There’s a lot of stuff on tonight’s Raw that I’m not going to talk about. There’s a solid opening segment involving Paul Heyman, Brock Lesnar, Kane, and Seth Rollins, where Heyman manages to incite a chant of “Baby Brother” at Kane. There’s a King Barrett vs. R-Truth match, where Truth looks good but is basically a match we’ve seen over and over again for the last few weeks. Ryback and Randy Orton face off against Sheamus and Big Show, and nobody wants to talk about that. Roman Reigns beat up Bray Wyatt, which was pretty good actually, but felt pretty inconsequential compared to the rest of the evening. Instead of talking about any of that stuff, we need to talk about two segments: The shakeup of the Divas Division and what I’m calling the extended John Cena U.S. Open Challenge.

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Battleground is coming up on Sunday, but there’s really no such things as a go-home show anymore. Considering how much TV WWE fills and the prevalence of the WWE Network, a go-home show, which is typically meant to really sell the upcoming PPV, isn’t necessary anymore. That’s been a problem lately, the final show before a PPV feeling like just any other episode of Raw. Tonight’s episode suggests a new way forward though, a new way to do episodes before a PPV. Rather than just hit the same beats of the feuds you’ve been peddling, why not completely blow things out? Why not craft three hours of television that show off your product? Forget the boring promos and the pointless match run-ins, just let your talent show what they can do in the simplest way possible.

Tonight’s Raw, and specifically those two segments I mentioned, is all about showing that WWE, despite its flaws, boasts the best wrestling talent in the world. Tonight’s Raw is evidence of WWE focusing on the future, and that starts with an amazing segment that introduces a handful of NXT talent to the main roster. It’s a segment that’s iconic not only because it brings in Sasha Banks, Charlotte, and Becky Lynch, but also shows that WWE is committed to changing the way they book women’s wrestling. There’s no guarantee that WWE will now give the Divas more time and give them actual storylines and proper face/heel alignments, but it’s a HUGE step in the right direction. Stephanie McMahon basically states that this is the new normal; that the Bella twins, as great as they’ve been, can expect to see some real competition now.

The whole segment devolves into beautiful chaos, with the new NXT women brawling with the Bellas, Alicia Fox, Paige, Naomi, and (unfortunately) Tamina. Everyone gets some offense in, but the segment ends with Becky, Charlotte, and Sasha locking in their signature submission moves at the same time. Wrestling is visual (ie: colors, physiques, move sets), and the image of the NXT women taking over the main roster is truly stunning. Who knows how WWE books the Divas division from here on out, but for now this segment offers a ton of promise. Not only does it suggest that WWE is ready to truly give the Divas a chance, but there’s now a very deep main roster in the Divas division.

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Similarly, the John Cena U.S. Open Challenge has also been about promoting the future of the WWE for months now. Be it Sami Zayn, Cesaro, or Kevin Owens, the challenge has been highlighting talent we don’t see as often, showing that WWE has a bright future in terms of young talent and proving that John Cena is one of the best WWE superstars of all time. It takes two people to make a great match, and Cena has been involved in more than a few classics in the last few weeks, proving to the haters that he’s more than just a WWE marketer’s dream.

Tonight’s Open Challenge also devolves into chaos, with Cesaro, Rusev, and Owens all claiming that they should be the one to wrestle Cena for the title on Raw. Such a feud is great writing; logically, if Cena is offering up an open challenge every single week, there’s bound to be tension between superstars who want to fight for the title. Thus, we get a triple threat match between Rusev, Cesaro, and Owens, with the winner fighting Cena for the title in the next match. The title match doesn’t matter. What matters is the first match, the qualifying one. It’s a remarkable match, a long, exciting, compelling segment that shows just how talented those three guys are. It’s heartening to see Cesaro being used properly, as an unstoppable strongman with a great move set who’s legitimately over with the crowd. It’s great to see Rusev back in action. He’s stealthily been one of WWE’s best talents in the past year or so. He’s great on the mic (those insults towards Owens!) and his in-ring work is versatile and scary. Then there’s Owens, who can’t do anything wrong. Put these three guys in the ring and good things happen, it’s as simple as that. It may not hit the heights of Cena-Owens I or II, or even Cena-Cesaro II, but it’s perhaps better in terms of its potential lasting impact. This match cements Owens, Cesaro, and Rusev as top-level talents, as guys who could realistically beat Cena and move from the U.S. Championship to the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.

The future is now, and for the first time since (approximately) Wrestlemania, it’s seriously bright.

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Stray observations

  • Results: Ryback and Randy Orton defeated Big Show and Sheamus; Prime Time Players and Mark Henry defeated New Day; R-Truth defeated King Barrett; Rusev defeated Cesaro and Kevin Owens; Rusev defeated John Cena (c) (by DQ, courtesy of Owens interference).
  • I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. Reigns looks so much better now that we don’t see him constantly.
  • “I can take you to Suplex City tonight, bitch.”
  • New Day now how to get their heat, and it’s beautiful to watch every week. Smart booking having them come out after that fire Divas segment.
  • That Cesaro flip-over powerbomb (or whatever you call it) that took out Owens and Rusev was amazing.
  • In fact, Cesaro looked great all match. That springboard uppercut is a thing of beauty. And are you kidding me with that three-man suplex?!?
  • I got goosebumps when the crowd started chanting “This is awesome” during the Divas segment. Pay attention to that, WWE!
  • Not to be forgotten: Seth Rollins is doing great work in his feud with Lesnar. The guys was thrust into the spotlight at Werstlemania and he’s been killing it ever since.
  • I don’t exactly know how to parse out all my thoughts on this, but a solid chunk of Raw was dedicated to pushing the women’s division and was then followed up by a great match with six black wrestlers. That feels significant.
  • Low-key highlight of the night: Miz telling Michael Cole, “you’re not a tough guy, you’re mouth.”
  • Rusev is just next-level, folks. The way he wrestles that first match so dominantly, and then sells all through the second match? Great stuff.

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