Raw recap: Samoa Joe, the return of Brock Lesnar and the art of subtlety

The opening salvo between Samoa Joe and Brock Lesnar opened Raw and struck the right balance between showing physicality and not giving too much away too fast. Provided by WWE (@WWE)

With timing and counterprogramming concerns, the long-anticipated return of Universal champion Brock Lesnar and his showdown got moved to the start of the show. In an otherwise forgettable Raw, this moment and the attention to detail carried the show through its rough patches.

The Universal champion and his advocate Paul Heyman made their points, and Samoa Joe blitzed to the ring. The No. 1 contender refused to back down and immediately attacked Lesnar. It was a heated pull-apart that made Joe look every bit the serious contender without going too far over the top.

With the deciding Game 5 of the NBA Finals set to sap Raw's already sagging ratings Monday night, a segment that would otherwise almost certainly have closed out the show was rushed out the door prior to tip-off as casual fans were essentially given the green light to head out on their way and change the channel. Whether it was making the best of a tough situation or simply a practical preservation of resources and ideas, very little else changed in the big picture in the three hours that followed, culminating in a glorified house show main event that ended in the most unsatisfying of ways.

But it wasn't all for naught. No, even as casual fans were largely left without much to hang their hats on if they stuck around for the whole show, there were enough subtle moments and efforts in long-term storytelling that left a silver lining for those willing to look hard enough for it. But before we get ourselves too deep into the weeds, we'll break things down in the simplest of terms -- what worked, and what most certainly did not.

The good

  • There are a lot of things working toward making the Samoa Joe vs. Lesnar Universal title match build feel like anything but a one-off affair. Even in the face of a fair bit of circumstantial evidence to the contrary, the efforts of all involved have made Lesnar's return match feel like the spectacle it has every right to be.

    As is customarily the case, the credit begins with Heyman. First and foremost, he offered himself up as a human crash test dummy last week as Samoa Joe choked him out, and then, in accompanying Lesnar on Monday night, managed the difficult line of building up the No. 1 contender while insulting him, as Heyman and few others can do these days in the world of professional wrestling.

    With two sentences, along with many complementing them on either side of this particular statement, Heyman crystallized why Lesnar would be angry, why Samoa Joe was doing what few others could do in facing Lesnar directly, and why we should care about their upcoming match.

    "Samoa Joe kicked down the front door of Brock Lesnar's lair and attacked Brock's guy, in Brock's name," said Heyman. "Now there's a problem, and it's going to be solved by the greatest problem-solver in WWE history."

    After calling Joe a "Samoan mutt" and a few other nasty things, Joe made a beeline for the ring and attacked the champion without the slightest whiff of fear. After sending out referees and other officials to break up the scrum, general manager Kurt Angle brought out the cavalry as the bulk of the Raw roster ran to the ring to separate the two men. A few short attempts to bypass the pull-apart followed, and in the first good call and nod toward subtlety, that was that -- give a little taste of the upcoming main event without giving away everything. Not every pull-apart has to be Lesnar-Undertaker.

  • One of the best subtle experiences of Monday's edition of Raw was the ripples it caused in Angle's night. As he dealt with the fallout of the opening segment, elements of chaos were present throughout the rest of the show. After The Miz came out during the opening match of the night and allowed Elias Samson to pick up a sneaky win on Dean Ambrose, a frazzled Angle yelled at Miz and refused to even briefly entertain the notion of placating the Intercontinental champion.

    What's more, they kept the message that Corey Graves delivered to Angle a couple of weeks ago in the back of our minds without hitting us over the head with it. When Miz mentioned Angle being overwhelmed by "personal problems," Angle got only madder before both of them blew by it. It set up the silliness later in the evening, when another ill-fated, bear-suited man (this one with a surprisingly detailed entrance in tow, deputized as Miz's emergency tag-team partner) led to more strife between Miz and Maryse and Ambrose cashing in on the rule of threes.

    As silly as the segment was, Ambrose and Miz took a seemingly unwinnable, strangely detailed and curiously written segment (that was filled with bad puns and fitful giggles on commentary) and squeezed some value out of it all. And Miz may want to watch out for the side effects of adopting some of Daniel Bryan's moveset, as it appears that the fine print may show that it comes with a strange obsession with bears.

  • As Alexa Bliss got heat from all sides -- from Nia Jax for how their match ended, from Mickie James, Dana Brooke and Sasha Banks on the opposite side, and from a returning Emma, for that matter -- she didn't fall victim to a flaw in logic. Rather than trying to get into any good graces with a group that has had little love lost for her, Bliss dipped out and left Emma hanging to take the fall in the subsequent six-woman tag-team match. It was good to see most of the Raw women's division get involved, but it's becoming clear that Bliss, if she's meant to have any kind of extended title run, desperately needs a lackey. Unfortunately for Bliss, no one currently in the division fits the bill.

  • Everything that had to do with the Titus Brand and Akira Tozawa was gold. Tozawa was completely lost throughout the umpteenth match between Apollo Crews and Kalisto and its aftermath, and may have unwittingly been thrown into the fire by Titus O'Neil as Neville seeks out his next adversary in the cruiserweight division.

  • A video package promoting "free agent" John Cena's return in a month. Color me intrigued.

    The bad

  • The less we say about the tag-team title main event, the better. After a lot of time spent hyping the two-out-of-three falls match throughout the night, it did not deliver. Between a quick fall for Cesaro & Sheamus, a solid response from The Hardy Boyz and then an ending that did absolutely nothing for either team, it's hard to see the point of a double-count-out finale when there was nothing that followed it.

    After so many losses in the lead-up to their tag-team title win, would it have hurt anyone for the tag champs to lay into Matt and Jeff Hardy a little bit? Or maybe continue along the path of Matt having to carry a bit too much weight as Jeff continued to take big risks? Nope. It was simply a mulligan and a time filler, with the only message being, "Oh well, I guess we'll just try again some other time."

  • If we take the Bayley one-on-one interview with Graves at face value, it was atrocious. She was unapologetic for being unable to pull the trigger and overwhelmed by an "Aw shucks, hope we get 'em next time" vibe. If we instead focus on the super-awkward hug she offered Graves at the end of the interview, perhaps you'll see the seeds of some much-needed character development toward either an awkward little sister or single-minded weirdo archetype. We'll see.

  • No Finn Balor or Roman Reigns this week, only a couple of video packages for each. We will get the reveal for who Reigns will challenge at SummerSlam next week, though. So who's it going to be?

  • The case of the knocked-out "Realest Guys" felt familiar. The Revival made a brief cameo, walking through the shot. Big Cass got blindsided but insisted on wrestling, Enzo Amore ultimately ate two Magic Killers from Luke Gallows & Karl Anderson, lost and then accused Big Show, who saved his tail the last two weeks, of knocking out Cass himself. It's insinuated that that paranoia is coming from Cass, through Amore, and there are only so many weeks of backstage attacks that can go on until we get an answer. Hope the payoff is good.

  • Alicia Fox and Noam Dar on Facetime was good for a few chuckles but bad for the credibility of the cruiserweights. Let Dar and Cedric Alexander get 10 minutes to just go out there and flash the sorts of things they did in the Cruiserweight Classic many moons ago. That's why they're here, right?

    Quote of the week

    "The world is collapsing under the weight of its own sin ... it's hard on the streets, man..."

    "And he who dares blaspheme my name will be punished ... just like Seth Rollins."

    Some interesting phrasing from Bray Wyatt, ostensibly pointed at Rollins. On a day when rumors of divorce proceedings due to his alleged infidelity dropped, Wyatt's normally meandering style of speech seemed particularly pointed at times.