Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! Everything comes from Dallas this week, but maybe take it with a pinch of salt when I’m obliged to tell you Brock Lesnar will be there. Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, March 19th 2018.

Raw (American Airlines Center, Dallas TX)

Announced: Brock Lesnar will be there! Vince McMahon said so. The Ultimate Deletion match between Matt Hardy and Bray Wyatt will air. Also, Alexa Bliss vs Asuka in a non-title match.

What to expect: What happens this week with Lesnar is subject to some broad storyline variables. Roman Reigns was ‘suspended’ last week, so Lesnar may appear and conveniently duck a face-to-face confrontation with his WrestleMania challenger. Or Lesnar won’t show and the credibility of Vince treating him objectively could be questioned. Or – in either situation – Reigns may crash the party anyway. An absence last week that’s more certain to be corrected is Ronda Rousey; expect Triple H and Stephanie McMahon to seek payback from their last encounter. In other announced segments, the Ultimate Deletion match between Matt Hardy and Bray Wyatt is a seminal moment in the transition of Hardy’s Broken/Woken gimmick to WWE. Expect the Hardy family to empty their box of tricks. Meanwhile, expect Asuka to beat Alexa Bliss, probably with a Nia Jax assist based on the plan Bliss was overheard talking about last week.

The big themes elsewhere should include a resolution to last week’s main event cliffhanger, where Braun Strowman appeared to have become number one contender, by himself, to the Tag Team Championships. Will he be told to find a partner or be allowed to go it alone? John Cena waits to see if he can raise the dead – the fact we’re in Texas might make an Undertaker appearance this week more likely than not. Bayley continues to show heel-ish tendencies as her friendship with Sasha Banks hits the rocks, but that’s yet to properly catch fire. Finally, after Seth Rollins and Finn Balor mixed it up last week thanks to no little manipulation by The Miz, there’s a good chance it might be Miz on the receiving end from either or both men tonight. And all that should be plenty to cover for a three-hour show!

Spotlight: You can always tell when WrestleMania season is firmly upon us, as WWE shifts gear to indulge in the sort of mass heavy-duty storytelling that’s sometimes a little sparse at other times of the year. To explain what I mean by that, last week’s Raw was stacked with examples. Braun Strowman threw the entire tag team division out of a battle royal, by himself, to singlehandedly claim the contendership to the division’s championships. Alexa Bliss went full Alexa Bliss in an extended and unlikely ‘caught on camera’ faux-pas, leading Nia Jax to trash a locker room. John Cena challenged The Undertaker through the medium of drinking beer in the crowd and invoking Michelle McCool. I call this ‘heavy-duty storytelling’. The less charitable might call it ‘overkill’.

Chief among these examples was Roman Reigns reacting to another scripted Brock Lesnar no-show by storming off to the Gorilla position and confronting Vince McMahon. This segment was willing to sacrifice a lot; the premise that the on-screen authority figures are the ones who ‘run’ WWE’s shows, the presence on Monday night of one of those from SmackDown (who personally led a faction to put Raw ‘under siege’ less than six months ago), the impact of any future occasions when a storyline goes to the ‘Vince McMahon will be here next week to sort this out’ well. Not to mention the historical sanctity of what goes on behind the curtain, although admittedly that one has been comprehensively exploded in the era of WWE Network documentaries and so forth.

The purpose, of course, of presenting something fresh and unprecedented (here it’s something that feels ‘real’) is to make people sit up and take notice more than they ordinarily would. We’re building to the biggest show of the year after all. The other purpose is to get the audience behind Reigns. The need to not only legitimize his inevitable triumph over Lesnar in the eyes of all but the most critical of WWE’s critical fans, but also to make people enthusiastic about seeing it happen is a very real pressure. Especially so when the result is so widely expected. Also, although the match will likely be good or great, there are no inherent themes of redemption, triumph over adversity, similar journeys or any long-standing rivalry to lean on. It’s a hard sell.

So will this work? As nakedly hilarious some might consider Roman Reigns, of all people, running down another guy for being perceived as a Vince McMahon pet project might be, the angle at least deserves credit for being founded on two smart principles. First, it recognizes that being perceived as a Vince McMahon pet project is one of the reasons a section of the audience hasn’t accepted Reigns. Second, that if it’s possible to project that dislike onto somebody else, an audience might accept a Reigns victory as the lesser of two evils. This second principle was leveraged with Reigns as the facilitator when Randy Orton won the 2017 Royal Rumble. In theory people don’t have to love Roman Reigns as long as they believe they’re more bored by Brock Lesnar.

So it’s possible. However, if we assume WWE gets what it wants and the likely course maps out – Reigns wins the Universal Championship to a babyface reaction, before Lesnar heads off for another shot at UFC – how Roman goes on to cement his populist credentials isn’t particularly clear. Which dastardly threat does Reigns, the conquering hero who saved us from Vince’s pampered, entitled champion take on next? Unless there’s a big roster shake-up (and it’s hard to see who might come in from SmackDown or NXT to fit the bill), the current list of viable heels on Raw starts with savage promo king The Miz, ends with overexposed oddity Bray Wyatt and probably only has the indie cool of Samoa Joe in between. But perhaps the problem of what Reigns does next is one that can wait until after New Orleans.

SmackDown Live (American Airlines Center, Dallas TX)

Announced: General Manager Daniel Bryan is back running the show, as per Shane McMahon’s promo last week. Nothing else official yet.

