WWE had a lot going for it heading into this week’s Raw. The return of Seth Rollins at Extreme Rules and the qualifying matchups for the Money In The Bank ladder match gave last week’s Raw a sense of purpose, and with John Cena set to make his return on Memorial Day, things were looking up. Plus, WWE had just announced that Smackdown was moving to Tuesday nights in July, where it would be airing live and consist of its own unique roster and storylines, bringing back the brand split, or “brand extension” in WWE parlance. All of that should mean that this week’s Raw delivers. Sadly, that’s not the case. Maybe it was the looming presence of big NBA and NHL games, or something else entirely, but tonight’s Raw is easily the worst of the year, and the worst we’ve seen in a long, long time.

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The biggest issue with this week’s Raw is that if Enzo Amore had a dime for every good match on the card, he’d have ZERO DIMES. Seriously, tonight’s show is filled with so much talking, nonsense tag matches, and pointless, longwinded segments, that there’s no room for a single good match. There are some okay moments scattered through the three hours, but that’s just not good enough. WWE has been doing solid work the last few weeks, making sure to show some forward momentum and tell meaningful stories, even as the roster shuffles through new injuries and returning stars. There are a handful of stories moving forward this week, but for the most part the show completely takes the night off. Outside of one segment, you could skip the whole show and not be any worse off because of it.

The listlessness is strange because the show at least starts with a hint of promise. Having Shane and Stephanie McMahon come out to discuss the potential brand split is good for teasing future storylines. It’s nice that they don’t pull some kayfabe-only move and avoid the news until July 19th is on the horizon, and even having New Day come out to act as a kind of audience surrogate, asking the questions that we’ve been asking since the announcement, is a smart move. But the segment goes on way too long and then abruptly ends with the Vaudevillains coming out for their match. It’s as if WWE tried to turn a press release into a sports entertainment segment and, surprise, it falls flat.

The night is filled with similar segments that seem to be completely bungled in execution, and tone-deaf to what’s compelling and exciting in front of a live crowd. WWE has Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns coming face to face for the first time in months and the best they can muster is a goofy, drawn-out segment where Rollins keeps teasing that he’s coming into the ring only to once again retreat up the ramp. He does it over and over again as Reigns stands there with a blank look on his face. It’s a baffling segment that manages to kill all the heat that comes with Seth fucking Rollins facing off against Roman fucking Reigns. That’s HUGE, and WWE just ignores it for another week.

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That kind of “storytelling” extends to pretty much every match tonight. This is Raw on autopilot, reusing matchups and video packages, presumably because they knew the Thunder and Warriors were stealing the show on another channel. The night is filled with short matches that leaves the crowd in a glassy-eyed daze. The Usos easily beat Breezango, Ziggler just kicks Corbin in the nuts and gets disqualified, Dana Brooke beats Natalya with a little distraction help from Charlotte, and Rusev crushes Zack Ryder because he’s back to being Zack Ryder. These matches don’t accomplish much, other than establishing Titus as a solid opponent for Rusev, and it’s hard to sit through one squash after another.

Sure, the main event six-man tag match is solid, and it’s great to see Enzo back in the ring again wrestling alongside Cass, but not even those matches can save this Raw. That said, there’s a single segment that’s just about perfect. It doesn’t make up for everything else, but it does show that WWE is thinking a few steps ahead. After nearly two hours John Cena finally makes his return. He comes out and delivers a somber, serious speech about respecting the troops before getting hot and saying that if this is the New Era of WWE, they’re going to have to go through him. You haven’t been gone that long, John, so let’s tone it down.

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That brings out AJ Styles, and the mood immediately changes. The show goes from dull to electric in a matter of seconds. It’s the type of moment that we dream of when we hear WWE has signed someone from another promotion, when we’re fantasy booking matches and feuds. AJ and Cena stand face to face as the crowd remains divided, chanting for both Cena and AJ for a long time. It’s a legit moment, and it only gets better. AJ offers up a respectful welcome back and a handshake, and Cena accepts. That brings out The Club because they understand that wrestling isn’t about respect but about punching people in the face. They say they came to WWE to kick ass, not kiss ass, and that includes AJ if this is the path he’s chosen.

Then, things get real good, because that’s not the path AJ has chosen. Nope, he’s all-in on The Club, as AJ makes it look as if he’s siding with Cena against the Club before turning around and punching the Face That Runs The Place straight in the jaw. A beatdown commences, with AJ continually going back to the ring to get a few more shots in and the Club standing tall over Cena’s body, a Too Sweet gesture the exclamation point to the huge statement.

Now, you can already here the angry rumblings that AJ is going to be fed to Cena, that WWE is losing another babyface that managed to get himself over etc., but those are concerns for later. For now, we’re watching as the goddamn Bullet Club stands over John Cena, and there’s no doubt that Cena and Styles can put on a hell of a match (or matches). Add in the layers of the story—Cena being the face of WWE, Styles being the guy who dominated the world—and we’re potentially looking at an amazing feud. Time will tell, of course, but for now, Styles and Cena is the lone highlight of an otherwise unbearable Raw. Here’s hoping the New Era of previous episodes returns next week.

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Stray observations

  • Results: New Day vs. The Vaudevillains ended in a No Contest; The Usos defeated Breezango; Rusev defeated Zack Ryder; Enzo and Cass defeated The Dudley Boyz; Dana Brooke defeated Natalya; Baron Corbin defeated Dolph Ziggler via DQ; Dean Ambrose, Sami Zayn, and Cesaro defeated Alberto Del Rio, Kevin Owens, and Chris Jericho.
  • I’m ready for Becky vs. Charlotte. Bring it on. Now, is Sasha ready to go yet?
  • Give me more Owens and Jericho! “That’s French.” “I know.”
  • JBL saying “stomping a mud glory hole” was quite the call.
  • How dare the Vaudevillains deny us Steph dancing!
  • My favorite part of the Rusev-Titus faceoff: Titus calling him a “Bulgarian blowhard” and Rusev angrily replying with, “what is blowhard?”
  • Yeah, didn’t really need a Charlotte-Ric recap with insights from a few WWE stars.
  • “Good point. He’s Canadian.”
  • Big E really got a “hold the door/Hodor” moment in there.
  • I also enjoyed Woods and Big E ribbing Kofi for being in WWE for so long. “You know you were my favorite in middle school!”

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