With their 25th anniversary show set for next week, which will likely center around returning legends and a few marquee matches, Monday's edition of Raw was the last big chance for several superstars to step out and make a statement ahead of the Royal Rumble.
There were shocks and surprises throughout, but this Monday Night Raw will be remembered for Braun Strowman's hour-long PSA on how not to handle firing someone from their job.
Kurt Angle was well-intentioned at the start of it all. After Strowman kicked off Monday Night Raw to brag about his exploits in the form of a children's fable, Angle walked out flanked by eight security guards. The Raw general manager calmly told Strowman that attempted murder via grappling hook and steel girder was not looked upon kindly, and that not only would Strowman be taken out of the Universal championship match at the Royal Rumble pay-per-view -- he was fired.
What followed was an hour of TV that took Strowman to the extremes of his over-the-top destructive tour de force. He nearly exited the building before a security guard made contact, which sent Strowman off the deep end. Strowman threw multiple guards into steel retractable doors, and a few others got tossed through the air and put through tables.
"I'm not finished yet -- I'm not leaving until EVERYBODY gets these hands," Strowman bellowed. As Titus Worldwide picked up a second straight win over The Bar and Cedric Alexander beat Tony Nese in the ring, Strowman followed through. He tore apart catering and put Curt Hawkins through a table, pausing for a piece of chocolate cake in the process, and Strowman also tore apart Angle's office and barged into the TV truck.
For those fans whose suspension of disbelief could only go so far, Strowman's escapades strained further and further against reality. But after previously tipping over an ambulance, sometimes all that's left to do is to lift the cab of a semi truck and do the same. It all ended as Strowman charged back out to the arena floor and Angle put an end to it all by letting the monster know that Stephanie McMahon had rehired him and that the SWAT team was no longer a factor. Strowman then tossed Michael Cole off the stage onto a pile of extras for good measure, and then made his exit.
- WWE (@WWE) January 16, 2018
It was not a perfect hour by any means, or even remotely realistic for that matter. Angle's over-acting on lines like "That's worth $12 million!" and the 50 camera cuts that happened during Strowman's tipping over of the truck cab each took away some of the intended impact, to be sure. But on a night where one of the biggest shows of the year came further into focus, Strowman was allowed to grab hold of the entire first hour of Raw, on a night where neither Brock Lesnar nor Kane showed up.
Occasional cheesiness aside, anyone who discounts the possibility of Strowman walking out of Philadelphia with the Universal championship is only fooling themselves.
Rollins and Balor revisit SummerSlam 2016
Once Angle was able to catch his breath post-Strowman, Jason Jordan entered the picture and continued to inspire trouble for his tag team partner, Seth Rollins. One week after his actions cost himself, Rollins and Roman Reigns a match against Finn Balor, Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows, Jordan wanted redemption. Rather than seeking out revenge on his own, however, he volunteered Rollins to go one-on-one with Balor in the evening's main event.
It wouldn't be the last heelish thing he'd do on Monday night. The match between Balor and Rollins started deep into the night, after 10:50 p.m. ET, and though it appeared that the replay of the first ever Universal championship match would get short-changed, that wouldn't be the case. Throughout the match, Balor struck swift attacks that targeted Rollins knee and sent him reeling, but Balor never really picked up any momentum. There were sling blades, superkicks, low dropkicks, a one-legged Phoenix Splash attempt, and a Coup de Grace that was turned into a superplex/falcon arrow combination, but the match didn't really kick into gear until a rollup clearly seemed to show Balor winning the match, only for the ref to miss the count. Balor got his knees up on a frog splash from Rollins, but The Bar, furious from Jordan having caused a distraction that led to their loss at the hands of Titus Worldwide, charged out and created chaos.
Jordan, The Bar and Balor Club all mixed it up on the outside, and Balor flew over the top and landed on them all to put an end to it. Balor and Rollins went back and forth for a brief moment, and that's when Jordan took his opportunity for a shortcut. He tripped Balor, setting Rollins up for what was the surprise of the night on an evening where a man tipped over a truck -- he lined Balor up for the Blackout, aka the curb stomp, and landed the move for the first time in two years to pick up the victory.
