Monday Night Raw plays 'survival of the fittest'

There are plenty of knocks to be made about "go-home" shows the week before a pay-per-view, and you didn't have to look very hard to find the flaws on Monday's edition of Raw.

The writing was lax, and most storylines didn't advance much, but seeing the show through the eyes of an increasingly negative contingent of a certain portion of the audience would have robbed you of two of the better matches on Monday Night Raw that we've gotten in months.

Setting aside the abysmal "This is Your Life" disaster and a few other head-scratchers, the intense focus on Sunday's Fatal 5-Way that will determine the No. 1 contender for the Universal championship helped create a pair of matches that papered over some of the glaring flaws elsewhere on the show. The fire beneath this impending contest stems from all of the interconnected histories between these five competitors, but the intrigue and ultimately, the freshness of this particular ensemble, will likely lie in the fresh conflicts that lie within this match.

For Roman Reigns, there's significant history with Seth Rollins and Bray Wyatt, and enough history with Finn Balor to ignite a conflict at a moment's notice. He and Rollins reminded us just how much chemistry they had in Monday's main event, as their first televised one-on-one match in nearly a year ignited the embers of a Grand Rapids crowd that really wore itself out during the triple threat match between Balor, Wyatt and Samoa Joe earlier in the night.

Speaking of Joe, a fresh rivalry with Reigns has been one of the more intriguing possibilities teased in the buildup to the Extreme Rules main event. Balor has history with Joe, Rollins and Reigns, but his future seems to be pointed directly toward Wyatt. Paul Heyman's surprise return to TV last week may be a red herring or laying the seeds for some future conflict, but Balor could certainly use a few more matches like the one he had Monday night to firmly establish him as the top-level star that the WWE sees him as. In that triple-threat match, which easily could have been the true main event in its own right, Balor was the star of the show.

Rollins is the only one in the bunch who has significant history with all four men -- Reigns, Balor, Joe and Wyatt alike -- and in that, his future also seems the most uncertain. Sunday's match will almost certainly lead to three of the biggest stories to play out on the road to SummerSlam, and as two pairs split off and the fifth sets a date with Brock Lesnar, it's hard to see clearly who's next for Rollins. With Wyatt and Balor seemingly intertwined, does it make the most sense to carry on with Samoa Joe (and possibly see the return of Stephanie McMahon?), revisit conflict with Reigns or, most intriguingly, become Lesnar's first roadblock? The next couple of weeks will tell us a lot about his future.

For Samoa Joe, Sunday's match could be a crossroads as well. After coming in on a wave of momentum, this is the closest to the top he's gotten after some rocky booking early on. There have been some great matches with Rollins, and others, and he's received significant praise from some of the biggest legends in the business, but it's getting hard to ignore that he's just not connecting the way he should be with the audience. Putting him in the ring with the heaviest of hitters the WWE has to offer is going to be both a test and an opportunity. He has a lot of history with both Rollins and Balor (dating back to their lengthy battle over the NXT championship), and it was smart to give him the win in Monday's triple threat by allowing him to steal it from Balor. It was a great way to show the volatility of a multi-way match, and allowed people to ponder what a Joe-Lesnar match might look like (spoiler alert: it could be a lot of fun).

And then there's Bray. Wyatt stood tall on Raw two weeks ago, and then he and Samoa Joe got the victory last week to close out the night. He showed how valuable his style and offense can be in multi-way matches on many occasions Monday night, including a great tower of doom spot with Joe and Balor and just the right pace of moving between two- and three-man spots, and Wyatt proved that he can be the catalyst that makes Sunday's main event memorable. He has history with everyone but Balor, but again, they seem destined to cross paths before very long -- unless that too is a red herring, and he's set to square off with Lesnar.

Depending on what the purpose of Lesnar's first Universal championship defense is, Wyatt could indeed become the sacrificial lamb, if that's what the situation calls for. It's a role he's become quite familiar with, but after a brief taste of the WWE title and some big things finally happening with him, it would be pretty disappointing for him to build up a little momentum only for Lesnar to lay waste to him with the greatest of ease.

Everyone is going to have their favorites, and we'll dig deeper into this match and all of the others on the Extreme Rules card later in the week, but I'll go out on a limb and say there's no bad result for Sunday. Each man brings a different skill set and different potential to a future Lesnar match, and each could serve a different role depending on how lengthy Lesnar's title reign is destined to be. While many have complained about the absence of the top title over the last couple of months on Raw, we're finally approaching the moment when it will make its triumphant return.

When we reach that moment, which could be as soon as next Monday, we'll get to see how it feels to have what's been positioned as the biggest title in the company back on our screens. With a ready-made number one contender, Lesnar will immediately be able to get down to business -- and the man standing across from him will tell us a lot about what the future will hold for Monday Night Raw.

Hits and misses

  • The "This is your life" segment, which hoped to harken back to one of the greatest Raw segments of all time between The Rock and Mick Foley, fell woefully short of any and all expectations. It was a small step backwards for an otherwise red-hot Alexa Bliss, who tried her hardest to salvage a poorly written segment that featured two of the stiffest stand-in actors they could've possibly found. What's worse, Bayley lost all measure of credibility while forced to stand back and endure Bliss continue to run her down. Couldn't you have involved Nia Jax holding Bayley back, forcing her to watch it? Because there doesn't seem to be any other reason to be forced to sit back and watch that train wreck, given any other option.

  • The Revival finally returned to our screens or, if you were paying razor-sharp attention last week, they did so last week as they briefly danced along in the background. We're still a few weeks away from a proper return, as we saw with Dash Wilder's jaw still wired shut, but it was good to see them up and seemingly poised for action. They seem likely to get involved with Enzo and Big Cass upon their return, whether or not they were involved in taking out Enzo Amore, who was blindsided for the second straight week. It's been genuinely surprising to see how much the Raw tag team division has missed them in their absence despite their previous tenure on the show being so limited.

  • The Titus brand grows by the week. More, please.

  • The dueling Goldust and R-Truth segments were fun and reminiscent of old school Goldust, but I fail to see what either of these guys will do once their done with each other.

Quote of the night

"A disgrace and an embarrassment to the WWE? Besmirch my status as an Olympic gold medalist?... if this is true, it could ruin me."

- Kurt Angle, in a backstage conversation with Corey Graves

Corey Graves was deeply involved in two of the most interesting moments of Monday's edition of Raw. After the 6-Man tag team match that opened the show, Graves fell silent as he read a message on his phone, and he immediately headed backstage to present that information to the Raw general manager. This has all the makings of a slow burn, as some kind of secret information/blackmail situation develops in the weeks to come, but having Graves get some depth as a character within the greater storylines of Raw (as he also did by sticking his nose into the Enzo Amore/ Big Cass/ The Revival situation) is a welcome change.