Since April 3, Monday Night Raw has been without its world champion, Brock Lesnar, and the absence is beginning to grow noticeable.
The WWE universal champion has often taken time off after his major matches, but taking the top championship with him has left a hole on the roster similar to when he won the WWE Championship in 2014.
While that reign led to many great matches, it was marred by Lesnar's frequent absences, with pay-per-views feeling lesser without a top championship on the line. In order to avoid this situation a second time but still get the great matches and feuds from Lesnar as champion, WWE must not simply ignore Lesnar until he returns.
There are many ways that Lesnar could continue to take time off from WWE and still be a part of Raw, making the build to Extreme Rules, the second PPV in a row he will miss, less awkward. From a tournament to frequent promo segments, a focused effort to promote Lesnar is necessary to make Raw a better brand.
Hold a No. 1 Contender Tournament Culminating at Extreme Rules
Both Finn Balor and Seth Rollins have demanded shots at Lesnar in recent weeks, but no progress has been made toward crowning a contender to the champion. An easy way to clearly showcase who is the best man to challenge Lesnar is for WWE to hold a tournament, which would make for strong television and natural major matches.
An eight-man tournament between Balor, Rollins, Samoa Joe, Bray Wyatt, Roman Reigns, Braun Strowman, The Miz and Dean Ambrose would lead to fantastic matches and a clear main event at Extreme Rules between the final two. Even Reigns vs. Strowman could benefit from the added stakes to a final clash between the two if the winner earns a shot at Lesnar.
All this attention placed on crowning a new No. 1 contender would keep a focus on the Universal Championship without pointing out Lesnar's absence. At most, all that would be needed from Lesnar would be having Heyman appear near the end of the tournament to dress down the remaining competitors for even wanting to fight Lesnar.
Raw would be better thanks to such a competition, and the Universal Championship would be held up as the pinnacle of the brand rather than a forgotten title to be remembered once Lesnar returns.
Air Regular Promos Explaining Brock Lesnar's Absence
Since Lesnar's last appearance, the night after WrestleMania, nothing has been said about Lesnar's absence. He simply disappeared.
Lesnar may need this time off before the heaviest schedule of his career since he returned in 2012, but this doesn't mean he couldn't tape a few segments for WWE on a loose schedule.
While WWE likely wishes to avoid explaining Lesnar's absence, there can be effective explanations that only serve to promote Lesnar. Paul Heyman could state for Lesnar that The Beast feels no one is worthy of his time or that he is waiting to see who will emerge as a true contender to his championship between Strowman and Reigns.
WWE has always been excellent at crafting promo videos for wrestlers, and Lesnar would only be required to allow cameras to film him working out. Heyman can do the talking over clips of Lesnar performing impressive physical feats with ease.
Name New No. 1 Contender and Begin a 1-Sided Feud Build
If WWE has decided who will be the first challenger to Lesnar at WWE Great Balls of Fire, there is no reason it couldn't declare the challenger and begin building the feud.
Strowman is the likeliest contender, and he already has had an interaction with Lesnar. By announcing he will face The Beast at Raw's next pay-per-view after Extreme Rules, he could begin calling out Lesnar in promos.
With Reigns still selling injuries, this would also benefit Strowman, who could dismiss Reigns as the trash he already threw out, focusing on the future and the championship. The taunting would naturally build up fan excitement for Lesnar's return, when he could answer Strowman's verbal jabs with physicality.
Past feuds have proved this method to work, from John Cena carrying much of his rivalry with The Rock before WrestleMania 28 to Bray Wyatt working his entire feud with The Undertaker going into WrestleMania 31 solo.
Instead of distracting fans from Lesnar's absence, a wrestler can gain heat by pointing out Lesnar's absence and using it as an excuse to run his mouth until The Beast returns to shut him up.
Utilize Paul Heyman to the Fullest
When Heyman first returned to WWE at Brock Lesnar's side, WWE fully committed to the mouthpiece of The Beast as a manager in WWE, having him bring on other "Heyman guys" when Lesnar was not around.
However, experiments with Heyman managing CM Punk, Cesaro and Curtis Axel all fell through.
For this reason, WWE has pulled back on using Heyman, but he is still the easiest-to-utilize piece of the Lesnar puzzle. If Lesnar cannot appear, Heyman can act in Lesnar's stead, talking up The Beast Incarnate. He also makes for a helpless target for any wrestlers planning to win the Universal Championship.
Would it be such a crime for WWE to pay Heyman a bit more and have him come out every other week over the next couple months to remind people Lesnar is paying attention? Often, Lesnar's appearances can amount to him just standing behind Heyman as he talks anyway.
Whatever the choice, WWE must take an active role in avoiding months of awkward absence. Another two months of Raw without a champion will let the show down and fail to build up one of WWE's two world championships.
Lesnar is a fantastic obstacle for wrestlers to try to overcome, a monster who can grow the legacy of the Universal Championship as a true crowning achievement. Champions should feel as powerful and dominant as Lesnar, and the mere message he is the top challenge for everyone on Raw is enough to make the main event scene exciting.
However, none of this can simply be held off for months on end. An aloof champion is a specter over a brand, a promise of excitement to come, but an absent champion is simply a wasted opportunity.
Lesnar will not be able to erase three months of wasted time if he returns cold without any development.