Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! The Rumble is this weekend, John Cena is looking to tie Ric Flair’s record (again) and Chris Jericho is going to get locked in a cage. Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, January 23rd 2017.

Raw (Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland OH)

Announced: Bill Goldberg is back again.

What to expect: Last time Goldberg was on Raw, he had an argument with Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho, a smoldering face-off with Roman Reigns and hit a spear on Braun Strowman. With no Brock Lesnar advertised for this week (and Reigns, Owens and Jericho more likely to be focused on the upcoming Universal Championship match), Strowman could be a candidate for his chief antagonist on the go-home show before the Royal Rumble. Seth Rollins and Sami Zayn are the other men jockeying for position ahead of the Rumble match, and are likely to be narratively linked. Will Rollins call out Triple H again, or will we be encouraged to put that to the back of our minds before the weekend? Other (less significant) names are likely to be announced for the Rumble. Any chance of a Big Show or Mark Henry?

Elsewhere, two other Raw matches have been announced for the Rumble pay-per-view, both of which should get a hard sell. Bayley is being painted as the innocent fangirl looking to fulfill her childhood dream against dominant champ Charlotte Flair, while the new agressive, superplexes-and-submission-finishers Neville is getting his Cruiserweight Championship shot against Rich Swann. Meanwhile there may be some fallout from Nia Jax’s attack on Sasha Banks before last week’s show, and we’re in a holding pattern in the tag division where the other minor storylines currently reside: The Club are kinda-sorta contenders to champions Sheamus and Cesaro, Enzo and Cass are still sorting out their issues with Rusev and Jinder Mahal, and The New Day are finding new ways to frustrate Titus O’Neil. Poor Titus.

Spotlight: WWE’s cruiserweight division, property of the Raw brand, is now four months old and nearly a couple of months into its spin-off show, 205 Live. That considered, let’s whistle around the division and have a look at what’s happening, what’s working and where we stand.

At the top of the division, Neville has been a welcome injection of star power. It’s no easy task to build up the prestige of a newly-created championship, using performers who you’re also still introducing to the majority of the audience. Having somebody the more casual fans recognise treat the division and its title as a big deal helps to make it feel like it matters. The focus in these first few months on TJ Perkins, Brian Kendrick and – the division’s breakout performer so far – Rich Swann has been necessary to establish the division’s top contenders, but it would be nice to see more open competition for the title in the future; just more of a sense of everyone in the division aspiring for that top prize.

Jack Gallagher and Ariya Daivari have provided a very entertaining secondary program, entrusted with a lot of character work and promo time. It’s been a little cheesy from time to time, but it’s always been executed well and both men have set themselves up as assets to the division. Daivari has shown good aggressive traits as part of a mercifully more nuanced twist on the ‘evil foreigner’ character, while you just know Vince McMahon loves the Gallagher character. Both these guys are well set up to carry other programs going forward.

On the less positive side, the love triangle between Cedric Alexander, Alicia Fox and Noam Dar gets zero points for originality and is having fairly uneven effects. Dar is probably getting the most out of it, coming off as a believable scumbag, but on the other side of the scales it’s not doing so much for Alexander, who was one of the standout athletes from the CWC. As for Fox? No matter how many women’s revolutions WWE may have, it still can’t resist the trope of the manipulative and/or crazy woman in a love triangle story.

The rest of the division, while light on story, is rich with in-ring performers and getting richer. Mustafa Ali has been a great addition, while we should hopefully see Akira Tozawa and Gran Metalik join the fray soon. My hope is that, at least on 205 Live where the viewership is likely to be more about the wrestling and less about the drama, there might be more of a focus on a competitive framework (even if it’s something artificial like league tables or contender ladders). This is, if anything, one of the biggest successful aspects of the CWC last year that has yet to properly transfer to the main roster division.

SmackDown Live (Huntington Center, Toledo OH)

Announced: Randy Orton vs Luke Harper.

