On a show packed full of action from Chris Jericho, Seth Rollins, Sasha Banks, Roman Reigns, Charlotte, Rusev, Bayley, the New Day, Cesaro and Sheamus, and Paul Heyman—with attendant hints of Goldberg—let’s do the only sensible thing and spend some time talking about Curtis Axel. This is his first match on Raw since July 25, the same night as Sasha Banks winning the title for the time, Finn Balor defeating Roman Reigns for a shot at the Universal title, and the immortal James Ellsworth making his debut. The Curtis Axel we see in action tonight is still the same aggressive idiot with ideas above his station, but he’s got one recognizable character trait: He’s worried about his friend. Axel and Bo Dallas represent the last vestiges of the Social Outcasts—Adam Rose is long gone, and Heath Slater has moved on to immeasurably better things with his new pal Rhyno—and Bo’s sudden glowering meanness leaves him desperate to bring back out the lovable goofball he used to know. For those of us who remember the Social Outcasts with even a pinch of fondness, there’s an extra layer to the fact that Axel, who was pretty much always annoyed by Bo, is trying to convince him that he still Bo-lieves.
In the grand scheme of things, none of this matters. Curtis Axel is the least important man in that segment, befitting his status as the last main roster guy picked in the draft. The initial iteration of the tag match is just there to cement a feud between Enzo and Cass and the Club, which, sure, if the Club is going to regain any credibility, straight-up murdering Enzo and Cass is probably the best road ahead. Even when Axel then demands a match, it’s a short affair that establishes Sami Zayn and Neville as a potentially formidable pairing and keeps Bo Dallas’ story simmering. Curtis Axel could very easily disappear back to Superstars and house shows for another two and a half months. But for the short period he was back on his screens, he had his own motivations. He had goals. He was the hero of his own tiny slice of Raw’s massive overall story. He’s not good enough to actually achieve his goal of winning a match and reconnecting with Bo—not that I’m at all sure how one would have led to the other—nor is he even likely important enough for his failure to drive a story forward, but that whole bit of business has meaning that a random tag match between that final quartet otherwise wouldn’t have had.
I’m tempted to just keep talking about Curtis Axel for another 800 words, but I suppose other things did happen tonight. Besides, I mostly brought him up because his use here speaks to what is generally a strength of tonight’s Raw: Damn near everyone here has some clear, identifiable purpose guiding their actions. (Except Roman Reigns. Obviously. I’m still curious to know whether he’s even aware he has the U.S. title. But whatever, everyone else is good.) For instance, Brian Kendrick keeps the best character story to come out of the Cruiserweight Classic rolling right along with an excellent stop at the commentary booth, as he both pays respect to and subtly denigrates T.J. Perkins, the man he must defeat to save his career. When he excuses his head butt at Clash Of Champions by saying he had to do something to keep himself at the front of the line, it’s a brilliant meta moment, a crafty veteran move that almost makes you think wrestlers become slowly aware of their status as characters if they stick around long enough.
The women’s title scene also shows a little self-awareness, as Sasha and Charlotte agree to hold their rematch in a Hell in a Cell match, the first ever between two women wrestlers. As presented here, the reason for the stipulation has little to do with the specifics of their feud, particularly now that Dana Brooke appears to be spinning off into a separate feud with Bayley, as there’s no specific sense that the risk of interference is so high or that their bad blood has escalated to the point that they simply must be locked in a cell. Instead, this is more about the ongoing legitimization of women’s wrestling, and Sasha acknowledges this match type as just another milestone for her and Charlotte to attain. Going that route can be a little tricky: It can all feel a little too much like #branding when Stephanie McMahon talks about women’s evolutions and the like, but tonight it does give Rusev an opening for some old-school heeling by being a sexist pig. Overall, this all works well enough, even if I’ll admit I’d like to see a little more narrative depth over the next couple weeks, so that the eventual Hell in a Cell match has meaning particular to Sasha and Charlotte’s feud, so that it’s more than “just” the first women’s Hell in a Cell match.
The men’s main event scene does a better job on that score. Seth Rollins presumably requested the stipulation to keep Chris Jericho from interfering like he did at Clash Of Champions, and Kevin Owens rejects this proposal with that perfectly heelish mix of cowardice, assholery, and occasional reason. Sure, why should a title challenger—one who has been given nigh endless chances to win the damn thing over the last few months—get to choose a stipulation? And why should Kevin Owens willingly shorten his career by going inside the cell? He’s not a broken-down idiot like Mick Foley, after all. All this threatens to spiral out of control as Stephanie offers Jericho a chance to earn his way into the title match by defeating Rollins, much to the champ’s consternation. Seth and Steph both appear to be playing 12-dimensional chess tonight, manipulating both Jericho and Owens into betraying their best friend, whether it’s tonight or at Hell In A Cell. Nobody is sure whether Jericho would treat a triple threat as a de facto handicap match or a chance to steal the title, making it all the harder to know what’s the best play here.
