First things first: last night’s PPV, Payback, delivered in a big way. Other than a scary injury to Enzo Amore, the night was filled with great storytelling and even better matches. WWE had been throwing around the term “new era” for a hot minute, but it wasn’t until last night that business really took a turn. Naturally, that heightened expectations for this week’s Raw. It’s one thing to deliver a compelling and fresh PPV from top to bottom. It’s another thing to follow through with the stories you’ve told and keep that momentum going until the next PPV.

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This week’s Raw does manage to do a few admirable things, like carrying over the storylines from Payback and actually doing something with them the next night. It’s not often WWE engages in that kind of continuity, so it’s nice to see. It’s a shame then that so much of the night is sluggish and poorly paced. There are some good-to-great matches throughout the night, but for the most part the show buckles under the weight of lengthy promo segments. Chalk it up to having to fill three hours or whatever else, but tonight’s Raw doesn’t have nearly the same spark and urgency as the great run leading up to Payback. But it does have Cesaro.

The show does get off to a hot start. The saga of Stephanie and Shane running Raw together has the potential to devolve into tiring bickering, but for now it’s running smoothly. Just as they’re about to lay out their plans for the night, Kevin Owens comes out with his own suggestion. I love this. This is who Kevin Owens is. He’s a guy who doesn’t wait for his opportunity. He creates them. So, he comes out and explains that he should get a rematch for the Intercontinental Championship. He’s not wrong, but that doesn’t stop Cesaro from coming out and then Shane putting them in a #1 Contender match. (Side note: WWE should just get rid of the whole rematch stipulation. It hinders organic storylines at every turn.)

As with their last bout after Wrestlemania a few weeks back, the two light it up. The two are absolute freaks of nature in the ring, doing things nobody should be able to do. They are on all the time. From the top rope gutwrench suplex to the apron bullfrog splash, the two pull out all the stops, and the crowd eats it up. Then, things get even crazier as the Miz interrupts the match, which then brings out Zayn, and the four brawl until Zayn is standing tall with the title in his hand and YES chants ring out. It’s a moment, the kind that comes from being invested in characters and storylines. WWE has given us reasons to care about all of these guys to some degree, and it’s paying off. As an added bonus, it’s once again making the title mean something. Owens didn’t go straight for the World Heavyweight Championship after beating Zayn. He wants the IC title. That means something.

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There are more good matches on the show, to be sure. Emma and Becky get some time and put on a solid match, with Emma getting the win with a goddamn Michinoku Driver! Let those two wrestle a whole program for weeks and weeks, WWE. They have great chemistry and there’s legitimate beef in their story, so let them go for awhile and see what happens. The Battle Royal to determine the #1 Contender for the United States Championship is also a lot of fun. There’s the return of Titus O’Neil, which is rather unceremonious (though he gets an entrance), tension between the League Of Nations, a slight Zach Ryder tease (that dude is still WAY OVER, folks), and eventually a Rusev win. I think that’s a smart call. Rusev has been underused ever since he lost to Cena at Wrestlemania XXI last year—though throwing fishes, and phrases like “Dog Ziggler” and “Hot Summer” were moments that should live forever—but he’s a perfect opponent for Kalisto. The luchador needs a big guy to go against; that’s when he shines. It’s the dynamic that’s made his pre-show feud with Ryback bearable, if not great at times.

So, giving credit where it’s due, WWE does look toward the future at times during this week’s Raw. “At times” is the key phrase though, as so much of tonight’s show squanders the momentum of Payback by having long segment after long segment explaining what happened at the PPV and why. It feels as if every other segment is a recap. Most of Raw is akin to the Steph-Shane-Vince segment from Payback, all longwinded promos with very little being accomplished. Take the Women’s Championship segment for instance. Charlotte comes out to the ring with Ric to explain why she won the match. They bring out Little Naitch to provide the facts before Natalya comes out all pissed off, knocks Charlotte in the face, and puts Ric in the sharpshooter. The emotions and motivations on display are just repeats of the previous night. Ric taking a sharpshooter from Bret last night was silly but fun. Tonights it’s just a retread.

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It doesn’t end there though. The Ambrose Asylum, with special guest Stephanie McMahon, hits all the same beats as Payback, with Stephanie trying to hide her real feelings about working with Shane before she fires Ambrose as a host and brings back the Highlight Reel, prompting Jericho and Ambrose to brawl once again. It’s such a useless, long segment that could have been cut in half (at least), but that’s the theme of tonight’s show. Weird, lengthy segments abound, like R-Truth, Goldust, Fandango, and Tyler Breeze getting weird, or the Usos looking totally out of place in multiple places tonight.

At least the main event delivers, as AJ Styles reforms the Bullet Club for a night to square off against Romen Reigns and the Usos. It’s the type of match where storytelling matters, and everyone knows that. Styles, Anderson, and Gallows play up the tension between them, with Anderson and Gallows thinking they’re just looking out for their buddy while Styles looks embarrassed by their heel-ish tactics. In fact, there’s a consistent blurring of face and heel alignments in this feud. Roman Reigns is neither a face or heel right now, nobody knows what to think of the Usos, and AJ clearly has issues with his old pals from New Japan. That kind of complexity is adding layers to the story here, but above all, what’s making the whole thing click is that Reigns and Styles match up really well. Extreme Rules is unfortunately shaping up to be a bunch of Payback rematches, but when the show closes with Roman throwing Styles through the announce table, there’s little doubt that that’s a match we should all want to see again.

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Stray observations

  • Results: Cesaro vs. Kevin Owens ended in a No Contest; Tyler Breeze defeated Goldust; New Day and Big Cass defeated The Dudley Boyz and The Vaudevillains; Emma defeated Becky Lynch; Rusev won the Battle Royal to determine the #1 Contender for the United States Championship; The Bullet Club defeated The Samoan Family.
  • How about Tyler Breeze getting a win on Raw? I know it was after all that weird stuff, but still!
  • Kalisto was really struggling on commentary, right? Just didn’t feel natural. Perhaps we’ve just been spoiled by Kevin Owens and The Miz lately.
  • I thought Corbin was supposed to be great at Battle Royals now?
  • WE WANT SASHA!
  • I love that the Vaudevillains are using Enzo’s injury to get heat, allowing Cass to be the babyface savior. I don’t love that WWE feels the need to show the injury over and over again.
  • Last time I was here I mentioned how good Bubba Ray is at talking in the ring. This week he’s screaming lessons at the Vaudevillains. “Then you hit him again! And again! And again!” Beautiful.
  • Singing Aiden English is delightful heel work. Classic NXT.
  • Ryback was reportedly pulled from TV tonight.
  • “Speared right out of your Tina Turner boots.”
  • If you ain’t seeing big thing in Big Cass’ future, you might just be a couple haters.
  • R.I.P. Mitch.

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