Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! TLC is this weekend and there’s only one match involving tables, ladders or chairs – but don’t worry, fans of quantity, because there’ll be an absurd seven people in it (nine if you include Bo Dallas and Curtis Axel). Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, October 16th 2017.

Raw (Moda Center, Portland OR)

Announced: Roman Reigns vs Braun Strowman inside a steel cage.

What to expect: As you’ll see when we come to my notes on TLC, Raw can basically be split into two categories at the moment – stuff The Shield is involved with, and everything else. Starting with the former, the cage match between Reigns and Strowman might be good while it lasts but surely can’t end without Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins trying to enter the cage and interfere. A big stench of angle here. Likewise, Ambrose and Rollins (with or without the help of Reigns) will probably spend the rest of their show tied up with their other TLC opponents, Sheamus & Cesaro and The Miz.

In non-Shield activity, expect Alexa Bliss to talk more about the age of Mickie James and for Emma to talk up her chances against Asuka at TLC. I don’t imagine we’ll see Asuka tonight, and that her big entrance will probably be saved for Sunday. I also don’t imagine we’ll see Bray Wyatt’s big reveal of ‘Sister Abigail’ tonight and that’ll also be saved for Sunday, but we’ll see. Perhaps we’ll get one or the other. Enzo Amore may let his heel side show through a bit more as he chases new Cruiserweight Champion Kalisto before their rematch at TLC. Elsewhere, Elias, Titus O’Neil, Apollo Crews, Gallows & Anderson, Jason Jordan, Matt Hardy and the rest of the cruiserweight and women’s divisions may or may not do things of very little consequence and I’ll be praying for some sort of surprise matchup to be made for the weekend.

Spotlight: It’s a notable week for Raw’s women’s division, with the debut of former NXT Women’s Champion Asuka coming on Sunday at TLC. For the uninitiated, Asuka spent two years in WWE’s developmental brand, sweeping all before her. She defeated Bayley for the NXT Women’s Championship on the weekend of WrestleMania 32 and then held the championship for 523 days (by the reckoning of WWE’s official calendar based on broadcast dates rather than taping dates), only vacating it this past month in order to move up to the main roster. 36 years old and already a big deal in her native Japan prior to arriving in NXT, Asuka will bring color, intensity, lightning speed, hard strikes and submissions to Monday nights. She’s something unique and different from the current roster, hence the video package hype, and this Sunday will be the chance for her to make a first impression.

Emma is to fill the Dolph Ziggler role of sacrificial lamb, punchbag to the arriving Hot Stuff from NXT. It’s a great choice. The two had an excellent match at NXT TakeOver London in December 2015, when the Emma character was somewhere near its creative peak; it’s since fallen into a state of neglect thanks to the ‘Emmalina’ atrocity, a period on the injured list and a terrible trade-in deal on her theme song – but these two women could do a lot worse than recycling that TakeOver match this weekend, to help both of their standings. I’m not so sure that’s what we’ll get though. An extended squash, to showcase Asuka’s standard moveset seems more likely, or possibly (and this is in my opinion an even poorer choice) a match where Emma dominates the early going before Asuka hits a few devastating moves out of nowhere to win. I’d love this match to be booked as a fresh shot of adrenaline for the Raw women’s roster, but I’m not sure that’s what we’re going to get.

Where Asuka fits into the Raw women’s roster and the terms of her arrival are pretty important. Her English promos have improved during her time in NXT, but for the purposes of live television her character needs to fall into the category of ‘show, don’t tell’. Also, asides from her NXT Women’s Championship reign, she’s running an unbeaten streak that WWE has noted as eclipsing that of Goldberg in WCW. She’s never lost a match since her arrival in the company. This is one limiting factor in how she’ll need to be introduced to the division, because whether her winning streak is referenced on commentary during her first few weeks on Raw or quietly forgotten, her first defeat is going to be seen as a big deal. That’s why Emma was such a natural call to win last week’s qualifying match over, say, Sasha Banks or Bayley (and why Nia Jax was nowhere near the match at all). Asuka will run through the lower ranks first, before the tough booking decisions around the division’s top women or the championship itself have to be addressed.

A quick note on the Raw Women’s Championship while we’re here. Alexa Bliss probably starts as the short-odds favorite to win the title match on Sunday, but it would be fantastic to see Mickie James win. Asides from general goodwill towards Mickie, which is not in short supply among fans, it would have something of a corrective influence on the roles of Raw’s women at the moment. For all the skits of the last few weeks, where Bliss has ripped on the age of James, the latter is only two years older than the debuting Asuka and three years older than SmackDown Women’s Champion Natayla. Mickie James as champion would also provide a route to Nia Jax as champion without burning out what’s left of Jax’s chemistry with Bliss. Two women’s matches and an Asuka debut is great news for this weekend’s pay-per-view, but the real value of those will be if they create opportunities for multiple and various storylines on Raw in the future, rather than reverting to the sole question of who’s challenging the champ this month.

