Happy New Year, TJRWrestling faithful! A fortnight of pre-tapes is now behind us and WWE kicks off its live weekly broadcasting for 2019 in Orlando tonight. Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, January 7th 2019.

Raw (Amway Center, Orlando FL)

Announced: Bobby Roode & Chad Gable (c) vs The Revival in a Lumberjack Match for the Raw Tag Team Championships. Elias vs Baron Corbin. Hulk Hogan will appear to speak about ‘Mean’ Gene Okerlund. Alexa Bliss launches a new talk show segment entitled ‘A Moment of Bliss’, with Ronda Rousey as a guest. John Cena and Brock Lesnar are also listed to appear tonight.

What to expect: Whatever your opinion of Hulk Hogan, having him return to Raw to honor his late friend and interview sparring partner Gene Okerlund is a fitting move. Though this coincidentally kind of breaks the taboo of WWE using Hogan on television again, I don’t expect any angle to piggyback off his appearance; his will probably be one of a few genuine tributes to Okerlund on the show. WWE has loaded other big names onto this show in any case, and while we don’t know at press time what John Cena will be doing, Brock Lesnar clashing with his Royal Rumble opponent Braun Strowman is being teased by WWE.com for tonight. I’ll address ‘A Moment of Bliss’ further in a moment, but the interesting thing to look out for here is what direction (if any direction) it sets Ronda Rousey in, given previous rumors she might face Charlotte Flair at Royal Rumble.

Of the two announced matches, there’s relatively little to say about Elias vs Baron Corbin; Corbin’s authority figure run has lent him some residual heel heat, but a fresh start might be good. The tag titles match, with other teams surrounding the ring (particularly AOP) has a whiff of interference and shenanigans about it. Not announced but possible could be a rematch between Seth Rollins and Bobby Lashley, while Triple H’s effort to bring out the more ruthless side of Rollins should develop. Another challenger for Dean Ambrose’s Intercontinental Championship would continue a good trend from last week, while further dominant displays and/or strong promos for Drew McIntyre would also be welcome. More people will likely declare themselves for their respective Royal Rumble matches too. Raw was pretty good last Monday; let’s hope tonight keeps it going.

Spotlight: I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, out of WWE’s two main shows, it was Monday Night Raw that was in greater need of the creative overhaul announced to much storyline fanfare in December. It’s still too early to judge how deep the changes go and how successful they’re proving to be for the company’s flagship show, but there are enough interesting signs – substantial doubt UFC-bound Brock Lesnar can remain Universal Champion to WrestleMania, an apparent re-focus on competition for the tag division, women’s tag belts that might lift Sasha Banks and Bayley out of purgatory and cohesive, character-based pushes for Drew McIntyre and Seth Rollins – to have earned the patience of viewers until the Royal Rumble (in three weeks’ time) at least.

For most of these things, my analysis currently boils down to ‘let’s wait and see’. There are indications that a few broken aspects of Raw may indeed be starting rehabilitation in the first couple of months of this year. In the short term, however, there’s one announcement for this week’s Raw that I’m yet to be convinced won’t be a rehash of past mistakes. It gives me no great pleasure to say my first ‘Have I Mentioned I’m A Huge Fan Of Alexa Bliss’ column of 2019 is to raise the concern that recent Bliss-led promo segments on Raw are a worrying precedent for tonight’s Piper/Jericho/Edge/Miz-style branded talk show that WWE loves to relaunch so often. A snazzy name or set wouldn’t have rescued, for instance, the ‘audience Q&A’ with Bayley and Sasha Banks.

I think it’s fair to say that while most would agree Bliss is among the better talkers in WWE right now, few (if any) would put her in the class of those previously-mentioned names from talk show segments in WWE history. Helming this sort of segment is a step up from the pro wrestling staples of promos to camera or even face-to-face; despite the fact that yes, more often than not the segment is merely a means to start a brawl of some sort, the setup necessarily changes based on the guests and the host needs the range to facilitate different kinds of scenarios, riffing on and responding to the other participants. As with any talk show on television, really, being an elite-level talker is just the entry level; the best of the best are also elite conversationalists.

Bliss excels at character work and the natural-looking delivery of scripted promos, but little of what’s written for her is generous to or participatory for the character opposite her. Also, evidence for her elevating average material – and crucially, carrying other performers involved along with her – is patchy at best (we all recall ‘Bayley This Is Your Life’ long before we got Q&A segments). We wait to see how much thought – if any – has gone into how the format of this new segment might be planned to help her, but if it’s essentially more of what we’ve seen in the last couple of months and Bliss keeps her current distance from any physicality (reportedly due to concussion concerns), our best hope for ‘A Moment of Bliss’ going forward is the presence of raconteur guests that the Raw women’s division isn’t otherwise overburdened with.

SmackDown Live (Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena, Jacksonville FL)

Announced: Charlotte Flair vs Becky Lynch vs Carmella to decide the number one contender for the SmackDown Women’s Championship. The Bar vs The Usos in a non-title match; Jimmy and Jey will get a future title shot if they win.

What to expect: The announced three-way is, of course, a rematch from SummerSlam and another point on the map towards a possible WrestleMania main event. Winner faces Asuka at Royal Rumble, the same night as Raw champion Ronda Rousey’s opponent is likely to be named. With automatic rematches already apparently a relic of the past in WWE, it’s a nice touch that the ‘winning a non-title match grants you a future shot’ is being specifically noted in the WWE.com previews for The Bar vs The Usos rather than just left to assumption; the stipulation does look like it exists in order to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, though. However there is a chance, speculation has it, that the peculiar storyline between The Miz and Shane McMahon is leading towards the pair becoming tag champions, so perhaps they’ll be The Bar’s next challengers?

