Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! Bill Goldberg is making the leap from WWE 2K17 back to TV, James Ellsworth has a shot at the WWE World Championship and – assuming reality doesn’t completely collapse in the next few hours – both brands are headed to the very fine city of Denver, Colorado. Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, October 17th 2016.
Raw (Pepsi Center, Denver CO)
Announced: Bill Goldberg!
What to expect: Goldberg is back on WWE programming for the first time since 2004 to answer the challenge of Paul Heyman’s client Brock Lesnar. Lesnar himself is not scheduled to appear and common wisdom says this will be built up for a match at Survivor Series next month. Tonight will likely just put the playing pieces on the table.
Before then, Hell In A Cell takes place at the end of next week and the headline matches are now well set. The Universal, United States and Women’s Championships will all take place within the Cell structure itself. The only side-plot within those feuds is a slight strain in the friendship between Chris Jericho and Universal Champion Kevin Owens, which may or may not play out further before the champ’s scheduled defence against Seth Rollins. The New Day defending their Tag Team Championships against Sheamus and Cesaro is also official for the pay-per-view, with both parties now sharing screen time (although the challengers still don’t seem able to share nicely). Perkins vs Kendrick and Bayley vs Dana Brooke are in gestation too.
We should also hear a response from Stephanie McMahon and Mick Foley to SmackDown’s challenge of three traditional elimination matches at Survivor Series. Although don’t expect much more build for it on the red brand until we get past Hell In A Cell.
Spotlight: The rematch 12 years in the making, Lesnar vs Goldberg, appears to be officially on after weeks of speculation. In the unitary question of Goldberg returning to the ring at all, it’s years of speculation. It’s a big deal.
You can mark me up as a Goldberg fan – generally I’ve found people to be fairly clear on whether they are or aren’t – so I’m definitely an interested party. His combination of intensity and power gave him a star quality that sustained interest in his WCW undefeated streak far better and far longer than other men may have managed. The Streak alone didn’t make Goldberg hot. It’s difficult to argue his WWE run was anything other than a disappointment, but given it was only a year (and a year when Raw was dominated by the doings of Triple H), he still delivered as much as could reasonably be expected. Even his critics would have to admit the Elimination Chamber match was pretty cool.
But this is 2016. And I have a flood of thoughts and questions about this match – as I’m sure others have – which we don’t yet have answers for and which I haven’t yet been able to resolve in my mind. So, loosely, these are my thoughts:
* Goldberg is 49 and hasn’t been in a wrestling ring for a long time. The guy has no doubt kept himself in shape, and his power-and-intensity game is less vulnerable to age than a high-flying athletic one, but surely that’s going to limit him a bit?
* Paul Heyman’s challenge was for a”fight”. Will we see Goldberg-Lesnar II have a brawl-style stipulation rather than being a traditional singles match? That might help if Goldberg does have any rust.
* Will Goldberg take a warm-up match? Usually in this situation it’s a case of “buy the pay-per-view to see Goldberg wrestle”, but would wiping out Bo Dallas or Titus O’Neil in a sanctioned squash match be so bad? It would at least set our expectation levels for 2016 Goldberg before the Lesnar match.
* Speaking of warm-up matches, what a shame Ryback is no longer with the company. That was Bill’s warm-up opponent right there.
* Speaking of Ryback – slightly more tenuous link, but still robust enough – I hate the “Goldberg” chant. Sorry. Had to get that off my chest. It might just be because it’s a facsimile of the “boring” chant, but it’s such a monotonous drone.
* Steve Austin was central to Lesnar and Goldberg’s original feud; not only did he referee the eventual match, but he bought Goldberg the front-row tickets that led to him interfering in Lesnar’s famous defeat by Eddie Guerrero. Any chance we might see Stone Cold as part of the build towards Survivor Series?
* At Survivor Series, is anyone seriously going to pick Goldberg to win? Lesnar is not only the guy under full-time contract and being pushed as an unstoppable monster, but he’s owed the job.
* With WWE pushing to do this match now, do they already have something different in mind for Lesnar at WrestleMania? Perhaps Kevin Owens? Or is it just to flog as many copies of 2K17 as possible? It’s that last one, isn’t it….
There’s a theory that creating so many questions and uncertainties in the audience will drive viewing figures, as people tune in to get answers. That may be true here, but too many questions and uncertainties are also symptoms of risk. Believe the hype? Not yet. But hopefully this week will go some way towards helping us start.
SmackDown Live (Pepsi Center, Denver CO)
Announced: AJ Styles (c) vs James Ellsworth for the WWE World Championship, Alexa Bliss vs Naomi, Jack Swagger vs Baron Corbin.
What to expect: Well for a start, you should expect AJ Styles to get his win back! Damned 50-50 booking…. Coming out of No Mercy last week it looks as though Styles and Ambrose will continue to feud over the brand’s top title. It also appears that there’s more to come between Randy Orton and The Wyatt Family (which I’m not really on board with), The Miz and Dolph Ziggler (which I totally am on board with) and Carmella and Nikki Bella (towards which I feel strangely indifferent). But there’s a few weeks yet before Survivor Series, so the picture could easily change.
Rhyno and Heath Slater certainly look to be moving on – last week’s SmackDown Live appeared to tease a six-man tag, where the tag champs would side with Ziggler against Miz and the Spirit Squad, while the Uso brothers are tangling with American Alpha again. There’s definitely something fresh at the sharp end of the women’s division, as we effectively have a brief number one contender programme between Alexa Bliss and Naomi while Becky Lynch recuperates. I’m saying Bliss wins clean here, to allow two solid weeks of build for the November 8th title match as advertised.
