need to finish the fourth grade. This was unfortunately the only appearance on the night by Strowman, but it's probably best for the long-term health of the Raw tag team division for this not to drag out too far.
Matt Hardy and Bray Wyatt beat Titus Worldwide to advance in the tag team eliminator for a chance to face The Bar in Saudi Arabia for the Raw tag team championships. They'll face The Revival, who beat Gallows & Anderson in the other title eliminator match.
Rose beat Banks because Bayley clobbered Banks "accidentally" while swinging for Rose, while the referee was distracted. Banks and Bayley will go one-on one next week on Raw as their tensions start to boil over.
Nothing to speak of on the John Cena or The Undertaker front after what happened at WrestleMania 34. Stay tuned.