We are now two weeks away from Payback, and after this edition of WWE Raw, the card for the pay-per-view is shaping up nicely. Here are five talking points from the episode:
Smoking Gun = Bullet?
Last week, I said that WWE would probably have new arrivals Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows feud with the Usos before making any mention of the Bullet Club. As it turns out, that conclusion was wrong.
After a better than expected promo segment featuring Roman Reigns and AJ Styles, Styles began walking back up the ramp. As Reigns watched him leave, he was blindsided by Anderson and Gallows, who proceeded to pound on the WWE World Heavyweight Champion. Styles, presumably oblivious till this point, turned around and watched blankly as WWE cut to a commercial break. Following the break, we saw an agitated Styles swearing to Reigns that he had nothing to do with what happened, while the latter met his pleas with grim skepticism. Reigns pointed out that Anderson and Gallows had attacked his cousins last week, and that earlier in the show, we had seen an enthusiastic backstage reunion between Styles, Anderson and Gallows, which made Styles’ story all the more dubious. Styles protested that he didn’t need his friends to beat Reigns. Reigns smirked, replied that he would happily accept a ‘one vs. all’ scenario, and walked off.
I like how WWE has played this. Firstly, if Anderson/Gallows attacking the Usos last week really was a setup for integrating the Bullet Club into the Reigns-Styles storyline, a tip of the hat to the creative team for thinking ahead. We are now set for a couple of fun weeks leading up to Payback, where we will have to guess whether or not AJ Styles is telling the truth. Will Styles turn out to have been in cahoots with Anderson and Gallows all along? Will Styles grow frustrated with the aggressive antics of his former NJPW teammates and ally with Reigns to fight them? Or in a twist, will Reigns recruit his attackers to help him defeat Styles at Payback, initiating the memorable heel turn that many are calling for? There are a number of fascinating directions this storyline can take.
The Tag Team Revolution
Anderson and Gallows aren’t the only new team to heat things up on the main roster. In a surprising and significant move, WWE booked two clean, upset finishes to tag team tournament matches on the show. Enzo Amore and Colin Cassady, after two electric weeks on the mic, continued their momentum in the ring by defeating The Dudley Boyz. More surprisingly, The Vaudevillians overcame The Usos to book their place in a #1 Contender’s Match with Amore/Cassady at Payback. In a matter of mere weeks, a tag team scene that had become stale now looks rejuvenated. That the NXT graduates overcame the veterans so comprehensively is hopefully a message that WWE is serious about revitalizing and rebuilding this division.
While on the subject of things that have been revitalized, am I the only one who notices something different about Cesaro? While he hasn’t lost a step in the ring since returning from injury, he seems to have picked up some tangible charisma during his hiatus. His new entrance radiates a swagger that I don’t remember noticing before. He was in fine form on the mic this week as well, deliciously deploying Roddy Piper’s classic “I’m all out of bubblegum” line in a segment with The Miz. I am enjoying this version of Cesaro, and I am enjoying this feud. Maybe the extraordinarily talented Swiss star finally has what he needs to break through to the next level.
Owens v. Zayn
Shane McMahon made this match official at the start of the show, and while I am definitely excited to watch them wrestle at Payback, I am more curious about the creative direction of these two characters. They have both now suffered two consecutive clean losses on Raw: Zayn lost to AJ Styles last week and Chris Jericho this week, while Owens has done the honours for Cesaro and Dean Ambrose respectively. Their string of losses extends to four if you count the IC Title ladder match at Wrestlemania and the Fatal Four-Way the next night on Raw. I’m less worried about Zayn because he has only just arrived on the main roster. When it comes to Owens, I thought his mini losing streak might be building to something bigger because he almost seemed to be setting up a feud with Shane McMahon, but WWE doesn’t seem to be heading in that direction. I hope they know where they want to go with Owens; he is one of the few pure heels on the roster and they can’t afford to squander his potential.
Hitman 1, Cancer 0
A few weeks ago, we learned that Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart, who had been battling prostate cancer, had undergone surgery and emerged free of the disease. To cap off this wonderful news, we have now learned that Hart will be returning to WWE television at Payback. The Hall-of-Famer will be in Natalya’s corner as she faces off against Charlotte for the WWE Women’s Championship, and should receive a thunderous ovation from the Chicago crowd. Welcome back, Bret!