Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! SummerSlam is getting nearer and we’re promised number one contender matches, title matches and hoss fights aplenty this week. Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, July 31st 2017.
Raw (PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh PA)
Announced: Roman Reigns vs Braun Strowman vs Samoa Joe in a Triple Threat. Jason Jordan will be the guest on MizTV.
What to expect: The big three-way main event has no bearing on the number one contendership for Brock Lesnar’s Universal Championship so, with the big selling point of that four-way match at SummerSlam being how unstoppable all four men are, an element of protection may figure in tonight’s finish. Lesnar himself is advertised for tonight but isn’t being mentioned in the WWE.com preview, so ‘surprise’ Beast interference is a possibility. The announced MizTV segment may see Jason Jordan move into the Intercontinental Championship picture (or at least some picture), while there’s speculation that Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins may continue to focus on rebuilding their partnership with an eye on Raw Tag Team Champions Sheamus & Cesaro; this would make some sense, given that Raw’s other pre-eminent teams – the Hardys, Gallows & Anderson and The Revival – seem to be preoccupied with each other.
Bayley is now set to face Women’s Champion Alexa Bliss at SummerSlam, but the thing to watch out for this week isn’t the interplay between Bayley and Bliss (which we’ve already seen plenty of in recent months) but how Sasha Banks reacts to it. Finn Balor vs Bray Wyatt looks locked in for SummerSlam; expect the start of some mind games between the two, particularly from Balor, ahead of a possible Demon appearance. Last week I typed “Enzo Amore will likely continue to talk Big Cass and The Big Show into a match against each other at SummerSlam” and as the plot hasn’t developed beyond that, neither has my analysis. Akira Tozawa and Ariya Daivari are likely to vie for a shot at Neville’s Cruiserweight Championship, Elias Samson will only be referred to as ‘Elias’ for reasons we mere mortals could never understand and Kurt Angle should get a great reaction in his hometown.
Spotlight: As the weeks and months go by, so WWE’s Monday night show gradually seems to give less of a crap about the cruiserweight division. It seems a long time since the heady days of the announcement that the cruiserweights would be ‘exclusive’ to Raw, a long time since Kalisto wrestled Brian Kendrick at Survivor Series with the stipulation that the division would move to SmackDown if Kalisto won. It seems a long time since six-man cruiserweight tags would appear on the Kickoff shows of Raw pay-per-views and we used to speculate whether things might get any better for those men who weren’t in title programs. Now even those matches don’t happen and applying purple tape to the ropes on Mondays has stopped. As such, it’s probably a good time to talk about the subject here, before the division becomes such an irrelevance it’s not even a suitable subject for a Raw Spotlight. If you’ve read my 205 Live notes from the ‘Also This Week’ section over the past few columns, I apologize in advance if I sound like a stuck record. I’ll try to keep things fresh.
Cruiserweight programming on Raw right now is down close to the bare bones. Segments and matches rarely get more than five minutes, unless there’s a title match on pay-per-view that needs to be set up or exited from. Competitors not directly involved in the current title program are, at best, interchangeable supporting cast or, at worst, fleeting eye candy to promote the Tuesday night show on the WWE Network. Very little of the flavor or essence of what actually happens on 205 Live makes it into those bonus cruiserweight matches and the value it brings to Raw itself is negligible. The most recent challenger to Neville, Akira Tozawa, hasn’t been able to exist on Monday nights on his own terms. He had to become part of the ‘Titus Worldwide’ brand to be lent the substance needed for a notable program on Monday nights. Before this he was part of a decent-if-predictable feud with Brian Kendrick on 205 Live, where Tozawa was ‘taught’ a number of lessons which one by one he turned around and used against Kendrick. No, it wasn’t the most interesting feud you’ll see this year, but at least it was more of Tozawa on his own terms.
We then have the quandary of Neville as Cruiserweight Champion. Let me be clear here, there’s no quandary about Neville himself; he’s been a reliable in-ring performer for WWE both during and since his NXT run, and has also managed to parlay his natural Geordie accent into some sort of snarling fantasy dialect that works for his ‘King of the Cruiserweights’ styling. Neville has been just about faultless. He was an obvious fit for the title when he was rebooted into the division back in December – a fit that many observers had called as soon as the division had been announced – and comprehensively eclipsed the previous title holders TJ Perkins, Brian Kendrick and Rich Swann. He then outlasted Austin Aries, who had the biggest build of anyone else coming into the division since Neville himself, and has already chalked up a pay-per-view win against Tozawa, who is struggling to get himself over against a backdrop of Titus O’Neils and Ariya Daivaris.
