The "Road to WrestleMania" pauses for no one, and after a Fastlane pay-per-view that could be described in the kindest possible terms as "uneven," the pressure was on for Monday Night Raw to deliver.
With only four weeks of shows to go and only one match confirmed for WrestleMania 33, the home stretch to Orlando started with a direction and an urgency that had been sorely lacking. It wasn't a perfect night in Chicago, for any number of reasons, but for the first time it felt as if the kind of stakes that should have been present since the Royal Rumble were finally at hand.
All five Raw titles have either settled their WrestleMania fates or put into motion means to clear things up by next week, to varying degrees of success. The Undertaker finally marked his territory and took aim at Roman Reigns, after some misdirection, while Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman conspired to finally make newly crowned Universal champion Goldberg look human. If we look at things from a macro view, and run through some theoretical checklist of goals the WWE hoped to accomplish by the end of the night, every box would have a mark in it.
But that approach would also paint over some deeper issues that may or may not be solvable in the next three weeks. Before we dig into some of the more troubling moments on Raw, let's give credit where credit is due.
The Undertaker changes course, but he still finds a target for WrestleMania
Say what you want about how The Undertaker's in-ring skills aren't what they used to be, but every time the gong hits and the lights go out, his entrance is still one of the most captivating moments in all of wrestling. The misdirection of having The Undertaker's music overtake Reigns' theme after just a few notes was a nice touch, and while I couldn't dislike Braun Strowman turning and tucking tail the night after Reigns finally made him look human much more, the moments themselves during this sequence were mostly well done.
The Chicago crowd was not shy in booing Reigns as he came out to call out The Undertaker for interrupting his moment with Strowman, and it should be more of the same for any confrontation during the next four weeks, and especially in Orlando. That is, of course, unless WWE finally gives Reigns the kind of edge he'll need to transition from the "underdog" who actually tends to come out on top most of the time into a more ego-driven, cocky character that could still default into the good guy role more often than not.
- WWE (@WWE) March 7, 2017
The chokeslam on Reigns to close out Raw was a nice touch, and if WWE truly believes Reigns will come out of a confrontation with The Undertaker, one of the most beloved characters in wrestling, looking like anything but the bad guy by default (and especially so if he hangs Undertaker's second WrestleMania loss on him), they're crazy.
Brock Lesnar's first step to making Goldberg his ... well, you know
The temperamental Chicago crowd was shockingly well-behaved for the first hour of Raw, and that can largely be attributed to the work of Kevin Owens, Chris Jericho, Samoa Joe, Sami Zayn, Rich Swann and Neville. When it came time for Goldberg to make his entrance, however, it pushed the crowd a little too far in its first big test of the night. After a solid Goldberg chant for the new Universal champion, the initial cheers wore off and Goldberg faced something he'd never dealt with -- the dreaded CM Punk chants.
They were stifled for the moment as Heyman, ironically enough, came out to address Goldberg and the crowd and to introduce his beast. It's become an interesting thing to see whom the Punk chants haunt the most; while part-timers like Lesnar seem to get a pass, Goldberg got showered by them; similarly, Triple H avoids any real hassle despite the real implications, and yet, Stephanie McMahon gets them the worst.
After Heyman helped stifle the uprising, he brought Lesnar out, ostensibly to congratulate him and tell him that the only person as thrilled as Goldberg for his Universal championship win was Lesnar, who now gained a championship match along with an opportunity for revenge. Heyman spun his "spoilers" for April 2 in Orlando, but he especially succeeded in his biggest role -- distracting Goldberg for a split-second by referring to a future in which Goldberg is referred to as Brock's b----.
The momentary lapse led to Goldberg breaking his concentration, and in that moment, Lesnar finally struck with the most cathartic of F5s. I, like many others, have no idea what this match could really be, or what Goldberg is capable of. For casual fans, it doesn't matter -- they'll tune in for the sideshow and nostalgia factors, and anything else they'll get is just a bonus.
Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho get right down to brass tacks
Wrestling fans may complain about the lack of nuance in how Owens vs. Jericho at WrestleMania was finally made, but there was certainly some beauty in the simple and straightforward approach to making this match official after the longest build of any on this year's card. While many of our heartstrings are still not fully healed from the Festival of Friendship and the fallout, Owens and Jericho got right down to brass tacks in ironing out some of the messier details still standing in the way of their clash in Orlando.
The same chemistry that was present for their entire partnership was clear as day as they stood as opponents, and while Jericho seemed a bit unnatural in adjusting back to the good guy role, he and Owens settled into a groove before too long. Despite all of Owens' protestations that Jericho was never his friend at all, he showed and spoke of feelings and decisions that only someone with a true compassion and friendship would be likely to have.
