Monday Night Raw had all the makings of a WrestleMania season special, with high-stakes matches, moments and promos that locked in cornerstone battles for New Orleans. Ronda Rousey gave us our first hints of what her offense is going to look like, Paul Heyman worked his microphone magic and there's a lot to look forward to in the weeks to come.
But even as two key matches for WrestleMania 34 were all but set into stone, the way Raw played out was a reminder of just how far this card has to go. With four weeks of Raw to set up what will likely be more than half the show's matches, there are still plenty of burning questions left to be answered -- and that sense of urgency could either energize each week's entire show or derail it by bogging it down in exposition and forced matchmaking.
Either way, it should be a fascinating ride.
Ronda Rousey's plan is set for New Orleans
When we look back at the moment in which Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle versus Stephanie McMahon and Triple H came together, it's going to be a lot better in the clips of a WrestleMania package than it was in the moment. All of the elements fell into place, from McMahon emasculating Angle to try to intimidate him, to Rousey testing the limits of her newly signed Raw contract. Triple H and Angle discussed the unresolved fallout from Survivor Series head-on, and after teases in every which direction, the setup for how the match would come together brought us to a pivotal point.
Was the timing and execution perfect at every point? No, but the moments we'll end up remembering are the pop Rousey got when she was in McMahon's face and simply said, "You," Rousey dragging McMahon back into the ring by her hair before hitting a modified Samoan Drop and Angle trapping Triple H in the ankle lock. With four weeks of Raw appearances, and a lot of time to come at the WWE's Performance Center in Orlando in Rousey's future, locking down the match and plans should help Rousey get more comfortable on the way to her debut match.
Paul Heyman carries the banner for Brock Lesnar
One week after Roman Reigns eviscerated Brock Lesnar with a promo about Lesnar's part-time championship run, Paul Heyman closed out Raw by doing what he does best -- selling a match while building up Lesnar as only he knows how. He evoked The Undertaker, as a way to both backhandedly compliment Reigns and to try to dismantle Reigns' argument about Lesnar's part time schedule being problematic. Reigns' win over The Undertaker last year at WrestleMania was "the biggest victory of his career", but Undertaker only wrestled one time last year -- but nobody questioned the Undertaker.
"Undertaker is Undertaker 365 days a year," Heyman said. "[And] Brock Lesnar is Brock Lesnar 365 days a year -- but you're not beating him."
After running through Reigns' argument point by point -- some more effectively than others -- Heyman got bogged down in a problematic moment. Sure, Reigns was the one to introduce the word "b----" last week, when he called Lesnar by that name, but Heyman continued to use it in more troublesome ways in repeating it over and over again. Heyman then turned the utilization of that word into a matter of possession regarding the Universal championship. "Brock Lesnar's b---- -- she belongs to Brock Lesnar -- you are eyeballing Brock Lesnar's b----, and you can't have her."
The title itself is an inanimate object, granted, but the implication of owning or possessing a woman -- let alone through such a derogatory term -- felt really dated and below Heyman's typical prowess. The rest of the promo went off without a hitch, with Reigns yelling at Heyman, who had laid down the title belt to prove a point, "Pick the title up and show it some respect."
Lesnar will be in Detroit next week, and every indication seems to lean towards a fight of fists over a war of words. It will be a real test of where Reigns and Lesnar lie with fans after the last few weeks of promos.
Finn Balor and Seth Rollins lock down IC title shot against Miz
Even though it was telegraphed last week, the official announcement of Finn Balor and Seth Rollins both challenging The Miz for the Intercontinental championship at WrestleMania felt special. Having three former world champions competing for the title in what could easily be a show-stealer in New Orleans should do more to elevate the championship than anything or anyone outside of The Miz has in ages.
Before a 3-on-2 handicap match that became a battle of one-upsmanship between Balor and Rollins, Miz gave a taste of what he'll be bringing to the table in the weeks to come. In a matter of less than a minute, he verbally tore down Balor and all of the propped up reasons we're supposed to care about him right now.
"You held the Universal title for one day -- and what have you done since?" Miz asked. "This isn't Japan -- this is the WWE. You need more than a hand sign that's not even yours."
