Raw got off to a really bad start tonight. I was prepared to write it off from the opening moments. Starting with a 20-minute promo and then a match between Mark Henry and Big Show is a sure way to kill any momentum the first hour of your show should be building. Admittedly, the Rollins promo wasn’t that bad. Watching him reward J&J Security and Kane after they saved his ass last week was fun, and it allowed Rollins to keep getting heat. He carried that whole promo on his own, and while it was overlong, it wasn’t terrible. Still, such a lengthy segment usually signals a bunch of nonsense throughout Raw. When Big Show came out and then the camera cut to Mark Henry backstage before a commercial, I think I let out an audible sigh. We got enough of that feud last year when they failed to blow it off in any meaningful way, so why do we need more of that now?

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Thankfully, that match is brief and the rest of the show has a remarkable pace to it. I praised last week’s Raw for having a structural throughline that made the wrestling around it better by drawing focus away from the feuds and letting them breathe a little. Tonight’s Raw ditches the throughline almost entirely–the Reigns and Ambrose vs. The Authority stuff isn’t really that hyped–and mostly focuses on the wrestling. That means there are a ton of different matches; variety suits WWE well, especially when your show typically clocks in at a little over three hours.

There are matches tonight that play towards comedy, some that are quick and efficient, some that are spot fests, and one in particular that tears the house down. Across three hours of Raw, I want that kind of variety; it changes the pace and tone of the show, never settling into a groove that allows you to tune out. Some of the feuds aren’t compelling, but WWE has a deep bench of talent, so the more wrestling on your main roster show the better. Let’s get those superstars some serious TV time!

The best match of the night is, of course, John Cena vs. Cesaro for the United States Championship, but there are a lot of great matches on the card tonight. The Lucha Dragons and the Prime Time Players vs. New Day and Bo Dallas is exactly what it should be, which is a heel team being obnoxious and vicious before letting the faces get their stuff in and snag some hot tags. I hope Bo Dallas continues to get work with New Day because his gimmick fits in perfectly with theirs. I want New Day to become a stable of disaffected wrestlers much like the Island of Misfit Toys. Adam Rose, are you feeling a little underused? Welcome to New Day, here’s some blue eyeliner! Ziggler, are you sick of being put into nonsense storylines and never being pushed to the top? Here’s a pair of blue trunks and an instructional clapping DVD!

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Paige and Alicia Fox get one of the best Divas matches in recent memory in as well. It’s still strange that the Bellas are suddenly heel again, but the match itself is great and the crowd is clearly into it. Both Paige and Alicia Fox are unbelievable in-ring talents, so it’s no surprise that with time they put on a show. Ryback and Miz get to work a fun match that brings in the comedy I mentioned above. Miz continues to do great work as a chicken-shit heel, and that extends to his wrestling. He wrestles heel like few others in the business, and just straight up leaves tonight’s match when he’s had enough. It’s beautiful character work and tells a story, which is all it takes to make for a compelling performance.

Even tonight’s more insignificant matches boast some solid wrestling. It still remains unclear why King Barrett isn’t being pushed to the moon because the guy has a great move set, a great physique, and had a completely over gimmick before WWE took it away from him and turned him heel. Now he’s stuck wrestling Jack Swagger, and no matter how solid the wrestling is, no one cares about a match like that. Neville and Sheamus is much better. The two work well together, their clashing styles making for a compelling and dynamic match.

But back to the highlight of the night. John Cena’s U.S. Open Challenge has been the best part of Raw for a long time now, and this is a contender for the best match of them all. Cesaro and Cena clearly have great chemistry; all the spots work near-flawlessly, including those random “holy shit” moves that Cena likes to pull out in these matches. There was no way Cesaro was going to win, but the two guys sold it like he might; that’s the sign of a great match, when you forget the plotting for a bit and just get lost in the mechanics and emotion. Having Owens interfere and ruin the match for Cesaro is the perfect end to the match too. It not only protects Cesaro, but also makes sure that Owens keeps getting his heat and furthers the story that Owens won’t let anyone but himself take the title from Cena. When you have quality matches like this, and all the rest listed above, peppered throughout your show, your main event can just be a fun, physical affair that moves a feud forward. Tonight’s Raw is, for the most part, entertaining because it focuses on the wrestling first and foremost, using the in-ring work to tell the story rather than rely on endless promos and backstage segments. Sometimes it’s just that simple.

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Stray observations

  • Results: Big Show defeated Mark Henry; Ryback defeated Miz (by countout); Paige defeated Alicia Fox; Owens attacked Cesaro so I guess he defeated John Cena by DQ, but they never really said because WHO CARES? THIS MATCH IS FIRE; The Lucha Dragons and Prime Time Players defeated Bo Dallas and New Day; Sheamus defeated Neville; King Barrett defeated Jack Swagger; Seth Rollins and Kane defeated Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns.
  • I thought that main event was a lot of fun, but I’m known to pop for Super Strong Roman Reigns, so take that with a grain of salt. Seriously though, he’s great as the enforcer who just wrecks people so it’s nice to see him back in that role without all the WWE Championship expectations.
  • Cesaro countering the STF into a sharpshooter was the best moment of the night, hands down.
  • I’m a little worried about how much Neville is losing, but it’ll take a lot more losses before that guy really gets hurt. He’s a tremendous talent and I have faith in him keeping things going no matter what.
  • “You gotta stick and move, Mark Henry.” I will always love the Miz on commentary.
  • I’ve said it before but I guess I have to say it again. Everything about this Ziggler-Lana-Rusev storyline is terrible. Credit where credit is due though: Summer Rae killed it in the short time she had on the mic.
  • King Barrett has beat Zack Ryder and Jack Swagger now, so he’s totally on the upswing!
  • I despise that Ambrose Asylum shirt.
  • Pretty interesting that Rollins is consistently using the Pedigree as his finisher. Is that a holdover until they find something better than that stupid modified DDT they were making him use for a bit? Sidenote: I really, really miss the Curb Stomp.

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