Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! TLC is in the books, Baron Corbin is no longer in charge on Raw and the SmackDown women tore it up in the main event slot again. Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, December 17th, 2018.
Raw (Golden 1 Center, Sacramento CA)
Announced: Vince McMahon will make an appearance to ‘shake up’ Raw. Finn Balor vs Dolph Ziggler is also booked.
What to expect: The usual ‘fallout from last night’s pay-per-view’ brief is being overtaken here by the appearance of Vince McMahon. We’ll come onto why that’s happening and what it could mean in a moment, but one of the first orders of business we should assume he’ll be dealing with is the appointment of a new General Manager, after Baron Corbin lost his authority at TLC last night. The flipside of that, Braun Strowman’s promised shot at Universal Champion Brock Lesnar at the Royal Rumble, should also be on the agenda, as might consequences for the other men prominently involved in the Corbin angle such as Heath Slater and Kurt Angle (a straight-up match between the latter and Corbin feels like it needs to be checked off a list at some point). Consequences may also be discussed for Women’s Champion Ronda Rousey, after she interfered in the SmackDown Women’s Championship match last night.
The announced match between Finn Balor and Dolph Ziggler was set up after the two clashed backstage at TLC, though Drew McIntyre – who has now eaten losses against each man due to interference by the other – showing up to lay both out and cut the match short seems highly probable. Contractual rematches and continuing feuds may be on the table for Seth Rollins (Intercontinental Championship) and AOP (Tag Team Championships); one feels that Rollins in particular still has a little distance still to run in his program with Dean Ambrose. Elias wanting some revenge on Bobby Lashley and Lio Rush for destroying his guitar last night may be addressed. Natalya’s feud with the Riott Squad should, however, now be at an end. Finally, Lars Sullivan may well make his main roster debut this week; no confirmation yet which brand though, so keep your eyes skinned.
Spotlight: The first point that needs to be addressed about Vince McMahon showing up to Raw tonight is the reason why he’s coming. The last month or so of Mondays have been poor shows – and in truth, the decline started well before Roman Reigns had to step away, with the women’s and tag divisions heading towards creative dead-ends and the main event scene becoming too reliant on The Shield and Braun Strowman. However, although last week’s show-opening promo made clear WWE’s writing team aren’t deaf to critical comment (which has come from industry veterans as well as fans), in all probability that’s not the primary driver. As John noted when this was announced, it’s about ratings.
With WWE’s business model now relying more on lucrative television contracts since the WWE Network cannibalized pay-per-view income, television ratings are arguably the most relevant they’ve been for the company since WCW sunk. Why is that the motivation in play here? There are two tells: Vince McMahon the on-screen character remains a ratings draw (and from a narrative perspective there’s little ‘shaking up’ of Raw that couldn’t in theory be done by on-screen Commissioner Stephanie), plus the blanket coverage previewing his appearance leading up to and throughout TLC. Getting eyes on Raw tonight is clearly the first priority. What Vince the character says (at the behest of Vince the sports entertainment supremo) is to follow.
So what, in anything, might change as a result of Vince ‘shaking up’ Raw? At the very least, one would hope the virtues of announcing and promoting stuff in advance is a lesson that’s on offer in plain sight. WWE’s main roster shows (Raw, it seems, most nakedly) are reportedly subject to a culture of late rewrites, but most weeks it’s possible to predict at least a couple of matches or segments with absolute certainty. It’s also not beyond the wit of WWE to promote matches with high stakes and find a convenient path out of them when plans have to change; witness the solution to Braun Strowman vs Baron Corbin last night, which while inelegant showed logical character development and progression and worked inside of match rules.
Corbin, of course, is now gone as an authority figure as per the stipulation. It seems certain that Raw’s recent malaise has been pinned on his character to the extent where his removal as acting General Manager we be treated as a de facto exorcism of the show’s problems within WWE’s version of reality. Within the WWE universe (lowercase ‘u’) this gives Raw a free pass for its past few weeks. However, last Monday’s show-opening promo from Seth Rollins demonstrated the company realizes the substance of some of the criticisms and, to this end, Vince McMahon will not only need to appoint a new authority figure tonight but – if he really wants to sell the pass – usher in a fresher-feeling show.
How might this come to pass? Well, at the time of writing, Raw may be on its third or fourth re-write, so there’s no way to say with any real confidence. There is, however, a common perception among commentators that fluctuating character alignments and hazy alliances that span multiple feuds simultaneously has played some role in making Raw less palatable – so one aim may be to start afresh with some simpler stories, with simpler motivations that audiences can jump right into. This is where Vince, as a character, usually does his best work and it’ll be interesting to see if he shares the ring with anyone whose recent actions may attract his attention. Seth Rollins, after his ‘rant’ last Monday, may be one. Ronda Rousey, after interfering in TLC’s main event last night, may be a stronger candidate to be another. Either way, things are rarely boring when Vince is in town.
SmackDown Live (Save Mart Center, Fresno CA)
Announced: Nothing firm announced at time of writing.
What to expect: Expect Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair to sound off on Ronda Rousey and balance their ambitions to fight her, fight each other and fight new Women’s Champion Asuka in a title rematch. Big questions there about how each woman’s path moves forward in these next few weeks. Daniel Bryan and The Bar retained their championships at TLC and the question of whether their challengers (AJ Styles, The Usos, The New Day) now go back into circulation in favor of the start of a new program will be key questions for this week’s show. Meanwhile, the building blocks for another ‘authority figures disagree’ angle may be falling into place, as The Miz booking tag matches for Shane McMahon has drawn the ire of Paige; in storyline, Miz’s actions are also why Naomi vs Mandy Rose didn’t happen last week (which may get rearranged here).
