Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! Roman Reigns is a Grand Slam Champion, Triple H will probably be wrestling both Braun Strowman and Kurt Angle at some point and there’s a heap of new women on main roster programming. Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, November 27th 2017.
Raw (Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville TN)
Announced: Nothing formally announced at time of writing.
What to expect: Raw’s in an odd spot where there’s no pay-per-view to build to until the Royal Rumble in a couple of months’ time, so stories will potter along at their own pace. That’ll mean no Brock Lesnar for a while and some regular Intercontinental Championship defences for Roman Reigns; WWE.com is teasing the idea of an ‘open challenge’ arrangement, given that former champion The Miz has been written out via triple powerbomb to shoot another Marine movie. Tension between Kurt Angle and Stephanie McMahon/Triple H will continue, as a match between Angle and Hunter in the future (possibly as soon as January) starts to look even more of a certainty.
The program between Braun Strowman and Kane will resume; Strowman will look for payback after Kane attacked him with a chair last week. With Reigns now Intercontinental Champion, Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins are likely to continue on a path to reclaiming the tag titles from Sheamus & Cesaro; Rollins vs Cesaro is a good bet for a singles match tonight. Enzo Amore and the cruiserweight division might continue to tread water until Hideo Itami arrives. It remains to be seen whether Finn Balor and Samoa Joe, and Elias and Matt Hardy move on to new things after wrestling singles matches last week, while Bray Wyatt definitely needs something new to do. Finally, apart from Asuka wrecking a procession of people, the whole women’s division is likely to be preoccupied by the two new arrivals from NXT and their ringleader, the returning Paige.
Spotlight: I don’t think there can be a wrestling fan alive who isn’t happy to see Paige back on television once again, after what’s been an eventful (and probably forgettable) 18 months for the popular Brit and first-ever NXT Women’s Champion. The line, so often trotted out by Michael Cole in the past, that claims some say Paige started the Women’s Revolution is now something of a trope, but there’s a nice parallel in how her return to start a new chapter of her career is being used to support another wave of talent coming up from NXT to join her. More on those women in a moment. Irrespective of how deliberate a plot point this turns out to be, just the fact that Paige is fit to compete and back on our screens is a joy. And her comeback is all the sweeter given how unlikely it looked, for a while, that she might be back on WWE programming at all.
Paige’s successful return to WWE television appears to have been completed against massively stacked odds. To recap, since we saw her last there’s been a career-threatening neck injury, surgery and rehabilitation; there’s been two strikes against WWE’s three-and-out wellness policy; there’s been frustrated Instagram posts about those decisions; there’s been a seemingly tempestuous and very public personal relationship with a former WWE talent who left the company on relatively negative terms; there’s been an unfortunate leak of personal videos, one reportedly involving desecration of a part of the company’s iconography. There’s enough material here for an instant sequel to the biopic about Paige’s career and family currently being produced by one Dwayne Johnson, which only the harshest cynic might suggest contributed – along with her mercurial talent – towards saving her from a quiet release at some point over the past year.
Another thing she’s avoided in returning is being left behind by the women’s division which has changed even further since she’s been away. Given Paige’s absence began around the time of the initial brand split in 2016, on Raw alone Alexa Bliss, Nia Jax, Bayley, Mickie James and Asuka have all since made their main roster debuts. The fact Paige is returning to join those women is great news, but the promise of some genuinely fresh matchups for her is a huge bonus on top of it. We also can’t talk about the expanding women’s division without talking about the fact that Paige didn’t come back to Raw alone and that Mandy Rose and Sonya Deville, two developmental talents from NXT, came with her. With a further trio of fresh faces popping up on SmackDown Live the following night, cue feverish speculation on why WWE might have decided to inflate the female talent pool two months out from the Royal Rumble.
