This week’s Monday Night RAW marks the official start of WWE pay-per-views in the New Era not always being followed up the next night, and unfortunately, that actually ends up being a problem with this RAW itself. Of course Backlash being a SmackDown! Live pay-per-view means there’s no reason for RAW to mention it any more than it actually does here. But as a WWE pay-per-view full of good to great wrestling that successfully did the job it set out to do, it really sticks out. It made The Usos interesting and fresh for the first time in years! Then this week’s RAW comes out and does pretty much the opposite. Now, this RAW as a whole isn’t especially bad for the most part, but there is a sense of mediocrity here that makes it feel like it goes on forever, with no actual reason or moment behind that. And the Richmond, Virginia crowd reacts as such, as this RAW gives it segments like another mind-boggling Bo Dallas squash and the tone deaf (but typical) Jinder Mahal/Jack Swagger match.

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The thing is, this edition of RAW starts off well, with the Mick Foley/women’s segment and the triple threat match for a shot at the Women’s Championship at Clash Of Champions. But the consistency of every good thing that happens in this week’s RAW is offset by the the things that aren’t as good or are just completely devoid of anything worth caring about. A solid opening and a Chris Jericho/Tom Phillips backstage segment are followed up by the Shining Stars becoming scam artists (one of two foreign acts on the show to make that character shift) selling time shares. A fun Highlight Reel is followed by the latest in the Best Of Seven series, which technically shouldn’t fall into the negative side of things, but the WWE Universe’s refusal to fully latch onto it (for understandable reasons) really hurts it. Nia Jax’s squash match against Alicia Fox ends up being the best possible match for Jax’s main roster career at this point… and that is followed up by what already feels like the hundredth iteration of The Club versus New Day, stumbling towards the possibility of a title change. There’s the aforementioned Mahal/Swagger segment, and everything in between is just window-dressing on the way to the main event. It’s ups and downs, only the ups aren’t even that soaring, and the downs are just plain flat, at best.

This week’s RAW is basically one to watch for the opening and the ending: You can pretty much figure out the rest of the show from context clues and video packages and miss nothing of note.

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The opening with Foley, Charlotte, Dana Brooke, Sasha Banks, and Bayley works in the simple way of how it addresses the obvious issue that Bayley beat Charlotte just as Sasha returned to get her championship rematch, with both women having a right to the number one contendership. I know Charlotte is a bit of a “controversial” (in WWE’s definition) figure in the division, but I’d say her segments this week are the perfect examples of how she has finally, completely gotten her character. The disdain and contempt she has in her interactions with Dana, all in the name of “mentorship,” are so good that they’ve made the crowd think they want to root for Dana Brooke—a character who has been a dopey lackey her entire main roster career. Plus, Charlotte comes across as the most comfortable woman on the mic in the opening segment, by a mile. Bayley’s “aww shucks” and awe-inspired speech patterns obviously fit her own character, but she does stumble a bit here. And Sasha Banks, bless her heart, has completely forgotten to think about her diction at this point.

The triple threat match itself manages to highlight how, despite other flaws in their game, Sasha and Bayley still remain completely comfortable when it comes to their in-ring presence and their obvious knowledge of crowd control. Even though Dana Brooke quickly became better back in NXT when she realized trash-talk would get her everywhere (even when her in-ring work couldn’t), she still hasn’t quite achieved the level of genuine crowd control as Sasha and Bayley. Sasha Banks can completely butcher the English language on the way to the ring, but the crowd will never care as long as she keeps them captivated with the her declarations of her Boss status or her questions about who the baddest is (her). The crowd could never tune her out, which isn’t true for Dana, as much as she talks shit. But Dana also has yet to reach Sasha and Bayley’s level of in-ring quality, which is especially evident early on in the match, as she slows things down when trading moves with opponents—not because she’s a heel but because she’s still clearly uncomfortable wrestling-wise.

Slowing things down in the heel way is actually something Kevin Owens does really well in his main event match against Roman Reigns. It’s interesting, because while the normal, snarky heel Owens is still around in the match, it’s more of an old school heel style on display this week, slowing things down to a grinding halt as much as he possibly can. I’m honestly pretty sure the match is 90% chinlock, which is certainly an unexpected plan of attack, albeit a smart one. Sure, it doesn’t stop the crowd from chanting “FIGHT OWENS FIGHT,” but it’s a solid course of action to stop a guy whose wrestling style is all about his explosive power.

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However, the match is really secondary to the real main event story that’s happening between Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins, which also goes the simple, old school story route. Owens’ continued antagonizing of Rollins has him pointing out that Rollins’ decision to make a WWE career out of being a guy who always had other people back him up now makes him in over his head when it comes to truly being alone… And that’s why Triple H chose to back Owens, who doesn’t actually need anyone’s help to get the job done (even though, people keep helping him). That aspect of Owens’ (somewhat hypocritical) character is something that goes back to a throwaway post-match line from a pre-brand split, throwaway SmackDown!: “I beat you! Chris helped, but I beat you!”

