Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! Raw is 25 years old and the Royal Rumble is once again upon us. Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, January 22nd 2018.

Raw 25 (Barclays Center, Brooklyn NY & Manhattan Center, Manhattan NY)

Announced: WWE is celebrating the 25th anniversary of Monday Night Raw, packing tonight’s show – coming in part from the Barclays Center and also from Raw’s original residence, the Manhattan Center – with legends from the past. In terms of announced matches, The Miz will get his Intercontinental Championship rematch with Roman Reigns. There’ll also be a special one-hour pre-show available through various channels, should you fancy it.

What to expect: We’ll come to the celebration and nostalgia elements – which will probably make up the majority of the show – in a moment, but some quick notes first on essential storyline business that’ll need to be taken care of tonight. The title match between Reigns and Miz could potentially go the way of The Miz, though there’s plenty of time for Reigns to drop the belt if he’s to go for the Universal Championship at WrestleMania. Speaking of which, Brock Lesnar is back tonight and (along with Kane) is likely to seek retribution against Braun Strowman. Seth Rollins, Jason Jordan and The Bar will finish the build for their title match on Sunday, as will Enzo Amore and Cedric Alexander. Elsewhere there may be more between Matt Hardy and Bray Wyatt, but otherwise asides from a roll call segments with legends all roads lead to the Rumble. Some of the SmackDown Live roster is also in attendance tonight, so an element of cross-brand posturing ahead of Sunday is inevitable.

Spotlight: WWE, as we all know, likes to refer to Raw as ‘the longest-running weekly episodic TV show’ in history. There’s some debate about the factual accuracy of that claim, but it would be churlish not to give the company its due ahead of tonight’s celebration; 25 years of Raw is no small achievement. The show should be a lot of fun, with a lot of star power, so let’s try not to worry about The Revival having positioned themselves in the Heath Slater/Ascension slot for getting wrecked by an army of retirees and enjoy the ride.

What faces from the past can we expect to see? If you shop around the obscure parts of the internet you can probably find rumors of just about any ‘surprise’ figure showing up tonight, some of them evidently clickbait speculation. Sticking exclusively to people WWE has itself promoted (which is probably a wise move) the guest list includes Steve Austin, The Undertaker, Chris Jericho, Shawn Michaels, Torrie Wilson, Trish Stratus, Jacqueline, The Dudley Boyz, Christian, Ric Flair, Scott Hall, The New Age Outlaws, Eric Bischoff, Terri Runnels, JBL & Ron Simmons, Kelly Kelly, The Godfather, The Brooklyn Brawler, Michelle McCool, Brother Love, The Boogeyman, Teddy Long, Ted DiBiase, John Laurinaitis, Harvey Wippleman, Jonathan Coachman, MVP and William Regal. Ring announcers Lilian Garcia and Howard Finkel are also scheduled to appear, while Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler will be calling the action from the Manhattan Center.

Exactly how WWE is planning to handle those cross-venue logistics is still a little unclear; one hour from the Manhattan Center and two (possibly following) from the Barclays seems the best estimate, with some legends making an appearance at the former but possibly also the latter too. It’s safe to assume that WWE knows what it’s doing though; in the 25 years since Raw started broadcasting, the company has become masters of the live broadcast and the challenge of presenting an event such as this seamlessly and entertainingly will seem like a walk in the park from the viewers’ point of view. How the show’s writers will fit in the sheer weight of extra on-screen personnel, while still making the hard sell for this weekend’s Royal Rumble, is by far a more tricky challenge.

And make no mistake, that will be a high priority. WWE knows loading a show this heavily will get extra eyes on the product and will take that opportunity to give people a reason to tune in again – not just for the Rumble, but likely for WrestleMania too. The last time Raw held a celebration of this magnitude, for its 1,000th episode back in 2012, The Rock announced he would be wrestling for the WWE Championship six months down the line. This time, the speculation circles around The Undertaker and whether he’ll be returning from his apparent retirement last year for another match at WrestleMania. John Cena, the presumed opponent, will also be in attendance tonight, so if that’s the plan it could be very firmly set up here.

It’s also possible some points may be raised about WWE legends entering either or both Royal Rumble matches on Sunday. The Rumble has always had a tradition of including one or two nostalgia spots, but on this occasion WWE has a chance to do things a little differently and set them up in advance. The surprise factor of special Rumble entrants is part of the appeal, but doing them with a little background may feel fresh. So far, only 12 competitors from both brands are confirmed for the men’s Rumble, leaving plenty of available space (if an overabundance of regular talent to fill them), but it’s the women’s Rumble that could be the outside tip to get a boost here with the most obvious candidates for guest appearances – Stratus, Kelly, McCool – scheduled to appear. Tonight may appear to be all about the nostalgia, but be prepared for some business to be done that affects the future too.

SmackDown Live (Capital One Arena, Washington DC)

Announced: Rusev & Aiden English vs The Ascension.

