The latest WWE Monday Night Raw on the road to the upcoming Payback pay-per-view on June 16 featured the continued development of new Paul Heyman client Curtis Axel, the evolution of the John Cena-Ryback feud over the WWE title, the utter dominance of World Wrestling Entertainment by The Shield and a challenge thrown out by one Superstar in hopes of finding out just who the Best in the World really is.
What was the good, great and awesome of this week's show?
Find out now.
Dissension between AJ and Big E.?
The first cracks in the relationship between AJ Lee and Big E. Langston began to show Monday night as the No. 1 contender to the Divas title unintentionally cost her friend his match against Alberto Del Rio.
Late in the bout, Langston powered out of the cross-arm breaker, only to be sent into an exposed turnbuckle and rolled up by Del Rio for the win. After the match AJ, who had exposed the turnbuckle in the first place, tried to explain herself to Langston, but the impressive young Superstar would have none of it.
The tease of dissension in the ranks accomplished two things. First, it planted the seed for Langston eventually splitting away from AJ and World Heavyweight champion Dolph Ziggler and becoming a breakout solo star. He has shown great chemistry working with Del Rio and the more opportunities he has to compete with the top stars in the industry, especially the better workers, the more likely he will be to continue learning and succeed.
Secondly, the dissension shows just how important Ziggler is when it comes to holding his group together. Without him around, the well-oiled machine that had been he, Langston and AJ has slowly begun to unravel. AJ has been more concerned with tormenting Kaitlyn while Langston has lost two consecutive matches.
It is only a matter of time before Big E. breaks out on his own, splitting with Dolph and AJ and embarking on a (hopefully) successful singles career in WWE. Monday night may very well have set the stage for that to happen. When it comes to creating a young breakout Superstar, that is always a good thing.
U.S. Title Match: Kofi Kingston vs. Dean Ambrose
In a rematch from their Extreme Rules title bout, Kofi Kingston and Dean Ambrose delivered another solid, fast-paced contest that continued to put over Ambrose's abilities as a singles star and really did nothing to eliminate Kingston from the U.S. title picture.
Ambrose's successful, and decisive, title defense also proved that his win at Extreme Rules was anything but a fluke.
A match that showcases the current United States champion, keeps Kofi Kingston looking relatively strong and delivers in terms of quality is a success each and every time.
The Intercontinental Title Feud
The latest development in what has become a three-way feud over the Intercontinental Championship occurred on Raw, as Wade Barrett squared off with Fandango in a match refereed by The Miz.
Late in the match, Barrett shoved Miz, who repaid the Intercontinental champion with the Skull Crushing Finale, setting up a Fandango win. After the bell, Miz kicked Fandango as he dipped Summer Rae, causing the leggy blond to fall on top of him. Miz counted the three in an attempt to humiliate his ballroom dancing foe.
The interaction between the three Superstars on Monday's Raw does wonders for a title that has been criminally misused over the last year. The continuation of the feud continues to build interest in the Intercontinental title program and gives fans a reason to be invested in the eventual triple threat match for the championship.
The rivalry itself is a multi-layered one that continues the past issues between The Miz and Wade Barrett while building potential for a Miz-Fandango feud in the very near future.
More importantly, the three very different styles involved in the rivalry allow for a unique dynamic that should result in a tremendous midcard match when that time comes.
Y2J Calls out CM Punk, Paul Heyman Answers
During Monday's Highlight Reel, Chris Jericho questioned the whereabouts of CM Punk while Paul Heyman did everything in his power to deflect those questions. Eventually, Jericho referred to himself as the Best in the World, drawing Heyman's ire and forcing the former owner of ECW to accept, on Punk's behalf, a challenge by Jericho for a match at Payback.
The segment did a great job of showing Jericho to be every bit as manipulative as Heyman, using his words to poke and prod at Heyman's nerves until Paul relented and gave Jericho exactly what he wanted: a match against CM Punk in his hometown of Chicago, to prove once and for all who the Best in the World really is.
There has been a lot of excitement surrounding that match since Monday night, as well there should be. It revisits a feud from a year ago that produced two great matches, including a street fight in Chicago at Extreme Rules.
The potential match also gives Y2J his first main event program since returning in January at the Royal Rumble. After doing a lot to help cement Fandango as an up-and-coming young star in World Wrestling Entertainment, it is time for Jericho to return to the main event scene, a place someone of his talent and experience and success should be.
Finally, the segment also sets the stage for the return of CM Punk and the potential for him to split from Heyman. With no input from Punk, Heyman accepted Jericho's challenge, partly due to the fact that he was made to look foolish by the very first Undisputed champion. Failing to consult Punk on a return to the ring, from a storyline sense, is exactly the kind of thing that creates problems.
Monday's Highlight Reel made official a match with show-stealing potential at Payback and also triggered the eventually dissolving of the CM Punk-Paul Heyman partnership.
That is good booking.
Randy Orton and Sheamus vs. Team Rhodes Scholars
Earlier in the evening, the WWE App featured a video in which Randy Orton and Sheamus were in the backstage area watching as The Shield defended the Tag Team titles against Team Hell No. During the quick segment, Orton and Sheamus discussed the disappointment of their loss to The Shield at WrestleMania and wanting to do something to stop the group.
Fast-forward to later in the show when Orton and Sheamus teamed up against Team Rhodes Scholars in the evening's penultimate match. Rhodes and Sandow held their own, demonstrating solid tag team wrestling skills and never appearing to be out of the league of their opponents, both of whom are former World champions.
