Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! Last week John Cena declared for the Royal Rumble, Daniel Bryan threw fast food at people and I wrote about NXT UK TakeOver: Blackpool (the subtlest plug). Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, January 14th 2019.

Raw (FedExForum, Memphis TN)

Announced: Dean Ambrose (c) vs Seth Rollins vs Bobby Lashley for the Intercontinental Championship. Ronda Rousey & Sasha Banks vs Nia Jax & Tamina.

What to expect: There’s no Brock Lesnar advertised for Raw tonight, while Braun Strowman’s recovery from elbow surgery was still continuing last week, so the Universal Championship program will probably develop little. John Cena is, however, on tonight’s show – although one of the problems with the build towards any Royal Rumble is the need to keep storylines vague, intersecting and populous due to the big 30-man-or-woman battle royal that everyone’s declaring themselves for. Hence Drew McIntyre might try to get in Cena’s grill again, but equally a similar dish to last week’s six-man tag may well be served. See also ‘what’s Finn Balor up to right now’ or ‘will we get Elias vs Baron Corbin again tonight’. The answer is ‘here’s some wrestling and, in two weeks time, it’ll be every man for himself’.

The three-way Intercontinental Championship match is another example of this – Seth Rollins has moved into a pretty distinct feud with Bobby Lashley now, but here they are opposite Dean Ambrose again – but it has the advantage of being a title match with little chance of a cheap finish. It’ll be a sure highlight of tonight’s show. The WWE.com preview of the announced women’s tag match explicitly includes the words “can they coexist” if you were wondering what the angle will be and, as much as I appreciate Alexa Bliss promo segments, getting Ronda Rousey to witness the competitive skills of Sasha Banks is probably a better way to proceed. Finally, The Revival will look for (and probably receive) another opportunity at Bobby Roode and Chad Gable for the tag titles, as the ‘conspiracy’ angle of them losing matches due to bad refereeing calls continues to play out and presumably heads towards a pay-off very soon.

Spotlight: One of the things I’ll be looking out for over these next couple of Monday nights and at the Royal Rumble is how Sasha Banks responds to being installed as Ronda Rousey’s next challenger for the Raw Women’s Championship. It was around and after the time of the Rumble last year that prospects began to look bleaker for three of NXT’s Four Horsewomen; sure, Charlotte Flair was SmackDown Women’s Champion and would ultimately receive the challenge of the Rumble match winner at WrestleMania, but for Banks, Bayley and Becky Lynch months of somewhat stunted development would begin.

For the first half of 2018, being the first and second entrants in the inaugural women’s Royal Rumble match was by a comfortable distance the high point of Banks and Lynch’s on-screen year. For Banks, who the same night saw Ronda Rousey join her on a brand that was already seemingly committed to Alexa Bliss and Nia Jax as fixtures in the title picture, the second half of the year was scarcely different – but for Lynch, as we know, things changed dramatically. Becky Lynch seized an opportunity, explicitly invoking the perceived standing of Charlotte Flair as she climbed up to her apparent level within the company.

Of all the performers in WWE who might learn something from what Lynch did last year, Banks has obvious cause to be a student. Not only has she seen Lynch – the only one of the quartet not to be champion in NXT – become a bigger deal than her or her other former running mates, but Banks too ‘isn’t supposed to succeed’. This title match at the Royal Rumble looks designed to be a marquee win for Rousey against a competitive, credible name before she’s part of more important plans for WrestleMania. As for Banks at WrestleMania? If those tag titles don’t pull through for her and Bayley, it’s the battle royal again.

Spending these next couple of weeks in the Raw Women’s Championship picture is an opportunity for Sasha Banks to convince the audience and the powers-that-be that she should return to being a permanent fixture there. Whether – and how – she raises her game will be interesting. Her biggest in-ring assets have been her dynamism, resilience and (more than anything) swagger; my optimism about the quality of her upcoming match with Rousey knows no bounds, but bringing the full-fat ‘Boss’ attitude from tonight would be a timely reminder of how big a player we know Banks can be.

SmackDown Live (Legacy Arena, Birmingham AL)

Announced: Rey Mysterio vs Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas. Carmella vs Sonya Deville. The Miz will throw a birthday party for Shane McMahon.

