The night after 2016's Battleground PPV, WWE presented the first night of it's brand split as Monday Night RAW took on a new look, new commentary team and it's own unique roster for the first time since August 2011. With a tournament to crown a brand new Universal Champion, a Women's Championship match, the debuts of Finn Balor and Nia Jax and the return of Neville, this show surely couldn't fail...
In what was the show's main event in everything but name, Sasha Banks would put an end to Charlotte's 44 weeks at the top of the Women's division, in the best female match to have ever graced the companies flagship TV show. This wasn't just a PPV worthy match on TV, this was a PPV quality match on TV and one that could have stolen show. Despite this, I'm glad that this match was saved for this broadcast and not used on the previous night's PPV, as it was allowed to become a focal point here, whilst also being aided by the booking of the tag match from Battleground, which gave Banks some extra momentum. Of course, having a title change on the first episode puts out the idea to the fans that you don't want to miss an episode of Monday Night RAW. To have a Women's match this strong on the first show of the new feel RAW makes a real statement about how we're going to see ladies presented on the show going forward.
The match was pieced together well, with the narrative unfolding throughout the contest with new layers and ideas being bought in as it went on. It was full of moments, connected together with some quality wrestling to produce the story that would culminate with the feel-good ending. The fight began to develop into something special when Banks managed to get Dana Brooke ejected after pulling an Eddie Guerrero, throwing Brooke the Women's strap and dropping to the floor and by the time Charlotte had hit a beautiful moonsault to the outside that development was almost complete. The finish was spot on as well, with Banks managing to slap on a Banks Statement seconds after Charlotte had escaped that exact same move, with both girls selling the move and the occasion superbly. I could write a lot more on the odds and ends that made this such an enthralling main event contest. If this is the direction WWE have planned for their Women's Championship on Monday nights, then long may it continue.
In the first of two Fatal Four-Way matches that were essentially Quarter Final matches in a tournament to crown a new Universal Champion, a debuting Finn Balor conquered Cesaro, Kevin Owens and United States Champion Rusev in a cracking opening match. In the first part of an incredible debut for Balor, he was put over huge by the commentary team as he headed to the ring and then allowed to look like a bonafide superstar by defeating three of WWE's premier male wrestlers. The final few minutes were all about "The Demon" as after spending some time out of the match following a Pop-Up Powerbomb, Balor seemed to come out of nowhere as he hit Owens with a running front dropkick and a slingblade, before delivering the same kick to Rusev and gaining the pinfall with a Coup de Grat. If you were seeing Balor for the first time and hadn't been convinced by the time the referee's hand hit the mat for the third time, then you don't deserve nice things.
The near twenty minute bout seemed to pass by in a flash as the foursome kept the action coming thick and fast, with each competitor being allowed to play to their strengths. This was a cool cocktail of sports-entertainment, with clever storytelling, well-placed high-spots (Balor's tope conhilo), crowd pleasers (Cesaro's uppercut train and Giant Swing) and close call near falls (Owens Pop-Up Powerbomb to Balor, Rusev's Accolade on Owens, Cesaro's sharpshooter on Rusev). There was even some neat chain wrestling at one point, as Rusev and Cesaro flowed seamlessly in search of their submission holds. The partnership that was created by Owens and Rusev early on, would become the foundation for the match with the duo controlling the first third, whilst Owens was ad-libbing various quips to his new found Bulgarian buddy. It will be interesting to see where Owens, Cesaro and Rusev fit into RAW's on-going plans from next week and if any of them will find a place on the card on 21st August.
In the other Fatal Four-Way bout, it was Roman Reigns who would triumph over Chris Jericho, Sami Zayn and Sheamus in another lively match, that capped off a strong first hour. The commentary team had weirdly tried to push the possibility of Zayn winning continuously throughout, but let's face it this match had a Reigns victory written all over it in bright pink highlighter. From the very beginning when all three other men, including a reluctant Zayn, went after Reigns, this was all about "The Juggernaut" and his quest to be "The Guy" once more. Reigns was given a lot of the big spots in the match and the story essentially boiled down to everyone else finding different ways of stopping "The Big Dog" from being able to hit a Spear. This definitely isn't meant as a criticism of the match, in fact, all four men managed to play to Reigns' negative crowd reaction well, with the story helping to drive this.