Finding other ways to get around WWE’s new rules that dictate when title shots are and are not handed out, last week’s SmackDown saw Lana get ‘injured’ in a scuffle between Rusev and the man he beat for the United States Championship, Shinsuke Nakamura. I’d imagine we’d find out this week whether that’s enough for Rusev to challenge Nakamura to another title match (I’d imagine it will be). With a WWE Championship rematch already secured, the focus for AJ Styles this week may return to the McMahon family trying to bring more aggression out of him (in a storyline that’s started out looking quite similar to that of Seth Rollins on Raw). We should also get an idea of what’s next for the four men who were unsuccessful in last Tuesday’s five-way main event – at least some of whom will probably declare themselves for the Royal Rumble, as with Raw. The angle between Mandy Rose and Naomi should also continue here.

Spotlight: When you have a boatload of McMahons announcing their installation as omnipresent on-screen authority figures and video packages for a sextet of NXT call-ups, it would be easy for Mustafa Ali’s movement into a full-time berth on the SmackDown Live roster to fall down a list of recent personnel-related talking points. This would be a shame, as it’s far more notable and remarkable than the people who run the shows behind the camera appearing in front of the camera, or a developmental graduation class whose faces fit WWE’s stereotypical main roster template pretty comfortably. Ali’s move is far more interesting for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it’s an unprecedented jump from 205 Live. This is nothing like the main roster exploits of Lio Rush (primarily the hype man for a heavyweight), Drake Maverick (pant-pissing manager) and Lucha House Party (who are so strongly packaged together that Raw created new match rules that allowed them all to compete together). Ali has proven for the first time that a member of WWE’s cruiserweight division can escape that labelling and emerge as a main roster singles competitor outside of weight classes. Think about how much of a glass ceiling we thought that was when the likes of Neville and Austin Aries were heading up the division (before heading for the exit).

And also, let’s reflect on the fact that Ali hasn’t just made the main roster; he’s made the main event scene of the main roster. The fact that an exciting, main event-level talent on 205 Live can translate directly to SmackDown Live is heartening news. Just consider the men involved in last Tuesday’s five-way main event – two future WWE Hall of Famers in Rey Mysterio and Randy Orton, two of the biggest self-made names outside of WWE in North American pro wrestling since WCW folded in AJ Styles and Samoa Joe, plus Mustafa Ali. That’s remarkable company for any performer to keep, particularly considering what matches Ali might’ve thought he’d be wrestling on New Year’s Day as recently as the start of December.

The diversity angle here is also worthy of a positive note too. I’m excited for the future of the NXT call-ups, but for the most part their potential to succeed looks quite evident. EC3 is an excellent talker with the body of a Greek deity. Lacey Evans is a statuesque, attractive blonde who served in the U.S. military. Even if Heavy Machinery only end up wrestling comedy matches on house shows and Main Event, they’d be a perfect fit. The fact that a Muslim high-flyer billed at 182 pounds is one of the top babyfaces on WWE’s main roster in 2019 would’ve seemed deeply unlikely ten, even five years ago. First and foremost it’s a testament to Ali’s talent and work ethic, though it’s also a reminder that WWE recognizes true ability more often than it might get credit for (even if the opportunities offered to ‘smaller’ talent might have upper limits). 2019 might turn out to be a second successive breakout year for Mustafa Ali.

Also This Week

We’ll get onto this week’s big United Kingdom event in a moment, but elsewhere NXT (Wednesday) leads with Adam Cole vs EC3 and Bianca Belair vs Nikki Cross, in what looks like being the final NXT matches for two of the talents soon to arrive on WWE’s premier shows. Meanwhile on 205 Live (Wednesday, not live) Cedric Alexander va Hideo Itami will decide who joins Kalisto, Akira Tozawa and champion Buddy Murphy in a four-way Cruiserweight Championship match at Royal Rumble.

So to NXT UK, which has its usual double-bill of new episodes on Wednesday – featuring Zack Gibson & James Drake vs Flash Morgan Webster & Mark Andrews, plus a six-man tag between British Strong Style (Dunne, Bate, Seven) and Gallus (Coffey brothers, Wolfgang) – as well as NXT UK TakeOver: Blackpool on Saturday (2pm Eastern, 7pm GMT). The card for the latter, as it currently stands, is as follows:

  • WWE United Kingdom Championship: Pete Dunne (c) vs Joe Coffey
  • NXT UK Women’s Championship: Rhea Ripley (c) vs Toni Storm
  • NXT UK Tag Team Championships: Moustache Mountain vs TBC
  • Eddie Dennis vs Dave Mastiff (No Disqualification)

There have, of course, been one-off specials for the UK brand before, but this is the first in the near-perfected format of the parent NXT brand of four-to-five matches paying off several weeks of episodic television. It might be optimistic to suggest it could reach the high standard of other TakeOvers, but the presence of Dunne and Moustache Mountain – no strangers to a big NXT card – is reassuring, while veteran viewers of the Mae Young Classic won’t need any further sales pitch for Ripley vs Storm.

The show should be worth catching (or at least – subtle plug – reading the recap here at TJRWrestling and taking our recommendations for highlights). The big question, in my mind, is whether this is the point at which Pete Dunne and his UK title go their separate ways; you could argue that each already belong in different places, with Dunne a huge figure on the main NXT brand and a possible long shot to make the main roster within the year. He’ll pass 600 days as UK Champion this week, but how much longer will that reign go? Is Joe Coffey really the guy to topple him? But if not Coffey, who?

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 – if anything – do you feel more optimistic about on Raw than you might’ve been a month ago?
  2. What should be next for the four men who were unsuccessful in last Tuesday’s SmackDown main event?
  3. Will you be watching NXT UK TakeOver: Blackpool this Saturday?

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