There are two versions of WWE on tonight’s episode of Monday Night Raw. There’s the WWE that seemingly doesn’t understand how to build to its next PPV, that doesn’t show any interest in telling a meaningful story. It’s the WWE that gives us Dolph Ziggler vs. Rusev again, and repeats the same finish from just about every other match they’ve had, where Lana and Summer end up brawling for 20 seconds before everyone’s split up. That WWE is churning out SummerSlam: The Sequel, so much so that I can’t believe Sheamus and Randy Orton didn’t face off tonight. Then there’s the more promising version of WWE, where they commit to storytelling that’s rooted in history yet looks towards the future. It’s the WWE that gives Cesaro and Kevin Owens time to do their thing, understanding that they’re two of the most naturally gifted talents on the roster.

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Unfortunately, for the most part, tonight’s Raw is stuck in that first groove, refusing to do anything new or interesting to build towards Night of Champions. That’s a huge problem considering that the PPV is only three weeks away. Such a timeframe calls for a quick build, with new motivations, matches, stakes, and tensions. Tonight’s episode is dead in the water though; the matches aren’t bad, but the storytelling is consistently underwhelming. That begins with the first match of the night, where Rusev and Dolph Ziggler have a SummerSlam rematch. The two have a solid match, as they always do–their dynamic and clashing styles makes for a compelling match every time–but it’s hard to muster up the effort to care when every single match ends the same way. Inevitably, Summer Rae interferes in the match, and that brings Lana into the ring. She tackles Summer and the two trade blows before they’re separated. It’s a variation on the ending to every other match they’ve had, and there’s no excuse for it. Sure, there’s some backstage stuff involving nudity and jealousy to shake things up, but that type of storytelling is just as tired as what’s going on in the ring.

Such tired storytelling extends to the Intercontinental Championship match, which sees Ryback defending against Big Show, with Miz taking a spot on commentary. Just like Ziggler vs. Rusev, the match isn’t bad at all, but what distinguishes it from every interaction they had, along with Miz, leading into SummerSlam? Tonight’s show feels like we’re building to that PPV all over again, which is ridiculous when you consider what SummerSlam is supposed to mean when stacked against other PPVs. The same can be said of tonight’s Divas Beat The Clock Challenge. It’s great that WWE is actually putting these women in singles matches, but it’s still not much different than the build to SummerSlam. I sat there all night waiting for some sort of swerve, for one member of PCB to turn on the other because they’re competing to be the #1 contender, or for Sasha Banks to sneak her way into Night Of Champions by reminding everyone that she made the Divas champion tap, and that always leads to a title shot. But no, the whole challenge takes up about nine minutes of screen time. Becky Lynch and Alicia Fox have a solid match, but everything else is embarrassing. Brie Bella running away from Charlotte is good because it tells a story and makes sense–she doesn’t want the biggest threat in the Divas division facing off against her sister–but it doesn’t make for a compelling match. Plus, Charlotte wins the challenge anyway. Add to that the fact that Sasha vs. Paige just ends when the clock runs out and you have another string of segments that waste immense talent and ignore any sort of meaningful storytelling.

At least WWE is putting Cesaro and Kevin Owens out there every week. Their matches continue to stand head-and-shoulders above every other match on Raw, their skills completely complementing one another. They understand the way they need to wrestle and work to bring out the best in one another. Their matches are filled with great psychology, from Owens continually shouting at the crowd and commentary because he needs attention, to Cesaro selling a rib injury and having it cost him the match when he goes for the Swing. That kind of in-ring storytelling is all too often absent from Raw, and that’s especially true tonight.

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The rest of the night has its moments, but there’s still a listless feeling. New Day ONCE AGAIN elevates the entire show. From Xavier’s hair and brush to their plea to protect tables everywhere, these guys are on another level right now. They’re fully realized characters, full of braggadocio with the in-ring skills to back it all up. I’m still sorting out how I feel about the Dudley Boyz coming in and beating them right away–why not have New Day steal a win like they tend to do?–but overall, the tag division is one of WWE’s strengths right now, which is not something I expected to say in 2015. While the Wyatt Family, including new member Braun Strowman, who once again dismantles the former Shield boys tonight, isn’t exactly a tag team, their feud is similar to what’s going on in the tag division. There’s a slow but compelling build happening, and there’s tension within the storyline. Will Reigns and Ambrose get another member? What do they need to do to bring down Strowman? Those are questions that drive a feud, that keep the audience invested.

There’s another intriguing story that’s poking through all the nonsense too, and it’s tucked away inside the feuds for both of Seth Rollins’ titles. Both Cena and Sting are after Rollins, and when Cena comes out at the end of the show and invokes his rematch clause, two matches are set for Night of Champions. Rollins will face Sting for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, and John Cena for the United States Championship. The heel champ against insurmountable odds isn’t the most compelling story, but what’s interesting is the way WWE seems to be positioning Rollins for a face turn. It’s something I mentioned last week when Rollins wrestled babyface in Brooklyn, but that might have been a one-off deal. Now though, they’re stacking him up against Triple H, having Steph cut him down, and using Cena to point out how he’s being used by the Authority. I’m still not convinced that babyface Rollins is coming any time soon, but the fact that it’s being hinted at makes the main event scene a little more exciting.

It’s a shame such intrigue doesn’t extend to the rest of Raw though, as tonight’s episode largely hits the same dull, predictable beats that built to a staggeringly underwhelming SummerSlam.

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Stray observations

  • Results: Dolph Ziggler defeated Rusev (via DQ); Becky Lynch defeated Alicia Fox; Ryback (c) defeated Big Show (Intercontinental Championship match); Charlotte defeated Brie Bella; Kevin Owens defeated Cesaro; Braun Strowman defeated Dean Ambrose (via DQ); Paige vs. Sasha Banks ended in a No Contest because we can’t have nice things; The Dudley Boyz defeated New Day.
  • I’m so ready for babyface Rollins to beat Triple H and cement his legacy.
  • All the Ziggler-Rusev stuff is repetitive right now, but Summer Rae nailed that backstage promo. She’s stirring things up, and it’s great.
  • Lana being mad at Ziggler is so stupid. C’mon, you’re going to believe Summer Rae over your hero boyfriend?
  • Just let New Day do every other segment on Raw.
  • What do we all think of the Dudley Boyz getting the win tonight? It rubbed me the wrong way a bit, but I’d love to hear what everyone else thinks.
  • I’m on vacation next week, so don’t be surprised when LaToya Ferguson’s music hits and she makes her triumphant return to the Monday Night Raw beat on Monday.

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