An in-ring promo cutting contest was the highlight of "Raw" and the WWE's programming this week.

john cena photo
John Cena

“You’re not as big of a deal as you think you are.”

On Monday night, Roman Reigns dropped this bomb on John Cena during Raw, and he was wrong. Cena knows how big he is. Cena has the most crossover presence outside the WWE Universe. He got love for his role in Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, hosts American Grit, and got a part in Andy Samberg/Lonely Planet’s Tour de Pharmacy. He’s the one guy who can do a guest spot on a late night talk show without a WWE pay-per-view to promote, and he’s one of the few WWE Superstars who sets off an entire arena when he appears, whether the crowd cheers him or boos him.

I’m not part of Team Cena Sucks, but I’ve been down on him recently. His promos before his flag match with Rusev expressed his patriotism so blandly that I consider the merits of Rusev’s lumpen Bulgarian way of life. After that, Cena seemed more involved in his celebrity than the matches themselves and appeared unable to take his unmotivated match with Baron Corbin at SummerSlam seriously. He connected more to the audiences during his television appearances than the storylines he played, and the way he reveled in the crowd’s energy not only broke kayfabe but the “reality” of the storyline. Until this week.

Cena moved from Smackdown Live to Raw to work a program with Reigns, who like him has at least as many detractors as fans in the crowds. Reigns officially wrestles as a face, but he and the WWE keep flirting with a heel turn that never happens. He got heel heat after defeating The Undertaker at last year’s Wrestlemania, and again after he took out his frustrations at losing the ambulance match to Braun Strowman by hitting him with an ambulance, but never committed to that path and that heat. Instead, Reigns wrestles as a sullen guy who also happens to be big, athletic and powerful—three characteristics that don’t mesh well with “sullen.” In the case of Cena vs. Reigns, it sure looks like Cena’s going to be the face, but those bets are being hedged too as for the second week in a row, the pair ragged each other and ended up as tag team against clearer heels. 

Still, this was Cena’s best week in a while. Cena and Reigns cut promos on each other in the ring as part of a signing ceremony to confirm that they’ll meet at the WWE’s “No Mercy” pay-per-view in a month, and Raw general manager Kurt Angle thought was most of us at home thought—that the promos became shoots. Some backstage gossip says otherwise, but Reigns’ accusation that Cena buries wrestlers in one that has dogged Cena since he became one of the WWE’s biggest stars, and when Cena charged that the fans are cool on Reigns because he’s a corporate creation, he went straight to Reigns’ soft spot. “You’re not the guy; you’re a guy trying desperately to fill shoes that you never will,” Cena said. When Reigns blanked a line—one of the knocks on his promos—Cena jumped on that too.

“Go ahead, find it. I’ll wait,” he said. “It’s called a promo and if you want to be the big dog, you’re going to have to do it.”

In the WWE’s version of The Dozens, Cena won when Reigns had no comeback to Cena’s digs and trashed the table in the ring instead. Then, Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson came to the ring (Because.) and ended up in a tag-team match against Cena and Reigns—one Cena and Reigns won—no surprise. The impressive part of that sequence wasn’t the wrestling but how Cena and Reigns moved their story forward in the ring, and perhaps it pointed to how this program will help Reigns get over. They sold their differences throughout the match, but Reigns never screwed Cena or left him to get killed in the ring by Gallows and Anderson. Cena and Reigns fought each other through Gallows and Anderson, and it’s easy to imagine that by the end of the program, Cena will come around on Reigns and embrace him, in the process cuing the audience to get behind Reigns as well.

Also this week on Raw:

- Raw GM Kurt Angle announced a battle royal to determine who would be the number one contender for The Miz’s Intercontinental title, and allowed that The Miztourage could compete in it. Finn Bálor gave it star power, The Big Show gave it someone intimidating, and Jason Jordan gave it someone likely to win. After that, the match was filled out with Elias Samson, The Hardys, and the also-ran wing of the locker room. The battle royal was battle royal-ly, with a lot of guys crowding the ring, a lot of guys trying to get The Big Show over the top rope, and a lot of guys trying to get their signature moves into tight quarters before they took their exit. It looked for a while like we might get a Bálor/Miz match-up, but to no one’s surprise, Bray Wyatt’s cut-the-lights hoodoo kicked in along with his NIN video outtakes, after which he appeared in the ring, tossed Bálor, and disappeared. So that feud is continuing.

