Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! Clash of Champions is this weekend, the USA Network is showing NXT for the first time and WWE has posted a video of Matt Hardy laughing for ten hours. Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, December 11th 2017.
Raw (Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland OH)
Announced: Raw has gone match-announcing crazy! Cesaro vs Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins vs Sheamus, Dean Ambrose vs Samoa Joe and Kane vs Braun Strowman are all trailed. There was also scheduled to be a number one contender’s match for the Cruiserweight Championship but, er, that’s probably off.
What to expect: An episode of Raw announcing five matches in advance is virtually unheard of, but truth be told the first three of those mentioned above are effectively one storyline. The tag championships feud between Sheamus & Cesaro and two-thirds of The Shield clearly isn’t done after last week’s disqualification finish, while an Intercontinental Championship program between Reigns and Joe is just getting started. These three matches will take up a large chunk of the show’s narrative and, although the chances of interference across all of them are a great big elephant in the room, all could be great if allowed to run. The other match between Kane and Braun Strowman, which does not have a gimmick or stipulation at the time of writing, doesn’t seem destined to end cleanly. Some sort of no-disqualification environment is surely in their future.
The number one contender’s match between Rich Swann and Drew Gulak, set last week, won’t happen as Swann has been suspended by WWE. It’ll be interesting to see how they deal with that tonight, as a) the reasons involved clearly aren’t trivial or can be made light of and b) Gulak is an ally of current champion Enzo Amore and wasn’t likely to win the match as it had been set. Elsewhere, all eyes will be on the next steps for ‘Woken’ Matt Hardy and what WWE’s version of the ‘deletion’ he’s promised to Bray Wyatt will look like. The women’s division continues to be a game of factions, with Absolution looking to be pitching themselves against Sasha Banks, Bayley and Mickie James (while seeming to avoid Asuka and everybody seeming to ignore champion Alexa Bliss). Finally in the department of safe predictions, Jason Jordan should continue to be irritating and get in way over his head; that heel turn is going really well at the moment.
Spotlight: Those three leading singles matches previewed above illustrate, in my mind at least, a key difference between the original run of The Shield and one of the strengths of Shield 2.0 – booking the three members in singles matches carries your highest-profile weekly show a heck of a lot easier since they’ve all had their singles runs. It surely goes without saying that each man has grown in stature thanks to going their separate ways – Dean Ambrose launched SmackDown Live as its first world champion following the brand split, Seth Rollins became a corporate heel champ who ultimately turned against the authority and Roman Reigns has become….. Roman Reigns. Sure, back in their initial run each man could and would wrestle a number of worthwhile singles matches, but when the calendar’s big nights came around the six-man tag was where their most profitable business lay. That doesn’t have to be the case now.
There seems to be a nice balance right now for WWE, where these three guys are roughly (very roughly) seen as equally big deals whether they’re together or apart, and this gives WWE’s creative minds a lot more flexibility with what they do. A couple of weeks ago on Raw, Rollins mentioned how each member doing their own thing makes the group stronger – which in normal circumstances would be obvious foreshadowing of an absolutely colossal backstabbing (the easy presumption to make is that it would be Ambrose’s turn). I hope this urge is resisted for the foreseeable future, because there’s honestly no need to split The Shield again any time soon. Having the three-man stable is a great backstop for those men’s on-screen roles, none of them need to do a huge amount of growing on their own at this stage of their careers (in sharp contrast to the first time they broke up) and – the clincher – they’re probably all better off to have The Shield right now.
Take Reigns, for example. Shield Roman Reigns is the best Roman Reigns; being the irresistible force in a pack of hunters is a lot more exciting than being a one-man war against odds he ‘can’t possibly overcome’ (but more often than not does). We all now recognize that Reigns is going to win more than he loses; the process of achieving that may as well be fun. Consider how he was cheered for winning the Intercontinental Championship from The Miz after an entertaining, Shield-affected match. And then consider WWE’s presumed plan to put him over Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania – a matchup which drew plenty of negative sentiment the first time it was tried in 2015. Reigns slaying the Universal Champion is likely to slip down the gullet much easier with a large helping of Shield interference. If someone can take a “Just A Spoonful Of Shield Helps The Roman Win Go Down” sign to New Orleans, I’ll owe you.
