WWE SummerSlam 2016 will be too early to end Rusev vs. Roman Reigns; there is still ample chemistry, intensity and momentum to tap into.
What began as a derailed train has the potential to be a thriller of a rivalry. WWE has the right pieces and the right prize in place, but the narrative is a work in progress, a story yet to shift into the optimal gear.
The battle between Rusev and Reigns on Monday's Raw was best viewed without any context, without any knowledge of what led to the collision.
From a pure in-ring action standpoint, the United States champ and his black-clad challenger put on a hell of a show. The rivals slugged each other with thunderous shots. Rusev overflowed with frustration as he failed to keep Reigns down.
It was a performance that would have been right at home at SummerSlam.
Seeing these two clash, it's clear Rusev and Reigns are ideal opponents, hard-hitting titans who thrive against each other. More compelling hoss fights are guaranteed.
Miami Herald columnist Scott Fishman praised their chemistry:
The rivalry has also been a boon for the United States Championship. Since Reigns slid down the card to seek out Rusev's title, WWE has put that belt in a prominent spot. Monday night marked the second week in a row where Rusev was featured in Raw's main event.
And on Monday's show, even with Finn Balor's demonic alter ego debuting and Brock Lesnar appearing, it was the issues between Reigns and Rusev that dominated the airwaves.
Champion and challenger kicked off the show with a fiery confrontation. Rusev later pounced on Reigns backstage.
Continuing to showcase this rivalry will help boost the U.S. title. The often-neglected championship is far better off as the centerpiece of a high-profile storyline, as it is now. Reigns' stardom and Rusev's excellence assure the title plenty of momentum.
WWE simply needs to hammer out the dents in the narrative.
There has been too much focus on Reigns insulting Rusev's wife, Lana. The Big Dog has been the wise-cracking jerk poking fun at two overzealous lovers. Rusev, meanwhile, has played the loyal husband angered by verbal jabs aimed at his bride.
It's hard to understand why Rusev is the heel here.
On Monday night, he fought valiantly, wanting nothing more than to protect his wife's honor. As LaToya Ferguson of the A.V. Club wrote, Rusev "doesn't even want an apology for himself, just for his wife. He's the villain? Give me a break."
There has to be a clearer babyface-heel dynamic. WWE has to give us reasons to hate Rusev, be it cheating or a wicked act of violence. Reigns' motivation has to be more focused on the U.S. title and all the glory that brings, and less concerned with needling a married couple on air.
At least WWE moved away from food fights this week.
Last Monday, the rivalry kicked off thanks to a silly scene. Reigns issued a mock toast to Lana and Rusev. Eventually, Rusev inadvertently pushed his wife's face into a wedding cake.
A week later, the feud went for aggression over comedy, violence over sight gags. That's the direction the story needs to keep going in.
Just ahead of SummerSlam, Rusev vs. Reigns inserted needed intensity. Josh Isenberg of Chair Shot Reality noted how much the story had improved:
But this hasn't reached its summit by any stretch. Whatever happens at SummerSlam, WWE has to keep Rusev and Reigns at each other's throats. With improved storytelling, the company will have a powerful work of theater on its hands.
Rusev vs. Reigns is the kind of rivalry that lends itself to continually escalating aggression. Both men are at their best when asked to simply rear back and hit their foe hard. Both characters are best suited when presented as destructive, no-nonsense predators.
Each wrestler has to hope SummerSlam isn't the climax of this feud but a chapter that leads to more violent fare. A Street Fight, a Steel Cage match, brawls in the stands, a slugfest where each man cracks a steel chair across the other's back should all be on the horizon.
Rather than wrap up the flawed narrative at the upcoming pay-per-view, WWE's best bet is to venture forward, bettering the tale as it unfolds.