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By muddying the waters, Monday Night Raw sets the stage for Fastlane

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It’s kind of remarkable what WWE is doing with the Fastlane main event right now. For all intents and purposes, WWE has been stuck in a creative rut ever since a few of its big stars went down with injury. Ever since Seth Rollins had to vacate the title, and ever since John Cena busted up his shoulder, the company has been scrambling to find a way to replace that talent, to secure the main event scene and tell a compelling story. Bits and pieces of the long-term story has worked, from Roman Reigns going postal on Triple H to Triple H then getting his revenge at the Royal Rumble. More often than not though there’s been an inconsistency within the main event scene, and Raw has suffered because of it.

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For the past few weeks though, Raw has managed to turn things around. While it’s still nowhere near crafting a three-hour show that’s completely compelling, the focus on the Fastlane main event has not only reinvigorated the main event scene, but also managed to allow other feuds to flourish. This week’s Raw takes things even further though, really muddying the waters of the Fastlane main event that will see Brock Lesnar, Dean Ambrose, and Roman Reigns fight for the chance to face Triple H for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at Wrestlemania. It starts with Ambrose once again coming out, this time at the top of the show, and asking Brock Lesnar for more punishment, for more fight. Unfortunately, he gets Steph instead, but what follows is what counts.

What follows is perhaps the most significant push Dean Ambrose has seen as a singles wrestler. WWE has been planting seeds for awhile now, suggesting that maybe, just maybe, Ambrose can pull out the win at Fastlane despite all the odds and logic suggesting Roman Reigns gets the win. Tonight, Ambrose becomes an even more legitimate contender. In order to punish Ambrose, which is something Steph just does randomly, she puts him in a Fatal Fiveway (yep) match with the Intercontinental Championship on the line. It’s a fun, fast-paced match, but the beauty is in the storytelling and the potential storylines down the road. The match sets up Kevin Owens vs. Dolph Ziggler for Fastlane after Owens wins the match and once again captures the Intercontinental Championship, and the loss sets Dean up for a potential upset on Sunday.

That potential upset is doubled-down on later in the evening. After Paul Heyman cuts a fiery promo to Reigns’ face, saying how he’s going to have to sacrifice his brother Ambrose to even come close to having a shot at beating Lesnar, the newly-heel turned Dudleys beat down Reigns. That’s when Ambrose comes out to be a good bro and saves Reigns. Moments later though, he goes for a Dirty Deeds on his buddy before letting go and telling Reigns he’ll have to be ready and alert on Sunday is he wants a shot at Triple H at Wrestlemania. It’s a great moment because it seems like, for now, WWE is building up the right guy in Ambrose. He’s the babyface favorite by far—Lesnar operates in a weird space where he’s obviously popular, but not exactly a babyface in the traditional sense—and now his inclusion in the Triple Threat feels like more than just an excuse to have Reigns go through some sort of moral conundrum. The odds-on favorite is still Reigns, but WWE has done a great job of making the Fastlane main event more unpredictable with each passing week.

In fact, WWE has done a good job of building up the most important matches on the Fastlane card. Sure, hot-shotting Brie Bella into a championship match with Charlotte on the heels of Daniel Bryan’s retirement feels a little manipulative (and not in the good wrestling way), and it’s hard to get too excited about another Del Rio-Kalisto match despite the fact that they wrestle good matches, but everything else is shaping up to be solid. For weeks now Owens and Ziggler have been wrestling great matches, and the common line of thinking has been that their feud would be even better if they had something to fight for. Now Owens has the Intercontinental Championship and will put it on the line against Ziggler at Fastlane. Both of those guys are at their best when they’re fighting for something real, when they’re completely up against it. I expect them to put on one hell of a show on Sunday, building off their first few matches together; you know those two can tell a beautiful story in the ring. I’ll say the same for AJ Styles vs. Chris Jericho. Both performers are making the feud meaningful and filled with hostility. Jericho does a good job this week of putting over both AJ and The Miz on commentary, but it’s AJ that truly shines. Seriously, how good does AJ Styles look in a WWE ring? His offense is dynamic and hard-hitting, and this feud with Jericho is getting the crowd behind him in a real way. You can feel the support for him building with every forearm he throws. Like Ambrose, he’s being built as an underdog, and it’s absolutely working.

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There’s a stretch of tonight’s Raw that drags way too much, moving from a Dudleys promo ripped from Smackdown to a dull match between Paige and Summer Rae, plus a few throwaway matches such as Zack Ryder vs. Heath Slater and and six-man tag that fails to utilize the talented performers in the ring. Even the main event is a bit of a slog, but that’s at least to be expected when Big Show and Braun Strowman are in the ring and Ryback and Kane come back for a goofy house show ending. To WWE’s credit, I get that they need a new big man, but I’m just not into the stale storytelling. Despite that stretch though, tonight’s go-home show ultimately does what it’s supposed to. It creates an air of unpredictability and excitement around Sunday’s Fastlane PPV, and that’s exactly what WWE needs as it inches closer to Wrestlemania.

Stray observations

  • Results: Kevin Owens defeated Dean Ambrose, Stardust, Tyler Breeze, and Dolph Ziggler (Fatal Fiveway for the Intercontinental Championship); Big E defeated Mark Henry; AJ Styles defeated The Miz; Summer Rae defeated Paige; Heath Slater defeated Zack Ryder; The League of Nations defeated the Lucha Dragons and Neville; Becky Lynch defeated Naomi; Big Show defeated Braun Strowman via DQ.
  • Kevin Owens is going to be such a star in the main event scene once WWE puts him there.
  • That combination Zig Zag/Dirty Deeds was dope.
  • Big E knows how to play a recorder now.
  • More Big E: “I am the new Sexual Chocolate! I am your daddy!”
  • I really liked Charlotte interrupting Brie talking about Bryan. Get that heat!
  • What was that Goldust/R Truth segment? At least there was an In Your House reference.
  • I’ll never argue with a Booker T video package.
  • Tyler Breeze had a serious flow tonight.
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