The Shield is a sanctuary right now for Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose too. Ambrose had been slipping down the card since his WWE Championship run, being bumped to the WrestleMania 33 pre-show as Intercontinental Champion before being eclipsed as titleholder by The Miz. For Rollins, meanwhile, WrestleMania marked the end of a near-three-year personal story arc, coming full circle to kick the ass of the corporate guy who convinced him to turn on his stablemates in the first place. Since then, the most character development Seth Rollins has had is a ‘burn it down’ added to his entrance theme and apparel to mimic the story of a video game trailer. Having great matches with Sheamus & Cesaro (themselves looking better for a run working in the tag division than continuing a grind in the singles) is a great thing for them to have been doing. If The Revival’s awful run of luck with injuries improves in the New Year, it’ll continue to be a good spot. There’s no reason for The Shield not to stick at it as a unit for a while yet.
SmackDown Live (U.S. Bank Arena, Cincinnati OH)
Announced: Kevin Owens vs Shinsuke Nakamura and a face-off between AJ Styles and Jinder Mahal.
What to expect: Owens vs Nakamura would be a great match in a vacuum, though the truth is it’s unlikely to exist in a vacuum here. Expect Sami Zayn and Randy Orton to be in the mix too, and plenty of involvement from the authority figures Shane McMahon (hawk) and Daniel Bryan (dove) involved in the storyline. This is positioned as SmackDown’s big hook for Clash of Champions, so it should get plenty of exposure in the go-home show. The face-off between Styles and Mahal is an important wrinkle, as the two men’s dealings have been heavy on video screens and Singh Brothers so far – not to mention Styles didn’t appear on SmackDown last week. Similarly, The Usos should be back on screen this week, to try and bring the four-team match on Sunday into some sort of collective context.
Dolph Ziggler wrecked the match between Baron Corbin and Bobby Roode last week, raising the possibility that Ziggler may be handed a receipt from both men this week. The brewing tension between the lumberjacks in Sunday’s Women’s Championship match should feature centrally; half seem to have Natalya’s back, half seem to have their own backs and nobody else’s and nobody seems to have Charlotte Flair’s back. A return for Zack Ryder to respond to Mojo Rawley’s explanation for his attack would also be likely – especially as another match or two for Clash of Champions needs to be booked. The Bludgeon Brothers may also feature there too, who one suspects will likely line up a match for Sunday or just wrestle another squash here (or possibly both).
Spotlight: Ah, Christ, I don’t know. At the start of 2017 I couldn’t say enough good things about SmackDown, but now I find myself at the end of the year – deep into a season of goodwill – and I find myself without much goodwill to offer. What interests you most about SmackDown Live right now? If you’re commenting below, mention what floats your boat about SmackDown and we’ll have a discussion about it over the next few weeks. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t enjoy SmackDown, I just feel as a whole it’s gradually crept into a state of entropy. The show has less heat than it did 12 months ago. Clash of Champions is this Sunday and it’s a cobbled-together card of matches – featuring very talented men and women, yes, but it feels like they’ve been assembled with a ‘this’ll do’ mentality based on what seemed like the least trouble to arrange.
I’m going to write more about Clash of Champions below, so I’m going to keep the Spotlight fairly short this week (sorry SmackDown fans; like I say, let me know in the comments what sort of things are interesting you on Tuesday nights). However, there are a few potential factors why the blue brand maybe doesn’t feel as vital as it once did.
It would be simplistic to say that SmackDown got stiffed in the Superstar Shake-up; for the loss of The Miz, WWE’s best secondary champion of 2017 in a walk, to Raw or John Cena becoming a free (and infrequent) agent, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn came the other way. The problem was in how SmackDown’s acquisitions slotted into the show. Zayn was used sparingly and to little effect. Charlotte Flair replaced Alexa Bliss, but turned face before she could run substantial programs against her best potential opponents Becky Lynch and Naomi. Shinsuke Nakamura hasn’t really had much to chew on since his main roster debut. At the top of the tree, Jinder Mahal – not just as WWE Champion, but as a dominant WWE Champion without ever really dominating anybody.
The tag division outside of The New Day and The Usos (who have probably been the bright points of SmackDown in the past six months) is slowly rebuilding, while the women’s division has struggled to put together concurrent championship programs and secondary programs since the heady days of Naomi vs Alexa Bliss, Becky Lynch vs Mickie James and a Natalya vs Nikki Bella grudge match at Elimination Chamber near the start of the year. I’m hoping this Sunday’s Clash of Champions will advance the most interesting story on the show – signs of a possible rift between Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon – to give me something to write enthusiastically about next week, and beyond into 2018.
