For the better part of three hours on Monday night, we got a glimpse into a world in which Roman Reigns was as popular with live crowds as WWE wished he could be.
Though there often don't seem to be shows crafted to cater toward certain cities or crowds, save for an occasional sports reference or themed match, Monday Night Raw couldn't have picked a better city for a crucial moment on the way to SummerSlam, given their reactions.
Although the overwhelming likelihood is that we are a few weeks away from another major WWE show culminating in a main event that will get an overwhelmingly negative reaction at the Barclays Center -- it won't be for a lack of trying or effort from the Raw creative team.
Monday's show went to great lengths to tie as many different segments and elements together as possible to tell one cohesive story -- something that's been a struggle of late for Raw. It was an easier task than most weeks with Universal champion Brock Lesnar's first WWE appearance since late April to build around, but WWE also chose to tease playing a trump card they've had in their pocket since the moment Lesnar stepped back into the world of WWE.
Since Lesnar walked back into the company in 2012, and all the way back to 2002, really, Paul Heyman has played one crucial role or another in Lesnar's WWE career. For the most part, Heyman has been Lesnar's advocate -- pledging his undying loyalty, hyping up matches and doing most of the talking so Brock doesn't have to. To this point in Lesnar's second WWE run, though, we got similar builds to almost every Lesnar match -- promos from Heyman, the occasional few words from Lesnar and the tease or realization of some out-of-the-ring confrontation. Have the match, rinse and repeat.
Monday night was different, though. We got to see Lesnar in a series of backstage segments designed to turn as many fans against him as possible. Even as he was compelled to show up at a WWE show for the first time in three months, Lesnar sat backstage turning through the pages of a couple of different outdoorsman-based magazines. But rather than Heyman, Reigns or general manager Kurt Angle telling us that Lesnar is a selfish person who doesn't care about anyone or anything, we saw it with our own eyes.
"I don't watch the show Paul ... why would I watch the show?" asked Lesnar, throwing down the latest edition of Backwoodsman magazine. When Heyman tried to show Lesnar what Reigns had done, Lesnar grabbed Heyman's cell phone and threw it against a brick wall, breaking it -- as offensive a thing you could likely do to a guy whose life has been cell phone-based since the early 1990s.
Through Lesnar's apathy, we got key moments for at least three other characters. Heyman was tasked by Angle to get Lesnar into the ring with the threat of termination, which drove a series of increasingly desperate pleas from Heyman that fell mostly on deaf ears. Reigns got to cut an impassioned promo and even drop his favorite cuss word that starts with a "b." Angle was forced to scramble the threat and then, upon receiving pressure from Stephanie McMahon, remove Reigns from the building and the equation.
All of those actions had ripple effects through the rest of the show. Kevin Owens, who was paranoid that Angle was setting Lesnar up for a Braun Strowman Money in the Bank cash-in, pleaded with Baron Corbin to do something, only for Corbin to step out of the way and claim it wasn't his problem. It was an active night for Corbin, who beat Finn Balor clean as a whistle early in the show, got further under Angle's skin and then bore the brunt of Reigns' frustrations at getting escorted out by eating a solid strike to the face.
It all led up to a will he/won't he, with Heyman pleading to keep his job at any and all costs, groveling at Angle's feet and begging for a punishment to be laid upon Lesnar rather than himself. Like most opportunities that Heyman gets to flex his creative chops, he sold it in such a way that it wasn't quite clear if he was playing mind games with Angle and everyone else or if he was genuinely an advocate who had lost his last shred of control over Lesnar.
- WWE (@WWE) July 31, 2018
Of course, Lesnar finally came out, hit Angle with an F-5 and then, just as Heyman seemed to be returning to his smug, all-knowing self, Lesnar grabbed Heyman's face and shoved him toward Angle as evidence of what he'd just done. Heyman has been Lesnar's guardian angel through thick and thin during this run, and the tease of tensions opens up a few different possibilities.
It could be yet another red herring, with Lesnar once again defying the odds to remain champion. Heyman could step away and Reigns could win, or Heyman could take up a new client like Reigns or Strowman as he becomes the direct instrument of Heyman's disguise.
What WWE undeniably accomplished on Monday was what they have inexplicably been waiting for years to do -- push all-in on Reigns without a safety net to back out on, and leave Lesnar vulnerable enough to make it happen. A solid crowd cheered for Reigns at the beginning and end of the show. Regardless of how fans react to what happens at SummerSlam, a title change would finally bring an end to the uncertainty and stop-and-start booking that hasn't done Reigns or Lesnar any favors.
Then again, with Strowman and the Money in the Bank briefcase lingering, we may be on a path toward more Reigns wait-and-see as a challenger rather than a champion. Only time will tell.
Hits and misses
- Ronda Rousey officially returned from her 30-day "suspension" during which she made multiple appearances, but it wasn't good news for Natalya, whom Rousey was cornering in a match against Alicia Fox. Fox and Alexa Bliss conspired to get Fox a win, and even though Rousey landed her finisher post-match, a 2-on-1 attack left Rousey vulnerable. It also set up her first-ever Monday Night Raw match for next Monday, which will appropriately put her up against Fox.
- Speaking of Strowman and the briefcase, we ended up on shaky ground as to why he wouldn't come out to confront Lesnar and cash in on his first opportunity to use his Money in the Bank contract. Strowman faced Jinder Mahal, and early on in the match Owens appeared, as he tried to steal the briefcase to prevent Strowman from being able to cash in his title opportunity later in the night. While not holding the physical briefcase would've been an easy excuse for a no-show later on, they bailed out on the actual theft as Strowman simply got himself counted out in his pursuit of Owens.
- Drew McIntyre and Seth Rollins predictably had the match of the night, with everything from multiple parts of the ring apron's steel being in play, to a deadlift powerbomb, to a catch of a perpendicular Rollins that fed into a deadlift vertical suplex. McIntyre even threw in a top rope version of a move similar to Sheamus' white noise, but it all fell apart after Rollins successfully landed a stomp on McIntyre's head. Dolph Ziggler rolled in and took the DQ, and the 2-on-1 attack carried backstage.
- The B-Team picked up a new set of challengers on Monday, as The Revival challenged and then defeated Matt Hardy and Bray Wyatt. Could this be the first signs of real life in the Raw tag-team division?
- Sasha Banks and Bayley were decked out in matching gear as they took on Liv Morgan and Sarah Logan of the Riott Squad. Banks and Bayley won with a backstabber/Bayley-to-Belly combination on Morgan. And the beat goes on.