Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! Team Kevin & Chris are officially no more, Randy Orton doesn’t want his title shot and for some reason I now have a desire to see James Ellsworth vs Gillberg at WrestleMania. Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, February 20th 2017.
Raw (Staples Center, Los Angeles CA)
Announced: Braun Strowman vs Big Show.
What to expect: Kevin Owens turned on Chris Jericho during last week’s ‘Festival of Friendship’ segment – a reminder of just how good WWE TV can be when the writers fully commit to something and the performers are at the top of their game – and questions will inevitably be asked this week. Why would Owens ditch his partner in crime, heavily credited for his previous Universal Championship defences, just a few weeks before facing Bill Goldberg? What was said in Triple H’s private conversation with Owens backstage, and is that related? Will we see Jericho this week, or indeed this side of Fastlane? Goldberg is not scheduled to be at Raw this week, so the likelihood is it’s all about Owens tonight.
Last week’s Raw was also a big one at the top of the women’s division, with Bayley becoming the new Women’s Champion. Her first Monday night show with the belt may not be a comfortable one though, with dethroned queen Charlotte Flair almost certain to raise the twin spectres of Sasha Banks’ DQ-worthy interference and the prospect of a pay-per-view rematch. Elsewhere, this week’s announced clash of the big men may follow a similar path to last week, where Braun Strowman beat Mark Henry before Roman Reigns showed up to add some fireworks. Also expect to see Sami Zayn chasing payback against Samoa Joe after being choked out last week and Enzo & Cass jostle Sheamus & Cesaro for position as contenders to The Club’s tag championships, all of which are likely to have implications for Fastlane in a couple of weeks.
Spotlight: There are a number of things on Raw I admire and enjoy. The development of Braun Strowman, the improvement of the Sheamus & Cesaro dynamic, the friendship between Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho (including last week’s end to it) and the pretty good wrestling matches we’re seeing too. These are all good things that Raw is doing. The booking of the women’s division, however, cannot be numbered among them and I’m afraid last week was a new low.
The issue of Emmalina first. I am generally wary of ‘trolling’ segments – they’re effectively sanctioned disappointment and strike me as being bad business; you’re not delivering something the audience may believe you’d promised. But more than that, this is the extent of what we were given last Monday: Emma, reborn as the in-ring assassin we first glimpsed in NXT before the pink snake puppets got in the way, returned to the road following injury in September, claimed to have been cleared for action in August and was throwing double underhook suplexes at house shows by November. Throughout this all we saw of her on TV were trailers for a gimmick change which after 17 weeks was apparently rendered moot, while the women’s division was being booked in circles around only four women. Emma is a great wrestler, who for months hasn’t been wrestling while the division has been crying out for more definition. That alone is pretty bad. Then the next day, news filtered out that the character had been dropped due to rehearsals not going well.
Where do you even start with this? Who knew that what the progressive Women’s Revolution in modern-day WWE was missing was somebody with a Sable/Kat gimmick? Why, when you’ve spent millions on a Performance Center and developmental brand that is purpose-built for gradually honing characters – like Emma’s organic-feeling gloves-and-aviators badass – would you clumsily respray somebody on a whim? Why the hell would you start running weekly trailers for it on TV before you’ve even decided whether it’s going to work? What a shambles. I can’t remember the last time I saw WWE make as big a hash of something as this. Please, bring back Evil Emma this week, entering to Real Deal with Dana Brooke at her side, give her a competitive squash over some local talent and let’s never talk about this again.
At the top of the division, it’s a similar story: Fantastic talent, clumsy handling. TJRWrestling chief John Canton observed last week how Bayley’s Women’s Championship victory seemed to have come a few weeks too early. It’s a compelling argument, and there are many other points that could be made too. Putting over Charlotte as the pay-per-view queen might be worth more if it didn’t come with the caveat ‘but she’s rubbish at title defences on TV’. Her regular title changes with Sasha Banks, while entertaining, have now left Banks drifting. Bayley’s dream-fulfilling title win – which NXT managed to string out for two years using a women’s roster of comparable size – has been given away on a random episode of Raw and now either a) she loses the belt within three weeks at Fastlane, b) Charlotte’s win streak will end before a WrestleMania payoff, c) the Flair family lawyers will get the title change annulled tonight, which wasn’t the most beloved bit of storytelling when a similar thing happened to Daniel Bryan after Night of Champions in 2013, or d) some other schmoz that leads us to a multi-woman WrestleMania match.
The only two things going for Raw’s women’s division at the moment are the provision of opportunities for long, main-event level matches and the talent of the women who are taking them. The matches are great, but are happening in an environment where little is being held back or built towards. The performers are providing the heat, but rather than harnessing it into a compelling narrative the booking seems to enforce a state of disorder. The second law of thermodynamics says that in a closed system everything tends toward entropy; the first law of booking the Raw women’s division seems to say much the same.
Raw’s women also hardly ever exist in context outside of the current title feud. Along with Emma, Dana Brooke and Alicia Fox barely exist in the context of the division at all. Nia Jax gets the occasional squash match of local talent and had a brief mini-program with Sasha Banks but otherwise remains largely on the periphery. What’s her motivation? Doesn’t she want a title shot yet? Braun Strowman briefly, logically passed through the Universal Championship picture a few weeks ago, but did so coming from and splintering off into feuds where he still existed in context. How are you not managing to do that for your women while your two-hour sister show is running three separate women’s programs?
SmackDown Live (Citizens Business Bank Arena, Ontario CA)
Announced: A battle royal to determine Bray Wyatt’s challenger for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania; Nikki Bella vs Natalya (Falls Count Anywhere).
