With a title change in the main event and appearances from The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels, it would seem as if the official start of "WrestleMania season" came early on Monday night's episode of Raw, still three weeks out from the Royal Rumble. The timing and execution of such events, however, left just as many questions as answers -- a steady theme in Raw's constant battle with inconsistency, where big moments tend to come at the expense of a cohesive storyline.
Chris Jericho added the missing United States championship to his surefire Hall of Fame resume by pinning Roman Reigns in a 2-on-1 handicap match alongside Universal champion Kevin Owens. It's a move that made plenty of sense from a booking standpoint -- even if it felt like it came at least a month too late.
In theory, taking the U.S. championship off of Reigns frees him up to win the more prestigious Universal title at the Royal Rumble, setting the stage for a high-profile program ahead of WrestleMania (Finn Balor, anyone?). The move would also add extra meaning to the idea of a spinoff feud between Jericho and Owens -- which has been teased for months -- by having a title at stake.
But while the booking of a Reigns defeat in a handicap match, which featured constant double-teaming from Owens and Jericho, was designed to keep Raw's top babyface looking strong in defeat, the damage it did to the overall storyline simply can't be overlooked. WWE failed to add any kayfabe justification as to why Reigns would even be booked into such insurmountable odds in the first place. Not only did Reigns enter the match fresh off of clean pins against both Owens and Jericho in U.S. title matches on Raw in recent weeks, he recorded similar victories in back-to-back weeks immediately following Survivor Series. Reigns also suffered a disqualification loss in his Universal title match at Roadblock: End of the Line in December when Jericho interfered to attack Owens, deliberately costing Reigns the match.
Without the proper context of a "one versus all" storyline involving Reigns and The Authority (an angle which dominated the stretch run of 2015), the constant rewarding of heel behavior with unearned advantages makes suspending your disbelief a difficult task. Not to mention, all it has done is water down Owens' Universal title reign as a whole, especially when you consider that Triple H handed him the title by double-crossing Reigns and Seth Rollins on an Aug. 29 episode of Raw and was never seen again.
There isn't a WWE platform that is better equipped to handle the big moments than Raw, and Monday's episode was chock full of them, including well-advertised returns from a pair of legends. But until Raw can do a better job of plugging its growing number of plot holes from week to week, it will continue to slip behind SmackDown Live as the "B show" of the family.
Hits and misses
Aside from the annoying performance review angle between Raw commissioner Stephanie McMahon and general manager Mick Foley that preceded The Undertaker's return, the announcement from "The Deadman" that he is entering the Royal Rumble was a strong development. With Raw set in New Orleans, the site of The Undertaker's streak-snapping loss to Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania XXX, it was also good to see him acknowledge the significance. Adding The Undertaker to an already stacked Rumble, featuring both Lesnar and Goldberg, adds extra excitement to the Jan. 29 pay-per-view. It also sets up interesting options for The Undertaker at WrestleMania, should WWE decide to pair him opposite John Cena or AJ Styles.
Not to nitpick the story arc for the sake of it, but didn't The Undertaker return to SmackDown in November, mentioning that the show has always been his home and that if Team SmackDown failed to defeat Raw at Survivor Series, it would "have reason to fear The Deadman?" OK, good. Just trying to make sense of everything.
For anyone holding out hope for a surprise announcement from Shawn Michaels that he was entering to the Royal Rumble (conveniently set near his childhood home of San Antonio), his return on Monday to promote his new movie "The Resurrection of Gavin Stone" was sobering. Michaels appeared to be in great shape at 51, effectively delivering some "Sweet Chin Music" to Rusev following an up-and-down comedic segment involving Enzo Amore and Big Cass. But despite sticking to his guns regarding retirement in a WWE.com exclusive interview following Raw, it was hard for the mark within every fan not to wonder whether he left the door slightly ajar for a return.
Speaking of Rusev, credit to his comedic chops for keeping the Michaels segment afloat as Rusev desperately pleaded to have his wife Lana added to the upcoming movie. Seeing Rusev receive the superkick from Michaels moments later was all too reminiscent of him being raised up in the Jackhammer by Goldberg in the buildup to Survivor Series. Everyone must job now and then, but here's to hoping this is the last of a superstar as talented and underutilized as Rusev being used in such a way opposite aging legends with no follow-up feud in sight.
Something clearly got into Seth Rollins during his high-energy match against Braun Strowman. Rollins looked fresh and inspired, in a call back to his career-defining 2015, before a serious knee injury and subsequent babyface turn. He took risks and appeared to be performing with a chip on his shoulder, which was a welcome change following his recent inconsistent booking.
Neville's heel turn continues to stand out as one of Raw's best developments in recent weeks. The stiff nature of his back-and-forth brawl with cruiserweight champion Rich Swann following Neville's victory over Lince Dorado was the best possible advertisement for how much Tuesday's "205 Live" show has improved with his involvement.
There has been a warranted level of criticism on social media in recent months at how often Stephanie McMahon verbally undresses the top superstars on Raw, constantly putting her character over above theirs. But there's another side to that debate -- just how undeniable McMahon is as a heel. She was in top form on Monday during a backstage segment when she bent down into the face of Sasha Banks to deliver a stinging promo (which closed with a "Now get the hell out of my office!" that likely made her father proud). The follow-up tweet from Banks teased at the notion that this could be just the beginning of more business between the two to come down the road.
Move of the night
If you are an equal fan of stiff moves and Owens being portrayed as his diabolical and heel best, his powerbomb of Reigns onto the ring apron was destruction at its finest. Owens delivered the move in between a pair of Codebreakers from Jericho, which led directly to the finish of Reigns relinquishing his title.
- WWE Universe (@WWEUniverse) January 10, 2017
Line of the night
"When you come into my office I suggest you take the bass out of your voice, because regardless of the fact that your little T-shirt says you're the 'Legit Boss,' the only boss in this room is me." -- Raw commissioner Stephanie McMahon to Sasha Banks.