Raw kicks off 2018 in strong form

Samoa Joe and Roman Reigns are just getting started. Courtesy of WWE

On a night that felt in many ways like a holding pattern show, WWE certainly squeezed in enough to keep the Miami crowd and everyone watching at home engaged until the very end.

Any week that Universal champion Brock Lesnar shows up with Paul Heyman in tow and gets physical is an occasion, Roman Reigns versus Samoa Joe continues to be the fiery rivalry driving the Raw steam engine and, in what was the most surprising moment of the night, WWE officials finally yielded and gave a vocal subset of fans the reunion they've been craving for well over a year.

There are only three Monday Night Raws left until the Royal Rumble and plenty of ways the first major show of the year can go along the way.

Roman Reigns fends off Samoa Joe, but it all seems far from over

It's been a very slow coming out party for Samoa Joe on Raw over the last year, with numerous close calls, great matches and detours along the way. But over the last few weeks in particular, as his focus drifted back towards Roman Reigns and the Intercontinental championship, Samoa Joe seems to have found his groove in almost every way.

Like it did last week, an intense backstage promo with Renee Young lit the fuse for what would be a banner night. "Roman Reigns has run out of options. He's run out of friends and he's run out of time. Because when I put him to sleep and become the new Intercontinental champion, he will understand that it may be his yard, but he lives in my world," Joe bragged, as he carried on and gloated about all he had done to destroy The Shield and push Reigns over the edge.

Joe could cut a good promo in his sleep, but it was his nuance and energy that brought everything to life. He got another dig in at Renee Young as well, boasting, "Because of me, Dean Ambrose is now a stay-at-home husband living off of his wife's paycheck," the key of that sentence being the fact that Young is Ambrose's wife.

Reigns deserves a lot of credit for the success and believability of this rivalry, which dates all the way back to February 2017 and Joe's Raw debut match. Though Reigns found some success in tag team and multi-way matches, in the three one-on-one clashes between Samoa Joe and Roman Reigns, Joe had walked away with wins all three times. Reigns has done a magnificent job of exuding hatred and frustration for what Joe's been able to do to him along the way, and the added stipulation for Monday's Intercontinental championship match that a DQ could allow the title to change hands was a great wrinkle to throw into the mix to extend their feud at least a little while longer.

Joe thoroughly dominated the bulk of the match, and any time Reigns made a comeback, referee John Cone just happened to step in the way as he looked to prevent a disqualification. Between everything that happened in the corner, to the accidental ref bump and the temptation of the steel steps, everything was paced beautifully throughout. Joe was vocally berating Reigns while getting the upper hand, further pushing Reigns towards the edge, and everything from Joe's suicide dive forearm to the finishing sequence was another big notch in Joe's belt.

The Coquina Clutch was ultimately rolled over and fed into Reigns' winning spear, but there was enough in the way of shenanigans and an uncalled DQ to allow it all to feed the fire and continue this contentious rivalry forward despite a fairly decisive victory for Reigns. Under the right circumstances, an eventual title win could do wonders for Samoa Joe in the long-term.

Brock Lesnar and Braun Strowman and Kane, oh my

Despite some vocal apprehension for Kane continuing to be in the spotlight in this stage of his career, fans who love to see big guys beating the crap out of each other are getting just what they want in Brock Lesnar versus Kane versus Braun Strowman in the lead-up to the Royal Rumble.

Lesnar and Paul Heyman closed out Raw with Heyman spinning another conspiracy theory, based almost entirely around Lesnar having to defend his Universal championship in yet another multi-way match. Lesnar was ultimately confronted by Kane and ate a chokeslam for his troubles, but he managed to mock Kane mere moments later by popping up from the attack in identical fashion to how Kane and Undertaker typically respond to attacks. Lesnar got the last laugh as he clotheslined Kane out of the ring with the metal portion of his title, and there was a pull-apart featuring most of the roster as Raw went off the air.

