Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! Roman’s back on Raw, it’s Ric Flair’s birthday and the NXT All-Star Quartet are still with us on the main roster. Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, February 25th 2019.

Raw (State Farm Arena, Atlanta GA)

Announced: Roman Reigns will return to give an update on his progress battling leukemia. Ric Flair will have a 70th birthday party.

What to expect: The headline news of the night will be Roman Reigns, who last appeared on Raw on October 22nd to make his sad announcement, giving us what all fans and well-wishers hope and expect to be some positive news. Assuming that’s the case, surely he’ll have some words for the WrestleMania-bound Seth Rollins and the exit-bound Dean Ambrose while he’s there? PWInsider has also reported Brock Lesnar is booked for tonight’s show – so something there could also be a possibility. The other announced segment, a celebration of Ric Flair’s 70th birthday, seems purpose-built to involve the participants in the Raw Women’s Championship program. It’s also been confirmed last week’s four NXT call-ups (Tommaso Ciampa, Johnny Gargano, Aleister Black and Ricochet) will return. Look out for Ciampa and Gargano eyeing up The Revival’s tag titles after last week’s non-title win, and possibly drawing the ire of Bobby Roode and Chad Gable again in the process.

For the women’s tag team titles – the novelty of writing that hasn’t worn off yet – Sasha Banks & Bayley vs Nia Jax & Tamina will surely be announced for Fastlane soon, possibly via a segment of some sort tonight. Elsewhere, the fact former champion Bobby Lashley was never pinned by Finn Balor is a good bet for a continuing Intercontinental Championship feud. The program between Braun Strowman and Baron Corbin may now, possibly, hopefully be at an end – although that rather depends on finding both men (or at least Strowman) something different to get involved with. Zack Ryder will continue to try to help Curt Hawkins break his losing streak. Lacey Evans will probably show up to walk down to the ring and back again without saying anything of consequence. Hopefully Raw, as a whole, will be better tonight than it’s been the last couple of Mondays.

Spotlight: Pity the poor WWE previewer. Sat at the keyboard on a Monday afternoon trying to suggest, based largely on publicly-available facts, a summary of what’s in Vince McMahon’s head for Raw that night. “Tommaso Ciampa, Johnny Gargano, Aleister Black and Ricochet all get called up from NXT at a moment’s notice and pin regular members of the roster” isn’t the sort of thing one can predict and be taken seriously, because it suggests Raw doesn’t have a lot else going on during WrestleMania season. We should therefore make no mistake; a shotgun call-up for the four biggest stars in NXT (as sure as they might’ve been to make the main roster before long) is a desperation move, and one that betrays just how much WWE – Raw specifically – currently seems to have run out of steam telling stories involving their existing characters.

I feel like Raw’s current problem (one of them, at least) is that it’s invested in two stellar, box-office stories which it can’t currently tell. Brock Lesnar is hardly ever around to advance the plot opposite Seth Rollins – Rollins himself was reportedly nursing a minor back injury last week that also limited his involvement in the show – while Paul Heyman, great as he is, is recycling more of the same story beats that we’ve seen before. Meanwhile the other big program, the three-way Women’s Championship feud, is hamstrung by its two best performers not technically being part of the show (and one of those being ‘suspended’). So unless the stars align, or the writers come up with a brilliant, fresh conceit, Raw is suddenly reliant on its undercard – into which it appears to have invested limited care.

This state of affairs – plus the NXT stars sweeping the Raw (and SmackDown) midcard – leads us to a worrying study question: in which main roster performers does WWE’s booking suggest it has confidence? You’d forgive the half-dozen NXT call-ups that were announced around the New Year for wondering how they’ve been jumped; EC3 wasn’t on either show last week. But it’s on Raw where things are particularly bad. Do The Revival, pinned by #DIY one week off becoming tag champions, appear to have WWE’s confidence? New Intercontinental Champion Finn Balor, who pinned a manager to win his title? Drew McIntyre, pretty anonymous since being dumped from the Rumble by Dolph Ziggler? Ziggler himself? Braun Strowman? Baron Corbin? Dean Ambrose? The rest of the women’s division?

The good news, dear reader, is that this week’s Raw should be better for two reasons. Firstly, because we know WWE has absolute confidence in Roman Reigns. Secondly, because both of those big stories look like they’ve found that fresh conceit. Ric Flair’s birthday celebration is both an excuse to have daughter Charlotte on the show and a red rag to ‘The Man’ Becky Lynch to crash it. Brock Lesnar being on the show is also a massive plus and, though we’re all looking forward to Roman giving us some good news, if he’s well enough to shoot an action movie with The Rock then he’s probably well enough to take an F-5. Future weeks, however, might not be as fertile. Raw has a task on its hands to book some engaging programs for Fastlane, and desperation call-ups from NXT can only paper so far over the cracks.

SmackDown Live (Spectrum Center, Charlotte NC)

Announced: Johnny Gargano vs Cesaro, Aleister Black & Ricochet vs Shinsuke Nakamura & Rusev and a contract signing for the WWE Championship match between Daniel Bryan and Kofi Kingston at Fastlane.

