Monday Night Raw Recap: The curious case of Finn Balor continues

John Cena cruised to a victory on Monday night's Raw against Finn Balor. Courtesy of WWE

After the emotional roller coaster that was the 2018 Royal Rumble on Sunday night, it made a fair bit of sense that the Monday night that followed would be a night to take a breather, reset, and make sure everything was headed in the right direction as the road to WrestleMania 34 began in earnest.

There was shockingly little in the way of backstage segments, and outside of an opening promo from Stephanie McMahon and a few scattered interviews throughout the night, it was all matches and Rumble highlights throughout the night. A pair of title defenses settled some pre-Rumble issues, and with only four weeks of shows to prepare, some serious groundwork for February's Elimination Chamber pay-per-view was set.

Alexa Bliss will defend her Raw women's championship in the very first women's Elimination Chamber, which will delay Asuka's choice of which title to pursue at WrestleMania, while the men's Elimination Chamber match will determine who will challenge Brock Lesnar for the Universal championship at WrestleMania.

Half of the field for that match was set on Monday night, as a trio of drastically different qualifying matches determined the first three competitors inside of the chamber. Though Elias making it into the match may have surprised some people, the history of the Elimination Chamber includes plenty of participants getting a chance to step up in a major way just by being in the match. Braun Strowman's object-flipping escapades continued to no one's surprise, but the main event and final qualifier of the night was ultimately the biggest sense of friction and dissension amongst WWE fans when all was said and done.

John Cena dominates Finn Balor to earn Elimination Chamber berth

The seeds for Monday night's qualifying match between Cena and Balor were sewed on Sunday night in the men's Royal Rumble match when Cena tossed out Balor, the evening's "iron man," with just four participants remaining. Because Cena himself also fell short of a Rumble victory, both Balor and Cena were in need of a way to step back into the world title picture in a hurry -- and lo and behold, the Elimination Chamber offered an immediate reprieve.

The video promos they cut back and forth earlier in the night, with a boastful Balor flanked by Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson, and a rejuvenated Cena promising there was still a lot left in his tank, helped set the tone. After their respective ring entrances, the match kicked off with a big fight feel as the chants echoed through the Wells Fargo Center. There were a fair number of anti-Cena chants mixed in, but unlike most Cena matches where the "Let's go Cena/Cena Sucks" chants dominate, there were strong pro-Balor sentiments.

The stage was seemingly set for Balor to step up and pull off a major milestone victory in his career, but that was far from the reality of what played out over the final moments. In a match that was puzzlingly one-sided at times, Cena hit a pair of Attitude Adjustments (including one of the top rope variety) and picked up the victory. It had some elements of a great match mixed in, including Balor kicking out of an Attitude Adjustment, but with Balor hitting very little of his signature offense along the way, fans were left with another puzzling pumping of the breaks at a moment where Balor seemed poised to thrive. It was also another glaring example of WWE's geographic blindness problem, as Cena as a Boston/New England proxy would've played the perfect bad guy for a Philadelphia crowd that was chanting for their Super Bowl-bound Eagles throughout the night.

It's become a regular pattern for Balor ever since he returned from the gruesome injury that cost him months of his career and the Universal championship. After several starts and stops marked with a number of puzzling losses, 2018 seemed to be the moment in which Balor turned the corner. His Balor Club triumvirate has been rolling along, and he picked up more momentum with his strong Rumble performance on Sunday night.

There's nothing wrong with Cena getting a big win to qualify for the Elimination Chamber or being in that match by any means, but to do so off the back of Balor seemingly did more harm than good. Gone are the days where the act of kicking out of one Attitude Adjustment is a star-making act in and of itself, especially when Balor didn't hit his own finish or even several of his signature moves. If Balor wasn't going to be in the Elimination Chamber, why set up this mini-rivalry at all? There are a half-dozen others who could've been proper stepping stones to the Elimination Chamber without disrupting Balor's journey. Unless Balor is destined to pick up something of a bitter edge in the weeks to come, this match will stand as another indicator that Balor isn't quite seen to be at the level of a Cena, Lesnar, Strowman or Roman Reigns -- and with the crowd reactions he's been getting, that seems a puzzling choice.

