This article is sponsored by Hardees.
I kid, I kid.
This week's Raw was the last on the road to WWE Payback, which will emanate from the Allstate Arena in Chicago this Sunday. With only a few matches announced prior to the show, it was clear the company had much to do on Monday's show to craft a card that fans would feel comfortable paying their hard-earned money to see. Whether they succeeded or not is a question for another time, but they certainly tried to quickly throw together a card that, at times, has been marred by injury.
Raw featured the final build to the event. John Cena and Ryback exchanged verbal assaults in preparation for their Three Stages of Hell match. Dolph Ziggler returned to Raw just in time for his World title defense against Alberto Del Rio at Payback while Curtis Axel earned his first shot at singles gold and Divas champion Kaitlyn's secret admirer was revealed.
It was an eventful episode of Raw and this is the good, the great and the awesome that came from it.
Randy Orton vs. Roman Reigns; Kane vs. Dean Ambrose
This week on Raw, The Shield competed in singles action. First up was a non-title match between United States champion Dean Ambrose and Kane. The match was solid, if unspectacular, and provided Ambrose another opportunity to showcase his singles skills.
As Kane appeared to have the upper hand late in the bout, Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns interfered, causing a disqualification. Daniel Bryan and Randy Orton would hit the ring and chase the trio off, leaving the babyfaces standing tall.
Later in the evening, Orton would meet Reigns in one-on-one competition. Again, the match would be marred by outside interference, this time from Rollins and Bryan. After a no-contest was declared, things segued into Bryan versus Rollins.
But we will get to that one a little later.
Sin Cara vs. Antonio Cesaro
A match that had no real reason to be on the broadcast proved to be quite the entertaining, quality bout.
With Zeb Colter on commentary for God knows what reason, Sin Cara and Cesaro continued to show decent chemistry with one another. In the past, Cesaro has proved to work well with smaller, faster-paced workers, and Monday was no different.
Cesaro wore down his smaller opponent, but the explosive luchador was able to make a late-match comeback with a flurry of offense. The former US champion subdued his surging opponent with a swinging sleeper, however, and was able to execute the Neutralizer for the win.
Chris Jericho vs. Big E Langston
Y2J cut a promo early in the night about his impending match with CM Punk at Payback, and during the promo, he referred to the best performers in the world. This brought out World champion Dolph Ziggler, who said all of the talk about the best performers made him realize it was the best time to make his return to Raw.
The two exchanged words before Jericho threw down a challenge for a match. The challenge was answered, but by Big E Langston.
The massive young star held his own with Jericho, again proving he is capable of delivering quality matches against the top stars in the industry. Unfortunately for the former NXT champion, interference by Alberto Del Rio late in the bout spelled the end for Langston's chances of defeating Jericho. A Codebreaker from Y2J gave him a big win heading into Payback and helped further a Del Rio-Ziggler program that has been absolutely ravaged by an ill-timed concussion suffered by the World champion.
John Cena and Ryback, Face-to-Face...sort of
The show-closing segment heading into Sunday's Payback featured promos by John Cena and Ryback, as they put the final touches on the promotion of their Three Stages of Hell match for the WWE title.
While Ryback was good, Cena was great, and likely will not receive the credit he deserves for his performance.
Light on time, Cena did not hesitate to cut off the more methodical approach of Ryback by exploding with energy and displaying great purpose in everything he said. His responses to the top contender were light on jokes as the WWE champion went into full hype mode, something he does as well as anyone when he remains focused and does not try to be cute.
More importantly, it was Cena's ability to read the crowd and its growing restlessness that seemed to be setting in during Ryback's final rebuttal and turn up the intensity a notch in order to deliver the energy-filled final lines before the cluster involving the lumberjacks at the conclusion of the show.
After three-plus hours of sitting in their seats and watching what was, in all honesty, an exhausting broadcast just six days from Payback, fans were tired. Listening to Ryback, who was good but not nearly vocal enough, did nothing to help.
But Cena, as all the greats have proved capable of doing, was able to read the audience and adjust what he did to help get them more involved by the end of the night.
Good stuff from "The Champ", and the content of the promo, from both performers, was solid as well.
Daniel Bryan vs. Seth Rollins
Longtime Ring of Honor fans are familiar with this matchup, but WWE fans were introduced to it for the first time. Neither Bryan or Rollins disappointed.
There is absolutely no superstar on the roster as hot as Daniel Bryan is right now, and Monday's Raw once again provided a stage for him to prove it. The former World champion exploded into the ring with all of the energy of a cheetah on speed, attacking Rollins with a flurry of offense that he could not have possibly combated.
Eventually, however, Rollins did manage to slow down the pace of the bout and what resulted from there was an excellent match that fell just short of the six-man tag matches each man has been involved in over the last few months.
Rollins and Bryan traded holds and counter-holds, the latter executed the vicious strikes he has become accustomed to and Rollins even came close to sealing a victory on an occasion or two. Unfortunately for the former NXT champion, Bryan would pick up the win, and momentum heading into Payback, with a roll up.
The post-match look of hesitation between Orton and Bryan helped confirm dissension between them, but also provided a glimpse into what may be a solid team come Sunday.
Kaitlyn's secret admirer is revealed
Divas champion Kaitlyn made her way to the ring late in Monday's broadcast and called out her secret admirer. Out came Big E Langston, to the surprise of some. He entered the ring, said he cared about things other than beating people up and Kaitlyn was one of those things.
He moved in for a kiss, dipped her...and then dumped her. Kaitlyn was stunned as AJ's music played and her former best friend made her way to the squared circle. The No. 1 contender revealed the whole "secret admirer" thing to be a ruse to get into the champion's head, to prove that she was smart, not crazy.
AJ talked about all of the men that mentally scarred her over the last year and how she would get great pleasure out of watching Kaitlyn fall off of the pedestal she had put her on.
Kaitlyn, an emotional mess, unleashed on AJ and a catfight ensued. The crowd popped but was disappointed when AJ managed to escape before any further damage could be done.
In one segment, WWE's creative team did more to make fans excited for Kaitlyn's title defense against AJ at Sunday's Payback than they did any other undercard match on the show.
That says a lot.