After weeks of what was ostensibly busy work, which involved the temporary elevation of the Intercontinental championship and, for a time, almost blatant ignorance of Monday Night Raw's top title among its presumptive challengers, several weeks of casual mentions of Brock Lesnar finally culminated with some clarity in the Universal title picture.
It took six weeks following Lesnar's most recent on-air appearance, but Kurt Angle finally laid out the circumstances by which one title challenger will face a returning Lesnar at July's "Great Balls of Fire" pay-per-view. Raw's general manager opened the show Monday night by announcing a Fatal 5-Way main event for June's Extreme Rules pay-per-view, with the winner walking away as the first No. 1 contender for the Universal championship.
Things start and end with Roman Reigns, which should come as little surprise when considering both his recent triumph over Braun Strowman as well as Lesnar and Paul Heyman's straightforward challenge to Reigns the night after he defeated The Undertaker, seemingly sending him away from the WWE for good. While those circumstances seem to make Reigns the prohibitive favorite to walk away from Extreme Rules as the champion, the field merits a more thorough exploration, even if it's only to figure out what value each superstar can extract from this particular opportunity.
After weeks of overlooking the Universal championship, the road to finding Brock Lesnar's first title challenger began Monday on Raw.
The long shots: Samoa Joe and Bray Wyatt
For the bulk of his run on the main roster, it's felt as though Samoa Joe has either been spinning his wheels or heading in the wrong direction. He debuted with all of the momentum in the world behind him, but a freak injury to Seth Rollins' surgically repaired knee left Joe with little to do in the lead-up to WrestleMania. While the bulk of the Raw roster had a match on the biggest show of the year, Joe didn't even make a token appearance. He had a solid build-up and a great match against Rollins at Payback, but lukewarm reactions from the crowd persisted. Joe's presence in this match seems as though it might be due to Strowman's sudden absence, but that doesn't mean he can't make his presence felt and draw some heat from his fellow competitors. While a victory seems highly unlikely, a future Lesnar-Joe showdown, as he talked about during his recent appearance on Talk is Jericho, could be fun.
As far as Bray Wyatt goes, who can really tell? Every time we're given a chance to get excited about him, we seem to be let down. He technically walked away from Payback with the victory over WWE champion Randy Orton in the highly polarizing "House of Horrors" match, but it didn't feel like he gained much from that confrontation. He hasn't walked away from any of his major rivalries with a big win, but despite each failure Wyatt has a knack for eventually getting fans to buy back in. A victory for Wyatt would be nothing short of a lamb being led to slaughter against Lesnar, but the image of Wyatt standing over both Rollins and Samoa Joe to end Raw was certainly a powerful image. A dark horse, at best.
The former champ: Finn Balor
Finn Balor winning and challenging Lesnar would make for an interesting David and Goliath dynamic, and boy, could Balor sell the heck out of some suplexes. One need only look at how good Balor helped make Reigns look during their match on Monday night to reinforce that Balor ranks among the sharpest sellers in the company. Is it worth the risk as Balor continues to fight his way back up the ranks after returning from injury? It's tough to say at this particular moment, but the WWE certainly won't benefit from treating him like a porcelain doll. His clean loss to Reigns is frustrating on several levels, but the match did remind everyone just how much Balor can go. The first ever Universal champion seems destined to go toe-to-toe with Wyatt before getting his chance at the title, but in the interim of the build-up to SummerSlam, a lot of things seem possible.
The big dog in his yard: Roman Reigns
Every indication we've got to this point is that the WWE feels like Lesnar vs. Reigns is a big money rivalry for them. It certainly seems like Reigns and Lesnar are on a collision course, with the benefit of unfinished business from WrestleMania 31 and the shared role in destroying the monolith of The Undertaker's formerly unblemished record at WrestleMania.
Reigns didn't seem to be done with Strowman when the latter went down to injury, but a lack of another serious threat could have accelerated his timeline with Lesnar. Even still, it seems it may be a little bit too soon for us to be getting a match as big in stature as Lesnar-Reigns. SummerSlam weekend seems like a smart point at which to set the match to the fuse, and while that spark could instead come at Extreme Rules, leading to a lengthy rivalry that carries on until WrestleMania 33, even Lesnar's on-again, off-again schedule would seemingly offer too much opportunity for burnout. It's the most straightforward answer, but let's give WWE the benefit of the doubt in knowing when to pull the trigger.
Unfinished business: Seth Rollins
And, finally, there's Rollins. He's still owed some major comeuppance from Lesnar for his Money in the Bank cash-in during Reigns and Lesnar's Wrestlemania 31 main event, which led to Rollins ostensibly stealing the title and driving Lesnar out of the world title picture for several years. Outside of Reigns, Rollins has far and away the most going for him at the moment, having dispatched Triple H at WrestleMania and Samoa Joe at Payback. In all honesty, a Rollins victory in this match forms the most logical bridge to a Reigns-Lesnar blowoff down the line, with the potential for Dean Ambrose to also get involved along the way.
SummerSlam may seem far away, but we just passed the 100-day threshold. Extreme Rules in June and Great Balls of Fire in July stand as the last two Raw pay per views before "the biggest party of the summer" (or whatever else the tagline might be this time around). With only a handful of appearances and one match likely for Lesnar in the interim, there can't be much time left for a heavy buildup. That's why, at the outset, I'll give Rollins the slight nod over Reigns as my pick to walk out of Extreme Rules as the No. 1 contender.
Hits and misses
The biggest hits and misses from Monday night.
Quote of the Week
"It looked like a strong-style inner thigh grab to me." -- Corey Graves, explaining The Miz's thwarted low-blow attempt that led to Ambrose striking a low blow of his own to end their Intercontinental title match with a disqualification.