What to expect: Randy Orton has supposedly relinquished his WrestleMania title shot, earned by his victory in the Royal Rumble, so expect this week’s battle royal to be sold, booked and celebrated by the winner as a big deal; there’s every reason to believe the last man standing will indeed be part of the WWE Championship match on April 2. As for what happens with Orton? That thread will probably be saved for another week. The battle royal will definitely include AJ Styles and will likely fill the work schedules of a number of other major players on Tuesday, possibly encompassing other ongoing personal grudges including that of Dean Ambrose and Baron Corbin.
Alexa Bliss will be expecting a response to her ultimatum to Women’s Champion Naomi – either grant Bliss a title rematch or hand the title over. Last week’s promo exchange did suggest that if the title rematch were to happen (which obviously it will) it would take place this week. With no other pay-per-view stops between now and WrestleMania for the blue brand, and a number of women competing to get on that card, it seems to make more sense to get it out of the way sooner rather than later. Naomi is highly likely to retain, having just won the belt. Nikki Bella and Natalya may finish their rivalry tonight, in a match with a stipulation that should finally lead to a conclusive finish (and keep an eye out for Maryse lurking backstage). Also, it looks as though we may finally be getting a proper program between tag champs American Alpha and The Usos, so expect a spotlight on one or both of those teams.
Spotlight: Consider the full list of men that WWE has booked as world champions since the brand split last July: Ambrose, Balor, Owens, Styles, Cena, Wyatt. Can we stop to appreciate the refreshing novelty of that for a moment? Especially if there’s a chance that WrestleMania ends with Randy Orton and Brock Lesnar holding the gold? Even the guy who is most accustomed to being on that kind of list – John Cena – only held the title for two weeks in order to tick off an important milestone and, here in 2017, has among many of his previous critics become a beloved super-worker. Who’d have thought, five years ago, that John Cena would be cool again?
Bray Wyatt, of course, has always been cool. He was cool when The Wyatt Family was in NXT and their call-up to the main roster was a genuinely exciting move. He was cool when the Family faced The Shield in those six-man tags. He was cool when he made a children’s choir in sheep masks surround John Cena on Raw. He was cool when he brainwashed Daniel Bryan for a couple of weeks before getting his face kneed off in a cage. He was still cool when he rambled through incoherent and repetitive promos for many months against interchangeable adversaries and lost feuds left, right and centre. And you can bet your ass he was cool when crowds started getting their cellphones out for his ‘fireflies’ entrance.
So when last week’s crowd in Anaheim started their ‘you deserve it’ chant at the new WWE Champion, there was a feeling they’d been waiting a long time to be able to do it. Hopefully this may be the turning of a corner for Wyatt, from a utility caricature bogeyman who primarily exists to be vanquished towards a unique, iconic talent. There’s nobody quite like Bray Wyatt and, while there will be nobody like the surely-soon-to-retire Undertaker again, it shouldn’t stop WWE from trying to create another occult-ish megastar. Hopefully pinning John Cena (twice) and AJ Styles last week is the dawn of Wyatt as a serious threat and his unique selling points will freely push him to new heights.
I think most of us are predicting Luke Harper to win this week’s battle royal on SmackDown Live. There’s an outside chance somebody like Styles might sneak it to set up a showdown with Wyatt (with Randy Orton in his corner), but the concept of Harper – seemingly poised to be a breakout star – threatening his former mentor’s championship reign, Orton reclaiming his Rumble-won right to be in the match as insurance and a well-timed RKO Outta Nowhere to Bray Wyatt on the final SmackDown Live before WrestleMania seems too obvious to pass up.
It’s also a story and a contest that I can see a lot of people buying into. This is a far cry from No Mercy back in October, when many people were flummoxed by Wyatt and Orton taking the main event spot over Dolph Ziggler’s career-threatening match with The Miz (which still seems like the wrong decision). There’s a lot of renewed enthusiasm for Harper, Orton will always be popular with a large part of the crowd and Bray Wyatt, as we’ve established, has always been cool. Will the match be true to the Royal Rumble stipulation and genuinely main event WrestleMania? It probably won’t go on first – the fate of a number of previous Rumble winners – as the Citrus Bowl won’t be dark enough for Wyatt’s fireflies at the start of the show, and ultimately everything depends on what Vince McMahon thinks will be the biggest draw. But there’s every sign the audience will buy into it as a genuine headline match, and given Bray Wyatt’s stop-start WWE journey to this point, that’s no mean achievement.
Also This Week
With Gran Metalik joining the party last week, 205 Live (Tuesday) continues to improve its regular roster and is delivering a solid hour of good wrestling each week. Although the cruiserweight segments on Raw are still very short for trying to engage audiences on a regular basis, 205 Live seems to be having a positive effect in roadtesting the division’s feuds to help choose and book those Raw segments better. The division is certainly improving – it’s just that the hard graft behind it is happening on Tuesday nights, not Monday nights.
NXT (Wednesday) will see a three-way dance between Peyton Royce, Ember Moon and Liv Morgan to decide who faces Asuka in a Women’s Championship match next week. As we’ve noted before, the money in the division is tied up in a slow build to Asuka vs Ember Moon, but held off until WrestleMania weekend. Also, if you enjoyed last week’s match between guys from the UK Championship Tournament, there’s another helping this week with Pete Dunne vs Mark Andrews.
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!
- What do you think Triple H said to Kevin Owens last week and what would you like to see happen next?
- Asides from Luke Harper, who would you make a case for winning the battle royal on SmackDown Live this week?
- When was the last time WWE got something as wrong as Emmalina? I’m really struggling with this one…..
Until next week, strap in, enjoy the ride and remember to stick with TJRWrestling.net for your show recaps and analysis.