By Will Pruett
Full disclosure: To retain his sanity, Will Pruett watches the 90 minute edit of Raw on Hulu. He has no regrets.
I have to admit something to all of you. I am prone to hyperbole. I know this doesn’t come as a shock to anyone used to reading my content at Prowrestling.net for the last five years, but some of you may be new. I overstate some things to make my point stronger or to make a solid joke. This is not a circumstance of me doing this. I can honestly say Monday’s Raw episode belongs in the top five Raw episodes of all time.
It was not just a compelling TV show. It was a special show where WWE set out to make a statement. It looked different than anything WWE was doing for the past ten years. It felt different from the standard WWE show. It was a major step forward for WWE’s vision of professional wrestling.
At the forefront of this major step forward were two stars: Sasha Banks and Finn Bálor. Sasha had been showcased on Raw for the past year, but with limited success. Fans seemed to want her when she wasn’t around, but refused to rally behind her when she was. Sasha was stuck in an odd position. People were waiting to know WWE was behind her the way they were. On this show, WWE showed got behind Sasha in a major way.
Bálor was in an even stranger position. He was brought into NXT for a “short stint” that lasted multiple years. He was the centerpiece of the NXT roster as it moved from a regional developmental system to a national brand. Fans cried out for Finn to be called up and seemed disappointed time after time. Last Monday, Finn was a first round draft pick. On this night, Finn Bálor was made into a top three star on the Raw brand.
Sasha’s major victory over Charlotte to capture the WWE Women’s Championship seemed to be about more than just making Sasha a star. WWE has payed lip-service to “Women’s Wrestling” for the last two years, but they haven’t fully embraced it. While WrestleMania included a fantastic match and a giant step forward, the entire division has been depressing ever since.
Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte was, for over 50% of WWE’s audience, the first long WWE Women’s Championship match they have ever seen. Most people watching WWE don’t watch indie wrestling, NXT Takeover, or any of the other places one could seek out great women’s wrestling. They don’t even watch WWE Network. For these people, Sasha vs. Charlotte was a completely new and revolutionary moment in wrestling. For the rest of us, it was a culmination of everything we’ve wanted for years.
I completely understand and am willing to defend putting Sasha vs. Charlotte on TV this way. WWE needed to make a major statement. They did so. This match was the longest on this episode of Raw. It was presented as a major deal on Raw. It was a main event match and it was placed in one of the most-watched slots on the show. WWE set Sasha and Charlotte up to succeed and they did.
Sasha’s promo after her match marked the second time wrestling has made me cry in as many days. This was a beautiful moment.
Not only were stars made, but Raw itself changed in a major way. WWE rolled out a new set, a new song, a new logo, a new announce position, and a new feel for the show. Even the interview style changed, with wrestlers being asked about their matches directly before or directly after. It had the feel of a major competition with sideline reporters. It was nice.
WWE set out to make a statement with this first episode of Raw post-brand split. Not every episode can be as great as this one, but this was the right time to display this level of greatness. I know I’m already looking forward to WWE Raw next week.
The mini-tournament to crown the second contender for the WWE Universal Championship provided three delightful matches and one star-making turn. WWE introduced their largest audience (again, more than half of Raw viewers don’t have the network and don’t see NXT) to their hot new star in Finn Bálor. In the process, they gave us Bálor defeating Roman Reigns and earning his respect.
When I talk about making statements, this turn with Bálor was just that. WWE wanted people to stand and take notice of what they could consider a centerpiece star.
Finn Bálor had his best night of the last couple of years. I had grown bored of Bálor in NXT. His matches were formulaic and his character lacked dimension. More often than not, his main events have left me underwhelmed. Bálor often seemed to coast in NXT. On his first night on the main roster, Finn Bálor delivered his best WWE or NXT performance to date.
WWE embraced Bálor’s strengths, letting him fight from underneath in both of his matches, display his fantastic entrance in front of an arena receptive to him, and minimizing his “scripted wrestling promo” style speech. They allowed him to face adversity and overcome the way a babyface hero should.
Just as WWE used Sasha Banks to show us what the new era of Raw would look like, they used Bálor. They catapulted him into Raw’s biggest match at SummerSlam against Seth Rollins without a second thought.
– “The WWE Universal Championship” name doesn’t bother me at all. Brining in a second world title is a necessary step in this brand split. A floating world champion moving between brands causes major story disruption. WWE wouldn’t be able to produce multi-month personal feuds for their biggest title anymore. They’d be forced to bounce the champion back and forth. I know people are upset because the idea of a unified world champion is best to them, but it’s not how WWE works or tells stories. It’s not a realistic idea and everyone will be happier with two world titles.
– I’m happy to see the squash match return to Raw. With so many new and rising stars on the roster, fans deserve an opportunity to get to know them. I am especially glad to see unknown talent playing the victims of the squashes. For too long, WWE has reduced an entire tier of talent to jobber instead of bringing in a jobber tier.
– Nia Jax’s theme music is my jam.
– Roman Reigns losing in the main event really helped Finn Bálor. Roman’s performance in the match was admirable and his promo after the match displaying both disappointment over his loss and admiration for Bálor was well done. WWE has an interesting path set forth for Roman Reigns and, for the first time in a couple years, I want to watch it.
– The New Day’s celebration was pretty fun. I want to see them truly get serious about Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows now. This is where they need to stop joking and dancing in favor of getting angry. WWE doesn’t have babyface do this enough and I’m worried they won’t here.
– The Raw broadcast team of Michael Cole, Corey Graves, and Byron Saxton had a fantastic first outing.
– This was as perfect of an episode of Raw as I can imagine. It had major surprising moments, new exciting stars, a focus on actual wrestling, and the prioritizing of a major title (well, two). WWE did a great job kicking off their new era and I can’t wait to see where it goes.
Got thoughts on this show or my review of it? Hit me up with them! Check the Twitter @itswilltime, leave a comment, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.