If the first two weeks of Raw in 2018 are any indication of what's to come in the new year from WWE, this could wind up being a special build to WrestleMania 34 in April.
It's still early, of course, but for the second straight week WWE at least attempted to put its best foot forward in the face of intense ratings competition from college football. While last week was largely a hit-or-miss affair over three (mostly) entertaining hours, this week was even better.
Backed by a steady stream of electricity, which began in the opening segment, Raw delivered one big segment after another, with none more memorable than Braun Strowman's brutal attack on Brock Lesnar and Kane. But Strowman was in a tight battle for top billing on this night as everyone from a returning Miz to a reloaded Balor Club and a whiny Jason Jordan put forth impressive efforts.
Braun Strowman gets medieval on Brock Lesnar and Kane
A brief and rather pedestrian promo from Lesnar advocate Paul Heyman challenged WWE for booking "The Beast" in an unfair triple threat match at the Royal Rumble. Heyman also put over Lesnar as "the most dominant champion in the history of World Wrestling Entertainment and I have yet to see anyone who can beat the baddest dude on the planet." But a slow, backward walk up the ramp from Lesnar teased that a run-in was coming. And boy was it impactful.
Kane attacked Lesnar from behind, leading to a brawl between the two that spilled backstage. Strowman interfered and knocked both giants to the floor. He followed by tossing Lesnar with ease into a stack of road cases, with one falling hard onto Lesnar's shoulder from above. He then drove a separate road case into Kane's head before throwing it on top of him.
That's when Strowman decided to get creative. After ripping open a case to find a grappling hook, Strowman flung it high up toward the arena's ceiling where he entrapped it upon a large girder. He then grabbed the cable and pulled the entire structure down on top of Kane and Lesnar below.
Strowman raised his arms and screamed before walking off as Heyman howled in despair. After commercial, an injured Kane crawled up the stairs on his own power to escape. Lesnar, meanwhile, was wheeled into an ambulance on a stretcher as a distraught Heyman exclaimed over and over, "I didn't even see him coming!" Before the ambulance doors were closed, Lesnar could be heard yelling, "I don't want to go! Paul, get me out of here."
This is Raw and the booking of heavyweight monsters at its finest. Following weeks of forgettable -- and almost troll level -- Universal title segments, which have centered far too much on Kane, we finally have an unforgettable moment worth building upon. Going back into its bag of tricks with another "action movie" sequence, featuring the kind of pre-taped camera tricks last used in Strowman's 2017 feud with Reigns, WWE hit a clear home run here by balancing violence and destruction perfectly without getting too cheesy.
While the segment was designed to put over the freak strength and maniacal qualities of Strowman's character, it was the contributions from Lesnar that made this so special. Not only did he sell out in sacrificing his body by taking a hard bump on top of a road case, but the dialogue he delivered after the attack provided the perfect tone of vulnerability.
Jason Jordan costs The Shield against The Balor Club
Roman Reigns opened the show by reliving his title defense against Samoa Joe last week and declaring that he was "fighting for my brother, Dean Ambrose." Jason Jordan interrupted to tell Reigns how happy he was to "finally be part of something meaningful." The crowd booed Jordan as extended his fist -- unsuccessfully -- to Reigns, in an attempt at being accepted as a member of The Shield.
Jordan tried to speak on behalf of Seth Rollins, which brought out his annoyed tag team championship partner. "You still have a lot to learn," Rollins said, accusing him of stepping on Reigns' moment. Jordan countered by saying it was everyone's moment, which annoyed Reigns, and added that "we are not quite The Shield but … we might be the most dominant three-man group in all of WWE."
The newly formed Balor Club emerged to argue the final point. "I've been running with [Luke] Gallows and [Karl] Anderson for about 10 years before you knew that Kurt Angle was your dad," Finn Balor told Jordan. A hot-headed reaction from Jordan to a Gallows joke nearly set off a brawl and angered both Rollins and Reigns. Out came Angle to announce a six-man tag team match for the main event.
The match was worth the two-plus hour wait, featuring strong work with Balor opposite both Rollins and Reigns. The late hot tag to Rollins was the high point as he cleaned house in breakneck fashion. But the finish was aided by a pair of absent-minded mistakes from Jordan. First, he ran in to cause an accidental distraction of the referee, which voided a tag attempt from Rollins on Reigns. Second, he inadvertently blocked Rollins' vision by helping him up and ducked for cover just as Balor hit Rollins with a missile dropkick. Balor followed with a Coup de Grace for the finish, causing Reigns to argue with Jordan before a run-in from The Miztourage (see below).
There was so much good in this angle all happening at once. The Balor Club reunion has not only been a smart mark dream, but it's been handled perfectly as WWE allowed for a subtle heel turn this week with Balor debuting a wisecracking side of him not seen since his Bullet Club days in Japan. Speaking of the faction's NJPW history, WWE also didn't shy away from that, allowing for multiple references (and even pictures) recalling the backstory of how Balor and the Good Brothers first came to be.