Seth Rollins may be getting into face territory now, but the story acknowledges that he’s been a dirtbag for a long time who now needs to prove himself on this road to rebuilding and redesigning. Saying he now hates Triple H doesn’t just do it. It’s simple, clear motivations that work, and that’s even without the championship of it all… and with the championship, the motivations are those of a prize fighter and a man who never lost his title, regained it, and lost it in the most “barely losing it” (but also poetic) way possible.

So while “The Authority” aren’t running RAW and SmackDown! Live now, that hasn’t eliminated WWE’s general authority problems. NXT has the closest thing to the “perfect” authority figure in William Regal, and even he’s not above criticisms for his decision-making (see: Samoa Joe’s issues with Regal). This week, Mick Foley is shown as pretty much lost without the guidance of Stephanie McMahon, especially when it comes to the main event scene. Foley can’t control Seth Rollins, who wants to beat the crap out of Owens for all the things he’s saying about him and because he can’t beat up a missing Triple H. In fact, Foley’s tactic when it comes to Seth is to threaten him with mysterious repercussions if he touches Owens or interferes in the main event. So when Seth does touch Owens and interfere in the main event, knowing he can’t get a real punishment like a suspension (as it would not be best for business), Foley can only tell Seth that they need to have a talk. The repercussions of his actions and “the talk” aren’t actually shown, and while it’s obvious the point is to build intrigue for next week’s show, the lack of immediate action—a concept which is usually is the norm for WWE—just makes Foley look like a fool.

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The fact that he forces Owens (who, heel or face, is now the brand’s main champion) to continue a match with Reigns right after Seth attacks Owens makes him look like he favors Reigns, that he’s out to get Owens, or both.

So when I say that RAW fails to live up to the standard set by SmackDown! Live’s pay-per-view, I understand the comparison to a pay-per-view is somewhat unfair. But RAW hasn’t had as much of a problem of delivering a compelling in-ring product as it does here, which make it both three-ish hours shows comparable in that sense.

It doesn’t help that the WWE Universe is not connecting as much to the Sheamus/Cesaro Best Of Seven series as it arguably “should,” considering how well even the commentary is selling the story both men are telling in the ring. Cole and company talk about the competitive spirit of both men, how Cesaro’s back is the major factor of this feud, the desperation and stress—they’re making sure the story told in the ring completely translates to the people watching at home. But WWE crowds aren’t reacting as though the story is being told well, even when it is. The lack of gimmick matches (and that doesn’t even necessarily mean hardcore matches) in this series typically wouldn’t be that big of a deal: But WWE’s habit of having the same people fight each other over and over again has trained audiences to essentially go on autopilot when these things happen. Especially when it’s Sheamus fighting the same person over and over again, because he tends to do that a lot, to less than exciting results. That’s also been the case for the mid-card singles titles these past couple of years—even with the talented Superstars in the division.

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It’s basically what the Best Of Seven series is, only with a name and the same match-up numerous weeks in a row, with no break at any point. Like it or not, a crowd’s reactions—or lack thereof—matter in terms of the ultimate presentation and story told in wrestling. As technically sound as everything about this Best Of Seven series is, the crowds’ reactions—or, again, lack thereof—don’t reflect that, five matches into a seven match series. Especially when it’s actually a nine match series, given Cesaro’s wins before Foley poorly-booked this concept.

But at least it is technically good, which is the opposite of Jinder Mahal versus Jack Swagger (and the Swagger post-match backstage segment). It’s a segment that expects the audience to ignore Mahal’s previous appearances since his return, as his new gimmick is literally based on him finding enlightenment in the Himalayas after he was released from WWE and becoming a guru. His new gimmick is “the man that comes in peace”—you know, like an alien, which works both ways, as the man in the crowd doing the Vulcan salute confirms—who WWE sends out to be booed for the offenses of speaking in a non-English language and speaking a message of peace. Of course, being Jinder Mahal, the crowd doesn’t actually react to a single thing he says or does—the silence is almost deafening—but WWE makes sure everyone know he’s truly a heel and full of crap as the xenophobic savior Jack Swagger shows up, “WE THE PEOPLE” and all.

“And all” equates to a strong “USA” chant before the crowd continues to rightfully sit on their hands for the Superstars opening match that finds its way into this week’s RAW.

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Jinder Mahal, in theory, could easily get heat simply by being the guy who betrayed his friend—SmackDown! Live’s folk hero and Tag Team Champion, Heath Slater—for a contract he didn’t deserve. Instead, WWE goes with the usual: Boo him because he’s foreign, in 2016. And like with the Shining Stars (finally, at least, in their case), because he’s foreign and also a fraud. Though also like the Shining Stars, the gimmick already isn’t working because no crowd cares enough about Jinder Mahal to boo Jinder Mahal. It’s just extremely lazy, especially in a New Era. As for Swagger, his loss in this match leads to a backstage match with Tom Phillips, who brings up that Swagger’s contract is almost up, causing Swagger to breathe heavily onscreen. Yup. In a nutshell: The biggest problem with Jack Swagger as a WWE Superstar has always been that he’s an average wrestler, which is the worst thing you can possibly be in WWE when you have a legitimate amateur wrestling background. He’s certainly no Kurt Angle or Brock Lesnar (either version of Brock) in the ring. But he’s also not a Shelton Benjamin or Charlie Haas. Or a Dolph Ziggler. Or a Chad Gable or Jason Jordan. He has a catchy chant that also causes the crowd to chant “USA,” but the chance of the same people chanting those things having a “favorite Jack Swagger match” is slim. Assuming WWE can tell a good story with either Mahal or Swagger moving forward assumes there’s a lot more upside for either of them, and that’s a pretty wild assumption.

