Screenshot: WWE

Now this should be interesting. Samoa Joe vs. Brock Lesnar is a proverbial dream match, one that could conceivably co-main event WrestleMania. But here it is, headlining this B-level pay-per-view with the inane Great Balls of Fire name, and Joe is just probably a placeholder opponent for Lesnar to roll over.

And yet! If we’re applying common booking logic, and the result of this match seems like a foregone conclusion, this is still the WWE match I’ve most look forward to this year. Joe has been portrayed as a believable contender in the run-up to this match, the take-no-bullshit Samoan who actually choked out Lesnar and turned him purple. I hope this isn’t one of those one-sided, four-minute squashes a la Lesnar/Goldberg’s WrestleMania match (as effective as that match’s storytelling was).

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The rest of the card? It feels like we’ve seen the match-ups many times before (The Miz vs. Dean Ambrose for the 2,538,219th time). Here’s the complete list of matches, and we’ll begin our coverage at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time/4:30 p.m. Pacific.

  • Brock Lesnar (c) vs. Samoa Joe (WWE Universal championship)
  • Roman Reigns vs. Braun Strowman (Ambulance match)
  • Alexa Bliss (c) vs. Sasha Banks (Raw women’s championship)
  • Seth Rollins vs. Bray Wyatt
  • Cesaro + Sheamus (c) vs. The Hardy Boyz (30-minute Ironman match for Raw tag team championship)
  • The Miz (c) vs. Dean Ambrose (Intercontinental championship)
  • Enzo Amore vs. Big Cass
  • Neville (c) vs. Akira Tozawa (Cruiserweight championship, pre-show)

Brock Lesnar vs. Samoa Joe for Universal championship

OK, now this was a great presentation for a main event. It didn’t feel like a wrestling match. It was dirty, brutal, with Muay Thai kicks and MMA tactics, and it didn’t bear the whiff of WWE tropes—which was what made it memorable.

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We knew Samoa Joe was great, but in the last month, he’s made himself into the most over wrestler on the Raw roster. How? Not only by portraying himself as fearless to Lesnar, but making it believable to the audience.

His gall! Before the bell even rang, Samoa Joe attacked Lesnar, putting him through the announcer’s table with an uranage. Then the crowd would chant “Joe is gonna kill you!” and the whole babyface-heel dynamic would be tossed aside in favor of something that felt more realistic, like a big-time UFC fight.

Story of the bout was how Joe would try to apply the coquina clutch onto Lesnar, to no avail. Lesnar can thank his genetics, because his face turned into the color of a beet, and hell if that didn’t look like he would genuinely pass out. After Joe’s third attempted application, Lesnar picked him up onto his shoulders, and in one solitary F-5, score the pin in about six minutes. That was great. It put over Lesnar’s finishing move, it put over the brutality, it was pithy, it was ugly, but it was effective. And here’s an example of Samoa Joe winning by losing. There’s no reason these two shouldn’t do a rematch.

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Unfortunately, it didn’t make up for the rest of the show’s awful finishes—for the second pay-per-view in a row—but this one at least ended on an up note that made me wanted more.


Roman Reigns vs. Braun Strowman in an ambulance match

First: That’s 7-for-7 in heel finishes. But! I sure liked this match a lot.

While their last meeting exceeded expectations, showcasing Strowman’s in-ring potential, this ambulance match was all about outside gimmicks, and there were plenty: Strowman no-selling Reigns’ chair shots, Strowman using the stretcher board as a weapon, Reigns ramming Strowman through the back display screens.

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But even though Reigns lost by spearing himself into the ambulance (what a doofus!), Reigns showed some remorseless brutality in the aftermath, a new wrinkle to his character.

Reigns would throw Strowman in the back of the ambulance, drive away backstage, then stop and stared into the side mirror in contemplation. And then in an angle as silly as Vince McMahon getting blown up in a his limo, Reigns backed up the ambulance—with Strowman inside—into a semi-trailer, which would necessitate fire fighters bringing out the jaws of life to extract him out.

When they finally got to Strowman, he was covered with blood. But! Strowman would refuse medical treatment! He would walk away into the night, miracle of miracles, seemingly hunting down Reigns (Kurt Angle’s facial expression deserved an Emmy). It was silly and cartoonish, but hell if it wasn’t an effective angle that gave Reigns a sadistic edge, and Strowman as a Reigns over as sadistic, and Strowman as an unstoppable, badass monster. A double turn?!

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The Miz vs. Dean Ambrose for Intercontinental championship

I’ve seen these two fight each other a million times. I lost interest in this program 12 matches ago.

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Not only that, we had the sixth straight heel finish, this one thanks to outside interference from Bo Dallas.

The Miz retained. Who gives a shit.


