Historically, the pay-per-views between the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania have a tendency to get lost in the shuffle. Sure, last year both world titles changed hands in that stretch, as Bray Wyatt won the WWE championship and Goldberg took home the Universal title, but both of those outcomes were right in line with expectations for what was to come at WrestleMania 33.
Over the past three weeks, Monday Night Raw has done a tremendous job in making the Elimination Chamber feel like more than just a final hurdle for the favorites to leap before reaching WrestleMania -- there's plenty on the line, and while certain conclusions feel inevitable, over the course of the next two weeks WrestleMania 34 will go from a blank canvas to a far clearer picture.
Monday's edition of Raw hammered home all the points it set out to make, in a three-plus hour block that reminded fans how good the WWE can be when they're clicking on all cylinders on the road to WrestleMania. There was a comfortable familiarity in revisiting Miz vs. John Cena and Sasha Banks vs. Bayley after a long time away from those pairings, cohesive and interconnected storylines throughout the women's division and Braun Strowman innovating with his methods of destruction and terror yet again. Oh, and Ronda Rousey will be in attendance in Las Vegas to sign a contract and officially join the Raw roster.
And then there's the main event qualifying match for the final spot inside of the Elimination Chamber, which went from a Fatal 4-Way to a Fatal 5-Way to include Seth Rollins, ended in a double pin and led to both Rollins and Finn Balor qualifying for what's now the first-ever seven-man Elimination Chamber match.
With seven weeks of Monday Night Raw to go until WrestleMania, if WWE can maintain a pace and cohesion even mostly comparable to what we got on Monday night, the journey to WrestleMania 34 will be an absolute treat.
Balor and Rollins split the difference to enter men's Elimination Chamber match
Before Raw began, Balor was the prohibitive favorite to walk away with the final spot in the Elimination Chamber, but with Jason Jordan sidelined and nowhere else for Rollins to go, Kurt Angle dropped him into the second chance qualifier.
Despite five guys heading in different directions, there was plenty of history to build off of and a dynamic enough difference in styles to make the match a frenetically-paced 20-minute race to the finish. While it was disappointing that the timing of the final match was such that fans at home missed the first three or four minutes of action, a sadly familiar feeling with TV main events, diving right in offered an opportunity to get right into the meat of the match.
Keeping everything moving while not doing too much at once is a real challenge with five different individuals in play, but the action moved seamlessly from pairing to pairing and spot to spot. Rollins revisited history with Wyatt and Balor, Matt Hardy and Wyatt kept their simmering rivalry moving and Apollo Crews continued to prove he's worthy of a second chance in the spotlight with dizzying spots and acrobatic delights.
Everybody had their chance to shine, culminating in a Rollins missed Phoenix splash, a Wyatt missed Sister Abigail, a Matt Hardy Twist of Fate, a Balor Coup de Grace and a Rollins Blackout on Balor to lay everyone out. Crews hit both a standing moonsault and a standing shooting star press with particular vigor, only to get two-counts on both occasions, and played a minor part in the ultimate finale of the match.
As Crews sat slumped atop the turnbuckle, Wyatt, having disposed of Hardy on the outside with a Sister Abigail, went to hit a superplex. Balor and Rollins raced over and hit a double powerbomb to complete the "tower of doom" and both exhausted men collapsed on top of Wyatt as the referee counted to three.
- WWE (@WWE) February 13, 2018
Raw went off the air in confusion, but in a Facebook Live video after the broadcast went off the air on USA, Angle put both men in the match and made it a seven-way contest.
Will it begin with three combatants? Is there enough utility in the construction to tack on another pod? Or will someone hilariously be shoved in and forced to share a pod with Braun Strowman? Only time will tell.
Bayley returns to form in thrilling win over Sasha Banks
Bayley won the Raw women's championship and successfully defended it at WrestleMania in 2017, but since joining the Raw roster in August 2016, it's felt like something's been missing. She's had some great individual performances, and some heartbreaking moments at the hands of Alexa Bliss, but without her greatest adversary, Bayley hadn't quite reached the level she'd enjoyed at her peak in NXT.
