For one reason or another, WWE Monday Night Raw has been on a hot streak lately. Maybe it’s because SummerSlam is only three weeks away. Maybe it’s because Brock Lesnar is semi-regularly appearing on the show, and that’s never a bad thing. Maybe it’s the fact that with the injection of new Divas talent, and injuries to guys like John Cena and a kayfabe one to Dolph Ziggler, WWE has had to think on the fly—and it’s made for more exciting, unpredictable television. More than anything, though, the recent string of solid episodes of Raw, and an overall engaging build to SummerSlam so far, is the product of solid booking. I don’t necessarily mean in terms of wins and losses, but in terms of how the whole three-hour show has been paced and put together.

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Consider the way tonight’s Raw ebbs and flows. The show kicks off in raucous fashion with Seth Rollins issuing an open challenge for his WWE Championship. After the commercial break, he informs the crowd that there are two stipulations: his opponent must be under six feet tall, and weigh less than 200 pounds. Rollins laughs and tells El Torito to get out there. The “Olé” music hits and then cuts out, Neville’s music kicking in instead. Needless to say, the match was amazing (more on that later), instantly getting the crowd invested in the card. After that, there’s an eight-man tag match as New Day and the Ascension take on the Lucha Dragons and Los Matadores, and it’s a perfect way to follow-up that stellar first match. It’s basically a spot fest, a match that keeps the crowd going and subtly moves along the feud between New Day and the Prime Time Players.

The highs keep coming as Charlotte and Becky Lynch take on and defeat the Bellas. It’s a physical, thrilling match. Nikki, despite taking the pin, still looks like one of the most threatening talents in the divisions–that spinebuster!–while Charlotte continues to ascend to the top of the division. After such a hot string of segments, which occupy the show’s first half, Raw slows things down, moving through a fun Miz TV segment where Kevin Owens and Cesaro throw words and then fists at one another, Miz smiling and delighting in every minute of it. That’s followed by a sluggish match between Rusev and Mark Henry, but it works as a small throw-away match that lets Rusev keep his heat and show that he’s still an in-ring force while Ziggler recovers from his “injury.” After that, it’s a Wyatt promo with an appearance from Sheamus and a match that sees King Barrett defeat Zack Ryder with a Bull Hammer. It’s a dull section of the show, but it works to cool things off after a hot 90 minutes. That’s necessary, and makes the last section of the show more exciting.

Essentially, the last hour of the show benefits from that lull in the action. Paige and Naomi ends up not feeling like just another Divas match tossed in to continue the Diva Revolution, but rather a meaningful match that has implications for the entire division. It’s a match that gets the crowd going again, not a cool-down before the house show-esque main event.

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While all that booking in regards to pace and structure is important to the success of the show, it’s the opening segment that really highlights the smart booking as of late. A lot of folks weren’t happy that Seth Rollins tapped out last week, losing to John Cena and failing to win the United States Championship. Ignoring the fact that the same vocal group probably isn’t too upset that Nikki tapped to Charlotte tonight, the match between Neville and Rollins, which has the WWE Championship on the line, doesn’t work without that loss from last week. In fact, it doesn’t work the same way without Rollins’ entire run as champion, where he’s barely held on to the title since Wrestlemania. Rollins won the title by cashing in his Money In The Bank contract, never pinning the champ Brock Lesnar. His run has been tainted since the beginning, and that’s the point. He’s a heel, and specifically one who’s lucky to be where he is. Those circumstances mean that when Neville steps in the ring with him, hits the Red Arrow, and goes for the pin, the crowd can count the “1, 2, 3” and lose their minds before realizing that Rollins has his foot on the ropes. Rollins’ run as a chickenshit heel means that every match he’s in feels substantial, and that he could lose the title at any moment. It means that everyone in that arena and watching at home has the same thought, thinking that Neville could actually win the championship and falling hard for two false finishes.

That kind of booking extends beyond Rollins. The excitement of that match is a symptom of Owens winning his first match against Cena, and Neville taking Cena to the limit during his US Open Challenge. It’s a symptom of the Diva Revolution, which shows that new talent from NXT can make an immediate impact. It extends to the main event tonight, which is another predictable house show match, but one that doesn’t have to carry the weight of the entire three-hour show. Such booking means that the main event can be a fun match where everybody gets their stuff in, making the rest of the card feel important by contrast. Right now, WWE is using smart booking to create an old-school feel to its build to SummerSlam. The focus is on wrestling, on matches of all sorts, and peppered in between are short, punchy promos that get to the point while never overstaying their welcome. Raw is on a roll right now and there’s no reason to expect it to slow down.

Stray observations

  • Results: Seth Rollins (c) defeated Neville (WWE Championship match); New Day and the Ascension defeated the Lucha Dragons and Los Matadores; Charlotte and Becky Lynch defeated Nikki and Brie Bella; Rusev defeated Mark Henry; King Barrett defeated Zack Ryder; Paige defeated Naomi; Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, and Randy Orton defeated Bray Wyatt, Luke Harper, and Sheamus.
  • Ronda Rousey coming for Naomi.
  • I’m in on Seth Rollins’ “Never Shuts Up” shirt.
  • Great tribute to Rowdy Roddy Piper tonight. My tear ducts can’t take too many more of these.
  • Seth Rollins vs. Neville, or: The Battle of Zero Body Fat
  • “I showed him that move!” Xavier Woods is a gem and we should be grateful to have him on our TV every week.
  • Wonderful side effect of the Diva Revolution: actual heel-face alignments!
  • Lots of clean finishes tonight, which is all part of that solid booking I mentioned.
  • Miz’s face during that Miz TV segment is slyly the best part of the show.
  • As a fan of Arrow, I’m excited to see what Stephen Amell brings to Raw next week.
  • I hate Becky Lynch’s steampunk gear. Why does she even have it? It’s not like it’s part of her character or anything.

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