What to expect: The issue of the Royal Rumble causing some blurry narrative lines is also in evidence on SmackDown, with a lot of highly-relevant male performers in particular (Joe, Hardy, Orton, Ali, New Day) treading water out of storylines or announced segments. Meanwhile, however, there are few better places to put vegan anti-consumerist Daniel Bryan face-to-face with AJ Styles for the reactions you’re seeking in the build to the Royal Rumble than in Alabama. Bryan has been outstanding in his role, but this is a great place for Styles to face him down on the microphone as a babyface hero. At the top of the women’s division, the build towards Becky Lynch vs Asuka should begin in earnest, while Charlotte Flair is likely to declare for the Royal Rumble match.

In expected ongoing storylines, Rusev vs Shinsuke Nakamura for the United States Championship looks like it’ll get confirmed for the Royal Rumble soon; it’s possible Rusev may issue a challenge here (and Lana may make a welcome return). The slow build towards Naomi vs Mandy Rose should continue; I’d have an outside bet on Naomi crashing the announced Carmella vs Sonya Deville match (for which Rose will presumably be ringside) to set up – Holla Holla – a tag team contest. The Miz’s birthday celebration for Shane McMahon will be a live showcase of their peculiar, strained relationship, although The Bar disrupting it is possible to get Shane and Miz fully on the same page for their tag titles challenge at the Royal Rumble. Finally, Rey Mysterio vs Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas should be great, period. More on that follows below.

Spotlight: The announcement of this Tuesday’s match between Mysterio and Almas looks to be a reaction to – and cash-in on – the buzz generated by last week’s (apparent placeholder) tag team match and Mysterio hitting Almas with a Canadian Destroyer-like piledriver. And why not? The live crowd last week ate it up and with much current mid-card booking only employed to serve the Royal Rumble match(es), it’s a good time for an exhibition singles match on weekly television. Plus, Almas’ stock has been rising as an in-ring performer on SmackDown and giving younger guys a rub is exactly the kind of thing Mysterio should be doing.

Count me among those also looking forward to it and hoping to see 10-15 minutes. It’ll be a matter of academic curiosity whether they’ll be allowed to bust out the Canadian Destroyer again; ‘tombstone’ variants by select company veterans aside, modern WWE is notoriously wary of piledrivers. On any fan’s list of reasonable frustrations about the company, that’s something which shouldn’t really rank. Such are the skills of both men that they don’t need it anyway and could fill 10-15 minutes with other mind-boggling moves.

Where faith in WWE is more frequently tested is in their perceived willingness to allow exactly that sort of thing – sending two guys out to throw everything they can do into a feature-length match on television, when there’s no storyline to service or future match to hold something back for. This criticism isn’t always fair – look at the 2018 had by Seth Rollins as the Intercontinental Champion accepting open challenges or scores of tag team matches on SmackDown – and in any case there is a train of thought that the blue brand may place a greater premium on such content when it moves to the sports-oriented Fox later this year.

I’m optimistic this week’s match will deliver and both men will have the creative freedom to deliver something fresh, in main roster television terms. The fact that WWE’s main roster caters to a mass market doesn’t require matches to be homogenized, but to cater to a wide variety of tastes. Letting a couple of lucha wizards burn it down, apropos of nothing asides from the fact it’d be cool, is the sort of thing main roster television should have the confidence to indulge in from time to time a little more often. As John noted in our news article on Sunday when the match was announced, these guys have great chemistry and it’s a good call to make the most of it wherever possible.

Also This Week

205 Live returns to Tuesday (and live!) this week on the WWE Network, in its old slot immediately following SmackDown, with Buddy Murphy issuing a non-title open challenge.

NXT (Wednesday) sees Kassius Ohno vs Keith Lee in a progression of the storyline between Ohno and Matt Riddle, while The Street Profits will also be in action. At time of writing there’s no new episode of NXT UK currently scheduled for this week; the WWE Network will be scheduling a re-run of TakeOver: Blackpool instead (which is worth catching if you haven’t yet). The brand taped more episodes in Blackpool on Sunday, so expect normal programming to be resumed next week.

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. What do you think would be the best way for John Cena to kill time on Raw before the Royal Rumble?
  2. How long do you think this week’s Mysterio vs Almas match will go?
  3. Early predictions on who’s going to win the two Royal Rumble matches?

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