The real gold of this angle, however, was the way Jordan was presented as a glory-hogging whiner with a complete lack of self-awareness. Inserting such a red-hot talent into a program with a duo as over as Rollins and Reigns has been nothing short of brilliant, especially with the constant teases that a Jordan heel turn is near. Whether Jordan ends up being responsible for breaking up The Shield or WWE creative books an irreconcilable rift between Angle and his son, the story has all the makings to be the most intriguing entering WrestleMania 34.
The Miz returns to Raw with a bang, picks the bones on Reigns
Emerging from the crowd just ahead of Raw's closing credits, The Miz joined stablemates Curtis Axel and Bo Dallas in interrupting an argument between Reigns and Jordan by taking them both out. The Miztourage continued to beat down Reigns as Miz connected with a Skull-Crushing Finale. After feigning their departure, The Miztourage returned to hit Reigns with their version of The Shield's triple powerbomb to end the show.
The Miz's much-hyped return to Raw for the first time since leaving in November to film a movie began with a segment on Miz TV and "welcome back" chants from the crowd. The Memphis faithful were just as happy to join Dallas on "Thank you Miz" chants after he and Axel began to creep Miz out by removing their wardrobe to give to him as gifts. The Miz closed with a promo that he delivered as a message for Reigns, declaring he is coming for the Intercontinental title -- complete with a "you can believe that" and mic drop.
During a backstage segment later on, The Miz approached Angle and began to brag about the "unscripted series" he and his wife Maryse secured on the USA Network. (A follow-up press release revealed it to be a six-episode docu-series to air in 2018 titled "Miz & Mrs," chronicling their journey as first-time parents.) After challenging Angle for his "deserved rematch" against Reigns, the Raw GM booked it for the 25th Anniversary episode on Jan. 22.
Credit WWE for giving Miz the full star treatment upon his return, including a lengthy dialogue segment and a run-in following the main event. The Miz was in midseason form all night, reminding us how large his absence felt in recent weeks thanks to his ability to hold the audience's attention. The tease of an upcoming feud with Reigns not only explains Samoa Joe's clean loss the week before, it instantly becomes, to steal a line from Miz, the most must-see in WWE.
What else happened on Raw?
Sasha Banks & Bayley def. Mandy Rose & Sonia Deville via submission: With Mickie James and Paige at ringside in their respective corners, this two-segment match was almost exclusively dominated by the heels, who did well to prevent Banks from making a tag. All it took was one mistake to produce the finish, however, as Banks reversed Rose into the Banks Statement to force the tap. The one-sided booking early on did well to further establish Absolution as a faction that is physically dominant in a believable fashion.
'Woken' Matt Hardy def. Curt Hawkins via pinfall: Hardy debuted his new entrance and piano-based theme song, heavy on laughing and the word "delete." After a pre-taped video promo with Hardy promising to delete the other 29 members in the "Rumble of Royalty," the Woken one turned the tables on Hawkins inside the ring by biting him. Hardy then hit a Side Effect and Twist of Fate for the 1-2-3. After the lights went out and Bray Wyatt's music hit, he appeared in the ring standing behind Hardy. The two then went nose to nose and laughed at each other for over a minute until the segment awkwardly ended.
WWE cruiserweight championship – Cedric Alexander def. Enzo Amore (c) via countout: With his romantic interest Nia Jax watching backstage on a monitor, Amore was busted open the hard way above his right eye following an enziguri kick late in the match. After Amore was knocked out of the ring, Alexander hit a beautiful Tope Con Hilo, which caused Amore's left ankle be crushed by the impact. After selling the injury as legit by yelling "not now" and getting bleeped out for swearing, Amore was counted out of the match. He later told Jax in the medical room that he was "100," before screaming in pain after she left.
Titus O'Neil & Apollo Crews def. The Bar via pinfall: After Sheamus and Cesaro criticized Kurt Angle for elevating Jason Jordan to the main event and not giving them a contractually obligated title rematch, the Raw GM told them to head to the ring if they want competition. Their mystery opponents were revealed as Titus Worldwide, who went on to rally for a surprise victory when Crews flipped backwards off the apron to avoid a Brogue kick and O'Neil rolled up Sheamus from behind, setting off a wild celebration.
Samoa Joe def. Rhyno via submission: Looking to bounce back from his clean title loss to Roman Reigns last week, Joe made quick work of Rhyno in this one-sided squash. Following his win via Coquina Clutch, Joe explained to Charly Caruso that Reigns' win was more like a loss because of the punishment he endured. "Trust me, the cracks in the foundation are coming and when it all comes tumbling down Roman, I'm going to be there to finish the job," Joe proclaimed. He then announced his entry into the Royal Rumble before teasing a possible feud with John Cena by claiming he will eliminate him first.
Nia Jax ambushes Asuka: During a series of backstage segments, it appeared Raw women's champion Alexa Bliss tried unsuccessfully to get best friend Jax to handle her dirty work and take out Asuka ahead of the Royal Rumble. Jax, who announced her entry into the match, caught Bliss in a lie and shook off the champ's attempt to say that her fling with Enzo Amore is holding her back. Yet, Jax still decided to run in and ruin Asuka's match before it could get started. Jax snuck up from behind to hit a Samoan Drop and senton, forcing Asuka to hold her leg and scream in agony.