Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! Kevin and Chris are still friends after all, Sasha and Charlotte closed the book on their feud with a great match and a title change (what else?) and The New Day’s tag team title run conveniently lasted just long enough to break Demolition’s record and no longer. Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, December 19th 2016.
Raw (Schottenstein Center, Columbus OH)
Announced: Nothing formally at time of writing, except the fallout (in all its forms) from Roadblock last night.
What to expect: The most obvious things to expect from tonight’s Raw concern title rematches – contractual ones and ones we’ve been promised won’t happen. The New Day fall into the first of those categories, having broken Demolition’s record and then instantly been toppled by a team who aren’t very…. teamly (see last week’s column to find out how I feel about that). Sasha Banks falls into the latter category, after losing the Women’s Championship to Charlotte Flair on pay-per-view again, in what was described as the come-what-may endpoint of their program. A new contender (possibly Bayley) may therefore emerge.
Another title match may also be on the mind of Roman Reigns, after Universal Champion Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho revealed – shock horror – their recent falling out was just a conceit to hand Reigns a DQ loss. Despite claiming a victory over Jericho would remove him from a (slightly obscure) path to Triple H, Seth Rollins still seems to be wedded to that picture. Braun Strowman will likely not be happy that Sami Zayn ‘beat’ him, while Zayn may not be satisfied that he didn’t ‘beat’ Strowman (so very much the worst of both worlds) and we should learn more about why Neville attacked competitors in the Cruiserweight Championship match last night. Which, at the very least, should result in him being formally added to the division.
Spotlight: The story between Sami Zayn, Braun Strowman and Mick Foley is a diligent bit of creative work at the moment, and one I’m enjoying because of it.
What I like the most is the discipline. Steady progress of character motives each week (a ‘hypocrite’ insult one week, a threat to move to SmackDown the next), hardly any playing to the crowd (“I think the WWE universe wants to see me fight Strowman, Mick!”), limiting the scope of this weekend’s match at Roadblock (which should’ve been called as a time limit draw rather than a Zayn ‘victory’, but let’s not split hairs). All these things are clearly part of a deliberate build, with purpose, patience and a presumed end goal, and are giving the main roster audience the context and opportunities they need to buy into Zayn and Strowman as performers. It’s also showcasing something interesting about Foley.
We’re used to authority figures on WWE TV being quite monochrome – either the heel GM who arbitrarily frustrates the progress of some/most/all crowd favourites, or the good-guy showrunner who dooms his or her own tenure through naively trying to do the right thing in the face of regular sabotage. Of late, WWE seems to have made an effort to subvert this – initially I struggled to get my head around it, but it’s starting to make more sense now.
When the brand split took place, we all assumed the same thing: Mick Foley was going to be Raw’s good cop, while Stephanie McMahon would be the bad cop. The power struggle would be inevitable and swift. Then, after Triple H interfered to crown Kevin Owens Universal Champion over Seth Rollins, an awkward sequence ensued: Both Owens and Rollins spent several weeks berating both of Raw’s authority figures. Rollins went off on them for the actions of Steph’s husband and for not rolling over and compensating him. Owens went off on them for Rollins being their golden boy and it needing Triple H to see his talent. For viewers hardwired to WWE’s traditional tropes, it may have come off as a bit alien. Who’s in the right here? Who’s the bad guy? Is everyone the bad guy?
And this is the point. In real life, your bosses are neither good nor evil. They’re fallible humans, with their own strengths, weaknesses and tendencies, who ultimately exist to give context to the things you do and place hurdles in your way they expect – and should be helping – you to clear. Some days they’re a good colleague, other days they’re a pain in your butt. That’s their job.
Foley’s role in the story with Zayn isn’t to be right or wrong; he takes frustrating decisions for philanthropic reasons, he pisses off one of the show’s most beloved wrestlers in an attempt to help him. He’s not good or bad, he’s just there to be the mirror that Zayn’s character needs. He’s a reliable, convincing pivot to allow the talent’s story to work. And there’s a pattern here – last week it may have been Stephanie that set up The New Day’s second title defence, but it was Foley that blithely made it a triple threat. Over on SmackDown, consider vegan nice-guy Daniel Bryan rudely lighting a fire under The Miz and Shane McMahon sending Dean Ambrose home the week after Survivor Series. With increasing frequency, we’re seeing things aren’t always black or white.
All bets are off until Triple H inevitably returns to programming in the New Year to set up that inevitable match with Rollins, but after we grumbled about the never-ending angle with The Authority it seems WWE is starting to evolve the role and use of their on-screen authority figures to support – rather than suppress – the focus on the stories their in-ring talent are telling. Bravo.
SmackDown Live (Joe Louis Arena, Detroit MI)
Announced: Ryan Phillippe. If you want to feel ancient this Christmas, consider that I Know What You Did Last Summer will be 20 years old in 2017. You’re welcome.
What to expect: Last week’s episode saw two newly minted number one contenders. Dolph Ziggler will get a shot at the WWE Championship held by AJ Styles, in a match scheduled for next week. Starkly contrasting fortunes for The Hype Bros, though, who won a shot at The Wyatt Family’s tag straps but in doing so lost Zack Ryder to a knee injury. New contenders will certainly need to be found, and may be named this week.