What to expect: The story with the announced match between Orton and Harper is that it was Bray Wyatt’s idea to try and resolve the tension between Wyatt Family ‘brothers’. As the logical end point of that story is a total breakdown (presumably resolved at WrestleMania), you’d expect that this week’s plan will turn out to be partially successful at best. All three men are part of the Rumble match, as are The Miz, Dean Ambrose, Dolph Ziggler and Baron Corbin – who one would think should have Sunday on their mind this week. There may, however, be more talk about SmackDown’s Elimination Chamber pay-per-view, which follows the Rumble by just two weeks and the build for which has already started.

This may be particularly relevant for SmackDown’s women’s division – who, at present, don’t have any business scheduled for the Royal Rumble – in which plenty took place last week. Mickie James is officially back in WWE, revealed as the Alexa Bliss associate/Becky Lynch nemesis La Luchadora. We should learn more about what her purpose is; will she be supporting the champ every step of the way, or is she just here to mix it up with Lynch? Meanwhile, Natalya and Nikki Bella mixed it up at a merchandise stand last week; a formal blow-off match is surely in the offing soon. Finally, back to SmackDown’s men, and the likelihood and inevitability of a final face-off between WWE Champion AJ Styles and John Cena, ahead of their title match this weekend which has high expectations.

Spotlight: To clearly state my allegiances, my least favourite thing about WWE cage matches is the cage door. In a match stipulation where the big idea is being trapped inside a structure with your opponent, I’ve no real problem with the principle of escape as a win condition – providing it’s difficult and dramatic. Climbing out, for example, is fine. Just asking a referee to open the door so you can walk out is rubbish. It’s like being able to win a championship match by walking over to the timekeeper’s area and taking the belt. No, more than that; it’s like if the timekeeper hands it to you. Anybody who shows up during a cage match to stop someone leaving through the door is automatically a hero in my book.

That out of the way, let’s now recap some allegiances I’ve stated previously. For all the headliners and horsewomen to emerge from WWE’s women’s revolution, Alexa Bliss retains a presence and entertainment value that still marks her out as my personal favourite, and indeed a favourite across the entire company. The last time I was this much in somebody’s corner in WWE would’ve been a few years ago now, when Mickie James was originally on the roster.

So you’d have thought I would’ve loved last week’s reveal of James as La Luchadora, helping Bliss to retain championship gold (and stopping a babyface from walking out of the door in a cage match in the process). It should’ve been my favourite thing ever, but it left me a little bit cold – and I’ve really been struggling to work out why.

I think the only thing I can put it down to is how it feels a bit strange to see James return to a WWE ring and play an antagonist straight off the bat, when most of us remember the majority of her original run as a crowd favourite who was so easy to get behind. I’d have felt on more familiar ground seeing a face Mickie James opening her return against a heel Alexa Bliss (even if she were to turn subsequently), but I absolutely don’t want to get picky here – it’s great just to see her back on WWE TV and there’s a lot of potential tied up in her return.

An initial feud against Becky Lynch is very enticing. Lynch is one of the better technicians to have emerged in WWE’s women’s ranks in recent years and is getting more and more comfortable in her own skin on main roster programming. Working with a veteran like James could give Becky Lynch a platform to put on some great matches. As for Bliss, could a program with Nikki Bella be on the horizon in April?

Also This Week

Not a lot more to add about this week’s 205 Live (Tuesday) that wasn’t mentioned under Raw above. Advertised for NXT (Wednesday) is a match between Ember Moon and Liv Morgan which, Liv’s steady improvements considered, still shouldn’t be remotely competitive.

Of course, the yellow brand’s hot ticket this week is NXT TakeOver: San Antonio (Saturday) which takes place in the Freeman Coliseum the night before the Royal Rumble. The card is as follows:

  • NXT Championship: Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs Bobby Roode
  • NXT Tag Team Championship: #DIY (c) vs The Authors of Pain
  • NXT Women’s Championship: Asuka (c) vs Nikki Cross vs Billie Kay vs Peyton Royce
  • Tye Dillinger vs Eric Young
  • Roderick Strong vs Andrade Almas

We’ve been spoiled by TakeOver events in the past, so it’s risky to say this looks like a slightly unassuming card by NXT’s high standards. Samoa Joe and The Revival are notable absentees, having made up one half of all men’s title matches at the last five TakeOver specials, while the women’s division feels like it’s saving Asuka vs Ember Moon for WrestleMania weekend.