What to expect: Again, some brief notes for this, the go-home show for the Rumble, as there’s a lot of other stuff we need to talk about that’ll be happening later in the week. Last Tuesday’s show was dominated by the sudden conclusion of the United States Championship tournament; it’s possible Dolph Ziggler may show up again to undermine new champion Bobby Roode, or beaten finalist Jinder Mahal may make a point of declaring himself for the Rumble match. Either way, there’s presumably a reason why we couldn’t wait to have the finals this week that will become clear. The dynamic between AJ Styles, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn needs to be fleshed out more before their WWE Championship match (preferably without the presence of the show’s authority figures). The Usos and Shelton Benjamin & Chad Gable, wrestling a 2-out-of-3-falls match on Sunday, should also figure. Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon will probably find something on which to disagree and, otherwise, most men and women’s minds are likely to be on their respective Rumble matches for Sunday. If Raw 25 doesn’t end with the locker room being emptied for a mass brawl, it’ll presumably happen here.

Spotlight: I think we’re all agreed that the winner of the men’s Royal Rumble this Sunday will be either Roman Reigns or – as it doesn’t really fit the character of any of Raw’s other potential top guys (Balor, Strowman, Joe, Rollins) to duck the challenge of facing Brock Lesnar and jump shows – it’ll be somebody from SmackDown Live. The unique status of WWE’s one brand mercenary, the multimedia entertainment commodity known as John Cena, might also be discounted if it becomes clear on Raw 25 that other WrestleMania plans are afoot for him. So if not Reigns, it’s somebody from Team Blue. But who are the candidates? And might it be somebody we’re not expecting?

The first thing to note is that situations change. As Raw still has the Elimination Chamber before WrestleMania (a perfect environment for Reigns to claim his contendership, though we’ve never seen Brock Lesnar in an Elimination Chamber match and we really should), so SmackDown has Fastlane. Local adverts, less than fully reliable as they are, preview the WWE Championship match as a five-way contest between holder AJ Styles and the four contenders Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Shinsuke Nakamura and Randy Orton. It may be this means none of those men need the guaranteed shot at WrestleMania. It may also be that this is a red herring; just a placeholder match or – mischievous interpretation – WWE deliberately leading us astray. What it certainly is is a reminder that nothing is guaranteed.

The usual presumption is that the Rumble provides the final piece of the jigsaw; the question of who faces the incumbent champion. There is the possibility that it’s the first piece of the jigsaw (as it was with Randy Orton last year) – in which case all bets for the winner are off. But even if we assume AJ Styles remains champion through to April, a couple of things remain true: WWE will consider Lesnar vs Reigns the bigger deal, meaning they might feel they have a little more of a free hand with booking their other major championship, and having Styles as champion is already a pretty good start. Without wishing to talk down the men involved, we’ve seen world championship matches opening WrestleMania. They don’t always have to be ‘dream matches’.

Am I trying to insulate you against the potential disappointment of the Royal Rumble winner being someone from SmackDown Live who isn’t Shinsuke Nakamura? Yes. That’s my preference, absolutely. It may well still happen. But if you want to know my tips for darkest horses from the SmackDown roster for this Sunday, I’d suggest Baron Corbin (who took the United States Championship off Styles in November), Big E (because are The New Day hosting WrestleMania again, wrestling The Usos again, or what?) and Dolph Ziggler. The rushing through of the United States Championship tournament and the absence of Ziggler from its denouement was interesting; the cliché would have been for the former champion to show up and decry the winner as no true champion. That may still happen, but could Ziggler convincingly fit into a greater role as a spoiling contender for Styles at WrestleMania? Stranger things have happened.

Also This Week

A clarification and an apology from last week’s programming notes, from me to anybody not in the United States who tried to watch Mixed Match Challenge (Tuesday) on Facebook Watch – which is apparently geo-locked. I only found out myself when I tried to watch it; my fault for not reading the small print, I guess. If you’re outside the States, it goes out 48 hours later on the WWE Network so you can get your fix on Thursday instead. This week, The Miz & Asuka face Big E and Carmella, and if it doesn’t end in Asuka snapping Carmella’s arms off I’d be most surprised.

205 Live (Tuesday) is again pushed back in the schedules by half an hour to accommodate MMC. NXT (Wednesday) leads with Johnny Gargano vs Velveteen Dream, with Dream getting Gargano’s shot at the NXT Championship if he wins. There’s also a return to action for No Way Jose and the second part of the (so far great) documentary about TM61.