Whether that’s the long game or not – and like everyone else, I hope it is – the tendency for observers to search for an explanation is an understandable one because, in isolation, the choice of call-ups don’t seem self-explanatory; in fact, in comparison to the paths of most of NXT’s graduates, they’re a little puzzling. Deville was in the middle of a character development push on NXT television, getting a featured spotlight every other week to handily beat enhancement talent and gain the odd lower-midcard scalp, but was still a work in progress. Rose, meanwhile, hadn’t even made it to that stage; she’s had promising reviews at house shows but has only made it in front of NXT cameras twice. As dedicated and gifted as both women no doubt are or may turn out to be, making the jump to perform live on Monday Night Raw each week is a huge transition. Do you recall how recently we were worrying whether Asuka could get as over on Raw as she was on NXT? These are two people who weren’t even over on NXT.
It would be unfair to suggest the integration of surprise NXT talents whose numbers have suddenly come up is a problem exclusive to Raw, given the three who appeared on SmackDown Live on Tuesday night were tossed into the mix in a very similar way. However, SmackDown has a better track record (recent poor form notwithstanding) of running more than one coherent women’s program at any given time. Raw has recently graduated from “everyone competes to decide who faces Bliss, and some of the losers have a Kickoff match” to that-plus-Asuka-squash. However, it reached those dizzy heights with Nia Jax last year and then regressed. It will need to evolve again if it’s going to do justice to the likes of Jax, Mickie James, its new faces from NXT and Paige in a suddenly much busier women’s scene.
SmackDown Live (Rupp Arena, Lexington KY)
Announced: Randy Orton vs Kevin Owens. AJ Styles facing both of the Singh Brothers in a handicap match. Another Fashion Files segment has also been promised.
What to expect: Unlike Raw, SmackDown does have a pay-per-view in its near future with three Tuesday nights to go before Clash of Champions. We may start to get a better picture of the card this week. AJ Styles vs Jinder Mahal is the only match currently set, and that’s proceeding this week with the announced handicap match. The Usos seem to be preparing for a title challenge from Shelton Benjamin and Chad Gable, who will probably face them in some form this week. Meanwhile, Orton vs Owens this week plays out against an interesting background involving the show’s authority figures; Shane McMahon wanted to fire Owens and Sami Zayn, but Daniel Bryan has no intention of doing so and is booking them in tough matches instead. It’s an interesting wrinkle.
Otherwise, a lot is up for grabs. The Bludgeon Brothers (the repackaged Erick Rowan and Luke Harper) have now debuted but need a program, The New Day are out of the title picture and have little lingering business with Owens and Zayn, Baron Corbin finally put away Sin Cara in their United States Championship match – and The Miz at Survivor Series too – and the likes of Bobby Roode and Shinsuke Nakamura also need something new to get their teeth into. Like Raw, the women’s division is also going to be preoccupied with the arrival of three ladies with no obvious alignment who wrecked last week’s championship match and beat up other women backstage for good measure. Expect the picture for the next couple of weeks to be a lot clearer after this week’s SmackDown than it is before it.
Spotlight: Following my Raw Spotlight above, a couple of quick pass notes on SmackDown’s new women too. Liv Morgan has spent significant time on NXT TV gradually improving while never really being portrayed as a contender (spare a thought for her regular running mate Aliyah this week who, to my eyes, looked the better package for a decent while). Sarah Logan is a Mae Young Classic first-rounder who, by contractual obligation as a wrestling columnist, I need to note went by the name of Crazy Mary Dobson on the indies. Ruby Riot had the highest NXT profile of all five women (being maybe the only one who would’ve made a call-ups shortlist compiled by us internet pundits) and is the only one – via DLC – you’ll find on the official 2K18 roster. Along with Emma, Neville and American Alpha. If 2K18 is on your list for Santa, you’ve got just under one more month’s worth of depreciation to sit through. Buckle up.
