After a few weeks of competent booking and some solid wrestling matches, tonight’s Raw settles into a more predictable and complacent pattern. The majority of the show lacks any momentum whatsoever. Raw can work when there are a bunch of matches that don’t carry a lot of stakes, but tonight’s matches are not only meaningless in terms of larger storytelling, but also fairly boring. While the last few shows haven’t done a ton of building towards Battleground outside of about two feuds, they at least contained compelling, stand-alone matches. Tonight’s Raw is more barren. By the time we get to the final hour of the show though, all the boredom and stagnation is almost worth it.

Typically, when WWE rolls into Chicago, with its notoriously vocal and smarky crowd, they play to their audience. They book the card knowing that the audience will be seriously loud and seriously impatient. Cena’s going to get booed. Reigns is going to get booed (though not as much tonight, surprisingly). If you put Big Show and Ryback in a match, the crowd won’t know what to do. The first two hours of tonight’s show go against the notion that WWE books for its crowd. The first two hours feel like a completely different show, like WWE lowering expectations so that they could, relatively speaking, blow it out in the final hour.

Let’s start with those first two hours. The show begins well enough, with a Paul Heyman promo that, as usual, is spot-on and allows Brock Lesnar to look intimidating. After that though, the show goes downhill. Following up a raucous Heyman promo with a match between Big Show and Ryback is a surefire way to kill any momentum from your opening segment. Thankfully the Miz is there to liven things up, providing live commentary/cheerleading, motivating Big Show and Ryback to beat the hell out of each other. Miz has been one of the best WWE performers of the past few months. He gets real heel heat and knows his character inside and out. He pulls off the equal parts arrogance and chicken-shit behavior with ease, and he alone is livening up this otherwise dull feud for the Intercontinental Championship.

After that, there’s Brie versus Paige, which is a whole lot of nothing. Neither Diva is really going that hard, and the match is over in no time, meaning that they never really settle into a nice groove or develop any sort of interesting dynamic. Now, if the Bellas became the new NWO and started recruiting Divas every week to dominate the division/Paige like they have with Alicia, I might change my tune about how messily the division has been booked for months. Reigns then takes on Sheamus and while it’s a pretty solid match, it features two big guys who the Chicago crowd aren’t going to pop for. That means we get the signature “CM Punk” and “JBL” chants throughout the match, though it should be said that the pop for Reigns when he came out was substantial. Now that the main event hype has died down, he’s settling in with the fans as a singles wrestler and it’s great. Randy Orton also showed up to fight Sheamus but let’s not dwell on that, shall we?

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Things pick up a bit after that, with Rusev finally beating the hell out of Dolph Ziggler. If he’s officially back from injury, consider me excited. Rusev has been hot for months and his injury came at the worst possible time leading to this horrendous romantic feud. Tonight’s beatdown was the first time the storyline felt important, like something substantial was happening. The same can’t be said for Bo Dallas versus Dean Ambrose, but that match had some interesting elements. Notably, the massive pop Ambrose got when he came out and how half the crowd was cheering for Dallas. Both guys are underused talents (in very different ways) and it was nice to see them get a fun throwaway spot on Raw.

But enough about the first two hours of the show, which was mostly a bore. The last hour is one of the better portions of Raw in a long time; it has a little bit of everything. There’s the Lucha Dragons versus New Day, which is the kind of high-energy match that Chicago can get into. Before that, there’s the wonderful sight that is Brock Lesnar destroying J&J Security’s new car with two axes. Brock is a once in a lifetime talent, a guy who’s in-ring persona feels real. He’s legitimately terrifying, so when he breaks off a car door or belly-to-belly suplexes Joey Mercury onto the windshield, it feels urgent and real.

Then, of course, there’s the main event, which once again sees Cesaro taking on John Cena for the United States Championship, but only after Cesaro kicks Kevin Owens out of the ring and tells him to wait until Battleground. The match is better than their first, mostly because of the in-ring work, but also because you never know how WWE will book in Chicago. It really felt like Cesaro had a chance to win the title. After all, the Cesaro-Owens feud is right there. We might have to wait until after Battleground for that feud to happen though as Cena retains after delivering an AA from the second rope. It’s an ending that’s not exactly fresh, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is putting together strings of good matches across a three-hour show. Tonight, Raw got one hour right, and it’s almost enough to make me forget those first two.

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Stray observations

  • Results: Ryback vs. Big Show ends due to interference by Miz; Brie Bella defeated Paige; Shemaus defeated Roman Reigns (via countout); Dean Ambrose defeated Bo Dallas; King Barrett defeated R-Truth; New Day defeated Lucha Dragons; Cena (c) defeated Cesaro.
  • I didn’t manage to talk about the R-Truth versus King Barrett match because, well, you know.
  • Cena derisively saying “the champ is here” to the Chicago crowd makes me happy.
  • I’m just going to assume that was Bo Dallas dressed as fake Bray Wyatt.
  • Are Noble and Mercury dead? They might be.
  • Please let this be an official Cesaro push. It has to be, right? Dude is main eventing Raw with Cena! And he looks amazing!

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