Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, April 17th 2017.

For the second consecutive week, I have to start with a point of order. Last week’s ‘Superstar Shake-up’ did an admirable job of freshening up the rosters and creating new possible feuds, but at the same time it’s temporarily wrecked the brand split concept in order to stack the card for Raw’s Payback pay-per-view on April 30th.

As such there are some storylines that are likely to be advanced on both Raw and SmackDown Live this week (and next week) until WWE can properly re-embrace the split roster. I’ll be covering the cross-brand storylines exclusively under Raw because a) Payback is a Raw show and b) it makes sense to be briefed from Monday onwards. So for the next couple of weeks the Raw previews will be weightier than the SmackDown ones. If you don’t like it, blame Vince and not me!

Raw (Schottenstein Center, Columbus OH)

Announced: Nothing formally at the time of writing. Booker T is replacing David Otunga on the announce desk for the next six weeks, so make the most of hearing somebody with slightly less robotic enthusiasm.

What to expect: WWE.com posted a storyline update during the week that noted Roman Reigns suffered multiple injuries due to Braun Strowman’s attack last week. The angle might well involve Reigns not appearing tonight (although let’s face it, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he showed up ready to go either), but we should get some idea whether both men will be facing each other at Payback or if something else is planned. Definitely set for Payback, with motivations needing to be advanced tonight, are Matt and Jeff Hardy vs Sheamus and Cesaro for the tag titles and Neville vs Austin Aries for the Cruiserweight Championship.

Two other title matches announced for Payback, the WWE Championship match between Randy Orton and Bray Wyatt and the United States Championship match between Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho, are essentially interpromotional matches with the champions (Orton and Owens) both on SmackDown following the ‘Superstar Shake-up’. Expect creepy nonsense on screens for the former and Jericho bragging about hitting Owens with a Codebreaker last week for the latter. How much all four men will be physically involved on each others’ shows this week remains to be seen.

Other Raw-specific themes likely to be advanced tonight are how hometown girl Alexa Bliss and Mickie James will change the face of the women’s division and whether Nia Jax or somebody else will emerge as the new contender to Bayley’s championship, whether Samoa Joe vs Seth Rollins will be set for Payback and how Dean Ambrose and fellow high-profile trades from SmackDown The Miz and Maryse will set themselves up on Monday nights. With the United States Championship probably heading to SmackDown and Universal Champion Brock Lesnar not around this month, expect a greater focus to develop soon on Ambrose’s Intercontinental Championship. Oh, and Elias Samson will probably show up at random points of the show in a far less subtle way than would be enjoyable.

It was reported earlier today that Finn Balor would undergo medical testing at Raw today following a suspected concussion last week. It’s therefore a toss-up whether he appears, but with Bray Wyatt – who last week planted the seeds of a program between the two – busy with other things anyway it might be a good week to rest him.

Spotlight: Anyone looking for indications of how retiring The Undertaker might have changed Roman Reigns will have learned little last week. He was part-way into what seemed like a tough-but-nice-guy backstage interview (I have huge respect for Undertaker, I only did what I had to do etc), when Braun Strowman interrupted, threw him into stuff, drove his stretcher off a loading bay and flipped his ambulance. We’re now left with some familiar-looking questions. Is Reigns still a respectful character whom we are expected to admire? Apparently. Will he make a miraculous comeback from his injuries? Definitely. When he does, will he get revenge by beating Strowman handily at a pay-per-view? Probably. Will the audience universally shower him with love when he does so? No.

It’s clear that a significant minority (if not a majority) of WWE crowds aren’t ready to love Reigns. It could be argued that the Nassau Coliseum, being a New York crowd, would never have been the least rowdy audience to follow the Raw after WrestleMania, but the ‘Roman sucks’ chants were audible when he sat down for the backstage segment. It also has a knock-on effect on the crowd reaction to his opponents. As Strowman returned, time after time, to inflict increasingly comical forms of punishment against Reigns to increasingly louder pops. If he’d gone full Heath Ledger’s Joker and blown up the hospital, there’d have been rejoicing. But let’s be clear: That’s obviously a bad guy move.

