This week in the WWE should start to set up the Raw vs. Smackdown Live cross-brand battle, following the excellent precursor between Finn Balor and A.J. Styles at TLC. 

kevin owens sami zayn wwe screen shot
Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn

Tonight’s Raw will pick up the pieces from last night’s “TLC—Tables, Ladders and Chairs” pay per view. The night was unusual with a soft card that was largely upgraded as the Raw roster dealt with a freakish run of illnesses that kept Miztourage member Bo Dallas on the sidelines and benched Bray Wyatt and Roman Reigns, both of which would have figured prominently in the night. It was also a night short on Ts, Ls or Cs until the final match when Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Reigns’ sub Kurt Angle, The Miz, The Bar, Kane and Braun Strowman worked their way through a whole show’s worth in one match. Kane dropped six or seven folding chairs on Strowman at one time when he pulled down a chain of them hanging from the ceiling. 

Still, it’s not clear what stories the show will develop tonight. Since Reigns and Wyatt will be out for at least another week, everything involving them is at a standstill. We can only hope that the brilliant Finn Balor/A.J. Styles match will earn Balor a parole from the silly program that would have put him in the ring Sunday with Wyatt as Sister Abigail had Wyatt been well enough to wrestle. 

At one point Sunday night, Strowman ended up fighting everybody else on his heel team before they tossed him in the back of garbage truck, and that would seem to signify the start of a face turn for Strowman. On the other hand, the WWE has threatened a lot of heel or face turns on Sunday nights only to return to form the following Mondays, so it’s not a lock, but the possible program with Strowman battling Kane makes it likely. 

The WWE needs a storyline like that right now because one byproduct of last night’s Shield/Miztourage-Plus battle is that the Raw tag team belts and the Intercontinental Championship aren’t contested right now since Ambrose, Rollins and The Miz were all wrapped up in this match. Because Brock Lesnar’s largely off of WWE television right now, his heavyweight championship can’t be the subject of storylines either. Fortunately, the next major pay-per-view is “Survivor Series,” which will involve a number of matches that pit Raw versus Smackdown Live. A Balor/Styles rematch would give people something to get excited about, certainly more  thanJinder Mahal challenging Brock Lesnar champion vs. champion match at “Survivor Series.” That match will need a little Paul Heyman magic to make people care. 

Last night, Kalisto lost the cruiserweight championship belt back to Enzo Amore in a move that has become sadly predictable in the WWE. In the last year, a number of wrestlers in feuds have passed belts back and forth like the straps had cooties—Charlotte and Sasha Banks, The New Day and The Uzos, and now Enzo and Kalisto. One wins a championship on a pay-per-view or TV show, then loses it back a few matches later, only to lose it back again soon after. That kind of rapid exchange devalues the titles and reduces their potential to ramp up the sense that any given match is an event. Before the WWE adopted this playground sharesies approach to titles, they added something to matches. Jinder Mahal’s belt it is crucial to his heat because it makes him a walking travesty of justice, pissing off fans before he says or does anything. The Usos and New Day, on the other hand, have almost been co-belt holders for the last six months, so the title didn’t add anything to the stakes of their matches.

The new best thing on Smackdown Live is Sami Zayn since his heel turn, primarily because he and Kevin Owens have sidestepped the usual heel bluster. Heels usually bring a venti dose of arrogant, angry bluster to their promos, making them seem oddly similar and one-note as they threaten/challenge/confront their opponents. Zayn’s easy, peaceful mode is refreshingly angst free, which makes him more interesting than ever. His character is even having fun—something wrestlers rarely seem to do—because in all likelihood, Zayn is genuinely having fun. His stance is refreshing in a world that starts at overheated and warms up from there. His looseness aligns perfectly with his in-ring style so that there’s no disjunction for fans to rectify, but he doesn’t deny his whole vibe as the guy picked fourth in high school pick-up games either. Because of that, the undercurrent of rage occasionally flickers to remind viewers it’s there, and that makes him compelling.