Last night’s Royal Rumble was arguably the best WWE PPV in years. It certainly boasted the best Rumble match since 2010, when Edge came away with a victory after a surprise return; but even outside of that hour-plus match, the card delivered on almost every level. It was a night that was certainly overlong, but also filled with great storytelling. John Cena claimed his 16th world title, tying Ric Flair for the record, in a stirring match with AJ Styles. Kevin Owens overcame the absence of Chris Jericho and, with a little help from Braun Strowman, defeated Roman Reigns, beating him up so bad that he couldn’t even become Super Reigns after drawing #30 in the Rumble. Charlotte continued to dominate PPVs and the Women’s division, proving that she deserves to be the untouchable reigning champ.

Then there was the Rumble itself, which used its first half to tell a perfectly plotted story about Braun Strowman, and then used its second half to execute big moments for its legends. While I remain personally indifferent to Randy Orton winning the Rumble, and cautiously optimistic that Smackdown! Live can find a way to make the next few months engaging, it’s hard to deny that WWE delivered last night by embracing a clear narrative vision, pushing Reigns to the sidelines despite his #30 entry, and putting some momentum behind its rising stars Kevin Owens and Braun Strowman.

That brings us to this week’s Raw, which does a pretty great job of taking last night’s momentum and building on it. It’s hard to call any three-hour Raw speedy and efficient, but this week’s episode does feel a lot less sluggish than many of the episodes from the last few weeks. There are some storylines that aren’t working, and Reigns is still lurking around the main event, patiently waiting to be gifted yet another shot at the Universal Championship, despite his two losses last night, but there’s also a lot of good going around. Wrestlemania might not be shaping up with any clarity just yet, but the pieces are being put in place, and amongst the mess there’s some interesting threads to follow.

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Let’s start with the stale main event scene. For weeks it’s been nothing but Roman Reigns wrestling either Chris Jericho or Kevin Owens, or both of them at once. Reigns has literally done nothing outside of that since his feud with Rusev ended at Hell In A Celll. If you’re curious, the last match he wrestled against someone that wasn’t Owens or Y2J or some combination of the two, excluding the traditional Five-on-Five Survivor Series match, was a tag match against Cesaro and Sheamus from November 14!

This week’s Raw gives us a bit of a fresh start. That starts with Sami Zayn getting a clean win over Chris Jericho in the best match of the night. While I’m very sick of the “pinned the champion” style of storytelling, as the commentary team can’t be trusted to not hammer the point home once every few seconds, Zayn is coming off a solid build going into the Rumble, and a midcard feud with Jericho for the United States Championship could be great for both guys. It’d allow Sami to move away from Braun, give him a clear direction heading to Wrestlemania, while also moving Y2J and KO away from each other, freeing them up for fresher storylines.

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Similarly, Raw doesn’t move too far away from the Bayley-Charlotte feud in the Women’s division, but it does start to bring in other pieces. Here, there’s a mixed tag team match that ends up being a good spot for, you guessed it, Bayley to pin the champion, but there’s also the dovetailing with Sasha’s feud with Nia Jax. Having these separate stories weave together keeps the Wrestlemania picture a little foggy, and that’s ultimately a good thing. A big reason why last year’s Road To Wrestlemania was so dull was its predictability. Every single step could be seen a mile away. The same can’t be said for this year, at least right now. Everything is up in the air, especially when you consider that it’s a Smackdown! Live talent that’ll be in the main event.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of staleness to go around. For instance, as great as Paul Heyman’s promo is tonight, the rotating appearances of Brock Lesnar and Goldberg are growing tiresome. Goldberg, for all the positives of his current run, really only has the one promo. It’s a great promo, but it’s not exactly one that benefits from being trotted out one week after another. Hopefully both guys disappear after Goldberg’s appearance next week; you have to let that anticipation simmer. It’s also time for Enzo and Cass to move on to something else, if only so Rusev can find a meaningful feud for Wrestlemania. It’s a point we’ve been hitting here again and again, but Rusev is being wasted in yet another feud, and WWE has a long way to go if they want to reestablish him as the monster he was a few years back.

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Speaking of monsters, Samoa Joe is here, and he’s Triple H’s new muscle. After Rollins threatens to strom into board meetings and maybe show up at Steph’s house to beat the hell out of her husband, Steph informs him that Triple H is on his way to the arena. He shows up at the end of the night, and after Rollins lets him finish his in-ring promo about how he was once a creator but now he’s a destroyer, Rollins comes out to throw some fists. The only problem? Samoa Joe is here to make sure that doesn’t happen. This is right for so many reasons. Samoa Joe as the angry, motivated guy looking to make a name for himself on the main roster is a perfect role for somebody with his heel abilities. Add in a slimy Triple H as his boss, and a fired-up, crowd-backed babyface Rollins into the mix, and suddenly a feud projected months in advance feels exciting. If Raw is going to craft a Wrestlemania build that makes up for last year’s debacle, that’s what they have to do: find new, fresh ways to tell stories. Oh, and have Braun Strowman throw everybody through tables.

Stray observations

  • Results: Sami Zayn defeated Chris Jericho; Tony Nese defeated Mustafa Ali; Sheamus, Cesaro, and Bayley defeated Charlotte and The Club; Braun Strowman defeated Kevin Owens (c) via DQ (WWE Universal Championship match); Nia Jax vs. Sasha Banks just kind of ended; Enzo and Cass defeated Rusev and Jinder Mahal (Tag Team Tornado match)
  • Mustafa Ali is such a refreshing presence in the Cruiserweight division. It’s a shame he loses to Tony Nese.
  • Also, I am still all in on the feud between Swann and Neville. Those guys are doing top-notch work in a division that’s been given little room to succeed.
  • Outside of some awkward gender-based stuff, Rollins’ promo with Steph was pretty great. Labeling himself “the greatest threat to Triple H’s legacy” was particularly inspired. Also describing Triple H: “That’s a scared dude.”
  • Braun Strowman just eliminating Jericho before he faces off against Owens was a great touch. That dude is legitimately terrifying.
  • If Cesaro wants to come out with streamers on his wrists every single time, I’m not going to argue.
  • Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, and Chris Jericho all wore black armbands emblazoned with the fleur-de-lis to pay respect to the victims of the tragic, vile shooting in Quebec, and Zayn also threw up a peace sign at the end of his match. A beautiful gesture of love and inclusivity that, for this Canadian, really hit home.

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