When the WWE calendar transitions from the Royal Rumble into WrestleMania season, there are typically subtle shifts in how Raw and SmackDown feel on a weekly basis. The level of intensity slowly rises, the matches have stakes that feel higher and everyone steps up their game with opportunities at WrestleMania immortality on the line.
The changes to Raw on Monday night were far less subtle, as the format was turned on its head throughout the night. Instead of a 15-minute promo to open the show, a pair of quick video clips fed into a high-stakes match between Roman Reigns and Bray Wyatt. Throughout the night, there were only a handful of in-ring speaking segments and each one felt more important by getting to the point and hammering it home. Backstage segments were mostly limited to a series of cell phone video promos, which have been a growing trend of late, and the handful of other backstage interactions were all hugely important to ongoing stories.
With less filler, Raw fit in an almost unprecedented nine matches over the course of three hours -- and with the exception of Nia Jax's destruction of an enhancement talent, each match had time to tell its story. There were new graphics, a new Monday Night Raw theme and all sorts of other chances taken, but even with all of the new elements in play the most crucial element was paying off all of the time and effort put into each of Raw's ongoing stories -- including the biggest win of Elias' young career.
Elias walks to victory ... at the cost of just a few powerslams
Of the unlikeliest sentences I could write in 2018, "Elias defeated John Cena and Braun Strowman in the main event of Monday Night Raw" has to be an early qualifier to win the whole year in that regard.
But it happened.
After forming an unlikely partnership with Cena to neutralize Strowman for a big chunk of the triple threat match -- which took a few shots into the ring post, several hits with the ring steps, a guitar shot and an Attitude Adjustment onto the ring steps to get done -- Strowman still came back to influence the end of the match.
Strowman hit a running powerslam on Cena, but was still reeling enough to be driven out of the ring by Elias, so that Elias could steal the pinfall victory over Cena. Sure, Strowman immediately rolled back into the ring to hit a few more powerslams on both Elias and Cena to close out the show, but the result will forever be etched into the record books. Elias locked up the final entry number in the men's Elimination Chamber match, and with two more weeks to go before the pay-per-view in Las Vegas, Elias has plenty of time to brag on his win and continue to hold sway over every WWE crowd he plays in front of.
Roman Reigns and Miz claim Elimination Chamber spots
When it comes to Reigns and Wyatt, the history and the stylistic differences make it hard for them to have a bad match. For anyone forgetting their many wars over the last four years, Wyatt, and then Reigns, laid out every detail you had to know about their bitter past. For Wyatt, the defending Elimination Chamber winner, being opposite Reigns brought out a truth and intensity in his promo that has been sorely lacking otherwise. Reigns simply laid out his path to WrestleMania glory, and achieved everything he needed to and proved he's better off being a man of few words when those words ring true.
The pace at the start of the match was a bit slow, but they settled into a familiar tempo and really got rolling towards the end. Knowing all of their opponents' offense set the stage for counter after counter, until Wyatt hit a Sister Abigail that only earned a two-count. Wyatt was rolling on all cylinders, and while the arguments to protect Reigns' finisher are valid, especially if he's Brock Lesnar bound, to see Wyatt's finisher fall by the wayside only for Reigns' spear (and a sloppy-looking one at that) to be effective despite no other significant offense to set it up was a bit disappointing.
Matt Hardy came in to pick up the scraps of Wyatt to keep their conflict fresh in the minds of fans, but Reigns was not done for the evening as he had to step up for a second match. But more on that in a bit.
In the evening's other qualifier, The Miz essentially became the bumping dummy for an Apollo Crews showcase. After a short promo in which Miz claimed credit for everything up to and including the Eagles' Super Bowl victory, the match itself was all about Crews. With a few promising showings in a row in his back pocket, Crews dominated the entirety of this match and continued to show off his impressive offensive arsenal until a single slip-up handed Miz the victory and a spot in the Elimination Chamber.
Bayley thrives in physical war with Asuka, tensions rise with Sasha Banks
Asuka's run through her past adversaries on the way to WrestleMania has been a lot of fun. After crossing paths with Ember Moon and a few others during the Royal Rumble, Asuka was taken to the limit by Sasha Banks last week on Raw and looked to slay another ghost from her past in the form of Bayley.
