Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! Roman Reigns beat John Cena, Brock Lesnar survived Braun Strowman and Jinder Mahal cut a very questionable promo that I’m going to give further, possibly undeserved oxygen to here. Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, September 25th 2017.

Raw (Citizens Business Bank Arena, Ontario CA)

Announced: The Miz will open the show with Miz TV, with Roman Reigns as his guest.

What to expect: To set the scene following No Mercy, Raw’s next pay-per-view (TLC) is in only four weeks and – at present – Brock Lesnar and John Cena are not being advertised on WWE.com for any shows between now and then. Potentially, then, there’s a lot up in the air tonight. Braun Strowman failed to win the Universal Championship and there’s a good chance he’ll take his frustrations out on somebody else. The Miz TV segment seems tailor-made to launch Reigns into a new program; rumors abound (as they seem to do in perpetuity) of a Shield reunion, so it may not be with the Intercontinental Champion himself. In any case, one would think Jason Jordan isn’t finished with The Miz yet anyway. If Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose aren’t required here, new tag team opponents are probably in their future (and in any case, Cesaro’s likely having his teeth fixed). Gallows & Anderson would seem to be prime options.

Elsewhere, now that we’ve cleared the Raw Women’s Championship five-way, perhaps we’ll now get a build to Alexa Bliss vs Nia Jax one-on-one and a focus on some other individual stories. The big story in the women’s division looking ahead to TLC is the debut of Asuka, but where else can you go if you have her wreck Bliss on her first night? Perhaps we’ll see somebody positioned as the sacrificial lamb in the next couple of weeks. Emma looks a good bet. Surely, meanwhile, the conflict between Finn Balor and Bray Wyatt has surely run its course and both may move on tonight, while Neville lost his Cruiserweight Championship to Enzo Amore and will certainly be due a rematch – partly because contractual rematches are now very much part of WWE’s fabric, but also because a blatant low blow is no way to win a championship match fairly. Once again, I wonder exactly how much we’re all being invited to love Enzo. Finally, expect Curt Hawkins to lose another match, now that WWE are openly talking about his losing streak.

Spotlight: Roman Reigns’ victory over John Cena last night capped off a program that’s done wonders to finally unite the audience in appreciation of someone who’s previously been one of WWE’s most divisive performers: John Cena. Reigns left the ring last night having once again hung with the best on the big night, but during the program his weaknesses on the microphone were exposed to the extent that won’t have convinced his detractors. Cena, on the other hand, received an ovation after the match from a crowd that a few years ago would’ve been giving him the same reaction as his opponent had received. Yes, the Staples Center crowd reasoned, we know at times we grew tired of this guy – but by God he’s always turned up, busted his ass and can cut a promo as good as anyone. This program with Reigns has once again shown Cena to be an all-round consummate performer of the highest quality and, more than ever, audiences seem united in recognizing WWE would be a poorer place without him.

What of the fortunes of the long-anointed pretender to his spot, Roman Reigns? Here at TJRWrestling, we often make the point that heels lie. This is with good reason, as not only is it a proven tactic for raising the ire of an audience that knows better but it’s also a sound indicator of moral alignment. The lies that Reigns has told in this program have been subtle, possibly unintentional; if it’s the latter, it’s a good example of why WWE has previously been confounded in their attempts to make him their next top guy – while they’ve been busy painting Reigns with broad strokes, the little details just haven’t felt authentic. Attendances are sky-high? The arena tonight is half-empty. Cena has lost his drawing power? Live receipts say otherwise. Cena may be the all-time greatest on the microphone? Your show just opened with a tribute to Bobby Heenan. Add on top that in face-to-face confrontations in the last few weeks, Reigns got absolutely roasted. Is that the calling card of the new hero of your company?

Perhaps I’m being disingenuous, though. Roman Reigns getting booed is hardly a surprise to WWE any more, and throughout this calendar year they’ve taken every opportunity to fuel that fire, including his material in the past few weeks. It’s the selection of opponent for Roman’s next feud that will be a truer indication of what WWE has learned. The Miz, with whom he kicks off tonight’s Raw, would be a pretty clever choice as both men are appraised differently by different sections of the audience; a lot of the fans who boo Reigns no doubt were among those who also appreciated Miz trying to take Cena down a notch earlier in the year. Meanwhile, to those who see Reigns as their gritty superhero, Miz likely comes across as an irredeemable bad guy. It would be a smart match. The possibility of a Shield reunion – which never seems to be out of online rumors for long – would in a way be an odd fit at this juncture; one week Reigns is boasting about retiring The Undertaker for heat, then suddenly he’s back in the coolest faction of the last few years with two guys who are getting solidly cheered.