SmackDown Live (KeyArena, Seattle WA)

Announced: Bobby Roode vs Dolph Ziggler.

What to expect: Let’s open by talking about duos, which SmackDown Live suddenly got very high on last week. Shelton Benjamin and Chad Gable became number one contenders to Tag Team Champions The Usos, so we should get an idea here of when that match will happen (SmackDown’s next pay-per-view stop is Survivor Series next month). Luke Harper and Erick Rowan, repackaged as “Bludgeon Brothers”, should either be hyped or appear – possibly in relation to Breezango’s activities – while The New Day need a new program to work and The Hype Bros continue to have disagreements. Meanwhile, in one of the most interesting storylines on the show, Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens are now brothers in arms. Expect to learn more about how they’re now aligned and positioned opposite the show’s roster and authority figures.

The announced Bobby Roode vs Dolph Ziggler match feels a bit flat – not sure whether that’s due to last week’s faltering promo or the slight character mismatch. The program between Natalya and Charlotte Flair for the SmackDown Women’s Championship is clearly continuing and feels like it’s gaining at least a little bit more traction than Roode/Ziggler; the intention seems to be to give this feud a bit more of a personal edge. Baron Corbin may find a new challenger for the United States Championship or just rub it in people’s faces. As for AJ Styles? And Shinsuke Nakamura, Randy Orton, Rusev and WWE Champion Jinder Mahal? They all need something new. It’s possible this week may be a holding pattern for SmackDown, until Raw can get TLC out of the way and some cross-brand matches at Survivor Series can start to be set up.

Spotlight: Some quick notes here on a few issues across SmackDown, which has somehow found itself trying to resolve an identity crisis of late. Shinsuke Nakamura cracked his head on a glass ceiling so hard that he ought to require ImPACT testing. Baron Corbin apparently needed a repackaged entrance so urgently that the addition of lyrics to his new theme was only considered a few weeks later. Shelton Benjamin and Chad Gable are still trying to get over as American Alpha 2.0 after Jason Jordan was judged to be the guy with enough charisma to go solo. Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair have been out of the spotlight for weeks at a time. Bobby Roode is a babyface. Sami Zayn is a heel. It’s almost like SmackDown Live currently exists in a world where everyone in the company has been ordered to ignore the successes of NXT.

I’m not certain if Jinder Mahal as WWE Champion is symptom or cause in relation to this. I’m tempted to say symptom. Certainly the booking of Lynch, Flair and the women’s division have nothing to do with the Mahal experiment. However, there’s no doubt that a compelling main event program can mask a lot of problems, transitions and rebuilding projects elsewhere on a show – and the WWE Championship picture has felt stale since before Mahal’s feud with Randy Orton had ended. AJ Styles, now relieved of the United States Championship, seems likely to be the next man to challenge but may follow Nakamura into the buffers if WWE’s decision-makers see mileage left in Mahal as champion. And that does seem to limit ambitions for the rest of SmackDown’s singles talent. At least Baron Corbin seems to be getting back on track now, with an entrance theme tailored to fit, a clean win over Styles last week and a title to defend in the clear-cut role of antagonist and bully.

My thoughts on Sami Zayn’s explanation for his actions last week? I wasn’t sold on the beginning (“you powerbombing me on the apron a few weeks ago is what started opening my eyes” not only feels cliché, but I always struggle to believe anyone has revelations like that) or the end (Zayn retconning his despisal of Owens as a despisal of Owens being ‘right’ didn’t seem to sit true), but everything in between was outstanding. Zayn and Owens strike me as two of the smartest minds of their generation on the WWE roster, with a deep understanding of craft and character. The point here was to show Zayn can be complicit in heel acts without surrendering the moral high ground of something being ‘the right thing to do’; his criticism of Shane McMahon and his place on the show was expressly legitimate despite being designed to be unpopular. The meat of this was a demonstration in not betraying established characters and was delivered impeccably. The part at the end, where each man took it in turn to raise the other’s arm, felt like a litmus test of crowd reaction; the direction WWE takes these men moving forward feels like a crucial play for SmackDown.