Whilst there were similarities to the earlier four-way, like Jericho and Sheamus forming a partnership to dominate the early goings, this felt like a very different match to it's predecessor. This contest felt like much more of a Wham Bam Thank you Mam type encounter, loading the near falls on the conveyor belt and speeding it up continuously until the finish. Once Reigns had hit his over the rope suicide dive, the false finishes were running wild. Sheamus nailed Reigns with a Brogue Kick as the latter lined up for a spear, only to end up in position for Zayn's Helluva Kick was the strongest sequence of the contest, made even better by Jericho attempting to nick the pin from "The Underdog from the Underground". The crowd was hot for each kick out, especially when Zayn caught Reigns with a roll-up in the middle of a Superman Punch spree. For this reviewer, the only let down of this bout was the finish. Jericho and Reigns put together a cool back and forth arrangement, including another near fall off a codebreaker, before Reigns finally hit his spear following "Y2J" attempting his own version of the move, but it meant that Zayn and Sheamus had to be out of the ring for what felt like an age, off a couple of Superman Punches. It wasn't a major problem though and this was still an exciting TV bout with plenty of reason to keep watching.
The show would conclude with Finn Balor pinning Roman Reigns clean, to book himself a slot against Seth Rollins at SummerSlam and a chance to become the first ever Universal Champion. When the next list of most memorable RAW debuts is written, Balor's will be up there with the likes of Brock Lesnar, Eric Bischoff and Chris Jericho. He went from a debuting performer to one of the top two guys on the show, with a headline match on the 2nd biggest show of the year. It was, however, as much a statement about WWE's feelings towards Roman Reigns as it was a shining endorsement of Balor. It's been clear that WWE has been trying to put him in his place, ever since his suspension, having Rollins rip into him on TV week after week, then having him take the pinfall in the three way at Battleground, before losing clean to the new guy here. I guess that his earlier victory means that "The Big Dog" won't be turning up on Superstars anytime soon, but it's clear that WWE no longer plans on keeping Reigns "looking strong" in perpetuum.
Another sharp addition to the show, which again used the strengths of those involved and went with what the crowd wanted. Reigns was positioned as powerful and dominant, able to take control with his sheer clout. "The Guy" nailing Balor with headbutts after "The Demon" attempted to get out of a headlock, showed an aggression that when allowed to bleed through has always produced Reigns' best work. On the other hand of the coin, there was Balor, whose speed and prowess meant that he always had an answer for whatever his opponent threw at him. The lead-in to the first break with Balor dodging a Drive-by kick and replying with a double stomp and then nailing a big dropkick into the barricade was a particular highlight. It felt a tad short, with a feeling that the best was still to come, however considering both had been involved in earlier match ups it made perfect sense for this one to be slightly more compact.
I hate to say it, but The New Day's New Era, New Cereal, New Record Breaking Tag Team Championship celebration, was a bit of a let down. The whole set up was glorious with balloon unicorns and other madness and then the video package on their title reign was also full of funny moments from their 337 day run with the belts. The segment peaked with the trio making jokes about packages. Everything that happened between then and Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson jumping them had me scratching my head. Having an obvious plant come in the ring with them and claim his name was "Sunny Boy", with the trio asking him questions about it just didn't do it for me. I felt like I was missing the joke, but the crowd also seemed slightly awkward before they began started chanting "Sunny Boy" because why the fuck not, eh? A New Day v Gallows & Anderson feud has potential but part of my excitement for it is taken away by the amount of times they've already crossed paths in Gallows & Anderson's short time on the WWE roster.