There’s been this peculiar situation at the top of the Raw card recently, where all the main guys – Reigns, Cena, Lesnar, Strowman (and you could even add Samoa Joe from his main event run during the summer) – aren’t really being portrayed as inherently good or bad, just as hardasses vying for supremacy. On SmackDown Live, it’s still very binary: Styles, Nakamura, Shane McMahon are clearly all faces; Mahal, Corbin, Owens are clearly all heels. Meanwhile on Raw, everyone’s swearing like troopers, no-selling german suplexes and arguing about who’s the Biggest Dog. We’re not invited to love any of them, just to be excited. And specifically in the case of John Cena, it has cemented a wider appreciation of him that has been brewing over the last couple of years where he’s had stellar matches with former indie darlings.

The ovation Cena got as he left the ring last night was proof that he’s found the hill where his career will ultimately be laid to rest. His demeanor as he made his slow exit, along with his introspection on Raw Talk afterwards on the WWE Network, is without question not a sign that he’s done in a WWE ring – John Cena has become a past master at this kind of storytelling – but this program has firmly established his legacy and the terms on which he’ll return to work in front of the company’s cameras (as and when his other commitments allow). He’ll always bring fantastic promos. He’ll always have a great match in his locker on the big occasions. And while Roman Reigns will continue to passionately divide people as much as before, John Cena is likely be welcomed back with more generosity when he inevitably returns to WWE programming, as he continues to make the gradual transition to beloved legend.

SmackDown Live (Gila River Arena, Glendale AZ)

Announced: Nothing announced at the time of writing.

What to expect: There’s two SmackDowns left until Hell in a Cell, and four matches are officially set. Leading those, the participants for the match in the eponymous Cell didn’t cross paths last week – which seems odd given the heat Kevin Owens was riding for his attack on Vince McMahon. Expect Owens to be back in the arena this week and for things to kick on. In the three title matches, expect Shinsuke Nakamura to get some sort of comeback here to two consecutive weeks of very blunt Jinder Mahal promos. Charlotte Flair is the new number one contender to Women’s Champion Natalya; remember the default setting for Nattie/Charlotte feuds is ‘play on the Hart/Flair lineage’, so it’ll be interesting to see if there’s any deviation (and brace yourself for the possibility of Ric Flair’s health coming up in promos). The New Day vs The Usos for the Tag Team Championships doesn’t need much build, but it does need to be confirmed for the Cell structure. It would be criminal not to.

However, plenty of other business needs doing and much of it probably needs doing this Tuesday. AJ Styles needs an opponent for the United States Championship; sense would suggest it’ll be Baron Corbin, but he has an ongoing issue with Tye Dillinger – expect those men to settle that issue one way or another this week. With Dolph Ziggler, expect either more parodies of other superstars’ entrances (safe bet) or him interrupting Bobby Roode’s entrance (outside bet) to set up the obvious feud. Expect Rusev and Randy Orton to seek a rubber match having now traded ten-second victories. There’ll probably also be more teases of The Hype Bros having a change in attitude and possibly the green shoots of a program between Naomi and the Tamina/Lana axis (which would be a far better use of everyone’s time than whatever BDSM gimmick Carmella and James Ellsworth are doing now).

Spotlight: In the world of SmackDown Live, the hot topic of discussion over the past week has been the promo that Jinder Mahal cut on Shinsuke Nakamura last Tuesday. For the second week in a row, WWE Champion Mahal ran down the Japanese man’s looks, mannerisms and culture (without interruption) for cheap heat while criticizing the audience for, he believed, secretly having the same prejudices and claiming they’d treat a WWE Champion of Nakamura’s ethnicity the same as how Mahal perceives he’s been treated. However, presumably buoyed by how they felt the previous week’s segment went, WWE’s writers tried to push the envelope further and started to lean heavily into the areas of Japanese accents and stereotypes. You know, the kinds of things those of us who aren’t massive racists tend to avoid.

