Post-SummerSlam, WWE’s red brand finds itself down a Demon King and a Boss. In relatively simple terms: That sucks. In the case of Finn Balor, his injury makes the future for WWE’s main event scene a little terrifying, while Sasha Banks’ injury at least demands a certain amount of forward momentum in the women’s division. But as we all know, the show must go on. And on and on.

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In terms of the Sasha Banks situation, her back injury and subsequent title loss at SummerSlam pretty much demanded that Bayley finally be called up to the main roster. Sure, injured Boss or not, there was every possibility that Bayley was going to be called up during this RAW anyway. But Sasha’s injury and Charlotte’s second title reign as a result essentially made it so WWE had to pull the call-up trigger on Bayley this time around. It’s a bright spot to come out of something awful, which at least speaks to how the WWE women’s division (the entire thing, from RAW to NXT) is in a state where it even has the depth for there to be a suitable fill-in in the first place. And Bayley’s official debut isn’t just a long time coming—for all the talk of SummerSlam being the summer version of WrestleMania, nothing on this RAW evokes more of that “RAW after WrestleMania” feel than the lead-up to and introduction of Bayley. For all of his mistakes and more frustrating verbal ticks, Michael Cole nails the complete joy of Bayley’s entrance with his version of “IT’S BAYLEY!” Three nights in a row at Barclays Center, and this RAW crowd saves the Brooklyn audience’s sullied reputation from the burned out version of the crowd that appeared during SummerSlam’s six hours of wrestling.

Plus, eternal child at heart Bayley has her first RAW match against her polar opposite, over-enthused soccer mom Dana Brooke. That’s a pretty great way to debut.

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As for the Finn Balor/Universal Championship situation, that’s the part that’s really upsetting. (Not that Sasha’s injury is something to cheer.) It’s important to note that, even with the sling, Balor absolutely looks like a million bucks when he comes out in his suit, with the belt (as ugly as that belt is). He looks like a true Superstar, and the fact that we won’t get to see what what first run with the belt could have been like, just based on the look alone, is heartbreaking. It’s a “what if” situation that hurts especially because he actually won the title. He had it. It was his.

The Balor injury also brings up the discussion of whether or not Seth Rollins is a safe worker, which isn’t something any wrestler wants to have hanging over their head. (Just look at how Ryback has handled such accusations.) After leaving TNA, AJ Styles found himself in a similar position, as a number of wrestlers ended up legitimately hurt or injured by the Styles Clash (a move he had done for years without fail). People were calling for AJ Styles to stop using the move, calling him an unsafe and dangerous worker, even though he wasn’t actually the doing the move incorrectly. For Rollins though, it’s not just one move when it comes to the injuries. There’s the Cena nose break, the Sting Buckle Bomb incident, and now this. In the cases of the first two, despite what Bret Hart says, there is an argument to be made that these weren’t actually Rollins’ fault (Cena’s general lack of grace and Sting being far past his prime before he even left TNA). But in the case of the Balor injury, while the replays show that Balor clearly landed wrong, the question remains whether Balor himself made the mistake with the way he tried to bump or if Rollins’ throw (unfortunately) angled Balor in that position. At the very least, Rollins is a very unlucky wrestler (as his own injury proved). But it’s interesting how these kinds of conversations can happen after years of a fairly unblemished track record.

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And so the WWE Universal Championship is vacated nearly 24 hours after it was won, leading directly to another tournament.

Naturally, Seth Rollins goes for heel heat by rubbing in how he broke Finn Balor and praising the design of the new belt. As for the match itself, Sami Zayn versus Seth Rollins hasn’t reached “not this again” levels yet, but WWE has quickly made Sami the wrestler Seth faces to put on a great showing with but obviously win. This is a match that happened on RAW the beginning of this month. And on SmackDown! in June. The result has been the same each time, because Sami Zayn is obviously not yet considered at the same level in the WWE pecking order as Seth Rollins. So while it would be fresh and interesting if Sami actually comes out on top in this match, there’s no real belief that he’s going to win. Sami Zayn remains in flux when it comes to his role on RAW, but at least he can say he had a good match with Seth Rollins. Again.

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(It will be pretty amazing when he finally beats Rollins though.)

Speaking of in flux, Kevin Owens versus Neville is a match that at least gets Neville out of showcase match purgatory for a week. It’s also a match that does him far better than a match against Jinder Mahal ever will, mostly because he’s allowed to have a match with an actual story here. You see, despite the fact that Neville is insanely jacked, his strength isn’t actually played up as often his speed and high-flying ability. This match, however, decides to work with it, as well as the fact that he and Owens know each other so well in the ring. The deadlift German Suplex he hits on Owens is a thing of beauty… which is why it’s such a shame that he remains in a storyline void since returning from injury. He and Owens put on a good match, as is their way, with a good story—to the point where Owens has to win with Jericho’s help and an Argentine Neckbreaker because he just can’t hit the Pop-Up Powerbomb on Neville. And that in turn continues the great story that is the best friendship of Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho. Which of course leads us to the main event, Chris Jericho versus Roman Reigns, where the interesting story WWE has started telling in this episode of RAW is immediately derailed by the story WWE fans have rejected over and over again.

