Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon fell out over three-counts, Brock Lesnar is back on Raw this week and AJ Styles is still the WWE Champion (thank God). Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, December 18th 2017.

Raw (Dunkin’ Donuts Center, Providence RI)

Announced: Brock Lesnar returns to address his challenger for the Universal Championship at the Royal Rumble. Cedric Alexander will wrestle Drew Gulak in a number one contender’s match for the Cruiserweight Championship.

What to expect: When we say Brock Lesnar will address the next Universal Championship challenger, I think we all know that means Paul Heyman will address the next Universal Championship challenger and anything Lesnar does will be a bonus. The expected end goal is for both Kane and Braun Strowman to be named challengers. Oddly, and like Roman Reigns, Lesnar is currently being mentioned in WWE.com’s preview but isn’t advertised on their show listing. The listing also suggests The Miz may return having wrapped shooting of The Marine 6. Take that as you will. Assuming Reigns is there, the assumption remains that he’s on a collision course with Samoa Joe over the Intercontinental Championship, while his brethren still pursue Sheamus & Cesaro for the Tag Team Championships.

The Raw women’s division is as much of an Absolution-versus-the-rest amorphous blob as it’s ever been, with the distinctions that Absolution appear to fear Asuka more than the others and that Alexa Bliss is holding a championship. Further development would be welcome, but further establishment of the Absolution group is likely the priority. Further development of Matt Hardy’s ‘Woken’ persona, beyond dueling promos with Bray Wyatt, would also be welcome (but again, those promos are happening for a reason and there’s no reason to imagine WWE are bored of them yet). Jason Jordan will probably continue to be a nuisance, disagree with his dad and generally have a more interesting time than Finn Balor. Finally, Cedric Alexander is surely winning what will hopefully be a good number one contender’s match (because if Drew Gulak was always the plan, why find a replacement for Rich Swann last week?) while the Enzo Amore/Nia Jax rom-com angle should continue.

Spotlight: What might 2018 hold in store for the beast known as Brock Lesnar? It’s generally understood that his current contract with WWE runs until April and WrestleMania – where everybody and their dog is currently assuming he will lose to Roman Reigns and end his second run as part-time world champion-slash-special event. It’s also generally understood that the contract between Lesnar and WWE is due to automatically renew unless either side decides they want out. Rumored returns to UFC for Lesnar have never been far away from the online news agenda, but assuming he finds no incentive to leave, what’s WWE’s likely move?

Tonight we are led to believe we may find out who Lesnar’s opponent is at the Royal Rumble at the end of January. Assuming, as we said, that Reigns is being kept back for the biggest show of the year, whoever does face Lesnar next month is virtually certain to come up short. The aborted number one contender’s match last week, where Kane and Braun Strowman fought to a stalemate, looks very much like the classic WWE setup where the champion will have to end up facing both men. Yes, it would mean another month of Kane being one of the most dangerous men on the roster. Yes, it would mean another month of Strowman not being able to violently put Kane away, as should probably have happened by now. Yes, it would mean Kane taking the pin at the Rumble to protect Strowman, before Reigns enters the picture. Job done.

On the upside, Finn Balor – who seemed like a likely future challenger to Lesnar only to fall back (rumor says Vince McMahon got cold feet on Balor’s popularity) – wouldn’t have to get his Demon persona trodden into the canvas in ten minutes to put Lesnar over strong. However, a match between Balor and Lesnar is one of the few viable programs still on the table for Brock in his current run with the company. And it’s here that we have a bit of a problem with where WWE might be able to take Lesnar if we assume he’s staying on beyond April.

Firstly, Lesnar is unlikely to return to being a titleholder any time soon; one suspects it would be a mistake to think that his championship run, where he has continued his pattern of appearing infrequently on television, is viewed as anything other than a relative success by WWE, but a period of having the Raw brand’s world champion on the show every week is surely overdue. More widely, as noted, this was the second such run for Lesnar in three years and there’s a genuine question to be asked about diminishing returns if WWE goes back to that well again any time soon. A new angle, a new purpose may be required for Lesnar in the immediate future rather than the pursuit of championship gold.

The list of marquee matches available for Lesnar, if he is to continue to be used as a special marquee attraction, is also shrinking. Most of the big ones on the current WWE roster have already been done, few of them with much cause or appetite for being reheated next year. Balor is one that hasn’t been done. Shinsuke Nakamura too. Another match with AJ Styles would be one of the few repeat performances that might work, while if Kurt Angle’s fit enough to take a series of german suplexes then I’d be willing to pay for the nostalgia trip. Otherwise it’s difficult to escape the feeling that Brock Lesnar’s run of money matches is nearing its end and, if he does stay with WWE through 2018 and beyond, his story may need a fresh start.

SmackDown Live (Prudential Center, Newark NJ)

Announced: Nothing announced at time of writing, coming out of Clash of Champions last night.

What to expect: The fallout from Clash of Champions. The deteriorating relationship between on-screen showrunners Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon will be central; expect disagreements on each man’s refereeing performance last night, which may also encompass the likes of Randy Orton, Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens who were directly affected. Also a big angle coming out of Clash of Champions is likely to be Dolph Ziggler, who (to the surprise of many) is United States Champion again. A rematch for Baron Corbin is a virtual certainty to be addressed this week. Further down the list of interesting things that may be developed is what Natalya meant when she said she would turn her back on the WWE Universe.