Alexa Bliss vs. Sasha Banks for Raw Women's championship

Alexa Bliss isn’t the strongest in-ring worker on the women’s roster, but I’m really starting to dig her character. She’s got these sinister mannerisms that make up for her tiny frame—her self-described “resting Bliss face,” the temper tantrums when she can’t score a pin, that over-the-left-shoulder move with her championship belt. She may not be a great technician like her opponent tonight, Sasha Banks, but Bliss is developing into an entertaining performer.

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That’s the only positive I’ll say about this match, which makes it five heel finishes in a row, with this one particularly unsatisfying. Bliss and Banks had a decent, physical match, but Bliss would intentionally count herself out to lose the match and retain her title. I had the same complaint about the last pay-per-view, Money in the Bank, that it was a show of mostly bullshit finishes. Great Balls of Fire is looking to be just as disappointing.


Cesaro + Sheamus vs. The Hardy Boyz for Tag Team championship

I’ve seen a lot of Ironman matches as a wrestling fan. Every single one didn’t matter until the last three minutes. The key to these matches is to convince the audience what happens beyond those last three minutes matter.

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Man, these guys sure did. Cesaro/Sheamus and The Hardy Boyz had as great a tag team championship as their colleagues in NXT, with a dramatic, well-paced 30-minute Ironman match.

We pretty much knew that in the closing minutes the falls will be tied. Cesaro/Sheamus was up 3-2 in the final five minutes, and it seemed anti-climatic that The Hardy Boyz would score a pin during those closing moments to bring it to 3-3. They told such a great story throughout the match (loved how Cesaro/Sheamus kept attacking the non-legal Hardy), the crowd was buying every near fall, even when they knew what was coming. A Taste of Fate from the top rope with 3:03 left on Sheamus tied it up, and then it was a matter of who will score the deciding fall.

It was a super entertaining final three minutes. The finish saw Jeff Hardy hit the Swanton bomb onto Sheamus, except Sheamus wasn’t the legal man, and Cesaro barreled in to steal a pin against Jeff Hardy. With 30 some odd seconds left, Cesaro eluded Jeff Hardy by running outside the ring. Once both were back in, Jeff hit a Twist of Fate and went for the pin with two seconds left—not enough time, of course, to score the fall.

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This makes it four matches in a row to start of the show where the heels have won. But at least this one didn’t feel cheap, because the match was so enjoyable.


Enzo Amore vs. Big Cass

Half of the time allotted for this match was for Enzo Amore to cut a promo. And then the actual match began, and it went as everyone expected: Monster giant beats the shit out of scrawny former sidekick. At least the Dallas crowd continued its positive influence on the show, with its “asshole!” chants for Big Cass and “let’s go Enzo!” Still, this was a nothingburger of a match, with Big Cass hitting a running big boot for the win. I mean, no one was expecting Omega vs. Okada.

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Seth Rollins vs. Bray Wyatt

A somewhat entertaining match, with good crowd reactions, but in the end it felt like another Raw main event that starts at 10:55 p.m.

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Solid chemistry between Seth Rollins and Bray Wyatt, both working a hard and uptempo style, but this was a short bout with—like the pre-show match—a heel finish. Wyatt sticks a finger in Rollins’ eye, momentarily blinding him, then hits Sister Abagail for the win.

The purpose of this booking decision was to set Wyatt up as a believable heel. But I’ve gotta say—Wyatt hasn’t done it for me. His lyrical promos sound impressive and borderline poetic, but they’ve been too oblique for viewers to buy into and connect to that Bray Wyatt character. Yes, he’s been portrayed as the big guy who could move and speak well, but as a champion—as his one-month reign earlier this year will attest—felt lackluster. It’s time for a character reboot, methinks.


Neville vs. Akira Tozawa for Cruiserweight championship

The problem with WWE’s Cruiserweight division is that the audience has been primed: They see the purple ropes and think it’s time to use that bathroom break. It wasn’t always like this, though—the Cruiserweight tournament last year was an amazing spectacle, perhaps the best in-ring product from the WWE in 2016. The subsequent 205 Live show, however, has been marred by non-compelling storylines, short matches, in-ring action that has been WWE-ified. It’s been a failure.

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But this match felt different. In a positive way. Up until the end of Neville vs. Akira Tozawa (which unfortunately had a very WWE-esque finish), this match had the spirit and crowd reaction as the Cruiserweight Tournament. It was a machine-gun of rapid, smooth offense by both competitors. Tozawa executed two excellent tope suicida (with full horizontal extension!) to the outside. Then when Tozawa hits the senton, Neville plays the heel move perfectly and rolls out of the ring to avoid the pin.

The finish felt a bit awkward. Neville crotches Tozawa in the gentlest way possible, dropping him onto the top rope. Tozawa stays a few seconds too long (why doesn’t he just fall onto the ring rather than hang in that precarious position?), which gave Neville the chance to kick the top rope again. A spinning back kick to the lower extremities scores Neville the win. Good action, lackluster finish, but it was entertaining while it lasted.