Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, April 16th 2018.
Typically, I return to work the week of another Superstar Shake-up – which is arguably the toughest gig in the business of writing WWE previews (poor me). So here’s how this week’s column will go: Shake-up preview first, then reduced notes on the few things we can be confident about for Raw and SmackDown Live. Sounds fair? Excellent; let’s begin.
The Superstar Shake-up
The premise is generally straightforward: Raw brings in a few superstars from SmackDown on Monday, the reverse happens on Tuesday and, on both occasions, new angles and programs are launched as a direct result. Guessing these in advance is a fool’s game, for the most part. However, some assumptions seem safer than others.
Here – roughly in order from safest to least safe – are some assumptions we might make about the Shake-up.
* Around a dozen performers will move in each direction. A single swap on the announce team asides, last year 11 people came to Raw from SmackDown (including one tag team plus The Miz and Maryse) and 13 went the other way (two tag teams – one of which being The New Day – plus Rusev and Lana). One imagines that’ll be the rough template for this year.
* Ronda Rousey won’t move from Raw. Because come on, not only is her rivalry with Stephanie McMahon an Austinesque gift that WWE would be well within their rights to fleece for as long as possible, the television contacts are up for renewal this year and Rousey is a key selling point. She stays on the flagship show. Uncertainty about the length of Brock Lesnar’s new contract downgrades him from ‘guaranteed’ to only ‘virtually guaranteed’ under this category too.
* Nia Jax, Carmella and The Bludgeon Brothers will not move. Champions have been known to switch shows in roster drafts before, but when your championship bears the name of one of the shows, turning up with it on the other show would be a weird move. All have only just won their championships, so vacating or being beaten for them on TV this week also seems unlikely.
* Last week’s debuting talent won’t move. Because why would you do anything other than debuting them on the brand they’re going to end up on?
* The debuts and returns may not have finished. Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas and SAnitY were among the hottest tips for NXT call-ups after WrestleMania, but neither appeared last week. The latest batch of tapings for NXT took place last week and, without spoiling anything, created no fixed obstacles to either coming to the main roster in the near future. You then also have guys coming off the injury list like Big Cass and Drew McIntyre (another possible NXT call-up), and even the likes of Neville who was rumored to have revisited the negotiating table in the last couple of months.
* Authority figures may have little agency. Last year, the roster switches appeared to happen at random, with no particular focus on roles played in them by the on-screen authority figures. SmackDown does have a new General Manager to get over, but the Shake-up is likely to focus on effect – talent’s music hits and they make a surprise entrance – rather than cause.
* Sami Zayn & Kevin Owens will probably end up on Raw. That new General Manager on Tuesdays makes me a bit less confident here, but although it’s possible Paige may offer them a fresh start surely all storyline logic would have Shane McMahon pulling rank with a veto. Whether it’s this week or next, space will become available on Raw and Kurt Angle will bring in both Zayn and Owens after being impressed by their match last Monday.
* Finished business is a good indicator of possible moves. It’s not a rigid or exclusive rule (as the next point will illustrate), but performers with little going on or few fresh angles to pursue are a good bet to move. Asuka, for example, has beaten every woman on Raw, including new arrival Ember Moon. The New Day and The Usos have wrestled each other enough for the time being. The future of Absolution is pretty much up for revision now. These may all be candidates for a fresh start.
* Cross-brand championship programs are possible in the short-term. The flipside of the above is that it may be possible for current title feuds (and indeed any feud) to continue even if somebody involved gets drafted. Of all the things people remember about the terrible ‘House of Horrors’ match at Payback last year, it’s rarely remembered that it ended up as an interbrand match – it was announced on SmackDown, before Bray Wyatt was drafted to Raw and the match then took place on a Raw pay-per-view without Randy Orton’s WWE Championship being on the line. As Backlash is a joint-brand pay-per-view this year – and the Greatest Royal Rumble event is happening even sooner, at the end of next week – there’s even fewer limitations on managing transitions. Branded championships likely aside (see the above note on Jax, Carmella and Harper & Rowan), it’s possible some cross-brand intrigue may be allowed to continue – and perhaps even be created by design.
Other than the above (some of which are far from a guarantee, as things can change on a dime in WWE), there’s no way to be sure how each brand will look come this time next week. If nothing else, it should feel like a fresh start for both shows, with enough new possible feuds to get us through the next year. That’s kind of the point!
What about this week though? There are still one or two other brief things we can say with confidence about Raw tonight and SmackDown Live tomorrow.
Raw (XL Center, Hartford CT)
Announced: The Revival vs Matt Hardy & Bray Wyatt for the right to face The Bar for the Raw Tag Team Championships. Sasha Banks vs Bayley. The first night of the Superstar Shake-up.
What to expect: Matt Hardy and his partner, the feeling-wonderful-but-otherwise-unchanged-by-his-dip-in-the-Lake-of-Reincarnation Bray Wyatt, probably start as favorites in the tag match, but both teams could use a lengthy, competitive contest here and should get one. The match between Bayley and Banks has been a long time building, but why do it now? A murky finish might suggest we’re revisiting this at Backlash, a conclusive one might suggest one of these women is off to SmackDown the following night. Seth Rollins vs The Miz and Roman Reigns vs Samoa Joe are both set for Backlash, so there’s no reason why Raw can’t see those programs progress tonight; otherwise an awful lot is going to revolve around who arrives from SmackDown and exactly what they do. Neither Brock Lesnar nor Ronda Rousey are being advertised for tonight (so at least Stephanie McMahon’s arm should be able to heal up this week).