What to expect: There are few safer predictions than saying one of WWE’s contract signing segments will end in a fight, and if Rowan and the rest of The New Day are accompanying Daniel Bryan and Kofi Kingston respectively here, the chances have got to be good. The two announced matches make it clear we can expect the NXT guys to be staying around for the full week again, with a suggestion that last week’s match between Johnny Gargano, Tommaso Ciampa and The Bar is being extended to a program of sorts. It’s hard to look beyond a win for Aleister Black and Ricochet in their tag match; poor Rusev and Shinsuke Nakamura. Just a reminder here that R-Truth is currently the United States Champion, in case you’d forgotten.

With everyone and their dog already predicting a flashpoint between Shane McMahon and The Miz in their rematch with The Usos for the Tag Team Championships at Fastlane, be on the lookout for early signs of tension here. Another match that may get confirmed for Fastlane this week is Mandy Rose challenging Asuka for the SmackDown Women’s Championship after last week’s non-title upset. Also, with the WWE Championship picture going into Fastlane now resolved, some indication of a new direction for Jeff Hardy, AJ Styles, Samoa Joe and Randy Orton may emerge. Finally, there may be some fallout between Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch, depending on what happens at Ric Flair’s birthday party on Raw tonight.

Spotlight: Last week’s emergency NXT debuts were arguably a harsher judgement on SmackDown Live than they were on Raw as the blue brand, for the most part, has made a better job of filling out its show with second-tier stories recently. That study question about confidence in characters we mentioned in the Raw Spotlight can be answered instructively by the absolute commitment with which Kofi Kingston has been propelled into the WWE Championship picture. The brand’s tag titles have consistently been part of heavy story-or-competition-based programs. Then you have the likes of Samoa Joe vs Jeff Hardy, Andrade vs Rey Mysterio and whoever it is that Randy Orton is RKOing this month. Not everything hits the mark (the recent history of the United States Championship, for example), but the success rate is probably better than Raw right now.

SmackDown’s midcard stories progress logically and engagingly enough from week-to-week that, should the WWE Champion or Women’s Champion not appear on any given Tuesday, WWE could still broadcast a two-hour show that doesn’t allow you to feel their absence. If you want to see it in action, this contingency planning is currently playing out at the top of SmackDown’s women’s division, where two significant events have redefined the picture: Asuka became Women’s Champion and went over very, very strong in her last title defense at Royal Rumble, while her top two peers are now effectively being booked as part of the Raw division – with one of them (Becky Lynch) heavily-tipped to win a championship of her own in April that’ll contractually keep her over there in the long-term.

Yes, Lynch and Charlotte Flair can currently still fill time on Tuesday nights and will do so very pleasingly, but having already done so for all of the second half of 2018, the money now is in keeping them in Ronda Rousey’s orbit on Mondays. That leaves a dominant champion on SmackDown awaiting worthy challengers to step up their game. Mandy Rose appears to be the first candidate. Again, Rose’s recent storylines on SmackDown haven’t been perfect – the developing tensions with Sonya Deville were abruptly abandoned in favor of a fairly trashy ‘seducing somebody else’s husband’ storyline painted in primary colors – but they’ve been executed simply and have given us more of a chance to get to know her as a character and performer. This is the next step.

I have to say, I wasn’t the greatest fan of setting this up by last week’s ROLLUP OF DEATH~! finish (though saying so is hardly novel). It gave me uncomfortable throwbacks to the Asuka of last summer’s Ellsworth-afflicted SmackDown Women’s Championship picture, who was naive to the point of stupidity. That said, while having Mandy Rose gain the upper hand by feigning injury may risk painting Asuka as a bit of a doofus, it at least shows that cunning and smarts are part of Rose’s armory. As with Ronda Rousey’s Raw title defenses against Ruby Riott, nobody expects Asuka to lose her championship before WrestleMania. What Mandy Rose can gain from this program, therefore, is an opportunity to show more of what she’s about and show that, under the right circumstances, she can be a threat. One cheap non-title defeat for Asuka now may be a small price when, in six months, Mandy Rose could be seen as another of the division’s true contenders.

Also This Week

The tournament to name Buddy Murphy’s WrestleMania opponent starts on 205 Live (Tuesday), with Kalisto vs Tony Nese and Brian Kendrick vs Drew Gulak. If you missed the news during the week, don’t expect Hideo Itami and TJP to be in the tournament, as both have been released by WWE.

On WWE’s ‘developmental’ shows this week (while also continuing to bail out the main roster), NXT (Wednesday) has Shayna Baszler vs Mia Yim, with the final four teams in this year’s Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic also being announced. On NXT UK (Wednesday) Zack Gibson & James Drake (The Grizzled Young Veterans) defend the Tag Team Championships against Danny Burch & Oney Lorcan, with Jack Gallagher vs Tyler Bate also on the show.

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. Asides from his update, what else do you think Roman Reigns might get involved in tonight?
  2. Is Asuka vs Mandy Rose a match you’re interested in seeing at Fastlane?
  3. As per my question in the Raw Spotlight above…. In which main roster performers does WWE’s booking suggest it has confidence? Seriously, how many can you list in good faith?

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