Elsewhere on SmackDown, new threads need to be started. AJ Styles retained the WWE Championship and may need a new challenger to emerge in place of Jinder Mahal. The same goes for Charlotte Flair (though SmackDown, like Raw, is bogged down in a story of their new women’s faction fighting the entire roster). The Usos, likewise, are still champions and it’s difficult to see who from last night’s four-way match might stay on as their challengers. Perhaps now Breezango have finally met The Bludgeon Brothers in the ring, it’ll be Harper and Rowan? We may get some idea this week. Finally, we’ll see if the program between Mojo Rawley and Zack Ryder continues, or whether Rawley will move on to something else – or whether it’ll be a Prime Time Players situation and we won’t hear from either of them again for months.

Spotlight: I ragged a little on SmackDown Live last week, but they do have a pretty strong USP right now (one; hopefully it’ll become two once AJ Styles puts clear water between himself and Jinder Mahal) of the ever-widening story between Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan. Last night, Zayn and Owens saved their careers (obviously) by winning their tag team match, but only after Bryan fast-counted a pin when Shane had tried to screw the Canadian duo over. This twist drove a fresh wedge between Bryan and Shane, continued Shane’s grudge with Owens and Zayn, and also possibly brought Randy Orton into the mix; Orton had the match won after an RKO, only for Kevin Owens to push Bryan into Shane to break the count.

No doubt in some corners of the internet one could find fevered speculation about whether the spot where Bryan was pushed into Shane could be considered a ‘bump’ and, by extension, whether the spot being given the go-ahead is a sign that WWE’s position on clearing Bryan to come out of his concussions-induced retirement is softening. It’s a fantasy I’d really like to share, but you’ll never see a softer ‘bump’ in all your life – Bryan’s head comes nowhere near the mat, velocity is minimal and whiplash is non-existent; he sort of rolled off of Shane’s back. It was basically a highly-trained man, who instinctively understands how to fall safely, being asked to go through the motions of sitting down heavily in a beanbag chair.

Whether Daniel Bryan is cleared to wrestle by WWE in 2018 or leaves the company to wrestle elsewhere – one or the other seems inevitable at this stage – last night’s match probably won’t have any bearing on it. We are, however, unquestionably heading for a feud between SmackDown Live’s authority figures, irrespective of whether or not that ever ends up playing out in a ring. This week’s SmackDown should see open dissent between the two – a graduation from tension and mild disagreement – and a vague establishing of the rules of engagement; will Shane McMahon be the bigger man, apologize for any misunderstandings and try to work with his General Manager, or will he try to fire him too? Will Daniel Bryan be stubborn and join Owens and Zayn as a conscientious objector, or will he be the decent man trying to do the right thing?

The interest will be in how the key players react, as the finish of last night’s match does not on the surface appear to require much explaining. Shane wouldn’t count three because his personal grudge against Zayn and Owens took over; Bryan then supplied the fast count not because he was siding with those men, but because he was concerned with doing business ‘the right way’ and – the key point – because Shane should’ve counted three and the match should’ve been over, and he was taking remedial action to restore natural justice. Of course, it could (and yet might) be argued that by that logic the match should’ve been over even sooner when Bryan inadvertently broke up Orton’s pin after the RKO. But whether misguided honor and good intentions should translate directly to heel character traits is up for debate.

And it’s here that I see some parallels with Sami Zayn’s turn earlier in this story. Like Bryan, Zayn’s hand was forced when he felt the show’s on-screen commissioner was acting beyond his brief and showing a disregard for some of his roster. A special ref refusing to count three is as much of a heel move as counting fast. Backing a ref into a corner to confront him after something that wasn’t his fault, as Randy Orton did, is also a heel move. Yet with Zayn the story wasn’t of a good man taking regrettable actions against his conscience, but of somebody deciding to be unreasonable among a group of unreasonable men – and one wonders if the same may turn out to be true for Bryan. Is Shane McMahon still the hero here? It’ll be interesting to see who crowds begin to favor in the battle between SmackDown Live’s authority figures.

Also This Week

With a quick hat-tip to last week’s commenters, Joe will probably get his wish with Cedric Alexander claiming the contender’s spot in the cruiserweight division (see the Raw preview above) but there’s no sign of Hideo Itami on 205 Live (Tuesday) yet for Jason to get his teeth into. I tend to agree with both; you could do a lot worse things with a cruiserweight division than having Alexander and Itami as central attractions.

NXT (Wednesday), after its heady one-night-only outing on USA last week, offers two title matches to those of us with WWE Network subscriptions: Pete Dunne vs Tyler Bate for the United Kingdom Championship and SAnitY vs The Undisputed Era for the NXT Tag Team Championships. Could be essential viewing this week, and Dunne vs Bate is usually worth the entrance fee alone.

Three Burning Questions

All SmackDown-related this week, to cut Team Blue a bit of slack after I was so mean about them a week ago. Let us know what your answers are to these (or indeed any other questions that are playing on your mind) in the comments below.

  1. Which of SmackDown’s two authority figures do you think is more in the wrong over the finish to last night’s tag match?
  2. Who should be the next challenger to AJ Styles for the WWE Championship?
  3. Is Dolph Ziggler as United States Champion an improvement over Baron Corbin, and what should happen next?

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