That’s why it’s a little disappointing that Rollins overcomes his rib injury and defeats Jericho, keeping the match at Hell In A Cell between him and Owens. I’ll admit I really, really wanted to see what the Gift of Jericho could bring to the title picture, but I think my issue with this choice is rooted in more than just fantasy booking. We’ve already seen a decent but not classic encounter between Owens and Rollins at Clash Of The Champions, and the subsequent weeks haven’t really brought their specific story into much clearer focus. Jericho has been the most compelling character in this build, so it feels counterintuitive to keep him out of the match, especially when there would still be multiple weeks left to figure out just where Jericho’s loyalties would actually lie. None of this precludes the possibility that Owens and Rollins can find the spark to properly ignite their feud—or that Jericho could somehow worm his way back in, especially when it sure seems Stephanie wanted him involved—but what could have pushed the title scene in a bold new direction now just feels like a single-episode cul-de-sac.
Oh, right, might as well talk about Goldberg, eh? Given this is just a guest spot for me, I was selfishly hoping his music would hit during Paul Heyman’s challenge, but his big Raw return is instead set for next week in Denver. As is, I’m at a disadvantage here as a very new fan of wrestling, having only started watching with this year’s Royal Rumble. But even as someone who never, ever watched wrestling as a kid, I was still dimly aware of Goldberg (even if I just naturally assumed he was a WWF guy, as I had no knowledge of WCW’s existence). So yeah, his return feels like a big deal even to me, and frankly I’m more than fine with the rumored plan to build to a rematch between Goldberg and Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series. Sure, their last match at Wrestlemania 20 was legendarily awful, Goldberg was never a very good wrestler and he hasn’t stepped in a ring since then, and Lesnar, whatever his talents, doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to carry Goldberg to a decent match. (A.J. Styles or Sami Zayn, on the other hand, I’d be curious to see, if only just to give them the challenge of their careers.) But this is the entertainment part of the sports entertainment equation, and using Lesnar in a spectacle match with Goldberg is safer for other talent—given the concussion he gave Randy Orton at SummerSlam, quite literally safer—than having him maul some full-time wrestler. This is all kind of stupid, but just like Curtis Axel’s quixotic quest to save Bo Dallas, it feels like the right kind of stupid. I’ve gotten far worse out of Raw.
- RESULTS: Kofi Kingston defeated Cesaro; Bayley defeated Cami Fields; Lince Dorado and Sin Cara defeated Tony Nese and Drew Gulak; Neville and Sami Zayn defeated Bo Dallas and Curtis Axel; R-Truth defeated Titus O’Neil; Braun Strowman defeated Steven Splash and Clay Splash; Roman Reigns and Sasha Banks defeated Rusev and Charlotte; T.J. Perkins defeated Ariya Daivari; Seth Rollins defeated Chris Jericho
- You know, I sort of liked the detail of Roman Reigns pointing out to Sasha Banks that a Hell in a Cell match isn’t to be taken lightly, history or no. Of course, Roman doesn’t have near enough charisma to pull off that interaction without coming off as patronizing, but the concept is there.
- Glad to see my man Tony Nese as a regular feature on Monday Night Raw. I’m curious to see how the pecking order of the cruiserweight division might shake out once T.J. Perkins and Brian Kendrick resolve their feud—you’d figure a heel like Nese would have a better shot at the title if Perkins emerges victorious. Either way, I’m officially starting the petition to push the Premier Athlete.
- I’m still trying to figure out whom the Raw powers that be could choose to face off against Braun Strowman. I guess this could be Big Show’s last big feud before that retirement match against Shaq, but I’m open to more out-there options. (And now I’ve looked up to my previous stray and am prepared to put forward Tony Nese. Trust me, it’d be great!)
- When they mentioned Bayley competing in front of her hometown crowd, I was afraid WWE was going to take its penchant for having local heroes lose and have some random jobber defeat her. Thankfully she just got the crap beaten out of her by Dana Brooke. We’re all good!
- “Everyone loves Full House.” “And then you turn eight.”
- “It’s a stupid idiom!” Chris Jericho, you are hereby forbidden to ever, ever leave us.
- “What was that all about?” “Friendship.” I loved the delivery of Jericho’s response there. For all the cheesy overacting, that one word carried all sorts of potential meaning.
- There really is no better roving reporter than Felipe Thomastein.