In the giant jigsaw puzzle that is WrestleMania 34, almost all of the pieces had already fallen into place going into Monday night. All of the champions in WWE had their challengers, each show had a tag team grudge match featuring their authority figures in action, and the fields for the men's and women's battle royals were slowly fleshing themselves out.
There were fun moments throughout the night. Stephanie McMahon put Ronda Rousey through a table, Seth Rollins and Finn Balor had an exhilarating match, and Paul Heyman did what he does better than anyone else by combining subtle and not-so-subtle moments to raise the stakes in the WrestleMania main event to come.
Still, two questions lingered heading into the final Monday Night Raw before WrestleMania: Who will be Braun Strowman's tag team partner in his challenge for the Raw tag team championships? And what will ultimately be the payoff to John Cena insulting and challenging The Undertaker for four straight weeks?
At the end of three-plus hours of Raw, there was no answer to either mystery, or even much in the way of clarity. The Strowman situation is forgivable, in light of the comedic execution that led the giant to dress up as his imaginary twin brother and, later, to throw Curt Hawkins through a wall. It sets up for a Hardy Boyz-esque surprise at WrestleMania, and that kind of surprise feels fun.
Cena walking out and not getting the slightest indication of a response to his challenge from The Undertaker, on the other hand, feels like a confusing turn of events and an unrequited tease. When Cena walks to the ring "as a fan" in New Orleans and The Undertaker's music finally hits, will that impromptu moment and match feel any more special for having been a strained, one-sided build whose biggest payoff to that point was a match between Cena and Kane?
For four straight weeks, Cena walked out to the ring to bash The Undertaker and challenge his masculinity. For four straight weeks, Cena whipped the live crowd into a frenzy without anything to show for it. The loud chants for The Undertaker in Atlanta on Monday night and four rounds of cheers as Cena ran around the ring waving his hands in the air represented everything WWE fans were clinging to in that moment. They weren't really going to deny fans who bought tickets to what should be such a key show to set up WrestleMania that one big, memorable moment as a reward... right?
"Hey #Undertaker, it's obvious that you left your hat in the ring, but it's clear to everybody here that you left your balls at home!" - @JohnCena #DoSomething #WrestleMania #RAW pic.twitter.com/2jVD2gwauH
- WWE (@WWE) April 3, 2018
As Cena walked away disappointed the last of his insults hurled, excitement turned into anger and confusion, then into cheers for Cena, and finally outright booing. There's a fine line between surprise and inevitability, and though it will ultimately end up being another cool moment for the live crowd at WrestleMania, it'll be a moment among dozens of cool moments, surprises and exciting matches. What would be the downside to a single gong and the lights flickering, letting fans know the time they'd already invested wasn't being tossed away on nonsense. At the moment, the storyline is basically Cena yelling into the wind and no one answering.
There were many nuanced things to like about Monday night's "go-home" edition of Raw that should spice up the matches already on the card, and we'll get to those in a second, but it's clear that whatever the idea for Cena and Undertaker was, it simply didn't land.
Monday Night Raws of a different era made it feel as though the show was hitting its peak and crescendoing into the biggest show of the year, WrestleMania. Fans and superstars alike were committed to driving home their final points throughout the night, but the lack of a payoff between Cena and Undertaker let the air out of the balloon and actively dampened the reaction for the closing moment between Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns.
The WrestleMania 34 card feels special as a whole, and there's plenty to be excited about -- but for the moment, it feels as though the payoff for Cena versus Undertaker has been stretched out too long. The only shocking thing that can happen at this point is The Undertaker not showing up at WrestleMania at all -- and that doesn't feel like the right kind of payoff for what should be a once-in-a-generation moment.
Paul Heyman gets the last word; Superman no match for Brock Lesnar
Paul Heyman is at his best when the stakes are high, and somehow gets even better when he can take those stakes even higher himself. Even as some fans chafe against the seeming inevitability of the main event Universal championship match between Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar, Heyman offered an ultimatum that felt real. After teasing a phone call with Dana White (or some proxy) by trying to pitch "The Brocktagon" in big lights backstage, Heyman dropped any hint of subtlety.
"If Brock Lesnar loses, this will be the last time you see Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman on WWE Monday Night Raw," Heyman said.
