Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! It’s Royal Rumble week, so let’s get to it. Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, January 21st 2019.
Raw (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City OK)
Announced: Ronda Rousey & Natalya vs Sasha Banks & Bayley.
What to expect: We’ve got plenty to get through, so some shorter notes here this week. Brock Lesnar is in the house and putting him face-to-face with his new challenger Finn Balor has to be the first order of business. Another interesting plot point will be how Braun Strowman reacts to being removed from the match; Baron Corbin is likely to feel his wrath, while confirmation of Strowman’s next move (the Rumble match presumably?) will also be interesting. The announced tag match builds towards Rousey vs Banks for the Women’s Championship at the Royal Rumble; I wonder if the play here may be to have Banks tap out Natalya to look strong, because there’s no way Rousey’s losing on Sunday. Bobby Lashley is the new Intercontinental Champion and may be given an immediate title defense – Raw likes television title matches of late – although whether former champions Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins become more concerned with the Rumble match on Sunday (and bigger title matches in the future) remains to be seen. The other consistent thread likely to be picked up again tonight is The Revival, who have at least graduated from losing short tag matches by unfair means to winning short tag matches by unfair means. How that situation evolves after they reportedly asked for their release from the company last week will be very interesting to see.
Spotlight: Would the real Monday Night Raw please stand up? If one of the ideas behind WWE’s soft reboot of its main roster offerings is to make things less predictable, it’s working. I don’t know if it’s always positive, but it’s working. On last Monday’s show, the segment that finally introduced women’s tag team championships to the company was immediately preceded by a backstage titillation vignette where a runner accidentally interrupted a half-topless Alexa Bliss while she was getting changed – without context or consequence. It was also a show where, after this column had fatefully said “the Universal Championship program will probably develop little”, challenger Braun Strowman was abruptly removed from the match (the plan for a while, reportedly, and not the worst idea if having him lose to Lesnar again was the alternative) and Finn Balor was inserted in his place – after getting to play the underdog opposite Vince McMahon and being put over strongly by John Cena.
The presumed plan now, obviously, is for Balor to be fodder this Sunday; something interesting for Lesnar to do at the Rumble before he moves on to more important plans (with more important people) at WrestleMania. In that sense, the similarities with the match for Raw’s top women’s title this Sunday are striking. It does leave very little time – tonight, basically – to build anticipation and intrigue, but this light-touch build (relying on match billing and the microphone skills of Paul Heyman, even when his client is present in person) seems par for the course with Lesnar’s Universal Championship programs during the past couple of years. Not that I’m complaining though. Reportedly, Balor was pulled from this spot at last year’s Rumble due the company’s view that he wasn’t over enough at the time. For many who were all too ready to get behind the Irishman, that would’ve seemed odd. It’s great news he’s been given the spot this year and, even if he’ll surely be staring at the lights at the end of it, getting his big marquee match against Lesnar is the kind of opportunity Balor fully warrants.
I have mixed feelings about whether or not Balor’s Demon persona should be involved here. Heavily on the side of reasons in favor, it makes sense from a character and historical perspective; Balor won the Universal Championship as the Demon, before his human form had to surrender it the next day, and apart from that impromptu same-night shot Roman Reigns gave him on the Raw after SummerSlam he’s had to wait for this next big opportunity. Also, if we’re only getting Balor vs Lesnar once (and it sounds like it’s been a struggle getting this far), of course we’d want to see the Demon for it. On the side of reasons against, it’ll involve marking a near-certain loss against Balor’s overpowered alter-ego – although if that’s ever going to happen, getting it out of the way now and against an opponent like Lesnar may be the least painful option in the long term – and would lessen the impact and/or chances of a Demon entrance at WrestleMania, which feels like an equally great prize.
SmackDown Live (INTRUST Bank Arena, Wichita KS)
Announced: Segments announced in the past few days include Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas (now merely ‘Andrade’, apparently) vs Rey Mysterio in a 2-out-of-3 Falls Match. Samoa Joe vs Mustafa Ali. The Miz vs Cesaro. Naomi vs Mandy Rose. Vince McMahon will ‘moderate’ a face-to-face between Daniel Bryan and AJ Styles.