Bayley teamed with Sasha Banks on a number of occasions, and competed in a number of multi-woman matches, but with the exception of a single one-on-one match almost a year ago, the two women who brought NXT to an entirely different frontier at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn in 2015 hadn't faced off one-on-one since their NXT women's championship Iron Man match in October 2015.
In a single night, and in one match, Bayley and Banks sent out a clear reminder that their matches together are as great an attraction as anything else that could happen in the WWE's women's divisions at this moment. They slipped almost immediately back into where they left off, and the edge that Bayley found over the course of this match was the missing piece of the puzzle. Her clotheslines, suplexes and everything she hit was sharper, showing off an aggression that suited her.
Banks gave it right back, as they traded forearms and anything else they could trade with one another. A missed flying elbow nearly handed Banks the match on a silver platter, and as Bayley struggled towards the ropes, Banks slipped further towards the dark side as she braced illegally against the bottom rope and hesitated to release the hold. Bayley caught Banks off-guard and landed a Bayley-to-Belly from the second rope to pick up a big win.
As the ongoing will they/won't they situation seemed ready to turn a corner and explode their friendship, Nia Jax came charging in and laid out both Bayley and Banks. "Over the last few weeks, they both took Asuka to the limit," Jax said. "I destroyed them in seconds. Only one woman can break Asuka's streak -- and you're looking at her."
With months to go before WrestleMania, pushing the "explosion of the mega powers"-esque breakup of Bayley and Banks off a little longer only helps their story, and Jax looks like every bit the heartless monster she needs to be to take on Asuka at the Elimination Chamber.
Hits and misses
- WWE (@WWE) February 13, 2018
- Just when you think Braun Strowman can't come up with new ways to hurt people or destroy things, his revenge on Elias showed just how creative this monster could be. After Elias got one of his biggest crowd reactions to date, first positive, then negative, Strowman came out to do his version of Elias' act. To keep things to scale, he draped a standup double bass over his knee, and though he broke the strings trying to strum it in seconds, he showed some chops with his singing voice -- telling tales of how he wasn't finished with Elias or how he was going to "get these hands".
After a powerslam slowed Elias down, Strowman stalked Elias back up the ramp and ultimately smashed the giant string instrument over Elias' back with a great explosion. Sometimes it's just about the simple things in life.
- In what could've been a main event on a lot of Raws, Cena and Miz revisited their long-running rivalry -- first in a war of words, and then in a match that was as good as any they'd ever had. Miz got the drop on Cena via the Miztourage, Cena got his revenge by dropping a stipulation on Miz's head and both men kicked out of finishers after a lengthy show-opening match. After Miz teased the seemingly physically impossible top-rope Skull-Crushing Finale, Cena hit the super Attitude Adjustment for the win -- leaving Miz to assume the first entry position in the men's Elimination Chamber match.
- Roman Reigns vs. Sheamus felt similarly big enough to main event a Raw, and despite shenanigans involving Cesaro, Reigns won a solid match that ended with a spear on a flying Sheamus that looked really cool on replay.
- In a video package that lasted less than three minutes, WWE synthesized all of the stats related to Asuka's undefeated streak that made her look like a million bucks. From her Oct. 7, 2015 win over Dana Brooke through some 860 days and 240 women, Asuka has been as untouchable as any performer of the modern era.
- Alexa Bliss continued to try to mend fences with Mickie James, but James was having none of it. Absolution picked up the victory, as Rose hit her "Bed of Roses" (reminiscent of Awesome Kong/Kharma's go-to finisher) on James to pick up the win for her team.
- Ivory officially joined the WWE Hall of Fame Class of 2018, and it was great to see the highlight reel include her time in GLOW and the Right to Censor.