Owens even claimed to have spared Jericho during his betrayal, though he seemed wistful in light of Jericho costing him the Universal championship. "What I did for you at the Festival of Friendship is spared you. I let you walk away because I'm a good person ... [it] was the biggest mistake of my career, and I'll never make it again."
Jericho countered with a point of his own, nestled within a dig when he claimed that he'd have done the same earlier in his career, done it faster and done it better. Terms -- which included the United States championship being on the line -- were hammered out quickly and then Owens charged the ring. There, Jericho found Samoa Joe waiting, but Sami Zayn would be around soon enough with a steel chair to break things up.
- WWE Universe (@WWEUniverse) March 7, 2017
We ended up with two fun matches in Owens-Zayn and Jericho-Joe, and the potential of a tag team match in the near future is strong. While these four men seem destined to appear a bit too early on the card, all four proved a little more of their true value on this edition of Raw.
Cruiserweights tear it up for the second straight night
One night after Neville and Gentleman Jack Gallagher put on a true clinic at Fastlane, Rich Swann stepped up for his contractual rematch for the WWE cruiserweight title and did the very same. It ended up being a two-commercial break match, and one of the best of the night yet again. While the crowd continues to be lukewarm at times to even the in-ring product of 205 Live, by the closing minutes of this match, Neville and Swann had them on their feet.
It's a match worth seeking out if you missed the live telecast, to be sure, and ended with Neville locking in his version of the "rings of Saturn" for the submission victory. Things only got more interesting as a post-match interview descended into fisticuffs, largely inspired by the vociferous "Austin Aries" chants that reigned down from the crowd. Aries struck his blow with Neville in a situation that should become clearer Tuesday on 205 Live, but with the character building on that show a seemingly slow process, Aries-Neville certainly seems like the most WrestleMania-ready rivalry that could be built in this short window.
Women's division remains shaky as Chicago crowd hijacks the show
Everything about the Raw women's division seems backward right now. The champion, who's supposed to be the purest of babyfaces, is enjoying her reign with only the slightest of qualms about Sasha Banks interfering on her behalf in both of her title matches. Nia Jax has seemingly been left by the wayside, and Dana Brooke is currently a caricature of her former standing. Charlotte Flair's unbeaten pay-per-view streak is over for confusing reasons (unless you buy into the 16-0, 16 Ric Flair title reigns parallel) and any potentially special moments that Bayley could have enjoyed (breaking the streak and/or winning the title) at WrestleMania are gone.
That's before we get into the match between Bayley and Banks on Raw that added the latter to what's now a triple threat match for the title at WrestleMania 33. The magic that was overflowing during their famous showdown in Brooklyn for NXT a few years ago seemed to be gone. There were moments where Banks seemed to summon her harder edge, and she almost certainly needs a heel turn to refresh herself, but there's still a lot that needs to get done in the next three weeks to make this match feel like anything more than a spectacle for the sake of one.
After brief glimmer at Fastlane, Raw's tag team wrestling falters again
One night after Gallows and Anderson put on a strong showing with Enzo and Cass, the rematch for the tag team match on Raw left something to be desired. Perhaps it was another in a seemingly endless series of disqualifications, or a growing ambivalence for Enzo Amore's in-ring schtick, but the tag team division has been very forgettable since The New Day lost the titles.
Whether this is ultimately a triple threat match, or Gallows and Anderson go one-on-one with Enzo and Big Cass or Cesaro and Sheamus, a tag team division reclamation project should be high up the priority list post-Mania.
On a side note, I did enjoy the inside joke with Cesaro's coffee being the trigger for the melee. That man loves his coffee.
Strowman plays the fool
As people claim more and more spots on the WrestleMania dance card, Strowman's role seems more and more unsure. After more than a year of successfully building him up as a monster (no small task, mind you) Strowman ate a pinfall (after an admittedly good match) and then backed up the moment Undertaker stepped up to challenge him. Having him make it a three-way with Reigns and Undertaker could go a long way in hiding Undertaker's flaws, but I'm unsure how likely that scenario is.
When you get past that point, the tumble starts to pick up speed. Strowman deserves better than a spot in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, even if he were to win. We'll have to wait and see, but it hasn't been a banner couple of days for Strowman, by any stretch.
Move of the night
- WWE Universe (@WWEUniverse) March 7, 2017
After months of being made to look silly, Lesnar finally got a measure of revenge against Goldberg. Things are really starting to heat up; I'm looking forward to seeing who Lesnar might square off with post-Mania, provided it's not immediately revisiting his conflict with Reigns.
Quote of the night
"I didn't stab my best friend in the back, because you were never my best friend." -- Kevin Owens to Chris Jericho
With every other element of their eight-month best friendship seemingly circling back to something juvenile, it's only appropriate that Owens swung all the way back to "I never liked you anyway." Few have the talent to belittle others while not hurting them and making themselves look as good as Owens.