The end came rapid fire when The Miztourage dumped Samson, and while they did so, Jordan hoisted both of them over the top rope. Thankfully, Jeff Hardy spared us more Jason Jordan and tossed him over to win. With a month to go before “No Mercy,” it’s easy to imagine that this storyline has a few more twists since Jeff Hardy as a singles performer seems stray, and the last few weeks have built (slowly) toward a Jordan/Miz confrontation. For now though, we’re spared the spectacle of Miz trying to make the audience care about Jason Jordan.

- I love all Paul Heyman promos. Only he could sell Brock Lesnar and still make Braun Strowman—Lesnar’s opponent at “No Mercy”—sound equally if not more dangerous.

- More work on the Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins/Cesaro and Sheamus feud, this time with members of the teams in singles matches against each other. Since the fun of Ambrose and Rollins is how kinetically they work together, these matches were a lesser chapter in the story, but the moments when the two worked together caught fire.

- Raw closed with a women’s title match—Alexa Bliss vs. Sasha Banks. Banks’ matches with Charlotte showed that women can have main event-calibre matches, but Bliss isn’t Charlotte. The match was fine, but it lacked fireworks after Cena, Reigns, Gallows and Anderson. Bliss won the belt back from Banks, who the WWE simply seems unwilling to leave with the championship. Each time she won it from Charlotte, Banks lost it at the next pay-per-view. She beat Bliss at SummerSlam and lost the championship two weeks later. This time, it looks like the story that has been teased and withdrawn for almost six months—Bliss vs. Nia Jax—will finally take place as Jax came out, congratulated Bliss, hoisted her up on Jax’s shoulder to celebrate, then gave her a back drop and left Bliss flat in the ring. Does this mean the WWE is moving on? That Banks is going to change her nickname to “The Legit Boss for a Month, Tops”?

 … while on Smackdown Live:

- The Singh Brothers took too long to apologize to Jinder Mahal for getting crushed by Shinsuke Nakamura last week and dragged out their ritual self-humiliation as they volunteered to kiss Mahal’s boots. Nakamura came out in time to keep the kisses from happening, and when Mahal superkicked him, Randy Orton came to Nakamura’s defense, then Rusev trotted down the ramp to bore the sequence to its natural conclusion—a tag team match-up pitting Mahal and Rusev against Orton and Nakamura. Before the match happened, we learned that Nakamura and Orton would meet next week in a number one contender’s match, creating another tag team match like Cena and Reigns’ on Raw where the faces have an uneasy alliance. In this case, they win—Mahal may be the losing-est WWE Champion ever—and Orton celebrates by hitting Nakamura with an RKO. 

Orton may be on the back side of boring feud with Jinder Mahal, but is Orton part of the reason it wasn’t very interesting? Is he the victim of bad booking after bad booking, or is he making it bad? Who would be interesting with Randy Orton right now?   

- The show was thick with squash matches this week. Tamina crushed some poor dear in minutes, and Bobby Roode took only slightly longer to finish off Mike Kanellis, whose gimmick with his wife Maria has already been considered to the jobber pile. Most of the drama in the A.J. Styles/Tye Dillinger match-up took place before hand as Dillinger beat Baron Corbin to the ring to claim Styles’ open invitation to the locker room for contenders for his United States championship. Corbin threw a shitfit and tried to beat on Dillinger, but once The Perfect 10 got into the ring and a little space between him and Corbin, he called for the bell. Styles promptly beat him, making me wish Corbin would have beat Dillinger to the ring. 

- Dolph Ziggler continued to cut backstage, shoot-like promos ripping on other wrestlers and their gimmicks and how much the fans love them. Again, this might almost have some impact if Cena hadn’t just nailed Reigns with in-ring shoot promos that were far more on the money the night before.

- Best thing in the night: Kevin Owens (almost always). His interruption of Aiden English, his tantrum, his argument with Shane McMahon, and his decision to steal the referee’s shirt and ref English’s match with Sami Zayn were all hilarious. It’s a shame it’s leading to an Owens/Shane McMahon match-up, but we can hope between now and the next Smackdown Live pay-per-view that McMahon will find a proxy to fight for him so that we can get better a match-up. McMahon’s a good wrestler for a non-wrestler, but he’s not as good as most of the rest of the locker room. I’d rather see Owens go with someone who can build a better match with him.