More often than not, using your go-home show to give every single person in your upcoming multi-man PPV main event their own match isn't a great idea. More often than not such a strategy leads to overexposure, and a lack of intrigue for the upcoming PPV. WWE loves giving us, in their words, a "preview" of the match to come on Sunday, but for those of us watching each and every week, it's hardly necessary. In most cases, the "less is more" approach is a good idea because we don't head into a lengthy PPV already exhausted by storylines, or already spoiled when it comes to the visual of certain superstars going face to face. Thus, when this week's Raw begins with a gauntlet match that features all seven men who will be competing in Sunday's elimination chamber match, it's difficult to feel anything but a sense of dread.
Thankfully, that dread quickly dissipates when Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins kick off the match and wrestle for an incredible 20 minutes, and things only get more outrageous from there. The bout is just the first in a gauntlet match that stretches out for a monumental 100+ minutes, a bold but creatively intriguing move that, as it unfolds, threatens to either be one of the more memorable things Raw pulls off in its entire history, or a disaster that struggles to keep the crowd invested in the match. The latter doesn't even come close to being true. Instead, Raw constructs one of the most memorable matches of all time.
Seth Rollins burns it down, and builds himself up
Gauntlet matches are difficult for storytelling because of the turnover of competitors and the relative unfairness, in kayfabe terms, of the match. This gauntlet match is something entirely different though. It's a goddamn classic that has to be considered one of the best Raw matches of all time. It's a match that develops a number of stories, features a ton of great wrestling, and makes every single competitor look like a star. It accomplishes everything you could want, and it does so across nearly two hours. In fact, when you count the short opening promo from Reigns (interrupted by Rollins in a beautiful callback to WrestleMania 31) and the post-match beatdown of the Miz and the Miztourage by Braun Strowman, the first two hours of the show serve to advance nothing but the main event scene.
The scope and structure of the match is something to truly admire. Rollins puts in a record-setting performance by wrestling for 65 minutes straight, which is longer than anyone's ever wrestled in 25 years of Raw. He pins both Roman Reigns and John Cena, and immediately removes himself from tag competition and kickstarts his singles career again with a stunning performance. From there, Elias gets to eliminate Rollins, and then Balor and Elias get a lot of time to work a solid match. Elias has really been coming into his own in the ring, the final piece he needs to catch up with all the incredible character work he's been putting in. I don't like Elias' chances on Sunday, even though he's entering the match last, but I'm very curious to see what role he plays.
The men's chamber is now filled with potential storylines
The first two hours of Raw are all about guys playing their roles. Every single character moment is perfectly calibrated. When Roman Reigns loses to Rollins, he gives his brother props for getting one over on him. When John Cena loses next, he makes excuses, looking like a fallible man for the first time since Brock Lesnar brought him to the inauguration of Suplex City. He talks about how he's "balancing a lot right now," suggesting that he'd be in a top spot if he weren't so damn popular in Hollywood. It adds a great wrinkle to the character and continues to build this story of Cena not quite being able to get it done in WWE while he's also preparing for his life after WWE. On top of all that, we get the Miz getting a ton of heat by being the one to beat Finn Balor after a distraction from the Miztourage, which perfectly sets up the eventual comeuppance they receive from Braun Strowman. Simply put: for two straight hours Raw tells a near-flawless story. Hours later I'm still buzzing.
The shameful booking of the women's division
Unfortunately, there's no way the final hour of Raw can even come close to matching that kind of unparalleled, totally captivating storytelling. The rest of the show is a bunch of stories barely moving forward, or in the case of the women, remaining frustratingly stagnant. Look, I like that Titus Worldwide is slowly becoming the real deal, and there's enough stakes their to make a potential matchup on Sunday more than just a throwaway, but it's hardly something with the kind of emotional investment that could come from a longer build. Similarly, I remain uninterested in Nia Jax vs. Asuka. They've made a good pairing before, but this feels like a pit stop on the way to something bigger (and maybe Rowdier).
Still, all of that is better than the nothingness that Raw gives to the women competing in the first ever women's elimination chamber match. It's supposed to be a historic moment, and yet where the men get two hours to build a number of perfectly crafted storylines, the women get yet another six-woman tag match to once again ask the question, "can women ever be friends?" It's exhausting, insulting storytelling made all the more infuriating by WWE's continuous back-patting when it comes to representation, equality, and breaking boundaries.
- One more standing ovation for Seth Rollins. My god, what a performance.
- Cena going for countout wins is so un-Cena. I love it. It's not gauntlet match strategy. Rather, he's slipping, and he's trying to cut corners.
- Braun Strowman calling out Brock Lesnar: "You hear me, Beast-y Boy?"
- So who are your odds-on favourites for each chamber match? The women's match feels weirdly wide open (terrible storytelling will do that!), whereas Reigns and Strowman feel like the only two options for the men. There are certainly other stories you could tell, and Rollins makes his case tonight, but Roman or Strowman seems to be the most obvious path forward.
Braun Strowman defeated The Miz, Finn Balor, Elias, Seth Rollins, John Cena, and Roman Reigns (gauntlet match); Titus Worldwide defeated The Bar; Sasha Banks, Bayley, and Mickie James defeated Alexa Bliss, Sonya Deville, and Mandy Rose.