As a champion's story turned disheartening, new opportunities arose on the June 9 WWE Raw.
The WWE World Heavyweight Championship no longer rests on Daniel Bryan's shoulder. It now hangs above the ring, swaying above a growing field of would-be titleholders. Bryan's forced uncrowning is Cesaro and Sheamus' gain.
Monday's Raw also showcased Seth Rollins taking a major step to stardom on his own.
His success in the spotlight is a stark contrast to Damien Sandow's continued downward journey. Sandow changed out of one clown outfit into another while Rollins, Sheamus and Cesaro all added to their resume.
With Bryan no longer champion, the Money in the Bank Ladder match increased in significance. It will now decide who takes home the vacant title.
Cesaro battled Rob Van Dam with a spot in that match on the line. Their bout picked up near the end as near-falls came more often, and an increasing sense of desperation from the two men wafted from the ring.
The stakes of their clash elevated it, each highlight seemingly drawing one man closer to a chance at gold.
Cesaro caught Van Dam rolling at him in the corner. To the fans' delight, he tossed the high-flyer in the air and nailed him with an uppercut. Later, Van Dam got caught up in the corner and "The King of Swing" wrenched his leg from outside the ring.
That was enough to keep Van Dam grounded.
Staring into his enemy's eyes, a grin slipped onto Cesaro's face. He then hit the Neutralizer for the three-count. The win will have him join Randy Orton, Alberto Del Rio and Sheamus in the WWE title Ladder match at the end of the month.
It marks the second time this year that he will be in contention for that prize (the first being Elimination Chamber) and is a major step up from the Intercontinental Championship bout it looked like he was headed for after attacking Bad News Barrett on last week's Main Event.
Loser: Damien Sandow
It feels like Sandow must have angered someone in charge. Not everyone can be the top heel or in title contention, but no one else on the roster has been asked to wear a skin-tight bodysuit and twirl a ribbon.
Sandow's new trend of wearing different outfits each week continued on Monday's Raw.
This time, he played a ballet/ribbon dancer alongside Fandango. He did his best to make the most of the angle, but it's hard to thrive when wading through something that silly.
He spent most of his tag match against The Usos pirouetting and taking kicks to the head.
Not surprisingly, he was the one the tag champs pinned. Add a tag team loss to a 2014 win-loss record that sits at 4-26. Wins and losses are certainly not the whole story in WWE, but it's not a good sign for his position with the company when he has fewer wins than both Fandango and El Torito.
WWE may be planning something long-term for him where he eventually snaps, but it's going to be hard to erase memories of him in a succession of ridiculous costumes should the company want us to take him seriously at some point.
Winner: Sheamus/Bad News Barrett
Sheamus pinned Barrett at the end of this qualifying match for the WWE title Ladder match, but both brawlers looked fantastic.
The first bout of Monday's Raw didn't face any competition for the night's best offering until The Wyatt Family took on The Shield and John Cena to close the show. It's a pairing WWE has gone to several times, but Barrett vs. Sheamus still crackled with energy.
The two hard-hitting foes left each other drained, sweaty, barely able to stand.
Barrett hit "The Celtic Warrior" with Winds of Change and Wasteland and afterward had to sit stunned as Sheamus kept kicking out. He sent Sheamus crashing onto the barricade around the ring, scurried inside and urged the referee to count. Sheamus just slipped back into the ring before the ten-count.
Barrett was especially vicious and focused throughout.
He fell victim to a Brogue Kick and couldn't arise in time to avoid defeat. That gave Sheamus not only the benefit of adding a great match to his resume but a shot in the Money in the Bank main event.
It was the brutality of the Ladder match that took him out of action last year, and now he has to step into that fray once more, with the stakes higher and a familiar foe in Cesaro waiting for him.
Loser: Daniel Bryan
WWE showed as much patience as it could. The company finally ended the injured Bryan's time as champion.
In retrospect, it was overly optimistic to think that Bryan would be able to safely compete after less than two months removed from neck surgery. The company delayed the decision for weeks, culling drama from potentially stripping him of the title.
That moment finally came on Monday's Raw. Stephanie McMahon and Triple H mocked Bryan, questioning his toughness, as they officially took the championship away from him. The bearded warrior was not onscreen while his throne was yanked from under him.
Bryan isn't cleared to wrestle, and so his title becomes vacant, the brass ring now hanging above Sheamus, Del Rio and company at Money in the Bank.
This ends his third WWE title reign at just over two months. It's certainly the wise move to hold him out of action. His long-term health is more important than any current storyline/momentum.
Still, it's disappointing that his run on top had to end, especially because it happened in such anticlimactic fashion. Bryan's story leading up to and at WrestleMania was so powerful. Neck surgery caused it to fizzle out.
Here's to Bryan's recovery going well and to him returning improved and ready to take over WWE again.
Winner: Seth Rollins
Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns had their own shining moments on the mic when they called out Rollins, but the man who betrayed The Shield improved his stock more than anyone else on Monday's Raw.
Some questioned how Rollins would perform on his own and as a heel, and "The Architect" answered with a gripping promo.
Rollins wore a black suit and a sneer as Michael Cole interviewed him in the ring. He talked about how he built The Shield, how it was nothing without him.
Rollins had been strong on the mic before this, but set free on his own, he thrived. His timing, delivery and facial expressions added up to an unsettling performance. It was easy to grow more angry with him.
Dismissing the significance of him turning on The Shield, he appeared callous and calculating.
Ambrose has long been known as the best talker of the group and Reigns as the biggest star. Out of their shadow, Triple H's newest ally forced fans to talk about him, just as he did last week.
Without an official match, Rollins was the night's biggest winner. He provided video evidence that he's a headliner in the making.
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