Also This Week
It’s ‘WWE Holiday Week’ on the USA Network, which means a couple of big additions to the network television schedule this week.
The first is NXT (Wednesday). If you watch Raw and SmackDown but don’t have the WWE Network – I’m sure there must be some of you – this is a chance to catch up on the yellow brand that us internet writers blurble on about on a weekly basis. Aleister Black vs Adam Cole should be as good a match as any to use as a showcase, while WWE is also pushing singles champions Andrade Almas and Ember Moon (who is facing Peyton Royce) as selling points for this week’s show, along with The Authors of Pain.
The following night is WWE’s annual Tribute to the Troops (Thursday). This has already been recorded at Naval Base San Diego and – without giving away spoilers – looks to be continuity-heavy rather than a number of throwaway matches with babyface wins to put smiles on faces. Both Raw and SmackDown rosters will be featured, so there’ll be some stuff relevant to Clash of Champions and some stuff that ties into tonight’s Raw. There’ll also be music from Machine Gun Kelly, if that’s your kind of thing.
Oh, and 205 Live (Tuesday) is on as usual, but it’s not on the USA Network. Sorry 205 Live; you’re comfortably the sixth-most important WWE show airing this week.
Clash of Champions (TD Garden, Boston MA; SmackDown pay-per-view)
Announced: As always, the card is subject to change and additions during the week are expected. Official matches at time of writing:
- WWE Championship: AJ Styles (c) vs Jinder Mahal
- SmackDown Women’s Championship: Charlotte Flair (c) vs Natalya (Lumberjack Match)
- SmackDown Tag Team Championships: The Usos (c) vs The New Day vs Shelton Benjamin & Chad Gable vs Rusev & Aiden English
- Randy Orton & Shinsuke Nakamura vs Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn (Shane McMahon as special guest referee)
- United States Championship: Baron Corbin (c) vs Bobby Roode vs Dolph Ziggler
What to expect: Here it is, the final WWE pay-per-view of the year, and it’s a real end-of-termer. The matches and their supporting storylines have been built with an absolute economy of effort, while the principle of the show – ‘every championship is defended’ – doesn’t exactly set the heart racing. Every championship was also defended at the previous SmackDown pay-per-view (Hell in a Cell), although that was the first time it had happened for the brand in 2017; the previous four occasions had seen secondary male champions dragged into gimmick matches (Elimination Chamber, Money in the Bank) or the inability to write a fully-functioning women’s division (Backlash, Battleground).
The most engaging match on the card is the tag contest furthering the story between Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn and the SmackDown commissioner Shane McMahon. The prospect of Zayn and Owens losing has further receded with the stipulation that they can’t just move to Raw if they get sacked, but that should at least make for an interesting dynamic between them and special referee Shane during the match. It should be pretty watchable as far as a bit of drama goes, even if Randy Orton and Shinsuke Nakamura are firmly in the role of supporting actors here. Will General Manager Daniel Bryan, not always seeing eye-to-eye with his boss on the issue of Zayn and Owens, appear to factor in the finish? Quite possibly.
Elsewhere, there is absolutely zero reason for AJ Styles to lose the WWE Championship back to Jinder Mahal, in a program that’s been one-dimensional and needs to end conclusively. The same might be said of the Women’s Championship picture, though at least the lumberjack setting may allow some new rivalries to develop, more definition for The Riott Squad and a new challenger for Charlotte Flair to emerge. The United States Championship match seems to be a fudge until WWE can transition to a Corbin vs Roode feud further down the line. The tag titles match looks like a similar fudge, where teams have just been piled into the match one by one, but could be one of the most entertaining matches on the show.
What else might there be? Well, Zack Ryder vs Mojo Rawley would be an obvious option. Something more substantial for The Bludgeon Brothers would be another, such as being fed an established midcard team; Breezango would be the no-brainer choice, given that’s been set up on several Fashion Files segments. Other than that, I’m not sure what else jumps out. And to be honest, I’m not sure I care either.
As always, check back here on Friday for the full TJRWrestling preview with John and the gang (who will hopefully have some nicer things to say about the card).
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 match are you most looking forward to at Clash of Champions?
- Who should now become the number one contender to the Cruiserweight Championship?
- Would you wager this won’t be the last time we’ll see NXT airing on the USA Network?
Until next week, strap in, enjoy the ride and remember to stick with TJRWrestling.net for your show recaps and analysis.