Corey Graves and others do make this point on commentary, primarily in support of the champion’s character development but with a distinct ring of truth, but there really isn’t anybody on Neville’s level right now and it’s very difficult to look ahead and see who’s going to come riding in and match him, let alone go beyond him. It follows that there’s a real day of reckoning ahead for the cruiserweight division on Raw when Neville does finally drop the title, because that person will pin down the token cruiserweight spot on the Raw pay-per-views and be the go-to guy for cruiserweight segments on Monday nights. The future of the division on the main roster may depend on the next champion being someone who can transcend his weight class and have crossover appeal to casual fans of Monday night wrestling – because goodness knows Monday nights are so far away from showcasing genuine cruiserweight action right now that pushing a Kendrick or TJP out in front of a Raw crowd as champion isn’t going to make anybody’s highlight reels.
For me the obvious candidate is Kalisto, who has spent his Monday nights since being moved to Raw crossing paths with O’Neil and Apollo Crews, not to mention being put in more than one dumpster by Braun Strowman. He’s the next obvious, can’t-miss fit for the Cruiserweight Championship following on from Neville, who may be able to command crossover attention from the Raw audience and end the reign of a champion who, if anything, is a bit too dominant for the division’s good. There are a lot of very, very good cruiserweights working in the WWE right now – and heaven knows I’d love to see Cedric Alexander, Mustafa Ali or Jack Gallagher get their opportunity in the spotlight – but with the way Raw’s exposure for cruiserweights is going, the opportunities for the cast of 205 Live to propel themselves into the big time look slimmer than ever.
SmackDown Live (Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland OH)
Announced: John Cena vs Shinsuke Nakamura in a number one contender’s match to face WWE Champion Jinder Mahal at SummerSlam. AJ Styles (c) vs Kevin Owens for the United States Championship.
What to expect: This week’s episode of SmackDown Live should (and needs to) make clear the direction of the blue half of the SummerSlam card. Expect the words “first time ever” and “dream match” to be used heavily around Cena vs Nakamura; it’ll certainly be worth seeing, though with Jinder Mahal’s group and Baron Corbin skulking around there’s a risk it won’t be the 25-minute classic with a clean finish we’re all hoping for (which I’ll come back to shortly). The result of the match between AJ Styles and Kevin Owens should resolve the path to SummerSlam for both men; if Owens wins back the title, some sort of definitive blowoff match should be in the offing, but if Styles retains (which is my pick) look for signs of further tension between Owens and on-screen commissioner Shane McMahon.
That’s one potential SummerSlam match, but elsewhere on the roster a lot of people are currently lacking direction heading towards what’s probably WWE’s second-biggest show of the year. Randy Orton, Dolph Ziggler, Sami Zayn, Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair are among the bigger names without an obvious program, along with both Money in the Bank holders, and it looks as though Chris Jericho may now be back in regular circulation as well? With only three episodes of SmackDown Live to play with, expect a few feuds to be set up tonight. The title programs between The New Day and The Usos and Naomi and Natalya are better established and play into straightforward face/heel dynamics that won’t need a great deal of development for now. For Naomi in particular, this is really the sort of feud and straightforward title defense she could’ve done with at the start of her reign.
Spotlight: I’m really looking forward to this week’s match between John Cena and Shinsuke Nakamura. All the things WWE has been saying about this – that it’s a dream match, one most people thought they’d never see and a big deal – are true. So in that sense, it should certainly deliver as a spectacle. If the first two or three minutes are filled by duelling crowd chants, staredowns and a couple of lockups and Nakamura’s loosey-goosey signature taunts then in my opinion it’ll be two or three minutes well spent. If Cena then throws himself into working those stiff shots that Baron Corbin received last week – and John Cena is as game as anyone on the roster – we’ll be well away. But the spectacle will make it worth tuning in, even if the match isn’t as long or as conclusive as it might be in an ideal world.
