By Graham "GSM" Matthews
Raw Commisionier Stephanie McMahon and Raw General Manager Mick Foley Announced a New WWE Universal Championship
First and foremost, I absolutely love the new theme song for the show as well as the placement of the commentators and set (it isn't a far cry from the old one but it's a refreshing change nevertheless). After Dean Ambrose retained the WWE Championship at WWE Battleground and took the title to SmackDown, many of us assumed it wouldn't be long before a new world title was instituted on Raw. I'm not a fan of the "WWE Universal Championship" name if only because it sounds similar to the WWE Championship. Bringing back the World Heavyweight Championship would have sufficed. At any rate, this was a hell of a hot way to kick off the show and establish the night's biggest matches heading into the main event to determine who would face Seth Rollins to crown the inaugural champion at SummerSlam.
Finn Balor def. United States Champion Rusev, Kevin Owens and Cesaro in a Fatal 4-Way Match to Advance to the Main Event (Non-title)
You really can't go wrong with four of the best wrestlers on Raw colliding in a Fatal 4-Way, so naturally, this was an excellent opener. I appreciated how much time it was given and I hope that is a sign of things to come with a smaller roster working the three hours. Balor winning was the most obvious albeit the right choice, and the final flurry of offense from all four competitors was a blast. Having Balor win the first official match of the New Era was truly poetic.
Nia Jax def. Britt Baker
There was a report making the rounds last week that WWE intended on bringing back squash matches as a way of getting talent over, and it looks like those rumors were indeed accurate. I mean, I couldn't tell you the last time we had a "local athlete" on the main roster that was a woman. As I've said several times in the last week, I'm simply not sold on Jax yet being main roster ready. This was a short and sweet squash match that showcased her dominance, but time will tell in terms of how she will fare in longer matches against established talent.
Roman Reigns def. Chris Jericho, Sheamus and Sami Zayn in a Fatal 4-Way Match to Advance to the Main Event
Although I enjoyed the previous 4-Way slightly more, this was still a very good match will all four combatants putting forth a strong effort. If you thought Balor winning was predictable, then you likely saw Reigns emerging victorious coming from a mile away. Again, though, from an in-ring standpoint, I can't complain about lengthy matches featuring entertaining action, and that's exactly what this matchup provided. Reigns was the focal point of the match and delivered a million Superman punches, but I guess that was done by design since he went over.
The Club Interrupted WWE Tag Team Champions The New Day's Celebration
I have longed for a team to break the long-standing tag team title record of Paul London and Brian Kendrick, and no one was more deserving than New Day after all they've done to resurrect tag team wrestling in WWE. The video package was a fun way of recapping their last year on top of the division as champions, but the subsequent interaction with the "fan" wasn't as funny since they spent more time than they needed to on the "Sunny Boy" bit. Regardless, I like the idea of New Day moving into a title program with The Club. I've always said I wanted Enzo Amore and Big Cass going for the gold at SummerSlam, and perhaps that's still possible, but The Club isn't a bad consolation prize.
Neville def. Curtis Axel
Neville's return perfectly coincided with the dawning of the "New Era" as well as the returning Cruiserweight division, which he could easily be the face of if he takes part in it. This was a pretty straightforward match that reintroduced viewers to Neville's high-flying offense and he showed no signs of ring rust, though the crowd was flat for the match other than when Neville connected with the Red Arrow. By the way, Michael Cole noting that Neville suffered the injury in the same building this Raw was held in was a very nice touch, and I also love the new "Mr. Irrelevant" nickname for Axel. Hey, at least it's something!
Sasha Banks def. Charlotte to Win the WWE Women's Championship
One SmackDown match from March aside, it's amazes me WWE has largely kept Charlotte and Banks apart in singles competition on the main roster over the last year, so kudos to them for holding off on the big bout. These two have plenty of practice working together following the countless series of matches they contested in NXT and proved to the masses with this encounter how exciting women's wrestling can be. I was glad Dana Brooke was booted from ringside early on, allowing them to have the match they were capable of. Both women went to great lengths to produce a phenomenal match and it paid off in a major way. I was fully expecting a non-finish of some sort to set up a rematch for SummerSlam, but they wanted to go all out with this show, so I suppose it was only fitting they did the title change here. A remarkable match capped off by a magical moment. Women's wrestling is alive and well!
Braun Strowman def. James Ellsworth
It looks like Strowman wasted no time after Battleground in changing up his appearance, which was in order now that he's presumably no longer a part of The Wyatt Family. Byron Saxton interviewing his opponent in the ring before the bout was cool because it was something we never see, and bringing back the old school squashes is a smart move. Needless to say, the match was a total destruction of Ellsworth and Strowman has a long way to go before he can flourish on his own.
Enzo Amore and Big Cass def. The Shining Stars
Prior to this point, The Shining Stars had wrestled only one other televised match, that being their re-debut match two months ago. The Brand Split will be kind to these two in terms of getting more television time, but I still firmly believe that they will continue to be a dead act until they evolve in some way. Welcoming fans to Puerto Rico isn't going to cut it. The crowd likely would have sat on their hands for this if Enzo and Cass weren't so damn over. While I couldn't care less about The Golden Truth, the Pokemon Go thing was culturally relevant and got a chuckle out of me.
Finn Balor def. Roman Reigns to Advance to SummerSlam to Face Seth Rollins For the WWE Universal Championship
Who would have ever thought that Balor would be facing Reigns of all people in the main event of Raw his first night in? He took some punishment early on, but he hung in there with the former three-time world champion and had a strong showing. Their styles meshed very well and it resulted in a great matchup. I can't blame them for not going longer since they wrestled earlier in the evening, but they definitely made the most of the time they were allotted. They had me on the edge on my seat the entire time and Balor pinning Reigns for the clean was a huge shocker. And by that I mean I didn't honestly think they would do the right thing. Balor vs. Rollins at SummerSlam? Take my money, Vince!
This was a fantastic first edition of Raw in the New Era and probably my favorite of 2016 thus far for all the change it brought about. One of my biggest gripes of the flagship show for years was how the theme song, sets and overall feel of the show came across as stagnant, and thus I was ecstatic they made strides with all of those things on this night. Not to mention the exceptional wrestling, memorable moments and newsworthy debuts of Balor and Jax. Of course, it's anyone's guess as to whether they will be up to keep this momentum going weekly, but week one was a success. Hats off to WWE for actually ushering in a New Era with such a stellar show. I'm now even more amped to be in attendance for SummmerSlam next month. August 21st couldn't come any quicker!