Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! Goldberg ended the reign of Kevin Owens, Randy Orton burned down the shed of Bray Wyatt and the next stop for everyone on the roster is WrestleMania weekend. Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, March 6th 2017.

Raw (Allstate Arena, Chicago IL)

Announced: Neville vs Rich Swann for the Cruiserweight Championship and a video package about Seth Rollins’ rehabilitation program. Brock Lesnar is booked for every Raw between now and WrestleMania – so consider that a standing order from here on out. And Bill Goldberg, his opponent there, is now the Universal Champion, so again his attendance over the next month shouldn’t really be considered big news.

What to expect: As mentioned, Goldberg is the Universal Champion and his WrestleMania clash with Lesnar will now be a title match. Expect Paul Heyman and his client to appear tonight to start the big sell. Is it too much to hope for some physicality? There may be some talk of a contractual rematch for Kevin Owens, although he’s likely to have half a mind on the returning Chris Jericho who cost him last night via distraction. At the top of the women’s division, it’ll be interesting to see whether Charlotte calls out Bayley for needing a Sasha Banks assist last night, after heeding Bayley’s challenge to leave Dana Brooke in the locker room. It’s possible we could start to see tension as a result between Bayley and Banks (who may also have an enraged Nia Jax on her tail).

Neville’s title defence against Rich Swann could be a good contest again if it isn’t just used as an angle to set up whatever’s next for the champion and, with the Chicago crowd, might be the best-received cruiserweight division match we’ve seen for a while. The Club retained their Tag Team Championships at Fastlane, though not totally cleanly after Enzo Amore’s foot was nudged off the bottom rope during the pinfall. Talk tonight may be of Enzo & Cass getting another shot, into which Sheamus & Cesaro may well try to muscle. Elsewhere in tag team news, (Handsome) Rusev and Jinder Mahal have fallen out and will probably continue to do so tonight.

Other things to put on your radar: The Undertaker is expected to appear (to seek out Roman Reigns?) but hasn’t been formally announced. Also, Finn Balor is due back any day now…..

Spotlight: If you sat through the Raw before Fastlane last week which was, to use the kindest word possible, pedestrian (as were parts of Fastlane itself, ironically given the name), there’s a good chance tonight’s episode will be light years ahead in terms of entertainment value. Big-name returns, highlight reel moments and talk of blockbuster matches should begin to elbow aside ‘bonus’ 20-minute segments about Jinder Mahal. Such is the power of finally getting to focus on the stories you really want to tell, and March should once again be a strong month for WWE’s weekly programming as a result.

Symptomatic of an impatience to get on with the story you’d rather tell is rushing through the end of the previous one and yes, I know it was widely predicted that last night’s Universal Championship match wouldn’t last very long and would end with a new champion. For me though, the little details around how it went down made it feel even more like a TV angle than a major title change in a pay-per-view main event. I understand the idea of Goldberg dispatching the Universal Champion in around 20 seconds makes for a great statistic, but Owens stalling before the bell delayed the drama rather than built it, while the immediate Chris Jericho music distraction felt like a very Raw solution to a match that the writers had no interest in seeing play out. Post-match, Michael Cole – almost certainly acting under instruction – speedily launches into the “hey guys, this means the match at WrestleMania between Goldberg and Lesnar will be for the Universal Championship, that’s going to be awesome and don’t forget it’s only four weeks away” and we’re very clearly meant to be more interested in what’s happening then as opposed to what’s happening now.

Casting an eye over the likely card for Orlando, I’d say Goldberg vs Lesnar stands out as the clear frontrunner to main event. We all know that the Royal Rumble’s ‘winner main events WrestleMania’ stipulation hasn’t always been carved in stone and SmackDown Live’s main title match therefore has no advantage over Raw’s in the only mind that matters: Vince McMahon’s. And as much as it’s good to see Bray Wyatt getting an opportunity with a major championship, we can all guess whether or not Vince considers Bill Goldberg and Brock Lesnar to be bigger draws. Elsewhere on the card, the only other potential match that might come close is between Roman Reigns and The Undertaker – but Goldberg/Lesnar, this time for a title, seems tailor-made to close the big show.

Assuming this does indeed turn out to be the case, there are a couple of things about it that would probably benefit the show. Firstly, a big criticism of WrestleMania 32 last year was the main event; specifically the fact it was a drawn-out, attritional 27-minute contest at the end of a show that ran more than six hours (including Kickoff). It would’ve been too much to ask of the audience even if Roman Reigns was universally loved. This year, there’s a good chance the main event won’t be anywhere near as demanding – it could be an intense sprint between two men throwing the kitchen sink at each other from the outset, and be done comfortably inside of ten minutes. Secondly, a short main event frees up more time for the matches more likely to be wrestling clinics; every match on the card playing its role is usually the mark of a well-balanced pay-per-view.

So in summary, Goldberg vs Lesnar for the Universal Championship will likely be short but enjoyable and end up working out well for everybody. It’ll also beyond any doubt be given a much grander feel than last night’s main event. All that remains now is to get the build right – a four-week set-piece that the company, with its vast experience, should be able to do with its eyes shut – and there’s every chance WWE can bring this home as a successful centerpiece of their centerpiece event. Regarding that build, some physicality would be good and might be inevitable, as there was a heavily reliance on threatening staredowns and Paul Heyman promos before their previous match at Survivor Series. Lesnar jumping the champion unexpectedly would allow for a reasonably long tangle without denting Goldberg’s image as an unstoppable force.