It seems a bit pointless to observe that pro wrestling does ‘spectacle’ very well, but WWE loves ‘spectacle’ more than most. Sometimes the company’s focus on spectacle is absolute to the point of parody. Anyone who’s watched even a modest amount of main roster programming over the past few months will know that “first time ever” is currently one of WWE’s most beloved phrases. Whether it’s a case of feeling that’s enough – spectacle trumps everything – and not needing to follow through with a match of the quality that will cause people to look back on in several years time and say “do you remember the first time John Cena and Shinsuke Nakamura faced each other”, or whether the planned booking undershoots the expectations the branding causes (women’s Money in the Bank, I’m looking at you), sadly the spectacle often seems let down by the substance.
Even considering that this Tuesday’s match will have commercial breaks (for those of us outside the USA anyway), there are a few potential limitations. There should be time enough on a two-hour show to comfortably devote 25 minutes or more to a match of this magnitude; back in the glory days of 2003, SmackDown managed to find the time for Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle to wrestle a 60-minute Ironman Match, which truly has stood the test of time as a memorable event. Today’s WWE programming frequently considers its big ‘spectacles’ on television to be a means to an end rather than an end in itself; too often matches are only long enough to achieve the aims of setting up what comes next. Even pay-per-view matches have started to go the same way, where the hype for an exciting, fresh matchup (or even better, a “first time ever” one) is punctured by a weak finish after around 15 minutes because the plan is and always was to stretch the program out over several matches. See Kevin Owens vs AJ Styles at Backlash in May. With a few commendable exceptions (many of which involve John Cena, reassuringly), WWE all-too-infrequently sets the bar high at the outset and then tries to clear it in future rematches.
What of the likely winner and their chances in Brooklyn? A supposedly ‘leaked’ SummerSlam poster that has been doing the rounds on the internet this past week gives Nakamura and Cena equal billing with Jinder Mahal, which is feeding speculation of a non-finish this week and both men being in the WWE Championship match. It’s not hard to see ways in which this might go down, with WWE’s antagonists seemingly never learning the lesson of ‘if you take out both men in the number one contender’s match you end up having to wrestle both of them’ and The Great Khali having disappeared into the (bigger) shadows since assisting Mahal’s escape from the Punjabi Prison. And whereas Raw’s multi-man Universal Championship match is a potential excuse to take the title off Brock Lesnar, SmackDown’s would be a way of keeping the title on Mahal in a no-disqualification environment without him needing to best either Cena or Nakamura one-on-one. It could happen.
However no matter the outcome of this week’s match, the one end result in Brooklyn that I’m not convinced by is, ironically, the one that for the last 15 years has always been considered the safe bet: I don’t think this ends with John Cena becoming a 17-time champion. The next tour of East Asia, with the SmackDown Live roster, is in September and the chance to either headline main events with WWE Champion Shinsuke Nakamura or pop over to India for some PR with WWE Champion Jinder Mahal looks appealing. If we work to the assumption that Jinder Mahal’s title reign will have a benefit, it surely hasn’t been fulfilled yet. If we work to the assumption that Baron Corbin is going to cash in Money in the Bank on someone, Nakamura is a nicely logical short-term option. Meanwhile, I still believe that John Cena will be made to struggle for that record-breaking title. That’s a ‘beat Roman Reigns at WrestleMania’ level of challenge, not one against Jinder Mahal. My pick this Tuesday is for Nakamura to win and for Cena to face AJ Styles for the United States Championship in Brooklyn.
Also This Week
This week’s announced match for NXT (Wednesday) is Johnny Gargano vs Raul Mendoza. Also, with an eye on TakeOver: Brooklyn, the show’s singles champions Asuka and Bobby Roode will respond to the pretty strong hard-sell promos of their challengers (Ember Moon and Drew McIntrye respectively) last week.
There’s not a lot more to say about 205 Live (Tuesday) following my notes in the Raw Spotlight above, so here’s a link to our story on the debut of ‘Smacking Talk’ last week instead, for all those people who still miss Talking Smack.
Three Burning Questions
Some of this week’s most pressing but least publicized talking points. Throw down your answers in the comments section as usual!
- Do you think Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins are better off as a team or would you rather see them stay in singles competition?
- Do you think John Cena vs Shinsuke Nakamura will have a clean finish and a clear winner?
- Who should be the cruiserweight to beat Neville for the division’s championship?
Until next week, strap in, enjoy the ride and remember to stick with TJRWrestling.net for your show recaps and analysis.