Spotlight: It’s not just Goldberg that’s making me nostalgic for 2004 this week, but also some of the minor details contributing to how SmackDown is widely perceived as the better show on WWE’s TV programming.
There are a few little things SmackDown has over Raw at the moment, such as not indulging celebrity guests, not trying to bolt on an extra weight division and being able to blur reality and work on Talking Smack (and using that show to announce three matchups for this week). The one I want to focus on however is their use of ‘local talent’.
Raw has exclusively used local talent to keep the food chain moving for Braun Strowman and Nia Jax. Occasionally there’ll be a pre-match interview, to show a crumb of either hubris or fatalism as required, but otherwise the one-off guests serve a limited purpose. But what SmackDown has done with James Ellsworth, bringing him back twice after his turn being squashed by Strowman on Raw, serves a more complex narrative purpose.
This week’s World Championship match will see AJ Styles retain. That much is surely a given, even if Dean Ambrose is around to interfere. I admit this next part may be fantasy booking more than a prediction, but the match should be swift and conclusive, followed after the bell by Styles absolutely taking Ellsworth to the woodshed for embarrassing him last week. AJ Styles is doing nothing wrong right now, but he’s a heel who’s still being overwhelmingly cheered. Swiftly crushing the dreams of the new folk hero and then dissecting him may go some way towards changing that.
Ellsworth’s previous appearance on SmackDown, before last week, was as a tag partner Daniel Bryan had picked out for Styles. He never even made it to the ring, after being laid out on the ramp by The Miz who had decided he wanted to wrestle the main event, especially if it pissed off Bryan. The beauty of using Ellsworth in this fairly brutal way is that it gets heat for your heels in other feuds, without having to compromise any full-time member of the roster. We people on the internet get very exercised about 50-50 booking (giving the loser of a match a token return victory, often the following week, which leads to fewer feuds decisively advancing anyone’s standing), but there is a need to protect full-time superstars to some degree – as John Canton says, people won’t pay to see losers. Wise use of local talent within a narrative can overcome this, because they’re expendable.
The reason this makes me nostalgic for the last time Brock Lesnar and Goldberg were both big beasts on WWE TV is because it reminds me a little of how WWE used Zach Gowen. Gowen, a young guy who’d had one leg amputated in childhood, was a different case to Ellsworth as he was under permanent contract rather than making casual appearances (though ultimately that contact only lasted a year or thereabouts) – but many of the presentation concepts were the same; plucky kid comes from obscurity with a dream of ‘making it’, is ridiculed for looking a bit different, gets the odd feelgood win – sometimes requiring an assist – as a popular underdog, most of which serves to further other people’s stories.
For better or worse, the thing most people probably remember Gowen’s WWE run for is his run-in with Lesnar. As a recently-turned heel, Lesnar broke a one-legged guy’s only leg and then threw him down the stairs. Gowen has since gone on to a solid career on the indies and WWE has gone on to a PG era of television that may not take those sorts of risks again, but now James Ellsworth stands to be sacrificed in the cause of the World Champion to the same sort of ends.
Just for God’s sake, James, don’t tuck your head on the Styles Clash this week.
NXT (Full Sail University, Winter Park FL)
Last week had some significant ups and downs for NXT, as it gained SAnitY – by my reckoning the first proper stable in WWE’s third brand since The Wyatt Family; a proper thing for Eric Young to do, a vote in confidence in Sawyer Fulton and Alexander Wolfe and a gimmick that could propel Nikki Cross into that gap between Asuka/Ember Moon and the rest of the women’s roster. It also lost Hideo Itami – rotten news when the guy was just starting to get back into his stride, had a mutually-beneficial feud with Austin Aries on the horizon and was due to pair with Kota Ibushi in an all-star Japanese tag team.
Turmoil aside, this week’s announced first-round match in the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic is No Way Jose and Rich Swann facing Tony Nese and Drew Gulak. The latter three of those men are, of course, now staples of Raw’s cruiserweight division. Hopefully this match taking place on NXT at Full Sail will encourage it to lean more towards CWC length and pacing than that of Monday Night Raw. If it does this could be a pretty entertaining mix of athleticism, technical skill and – inevitably – dancing. We haven’t had a real blockbuster of a first-round match yet; perhaps this will be it?
Remember kids, anything can happen on WWE programming! Some things more than others! Here’s a grid of 25 such things; red for Raw, blue for SmackDown, yellow for NXT and grey for any of the above or anything else. Cross one off if it happens, and we’ll have a celebration here next week if we get a vertical or horizontal line. The drinks are on me if all 25 come good.
I’m claiming five out of 25 for last week, with no lines. Quietest week so far. I’ve now built in a few more of our favourite long-term tropes, so it’ll be WWE-by-the-numbers more than ever if we suddenly start filling up lines.
Three Burning Questions
Answers in the comments as usual, folks!
1. Who would you pick from the current Raw roster as a warm-up opponent for Goldberg and why?
2. Would you like to see the feud between Miz and Ziggler continue, or do you feel it has run its course?
3. Which list is better: The List of Jericho or Jericho’s List of 1,004 Holds?
Until next time, have a good week and enjoy the ride!