Becky Lynch is still chasing Alexa Bliss for Tuesday nights’ Women’s Championship; expect a row over whether or not Bliss was legitimately ‘injured’ last week bringing about a countout loss. Meanwhile Dean Ambrose looks to be getting drawn into a spat with The Miz which could well roll on this week. Oh, and some guy called John Cena is back next week. That might get mentioned once or twice.
Spotlight: Avid spotters of the unusual pro wrestler species known as ‘James Ellsworth’ have had an exciting 2016. Distinguishable by its bleached blonde plumage and miniscule chin, the James Ellsworth had previously only been observed in the wild, but in the second half of this year has started to be bred in captivity. Is he off the endangered species list for good?
The James Ellsworth is a difficult creature to keep in captivity, as although he has proven that any creature with two hands can draw a reaction from his observers, he feeds primarily off kitsch value and cult figure status. If you have a James Ellsworth, keeping a healthy supply of these things is crucial to his wellbeing; his momentum can suffer without them. Overexposure can therefore also have a debilitating effect on his appeal.
The point to be made here – apart from the obvious one that I’m torturing a metaphor fairly badly – is that SmackDown Live is at a crossroads with its use of James Ellsworth and his longer-term future as a full-time performer with the company will be largely shaped by what happens over the next few weeks.
I’ve already noted in previous columns that his actions at (and since) TLC – where he assisted AJ Styles, knowing he was owed a WWE Championship shot and believing he had the champ’s number – were based on delusion and innocent naivety rather than vindictiveness. The defining trait about Ellsworth is that he’s a bit hopeless. Selling ‘hopeless’, in a world where your stock is telling stories about sporting prowess, is tough and requires a certain amount of audience goodwill. Halting the momentum of that goodwill weakens your hand. Rejecting it outright weakens your hand further.
Due to the legitimate ankle injury suffered by Styles at TLC, Ellsworth’s title shot hasn’t come as quickly as anybody on SmackDown’s writing team would’ve wanted it – and that’s just bad luck. Last week, however, Dolph Ziggler was named the new number one contender to Styles and we’re now being invited to look ahead to that title match next week. So where does that leave Ellsworth’s shot? A bump in the road this week? A cold case in January? Will he also screw over Ziggler, to ensure Styles remains on top?
The appeal of Ellsworth being involved in the title picture is on the wane (and has been for a while in some parts of the audience). Productive ways out for the character are diminishing. Dean Ambrose costing Ellsworth his shot in retribution – at one stage the most obvious route – doesn’t seem to lead anywhere beneficial; a feud where a babyface Ambrose squashes a hapless goober doesn’t really help either man. In any case, Ambrose appears to be moving on to a program with The Miz. SmackDown Live is a busy show, where a lot of very talented people aren’t guaranteed TV time. Ellsworth has a real challenge to stay relevant as the wheel turns.
We may get some indicators this week, but the longer-term future of James Ellsworth in the WWE is very much a mystery right now. What happens in the next couple of weeks may be key to determining his fate.
205 Live (Joe Louis Arena, Detroit MI)
The appearance of Neville at the end of the Cruiserweight Championship match at Roadblock, if his addition to the division is confirmed on Monday’s Raw, will also be a boost in kind to 205 Live – which despite some cracking Swann/Kendrick matches and a generous helping of Jack Gallagher, could’ve used a little more narrative heft and (in the eyes of main roster audiences) established star power. I love the work of 205 Live and am heartened how the booking of the cruiserweight division across Monday and Tuesday nights are showing signs of growth, but it doesn’t feel like essential viewing just yet. The inclusion of Neville certainly won’t hurt that.
NXT (Full Sail University, Winter Park FL)
The new number one contender for Shinsuke Nakamura’s NXT Championship will be decided in a four-way this week, between Tye Dillinger, Andrade Almas, Bobby Roode and Roderick Strong. Last week’s qualifying matches were pretty brief, all being crammed into a one-hour show which had already led off with a title match inside a steel cage, but this bout should be the show’s main focus – and should be a lot of fun. Elsewhere, Daria Berenato eyes vengeance against Billie Kay, as the NXT women’s division continues to build on its foundations.
As I’ll be spending most of the next fortnight passed out on a sofa, there’ll be no proper preview next week. I’ll be back on January 2nd, taking a look at Bill Goldberg’s return to Raw that Monday night and the path ahead to the Royal Rumble.
Next week, Raw and SmackDown both air from the Allstate Arena in Chicago. The blue brand already have Cena’s return and that title match between Styles and Ziggler announced, so there’s a good chance Raw will make a couple of similar announcements this week in an effort to maximise their holiday audience and put on a grand show in one of their biggest live markets.
WWE Bingo Results
Just the seven out of 25 last week and no lines. No new card this week, I’m afraid – will be a bit of a pain keeping track of things over the next week or so with family commitments (and if you’re not going to do it properly, why do it at all?). Let’s just say that if there’s a Christmas-themed street fight this week or next, I’ll be raising a glass to you all. Bingo is back in business on the 2nd January.
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!
- Where does The New Day go from here?
- What would you like to see John Cena doing when he returns to SmackDown Live? Go straight for AJ Styles or something else?
- Does Neville need to be in the cruiserweight division more than the cruiserweight division needs Neville? Or is it the other way round?
Until 2017 then, strap in, enjoy the ride and I hope you have a very happy Christmas and New Year!