Monday Night Raw has been on quite the roll ever since an extremely lackluster Wrestlemania. Ever since Roman walked out of that night as WWE World Heavyweight Champion, Raw has felt urgent and exciting. That’s partly due to the injection of new talent, with guys like Baron Corbin, Enzo and Cass, and Apollo Crews making their main roster debuts, but it’s also the result of more focused storytelling. WWE has done a good job putting significant storylines in place since the night after Wrestlemania, and to WWE’s credit, they’ve followed through. There’s logic and reason behind the feuds, and many of the segments continue to drive homes the stakes. This week’s Raw doesn’t have the same highs as last week, but it’s another solid episode that keeps things moving nicely towards Payback.

Most of the problems with this week’s Raw come down to that fact that WWE perhaps spends a little too much time away from matches. There are a lot of promos and backstage segments tonight, and that takes away from the momentum created by all the great wrestling of the previous two weeks. Take the opening segment as an example. Where last week Shane McMahon came out and laid out the whole card for the night with enthusiasm before starting things off immediately, tonight’s show opens with the Ambrose Asylum, which is then interrupted by Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, and Chris Jericho. It’s not a bad segment but it’s certainly sluggish, which is not how you want to start your three-hour show.

Things get better from there because Sami Zayn takes on Chris Jericho and there’s no way I’m not going to be excited for that match. Jericho in particular has been doing some great work as of late. From having superb matches with AJ Styles to interviewing himself on The Highlight Reel, Jericho is doing some of the best heel work of his career right now. Zayn-Jericho doesn’t seem to be leading to anything, with Jericho set to fight Ambrose at Payback and Zayn taking on Owens (AHHH!!!), but that makes this match all the more exciting. It’s that old “wrestling for wrestling’s sake” segment and it’s great. Jericho gets the win after the eye-poke and Zayn gets to look like a million bucks flying through the ropes and giving a DDT. Everybody wins.

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Things start moving in a better direction from there, as WWE continues to build towards a Payback card that’s looking pretty solid from top to bottom. The two semifinal matches in the #1 Contender Tag Team Tournament are really two different stories though. First, there’s Enzo and Cass facing off against the Dudleys. These guys continue to work great together both in the ring and on the mic. Enzo is out there saying that him and Cass are “like A cups, because we’re real whether you like us or not,” and Bubba Ray is in the ring shouting at Enzo and sarcastically calling him “Skywalker” as he punches him in the head. That’s exactly what I want out of my pro wrestling. Plus, Enzo and Cass get the win and we’re that much closer to dueling New Day-Enzo and Cass promos. On the other hand, the match between the Vaudevillains and the Usos falls flat. It really doesn’t seem like the Vaudevillains have connected much with the audience, partly because they’re heels and partly because WWE hasn’t given anyone a reason to care about them. So, when they get the win over the Usos there’s really nothing to it. However, it’ll be great to see the tag tournament end at Payback with two NXT tag teams taking the top spots. That’s a huge statement for the future of the tag division.

While other NXT guys get their brief spots to shine, with Baron Corbin dismantling Fandango, and Apollo Crews taking out Heath Slater, the rest of Raw is defined by, for lack of a more academic term, cool moments. For instance, Cesaro comes out to interrupt MizTV, now complete with Maryse, and it gives the two a chance to build their feud for the Intercontinental Championship. There are so many great moments in the segment, from Maryse calling the Royal baby “plain and generic” to Cesaro giving the iffy hand gesture to Miz’s take on Liam Neeson’s monologue from Taken. Things only get better when Cesaro says that he’s talked to Shane and has arranged for Miz and the League of Nations to face Cesaro and three tag partners. He then rips off his suit to reveal a Booty-Os shirt! It’s a moment I never knew I needed until right then. The match is great too, with Big E pulling off a sweet reversal of the Skull Crushing Finale and Cesaro getting the pin on Sheamus.

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The other “cool moment” of the night involves AJ Styles and his old pals Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows. WWE does a great job of driving home the connection between these guys, as AJ greets them backstage with big hugs and Michael Cole mentions their time together in New Japan. That all pays off later when Anderson and Gallows come out at the end of a Reigns-Styles face off and destroy Reigns, all while his Payback opponent looks on reluctantly. There are layers here that matter. First, there’s Reigns and Styles putting together a solid segment that really makes their Payback match feel meaningful. Secondly, there’s the threat of Anderson and Gallows looming over the whole thing. And finally, there’s AJ torn between his love for his buddies and his need to move on and be his own man (breakups are hard to do). He’s upset that Anderson and Gallows helped him out because he wants to do this on his own. As he says in the ring, he wants to be “liked and respected,” and you don’t get that when you have your cronies jumping guys in the ring.

Ultimately, this week’s Raw doesn’t manage to be quite as engaging as the previous two. There are some problems throughout, like WWE just repeating its 2014 NXT storyline with Natalya and Charlotte and once again making sure men are involved in their feud, or Ziggler just generally being dead inside. Still, there’s a lot to love here. There’s a concision and logic to the storytelling, from Jericho delivering a Codebreaker to Ambrose at the end of the night to all the layers of the Styles-Reigns feud, and that makes for an engaging, forward-looking Raw.

Stray observations

  • Results: Chris Jericho defeated Sami Zayn; Enzo and Cass defeated the Dudley Boyz (#1 Contender Tag Team Tournament); Baron Corbin defeated Fandango; New Day and Cesaro defeated Miz and the League of Nations; Natalya, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, and Paige defeated Charlotte, Naomi, Tamina, and Summer Rae; The Vaudevillains defeated the Usos (#1 Contender Tag Team Tournament); Apollo Crews defeated Heath Slater; Dean Ambrose defeated Kevin Owens.
  • How about that apron Frog Splash from Owens? Him and Ambrose put on one hell of a match.
  • I try to stay away from fantasy booking and predictions, but this whole Anderson and Gallows thing has got to be leading to Balor and them costing Styles at Payback, right? It’s hard to say though with Balor still holding that title, not that that stopped Kevin Owens from beating on John Cena.
  • Raw went from a backstage segment with Styles, Anderson, and Gallows to Enzo and Cass’ entrance. What a time to be alive, indeed.
  • I adore the way Enzo says “couple haters.” Then again, I adore everything he does.
  • I also dig Roman Reigns once again hitting that “THE guy” promo. I think he, or somebody backstage, knows that the crowd hates how often he’s repeating it, so he’s going out there and getting his heat.
  • Cesaro quoting Rowdy Roddy Piper is what dreams are made of.

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