It’s hard to know exactly when the Road to Wrestlemania really starts when the Royal Rumble delivers a Rumble match winner with an unclear path to the big show, and both Raw and Smackdown! Live each still have one more PPV to cycle through before Wrestlemania in Orlando. Don’t get me wrong, uncertainty is a good thing, especially considering how predictable last year’s build was, resulting in a sluggish, boring, no-win situation of a main event. But Raw is currently at a point where, while some of the feuds and storylines are fresh, interesting, and unpredictable, many are still stagnating. This week’s Raw is a fairly strong episode, but the only reason it stands out is that amongst all the usual messiness are moments of inspiration that tease the potential of Wrestlemania.

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First things first though, Raw has to address the fact that Seth Rollins went down with an injury, and with that comes the chance that he might miss his second straight Wrestlemania. Obviously it’s a huge blow for Rollins, who was just starting to really find his footing as a babyface in a feud with Triple H; but to WWE’s credit, they lean right into the skid and find some spark. At the top of the show, a somber Mick Foley introduces the newest Raw signee, and the man responsible for putting Rollins on the shelf: Samoa Joe. After the man makes his way to the ring and Stephanie McMahon gives him the spirited introduction he deserves, Joe steps up and uses the Rollins injury to instantly sell himself as a top heel.

The segment itself is energetic, a great way to kick off Raw. More than that though, it sees Joe find his spot quickly. His brief promo, shouting about how it’s taken him 18 years to get to the WWE, but it only took him one attack to put a guy like Rollins on the IR, is fierce and intimidating. Last week’s attack suggested Joe was a true badass, and this week’s opening segment cements that idea. He puts the whole locker room on notice, and it’s easy to believe him. His words aren’t empty because all we’ve seen of Joe so far is him laying waste to a former champion. That’s how you debut a guy with Joe’s talent, who you want in your main event immediately. You establish him as a viable threat and don’t let any doubt creep in.

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Unfortunately, Raw does let a little bit of doubt creep in. After Reigns and Joe slug it out in a great main event, rather than having Joe get a clean win and really assert his dominance, allowing him to build on a stellar debut attack and promo, WWE decides to have Strowman interfere. Sure, it’s a decision that moves the story of Strowman vs. Reigns forward, but the implication of the booking is that Samoa Joe was moments away from losing. That doesn’t mean Joe is neutered or anything too dramatic—to be clear, he looks incredible during the match, which is really the most important thing—but it is a maddening, disheartening end to Joe’s in-ring debut, even if he does pick up the win. Raw just can’t leave a good thing alone.

So, while Joe, booking aside, is the obvious example of Raw finding a fresh story, there’s more going on elsewhere, and with another monster of the main roster: Braun Strowman. Here he’s back to throwing jobbers around like they’re tennis balls, this time fighting four guys at once. He sends one guy running to the back, destroys the rest, and then piles all three of them on top of one another before pinning them all. It’s perfect. If you’re going to reset, in a sense, with Strowman, it makes sense to go back to the jobber matches. Of course you need to up the ante, so you have him face off against four opponents. It serves not only as a welcome change of pace in the show, but it also gives Braun another dominant, unique showcase before he demands “more competition.” It’s a good way to keep Braun at his current level without getting stale, especially when you add in the brutal beating he lays on Reigns at the end of the episode. The real test of WWE’s faith and interest in Strowman comes at Fastlane though, as he’ll match up against Roman Reigns. The creation of Strowman as a monster with main event potential has been great, and Fastlane could be a chance to really push him to the next level.

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Outside of those storylines, Raw is struggling to really move many of its other stories forward. Nia Jax looks great in her match against Bayley tonight, but her character could use a little more depth. If she’s this dominant, why doesn’t she want Charlotte’s title? At least with Braun you can argue he has to finish his business with Reigns before he can get near the Universal Championship. Jax has no such reasoning behind her, and that hinders the story of Charlotte vs. Bayley a bit. Similarly, the ongoing saga involving Owens, Jericho, and Sami Zayn hits a rut this week. There isn’t much to the story beyond the familiar “is our friendship still intact?” stuff that WWE has been hitting for months, as both Jericho and Owens are mostly there to set up an Owens title defense against Goldberg at Fastlane. It’s a match that’s hard to avoid fantasy booking, meaning that it’s difficult to not feel disappointed by the possibility of Raw’s main championship heading back to the part time circuit. This week’s Raw gives us a lot to look forward to, but as always, caveats abound.

Stray observations

  • Results: Nia Jax defeated Bayley; Braun Strowman defeated The Four Jobbers; Akira Tozawa defeated Drew Gulak; Cesaro and Sheamus defeated Gallows and Anderson via DQ (Raw Tag Team Championship match); New Day defeated The Shining Stars; Chris Jericho defeated Sami Zayn (United States Championship match); Cedric Alexander, Jack Gallagher, and TJ Perkins defeated Tony Nese, Noam Dar, and Neville; Samoa Joe defeated Roman Reigns.
  • Chris Jericho finally caught up with the rest of America and put Tom Brady on The List.
  • I will say that Roman Reigns finally sounded authentic and heated in that brief opening promo. Really sold the magnitude of stepping up against Joe. It would have been even better if there was any mention of Rollins form his former friend.
  • “Strowman just kicked that guy back to his day job in a Winger cover band.”
  • Austin Aries is so good at commentary and in-ring interviews. “And here comes Tony Nese’s abs.”
  • Owens calls Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar the perfect “undercard” Wrestlemania match.
  • Raw’s tag team division is a mess right now. There’s not a single team that feels alive and motivated, even if Cesaro and Sheamus, along with the New Day, are bringing it in the ring each week.

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