Anyway, I digress. I wanted to talk here about AJ Styles, who more than ever now clearly occupies a class of one on WWE’s talent roster. In the last few weeks, he’s assisted Brock Lesnar to probably his best singles match in years and Jinder Mahal to probably his best match, period. He’s also delivered in 2018 as a rock-solid company man and professional, putting over John Cena for his record-tying championship, carrying the boss’s son at WrestleMania and being the guy who flew in from Chile at short notice to do the job for Finn Balor at TLC (all three of which resulted in good-to-great matches). Vince McMahon’s infamous brass rings may frequently be elusive and frustrating MacGuffins, but Styles – who as good as he is, arrived as an outsider – has probably provided a case study in how to grasp them; his dependability to perform for the company on the big occasion is starting to look Michaels-like.
Shawn Michaels comparisons should not, of course, be handed out liberally. But there are two truths to the moniker ‘Mr WrestleMania’ that probably both also now apply to Styles. That dependability as a bankable performer on the big stage is one; the other, which remains to be confirmed but now seems more likely, is immunity from being a booking afterthought in April. We’ve seen many men carry weekly shows, secondary and sometimes primary titles through the rest of the year, only to get dumped onto the pre-show (e.g. Dean Ambrose this year) or a multi-man ladder match because their title reign wasn’t prestigious enough to be left alone as a singles feud. Like Michaels, it’s a hard stretch to see Styles losing out in the shuffle when WrestleMania plans get discussed. And thus we get to the WWE Championship picture as it now stands.
When, last week on SmackDown Live, Jinder Mahal cut a promo confirming he’d be waiting until Clash of Champions on December 17th for his WWE Championship rematch – seemingly putting to rest any lingering possibility of a narrative where he reclaimed the title ahead of WWE’s India tour the preceding weekend – it was probably the death knell for his chances of reclaiming the belt. What possible reason is there, having done the live dates (now date, singular) in India, to put the belt back on him? A frequent tip for a WrestleMania program among fans had been John Cena defeating the dominant champion Mahal to win his 17th world title; whether you or I like the idea is by the by, but it’s hard to argue the logic. The thing is, though, John Cena could just as easily win that title from AJ Styles and it would be as-or-more worthy a WrestleMania moment.
And it’s here where I think Styles’ value to the company now becomes apparent. If WWE keep the title on him into 2018, he represents one half of a worthy WWE Championship match for the Show of Shows – no matter who is chosen opposite him. Whether it’s Cena or Shinsuke Nakamura, or if it’s Randy Orton or anybody else on the SmackDown roster, Styles will carry himself as a legitimate champion and ensure the match itself delivers in terms of quality. While positioned as WWE Champion, he provides one fewer problem for the company to worry about when planning their biggest show of the year. It has taken a long time for AJ Styles to finally end up in WWE but his rise to the status of ‘company guy’, a pillar of the talent roster that WWE can and will lean against for the biggest roles on the biggest stages, is nothing short of remarkable, unprecedented and – well – phenomenal.
Also This Week
A main roster call-up from NXT that makes more immediate sense and falls with some certainty into the ‘overdue’ category is Hideo Itami, who is coming to 205 Live (Tuesday) as part of the cruiserweight roster. There’s no indication of whether that’ll happen this week, I should stress, or whether we’ll get another couple of weeks of hype videos first, but he’s a legit addition to a division and show that’s steadily trying to rebuild credibility after Neville’s fall from orbit.
NXT (Wednesday) itself holds its next television tapings at Full Sail University on Wednesday night, which means this week’s episode will probably be a low-key affair with little in the way of new story-driven content. WWE is leading the episode’s promotion with Tyler Bate & Trent Seven vs Pete Dunne & Mark Andrews from the recent house show in San Antonio.
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!
- Who on the Raw roster would you most like to see Roman Reigns face in an Intercontinental Championship open challenge?
- Bludgeon Brothers – thumbs up or thumbs down?
- Which of the five promoted women from NXT are you most interested in seeing perform on the main roster?
Until next week, strap in, enjoy the ride and remember to stick with TJRWrestling.net for your show recaps and analysis.