The Randy Orton vs Rey Mysterio feud may have been tidily concluded last night at TLC, which should allow more focus this week on a couple of programs that didn’t make it to the pay-per-view. Rusev challenging Shinsuke Nakamura for the United States Championship should be raised as a subject, as should Samoa Joe gleefully goading Jeff Hardy with reminders of his past demons. Both programs need to move forward this week. Also expect some sort of follow-up on Mixed Match Challenge winners R-Truth and Carmella, who are – comedy angle alert – taking their all-expenses-paid winners’ trip to WWE headquarters in Stamford. Finally, the same Lars Sullivant note that applied to Raw above also applies here.
Spotlight: A couple of weeks ago here on the Week In Preview, we considered the three-way TLC match for the SmackDown Women’s Championship, as it had been confirmed by that point, and how it was looking like a purpose-built crossroads for the women’s division – on both brands – to set up feuds for WrestleMania season. “A win and first main roster title for Asuka,” I said, which I now wish I’d leaned into a bit harder as a Paul Heyman-style guarantee, “would certainly keep all possibilities on the table.” Here we are on the other side of San Jose, and everything we were hoping to get out of that match (including the match itself being pretty awesome) has been delivered handsomely.
Not only does Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair both leaving TLC empty-handed create an opening for each to have marquee matches with Raw Women’s Champion Ronda Rousey in the near future, but both being screwed over by Rousey in person (and equally) immediately starts a build towards those that should easily keep audiences engaged until April. WWE’s women main-eventing WrestleMania 35 looks a sure bet right now, as only the drafting of implausibly big names (e.g. The Rock) into championship matches looks like being enough to shunt what’s already the hottest angle in the company – with the scope to now get hotter still – aside.
I still think the question of how WWE accommodates both Lynch and Flair in this scenario is an open one. Rousey vs Lynch remains most people’s default pick for WrestleMania, but the longer Flair matches Lynch’s performances on these big stages, and the longer the two continue to spar (and Ronda Rousey targets them equally), the more I can see a temptation to make WrestleMania a three-way too. This at least could do wonders for the women’s Royal Rumble match at the end of January. 2018’s inaugural match was solid, though traded a little heavily on nostalgia and ‘making history’. 2019’s match, with Lynch possibly having to overcome both Flair and Nia Jax, promises a heavier dose of drama, tension and high stakes.
Royal Rumble previews can be left until January (although I’ll take a final four of Lynch, Flair, Sasha Banks and Bayley now, thank you). For now, it’s worth instead taking a moment to appreciate Asuka’s crowning as a main roster champion. At the start of the year it looked like this was only a matter of time – trivia fans may wish to note that Asuka competed in and won the main event of both the first and last WWE pay-per-view of 2018 (not that this otherwise means much; Kelly Kelly wrestled as many pay-per-view main events this year as AJ Styles, who was WWE Champion for most of it). Things took a dip in the middle part of her year, but the end of it has certainly put her back on track to fulfill the expectations upon her since her signing and promotion from NXT.
Winning the championship may be the step forward expressed in its most basic terms, but it’s the manner in which she’s won it that provides the greatest source of optimism. Yes, Rousey’s interference directly caused the finish, but to have won the title in an outstanding, brutal main event where she went blow-for-blow with two women on the hottest streaks of any female performer in the company’s history is important. Even with her undefeated streak long gone, it immediately restores Asuka’s reputation as a woman to reckon with. Think about the title matches she lost to Carmella and James Ellsworth during the summer, short and gimmicky as they were and buried in the midcard. Losing those didn’t help her, but winning them wouldn’t have been as big a moment as it was last night. The Empress of Tomorrow is back in business.
Also This Week
The USA Network is airing this year’s Tribute to the Troops on Thursday evening, as part of a full week of WWE-themed programming. WWE.com has the full details here if you’re interested, but Tribute to the Troops – recorded a couple of weeks ago at the Fort Hood military base in Texas – is the most relevant ‘Also This Week’ part from an in-ring point of view. No matches have been officially announced, but internet reports point to a handful of high-profile but low-stakes tag matches.
NXT (Wednesday) leads with the inviting hook of Aleister Black vs Johnny Gargano inside a steel cage. Also notable is the in-ring debuts for Horsewomen Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir, in a tag match against Io Shirai and Dakota Kai. The re-debut of Dominik Dijakovic – having taken a handful of competitive losses under the name Chris Dijak earlier this year – is also scheduled.
Despite Mixed Match Challenge coming to an end, 205 Live remains in its Wednesday slot (and not live). Buddy Murphy is still the Cruiserweight Champion following TLC, while this week’s episode is promoting Akira Tozawa & Brian Kendrick vs Drew Gulak & Jack Gallagher in a street fight, plus something involving Lio Rush. Meanwhile the double-bill of NXT UK (Wednesday) includes among other things Rhea Ripley vs Isla Dawn for the Women’s Championship.
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!
- What one thing would you like to see Vince McMahon announce on Raw tonight?
- Assuming Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair now focus on Ronda Rousey, who else on SmackDown would you like to see Asuka defending her Women’s Championship against?
- Which brand should Lars Sullivan go to and why?
Until next week, strap in, enjoy the ride and remember to stick with TJRWrestling.net for your show recaps and analysis.