Monday Night Raw defies the odds with stellar go-home to SummerSlam

By laying the groundwork and sticking to the plan, WWE built up stakes in the re-formation of Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins and paid them off at just the right time -- and this may be only the beginning. Provided by WWE (@WWEAustralia)

Monday Night Raw faced down a near-impossible task, stuck between a rock and a hard place. For the better part of three-plus hours, the WWE's flagship show nailed its go-home to SummerSlam despite a somber day that threatened, at times, to claim one of its most legendary figures.

The sad news surrounding Ric Flair's hospitalization and overall medical condition could have easily hung over the performers, producers and fans alike on Monday night, dousing any enthusiasm that's been built up for this weekend and one of the WWE's biggest shows of the year. Instead, as in show business, everyone committed themselves to the mantra of live performance -- the show must go on.

Perhaps it was the stories and momentum that led up to this week, the sliver of good news late in a dark day or a self-challenge to channel some of the "Nature Boy's" legendary charisma, but there was an energy and a buzz inside Boston's TD Garden that rarely let up. It bounced from the crowd to the ring and back again and gave meaning and purpose to several key loose ends that needed to be tied up (and were) before Sunday.

It wasn't a perfect game by any means, but Raw did everything it could to set the stage for a big night to come in Brooklyn.

The good

Brothers in arms fight their way to solidarity

Raw has had a habit of late of telling one great story at a time, beat by beat, with an attention to detail and a focus and effort from all involved that brings big moments to life. From the slow build of Braun Strowman into the monster he is today, to the meteoric rise to the top that Samoa Joe has enjoyed over the past few months, Raw has turned the notion that long-term booking is a thing of the past.

Of late, the will-they or won't-they between Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose has been must-see TV. There were multiple ways in which the reunion between former brothers in The Shield could have been cheap or unearned, but the WWE persisted in playing this reunion out to its most satisfying ending. In all the ways in which they misstepped along the way in bringing Rollins and Roman Reigns together in the past, the on-screen characters and fans alike had to earn it.

Even as it seemed last week in Toronto like the crowd was ready for the moment Ambrose extended his arm as a peace offering, the WWE had one last moment to pull off before they gave the people what they wanted. After a three-minute video package that hit every major point along this road to redemption, an incensed Ambrose charged to the ring and demanded Rollins join him in the middle of the ring.

After spurning Ambrose's gesture last week, Rollins was ready to let bygones be bygones, and that he was done playing games. For Ambrose, the one who was initially wronged in the most desperate betrayal of all when Rollins broke up The Shield, it had been a big step to try to put aside the past and believe a partnership could work. In Rollins' case, he was sick of going above and beyond to prove his loyalty.

But in the end, it was about who would make the compromise and be the bigger man -- and neither wanted to make the leap. As Rollins stuck out his fist in The Shield's signature salute, Ambrose couldn't believe his eyes

"You have got to be kidding me," said Ambrose. "After last week? (Points at Rollins) I stuck my hand out there last week, I put my ass on the line last week. I looked like the fool. You spat in my face last week, man. I thought for a second, just a teeny little second, maybe... maybe I had a concussion, I don't know. I thought maybe I could trust you again."

Rollins apologized again, and went through the paces of trying to make amends. He appealed to Ambrose, saying that whether they were fighting each other or fighting together, they brought the best out of each other (and that's certainly been the case in their careers). Ambrose eventually stuck out his fist, the crowd rose into a frenzy, but then Rollins doubted himself again and pulled away.

The tension boiled over and they started swinging at each other, tumbling all over the ring. As they caught their breath, Sheamus & Cesaro took the moment to rip Ambrose and Rollins apart -- only they achieved the opposite. As Rollins took a double-team beating in the corner, Ambrose, recovering behind a ring barrier, got a crazy look in his eyes. No one was going to beat up Rollins except for him.

They worked together, dispatched the Raw tag team champions, and as they soaked in the moment, Rollins and Ambrose realized how they would come together. They'd meet halfway, reach out at the same time, and reforge the bond. As expected, they ended up with a shot at the titles at SummerSlam -- and that may just be another small step in an ongoing process that's sure to be a focal point on Raw for weeks and months to come.

Lesnar-Strowman showdown tease highlights final Universal title showdown

The main event slot and all of the runover that followed served two simple purposes. It allowed Paul Heyman to work his masterful magic in building up Brock Lesnar's three opponents-to-be at SummerSlam while appearing to take them down.

"One of two things happens this Sunday at SummerSlam. One -- the conspiracy by WWE and general manager Kurt Angle is successful; they rip the Universal title off of my client Brock Lesnar, Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman leave WWE," Heyman stated matter-of-factly, even throwing in a heavy-handed reference to putting Brock Lesnar "in a cage".

