When Brock Lesnar went AWOL back in April, it didn't seem to matter. Not only had he left for long stretches during his title reign, but his absence often allowed for the Universal title to be forgotten.
His long vacation from a WWE ring devolved as what would become the Lesnar-only rules became clear. There were several tried and true rules of a pro wrestling champion that went out the window, like the title having to be defended with enough frequency to avoid vacating the title, and he essentially got to call his own shots as far as who would challenge for the title.
Through his first year as Universal champion there were some great matches, but as we got through the Royal Rumble, WrestleMania and even the Greatest Royal Rumble, the matches he had against Roman Reigns stopped feeling special. There was an apathy that started to come with a Lesnar match, as fans were not only tired of him as champion, but also had little enthusiasm for Reigns becoming the challenger to end his reign.
But even amid that apathy and long absence, something got lost in the shuffle. Lesnar did matter, as did his Universal championship.
On Sunday's Extreme Rules broadcast, Kurt Angle threw down an ultimatum -- show up, sign up for a title match or the Universal championship would be vacated. As Raw kicked off, Angle came out to reinforce those sentiments, and quickly found Lesnar's advocate, Paul Heyman, ready to answer his call.
Heyman explained that Lesnar wants to represent the WWE as a multi-tool player in being not only the Universal champion for WWE, but holding the UFC heavyweight title as well. Heyman made the case that Lesnar's M.O. wasn't all that different than Angle's back in the day, when he vied for the WWE title while wearing Olympic gold medals around his neck.
The parallel didn't exactly fit, to be fair. Angle wove his medals angle brilliantly into the narrative on a consistent basis, going out there every night as a visible and active star while Lesnar has not stepped foot into a ring since the Greatest Royal Rumble in late April.
Lesnar has reveled in his part-time schedule, and he's been gone for so long that his AWOL status has now begun to generate a lot of heat from the fans -- enough so that he will likely get heckled and jeered like a true heel when he does return.
That is, of course, dependent on his opponent come Aug. 19 in Brooklyn at SummerSlam. After Heyman acquiesced to a future title shot, Angle laid out the terms. The winner of two triple-threat matches that night would determine two finalists, who would then square off one-on-one next week with the winner going on to face Lesnar at SummerSlam.
These bouts bookended Raw, leaving us with the lucky two -- Reigns and Bobby Lashley, who will compete in a rematch of their Extreme Rules battle next week on Raw.
Reigns had to work hard to outmuscle Drew McIntyre and Finn Balor in the first match, with McIntyre dominating a good portion of the contest. At one point, the giant Scotsman went full luchador and converted a 360 dive out of the ring -- stunning Reigns. Balor displayed some pretty nasty aggression of his own, first by bashing each of his two foes over the back with steel chairs, then with a Coup de Grace on Reigns that almost ended the match, if not for McIntyre pulling Balor off Reigns at the last second. Balor's series of close calls in big matches continued.
As the match wore on, Reigns became that much stronger, eventually landing a Superman punch on McIntyre and a spear on Balor for the three-count.
Later in the night, Lashley put on an impressive show of his own, even though all indications seemed to point towards Reigns' Shield brother, Seth Rollins, winding up with the win. Rollins seemed to have it locked in after a superplex-Falcon Arrow combo on Elias that almost ended things, followed by a curb stomp that nearly put Elias away again. Ultimately, Rollins would find himself out of the ring just long enough for Lashley to spear the stuffing out of Elias for the three-count.
The fallout from these matches opens up a couple of obvious questions.
First off, who wins next week, Reigns or Lashley? The most obvious and perhaps disconcerting narrative is for Reigns to get another chance to capture a title he probably should have won four months ago. After falling at WrestleMania, Reigns was a blown call away from winning his rematch against Lesnar at the Greatest Royal Rumble, and everything about this narrative seems to point toward Reigns finally getting the job done.
But perhaps that's exactly what creative wants us to believe. Lashley just overpowered Reigns on Sunday night at Extreme Rules. The performance was a pretty solid effort from both, especially when you consider that neither is a high-flying showman in the vein of Rollins or Balor. Could Lashley make it back-to-back wins? Or could we perhaps even see some kind of inconclusive ending?
There are a lot of parallels in the careers of Lashley and Lesnar. Both are former standout amateur wrestlers, and both have had extended careers in MMA -- albeit a more prolific run for Lesnar in the UFC. The tale of the tape on that possibility is fascinating.