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Roman Reigns closes out RAW for the second week in a row with a main event win, after Chris Jericho (and Kevin Owens) throws everything he has at him. It’s not a shock, but it comes off the realization that Chris Jericho winning the match would simply be a better story to tell. This RAW sets up the possibility of Jericho and Owens imploding, even temporarily, by having to both be in next week’s Fatal Four-Way for the Universal Championship. Would one of them lay down for the other? Would they end up screwing themselves because they couldn’t get on the same page? Who would turn on who first? Plus, the crowd is 100% behind Chris Jericho during this entire match, when the rest of the qualifying matches are more evenly split in crowd support (even Rusev versus Big Cass). It’s all potentially an infinitely better story than any version of “Can Roman beat the odds?” (which is what WWE decides to go with) because the answer to that question is: “Yes. And what odds?”

Yes, WWE has gone back to pushing Roman Reigns as an underdog, as Byron waxes hollow about the “trials” and “setbacks” Roman has had in his career. I’ve written plenty about the problems with how WWE is handling the Roman Reigns story, and since WWE is just repeating the same mistakes, I don’t need to add much to that. The thing is: Unlike most other weekly television programming, WWE can’t pretend to not know what audiences think about the product. Creative doesn’t exist in a vacuum like other writers rooms do. It would be better if they just flat out said they don’t care about what fans want or say at this point.

Tournaments are the easiest way to make an episode of WWE television seem like a winner, but the sense of urgency and desperation that tend to help tournaments succeed is pretty lacking this time around. After all, the only surprising result in tonight’s qualifying matches is Big Cass beating Rusev, and that ends up being a win via count-out, an extremely anticlimactic victory. And speaking of Big Cass, the kayfabe reasoning for why certain people would be in the tournament as opposed to others is especially shaky here. Why would Big Cass be in the tournament and not Enzo (or both)? The obvious answer is how big he is, but in terms of the WWE Universe, Enzo is clearly the more popular member of the team, especially as the crowd chants for Enzo as Big Cass wrestles Rusev. And why wouldn’t any member of the New Day be in the tournament, especially after all of their very visible side-eye reactions during the announcements of who would be in the original tournament for the WWE Universal Championship contendership? Why wouldn’t Cesaro or Sheamus try to get in on this, seeing as how match two their Best Of Seven series isn’t until next week? They are workhorses, after all, as this story is heavily pushing—neither would have a problem with working two matches next Monday.

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The answer to all of these questions is probably as simple as this RAW being thrown together as a result of having to change plans post-SummerSlam. There are plenty of little missed cues throughout the night that suggest this episode of RAW was written on the fly (even moreso than usual), especially Titus O’Neil’s entire promo. Then again, D-von Dudley got the Brooklyn crowd to chant “DELETE!” so maybe this RAW was actually perfect.

Stray observations

  • RESULTS: Seth Rollins defeated Sami Zayn (Universal Championship Qualifier); Kevin Owens defeated Neville (Universal Championship Qualifier); Big E defeated Karl Anderson; Big Cass defeated Rusev (via Countout) (Universal Championship Qualifier); Bayley defeated Dana Brooke; Braun Strowman defeated Johnny Knockout (local jobber); Roman Reigns defeated Chris Jericho (Universal Championship Qualifier)
  • I know a lot of new people checked out my review last week, and there seemed to be some confusion about my lack of focus on the matches themselves. My reviews are not play-by-play recaps of matches or even reviews specifically about the matches. These reviews have always been my attempt at examining professional wrestling as a storytelling medium and performance art, especially in comparison to other weekly episodic television. Which means that, if I have to, I’m going to write paragraphs about why “Demon King” is a unfortunate choice for a nickname, especially when it’s constantly repeated on a three hour show. When I need to discuss the matches, I do.
  • Dana can’t even clap to her own “YOU DESERVE IT” chant properly. She’s so precious.
  • Johnny Knockout, on why he’s facing Braun: “Because I like big, sweaty men.” I guess WWE proved us all wrong in their ability to include LGBT characters, right? Right?
  • Byron Saxton: “Remember, Rusev started the whole thing.” WWE’s justification of any of Roman’s actions in his feud with Rusev—especially after SummerSlam, where people were certain it meant Roman was turning heel—remains absolutely insane.
  • Speaking of Rusev, he finally performs a cowardly heel move in his decision to simply take the countout, but even that is a decision that comes across more as one of intelligence and safety than anything else. Balor just had to relinquish the title because of a major injury, so why would Rusev risk having to do the same?
  • How can this crowd be redeemed if they chant “YOU CAN’T WRESTLE” at Roman? Until a crowd can chant “WE REJECT YOU AS A CHARACTER IN EVERY POSSIBLE WAY” or something similar, “YOU CAN’T WRESTLE” is just the placeholder that has to exist.
  • Heath Slater is going to be the new Zack Ryder, isn’t he? Oh no.
  • The thing about the Dudley Boyz segment is that the presumed Bubba Ray solo heel turn hopefully would have meant that something would change. Their initial heel turn had them saying they weren’t a nostalgia act, refusing to use tables… only to keep the same tired look. If only this were their actual goodbye, because I can’t see them maintaining this level of overness as they feud with The Club (and the Shining Stars?). (Unless they are for real done, then ignore this.)

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