Leading into TLC, the Raw brand’s October pay-per-view event, WWE was dealt a really bad hand. Two days before the show, it was announced that Roman Reigns and Bray Wyatt would be unable to compete in their respective matches due to illness. It must be said that WWE did a fantastic job trying to make it up to the fans, pulling out the biggest of guns in AJ Styles and Kurt Angle to replace them, but there’s no denying it was just…weird. Seeing Kurt Angle make his WWE return after 11 years by walking through the crowd behind Ambrose and Rollins in riot gear with a s--t eating grin on his face was nothing short of surreal. And though the match itself was certainly entertaining, it really didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense.
It was up to tonight’s episode of Raw, then, to A) make sense of a TLC card that ended up feeling like a bizarre advertisement for WWE 2K18 (want to see what Kurt Angle would look like in The Shield teaming up against Braun Strowman, Kane and The Miz? Now you can, in Universe Mode!), and B) start the march toward Survivor Series.
After a brief Kurt Angle promo and the requisite interruption by The Miz, a six man tag match was announced between team of The Miz and Cesaro & Sheamus against Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, and SmackDown Live Superstar AJ Styles. The new tradition of replacing Roman Reigns with insanely high profile wrestlers continues as Vince McMahon kneels in Gorilla Position, praying for the Big Dog to get better.
AJ sticking around to compete tonight on Raw feels like a really strange choice. I know they are hurting and scrambling without Reigns and Wyatt, but without a real storyline lynch pin, it is just so obviously an effort to get through another week of shows and nothing more. They have a little luck on their side thanks to the fact that the next pay-per-view event is Survivor Series, which will have a Raw vs. SmackDown theme, but AJ fighting Raw wrestlers dilutes this concept greatly — one of the cardinal sins of the original brand split, and the reason it was eventually scrapped. No moment proved this more than Michael Cole saying during the six man tag match "Survivor Series is the one night a year where Raw‘s Superstars face off against SmackDown‘s"…WHILE AJ Styles is in the ring, facing off against Raw Superstars. WWE is often guilty of revisionist history, but to my knowledge they’ve never had the audacity to say what’s currently happening in the ring has never happened. Maybe Linda’s spot in the Trump administration is rubbing off on WWE.
The match itself was highly entertaining. Seeing as how it involved AJ Styles, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Cesaro, Sheamus and The Miz, how could it not be? Lots of great back and forth action, double and triple teams until AJ Styles gets the win with a Phenomenal Forearm on Cesaro. After the match, Kane made his way to the ring to clean house on the babyfaces.
Kane cut a promo thinly explaining his actions turning on Braun Strowman by saying he was the only true monster on Raw. He then took a page out of Braun’s playbook, demanding competition, which brought out Finn Balor. Maybe he wants to be the only true demon on Raw? Unfortunately, if that was Finn’s goal he failed miserably, because for some reason, the Balor Club leader was essentially squashed by Kane. It’s hard to find any sense in this decision, especially just one night after Finn cleanly defeated AJ Styles, arguably the most talented wrestler on the roster and heralded by the announce team as such. But hey, it’s cool, let’s squash him by a 50 year old part-timer who will supposedly only be around for a month or two.
Paul Heyman accepted Jinder Mahal’s challenge on behalf of his client, Brock Lesnar — though that would have been a little more newsworthy if we didn’t learn earlier in the evening that Survivor Series will be entirely based around Raw vs. SmackDown title matches, Lesnar vs. Mahal included. Why did Jinder even have to lay down the challenge?
The way in which Heyman accepted the challenge tonight was very well done, however. He was right: Heyman usually builds up Lesnar’s opponents rather than tearing them down, which is the right way to build a match. If you make your opponent sound like a joke and you beat him, you accomplished nothing. If you lose to that joke, you make yourself look even worse. That said, Mahal is nowhere near Lesnar’s league — he isn’t even playing the same sport. To act like the two are peers would be doing The Beast, and the Universal Championship, a severe disservice. In a lot of ways, Heyman’s words felt like the words of most people watching WWE in the past six months. Jinder Mahal is not a WWE Championship caliber talent. He never was, and his reign as champion hasn’t done anything to change that perception.
Of course, the announcement of the title vs. title matches showed that the rest of SmackDown Live isn’t faring much better than the Modern Day Maharaja. Natalya vs. Alexa Bliss? Baron Corbin vs. The Miz? Do any of these sound remotely entertaining to you? The only matchup that’s the least bit intriguing is The Shield vs. The Usos, which will easily be the match of the night in four weeks. Put into this perspective, it’s pretty amazing to see how far SmackDown has fallen since Jinder won the title.
The Rest of the Card
- Asuka made her Monday Night Raw debut by having essentially the same match against Emma that she did the night before at TLC. This match didn’t make sense Sunday night and it makes even less sense tonight. Asuka was a force of nature in NXT, holding the Women’s Championship for over 500 days and leaving NXT undefeated. And after weeks of buildup of this dominant Superstar, WWE introduces her to the main roster by having a competitive match where she ekes out a win against somebody who is essentially a joke at this point. I like Emma as much as the next guy, and I wish she had a more important role on the show, but the fact is she doesn’t. And now, much like they did to Shinsuke Nakamura by having him barely beat another joke in Dolph Ziggler, Asuka is just another rassler instead of in her own league like she was presented in NXT.
- It looks like even though Alexa beat Mickie last night, and she now has Natalya to look forward to at Survivor Series, this Alexa/Mickie feud is continuing. Both women are fine — good, even — both on the mic and in the ring, and Alexa has tons of charisma, but they just aren’t being given anything good to work with.
- Continuing the horrific wrestling version of Groundhog Day this episode of Raw turned out to be, Elias faced off against Jason Jordan, again, after Jordan interrupted Elias’s performance, again. Jordan won again, though this time it was by DQ when Elias hit him with his guitar in what ended up looking like a pretty nasty spot. Jordan had a huge bruise on his arm pretty much right away. Helping sell the brutality of the spot was the commentary team, who somberly annou–just kidding, Booker T and Corey Graves were cracking up laughing about something completely unrelated for nearly the entire match, including the ending.
- Drew Gulak dryly reading Enzo’s usual spiel was hilarious. Easily the best way to handle Enzo losing his voice. The ten man tag match involving nearly the entire Cruiserweight division was more fun than it had any right to be, especially because Gran Metalik finally had a chance to show what he is truly capable of. That he’s been pretty much completely ineffectual in WWE is a travesty.
- The show ended with the SmackDown Live roster infiltrating Raw in a series of beatdowns that made absolutely no sense. AJ Styles teamed with Ambrose and Rollins earlier in this very show, but beats the s--t out of them here because he’s wearing a blue t-shirt. Chad Gable went ballistic on Jason Jordan, his former tag team partner even though it’s been said he harbors no ill will toward him for going to Raw to be with his father. The switch on Survivor Series from a bragging rights-type friendly competition to an absolute blood feud was flipped so quickly it didn’t make any impact. They wanted this to feel like the Nexus, but it ended up feeling more like the Corre.
This was one of the weakest episodes of Raw in months. Most of the show was a rehash of last night’s befuddling pay-per-view, and the parts that weren’t were just silly, like Alicia Fox becoming the team captain of Raw at Survivor Series and a "ransacking" of the Raw locker room by Team SmackDown, who are suddenly bloodthirsty animals working together as a unit, obsessed with brand supremacy. All the while, Angle was left staring at the ground in shock like he had just seen a ghost. With TLC mercifully in the rear view mirror, WWE sharply pivoted toward Survivor Series in the laziest way possible, making it out to be a blood feud where there was next to no bad blood before tonight.