Asuka's 500-plus day run as NXT women's champion began when she defeated Bayley at NXT TakeOver: Dallas in April 2016, and their rematch in Brooklyn four months later was Bayley's swan song in NXT. While each of those matches was special, their reunion in the ring on Monday felt different. Bayley had an intensity and a chip on her shoulder that wasn't there in her previous matches with Asuka, which became clear in the opening moments of the match when they traded fierce forearms to the face and neck and never really slowed down from there.
Bayley's newfound sense of determination manifested in all sorts of different ways throughout their lengthy match -- most notably during a picture-perfect side suplex midway through. The give and take between Asuka and Bayley led to Bayley having arguably her best "main roster" match to date, and that's including her Raw women's championship win and various showdowns with Charlotte Flair and Alexa Bliss.
Asuka ultimately won and continued her undefeated streak, but a handshake of respect symbolized a tremendous in-ring effort from the challenger. It also differentiated from last week's win over Asuka that was far more adversarial than a battle of two competitors who respect one another. It was another domino falling in what's been an intensely slow burn of a friendship-turning-rivalry between Banks and Bayley. It wasn't even the biggest sign of growing conflict, however, as the icy backstage conversation between the longtime friends hinted at animosities to come.
With the history that Bayley and Banks carry back to NXT, the thought of three WrestleMania-worthy women's rivalries seems a no-brainer -- and if history is any indicator, Banks versus Bayley could be the best of the bunch.
Jason Jordan bids farewell to Raw with final act of aggression
With the rumors swirling about the health of Jason Jordan of late seemingly backed up by his inaction in the ring, the proposed Raw tag team title rematch against The Bar came as something of a shock. In a series of three backstage segments, however, Jordan and Seth Rollins were able to tell a story of the final straw in their cobbled-together partnership in a way that will do Jordan a world of good whenever he happens to return.
The first time Jordan and Rollins met backstage, Jordan seemed ready to go and was "cleared by doctors". The second time they crossed paths, Jordan was standing with said doctors and Kurt Angle, unable to perform. Reigns stepped up as his new tag team partner to challenge for the tag team titles.
After what seems like years of The Bar versus The Shield in some way, shape or form almost every week on Raw, what may finally be the swan song to that rivalry was a fitting conclusion. A fatigued Reigns spent most of the match eating Sheamus and Cesaro's offense, until Jordan came out to pick Rollins up and set him up for a hot tag. Jordan also hit a thumb to the eye to set Rollins up for a Blackout, but after that fell through, Reigns tried to shoo Jordan away.
As Cesaro and Sheamus tried to take their title belts and go home with a countout loss, Jordan reappeared to block their path. In clear view of the referee, it escalated into a physical conflict as Jordan's punches got Reigns and Rollins disqualified. Rollins and Jordan met again backstage, with Angle appearing to break up the conflict, and as Angle pushed Jordan to go home and heal up, Rollins' anger boiled over.
"The only thing I'm sorry about is that I didn't legitimately hurt him myself," Rollins said.
With Reigns heading into the Elimination Chamber, only time will tell what Rollins' future holds.
Hits and misses
- Angle announced the field for the first ever women's Elimination Chamber match, with Alexa Bliss defending her Raw women's championship against Bayley, Banks, Sonya Deville, Mickie James and Mandy Rose. Nia Jax, a notable exception, will face Asuka at the Elimination Chamber pay-per-view with a spot in a WrestleMania title match in the balance if she wins. Bliss fairly pointed out the hypocrisy of her having to defend her title while Brock Lesnar gets to sit and watch and prepare for WrestleMania. It was a scathing promo filled with good points, but fell on deaf ears.
- Finn Balor and Karl Anderson teamed up to defeat The Revival, with Anderson getting plenty of opportunities to shine. After losing to Cena last week, Balor will get his chance at redemption as he faces Wyatt, Hardy and Crews with the final spot in the Elimination Chamber on the line.
- There were three women's matches on Raw, with Jax earning a dominant victory and James rolling up Deville for a win of her own. Bliss saved James from a beating from Absolution post-match, to the confusion of most, but her pursuit of an ally in the Elimination Chamber to come was fairly transparent.
- A fun cruiserweight tag team match was made all the better by a tremendous performance on commentary by new 205 Live General Manager Drake Maverick.