Monday Night Raw had another nigh-impossible hurdle to clear in going up against the College Football Playoff National Championship game. And yet, with three weeks of shows left leading up to the Royal Rumble, the roster collectively put their heads down and produced a strong effort that both catered to WWE's core fans and planted seeds for any number of possibilities in the months to come.
The pieces of the Rumble puzzle continued to fall into place, with a Raw tag team championship match added to the card and five more names announced across the two Royal Rumble matches to come. But between The Miz's return from a two-month hiatus and some low-risk creative moves already paying off, it's clear that despite having to line up everything for Raw's upcoming 25th anniversary show, the Royal Rumble and the earliest hints of WrestleMania, Raw was able to thread the needle on all counts
Finn Balor and his Club get the upper hand as Jason Jordan becomes a liability
From the moment that Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows walked up behind him in Kurt Angle's office last Monday on Raw, it seems as though Finn Balor hasn't stopped smiling. Reuniting with his former Bullet Club compatriots has paid immediate dividends for all three men, as their comfortability with each other and the small window we've gotten into their relationship has allowed Balor, Gallows and Anderson to show charisma that doesn't feel overscripted or overproduced. In 30 seconds of banter, we got to know more about the characters and history of Balor, Gallows, Anderson than an entire year's worth of waywardness in 2017.
But that was just part of the equation for the story that both opened and closed Raw. What we witnessed was a perfect example of how taking two previously unrelated stories and giving them a reason to intersect allowed everyone involved to come out the other side all the better for it. Roman Reigns was barely able to get a few words in edgewise about beating Samoa Joe at the beginning of the show before Jason Jordan barged out to congratulate Reigns, which actually turned into Jordan pounding his own chest and taking partial credit for the achievement.
Seth Rollins quickly came out to try to keep Jordan from stepping all over Reigns' moment, but Jordan played the clueless, overconfident and embarrassing younger brother figure to a T -- and it all came back to haunt all three men by the end of the night. Jordan's bragging about how he, Rollins and Reigns, all champions, and that they were nearly as formidable a trio as The Shield, drew the newly anointed "Balor Club" to the ring.
"Two thirds of #TheShield doing all the work, and @JasonJordanJJ is there to celebrate, too!" - @WWEGraves#RAW @WWERollins @WWERomanReigns @FinnBalor @KarlAndersonWWE @LukeGallowsWWE pic.twitter.com/X3dWZckudv
- WWE (@WWE) January 9, 2018
A main event match was made, and over the course of 20 minutes, Jordan's flaws were all realized in the worst of ways for his teammates. As fans enjoyed the spectacle of Balor, Gallows and Anderson crystalizing their bond against a formidable opponent, Jordan's continued efforts to help Rollins when he was in peril only got more and more damaging. The first time kept the referee from seeing a tag to Reigns, which started the chaos that led to the end of the match and a painful lesson for the trio.
Jordan then tried to step in front of Rollins in the corner to stop Balor from attacking, but Rollins saved Jordan and ate a dropkick and a Coup de Grace for his bravery. Balor, Gallows and Anderson picked up a valuable win, and with it, the cache to move in almost any direction they desire. After Jordan's "heroics", the patience of Rollins and Reigns seem to be wearing thin in a hurry -- especially after The Miz and his Miztourage ran out and picked the bones clean with a post-match attack and a pair of skull-crushing finales on Reigns.
The Miz returns and immediately creates a buzz
Speaking of The Miz, after six weeks off of TV, he picked up right where he left off. In a promo and brief backstage segment, Miz immediately reignited his Intercontinental championship rivalry with Reigns and cut a borderline babyface promo about how 2018 will be another banner year. He had Elias introduce him, Curtis Axel and Bo Dallas fighting over who loved him more and lined up his title rematch for the 25th anniversary edition of Monday Night Raw.
As Miz waxed poetic about how he would eclipse all of the legends known for holding the Intercontinental championship, it rang true. He's already got the second-most reigns with seven, trailing only Chris Jericho's nine runs as IC champ, and Miz sits third with the most combined days as champion with both Don Muraco and Pedro Morales' runs in reach. It may not happen at RAW25, or for a while yet, but by the time Miz hangs up his boots, he will undoubtedly be in the conversation of superstars who did the most to build up the Intercontinental championship.