Cameras loomed on a woozy Balor flanked by Gallows and Anderson for an uncomfortably long time, either to sell the impact of the once-banned move or waiting for a cue that Balor simply couldn't hit.
Jordan continued his road to darkness, and provided that Balor's injuries were just him selling, Rollins picked up a valuable weapon that's instantly as over as any finisher in the WWE.
Given the proximity of the first-ever women's Royal Rumble match, there was every reason to believe the clash between Asuka and Nia Jax would end fairly quickly to protect both women's momentum. Well, half that equation was right. In a match that blew away their already solid track record of matches dating back to NXT, Jax and Asuka had a pay-per-view quality war that managed to actually cast brief flashes of concern as to the status of Asuka's three-year undefeated streak.
Asuka locked in submission after submission, each one more effective than the last, but Jax's raw strength helped her fight out each time. A triangle choke got turned into a buckle bomb, and chest kicks got transitioned into a high-release powerbomb as Jax put on her best in-ring performance since joining the Raw roster.
The saving grace for Asuka was her strikes, including a double backfist and spinning heel kick combination, as well as the kick on the outside that brought about the end of the match. As Jax slowly walked up the steel steps, Asuka kicked Jax's left leg out from underneath her and it fell between the steel stairs and the ringpost with Jax's full momentum coming down on it; Jax beat the 10-count and rolled back in, but the ref stopped the match when she couldn't stand back up.
Both women came out of the match all the better for it, and Jax got to spend some time showing depth of character in the trainer's room alongside fellow wounded warrior Enzo Amore, dismissing Alexa Bliss in the process.
- WWE (@WWE) January 16, 2018
Later in the night, Sonya Deville picked up a shock win over Sasha Banks in fairly short order after catching Banks with a chest kick as Banks attempted a frog splash. It added just the right bit of chaos, but the match itself was largely overshadowed by the news that Deville's Absolution compatriot, Paige, would not be able to compete in the first women's Royal Rumble due to a recent injury. After all the work she did to return, neck issues immediately coming back to haunt Paige isn't promising for her long-term in-ring prospects.
Hits and misses
-- Doesn't Titus Worldwide have a valid argument for a Raw tag team title shot at this point, after beating the No. 1 contenders in back-to-back weeks? Or does that only apply to beating the champions?
- WWE (@WWE) January 16, 2018
-- The Revival beat a couple of enhancement talents in a quick match, and it was great to see Dash Wilder and Scott Dawson healthy and hitting the Shatter Machine. It was also interesting to see them get some time on the microphone, and a chance to proclaim, "We are not sports entertainers, we are wrestlers. We are as real as it gets."
-- The Miz didn't have a lot of time to talk on Raw, but he made the most of it. Though it came in an effort to brag about his own accomplishments, it was a welcome change to see Miz acknowledge and welcome cheers from the crowd as a "bad guy." He hammered home his two big points -- that he was the spark that was missing from Raw, not Lesnar or John Cena, and that after making the Intercontinental championship prestigious, he was ready to take that title back from Roman Reigns.
The two-on-one handicap match between Reigns, Bo Dallas and Curtis Axel was not a mat classic by any means, but it teased Reigns versus Miz just enough to keep everyone excited heading into next week. As good as The Miz was on the microphone, his opening act, Elias, showed he had just as much command over the audience. He should remain separate from The Miztourage, who are doing their thing well, but as a supporting act there's some gold to be mined in a temporary Miz-Elias alliance.
-- Matt Hardy's titantron and ramp video were fixed to reflect his new music and character, and they were both huge improvements. Now to fix the cracking glass, and all will be right in the "woken" world.
-- Samoa Joe's image was quietly pulled from the Royal Rumble graphic on Monday, and that can't be good news regarding his status after he injured his foot last week on Raw.