It’s entirely possible that not putting Reigns out in front of the live crowd last week – and then, possibly, have him written off TV for a few weeks – is a convenient way of taking unwanted heat off him until crowd reactions are less unfavorable and he can return with the usual babyface slant of brooding machismo, overcoming the odds and standing up to nefarious villains. Let’s not forget how well that goes down with some audience demographics and at the merchandise stands and, although dissent is usually accommodated within the narrative (see John Cena over the last decade), less of the TV-14 chants we saw at the Raw in Orlando would probably be desirable.

But here’s an interesting thought: What if all of this hate is a deliberate outcome, rather than just collateral? We know that WWE must have gone into the WrestleMania match between Reigns and The Undertaker with eyes wide open; the crowd reaction would never have been any different. We also know how Reigns was sent out at #30 in the Royal Rumble, partly to set that match up but also to be eliminated last and make a Randy Orton win feel fresh and a sweet relief. These are bizarrely attritional ways to build a universally loved character.

Now consider the social experiments WWE has conducted down in NXT. Eva Marie, intensely disliked by the hardcore audience (well represented in Full Sail), was deliberately put front and centre; interviews that could’ve been conducted backstage took place on the stage, sloppy moments in matches were not forgiven and the end result was an NXT Women’s Championship match against Bayley that genuinely got the crowd’s attention by heavily playing on the feeling she was the corporate choice. Long before her, Bo Dallas was so soundly rejected as a babyface in NXT that his sincere babyface tendencies were turned up in order to get more heat. Reigns is a social experiment on a whole other level, but it would be naive to think WWE doesn’t know how to deal in conflicting portrayals.

So when I hear Triple H asking in interviews whether Roman Reigns is already WWE’s biggest heel and explicitly saying “we’re just presenting him to you in a different way that makes you hate him”, I do think the rules may have changed and the answers to the questions become more logical.

A large, traditional, ‘smart’ section of the WWE audience appreciates mic work, technical ability, novel gimmicks, wrestling legends and underappreciated talent getting their due more than they’re concerned about who’s ‘good’ and who’s ‘bad’. In a world where the curtain has been lifted, where the internet and social media keeps nothing secret and WWE themselves publish content that deconstructs their own characters, how do you build genuine heat for somebody? By having them retire The Undertaker, by sending them out at #30 in the Royal Rumble when the crowd are expecting someone else, by having JBL rant on the Network about how people that hate them are losers and – in this case – by returning as the same old Roman Reigns to Superman Punch the cool monster that flipped his ambulance.

SmackDown Live (KFC Yum! Center, Louisville KY)

Announced: Nothing formally yet. As noted, the cross-brand storylines will probably bleed over from Raw.

What to expect: AJ Styles is the number one contender for the United States Championship and, although he’ll have to wait until after Payback to know who he’ll face, expect him to prepare for Kevin Owens. The SmackDown-specific element of the WWE Championship program, with Randy Orton occupied with Raw’s Bray Wyatt, is likely to be Erick Rowan acting as Wyatt’s proxy. Meanwhile, Dolph Ziggler looks to be a lock for Shinsuke Nakamura’s first main roster feud – it’ll be interesting to see whether the slow drip-feed of Nakamura continues – while I wouldn’t be surprised to see Baron Corbin blame Sami Zayn for him not winning last week’s main event.

Last week’s roster trades will also create some new angles this week. Charlotte is the big new arrival in the women’s division and, with a new challenger to Naomi’s championship needing to be named, would be the obvious contender. American Alpha lost their rematch for the tag titles last week and are likely to be seeking retribution against The Shining Stars for the post-match attack they suffered, while the most obvious next contenders for champions The Usos would be The New Day. With Kofi Kingston rehabilitating from an ankle injury though, there’s some doubt over how soon that might happen.