A quick and snappy opening segment for the show involved Commissioner Stephanie McMahon and General Manager Mick Foley setting out the big matches for the show, whilst most of the roster hung about on the entrance ramp. Nothing fancy here, with even the relationship between Stephanie and Foley being reigned in to keep the focus on setting out the stall for the rest of the show. The Universal Championship is a name that will have to grow on me, I think, as whilst it does make sense, what with WWE always calling it's fans it's universe, it doesn't quite sound right to me as of yet. Outside of the announcements, Stephanie taking her time to rip into Reigns for getting pinned the night before was the most notable occurrence, I'm hoping that we don't get more Reigns v Stephanie stuff on RAW and that that this was just another way for WWE to stick the boot in to their seemingly former chosen one.
Enzo & Cass continued to pick up momentum with an extended squash victory over The Shining Stars. I'm not quite sure what to make of everything that went on here, as Enzo & Cass dominated the match, but for some reason the finish was The Golden Truth walking through the ring playing Pokemon Go, leading into Cass getting the win with a Big Boot, thanks to the distraction. The Pokemon Go stuff had run throughout the show and had outstayed it's welcome after the first backstage segment. It got so overt that I was wondering whether WWE had some kind of deal with Nintendo or whether they were just desperately clinging to the newest fad? The most pleasing part about the whole thing was the amount of heat that The Shining Stars got when they interrupted Cass listing things that he likes Raw, not because they are at all over with the audience, but because Enzo & Cass are so beloved.
Neville made his return to TV defeating Curtis Axel in his first televised match since March. This was a simple re-introduction for "The Man That Gravity Forgot" as he got to show off a plethora of his high-flying moves en route to victory. The time off seemed to have effected the crowds views of Neville, as they were silent until he hit the Red Arrow. Even a sweet standing shooting star press that came out of left field didn't get much from them. I'm expecting Neville to be placed at the forefront of the Cruiserweight Division that is set to begin on RAW soon. Oh also, Axel is now doing a "Mr. Irrelevant" gimmick after being the last draft pick. I don't really know what this means.
Nia Jax would debut with squash match over AIW's Britt Baker, destroying her opponent with a pair of leg drops. Braun Strowman, complete with a new hair-do, walked through 302's James Ellsworth [Jimmy Dream] in just over a minute, with a horrible looking Reverse Chokeslam.
Universal Championship Tournament Quarter Final Fatal Four-Way Match: Finn Balor def. Cesaro, Kevin Owens and United States Champion Rusev in 20 minutes, 27 seconds
Singles Match: Nia Jax def Britt Baker in 1 minutes, 20 seconds
Universal Championship Tournament Quarter Final Fatal Four-Way Match: Roman Reigns def. Chris Jericho, Sami Zayn and Sheamus in 17 minutes, 14 seconds
Singles Match: Neville def. Curtis Axel in 3 minutes, 43 seconds
Women's Championship: Sasha Banks def. Charlotte (C) [with Dana Brooke]
Singles Match: Braun Strowman def. James Elsworth in 1 minute, 9 seconds
Tag Team Match: Big Cass & Enzo Amore def. The Shining Stars - Epico & Primo in 1 minutes, 54 seconds
Universal Championship Tournament Semi-Final Singles Match: Finn Balor def. Roman Reigns in 13 minutes, 52 seconds
ATPW Scale Rating - 6.25/10
The best episode of Monday Night RAW in an age this week. Simple booking decision in the top tier of the show meant that two thirds of the show felt must-watch and delivered with four matches that wouldn't have looked out of place on PPV. Sasha Banks and Charlotte were the match of the show, but the two four ways and Balor v Reigns match all offered something different and kept me gripped throughout the show. The only real problem the show had was with the undercard were there was a lot of (re)introductions, that whilst needed will never be the greatest thing to watch.
With this show being used to sew some seeds and build the foundations of the new brand, I'm extra interested to see the direction the show takes next week as it settles down into feud, rivalries and storytelling with just three more week's until SummerSlam. I'm most interested to see where guys like Cesaro, Kevin Owens, Rusev, Chris Jericho, Sheamus and Sami Zayn end up settling.
Content by James Marston.