Did it cross the line? Many in the live audience, commenting online and reacting in the wrestling and mainstream press afterwards clearly felt it did. Even WWE, despite their remarkably straight-faced statement that effectively said ‘what promo?’, clearly and immediately betrayed their realization of being on dodgy ground by not uploading any clips of the segment to YouTube. Speaking personally, as someone who strongly advocates freedom of thought and expression (especially in works of theatre and performance), I would always give a concept like this a chance to justify itself editorially; offence is subjective and provocation is often a legitimate goal of artistic work. However – general rule of thumb here – if you’re swapping your Ls for Rs and your Rs for Ls when talking about somebody from East Asia, you’ve pretty unarguably taken the wrong road. WWE need to accept they clearly got it wrong last week.

I’m in no way excusing that, but actually it was a shame because by walking this line WWE is actually seeking to secure two commendable, beneficial outcomes. The first (and lesser) is establishing Mahal as a legitimate heel who commands a depth of feeling from the audience, rather than being seen as a former lower-card talent whose 15 minutes everyone’s hoping will soon be up. JBL may have started from a higher baseline, but look how much of a dick he had to act towards Eddie Guerrero and others to make his main-event makeover stick. Telling an audience uncomfortable truths – and some of the material Mahal’s been working with in the last two weeks definitely falls into that category – is also a star-making heel move. The second (and bigger) outcome is to quietly bulldoze all remaining obstacles to making Shinsuke Nakamura into a top-level player in WWE.

Last week’s error of judgement to one side, I think we should seriously consider that this could end up being important work. The elephant in the room with Nakamura in WWE – the thing that everyone (including commentators who were critical of last week’s segment) has always said would define whether or not the company could ever perceive him as a top guy – has been the language barrier. Nakamura is never going to cut long, show-opening recap promos, but his enigmatic showmanship alone can only prop up so many segments. What you have to do is make all that Not Matter in the eyes of the audience. By having the brand’s top heel (by status) rip on every conscious or subconscious prejudice people may have about him, and directly accuse those people of those prejudices, it is pre-programming the audience to ultimately accept him irrespective of cultural differences. Because if you won’t accept him, after hearing what you heard last week, how much of an asshole does that make you?

That brings us to this Tuesday, and the question of what WWE will do. I think to hide from what happened last week – pretend it didn’t happen, reboot the feud or just leave both men off the show – would be a mistake and a waste. In my opinion it’s better to correct course and ensure something good comes out of the whole thing. I would have Mahal come out and directly address how some people were offended by what he said last week. It goes without saying he shouldn’t repeat any of it – or get bogged down in any encore of the last fortnight’s material – but he should say he refuses to apologize and plough straight into berating the crowd for being hypocrites because they secretly agreed with him. I think that’s provocative, yes, but unlike last week, editorially acceptable. The other key difference from last week? Nakamura should come out at the end and comprehensively beat the piss out of him. Then at Hell in a Cell, he should become WWE Champion, with the universal acceptance of the North American audience guaranteed.

Also This Week

A few quick notes on this week’s other bits, having as they do the misfortune not to involve era-defining matchups or alleged casual racism worthy of extended comment. Following the events of No Mercy last night, 205 Live (Tuesday) will see life under the reign of Cruiserweight Champion Enzo Amore (which may or may not be your cup of tea). Meanwhile, NXT (Wednesday) isn’t heavily promoting anything in advance this week for a change – but with the next TakeOver confirmed for Houston on Survivor Series weekend, the insurgency of Adam Cole and reDRagon and the sudden, exciting depth (not to mention vacant championship) in the women’s division, the developmental brand is currently heating up nicely once again.

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. Assuming no Brock Lesnar or John Cena for TLC, what should Braun Strowman and Roman Reigns be doing on that show?
  2. What do you think would be a better use for Charlotte Flair in the next few months: Women’s Champion from Hell in a Cell onwards, or Horsewomen feud at Survivor Series?
  3. Is Enzo Amore as Cruiserweight Champion a good or bad thing for the cruiserweight division?

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