On a night with two world title matches, a title change, an entertaining, high-energy triple-threat tag team match and a vintage RKO from out of nowhere, it feels like Monday night's edition of Raw should be a moment of celebration and excitement as the push toward SummerSlam begins in earnest.
But like life, the journey is typically more important than the destination. After the second tremendous effort in eight days between Sasha Banks and Asuka, a deeply dissatisfying ending left behind an empty feeling. In fact, Banks lying motionless in the middle of the ring as she's declared the winner and new Raw women's champion via countout was a fitting visual for the way that moment landed.
Bayley's backstage attack on Kairi Sane and Sane screaming Asuka's name in agony forced Asuka to choose between her friend and the women's title. Asuka had the match under control, and her making the decision to help her friend was clearly meant to position Asuka as a valiant hero doing the right thing. With Sane set to depart WWE, the impact could be even greater.
Asuka sold the moment as she walked out of the trainer's room after the match, ashen-faced with grief and anger. Then she got a fiery look in her eyes and angrily shouted in Japanese. It was a powerful moment, and there's every reason to believe an unhinged Asuka should eventually get her revenge.
But how, and when? The evidence for where Asuka is headed lies in how both of her main roster title reigns have played out, and it hasn't been great. First, Asuka unceremoniously lost her SmackDown women's title to Charlotte Flair just weeks before WrestleMania in order to pump up the triple-threat main event between Flair, Becky Lynch and Ronda Rousey (that didn't ultimately benefit the match in the slightest). Asuka ended up performing on the WrestleMania Kickoff Show.
Then Asuka won the women's Money in the Bank ladder match, which was secretly for the Raw women's championship, and spent the last two-plus months having arguably the best, most entertaining and most consistent matches on a week-to-week basis. Only few of those matches had decisive, satisfying endings. It's not even about losing the title by having Banks and Bayley cheat at every turn -- it's about poor writing and devaluing the wrestling itself within the ecosystem of the show. On a wrestling show, the wrestling should matter.
Wrestling has plenty of leeway in terms of bending rules to suit specific situations, but the absurdity of someone stealing an official's shirt and making a decision destroys any credibility and suspension of disbelief you've built up. When you follow that up with a match that's been promoted to have a decisive ending and instead have a title change hands via countout, it's an insult to the intelligence of the viewer by banking on patience that wasn't earned. Given the pandemic, there wasn't even the cheap heat of a paid audience elevating the emotion of the impossible decision for Asuka.
There is undoubtedly potential in Banks and Bayley ruling over all of WWE, holding all of the gold and making everyone else miserable for months until they're either knocked off their pedestals or destroy each other. Asuka channeling her NXT and even pre-WWE days and becoming completely unpredictable is appealing as well, but how will it pay off?
Asuka could run roughshod over everyone and everything in her way and take the title back at SummerSlam, as she's the only potential challenger for the title that's been built up to that level. But that would mean Banks' fifth run with the Raw women's championship would be as agonizingly short as the first four, and likely without a single successful defense. Asuka losing at SummerSlam would strip her of any remaining credibility and momentum. It's a no-win situation.
Creating seven hours of content per week for broadcast TV during a pandemic is a thankless task. There's no immediate feedback without a paying audience to respond in real time at shows -- and that's all the more reason to keep things more straightforward. Just look at how effective Drew McIntyre's WWE championship reign has been since WrestleMania. He's the exception to the trend that the hero of the story has to lose every battle along the way until the villain is forced into the exact right scenario and framework to be unable to manipulate everything, looking infinitely smarter than the hero all along the way.
Wanting to hold off on a major blowoff match between Banks and Bayley until there's a full arena is understandable, but no one really knows when that's going to be realistic. No matter where the future points, with Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch out of action for the foreseeable future, WWE had a chance to spread the wealth and build up the depth of their women's divisions on both Raw and SmackDown. And no matter how good the work Banks and Bayley have done over the last few months has been -- and it has been excellent -- where are you left when they stand over both shows without a compelling new challenger to question their authority?
Maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps Asuka will immediately seek her vengeance on Bayley on Friday, cost her the SmackDown women's championship against Nikki Cross and throw everything into chaos. Or others will step up in short order as viable challengers. But I'm not holding my breath.
Randy Orton returns to the WWE title picture
Randy Orton has been clicking on all cylinders since re-embracing his legend-killer persona, and as the heel with the most momentum on Raw, it makes all the sense in the world that he would be the one to step up as the next challenger to McIntyre and the WWE championship.
Having Orton challenge McIntyre at the beginning of the show and McIntyre accepting before his title defense against Dolph Ziggler seemed a bit dismissive of Ziggler, but could well be indicative of the pride going before the fall for McIntyre, who has been unstoppable since dispatching Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania.
Ziggler and McIntyre had a great match that echoed much of what they did at Extreme Rules, with an emphatic finish as McIntyre landed his Claymore kick through a chair, Ziggler's face and a table propped up in the corner. The decision to use the Plexiglas safety barriers as a prop instead of a dividing line yet again -- having it broken by an intensely physical move -- was once again jarring, but not unexpected.