What to expect: Last week we finally kicked off the build to AJ Styles vs Shinsuke Nakamura, with the latter saving the former from a post-match beatdown from Rusev and Aiden English. A Styles/Nakamura vs Rusev/English tag match is inevitable either this week or next; I reckon it might be pushed through this week to give us two clear Tuesdays of Styles and Nakamura at odds. We’ll see. As far as the Women’s Championship program goes, Asuka is working matches on Raw the previous night and Mixed Match Challenge later on Tuesday, so it’s possible this may take a back seat. Money in the Bank holder Carmella is quietly on a good run, so that might be equally likely to feature.

The other main stories on SmackDown all currently feature three parties (and we’ll make some further notes on all of them in a moment). WWE.com has published a storyline update on the condition of Shane McMahon after being attacked by Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens last week. What Daniel Bryan, back tonight, does about that will be a key point. Talking of injuries, the return of Jey Uso, Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods after selling the Fastlane attack by Harper & Rowan last week is a possibility. Finally, Jinder Mahal is likely to follow up his victory over Bobby Roode last week by claiming if Roode is getting his United States Championship match at WrestleMania, he should be included too. This will, of course, ultimately happen.

Spotlight: As we head towards WrestleMania, it seems that three is the magic number in the WWE writers’ room. Several of the storylines leading up to the big event in New Orleans currently pivot around trios of talent. Over on Raw, Braun Strowman appears to have won the right to challenge for the Tag Team Championships. He may well eventually get a partner, but for the time being the urge to tease him going solo against Sheamus & Cesaro is one that Monday’s creative team surely won’t resist. The Miz defends the Intercontinental Championship against both Finn Balor and Seth Rollins. Here on Tuesday nights, meanwhile, SmackDown Live are more than pulling their weight in that respect – though their three-way issues have some work to do if they aren’t to end up pale comparisons of the red brand’s matches.

It’s easy to identify some basic similarities between two of SmackDown’s likely WrestleMania matches and what’s currently going down over on Raw. The most obvious is an expected triple threat match for the brand’s secondary championship. Raw has Miz, Balor and Rollins, while it looks like SmackDown will have Orton, Roode and Mahal, who should be confirmed in a match for Orton’s United States Championship. Here, SmackDown isn’t gifted some of the materials Raw’s program has. The Miz has both an established validity as champion and the mic skills to engagingly play his challengers – who have personal history as the men in the first-ever Universal Championship match – off against each other. Randy Orton cuts a reasonable enough promo and has name value, but only stumbled into the title picture recently. Bobby Roode wasn’t champion long enough to make much impact either. The other man is Jinder Mahal.

There’s only so many times Orton can slither into the ring and hit an RKO on someone to pop the crowd during their segments on Tuesday. With the ‘SmackDown Top 10’ angle having been thoroughly mined (which didn’t take long), the story badly needs a fresh twist but it’s currently hard to see where that might come from. Last week’s angle between Shane McMahon and the pair of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn has more going for it in terms of interest value, though – and here’s the potential similarity with Strowman and The Bar on Raw – it’s likely a fourth man will be added, the viability of the storyline may depend on who that fourth man is and, any which way, it’ll be a bit of a fudge.

On the matter of who may team with Shane, we yesterday reported the latest rumors on whether Daniel Bryan may be about to complete an unlikely comeback. Were this to happen, which anyone sensible should take as far from guaranteed, you’ll be able to count me among the many fans celebrating. However it could be an awkward fit, with both pairs having been far from the best of friends recently. Time limitations on the night notwithstanding, I think most of us would rather see Kevin Owens vs Sami Zayn and Daniel Bryan vs Shane McMahon in separate singles matches, if Bryan were good to go. If he isn’t, but something in the plans for this program has indeed changed, it’ll still be interesting to see why the assumed Shane/Zayn/Owens angle has evolved.

The one three-way affair where SmackDown Live currently looks to be on a sure footing is its planned Tag Team Championships feud. The Usos and The New Day have been among the brand’s MVPs over the past year and are natural choices to compete in the championship match on the year’s biggest show. Where this program has started confidently, however – and the role of Jinder Mahal in the US title picture could learn from this – is in its strong portrayal of an insurgency by The Bludgeon Brothers as a third party. Their actions at Fastlane not only made an impact on the division’s two pre-eminent teams but, when the time came for a response last week, it brought a different side out of Big E and Jimmy Uso rather than Tuesday night just offering more of the same on repeat. More please.

Also This Week

Another WrestleMania match should be confirmed on 205 Live (Tuesday) as Mustafa Ali faces Drew Gulak, with the winner going on to face Cedric Alexander in New Orleans for the Cruiserweight Championship. Also on Tuesday (or Thursday via the WWE Network if you can’t get Facebook Watch), the first Mixed Match Challenge semifinals match between the teams of The Miz & Asuka and Braun Strowman & Alexa Bliss. Nothing in particular has been announced in advance for this week’s NXT (Wednesday) but, with TakeOver set for WrestleMania weekend, the yellow brand – like the main roster as discussed above – is approaching the business end of some serious storytelling.

There’s also a new episode of WWE 24 after Raw tonight, focusing on the backstage story behind the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble match in January. Those are always worth a watch and, if the women’s Rumble playing out was something you were particularly thrilled to see, there’s twice the reason to tune in.

Three Burning Questions

One of the great things about the run to WrestleMania is that we’re never short of talking points. Throw down your answers in the comments section as usual!

  1. Will it be Matt Hardy or Bray Wyatt who emerges victorious from tonight’s Ultimate Deletion?
  2. Assuming it’s not Daniel Bryan, who would be the best choice to partner Shane McMahon?
  3. If you could pick anyone, past or present, to partner Braun Strowman at WrestleMania, who would it be?

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