When I mentioned two weeks ago that I loved seeing a tournament and that I loved seeing performers wrestler with a distinct purpose, I really, really didn’t want more of that under these circumstances. I really didn’t want to see WWE’s best in-ring performer, Seth Rollins, go down with an injury that’s going to keep him out for at least six months, and probably closer to nine. More than that, I definitely didn’t want to see him have to vacate his title, especially considering how Rollins has elevated the relative dreck he’s been dealt in terms of storylines, and especially when he was just heading into a feud with Roman Reigns that contained actual backstory and emotion.

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While the injury to Rollins is terrible, both for the performer and for all of us who got to watch him week in and week out, his absence forces WWE to do some creative thinking, and history tells us that that’s often when the company is at its best. That could be especially true right now, as WWE storytelling has been complacent for months now, only revving up in the last few weeks. Now, with a vacant WWE World Heavyweight Championship and numerous injuries or absences plaguing the roster (Rollins, Cena, Orton, Rusev, to name a few), there’s the opportunity for the status quo to be challenged, for WWE to dig into its deep roster and find some inspiration.

While there’s plenty of other things on the card, including a terrible Zeb Colter and Alberto Del Rio promo and a great match between Becky Lynch and Paige, this night is about the vacant title, for better and worse. Tonight’s Raw, which sees the beginning of the tournament to determine the next WWE World Heavyweight Champion, both highlights how much of an opportunity this really is while also exposing some of the flaws of WWE’s booking for the last few months. What that means is that very few of the first round matches feel very consequential because WWE hasn’t done much to build up the upper/midcard performers. In fact, the matches are pretty predictable and that robs the night of feeling as charged as it could be. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of potential for some surprises and great matches within the bracket, but that the first night is a bit underwhelming.

Starting your show with Big Show certainly doesn’t help. I mean, Triple H comes out and announces the tournament and then calls out Roman Reigns and tries to convince him to become part of the Authority, offering him up a bye to the final round of the tournament at Survivor Series. It’s a great promo instantly killed by the presence of Big Show and a matchup we’ve seen numerous times. A tournament is an opportunity to do something fresh and throw a curve at the audience. Reigns is obviously going to win, so why not put literally anyone else in that spot?

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That’s kind of the theme of the night though, with guys like Titus O’Neill and The Miz getting spots in the tournament that could have easily gone to someone else. When new Day comes out near the end of the show and calls their exclusion from the tournament “outrageous,” they’re absolutely right. I don’t want to turn this review into an analysis of the bracket because there’s still so much of it too come, but it’s hard not to feel a bit underwhelmed after the first few matches. Most of the matches are fun, but there’s not much tension to them. Tension will certainly increase as the tournament continues, especially when you have divisive matchups like the next round’s Cesaro vs. Reigns match, but tonight’s card is largely devoid of stakes.

Potentially wasted opportunities aside, there’s a lot of good stuff on the card tonight. Kevin Owens puts in a good showing against Titus and cuts a promo against the Queen, which is hard to argue against. Dolph Ziggler looks a lot like Dolph Ziggler against the Miz, but he gets a win from a Superkick, which is great. The best matches though come later in the show. Cesaro and Sheamus have one hell of a slugfest, and it’s the best Sheamus has looked in some time. Of course, Cesaro continues to look like a goddamn superhero in the ring. He executes two stellar counters during the match, flipping the Irish Curse Backbreaker and then countering the Brogue Kick into a Sharpshooter. It’s the best match of the night, and Cesaro getting the win is a nice touch. Plus, it keeps Sheamus away from the tournament for awhile, making a potential Money In The Bank cash-in all the more intriguing. Another welcome surprise? Tyler Breeze looking great in a main roster ring. There was very little chance that he’d get past Dean Ambrose, but he looks great in the loss. It helps that the commentary continues to put him over, talking about how despite being full of himself he’s “aggressive” and can back up his boasting in the ring.

Now, I want to make something clear. I think a lot of tonight’s matches suffered from a lack of unpredictability, but this was ultimately a solid episode of Raw, miles ahead of the dull, uninspired shows that led up to the previous PPV, Hell In A Cell. That’s even before the final segment, which sees Bray Wyatt eulogizing Kane and Undertaker only to have them return from “the dead.” This storyline is the best situation for all these performers right now. It’s the most compelling and frightening Wyatt has been in ages, maybe ever—too bad he was the brunt of an attack tonight though—and putting Undertaker and Kane back together is a nice way to not only ease the load of the two aging stars, but also reinvigorate both of those characters, especially Kane, who didn’t really have anywhere to go after the conclusion of their previous feuds.

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Essentially, tonight’s tournament matches were a bit underwhelming, but they still had purpose and a distinct goal. It’s likely that the matches will only get better though, tonight’s rather predictable card just a sampling of what’s to come. If tonight is any indication, there’s still plenty of pieces in play and a lot of options for storylines moving forward. This week’s Raw is solid, but I’m already looking ahead to next week’s go-home show.

Stray observations

  • Results: Roman Reigns defeated Big Show (Tournament match); Kevin Owens defeated Titus O’Neil (Tournament match); Becky Lynch defeated Paige; Dolph Ziggler defeated The Miz (Tournament match); Natalya defeated Naomi; Cesaro defeated Sheamus (Tournament match); Dean Ambrose defeated Tyler Breeze (Tournament match); New Day defeated Nevile and the Usos.
  • I love that opening Triple H promo. Him telling Roman that despite how hard he’s worked he still has nothing to show for it was perfect.
  • There’s going to be tournament matches on Smackdown too, so I guess I’m watching Smackdown this week.
  • It honestly seems crazy that there isn’t a single member of New Day in the bracket.
  • If I have to hear Michael Cole say “turnabout is fair play” one more time…
  • Also, shouting “not on the table!” when Paige locked in the PTO on Becky shows he has no idea how submissions/tables work.
  • How bad is Del Rio and Colter’s gimmick right now? They just talk shit about other countries and say “haters” a lot. It doesn’t feel natural at all.
  • New Day dedicating their match to Captain Seth Rollins and putting up the unicorn horns brought a tear to my eye.

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