What to expect: You’ll notice that the above is quite a lot of content. John covered the announcement of Andrade vs Mysterio and Joe vs Ali the other day, but WWE.com is currently promoting the other segments in its SmackDown news pages. Will all of them still happen? I think there’s a good chance something will get cut. Andrade/Mysterio looks like it would be the biggest time sink; another 20 minute affair seems feasible, but I wonder if it might be saved for another time. I’d rather that than have it rushed. The segment with Vince, Bryan and Styles is obviously a centerpiece (where Vince will probably try to motivate the more aggressive side of Styles), Miz vs Cesaro will tell the story of how enthusiastically Shane McMahon is in Miz’s corner before their tag titles match on Sunday. Naomi vs Mandy appears to be the blow-off for the recent Jimmy Uso seduction storyline – although it may well descend into a brawl. Ali vs Joe might be good if it happens. The only other storyline that’s likely to feature is the build to Asuka vs Becky Lynch on Sunday – but to be honest that sells itself and after last week’s promo segment (which wasn’t the best) maybe a video package here is all WWE will reach to.
Spotlight: I’m not certain whether the current angle between Shane McMahon and The Miz entertains me. I think I’m only at the stage where it interests me; I’m curious to see where it’s going – but after bubbling along unremarkably for a couple of months, I rather wonder if I should’ve been more invested by now. The pattern – Miz sucks up to Shane in the pursuit of some sort of alliance only for the latter to be chronically lukewarm about it – has evolved at a glacial pace. Asides from mild annoyance, the pair’s relationship hasn’t been through many ups and downs, tests of loyalty or been given cause to have each other’s backs beyond a couple of sporadic occasions. This relationship is no ‘Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens’ and is some way off being able to deliver a twist with the pathos of a ‘Festival of Friendship’. This Tuesday’s match on SmackDown – The Miz facing Cesaro, with Shane in his corner – is a chance to accelerate the process, before a sudden opportunity to become SmackDown Tag Team Champions on Sunday. And I’ll be honest, the chances of that coming to pass worry me a little.
It seems frankly bizarre to think that The Miz and Shane McMahon could be SmackDown Tag Team Champions after this Sunday. For SmackDown Live, which boasts The New Day, The Usos and current champions The Bar – who have all been killing it over the past year – to have its tag championships pulled out of reach into the role of prop for a character-based storyline between members of a non-regular team (one of whom is a non-regular wrestler) seems a counterproductive call. Particularly when Raw, which has a dearth of teams on a hot streak, can’t even manage to put their titles on The Revival. As we know, any storyline of any substance that perpetuates within WWE programming at this time of year tends to be in service of WrestleMania. There is clearly an end goal in mind for the relationship between Miz and Shane in April, but surely it doesn’t require SmackDown’s regular teams taking a supporting role? Certainly not then, but does it even need to do so now?
This story has clearly been brewing ever since Shane won the ‘World Cup’ tournament in Saudi Arabia back at the start of November, though it may remain unknown whether the plan morphed in any way following the return of the extended McMahon family as omnipresent on-screen authority figures. It was speculated that Shane McMahon winning the tournament and being crowned ‘Best in the World’ would lead to a storyline where the success went to his head; an angle that would’ve had the freedom to unfold while Paige remained as a stalwart babyface General Manager. Now, I can’t help but feel that with the requirement of being a neutral agent on both main roster shows, Shane’s character seems limited in how much he’s willing to be lured to Miz’s dark side – his every step forward seemingly has to be tempered by reminders that he doesn’t want to abuse his power. Borrowing a division’s championship gold would be a disappointing outcome if the character dynamics involved don’t become more interesting fairly soon.
Also This Week
NXT UK (Wednesday) is now appearing to settle into a one-episode-a-week pattern, this week featuring a main event of the Jordan Devlin vs Travis Banks match we didn’t get at TakeOver: Blackpool. 205 Live (Tuesday) features Kalisto vs Hideo Itami vs Akira Tozawa in advance of the four-way Cruiserweight Championship match on Sunday. NXT (Wednesday) promises Velveteen Dream in action – but it’s a TakeOver week, so the bigger news is saved for the weekend.
NXT TakeOver: Phoenix (Saturday) comes from the Talking Stick Resort Arena and – prepare for a statement tantamount to heresy – looks a little bit lower-key in comparison to the brand’s usual standards over the last twelve months. Here’s the card:
- NXT Championship: Tommaso Ciampa (c) vs Aleister Black
- NXT Women’s Championship: Shayna Baszler (c) vs Bianca Belair
- NXT Tag Team Championships: The Undisputed ERA (c) vs The War Raiders
- NXT North American Championship: Ricochet (c) vs Johnny Gargano
- Matt Riddle vs Kassius Ohno
Despite the absolute confidence any sane person would have in the talent concerned, it’s a card that’s notably reliant on the rotation of Ciampa, Black, Gargano and Ricochet, who have been at the heart of big singles matches on a few consecutive TakeOvers now. Elsewhere the Undisputed ERA/War Raiders program has needed reheating after WarGames, while Bianca Belair is definitely stepping up to the next level (and into the gap following the epic Shayna Baszler/Kairi Sane feud). Below this, the need for a second Ohno vs Riddle match is, again by NXT standards, questionable. Dare we ask how much the yellow brand will have left in the tank by WrestleMania weekend?