However one of the things I’m most interested to see is how much (if at all) their previous WrestleMania match in 2004 is referenced. I’m as up for a Steve Austin appearance as the next man, but wouldn’t be surprised if the past is left buried – that match, after all, was pretty awful as a spectacle and should be exorcised by next month’s bout. Who knew the best way to deal with a dud match at WrestleMania was to do it again for a title 13 years later? Stand by for Michael Cole to face Jerry Lawler for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 40.

SmackDown Live (Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis IN)

Announced: AJ Styles vs Randy Orton, winner faces Bray Wyatt for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania. John Cena & Nikki Bella vs James Ellsworth & Carmella.

What to expect: Expect the issue of the WWE Championship match at WrestleMania to be definitively resolved, no questionmarks or further diversions. And expect Randy Orton to win. In the other announced match, John Cena – now accepted by all but his harshest critics as an actually pretty great worker – is this week challenged to convince everyone he’s some sort of wizard. This mixed tag match should be mercifully brief and, if not ending with an easy face win, ending via Miz and Maryse interference (preferably before the bell rings). One of these two bouts could be very, very good and figure among the best TV matches of the year so far. Can you guess which one?

Elsewhere on Tuesday night, the blue brand’s women will probably keep knocking into each other in unlikely, reciprocal ways (Alexa tries to distract Becky, Mickie accidentally hits Alexa, here’s Natalya interrupting a backstage interview all of a sudden) to justify a multi-woman title match next month. In contrast, the Intercontinental Championship match looks to be firmly set between two men – Dean Ambrose and Baron Corbin – for which a deliberate and purposeful (and so far very promising) build should continue. Finally, no tag division content last week should guarantee something involving American Alpha and/or The Usos going down this week.

Spotlight: On the face of it, at the time, AJ Styles’ victory in last week’s number one contender’s match and presumptive confirmation as part of the WWE Championship match at WrestleMania appeared to be a change of course. Luke Harper seemed too obvious an addition to an eventual Wyatt Family three-way to pass up on, while word on the grapevine was that Styles was lined up for a bout with SmackDown commissioner Shane McMahon. Styles in the title picture was not on anybody’s list of expectations.

Few would have complained though. Over the past year, Styles has confirmed what most long-term observers had hereto only been able to suspect; that the former TNA Impact Wrestling and New Japan star is absolutely worthy of sharing the top bracket in the world’s most prestigious wrestling company. Having in turn carried its most prestigious championship through the end of 2016, a spot in the title match of this year’s big show would’ve been well earned. Many have considered his proposed match with Shane to be a step down from this, which in principle is hard to disagree with, but when you consider how the company may view the value of a spot opposite the boss’s son at least we can be reassured it shows the decision-makers in WWE consider him no ordinary member of the roster. That ain’t bad.

But the seeds for Plan A were clearly still being sown. Shane McMahon had come out to restart the match after the false finish for Styles, got in the way and took a bump and then obfuscated on Talking Smack when AJ gave him some backchat. Then on Friday, it was announced Styles would have to face Randy Orton – who, surprise surprise, wants his guaranteed title shot at WrestleMania after all – to choose only one contender and the die was cast; it’s clearly going to be Plan A. I found myself feeling disappointed; a potential triple threat seemed a more interesting way forward and I’m no fan of the Rumble winner having to defend their guaranteed shot, even if they fibbed about not wanting it for a couple of weeks. Bonus points to WWE, at least, for swiftly puncturing the bubble the same week (and after all, announcing big matches in advance is never a bad thing) and for trying on Talking Smack to cover off why Daniel Bryan – who himself mutinied under Bray Wyatt’s patriarchy and has storied first-hand experience of Randy Orton’s sneakiness – wouldn’t think to double-check Randy’s intentions before signing off on that battle royal.

However, it now also looks impossible to add Luke Harper to the title match, which as we’ve noted here previously was an appealing concept. Wyatt, Orton and Harper each have concrete and varying reasons to hate the other two men, and a three-way would have a lot more going for it in terms of action, intrigue and storyline. But how would you justify making Styles defend (and lose) the opportunity he gained, before arbitrarily adding the man he beat to gain that opportunity in the first place? We’re therefore left with the inevitable prospect of a straight singles match between Orton and Wyatt which already main evented No Mercy in October and, subsequent drama notwithstanding, didn’t exactly leave us wanting more.

Even considering that WWE will book what it chooses to book, it seems strange business, to me, to plant the seeds in the minds of the audience (as no seasoned viewers believed Randy Orton would actually give up his shot) for two other matches they haven’t seen and may rather see, before giving them something a lot more conservative. John Cena was also at it last week, highlighting with no subtlety whatsoever that a match against Undertaker would be infinitely better than being stuck in a reality TV-themed intergender tag with his girlfriend. From this week onwards, SmackDown Live may need a little more discipline in its narrative to help take the audience with them on the build towards WrestleMania.

Also This Week

Former champion and surely-soon-to-be-main-roster-member Shinsuke Nakamura is back this week on NXT (Wednesday) after his (worked) injury in losing to Bobby Roode in San Antonio. The yellow brand, from this week and likely through to WrestleMania weekend and TakeOver: Orlando, comes from the University of Central Florida.

With Neville defending the Cruiserweight Championship on Raw against Rich Swann, eyes will also be on 205 Live (Tuesday) for further clues as to what WWE might do next with the division on the build towards WrestleMania. Austin Aries being involved looks all but certain, but will it be a singles clash or a multi-man affair?

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. With Finn Balor expected back imminently, what could you see him doing at WrestleMania?
  2. Which hypothetical four-way match would you be more interested in seeing: Bayley vs Charlotte vs Sasha vs Nia, or Alexa vs Becky vs Mickie vs Natalya?
  3. What cruiserweight match (or matches) would you like to see happen at WrestleMania?

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