Despite his physical activity being limited to a trio of running powerslams on both Rhyno and Heath Slater, Strowman had the biggest moments despite no face time with Lesnar. His backstage interaction, in which he refused to even momentarily entertain the kind of coup Heyman was paranoid about, reinforced everything that Strowman's character is and isn't. It's more likely than not Lesnar will carry the Universal championship beyond Royal Rumble and into WrestleMania, but as the stories start to line up for the biggest show of the year, Strowman has to be among the most entertaining potential challengers -- and don't count out the possibility that he pulls off a win in a few weeks, either.

Asuka gets first taste of Alexa Bliss

The need to provide a WrestleMania-worthy match every week has generally hurt the process of long-term builds, and while Asuka's first match against Alexa Bliss felt at least a little rushed, they were certainly given enough time to try to justify blowing this match off just a few weeks out from the first ever women's Royal Rumble match.

Bliss opened the show with a creative and intriguing moment as she chased down Kurt Angle to try and get the match canceled just moments before Angle was to step out and address the crowd. Nia Jax abandoned her in favor of bringing Enzo Amore soup, and so Bliss had to step out on her own in a non-title match against the still undefeated Asuka.

The match itself was a bit choppy, as both women spent large chunks getting comfortable, but the story they were trying to tell of Bliss taking all the liberties imaginable to try to survive Asuka at least somewhat justified the lengthy match time. Asuka picked up the win and, in the eternal tradition of non-title matches with a champion, seemingly lined up a future Raw women's title shot down the line. Whether that affects her prospects in the upcoming Royal Rumble match is another issue entirely.

Hits and misses

- In a moment fans have been clamoring for since the pair debuted, Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson teamed up with Finn Balor in a reuniting of The Bullet Club. It was a fun backstage segment and a fairly straightforward match against Elias and The Miztourage, but between the finish of the match and the giant smile that Balor couldn't wipe off his face, it was a welcome move after a fairly listless period for all three men. Speaking of The Miztourage, their patriarch, The Miz, will be back next week as Raw travels to Memphis.

- Angle opened Monday Night Raw by announcing that the women's Royal Rumble match will follow the same format as the men's match -- 30 women, all coming out at regular intervals, and they have to go over the top rope with both feet touching the floor. Anyone still worried about middle-rope eliminations, a shorter field or any other half-measures can breathe a little more easily.

- Speaking of the Royal Rumble matches, Sasha Banks, Bayley, Paige, Mandy Rose and Sonya Deville added themselves to the women's field, while John Cena and Finn Balor declared their intentions to enter the men's match.

- Despite some indications to the contrary in the closing moments of last week's Raw, when they won the Raw tag team titles, Seth Rollins and Jason Jordan are going to be really awkward tag team partners -- and that's great news. Between Rollins calling Jordan self-centered, and Rollins all but guaranteeing Cesaro would beat Jordan one-on-one (he didn't), the locker room interaction between Rollins, Jordan and Reigns should find itself a spot in the awkwardness Hall of Fame.

- Bray Wyatt and Apollo Crews faced off in a stunningly long match. We got more Matt Hardy postmatch, which was good, and the multiplying windows of Hardy's face was interesting, but the cracked glass sound as Matt Hardy broke in and then faded out on the video screen was hyper cheesy and took away from the moment. I get it. He's broken, or woken if you prefer. I know it's not the way that things typically get done in the WWE, but hand Hardy the keys, let him go nuts, and just reign it back when it has to be pulled back. This creation is 100 percent Matt Hardy and the signs of the WWE machine trying to overproduce everything is already starting to wear on the fans' initial excitement about his 'woken-ness'.

- Amore, who was scheduled to defend his cruiserweight championship against Cedric Alexander Monday night, posted several videos to his Instagram story on Monday from a hospital bed with IV needles in his arm. Despite racing to the arena, Amore's flu prevented him from making that title defense, which will now happen at an as-yet undetermined time.

- The only cruiserweight action we got on Raw involved Alexander, Drew Gulak and Ariya Daivari. Gulak acted as Amore's proxy, reading out a note and doing Amore's weekly shtick -- and he even offered on the spot copy edits, which was an added bit of kindness. The show reached beyond the usual cruiserweight ranks as Goldust came out to act as Alexander's tag team partner -- and he even got into the high-flying spirit enough to do a top rope twisting cross-body.