By Steven Flora
In a Raw main event for the ages, John Cena and Finn Bálor locked up in singles action for the first time ever, vying to enter the Elimination Chamber where a Universal Championship opportunity against Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania will be on the line.
It's Cena's time NOW!
John Cena def. Finn Bálor to qualify for the Men’s Elimination Chamber Match
For 57:38 in the Men’s Royal Rumble Match, Finn Bálor fought in pursuit of a WrestleMania championship opportunity until John Cena eliminated him. Following that interaction, The Extraordinary Man and The Cenation Leader were paired in a win-and-you’re-in contest with an Elimination Chamber slot at stake. Bálor was as focused as ever, exuding enough confidence that he battled Cena without the backup of Luke Gallows & Karl Anderson.
For a long stretch, he appeared to have made the right call. Bálor frustrated Cena in the early going of the first-time-ever match, even powering his way out of a test of strength. The Cenation Leader opted to Irish Whip Bálor into the ring posts with all the power he could muster, a brutish if effective strategy that nonetheless spurned Bálor to rally.
Bálor did achieve the extraordinary, kicking out of a thunderous Attitude Adjustment and breaking out of an STF, but Cena had just a little bit more in the tank, hoisting the first-ever Universal Champion to the second turnbuckle and executing an avalanche AA that sent him to Elimination Chamber. As for Bálor, after an hour-plus of all-time cumulative efforts over the course of two nights, it seems he’ll have to wait a little while longer. Winner: John Cena.
Side Note: Honestly, Balor didn’t deserve this, we all know that, but I have a sneaky feeling they have something planned for Balor. A spot in this year’s Elimination Chamber is too big for Finn to miss, however, my guess is someway or another the Balor Club will get involved in Las Vegas.
The Boss takes Asuka to her limit
Asuka def. Sasha Banks
Was Sasha Banks ready for Asuka? Yes. But she wasn’t ready enough.
Looking to make some history of her own after falling short in the Women's Royal Rumble Match, The Boss put up a hellacious fight against The Empress of Tomorrow with the goal of snapping Asuka’s storied two-and-a-half-year undefeated streak. She looked like she might be up to the task, too, thanks to a deceptively canny strategy where she goaded Asuka into a fearsome rally, only to trap her in a pair of modified Bank Statements.
Asuka answered with some truly remarkable brutality — a kick to an airborne Banks dropped The Boss like a stone mid-suicide dive — and The Boss still hung tight, ramming her illustrious foe with a flying knee to the face and dodging a hip attack that sent Asuka tumbling to the outside. She even locked in the full-force Bank Statement, but Asuka slithered out of the hold and constricted Banks in the Asuka Lock to force a tapout and bring the match to a close. History eludes Banks again as Asuka marches to WrestleMania, but perhaps The Boss will settle for an instant classic. Winner: Asuka.
Side Note: This was one hell of a match, even with the nasty bumps toward the end. I've got to give credit to both women, they absolutely stole the show. I hope both survived the nasty bumps and hope they do it again on a bigger stage.
The Intercontinental Championship World Tour continues
WWE Intercontinental Championship: The Miz def. Roman Reigns
Make that two runner-up heartbreakers in a row for Roman Reigns, who was the last man eliminated by Shinsuke Nakamura in the Men’s Royal Rumble Match and fell short in his bid to regain the Intercontinental Championship from The Miz just 24 hours later. That he did is an astounding reversal of fortune, as Reigns not only dominated Miz from the jump, but he also chased off The Miztourage with a steel chair he’d retrieved from ringside. The Big Dog was so incensed he nearly got himself disqualified, and despite a rally from Miz, Reigns found a second wind and teed off on the champion with wild-eyed fury.
The A-Lister answered with some quick thinking, focusing his efforts on his challenger’s knee with chop blocks and a torturous Figure-Four Leglock. Reigns reversed the latter hold to hobble Miz and moved in to close the match, at which point The Miztourage returned to turn the tide. Reigns picked off Bo Dallas and Curtis Axel with pinpoint efficiency but took his eye off The Miz for just a second too long. After Reigns dropped Bo Dallas with a Spear, Miz pounced with a rollup and a handful of Reigns’ pants to retain the title. Winner: The Miz (c).
Reigns was left to stew alone in the ring, and it’s easy to see why: His mantra has long been that he can, and he will. Which makes it all the more gutting that, for the second night, he almost did.
Side Note: Honestly, Miz & Reigns matches are so similar. They mostly entail Reigns getting a huge offense on Miz and then the Miz struggles for a while but then distracts the referee and the Miztourage interfere, causing The Miz to take advantage and win. It's not a horrible thing but sometimes you wish they could switch up the planning of the matches, to make it look less predictable. Nevertheless Miz needed the win, and the goal of the main event of WrestleMania is still in the eyes of the Big Dog.
