Heading into Elimination Chamber, Raw was on a roll. It was delivering one stellar episode after another, anchored by a flourishing main event scene. Then came Elimination Chamber. It's not a bad PPV, but it's one that clearly cements a few plans for WrestleMania, and some of those choices are less than inspiring. Namely, the men's and women's chamber matches set up WrestleMania's two big title bouts: Alexa Bliss vs. Asuka for the Raw Women's Championship, and Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar for the Universal Championship. In the span of two matches, one pretty great and the other rather deflating, Raw had clarified much of its vision for WrestleMania, and the results were disappointing. Gone were the (seemingly realistic) dreams of Sasha Banks taking on Asuka. Gone were the (perhaps not realistic, but certainly more concrete in terms of storytelling) dreams of Braun Strowman getting another one-on-one shot against Brock Lesnar, the new Monster in town finally taking out the one who emerged back in 2002.
Spinning its wheels
Firmly on the "Road to WrestleMania," with two title matches established, Raw has to get down to business and actually make these potentially underwhelming stories matter. At the same time, it has to start addressing all the major superstars who don't have a clear match for WrestleMania just yet. What this week's Raw doesn't seem to really get though is that stakes are necessary for any match formulation. Rather than taking the time to build some new compelling stories, Raw mostly sits on its hands, doling out the same old stuff we've seen for weeks. It's a troubling start to the Road to WrestleMania to say the least.
The trouble with this Raw isn't just the obvious stuff, like the fact that Bray Wyatt and Matt Hardy are still in a feud that won't actually get good until they have a match at the compound, or that Strowman's rise continues to be stifled. Rather, it's the fact that the show is either engaging in unnecessarily drawn out storytelling, or just ignoring any semblance of it. There's no in between, no sweet spot where the feuds feel like they're evolving organically.
John Cena and The Miz growing as characters
Let's start with the good stuff though, because, frankly, there's not all that much to cover. There's John Cena, whose whole "existential crisis" shtick is still working wonders. No matter what happens with Cena come Mania, this kind of teasing is worthwhile. It makes Cena seem like a fallible character, and his challenge to the Undertaker feels like the desperate attempt of a desperate man to keep himself relevant while younger guys, namely Roman Reigns, take the spotlight that was once his. It’s fascinating to watch as John Cena tries to keep his WWE stardom alive while other superstars surpass him.
If not for the promos, most of this episode would be a slog to sit through. Rollins puts on another great babyface showing, but that's about it when it comes to in-ring work worth mentioning (more on the Raw tag team championship match in a bit). Everything else good about this show comes in the form of a promo. The Miz is on fire as the under-appreciated talent who still doesn’t know who he'll be facing at Mania. He's livid that he's been carrying the show and yet isn't getting merch, placement on the posters, or any respect from Kurt Angle. The promo builds and builds until Miz is red in the face and shouting at everybody. It's brilliant.
Roman Reigns cuts a legit babyface promo
On the other end of the face-heel spectrum, and I can't believe I'm typing this, Roman Reigns cuts one hell of a babyface promo. He breaks the news that Brock Lesnar has decided to no-show. He points out how Brock was hanging out with Dana White in Las Vegas during the Elimination Chamber, and chastises him for his lack of respect for this business and for the fans. They're criticisms that aren't exactly new, but Reigns makes them feel significant. "I'm sick of it. Everyone back there is sick of it," he says about Brock's part-time schedule. Impassioned, angry, and focused, it's the best Roman's been on the mic. Who knows if Raw can sustain the momentum captured in that brief segment, but if they can, Brock vs. Roman could end up being better than the deflating finish to Elimination Chamber had us all believing.
Some convoluted storytelling
Outside of those promos, there's really not much to mention about Raw. This is a show just getting started when it comes to WrestleMania, and you can feel it. Matches are being laid out in a way that either telegraphs future feuds too obviously, or fails to build anything interesting. Kurt Angle forces The Miz to wrestle Seth Rollins and Finn Balor back-to-back because he doesn't want to tell him who his Mania opponent is for some reason. It's a baffling choice, and one that feels unnecessarily convoluted. If you're going to run a Triple Threat for the Intercontinental Championship at Mania, either announce it or work towards it in a way that adds some stakes.
Similarly, both the tag team and women's division desperately need some semblance of structure. Right now, both divisions are flailing, though the women's at least has multiple meaningful players, even if the result seems to consistently be six-woman tag matches. Still, between the Bayley-Sasha storyline finally progressing, and Asuka continuing to make her mark, things are moving in the right direction, whereas the tag division is blowing off a feud that's meant to build up Titus Worldwide by having Crews and O'Neil lose their tag title rematch 2-0 in a 2/3 Falls match.
The storytelling this week is either unnecessarily convoluted, or laser focused. There's no in between on Raw, which means it must be WrestleMania season.
- I will never tire of Alexa Bliss' promos. She's so good at getting everyone to hate her.
- Even in six-woman tag team matches, Asuka stands out. She has another gear that nobody else does, which has me really worried about a potential singles match with Bliss at WrestleMania.
- Kurt Angle very quickly becoming the Mick Foley of Raw GMs. At least he'll likely get to put Triple H in the Ankle Lock at WrestleMania.
- Between the awkwardness of the Elimination Chamber segment and the silence when Triple H hit Kurt Angle, it's safe to say that this feud isn't off to a great start.
Asuka, Sasha Banks, and Bayley defeated Alexa Bliss, Nia Jax, and Mickie James; Seth Rollins defeated The Miz; Finn Balor defeated The Miz; The Bar (c) defeated Titus Worldwide (2/3 falls match for the Raw Tag Team Championship); Braun Strowman defeated Elias via DQ.