Braun Strowman isn't finished with flipping heavy things

The purpose of a "Last Man Standing" match is to make sure your opponent can't rise to meet a 10 count, and Braun Strowman brought that concept to its logistical extreme on Monday night against Kane. In the opening match of the night, Strowman and Kane seemingly settled their differences for good, or at least Strowman did.

They spent mere seconds in the ring before spilling to the outside to use weapons of many varieties, and they soon stepped out into the crowd. Kane and Strowman fought all the way back around to the left side of the stage near the commentary table, where Jonathan Coachman was getting settled back in as the newest member of the broadcast team, and the next few moments gave him an instant reminder to always be on your toes in this environment.

After briefly incapacitating Kane, Strowman took hold of the commentary table stage -- no, not just the table, an entire section of the stage -- and flipped it on top of Kane to pin his opponent beneath it all. That of course ended the match, and Corey Graves incredulously asked how he could do that to a human being (though isn't Kane a demon of some kind); Strowman replied, simply, "I did my job." Kurt Angle tried to plead for sanity backstage, but Strowman laid the blame right back at the GM's feet. Strowman is in the Elimination Chamber, and there is plenty to look forward to in terms of his destructive capabilities in that setting.

Asuka vs. Sasha Banks put on tremendous effort, but lack of build hurts crowd reaction

In terms of never-before-seen one-on-one matches in the WWE's women's divisions, Sasha Banks versus Asuka is about as big as it gets. Sure, you could argue for Asuka versus Charlotte Flair as well, and when it happens some time down the line it will be a special moment in its own right, but Banks vs. Asuka has "big match" written all over it.

It felt like a title-worthy contest, or at least worthy of some conflict or build-up before the match, but on Monday night, two minutes of a promo and a challenge is all we got before this marquee matchup was brought together in a flash. As Stephanie McMahon announced the women's Chamber match, and told Asuka she could wait to determine which title she challenges for at WrestleMania, Banks barged in and insisted she was ready for Asuka.

The match itself was a tremendous effort, despite another moment in which Banks appeared to have seriously injured herself while doing something acrobatic. This time out, her feet got caught on the ropes on a suicide dive, and as Asuka kicked her, she hit her face on the ring apron and then the ground.

What was missing, for the bulk of the match, was an atmosphere or energy. This was a WrestleMania-worthy match playing out, and until Banks seemed to put Asuka's undefeated streak in jeopardy, the crowd simply didn't have an entry point into getting into the match itself.

After a lengthy, exhausting battle, which ultimately did draw the crowd in during a fun ending, Asuka earned the submission win over Banks to keep her streak intact. They will meet under different circumstances down the line, while each heads their separate ways to deal with their tasks at hand, but it will have a little bit less of a luster because it won't be the first time.

Hits and misses

  • The Intercontinental championship rematch between The Miz and Roman Reigns was the clear match of the night on an evening with several great contests. With Curtis Axel and Bo Dallas involved in only the very beginning and very end of the match, Reigns and Miz were able to have a one-on-one match that hit a lot of different notes and offered a strong conclusion to their rivalry, should it be the end. I can't say much more than just "watch this match." Matchups make fights, and though it may not have seemed like much at the outset, Miz versus Reigns will go down as a tremendous Intercontinental championship rivalry.

  • After beating The Bar on two occasions in the last month, Titus Worldwide cut the line and got the first shot at Sheamus and Cesaro's newly recaptured Raw tag team titles. They were unsuccessful, but Apollo Crews got a few moments to shine and stand out in a way that connected with the audience. Crews is too talented an in-ring performer to continue to wallow at the bottom of the food chain on Raw, and he showed flashes of that on Monday.

  • Elias earned his berth in the Elimination Chamber by beating Matt Hardy, and that came thanks to a distraction from Bray Wyatt. After the way the Royal Rumble ended for each of them, it's easy to imagine their battles have only just begun.

  • The Revival picked up another win, over Rhyno & Heath Slater. Putting them opposite Sheamus & Cesaro in the not too distant future feels like it could be something special.

  • No Ronda Rousey and no Brock Lesnar, and no way of knowing when either of them will return to WWE TV. We'll just have to wait and see.