Strowman advances to Las Vegas in the Elimination Chamber
Braun Strowman def. Kane in a Last Man Standing Match to qualify for the Men’s Elimination Chamber Match
If not for Triple Threat rules, Braun Strowman may well have become Universal Champion at Royal Rumble. Now, he’s one step closer to getting another opportunity against Brock Lesnar. Facing Kane (who suffered the fateful pinfall in the pair's title match against Lesnar one night prior) in a Last Man Standing Match to determine which Superstar would enter the Men's Elimination Chamber Match, The Monster Among Men dispatched his infernal rival in horrific fashion, landing a coveted position in the match that will determine The Anomaly’s challenger at WrestleMania.
Strowman exploited the lawlessness of the Last Man Standing stipulation to its fullest extent, chasing The Big Red Machine through the audience before his pursuit finally landed the two at the foot of the commentary table. Michael Cole, Corey Graves and the returning Jonathan Coachman made themselves scarce and wisely so: The Gift of Destruction tipped the announce table onto Kane, entombing him so completely the referee immediately called for the bell. That was enough to send Strowman to the Elimination Chamber and The Devil's Favorite Demon to a local medical facility. As for Lesnar? If Strowman makes it to WrestleMania, he may well send him somewhere even worse. Winner: Braun Strowman.
Side Note: As for Last Man Standing matches, this was below par. As for the match, it served its purpose and was short, putting over Strowman.
The Bar officially raise the bar
Raw Tag Team Championship Match: Raw Tag Team Champions Cesaro & Sheamus def. Titus Worldwide
Cesaro & Sheamus may again be Raw Tag Team Champions, but Titus Worldwide had their number almost every step of the way on their march back to the top. Alas, a hat trick against The Bar was not to be.
This isn’t to say they didn’t bring their A-game in the long-awaited opportunity. Titus O’Neil tossed his opponents to and fro like bales of hay, while Apollo Crews, who proved to be the difference-maker in their first two meetings, very nearly won his team the match again. He began the match with a lightning-fast rollup attempt on Sheamus and returned to spell an exhausted O’Neil near the end.
Crews unleashed the full scope of his talents against The Bar, dishing out Standing Shooting Star Presses to both the tag team champions and flying around the ring with reckless abandon. It briefly seemed he would take advantage of a mad scramble when he reversed a Cesaro crossbody into a pinfall attempt, but an ill-fated charge in the corner ended in a collision with the ring post. The Bar’s White Noise-middle-rope DDT combo put Titus Worldwide’s Cinderella story to a close, though it's safe to say they may well write another chapter down the line. Winner: Raw Tag Team Champions Cesaro & Sheamus (c).
Side Note: Let's be honest, Titus Worldwide was never winning. The Bar needed to be put over as a strong team and Titus Worldwide were the perfect victims.
Other notable moments
Elias vs. "Woken" Matt Hardy in a qualifying match for the Men's Elimination Chamber Match: Hardy and Bray Wyatt briefly joined forces during the Men’s Royal Rumble Match to cancel Rusev Day before eliminating each other, but their rivalry does not appear to be ending in a stalemate. The Reaper of Souls cost The Woken One the chance to compete in the Men’s Elimination Chamber Match, handing the honor instead to Elias, whose attack of The Woken One’s shoulder led to a spirited rally from the former Raw Tag Team Champion. Wyatt’s gruesome imagery flashed across the TitanTron right as Hardy was commencing the deletion process and, with Matt distracted, Elias struck from behind and executed Drift Away to punch his ticket. Wyatt himself appeared on the TitanTron after the pinfall, cackling uncontrollably at Hardy’s misfortune. Winner: Elias.
Heath Slater & Rhyno vs. The Revival: Slater certainly showed he’s made of tougher stuff than everyone thought during the Royal Rumble Match, where his epic slog to the ring ended in a two-second elimination of the mighty Sheamus. That said, he still has a ways to go when it comes to the win-loss column. Facing The Revival once again with his partner Rhyno, The One-Man Band held his own against the self-proclaimed “Top Guys.” But the two-time NXT Tag Team Champions, still riding a wave of vindication from their win over Luke Gallows & Karl Anderson at Royal Rumble Kickoff, answered with a clinical dissection of Slater’s arm. Rhyno briefly turned the tables, but Scott Dawson took out The Man Beast’s knee to tee him up for a wicked, match-ending Shatter Machine. They had a few choice words for the WWE Universe, too. When Charly Caruso wasn’t able to measure them against classic tag teams of the past, Dash & Dawson elaborated on their No-Flips-Just-Fists philosophy. They are a tag team that is informed and influenced by the past, as opposed to those (like, say, the Philadelphia faithful chanting "EC-Dub") who are merely living in it. Winner: The Revival.
Overall Raw Rating: C
Things to look forward to next week
How will Ronda Rousey figure in the Wrestlemania 34 card?
In light of recent news, what will happen to the WWE Cruiserweight Championship?
What's next for The Revival?
What's next for Seth Rollins & Jason Jordan as a tag team?
Who else will qualify for both the men and women's Elimination Chamber?