"And then, there's scenario No. 2," Heyman continued. "Brock Lesnar beats Braun Strowman, or Brock Lesnar beats Samoa Joe or Brock Lesnar beats Roman Reigns and proves to the entire world what I've known all this time -- that for 15 years of me flapping my gums, all I've done is undersell the greatness of this once-ever athlete that stands before you tonight."

Most intriguingly, the "face-to-face-to-face-to-face boiled down to the two competitors who've had the least time in the ring together and offer the biggest physical spectacle -- Lesnar and Strowman.

Samoa Joe and Reigns were rendered something of an afterthought in the closing moments, but there will be plenty of time for them to show themselves at SummerSlam. The security guards and, ultimately, the entire Raw roster standing between the two giants highlighted the two biggest selling points they have for Sunday -- this particular match-up, and the uncertainty of how things will play out when all four men get into the ring.

Add in a chaotic pull-apart as the show went off the air, in a call back to the frenetic finishes of Raw and Monday Nitro in the '90s, and the WWE pulled off what they so rarely do so well -- they left us wanting more.

Bliss finds her new dance partner for SummerSlam

Once Bayley was pulled from the Raw women's title match at SummerSlam, it seemed all too obvious that Sasha Banks would ultimately step in and take the shot at Alexa Bliss. After last week's somewhat convoluted set of triple threats led to this week's Banks vs. Nia Jax match, it seemed an absolute given. Kudos to both women for putting on a tremendous match, defying the pitfalls of a match with such a size differential to tell a great story in the ring in the process. It's a match that's gets better inside the ring every time out, though it's become quite familiar, and Sunday's Banks-Bliss match should do well to lay the tracks for the rest of the year in the Raw women's division.

SummerSlam comes early as Akira Tozawa pulls off shock cruiserweight title win

When it was announced out of the blue that Akira Tozawa's cruiserweight title shot would come on Raw instead of the SummerSlam pay-per-view, it appeared that something was up. After almost 200 days as cruiserweight champion, Neville lost his crown in a memorable moment for all involved. While the rematch is already set for SummerSlam, it seems likely like giving this match some proper time in the middle of Raw led to a far more special moment for Tozawa (and Titus Worldwide, and the Boston fans) to celebrate.

That wasn't the only match that gave us SummerSlam come early. Finn Balor and Bray Wyatt had a backstage pull-apart that led Angle to push their match up almost a week as well. Balor got some licks in, but in the end, Wyatt pulled off a stunningly clean victory. The moment was largely about the postmatch, though, as Wyatt hit a second Sister Abigail, hit the lights, and returned to the light with a bucket full of a "viscous, acidic substance" as Michael Cole so eloquently put it.

That the announcing team allowed the moment of Balor getting covered in fake blood to happen while they watched in silent horror. Cole seemingly having the directive to not specifically say the word blood or even fake blood subtracted some points. This was the perfect moment to pull Balor's demon side out of him, and raised the stakes for a match that seemed doomed to end as a one-and-done rivalry.

The bad

The never-ending Big Cass-Enzo Amore break-up

Between the shark cage gimmick, Gallows & Anderson randomly aligning themselves with Big Cass and Cass pulling off a knockoff version of Reigns' post-WrestleMania Raw moment, this moment stood out as the biggest head-scratcher of all on Raw. Conspiring and succeeding in "breaking" Big Show's hand was a logical step, and having a "good guy" up in the cage is a new twist on the highly gimmicky match. But once this thing is over on Sunday, let's hope it's either the beginning of the end, or the end of the end. Time for a new direction.

The uncertainty of Jason Jordan

There was nothing particularly wrong with the Jason Jordan vs. The Miz match or the impromptu six-man tag team match that followed. But the end game for Jordan becomes fuzzier by the day. Is he supposed to be a clean-cut good guy, drawing in some of the cheers alongside The Hardy Boyz? Or is he set to subtly follow in the footsteps of his "father" and turn against the crowd when they don't support his wide-eyed, smiling demeanor?

Jordan's showing in the ring against Miz is a reminder of how physically gifted he is, but if he's to become something memorable on Raw, he needs a mouthpiece to push him along to bigger and better things. At least the latest version of his entrance theme is better.

The women's division abyss beyond the title picture

After a great No. 1 contenders match earlier in the night, a second women's singles match on the night was a welcome surprise. Emma's been getting a fair bit of TV time of late, and she's made repeated pleas from fans online using the hashtag "#GiveEmmaAChance". Rather than trying to turn that into something tangible utilizing a groundswell of public support, the WWE instead had her inexplicably losing a cobbled together match against Mickie James in the dead zone of Raw. Neither woman got televised entrances, and the seeming lack of enthusiasm in the presentation of WWE showed in the crowd's reaction, or lack thereof.

It's one thing to give something an earnest chance by sinking some effort into it. It's another thing entirely to put performers out on an island and expect them to do anything other than what they're being set up for: general apathy.