In the tag division, I’m still warming to Gable and Benjamin. I remember the World’s Greatest Tag Team fondly and felt American Alpha were one of the most exciting things to ever come out of NXT, but rather than this combination feeling like a rock supergroup it so far sort of feels like it’s falling between two stools. A decent title program with The Usos (which Alpha Mark One never really got) may help. Remembering that Luke Harper and Erick Rowan are on the roster may also help, even if they need to have large hammers they patently won’t be able to use in matches in order to exist. Ways forward for the women’s division? Charlotte Flair becoming champion, removing Money in the Bank from the equation at the earliest opportunity (I like the concept, but Carmella’s current gimmick with James Ellsworth is getting worse rather than better) and the rumored return of Paige – who I really hope the company will put an arm around and offer a fresh push – wouldn’t be the worst ways to make quick improvements.

Also This Week

NXT (Wednesday) has a three-on-three match between SAnitY and The Undisputed Era, which has been building promisingly over the last few weeks and should be pretty good, plus an interview with Drew McIntyre.

205 Live (Tuesday) will likely conclude the build to TLC this weekend with the final segments between Cruiserweight Champion Kalisto and Enzo Amore. If you missed Rich Swann vs TJP in a two-out-of-three falls match last week, it’s probably worth a look on the WWE Network if you’ve got time to kill.

TLC: Tables, Ladders & Chairs (Target Center, Minneapolis MN; Raw pay-per-view)

Announced: As always, the card is subject to change and additions during the week are virtually certain given how little has been announced so far. Official matches at time of writing:

  • The Shield vs Braun Strowman, The Miz, Cesaro & Sheamus (4-on-3 Handicap Tables, Ladders & Chairs Match)
  • Raw Women’s Championship: Alexa Bliss (c) vs Mickie James
  • WWE Cruiserweight Championship: Kalisto (c) vs Enzo Amore
  • Asuka vs Emma

What to expect: The Shield’s debut match took place at this pay-per-view in 2012. Their TLC match against the cobbled-together team of Kane, Daniel Bryan and Ryback filled the main event slot in part to cover for the absence of world champion CM Punk (who was undergoing knee surgery at the time). There’s no chance of at least half of those other men getting namechecked this Sunday, which is a shame in a way because there’s a neat similarity with this Shield reunion match five years later. Universal Champion Brock Lesnar is absent on Sunday and the show’s headline act will be Ambrose, Rollins and Reigns against a rag-tag unit in a war of tables, ladders and chairs.

The choice of having a quartet facing them illustrates how much of a patch job this is. For a while it looked like it might be The Miz and his Miztourage, which with no disrespect intended would’ve been a mismatch and certainly no main event, then Sheamus & Cesaro carried over their expiring feud with two-thirds of The Shield to accompany Miz and now – partly because he’s got nothing else to do, partly to make the match even harder to call – Braun Strowman is in on the fun too. Might Miz even find himself excommunicated from his own cause this week, switched out to work an Intercontinental Championship match to support the undercard and leaving Strowman and The Bar to take down The Shield in the main event? Perhaps that’s a stretch of my over-active imagination. Safer predictions are that this’ll go long, be crazy and probably feed into the booking of a traditional Survivor Series match next month.

My thoughts on the two women’s matches were already covered above, except to note that having two women’s matches is a rarity for a Raw pay-per-view and very welcome. My thoughts on Finn Balor vs Bray Wyatt are also well established; though I wish the performer the best of luck in trying to pull this concept off, I hope Wyatt is badly burned by the experience and the Demon goes completely off the reservation, so that a) nobody else besides Balor dares to paint themselves up and b) Balor himself finds reason to fear letting the Demon out to play. Expectation is for Balor to get his Universal Championship shot soon, so he should win here, but beyond a couple of cool entrances I’m not confident a lot of thought will have gone into what else happens.

Otherwise I worry a little for this show. The other announced match – the Cruiserweight Championship match – has already been done, rushed through on last week’s Raw due to Neville’s unexpected absence, while options for other matches are really slim. Something involving Jason Jordan, Matt Hardy and Gallows & Anderson? Elias facing Titus O’Neil or Apollo Crews? We’ve seen all variations of those things on recent episodes of Raw. A third women’s match, with zero build? Another cruiserweight match? Samoa Joe returning to mug Curt Hawkins in three minutes? I know not everyone loved Hell in a Cell, but in my opinion its biggest problem was having the tag team Cell match go on first and forcing everything else on the undercard to follow it. As good as the main event should be, the TLC undercard is looking a lot weaker.

As always, check back here on Friday for the full TJRWrestling preview with John and the gang, who I hope will have more optimistic things to say about it!

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. How would you book Asuka’s first month on Raw?
  2. What one thing would you change on SmackDown Live to improve the show?
  3. Does The Shield win on Sunday?

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