The night before the Royal Rumble, as with all of WWE’s ‘big four’ shows now, is another showcase for the developmental roster with NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia (Saturday). The card – the official version – is currently as follows:

  • NXT Championship: Andrade “Cien” Almas (c) vs Johnny Gargano (subject to confirmation)
  • Aleister Black vs Adam Cole (Extreme Rules Match)
  • NXT Women’s Championship: Ember Moon (c) vs Shayna Baszler
  • NXT Tag Team Championships: The Undisputed ERA (c) vs The Authors of Pain

As noted, Gargano is putting his title shot on the line this Wednesday – hence my attempt to maintain suspension of disbelief and say this is subject to confirmation; as much as I’m enjoying watching Velveteen Dream at the moment, he has no cause to be facing the NXT Champion at a TakeOver with less than a week’s build and the target match is clearly Almas vs Gargano. The absent fifth match to complete the usual TakeOver structure could be Roderick Strong vs Lars Sullivan based on Strong’s promo on NXT last week, but there’s a lot of talent jockeying for position behind those top four matches.

A couple of the potential title changes here could really move the needle; Johnny Gargano as NXT Champion would be a sincerely feel-good moment, with the prospect of Tommaso Ciampa’s eventual return from injury looming. That, as a potential NXT Championship match for WrestleMania weekend, would be a nice fit. Meanwhile, Shayna Baszler has been introduced to the women’s division as an uncompromising bully and her bringing Ember Moon’s long-sought title reign to an abrupt, violent end would certainly be a bold move. Either or both changes are a possibility. Likely match of the night? The clash between Aleister Black and Adam Cole, promising to play on Philly’s ‘extreme’ history, should be pretty wild.

Royal Rumble (Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia PA; joint brand pay-per-view)

Announced: The card is subject to change and additions as always, though the two (yes, two; the moment is finally upon us) Rumble matches will easily claim half of the four-hour running time. Official matches at time of writing are:

  • 30-Man Royal Rumble Match (confirmed entrants: John Cena, Finn Balor, Randy Orton, Shinsuke Nakamura, Elias, Baron Corbin, Matt Hardy, Bray Wyatt, Aiden English, Rusev, Titus O’Neil, Apollo Crews)
  • 30-Woman Royal Rumble Match (confirmed entrants: Asuka, Ruby Riott, Liv Morgan, Sarah Logan, Sasha Banks, Nia Jax, Bayley, Naomi, Natalya, Sonya Deville, Mandy Rose, Mickie James, Tamina, Lana, Carmella, Becky Lynch, Dana Brooke, Alicia Fox)
  • WWE Championship: AJ Styles (c) vs Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn
  • Universal Championship: Brock Lesnar (c) vs Braun Strowman vs Kane
  • Raw Tag Team Championships: Seth Rollins & Jason Jordan (c) vs Cesaro & Sheamus
  • SmackDown Tag Team Championships: The Usos (c) vs Chad Gable & Shelton Benjamin (2-out-of-3-falls)
  • Cruiserweight Championship: Enzo Amore (c) vs Cedric Alexander

What to expect: Ladies first. The inaugural women’s Royal Rumble match is overdue, certainly, but probably hasn’t been viable before now – not as a 30-woman, over-the-top-rope contest. With previous rosters, WWE would’ve struggled to fill 30 spots and an hour of entertainment with competitors believably bumping over the top rope to the floor. I can’t express how happy I am at the decision to do it properly if it’s worth doing at all. The surprise entrants – NXT women (Sane, Iconic Duo, either or both of the women on the previous night’s TakeOver card) and legends – will be genuinely fresh and there’s real uncertainty about who might win, with Ronda Rousey widely imagined to be lurking in the shadows. I think the Philly crowd will be hot for this match and it’ll pay back the faith in spades. As long as there’s no James Ellsworth involved.

Not a lot more to say about the men’s match that I haven’t alluded to above, except perhaps that Philadelphia was the setting for the infamous 2015 Rock-assisted coronation of Roman Reigns, which went down like a cup of cold sick in the Wells Fargo Center. Even if the plan is for Reigns to challenge for the Universal Championship, surely WWE wouldn’t risk going down the Rumble route again? The exorcism play is probably an entertaining-but-nondescript match where Reigns goes deep and worries the live crowd before a universally-accepted babyface dumps him out to win. There’s a reason Shinsuke Nakamura is currently the betting favorite.

Outside of the eponymous matches, the Styles vs Owens and Zayn handicap contest will probably be heavily character-driven, not only telling the story of whether Styles can fight off both men but how well Owens and Zayn really are co-existing. Sadly, this is likely to make it the second-best SmackDown match out of the two currently on the card; happily, that’s partly because the other one – for the Tag Team Championships – is likely to be pretty great. On the Raw side, Brock Lesnar will probably pin Kane after a fairly straightforward three-way hoss fight, Jason Jordan is in a good spot to wrestle in entertaining tag matches while adding arrogant wrinkles to his character and I really hope Cedric Alexander wins the Cruiserweight Championship (but am braced for disappointment).

The main show starts at 7pm Eastern, with the two-hour Kickoff show starting at 5pm. The road to WrestleMania begins! As usual, check back here on Friday for the full TJRWrestling preview with John and the gang.

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’s your pick to win the men’s Royal Rumble?
  2. Who’s your pick to win the women’s Royal Rumble?
  3. What are you most looking forward to seeing on Raw 25 tonight?

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