But let’s face it: This will be well-produced and well-wrestled, and the San Antonio crowd will probably be very happy with their evenings even before Roode and Nakamura’s entrances for the main event – which will likely win over even the hardest of hearts.

Royal Rumble (Alamodome, San Antonio TX; joint brand pay-per-view)

Announced: At time of writing, the following matches have been announced. More may be added to the undercard during the week, especially as the show is four hours long (not including the pre-show).

  • Royal Rumble Match (entrants to include The Undertaker, Goldberg, Brock Lesnar, Dean Ambrose, The Miz, Seth Rollins, Dolph Ziggler, Big E, Xavier Woods, Kofi Kingston, Bray Wyatt, Randy Orton, Luke Harper, Braun Strowman, Chris Jericho, Baron Corbin, Cesaro, Sheamus)
  • WWE Championship: AJ Styles (c) vs John Cena
  • WWE Universal Championship: Kevin Owens (c) vs Roman Reigns (Chris Jericho will be suspended above the ring in a shark cage)
  • Raw Women’s Championship: Charlotte Flair (c) vs Bayley
  • WWE Cruiserweight Championship: Rich Swann (c) vs Neville

What to expect: There’s cause for cautious optimism about this year’s Royal Rumble match, after a run of years where the match has been at best predictable and at times rejected by parts of the audience. In 2013, everybody knew John Cena was winning to set up his rematch with The Rock (although in retrospect the match itself passed very agreeably). In 2014, the crowd turned on Batista’s coronation, Rey Mysterio at #30 and anything that wasn’t Daniel Bryan. In 2015, in one of the worst-booked Rumbles of all time, even The Rock couldn’t make a Roman Reigns victory popular. Then, last year, the match was an improvement but was again framed narratively by the exploits of Reigns – who took a half-hour nap in the middle of it and was then cost by Triple H entering at #30, in a twist everybody saw coming from a mile off.

This year, there are a number of factors that make the match a more interesting proposition. Thanks to the brand split, we’re back to two world titles, which means not only may the Rumble winner not close the show at WrestleMania but they may not even be wrestling in the highest-billed title match. This was an enabler for both Alberto Del Rio and Sheamus in particular, in 2011 and 2012 respectively, both of whom won the Rumble before having their championship matches open WrestleMania that year. With Cena, Reigns, AJ Styles and Kevin Owens in the title matches on the undercard, there are four very plausible potential targets for this year’s winner. Each brand also has another pay-per-view to get through before the big night in April (and SmackDown’s one has an Elimination Chamber match as its focus). The permutations are legion, and it’s hard to see any burgeoning areas of conflict between the desires of WWE creative and the crowd this year, at least within the confines of the Rumble match itself.

Some outcomes are more likely than others. Of those more prominent men to announce their entry to the Rumble, common wisdom suggests Goldberg and Brock Lesnar are heading for a WrestleMania showdown – so unless one of them becomes Universal Champion at Fastlane between now and then, there’s a good chance they’ll be taking each other out here – and Seth Rollins is going to be cost the match by Triple H in some way. That second one seems inescapable. All the talk seems to be about The Undertaker and Braun Strowman as most likely winners, with most of the rest of the field failing the dual test of ‘are they likely to be doing anything else at WrestleMania’ and ‘would WWE put them in a title match at WrestleMania’. The Miz and Baron Corbin are about the only two I could make a case for as dark horses, although if you’re picking anybody else beyond that I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Surprise entrants are always a big part of the Rumble, and two possible candidates here – Finn Balor (if sufficiently fit) and Samoa Joe – could also fit the bill as possible winners. Will Kurt Angle make an appearance after being announced for the Hall Of Fame this year?

Expect the title matches to go relatively long on the undercard, with another likely barn-burner from Styles and Cena, Jericho in a cage, Neville possibly being crowned and Bayley’s dreams possibly being denied (for a couple of months longer).

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!

  1. Who’s your pick to win the Rumble?
  2. Did you feel at all uncomfortable with SmackDown’s reference last week to Jerry Lawler’s heart attack?
  3. Who would make the better Cruiserweight Champion right now out of Rich Swann and Neville?

Until next week, strap in, enjoy the ride and remember to stick with TJRWrestling.net for your show recaps and analysis.

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