The final question, and perhaps the biggest one to address, has to deal with Braun Strowman. Though he has been the most dominant and consistent player on the Raw roster, he reiterated that his Money in the Bank briefcase is all he needs. With Lesnar set to make his first WWE appearances since Strowman won the briefcase, the dynamic of a cash-in tease will be riveting.
Strowman will eventually cash in, whether it's sooner or later, but for now the prospects of Lashley vs. Lesnar would be an unexpected, even enticing, throwdown.
No matter who wins and no matter how you feel about the two finalists, at a minimum, the Universal title once again seems to mean something -- anything -- just in case you'd forgotten.
Ronda Rousey set for SummerSlam shot at Alexa Bliss
Technically speaking, Ronda Rousey's 30-day suspension doesn't end until Wednesday, but that didn't stop her from getting involved at both Extreme Rules and Monday night on Raw.
After hopping out of the crowd to defend her friend Natalya at Extreme Rules, Rousey popped up again -- coming through the crowd to the ring, where she once again pummeled both Mickie James and Alexa Bliss.
Angle came out to warn her to stay away until her suspension is lifted Wednesday, but proceeded to hand her a nice juicy carrot in the form of a championship match in a few weeks at SummerSlam. The usual histrionics ensued afterward, with Constable Baron Corbin demanding that Angle was overstepping his boundaries, and that Rousey should be re-reprimanded, to which Angle added a small extension on the suspension.
The bottom line here is that Rousey is ready for another legitimate moment. She's impressed in the ring against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, and then again against Nia Jax at Money in the Bank. SummerSlam represents a key moment in Rousey's development -- another test of her abilities, and a chance to truly showcase her as a key part of the women's division. If she steps up to the plate as she has to this point, Rousey could easily prove worth of a status as Raw women's champion, despite her lack of experience to this point.
Hits & misses
- It's hard not to really enjoy the rebirth of Dolph Ziggler, with or without Drew McIntyre. He's slick and calculated in the ring, and he exudes ego and personality in a way few on the WWE roster can match at this moment. On Monday, he superkicked his way past Bobby Roode in a non-title match, which was another step in the right direction for Ziggler but another indication that there doesn't seem to be a clear trajectory for Roode.
It's more proof that Roode needs a character overhaul, because he simply hasn't captured the magic he had in NXT or before he signed with the WWE in the first place. His look and bravado exude villainous tendencies, and fans simply aren't buying into this all-smiles version of his character.
- Is it me, or is Mojo Rawley little more than a poor man's Roman Reigns? Rawley brings a completely one-dimensional game to the ring, as we saw in his defeat of Tyler Breeze. Of course, you could make the argument that Breeze is nothing more than a poor man's Ziggler at this point.
- In a tag team match against Alicia Fox and Dana Brooke, Sasha Banks came to the rescue of her teammate, Bayley, whom she has been at significant odds with for what feels like an eternity. It was a tender moment, one that suggested reconciliation between the two. Never before have I felt more strongly that Bayley is destined to turn heel ahead of SummerSlam now that Banks is showing her vulnerable side. But if Bayley doesn't, please end this saga soon. Surely, some other storyline can better utilize two valuable pieces of the Raw roster.
- It feels somewhat ironic that the B-Team, once one of the biggest jokes in the WWE, are on top of the red brand's tag team division while their opponents on Monday, The Ascension, can't buy a W. The Ascension were far and away the longest-reigning tag team champions in NXT back in the day, and now they're long-reigning jobber guys. Guess you just never know.
- Not too excited about the rebranding of Sarah Logan, whose new Viking thing she has going on came at the expense of the emerging Ember Moon, who truly should be a star in the women's division. Logan had virtually no experience in one-on-one matches on Raw to this point, while the super-talented Moon had yet to lose a television singles bout. Really hoping this kind of fly-by-night booking is not a trend for either.
- Not too excited about the Authors of Pain, either, though to their defense, they have a much brighter upside. In taking down Titus Worldwide, Akam and Rezar showed a solid cohesiveness, but little in the way of explosiveness. Here's hoping for something more along the lines of what made AoP such a menace before.
- Kudos on a terrific performance from The Miz, who while representing the Cleveland Indians on Monday night in the MLB All-Star Legends & Celebrity softball game, got Jennie Finch, John Wall and Hall-of-Famer Andre Dawson out in order en route the game's MVP. Almost as impressive as his eight Intercontinental championships.