Spotlight: My sympathies go out to the people of Louisville, Kentucky for three reasons. Firstly – obviously – for having a major entertainment venue lumbered with the name ‘KFC Yum! Center’. You poor, poor bastards. Secondly, it follows that even though Enzo Amore is touring with the other brand, the chances of your post-traumatic flashbacks to his fried chicken romantic liaisons are still likely to be triggered. Can you really see WWE rocking up at the ‘KFC Yum! Center’ and not making a point of their most recent sponsorship deal? Thirdly, for these next couple of weeks, SmackDown Live is going to feel a bit like it’s hosting the Raw overrun rather than being its own event. Ah, the good old days!

I mentioned in this week’s introduction how the ‘Superstar Shake-up’ has been carefully manipulated in order to stack the card for Payback on April 30th. WWE did a similar thing for Vengeance in 2005, when that year’s draft was stretched out over the entire month of June and the big moves to Raw went down early in order to get matches for both world titles (and a WrestleMania rematch between Kurt Angle and Shawn Michaels) onto the pay-per-view. There’s little doubt a different motivating factor – the fact Raw’s Universal Champion, Brock Lesnar, isn’t booked for Payback – was heavily involved in the decision this time, particularly so that the WWE Championship ‘House of Horrors’ match between Randy Orton and Bray Wyatt could be poached for a main event with a title on the line. But it doesn’t stop there.

We’re also in the strange situation where it’s effectively the United States Championship that has been traded to SmackDown Live, rather than its holder (and theoretical subject of the trade), Kevin Owens, or his challenger at Payback, Chris Jericho. Almost everyone expects Owens to retain the belt, given Jericho’s impending music commitments, but the way it has been set up – winner stays on Tuesday nights – at least allows for more permutations than Payback’s WWE Championship match (as surely there’s no way Orton is losing the brand’s top title). It’s also necessary to give the other male singles competitors on SmackDown a reason to turn up to work for the next couple of weeks.

It’s here that we return to my sympathy for anyone turning up to a SmackDown Live TV taping this week and next, as a certain sense of urgency may be missing. The majority of the hard sell for Orton-Wyatt and Owens-Jericho Payback will probably go down on Raw, while the winner of last week’s excellent main event, AJ Styles, may have earned a number one contendership but will need to sit on his gloved hands for a fortnight before he can do anything with it. No doubt he’ll butt heads with Kevin Owens at some point in the interim, but it’ll just be to kill time and in the context of ‘it depends what happens on Raw’ – which is a burden the brand split was supposed to relieve SmackDown of.

The good news? Look at the list of male talent now on the brand. AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn. Those are four of the best in the world, and you could write them into two singles matches at WrestleMania 34 now and guarantee a fantastic show. Add the likes of Dolph Ziggler, Rusev and a guy by the name of John Cena when he’s back and the potential match quality on SmackDown Live is sky high. The next couple of TV tapings may not be too thrilling to attend, but the house shows later in the year could be essential.

Also This Week

For the avoidance of doubt, I think the new theme song for NXT (Wednesday) is utter dogshit. It might be the ne plus ultra of generic, middle-of-the-road-rock theme songs; the kind that fits the ‘traditional’ Monday Night Raw template but is only good enough to be used on Superstars. And it’s hard to think of a more pessimistic summary than that when introducing a new generation of performers.

To offer some balance though, NXT has earned our trust and is clearly beginning a new phase, with the new theme, new graphics and emergence of new characters. The extended farewell to the latest graduates to the main roster continues this week, as SmackDown Live’s Tye Dillinger finally gets Eric Young without SAnitY’s interference, inside a steel cage. It’ll all work out fine in the end.

The two things that have me hooked for 205 Live (Tuesday) at the moment are the heel turn for TJ Perkins, which feels fresh and may really work for his character, and Akira Tozawa turning Brian Kendrick’s lessons against him, which has been a novel and patient way to build a feud. Not everything works all the time, but 205 Live is at least doing what it can to offer something unique and distinctive. Still more in the ‘plusses’ column.

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 should face Bayley next for the Raw Women’s Championship?
  2. With the next SmackDown pay-per-view not until May 21st, would you like to see Shinsuke Nakamura wrestle a match on TV before then or should it be saved for the big occasion?
  3. What do you think of the new NXT theme song? Better or worse?

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