And he was spot on. There have been plenty of moments since Balor returned that could have (and should have) been launching points for him to re-enter that highest echelon of the Raw pecking order. But for every win over AJ Styles, in-ring passing of the torch moment with D-Generation X and reuniting of "The Club", there hasn't been a single shred of positive momentum behind Balor. In fact, it's been the opposite with mind-boggling losses to the likes of Kane and no true direction.
For Balor, for Rollins and for Miz, WrestleMania could be a moment in time that could prove to be key to what their futures hold.
Uncertainty clouds women's title matches
Nia Jax got another chance at ending Asuka's undefeated streak, and she got as close as anyone has to ending it outside of perhaps Ember Moon's final NXT women's title challenge. Jax battered Asuka from pillar to post, and even expanded her offensive repertoire with a modified airplane/helicopter spin. Even when Asuka locked in a triangle choke, Jax felt like she could retake the upper hand at any moment. But even a powerbomb and to slams to the top turnbuckle couldn't shake Asuka loose.
In fact, a bounce off the top rope in preparation of yet another powerbomb actually allowed Asuka to slip lower and lock in a cross arm-breaker. After multiple minutes of trying to fight out and avoid tapping, Jax finally relented -- and while the match itself was another proof of the growing chemistry between the two of them, it's what happened afterwards that got interesting.
- WWE (@WWE) March 6, 2018
After Jax got a positive postmatch reaction from the crowd, a backstage segment showed Bliss appear to console her "best friend". But it was instead an opportunity for Bliss, the master manipulator, to play the diminutive schoolyard bully by bringing up each and every one of Jax's insecurities and failures. Jax broke into tears, and in that moment, brought doubt to the direction in which WrestleMania's women's championship matches are heading.
Even though it's been strongly implied that Asuka would be challenging Bliss for the Raw women's championship, it's never been outright laid out that way. And by delaying that decision until after Sunday's Fastlane pay-per-view, the possibility of Asuka hopping over to SmackDown looms large with just over a month to go until WrestleMania 34. Think of it: with Asuka having dispatched every single top competitor on Raw, what better way to make a statement than to hop over to SmackDown and beat their top superstar? It would also keep Asuka away from Rousey, who seems likely to go on a tear post-WrestleMania, and stepping aside would open the door for Jax to step up for the biggest match of her career.
The next seven days should tell us, once and for all, which way it's all headed.
Hits and misses
-- Matt Hardy and Bray Wyatt will bring the crazy to the Hardy Compound, and it looks as though that'll happen at WrestleMania. For those unaware of how bonkers the "Great War" is about to get with the Ultimate Deletion, Monday night's clip featuring Hardy's personal drone, Vanguard-1, and his favorite dilapidated boat should offer a glimpse -- but Google "Broken Matt Hardy" if you're curious and unfamiliar.
- WWE (@WWE) March 6, 2018
-- Braun Strowman extended his list of items destroyed to include another standup bass and a piano in his win over Elias in a "Symphony of Destruction" match on Monday. Where he goes from here is anyone's guess, but time seems to be running out. It was also entertaining to see Strowman stop Elias' escape by holding his car in place despite Elias putting it into reverse.
-- Bayley attempted to explain why she refused to tag Sasha Banks in their six-woman tag team match last week, but Paige interrupted her before she could spill the beans. Bayley beat Mandy Rose, Absolution attacked her and Banks came out to make the save, but Bayley brushed away multiple attempts by Banks to reconcile. There's some interesting nuance coming into play here, and there's a lot to work with in building up the "best friends, bitter enemies" angle in the weeks to come.
-- The Revival had a tremendous showing against The Bar, even pulling out a tribute to Power & Glory in the process, but with a WrestleMania title shot on the line they fell short. Will Sheamus and Cesaro's standing challenge lead to a multi-way match, or the opportunity to introduce a new tag team to Raw?
-- John Cena cut a promo to advertise Fastlane and tease a triple threat at WrestleMania against AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura, and ended up drawing the ire of Goldust. This led to a match, which allowed Goldust the most spotlight he's had in a while, but despite some flashy moments it all ended predictably.