In a day and age where pay-per-views largely became a monthly affair for both Raw and SmackDown, the WWE got itself into a fairly regular schedule. Over the course of 2017, the gap between pay-per-view events for the Raw roster stretched anywhere from four to six weeks -- no shorter or longer. That put things into a fairly predictable pattern, for better or worse, with each story getting a finite amount of time to be explored before they reached the major clashes.
Whether it's a quirk of timing in alternating between Raw and SmackDown events and the holiday season breaking things up, or a move to better balance out the schedule for 2018, Raw has entered one of its largest breaks between pay-per-views in recent memory. Monday night's edition of Raw represented the second week in a 10-week span between Survivor Series and January's Royal Rumble, and an opportunity (and necessity) to try something different on its flagship weekly TV show. In that perspective, Raw succeeded.
In a lot of ways, Raw settled into its new reality well on Monday. There were a pair of longer matches that each got plenty of time to breathe and tell stories. Cesaro and Seth Rollins carried the first match of the night all the way to the 40-minute mark of the show, and in a big step up in competition, Elias' shot at Roman Reigns and the Intercontinental championship allowed him to showcase what he can do in the ring.
Those longer matches made the three-second submission win Asuka got over Dana Brooke feel all the more jarring, which nailed its intended effect. It also made it feel less out of the ordinary for Titus O'Neil to be competitive with Samoa Joe for a few minutes before Joe put the match away with the Coquina Clutch (and doubled up on Apollo Crews afterwards).
It also offered a chance for some nuance within the storytelling.
Matt Hardy suffered another heartbreaking loss after staying competitive with a returning Bray Wyatt and hit his boundary of frustration. Hardy began to utter "delete" with the accompanying hand movement, a signal that perhaps the WWE is finally ready to allow Hardy to adopt more personality traits he developed and returned to prominence with outside of their boundaries. Samoa Joe was able to appear twice in one night, as he attacked Reigns post-match and thrust himself into the title picture.
Paige, Sonya Deville and Mandy Rose, now collectively known as Absolution, made two appearances with drastically different results and showed their strength in numbers, tying together multiple ongoing strands of stories in the women's division into one central conflict. Jason Jordan, despite the crowd's reluctance to embrace him (and perhaps because of it) continued to push himself to impress his dad Kurt Angle, only to fall short again against Kane. Even the Miztourage played a role despite their departed leader's absence, alongside Elias.
The problems Raw had largely felt like growing pains, and came in the execution of some of their ideas. Having Kane run through both Jordan and Finn Balor before Braun Strowman returned for vengeance might make some sense on paper if you're trying to build up the Strowman-Kane conflict. But the Balor element and a second match seemed like a way to stretch time and another needless blow to Balor's momentum just to fill the last few minutes of Raw before Strowman had his triumph.
Absolution's backstage attacks of Bayley and Mickie James to play the numbers game against Sasha Banks were the perfect power play, but the aftermath strained to keep the Knoxville crowd's attention. It's going to be a growing and learning process as Paige gets back into the swing of things after more than a year out, and Rose and Deville gain experience in front of much larger audiences, but there was no need to stretch out the segment as long as it went other than to fill the time. Paige made a few great points, particularly when she exclaimed, "I was singlehandedly picked to delete the word 'Diva' from the dictionary... I was the matriarch of the WWE evolution."
But then they went on and on like B-movie villains, explaining their motivations and plans in detail before decimating Banks. They should have plenty of time to hit their points, but once that job is done, quicker actions would seemingly have struck far louder than words. Their second appearance of the night, when the trio came out and surrounded the ring after Asuka's win, was far more effective. It kept Absolution in the backs of everyone's minds as something all of the women on Raw should be conscious of, but kept Asuka strong and out of direct conflict with the group. Even with Paige by their side, it's going to be harder for Rose and Deville to connect with the crowd as compared to a Bayley, Banks or Charlotte Flair, if only because they never got a chance to enjoy the full spotlight of a run with the NXT women's championship, but in time we'll see what each has to offer.
It may not be the easiest or cleanest transition in terms of pacing and timing, but with a bigger canvas to work on, there's plenty of room to take chances, make mistakes and course correct with plenty of time to spare before the Royal Rumble. It's not always going to be pretty, but in the long-term it should serve the Raw roster well to be thrown into the proverbial deep end by challenging each of them to step up, or step aside.
Hits and misses
- For the second straight week on Raw, Reigns received genuinely supportive chants throughout the night. Whether it's him being back with The Shield, the crowds he's performed in front of or his opponents (or something else entirely), it's working. I'm not alone in saying that The Miz and Elias are as close to the traditional mold of wrestling bad guys, so it'll be interesting to see what those reactions are like against Samoa Joe and in front of different crowds.
- Bo Dallas and Curtis Axel carrying the flag for Miz while he's absent is pretty perfect, whether they continue to latch on to others like they did with Elias or go their own way. Their dueling harmonicas were a sight to behold, though I'd give the slight edge to Bo.
- As for Elias, who we haven't seen for many long stretches inside of the ring since his Raw debut, he afforded himself well in an extended showing against Reigns. His electric chair-style lift of Reigns that he transitioned into a sitout powerbomb wasn't perfect, but it was visually stunning and a wonderful feat of strength.
- Wyatt returned and told everyone they're dead. Does that also include Sister Abigail?
- Strowman sent Kane reeling with an attack that mirrored Kane's effort in his direction from last week, and then he stepped it up. Even though it happened in front of Kane's potential future constituency, I doubt that his fleeing through the crowd will make it into one of his campaign videos as he runs for mayor of Knox County.
- Was Asuka's three-second submission victory over Dana Brooke the shortest match in WWE history? It doesn't seem like it could possibly have been much shorter. The only other one-on-one match that comes to mind at anywhere close to that length was when Diesel beat Bob Backlund in eight seconds to become WWE champion at a house show, but even that required a three-count for the pinfall.
- There were some fun spots in the cruiserweight Fatal 4-Way match, and while it's nice to see the members of the 205 Live roster driving towards the title once again, they've largely failed to make any of the participants stand out from one another, including eventual winner Rich Swann. In the midst of the match, as he nearly won on multiple occasions before taking the fall, the thought of giving Noam Dar a chance in the spotlight crossed my mind and didn't seem like such a bad idea. The 24-year-old hasn't been given much since joining the cruiserweight division, outside of a largely nauseating pairing with Alicia Fox, but he has a technical style that could easily make him stand out. On another side note, where has TJP been? He hasn't been in the ring since losing two straight falls to Swann in early November.