Spotlight: What’s next for Ronda Rousey? Whatever happens in the Superstar Shake-up it’s by far the biggest question for Raw right now and, if anything, her great performance in what was a hugely entertaining WrestleMania match has only made it bigger. How does she follow that? In the ‘concerns’ column, last Sunday’s match would’ve been heavily rehearsed and had the considerable veteran performing talents of Kurt Angle, Triple H and Stephanie McMahon to lean on. The build leading up to it was mostly solid, but the parts where Rousey dabbled outside the quartet – handily wrecking Absolution and Dana Brooke – didn’t sparkle.
Who Rousey dances with next – a singles match with Stephanie doesn’t look to have any mileage (as it shouldn’t) – is a real issue, partly because it’ll need to be someone with the experience and skill-set to pick up where Angle and the McMahon-Helmsley axis leave off but also because it looks as though it’ll be hard to portray most women on the WWE roster as a legitimate threat to Rousey. There are, however, two bits of good news. The first is that, on the WrestleMania evidence, Rousey looks like she was born to do this. If she’s booked smartly and not overexposed while she builds experience, she’ll clearly hold her end of the bargain up when the marquee matches come around. She’s not going to be able to work matches every Monday, but nor does she need to right now.
The second bit of good news is that Stephanie McMahon doesn’t need to go anywhere and as Raw’s on-screen Commissioner has means, motive and opportunity to make Rousey’s life a living hell. As I alluded to above, WWE may not have had an ‘authority’ angle with more potential than this since the days when Steph’s dad butted heads with a certain Texas Rattlesnake, and it’s worth squeezing dry. This will make it easier to stack odds against Rousey and – assuming she doesn’t acquire a manager, mouthpiece or other sidekick – narrate her storylines rather than throwing her in to work opposite the women’s roster on her own. Wherever Ronda Rousey goes from here though, that WrestleMania performance should ensure everyone watching will now be prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt.
SmackDown Live (Dunkin’ Donuts Center, Providence RI)
Announced: Only the continuation of the Superstar Shake-up has been announced at this point.
What to expect: Whereas Raw tonight has a couple of announced matches to chew on and the freedom to pursue a couple more that are set for Backlash, at least before anyone involved in them gets spirited away to the blue brand, poor old SmackDown comes with no such guarantees. United States Champion Jinder Mahal vs Randy Orton is set for Backlash – however this, like all other programs we think we know, is prone to being affected by the fact some of the roster will already have left before Tuesday’s show begins. Stories around arrivals from Raw will likely fill the majority of this week’s two hours, with the best bets for continuing themes being Mahal/Orton, the deepening grudge between AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura and Paige continuing to settle into her new role as General Manager.
Spotlight: The biggest talking point to come out of the WWE Championship match at WrestleMania was Shinsuke Nakamura’s decision to trade up ‘knee to face’ for ‘arm to balls’. As great a heel turn as it was, some will be disappointed the talking point wasn’t where the match itself sat in the pantheon of WrestleMania’s all-time greatest – a conversation many thought we may be having right now but that nobody could realistically justify starting. Some might say expectation was too high, but when something’s billed as a ‘dream match’ it’s probably fair for people to, well, dream a little.
What instead appeared to transpire was the promise of a bigger, better blow-off match down the road with a more traditional face/heel dynamic. This is great and I’m happy to look forward to it, but what the hell were we doing with the month of February? It now seems a huge missed opportunity for Nakamura, having won the Royal Rumble, to be left off half the episodes of SmackDown that followed while AJ Styles slogged through an unimaginative six-man program that was clearly killing time. Why not run the Styles/Nakamura face-to-face segments from the outset, book in the heel turn at Fastlane in some form and do the match we’re presumably going to get in Saudi Arabia or at Backlash at your biggest show of the year?
Regardless, Nakamura has all the charisma necessary to transcend WWE’s favorite heel tropes – ‘cowardly’ and ‘foreign’ – so, timing gripes aside, I’m fully on board for seeing more nakedly dickish backstage interviews and relentless uppercuts to the plums. Is it possible Styles or Nakamura could go to Raw this week? Yes, it is – though I hope that doesn’t happen, as this could still be the best feud of the year. With Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns still tussling over the (conspicuously red) Universal Championship, at least one is likely to remain on SmackDown as WWE Champion. Hopefully both – and hopefully the next match we’ll see between them reaches the kind of level we know those guys are capable of.
Also This Week
NXT (Wednesday) is back at Full Sail University for the first episode from a new set of tapings. Advertised in advance for this week’s show is Lars Sullivan vs Killian Dain and an appearance from the newly-reinstated Johnny Gargano. As anyone who watched TakeOver: New Orleans will testify, last week’s main roster call-ups haven’t exactly left the yellow brand short of talent.
Whether or not the Superstar Shake-up will have any effects on 205 Live (Tuesday) is an interesting question; remember that effectively the cruiserweight division is under contract to Raw. Whatever happens, this week’s show will feature Gran Metalik & Lince Dorado vs Hideo Itami & Akira Tozawa in a tornado tag match.
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!
- Who do you expect to move in the Superstar Shake-up?
- Would you prefer to see The Revival or Bray Wyatt & Matt Hardy facing The Bar for the Raw Tag Team Championships?
- How long do you envisage Carmella remaining SmackDown Women’s Champion?
Until next week, strap in, enjoy the ride and remember to stick with TJRWrestling.net for your show recaps and analysis.