Before Monday Night Raw even kicked off tonight, there was the sense that something was going to be different about this episode. WWE did a good job of hyping the first Raw of 2017, promising the return of Goldberg as a way of hopefully bouncing back from a trouncing in the ratings at the hand of Smackdown! Live the week before. Of course, the promise of Goldberg can’t carry a three hour show, but knowing that the man was making his first appearance since announcing his entry into the Royal Rumble match is certainly enough to suggest that maybe, just maybe, Raw would start to course correct its late-2016 mistakes and kick off the new year with something special. Unfortunately, the first Raw of 2017 is more of the same, meaning that a number of great matches do their best to work against the labored storytelling that defined so much of the worst of the Red brand last year.

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As much as I’d love to move away from the comparisons to Smackdown! Live, it’s unavoidable here, as Raw draws attention to the ratings beating, and it’s necessary to draw a parallel this week. You see, the Blue show decided that it would make a statement at the end of 2016, cementing itself as the must-watch WWE program by putting on a slew of MOTY candidates across its two hours, and during the goddamn holidays no less! As LaToya pointed out in her review, Smackdown! Live understands that if you’re hyping something up, you deliver with it right off the bat.

So, on Tuesday, John Cena comes out to a raucous Chicago crowd and instantly gets to working them into a frenzy. It’s a simple move that pays dividends throughout the night. Not only does it let the crowd know that Smackdown! isn’t messing around, it teases Cena’s presence at some point during the Triple Threat main event, which itself needs to be considered one of the best main-roster WWE matches of the year.

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So, how does Raw counter? By relegating Goldberg to the “main event” segment, putting him on the show after the scheduled airtime in order to have him stare down Roman Reigns, teasing a potential Wrestlemania showdown should Reigns beat Kevin Owens at the Royal Rumble, and Goldberg win the Royal Rumble match. It’s not a bad final segment by any means, as Braun Strowman comes out to assert that he’s the one who will win the Rumble, only to fall to a double spear from Reigns and Goldberg, but it is a segment that’s representative of how badly Raw has handled its main event scene coming into the New Year. Once again, Jericho and Owens are out there doing all the heavy lifting, showing chemistry and personality that’s absent throughout much of the show, only to be sidelined in favor of a part-timer and a United States Champion who can’t even be bothered to carry his title to the ring, or muster any sort of engaging, complex emotion or facial expression for that matter.

Raw is consistently shooting itself in the foot when it comes to the flurry of names surrounding the Universal Championship. What should feel like a number of guys proving that their worthy of main event spots ends up feeling like a bunch of guys killing time until Roman Reigns’ music hits. Examined individually, there’s a lot going on here that works. The ever-tenuous JeriKO friendship remains a highlight week in and week out, especially with Y2J announcing his plans for the Rumble matchs, and Raw has done wonders with Braun Strowman, using Sami Zayn’s “is he really dead?” selling to get the big man over as a legit threat to everyone on the roster. That’s good character and storyline building, but it all tends to fall apart once Roman Reigns, and even Seth Rollins for that matter, comes to the ring. Roman Reigns is a hair conditioner-soaked wet rag on an otherwise roaring fire.

This week’s Raw suffers because of that shoddy storytelling, largely because the episode is structured around the return of Goldberg and the intrigue of the Rumble match, which only marginally pays off in the end. But Raw is by no means unwatchable. In fact, this week’s Raw is a pretty solid showcase for some great in-ring work. The Red show’s tendency as of late has been to string together some truly great matches while failing to really sell the stories being told outside of the ring. That’s the case again this week, as one match after another delivers.

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There are number of great matches on tonight’s card, and part of the appeal is the variety on display. This is a show where Braun Strowman and Sami Zayn can have an incredible Last Man Standing match that gives both performers some of their best showings on the main roster—excluding Zayn’s matches with Owens, of course—before transitioning to Titus O’Neil auditioning to be the newest member of New Day. Raw has so much time, and so much talent, each week that it’s beneficial to explore a number of different tones and approaches to storytelling. More often than not it settles into the complacent—even tonight’s show has a frustrating number of screwy finishes—but there’s hope in a lot of what WWE puts on the screen this week. Whether it’s Owens and Rollins throwing down in a memorable opener, or Cesaro reminding us each and every week why he’s the absolute ideal form of a professional wrestler, Raw makes sure the in-ring work remains top-notch. If only everything else would fall into place, maybe Raw would finally be able to find a spark heading into the Royal Rumble.

Stray observations

  • Results: Seth Rollins defeated Kevin Owens via DQ; Karl Anderson defeated Cesaro; Braun Strowman defeated Sami Zayn (Last Man Standing match); Xavier Woods defeated Titus O’Neil; Drew Gulak defeated Cedric Alexander; Roman Reigns (c) defeated Chris Jericho (United States Championship match); TJ Perkins defeated Brian Kendrick; Rusev and Jinder Mahal defeated Big Cass (Enzo unable to compete); Bayley defeated Nia Jax (Raw Women’s Championship #1 Contender match).
  • “Sexy piñata.”
  • Corey Graves comparing Owens and Jericho to Oprah and Gayle is A+ commentary.
  • For all of the frustration that comes with WWE shunning Kevin Owens in his own damn feud, his confrontation with Goldberg is amazing. He should be the unafraid, cocky champion more often.
  • I haven’t watched 205 Live yet, but that Gallagher segment from last week that they showed really made me regret not tuning in.
  • Honestly, Titus more than proved that he deserves to be a member of New Day. It was great to see Titus loose and enjoying himself out there.
  • I’m so excited for this underdog Bayley championship chase.
  • Credit where it’s due in terms of booking: having Sasha’s music distract Nia Jax long enough for Bayley to execute a middle-rope Bayley To Belly was a great choice.

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