On top of it all, Miz announced he and Maryse will star in a docuseries on the USA Network in 2018. "Miz and Mrs." is the latest step in Miz's near-two decade run of reality show appearances dating back to 2001 and the Real World on MTV, and it'll document Miz and Maryse's last few months leading up to the birth of their daughter. Add in picking up Asuka as his Mixed Match Challenge partner and the attack on Reigns, and return days don't get much better.
Braun Strowman proves masterful with a grappling hook
In a previous life, Braun Strowman was either a cat burglar or a mountain climber. Those are really the only conclusions a rational person could come up with after watching Strowman master a grappling hook toss that helped bring down 20 some-odd feet of scaffolding down upon Kane and Brock Lesnar following a vicious attack in the backstage are on Monday night.
It all started with a vintage Paul Heyman promo that appeared it would get interrupted by Strowman from the outset, as Heyman continued to profess Lesnar's infallibility.
"This is the most dominant champion in the history of WWE. I promise there's not a being alive that can put down the reigning, defending, undisputed Universal heavyweight champion, Brock Lesnar."
As he backed up the ramp, Kane came out instead to get a few more licks in before Strowman attacked the lot of them. Strowman ragdolled Lesnar into a wall, causing a catering container to drop onto the Universal champion, and then Strowman picked up a full-sized road case, used it as a weapon to bludgeon Kane and then threw it on top of him.
The hysterics with the grappling hook followed, marking another over-the-top success for Strowman, and really drove home the message that perhaps Strowman could walk out of the Royal Rumble with the title.
- WWE (@WWE) January 9, 2018
Samoa Joe shifts his target
On a night with a Paul Heyman appearance and a Miz return segment, Samoa Joe can put a feather in his cap knowing that he had the best promo of the night. After making fairly quick work of Rhyno, Joe didn't back off of his intensity by a single inch despite last week's loss to Roman Reigns. He dropped the phrase "pyrrhic victory" and insisted that Reigns' win came at a great cost.
"I've beaten years off your career every time I've stepped in the ring with you," bragged Samoa Joe. "There are cracks in the foundation, and when it all comes tumbling down I'm going to be there to finish the job."
Though he's leaving Reigns in the rear-view mirror for the time being, and turned his attentions towards the Royal Rumble, Samoa Joe still had one big surprise to drop. He singled out John Cena as the first person he'll eliminate in the over-the-top battle royal, hinting at a future with a man who was by his side as they both broke into the wrestling business in California many years ago.
Hits and misses
- The Bar got what they wanted in a Raw tag team title rematch at the Royal Rumble, but they also suffered a shocking loss at the hands of Titus Worldwide. The combination of Apollo Crews' athleticism, in the form of a moonsault form the apron onto Cesaro, and Titus O'Neil's veteran guile as he rolled Sheamus up for the pin, proved to be the right equation. It proved that anything can happen on Raw, and it's given a bump to Titus Worldwide while giving them and The Bar something to do over the next couple of weeks.
- Matt Hardy had his first TV match since he was "woken" and he quickly picked up a win over Curt Hawkins. The lights went out, Bray Wyatt appeared in the ring, and Hardy and Wyatt carried on laughing at each other for minutes before it all cut to black. With both Hardy and Wyatt added to the Royal Rumble field, we'll have to wait a little while longer to see what "The Great War" will be. Whatever form it takes, it will be a true test of the legs this rivalry and the "woken" character have in the WWE. But between the cracking glass and cheesy graphic, and the fact they didn't change the colorful "Hardy Boyz" entrance video despite new, melancholic entrance music, are troubling indicators.
- Whether or not she let Alexa Bliss instigate her to do it, there's no denying the destruction Nia Jax imposed upon Asuka. That'll be a clash to keep an eye on in the women's Royal Rumble match as well, as both Jax and Mickie James officially entered and pushed the total number of women announced to 16.
- Jax also briefly attended to Enzo Amore, who suffered a number of injuries in his cruiserweight championship defense against Cedric Alexander. After getting busted open and bloodied, Amore crumpled awkwardly after Alexander flew out of the ring and landed upon him, leading to a countout loss for the champion. The ankle injury appeared to be the storyline injury, considering the backstage interaction between he and Jax, but the four stitches he got in his head were no joke.
- The tag team match between Absolution's Mandy Rose & Sonya Deville and Sasha Banks & Bayley was a bit rough at times and revealed some of Rose's inexperience in the ring. Learning on the job is never easy, but learning under the wing of Paige and opposite performers like Banks and Bayley is about as good as it gets. Let's see where she ends up after a few months on the road.