When it comes to pulling off a successful go-home episode of Monday Night Raw, just days before a major pay-per-view, a balancing act is important.
On one hand, it needs to give fans just enough of a taste of the compelling matchups and storylines set to culminate Sunday night so they'll come running for more. But it needs to be equally careful not to give away the recipe at the same time.
The WWE might have been guilty of the latter on Monday as it set the stage for Sunday's loaded SummerSlam card at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. The result was an undermining of what had otherwise been a fast-moving and entertaining three-hour show
Reigns proved once again he can put forth a PPV-quality match against a top superstar. But therein lies a problem -- why give away a PPV-quality match just six days before the same superstars will meet again on a much bigger stage, with ostensibly higher stakes?
It's a recipe for customer fatigue, and it threatens to outright steal from Sunday's payoff.
Monday's Raw also continued to promote the oft-maligned Reigns despite his lower billing -- featured in no bigger than sixth-most-important feud entering SummerSlam.
Reigns' slip from the main-event level -- he's held the WWE championship three times since November -- to a U.S. title feud with Rusev was thought to be a demotion after his recent 30-day suspension for a wellness violation. Not only did Reigns close the Aug. 8 episode of Raw by spearing Rusev moments before the final credits rolled, but he was also unquestionably the featured player of Monday's show for the second straight week, bookending the opening and closing segments.
To his credit, Reigns delivered. He was effective in going back to the well of comedy for the second straight week by insulting Lana in the opening segment. His backstage brawl with Rusev at the show's midway point might have been the week's top moment, with both wrestlers thrown viciously into a garage door before Reigns was slammed onto a catering table.
- WWE Universe (@WWEUniverse) August 16, 2016
Had their interactions for the evening ended there, the anticipation for Reigns' retribution would have been high for Sunday. Instead, Reigns has closed two straight episodes with the upper hand against Rusev, continuing the narrative that he's been forced down the throats of growing (and increasingly vocal) segment of the WWE universe.
Speaking of giving things away prematurely, a similar point can be made for the main-roster debut of Finn Balor's alter ego, the "Demon King." After a lengthy promo by Seth Rollins, Balor made his unique entrance, complete with makeup -- a spectacle that until that point had been saved exclusively for big events like NXT: TakeOver cards.
Like Reigns, Balor executed to near-perfection on Monday, as he met the challenge of Rollins, who had called him out throughout Raw. Balor was creepy and almost sinister in his body language and movements, adding more depth to the dark side of his character than we had seen in NXT.
- WWE (@WWE) August 16, 2016
Announcer Corey Graves perfectly summed up Balor's transformation.
"Somewhere deep in the mind of Finn Balor there's a door that is kept under lock and key. When Finn opens it, he undergoes this sort of metamorphosis. It's an otherworldly aggression that Finn Balor unleashes. It's surreal to see," Graves said.
But considering Balor has a history of saving the gimmick for the biggest stages, why risk distracting from the attention he would have received in Brooklyn?
Hits and misses
Give Heath Slater full credit for taking a comical gimmick -- going undrafted after the brand extension -- and making it a must-see part of both Raw and SmackDown Live. This isn't Damien Sandow going all-in on a "Macho Man" Randy Savage impersonation; it's even better. Slater's work opposite Brock Lesnar on Monday was top shelf, which made Lesnar's stinging comeback of "I don't give a s--- about your kids" even more memorable. We all enjoyed watching a hard worker like Zack Ryder gain some level of career redemption with his surprise Intercontinental title win at WrestleMania 32. Here's hoping Slater can find his own.
- WWE (@WWE) August 16, 2016
Was Rusev's comment to Stephanie McMahon in the opening segment a continued tease for a possible trade between the two brands down the road? Rusev threatened he would call "the little Daniel [Bryan] and your big brother Shane [McMahon]" before adding that "they appreciate talent." Last week it was Bryan, the general manager of SmackDown Live, who made a surprise appearance on Raw -- putting over Cesaro by mentioning how underutilized he was on the WWE's flagship brand. It's something to watch closely, at the very least.
Speaking of Cesaro, fans can be forgiven for not being overjoyed about his current feud with Sheamus, especially considering how overdue "The Swiss Superman" is to be booked into something meaningful. So what does the WWE do? How about a best-of-seven series between the two set to begin on Sunday at SummerSlam? In addition to their matches in the past two weeks? No thanks.
Raw general manager Mick Foley dyed his beard jet black in a move I'm all for. Granted we should all be afforded the chance to age gracefully, but Foley was trending too far away from the Cactus Jack gimmick we originally fell in love with and giving off more of a late 1980s Jerry Garcia vibe.
While I'm not a big supporter of the name for Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens' superteam, dubbed Jeri-KO, their subtle comedic work remains a highlight of the show. Credit both for their quick wit in constantly calling backstage interview Tom Phillips by the wrong name. Sometimes it's the little things that leave the biggest mark.
Graves continues to shine during his evolution as a heel announcer on Raw. While it's too early to call him great (or make any knee-jerk comparisons to the likes of Jesse Ventura), he has developed a style all his own by picking his spots perfectly thus far. His commentary is efficient and meaningful, without undermining his character's credibility with throwaway humor. He was also largely competing with himself for line of the night on Monday, including this gem to Michael Cole about Nia Jax's opponent Rachel Levy: "You didn't exactly expect a logical answer from a young lady with blue hair, did you Cole?"
Strong work from Charlotte on Monday, with a well-executed misdirection backstage -- teasing a breakup with Dana Brooke, only for Brooke to blindside Sasha Banks and give Charlotte the upper-hand going into Sunday. Without saying much of anything, slapping Sasha in the Figure-eight and not letting go gives their match more depth to work with before the bell even rings on Sunday night.
Move of the night
If this week's theme was how easily PPV-quality moments are given away, consider Neville's absurd corkscrew moonsault from the top rope against Jinder Mahal firmly in that category. No one on the roster can do exactly what Neville can, which makes you hope WWE can book him a feud worthy enough to showcase everything he's capable of. That's two straight weeks for Neville, which should come as little surprise.
Line of the night
"You know what they call people like that Byron? Often times they call them champion." - Graves, in response to Byron Saxton's notion that there is nothing Charlotte won't do to get an edge.