It was vintage Heyman, who managed to weave the Ronda Rousey storyline and Angle into his promo with an effortless sentence or two -- and using it to fuel an insult, of course. Heyman promised Lesnar would next be seen in the UFC, and then went on to say the mystique and character that he'd helped build for Lesnar since 2002 -- a guy who looks at the rest of the locker room and thinks they're not worthy to shine his boots, is disgusted by fans and hand-picks his opponents at will -- is actually an understatement.
Despite promising not to rile Reigns up, Heyman of course had some parting words for the No. 1 contender. He insulted his family, spoke of what disappointing them all will do to Reigns, and then laid it all out as though Lesnar held all the cards and Reigns was walking into an unwinnable situation. Heyman's insults against the locker room seemed to backfire once the human shield of superstars waved Reigns through the moment he walked out on stage, but Lesnar teased walking away -- albeit briefly.
It might've been a partisan crowd, considering Reigns was a Georgia Tech alum walking back into Atlanta, but the "Let's go Roman" chants grew loud as he neared the ring. Lesnar's retreat was brief, once a chair got introduced, but Reigns seemingly set up his revenge by hitting five Superman punches to finally lay out the Universal champion. But as Reigns stared wistfully up at the WrestleMania sign, holding the title above his head, Lesnar popped up and hit an F-5 that drove Reigns' head straight down onto the title.
Hits and misses
- Ronda Rousey still has a ways to go before she hones her craft on the microphone, and despite strong efforts to counter that during the opening segment of Raw, what could've been a slam dunk fell by the wayside. As Jonathan Coachman led a panel that was supposed to be a Q&A, the face-to-face between Stephanie McMahon, Triple H, Rousey and Kurt Angle turned into a volley of insults. It was a solid back and forth, pointed by McMahon dropping a hammer of a line as she said, "The whole world knows how you handle losses," but Rousey's timing on a retort got interrupted by a crowd reaction and didn't slam home as intended. Ripping off the proper arm to make sure McMahon could still sign her checks with the other would've been a home run, but the line simply didn't come out right.
The physicality that followed certainly helped wash a lot of that bad taste away, though, as Triple H knocked Angle in the head with a microphone and, in the confusion, McMahon tossed Rousey through a table. When growing pains happen on TV, like they are for Rousey, slips are inevitable. Now it's time to see what she can do in the ring.
- Seth Rollins and Finn Balor had a match on Raw that was every bit as good as their first meeting at SummerSlam 2016. If that match didn't get you excited about the possibility of the Intercontinental championship match at WrestleMania stealing the show, I don't know what to tell you. If you missed it, watch this match.
The baby conversation on commentary with new father The Miz was a bit distracting at times, but talking about how fans have crapped on him his whole career, and finally feeling love for a person who literally crapped upon him, was a nice bit of levity.
- Bayley and Sasha Banks went into overdrive heading into WrestleMania. Bayley grabbed a roll-up victory over Sonya Deville, only for the inevitable two-on-one postmatch attack to follow. Banks surprisingly showed up to even things out, but her intentions were far from pure. She held her arm out and yelled at Bayley on multiple occasions, "raise my hand" for saving her. Bayley refused, Banks grabbed Bayley by the face and insisted, and it all broke down into their second pull-apart in as many weeks. Absolution got the last laugh on both women, but it's safe to say the WrestleMania Women's Battle Royal will be the official launching pad for the renewal of this storied rivalry.
- Asuka teamed up with Dana Brooke to beat Mickie James and Alexa Bliss, but the story of the night was all about Bliss and Nia Jax. Fans who were feeling tepid or outright mad about Bliss' unabashed body shaming and outright bullying got no relief on Monday, as Bliss talked about Jax "blubbering into her blubber", but Jax's measured response has positioned her as the clear emotional favorite. Jax charged out to save Asuka from a postmatch, 2-on-1 attack, but had to take out her frustrations on James as Bliss was able to flee. Bliss' facial expressions continue to be the best of anyone's in the WWE, as she showed fear in her eyes, but the reckoning is coming. This could very well be shaping up toward a Sheamus/Daniel Bryan-esque one-sided title match in New Orleans -- but we'll see.
- WWE (@WWE) April 3, 2018
- We thought we might get to know Braun Strowman's tag team partner, but instead, we met his imaginary twin brother, Brains Strowman, who wears an ill-fitting white shirt and glasses. Corey Graves' "shock" at the reveal of Brains' "secret identity" made the moment, and made not finding out who Strowman's tag team partner feel okay. It did not feel okay for Curt Hawkins, the only person to volunteer to be Strowman's tag team partner to this point, as he was thrown clear through a wall.