Conversely, Orton and Sheamus overcame the more experienced tag team and picked up a huge victory following Sheamus' Brogue Kick on Sandow. As a result, they become immediate contenders to Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns' Tag Team titles.
It was clear that the six-man tag match at WrestleMania did little to end the conflict between Orton, Sheamus and The Shield and, instead, put the focus on an Orton-Big Show story. Now that that story has come to its end, the top two SmackDown babyfaces can focus on reigniting their program with The Shield—this time with championship gold on the line.
Three Stages of Hell Returns!
One of the great gimmick matches in World Wrestling Entertainment makes its return at Payback as John Cena defends the WWE title in a Three Stages of Hell match against Ryback. The match features three falls, each with its own specialty gimmick, and can be won only when one man wins two of the three falls.
The most memorable Three Stages of Hell match occurred on February 25, 2001, when Triple H and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin ended their years-long rivalry at No Way Out. In that match, "The Game" defeated a surging Austin, two falls to one, in a legitimate Match of the Year candidate.
Since then, there have been only two other Three Stages of Hell matches (both involving Triple H), but neither met the lofty expectations set by the first some 12 years ago.
The gimmick is a great way to settle a feud and one that is not utilized enough.
Bryan's Not the Weak Link...
In the backstage area, Daniel Bryan continued to question whether or not he was the weak link in Team Hell No. Despite Kane's insistence that he was not, Bryan continued to question himself.
Until Bret Hart appeared.
"The Hitman" told Bryan that dissension among teammates had done more to tear teams apart than anything. Bret then told the former World champion that he was one of the toughest and best wrestlers he has seen, soothing Bryan's ego in the process.
As Hart left, Kane asked why Bryan listened to Bret but not him. Bryan responded, "Because he's Bret Hart. You...you're just Kane."
It was a phenomenal backstage segment that planted the seeds for the story told throughout the Tag Team title match later in the night, teased problems between Bryan and Kane and also delivered a comedic line that was funnier than any over-the-top comedic bit that could have been written.
Tag Team Title Match: Team Hell No vs. The Shield
Perhaps the title of this article should be changed from "The Good, the Great and the Awesome" to "The Good, the Great and The Shield" because each and every week, the young trio finds its way into the "awesome" category, thanks in part to tremendous in-ring showings like Monday's tag team title match.
Throughout the match, the participants told a story involving Daniel Bryan and his obsession with proving he is not the weak link of Team Hell No. Bryan, in one of his best performances in WWE, exploded into the ring and brought an intensity with him that was unmatched by anyone on the show all night. He had clear determination and it only added to the quality of the bout.
Both teams continued to demonstrate tremendous chemistry with each other and the best match of their series occurred as a result.
The frenetic pace and fury that accompanies The Shield's matches, particularly during the closing minutes, is a large part of what has made the trio so successful. On Monday night, Daniel Bryan answered with his own fast-paced, hard-hitting and violent style. Unfortunately, as the closing moments of the match approached, Bryan let his determination to prove himself as anything but the weak link get the best of him.
He ran into a spear by Reigns on the outside, at the same time providing a momentary distraction for Kane, leaving him open to the top rope knee strike from Rollins. Three seconds later and The Shield had retained its titles.
The match felt like the end of the Team Hell No-Shield rivalry and the beginning of the split between Daniel Bryan and Kane. What path each team takes over the next couple of weeks may remain a mystery at this point, but they certainly delivered great tag bouts that rank among some of the best of the year thus far.
Bret Hart Visits Curtis Axel Backstage
WWE Hall of Famer Bret Hart became the latest Superstar to advise Curtis Axel to part ways with Paul Heyman. Unfortunately, his words of wisdom fell on deaf ears. Axel recounted how he sat by patiently and waited for someone to believe in him. That someone, the only one, was Heyman. He ended the short segment by telling Hart, "I'm going to go beat the WWE champion."
Confronted by one of the men who battled so ferociously with his father, a Hall of Famer and one of the best to ever lace a pair of boots, Axel was unfazed even without Heyman by his side. He handled the situation well and proved that he may not need Paul to do the talking for him, as everyone thinks.
Building a Superstar
Speaking of Axel, Monday featured the continued evolution of the young performer. A week ago, he competed against Triple H in the main event of Raw. A few days later, he defeated Sin Cara on SmackDown while stars the likes of Randy Orton and Chris Jericho trumpeted him as the future of the business in interviews on the WWE App.
This week, Axel called out John Cena, shrugged off advice from Bret Hart and stood toe-to-toe and went blow-for-blow with the WWE champion in the main event. He never looked out of place or over-matched against Cena, and as a result, his star continues to shine bright.
Like The Shield, Axel is benefiting from booking that intends to make him a bona fide star rather than a young performer with potential to be a star. There is a big difference and the company has seemingly figured it out—first with The Shield and now with Curtis Axel.
Bray Wyatt and The Family Are Coming
One of the best parts of Monday's Raw was a 1:17 video that featured Bray Wyatt, Erick Rowan and Luke Harper warning of their arrival to WWE in the immediate future.
Wyatt, a character heavily inspired by the Max Cady character in the film Cape Fear, has generated a good deal of buzz during his time in NXT, and the inclusion of Rowan and Harper in "The Family" has helped to create a talented, if not truly terrifying, stable capable of making an immediate impact on WWE programming.
The video itself was phenomenally done. The voice over from Wyatt, the disturbing visuals and the final image of Rowan sporting a lamb mask while Wyatt sang "Mary Had A Little Lamb" made for the type of video package that immediately captures the attention of the audience and gives them something unique and different from everything else on the show to sink their teeth into.
A star(s)-making presentation.