Keep in mind, earlier in the show, Nia Jax and Alicia Fox have a squash match that actually succeeds at making at least one participant look good, while also getting the crowd into it. As fun as it has been getting those enhancement talents for Nia Jax and Braun Strowman with all of their personalities, that has a ceiling. The type of ceiling where crowds start timing your squash matches out loud or chanting “Goldberg.” Destroying Alicia Fox the way that Nia Jax does—which is very well, by the way—is the best thing to happen to Jax’s character on the main roster so far, much better than the easy squashes from nobodies. She shows real dominance too, outside of the standard squash template she’d been using, as well as showing off her temper, which wasn’t going to come out from a nobody enhancement talent. And Alicia Fox is really, really good at getting murdered by Nia Jax, by the way.

And before I forget, while there are two tag team-based matches on this week’s RAW—The Club versus The New Day, Enzo Amore versus Epico—neither exactly sets the wrestling world on fire. The former succeeds in course-correcting The Club after the previous RAW’s dire Old Day skit, finally allowing Gallows and Anderson to just proclaim themselves asskickers, plain and simple. And having everyone lean into just how awful the Old Day segment was is a reminder of the beauty that can come from the fact that WWE is live, weekly storytelling: It can admit its mistakes and move on, very easily. (Which is why it’s especially frustrating when it doesn’t.) On the other hand, Enzo versus Epico is a match in a feud that clearly exists to give Enzo/Cass something to do while they wait for another shot at tag team glory or Jericho/Owens availability. As previously mentioned, the Shining Stars are finally leaning into the travel agent gimmick everyone assumed they had from their initial video packages, but still, WWE’s answer to explain why audience’s should boo them—other than because they’re foreign—is because they’re foreign and scam artists. Simply writing that makes me feel like I’ve bumped my head and this RAW decided to go back in time to… 2011, actually. No, not the ‘80s. Because 2011 was the last time Primo/Epico, Jinder Mahal, and Jack Swagger were all consistently treated as actual competition on WWE programming.

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So honestly, it’s kind of difficult not to compare RAW to a SmackDown! Live pay-per-view, when one is very clearly moving forward and the other comes across as too afraid to… outside of the beginning and the end of the show, that is.

Stray observations

  • RESULTS: Sasha Banks defeated Bayley and Dana Brooke (#1 Contendership for WWE Women’s Championship); Bo Dallas defeated Brandon Scott; Cesaro defeated Sheamus (Best Of Seven Series); Nia Jax versus Alicia Fox went to No Contest; The Club (Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows) defeated New Day (Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods, with Big E); Jinder Mahal defeated Jack Swagger; Epico (with Primo) defeated Enzo Amore (with Big Cass); Braun Strowman defeated that sexual frozen dinner; Kevin Owens defeated Roman Reigns (If Reigns won, he’d be in the Clash Of Champions title match)
  • Will WWE address the fact that Sasha’s shoulders were also down when she pinned Bayley? We shall see…
  • I did not go in-depth about the Highlight Reel segment, but that’s only because I know there was no way I could have written about it objectively. Chris Jericho is my favorite wrestler of all time, and I watched the entire segment with hearts in my eyes and a grin on my face. Sorry, Sami.
  • As for Sami calling Jericho a “bitch” during the segment, despite “genuine nice guy” being Sami’s base gimmick, that doesn’t make his gimmick the same as Bayley’s. The guy constantly curses in the ring (remember his NXT Championship winning match?). And “bitch” obviously can have gender-specific connotations, but the word is the punctuation to the line, and something like “lackey” or “stooge” simply wouldn’t have the same effect, especially on sanitized WWE.
  • The Bo Dallas “push” continues to confuse, and the loud “LET’S GO JOBBER” chant on a main roster WWE show pretty much says how it’s going, just two weeks in. Though, with his pre-match rhyming thing, I’m starting to think this is all one roundabout way for WWE to finally punish him for out-rapping Flo Rida. Also, I’m calling his finisher the Cross-Bo.
  • I assumed Anderson and Gallows would win just to keep them sort of strong going into Clash Of Champions, but I knew they would win when WWE tipped its hand: Because with the exception of this gem, Xavier Woods tends to get the chance to remind the WWE Universe how great of a wrestler he is right before he takes the loss.
  • I’m aware I am in the minority here, which is why I didn’t make this part of the main review: To me, this was the worst Roman Reigns has looked in a match in a while (he was kind of off when he returned from suspension too). Mostly because the majority of his selling looked more like stomach cramps from eating one of Beulah Slater’s crab-based entrees than actual pain from his wrestling match. But also because he was just so slow the whole time and not just because of Owens’ pacing. Thankfully, he did not sell Rusev’s post-match beatdown the same way.

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