But who am I kidding? It’s a TakeOver, which means it’ll be great.
Royal Rumble (Chase Field, Phoenix AZ)
Announced: As always, everything’s subject to change and additions during the week (even if it’s just names for the two headline battle royals) are likely. The announced card – and entrants into the Rumble matches – at time of writing are:
- Universal Championship: Brock Lesnar (c) vs Finn Balor
- WWE Championship: Daniel Bryan (c) vs AJ Styles
- Men’s Royal Rumble Match (R-Truth (entering #30), John Cena, Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Samoa Joe, Drew McIntyre, Kofi Kingston, Big E, Xavier Woods, Apollo Crews, Baron Corbin, Elias, Jinder Mahal, Jeff Hardy, Bobby Lashley, Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas, Rey Mysterio, Mustafa Ali + more)
- Women’s Royal Rumble Match (Carmella (entering #30), Natalya, Bayley, Ember Moon, Ruby Riott, Sarah Logan, Liv Morgan, Mickie James, Alicia Fox, Mandy Rose, Sonya Deville, Zelina Vega, Charlotte Flair, Naomi, Tamina, Peyton Royce, Billie Kay, Dana Brooke, Lana, Nia Jax, Nikki Cross + more)
- Raw Women’s Championship: Ronda Rousey (c) vs Sasha Banks
- SmackDown Women’s Championship: Asuka (c) vs Becky Lynch
- SmackDown Tag Team Championships: The Bar (c) vs The Miz & Shane McMahon
- WWE Cruiserweight Championship: Buddy Murphy (c) vs Akira Tozawa vs Kalisto vs Hideo Itami
- United States Championship: Rusev (c) vs Shinsuke Nakamura
What to expect: Trying to ignore the big flashing neon sign in my mind that says ‘Seth Rollins’, I’m enjoying the fact that this year’s Royal Rumble match (men’s version) feels more open than it has for a few years. Last January looked like a straight choice between Shinsuke Nakamura and Roman Reigns, but less is certain this year. Now that it looks like, despite his UFC commitments, Brock Lesnar is expected to turn up at WrestleMania as Universal Champion – that didn’t feel as certain when Braun Strowman was originally his challenger here – Rollins seems an obvious pick, Strowman or Drew McIntyre aren’t beyond the realms of possibility as alternatives. On the SmackDown side, possible WrestleMania challengers to Daniel Bryan (or AJ Styles; there are fewer guarantees as to WWE’s plans here) are far more ambiguous. This feels like a Rumble that comes with minimum anxiety over popular or divisive winners, and maximum anticipation for finding out which way WWE goes. This is very welcome!
There’s also the annual likelihood of surprise entrants; previously speculated names have ranged from the massively out-there (The Rock, Batista) to the far more likely (the recent class of NXT call-ups). The same, of course, can be said for the women’s Rumble too – although the additions of The IIconics, Nikki Cross, Lacey Evans and a yet-deeper developmental roster should mean a more rounded match than last year’s that leaned heavily on legends. That in itself is a positive step. Unlike the men’s match, however, the possibility of fan anxiety and stressful conversations here look very real. Imagine, for a moment, that Becky Lynch loses her championship match with Asuka but doesn’t come out for the Rumble – which could become a foregone conclusion depending on where those matches happen on the card. Will the Phoenix crowd take well to a Charlotte Flair victory under those circumstances? I’m already having flashbacks to the men’s match in 2014 and 2015.
Overall though, the rest of this card is looking great. The top two singles matches on each brand – Lesnar vs Balor and Rousey vs Banks for Raw, Bryan vs Styles and Asuka vs Lynch for SmackDown – are all things to be optimistic about; tempered expectations for any modern-day Brock Lesnar match aside, there’s no reason why these can’t be great matches. Rusev vs Shinsuke Nakamura for a title, with a few weeks of story (however hokey) behind it, plus a cruiserweight four-way are nice side dishes. And yeah, there’s that SmackDown tag titles match too, but let’s not worry too much about that…..
Be sure to check in with John and the guys at the end of the week for the full TJRWrestling preview. As always, this is roughly the point of the calendar where WWE kicks into a higher gear, and this year’s Royal Rumble looks like it’ll be a strong start to WrestleMania season.
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’s your pick to win the men’s Rumble match?
- Who’s your pick to win the women’s Rumble match?
- Asides from the two battle royals, what are you expecting to be the best match of the night this Sunday?
Until next week, strap in, enjoy the ride and remember to stick with TJRWrestling.net for your show recaps and analysis.