Last week’s Monday Night Raw had a lot of fresh, intriguing matchups on paper, but once the in-ring action started, not a lot of it mattered. Despite the start of the tournament to crown a new WWE World Heavyweight Champion, much of the night felt inconsequential because so many of the matches felt predictable. There was hardly an outcome that was surprising, and the other segments throughout the night didn’t do much to distract from that fact. Tonight’s a different story though. With the quarterfinals kicking off and concluding all in one night, and every match feeling completely new, this week’s Raw manages to be one of the best go-home shows in quite some time.

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Part of the reason tonight’s Raw works is that there’s some genuine momentum to the three hours. Too many go-home shows in recent memory have stumbled towards their respective PPVs, failing to sell feuds and constantly giving away PPV matches for free on Raw. The presence of the tournament means that such a squandering of storylines can’t really happen. By necessity, you can’t give away the three Survivor Series championship matches. More than that, the tournament allows a number of feuds to build in the simplest way possible. It’s not just about who advances in the bracket, but what it means for guys to lose. Will Cesaro realize how close he came and sell out to The Authority to get his shot post-Survivor Series? Where does Neville go? And Ziggler? Now all of these guys have come close to being at the top, which gives them solid motivation going forward. As always, the future depends on what WWE does with that motivation, but for now it adds depth to the tournament matches.

It really says something about those tournament matches that consistently brilliant unicorns the New Day represent a bit of a cool down in the middle of the show. Seriously, they come out and do their routine, this time ragging on Jey Uso’s injury—“US! Ow!” they chant—and talking about Bootyade and Bootyjuice. It’s so, so good, and on any other night would be an episode highlight. Tonight though, it’s just a fun transition into more actual wrestling. Raw benefits from the fact that the tourney matches are the focal point though. It allows the New Day segment to just be a fun, short segment with no pressure to liven up a dull show. The same can said of Tyler Breeze’s match against R-Truth. While it’s nice that the match gets a bit more time than expected, it’s still just a transitional match. But here’s the thing: it achieves exactly what it’s supposed to, which is getting Breeze a win, and a clean one at that. In fact, the night is filled with such clean decisions, which is a rarity on Raw.

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That type of booking contributes to the overall feeling that this Raw is executed differently than so many others. From the lengthy matches and lack of endless promos to the main event being given to a Divas contract signing, every segment tonight shows what WWE can do when it’s not on autopilot. Those lengthy matches are the key though, as they show off just how stacked WWE’s roster is right now. As it turns out—and really, this should be obvious to WWE—when you allow two ridiculously talented performers to just let loose in the ring for 15-20 minutes, good things happen.

First up, Neville and Owens give us an all-NXT match, and it’s poetry in motion. The two don’t even take their time getting there, they just start with the back and forth and never let up. It’s a beautifully structured match with spot-on pacing, and a match where both guys come out looking legit. And that reverse rana? Don’t even get me started. Can we just fast forward to when Neville and Owens are main eventing PPVs and putting on thirty-minute classics? Please?

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And as if that’s not enough, Ziggler and Ambrose get some serious time to work and put on one hell of a match. While it’s weird to see Ambrose chain wrestling to start the match, the build to a more chaotic finish works. This is a version of Ambrose that I can get behind. He’s manic and urgent, but not silly. He seems focused and violent, which is exactly what we need from a guy who goes by the handle “The Lunatic Fringe.” Plus, he cuts a good, quick promo at the end of the match about how he’d turn everything upside down if he was champ—including replacing Michael Cole with a fish tank. This is the Ambrose that’s so easy for the crowd to get behind.

Raw eventually moves to Alberto Del Rio versus Kalisto, but the less said about that the better. It’s not necessarily a bad match, but it doesn’t have the same flow and chemistry the rest of the tournament matches do. Maybe it’s just me, but Del Rio seems to be phoning it in ever since his return. Perhaps that‘s because of the horrible gimmick he‘s been saddled with, or the fact that he’s back wrestling with a company that parted ways with him not that long ago because he punched a racist. Either way, his in-ring work is technically fine, but it’s lacking in energy. Tonight’s match with Kalisto is sloppy, and that’s without taking into consideration that he rips Kalisto’s mask off for a brief time.

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Thankfully, Cesaro and Roman Reigns are here to steal the show. Both Reigns and Cesaro come into the match with a ton of momentum, so seeing them go out there and blow the roof off the place is a real joy. It’s a match that’s easy to just get wrapped up in, that makes you forget about booking, pushes, and front office decisions and instead just focus on the incredible in-ring talent. Cesaro remains a goddamn super human force. He does things nobody should be able to do, including that cartwheel on the ropes from the top turnbuckle. He’s possessed with so much natural talent and charisma that any match he’s in is immediately a notch above any other. Let’s not take credit away from Reigns though, who sells Cesaro’s offense here like’s he’s about to die. Reigns leans into everything, and that kind of selling makes his comeback all the more enjoyable and earned.

Thus, the semifinals of the bracket are set. Del Rio, Reigns, Ambrose, and Owens all move on to Sunday. And you know what’s crazy? Despite a Reigns-Ambrose final being the safe money bet, everything still feels unpredictable, and that’s because tonight’s matches tell a story, and all of tonight’s Raw built towards Survivor Series in a logical, meaningful way. Sometimes it’s just that simple.

Stray observations

  • Results: Kevin Owens defeated Neville; Tyler Breeze defeated R-Truth; Dean Ambrose defeated Dolph Ziggler; New Day vs. The Usos and Ryback ended in a No Contest; Roman Reigns defeated Cesaro; The Dudley Boyz defeated The Ascension; Alberto Del Rio defeated Kalisto.
  • I’m pretty conflicted on the contract signing. One moment I’m in and WWE is selling me on the match, especially when Charlotte is talking about her and Paige growing up in wrestling households. But then I’m uncomfortable as Charlotte starts to cry and Paige uses Charlotte’s dead brother to get heat. How did everyone else feel about it?
  • You know what’s great? Tyler Breeze needing lip balm during his match. You know what’s not so great? JBL’s expected reaction.
  • No matter how many times I watch Cesaro and Neville, I still pop so hard for their stuff. They’re on a completely different level than anyone else on the roster when it comes to in-ring work.
  • Please, let’s get rid of the MexAmerica nonsense. I don’t even know what Zeb is talking about backstage, and I get the feeling he doesn’t really know either.
  • Triple H approaching a number of guys backstage adds lots of potential for furture storylines/PPV screwiness.
  • Did you know the Divas were split into teams four months ago!?! Did you know WWE has been wasting Sasha Banks for four months now!?!
  • Oh, the Brothers of Destruction showed up again and did some supernatural stuff while Bray Wyatt laughed. It was the same promo you’ve seen for a few shows now.

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