The first glance at WWE Raw in 2018 looked a lot like 2017 in one key way: Roman Reigns is the show's bedrock.
On Monday night, The Big Dog held off Samoa Joe in an engaging, hard-hitting battle for the Intercontinental Championship. Reigns and Joe slugged it out. The Destroyer zeroed in on the champion's elbow, but Reigns gutted out a win.
The bout thrilled.
That's nothing new for the IC titleholder. He has staked his claim as Raw's most reliable star. WWE has built the show around him and he's responded with top-notch performance after top-notch performance.
Dean Ambrose's injury has derailed the company's plans for The Shield reunion. Brock Lesnar's part-time schedule has kept the Universal Championship from being Raw's actual top title. To combat both situations, WWE has turned to Reigns, asking him to be the red brand's de facto No. 1 champ.
WWE Universe @WWEUniverse
New year, same BIG DOG! @WWERomanReigns is STILL your #ICChampion on #RAW! https://t.co/tUKNfoMiVY2018-1-2 03:16:13
His Monday showdown with Joe was the latest example of that plan working perfectly.
Reigns and Joe's chemistry was excellent. Their smashmouth styles blended well. They suckered fans in with dramatic near-falls. They produced what felt like the night's main event despite not going on last.
Denny Burkholder of CBS Sports put it simply:
Denny Burkholder @DennyBurkholder
Roman Reigns vs. Samoa Joe was a fantastic free TV match.2018-1-2 03:23:41
But this was no one-time incident. This was the latest installment in what has been a great IC title series. Real Sports columnist Kyle Fowle wrote, The Big Dog vs. Joe continued "Reigns' streak of anchoring Raw with 20-minute classics."
WWE has leaned on Reigns to take up a good chunk of airtime each Monday. Each of his championship tilts has gone over the 14-minute mark, per CageMatch.net:
- Reigns vs. The Miz: Nov. 20, 2017 (16:00)
- Reigns vs. Elias: Nov. 27, 2017 (14:45)
- Reigns vs. Jason Jordan: Dec. 4, 2017 (20:38)
- Reigns vs. Cesaro: Dec. 11, 2017 (16:53)
- Reigns vs. Joe: Jan. 1, 2018 (24:50)
Four out of the five bouts were the longest of the night.
On top of that, every single one of them was one of the episode's best. It hasn't mattered who is opponent is, from the up-and-comer Elias to the athletic marvel Cesaro, Reigns has come through. In that way, he's become Raw's equivalent to AJ Styles.
Should WWE want to showcase the emerging Elias, it simply has to plug him into an IC title match. Should the company want to just fill up time with high-quality action until WrestleMania season kicks in, it can toss just about any opponent at Reigns and sit back to watch the fireworks.
There's a palpable buzz around the IC crown at the moment. Much like the United States Championship during John Cena's open challenges in 2014, the strap has become a hot commodity by way of being on a star's shoulders and being the prize awaiting the victor of quality matches. WWE has trusted in Reigns to follow Cena's lead and he's done just that.
His detractors have long maintained that he isn't a top-tier performer.
That idea is being shattered each Monday night, however. Reigns' title defenses have been the highlight of Raw for weeks. One may not like that Reigns is the champ and so often in the center of the spotlight, but there's no denying that he's torn it up against Joe, Cesaro, Elias and all comers.
Moving forward, the IC title chase promises to maintain a crucial part of the Raw puzzle.
Joe will be fighting his way back to the No. 1 contender's spot, meaning there will be all sorts of compelling carnage along the way. Midcarders and monsters will charge after Reigns.
And if the current pattern holds, the champ will flourish each time out.