Having two characters like McIntyre and Orton building themselves up in parallel and then having them collide near their peaks is simple, effective and compelling. Either man could walk out of SummerSlam as champion, both can benefit from being the definitive winner and both can quickly pick themselves up and going again.
NXT turns the page, keeps rolling
Keith Lee has hit the ground running since becoming NXT champion. Lee already had an entertaining defense of both the NXT title and his North American championship against Dominik Dijakovic, and that fed directly into a conflict with NXT's next big thing, Karrion Kross. While some were upset that Lee gave up the North American belt so soon after becoming a double champion, Lee's promo at the top of the show on a recent edition of NXT dovetailed smoothly into Lee's character, momentum and history.
NXT TakeOver: XXX will call back to the inaugural North American championship match in New Orleans during WrestleMania weekend 2018 by bringing back a multiway ladder match format to determine the new champion. Add that to the inevitable clash between Lee and Kross, who has been on a runaway freight train of momentum, and you already have the foundation for a wild, unpredictable show.
Something that NXT has historically done really well is paying attention to the details, leaning on the history between two wrestlers -- even when it happened more than a few months back -- and being unafraid to take risks in building matches and stories. NXT's approach has created enough spotlight to go around for a lot of people.
NXT women's champion Io Shirai has paid off the faith put behind her since her surprise title win at NXT TakeOver: In Your House in June in great matches with Banks and Tegan Nox. The general attention and care put into the NXT women's division sets it apart as it creates another generation of key stars who will likely play major parts on Raw and SmackDown in the years to come. Most of all, they can keep a dozen different women engaged in a variety of storylines without needing a karaoke contest or a conflict centered on one wrestler smudging another wrestler's lipstick.
Goodbye to Kairi Sane who, by all indications, made her final appearance Monday night on Raw. Sane squeezed quite a bit during her three years under the WWE banner, including an NXT women's championship, a tag team title reign, and winning the inaugural Mae Young Classic tournament. Injuries helped contribute to some missed opportunities, and matches with Asuka or Shirai would've been a fitting sendoff, but in three women's Royal Rumbles, a TLC tag team title ladder match vs. Lynch and Flair and her rivalry with Shayna Baszler, Sane did a lot.
My time in the NXT & WWE locker rooms was incredible. Everyone was kind, funny, & talented, so every day was full of happiness. Also, I was saved by the supportive staff behind the scenes. I will forever love & respect all these professionals I had the pleasure of working with.🍀— KAIRI SANE (@KairiSaneWWE) July 28, 2020
Jeff Hardy and Sheamus (hopefully) put their conflict to bed in a barroom brawl that was, predictably, very silly. Anytime you can squeeze an '80s movie slide down the bar, shoving someone's face into a urinal, musical instruments as weapons and a mid-match pint in, how can you not? CM Punk and Jeff Hardy had a pitch-perfect version of this rivalry, playing into Hardy's substance abuse issues, 11 years ago. Let's move on.
The Fiend was back on SmackDown, briefly, to put the swamp preacher persona back to sleep. How Bray Wyatt and Braun Strowman wrap up their conflict -- likely at SummerSlam -- will say a lot about where the rest of 2020 is headed for SmackDown.
The conflict that has embroiled Seth Rollins, Murphy, Aleister Black, Kevin Owens, Rey Mysterio, Humberto Carrillo and finally Mysterio's son Dominick has a groundhog's day feel to it. Rollins and his disciples inflict damage, a collection of his foes rise up to counter him, and Rollins crosses a line to inflict severe bodily harm. Now Murphy is out there following in Rollins' footsteps, attempting to blind Black on the steel ring steps. Dominick's wildly swinging kendo stick moment guarantees we're not out of the woods yet, but this story still doesn't feel like it has much idea of where it's going or where it'll end.
Describing Naomi's recent support on social media as a "pity hashtag that went viral," with The Miz, John Morrison and Corey Graves on commentary all piling on, is silly. Obviously the intent is for any WWE performer to take what they're given and make the best of it, but when the material is so regressive, there's only so much you can do.
Gran Metalik as the next challenger for AJ Styles' U.S. title is interesting. The 4-Way match on SmackDown to determine the new No. 1 contender was a lot of fun, and also piqued my interest for a future Styles vs. Shorty G match.
King Corbin putting a price on Matt Riddle's head could be interesting, but the match between the two that it's inevitably leading to doesn't seem to offer much in the way of a payoff. But let's see where it goes.
Meet the new Raw tag team title scene, same as the old Raw tag team title scene. The triple-threat match itself was great, but Andrade and Angel Garza are once again set to challenge Montez Ford and Angelo Dawkins at SummerSlam. With three weeks of Raw to fill, let's hope there's nothing remotely resembling a decathlon involved.
Still can't quite put my finger on where the "Hurt Business" is heading, but I like the concept of three veterans recruiting a younger talent and helping to elevate him. Mustafa Ali being a punching bag for Bobby Lashley for 15 minutes, getting in three big moves along the way, one week after a triumphant return, is still a bit puzzling. But hope seems to lie ahead.
The circumstances aren't ideal, but Big E getting a singles run is way, way overdue. The SmackDown roster is deep with potential opponents, and Big E's ceiling is high.