Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! Roman Reigns will face Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania, Asuka’s winning streak is still alive and I wrote this introduction several days ago. Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, February 26th 2018.
Raw (Honda Center, Anaheim CA)
Announced: Roman Reigns, the winner of the men’s Elimination Chamber match last night, will come face-to-face with the Universal Champion who he challenges at WrestleMania, Brock Lesnar.
What to expect: There are a number of key points to address following Elimination Chamber last night. The confrontation between Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns is the big one, to set in motion what may ultimately be WrestleMania’s de facto main event. How will they play it? Physical contact or a tense stand-off? Will there be any bumps in the road, such as a Braun Strowman or a WrestleMania 31 flashback with Seth Rollins? My gut feeling is a stand-off with no frills, but we’ll see. Whether Asuka will formally challenge Alexa Bliss is another thread, though her rumored jump to SmackDown and being put through the barricade by Nia Jax after their match may put that on ice. Finally on the subject of last night’s winners, is the feud between Matt Hardy and Bray Wyatt now over? Don’t bet on it.
Ronda Rousey signed her WWE contract amidst another flare-up of tensions between General Manager Kurt Angle and his bosses, Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. I think we can all see where it’s going, but the immediate reaction of Trips and Steph is sure to be another cornerstone of tonight’s stories. Rousey is due to be on Raw, so let the sparks fly! Elsewhere, the fate of other competitors from the two Elimination Chamber matches will probably feature – Strowman and Rollins aside (and hints of the former going after The Miz have been liberally dropped over the last couple of weeks), we’re promised John Cena resorting to unorthodox means of getting a WrestleMania opponent, while WWE.com’s own preview is also majoring on the relationship breakdown between Sasha Banks and Bayley. WrestleMania challengers for tag champs Sheamus & Cesaro are also needing to be determined in the next few weeks.
Spotlight: It’s a streak that’s likely to be broken tonight – because we’re fully on the road to WrestleMania now and there’ll be a lot for WWE’s Superstars to talk about – but the last few weeks of Raw have been especially wrestling-heavy. Prime among these was last week’s gauntlet between the seven men who ended up competing in the Elimination Chamber against each other. So, just for the moment, let’s put aside the fallout from last night’s entertaining-if-predictable pay-per-view and rewind seven days to consider what was a remarkable match (or series of matches) for this or any other era of Monday Night Raw.
The statistics tell a lot of the tale. If considered as one match, the running time of over an hour and three-quarters would make it – as noted by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter last week – comfortably the longest match in WWE history. Even if you’re counting the matches individually (and technically we should be) the John Cena vs Seth Rollins segment, running at 34:22, was the fourth-longest match in Raw history in its own right. Although it was presented as seven consecutive matches rather than one, there’s still a value in thinking about it as a single whole – and that’s in the consideration of how the content was presented to viewers. It was a single contest with a continuing narrative, lasting over half of a three-hour show. That was what viewers were asked to consume.
Crucially, the Observer also reports that television ratings responded well, with the first-hour figure of 3,518,000 barely dropping to 3,509,000 for the show’s second hour, in contrast to the usual pattern for Raw of a greater drop-off from hour one. Viewers bought into the idea of seeing the gauntlet through, suggesting that a network television audience isn’t necessarily turned off by the idea of ‘too much’ actual wrestling. In fact, the suggestion that viewing figures broadly support it is a welcome one, because there are also compelling artistic reasons for WWE to go hard on in-ring competition sometimes. If anything, it’s something that the main roster probably doesn’t do enough – and hopefully the success of the segment convinces them to do it more in the future.
Non-wrestling segments are an essential part of pro wrestling; even the grappling purist would find that hard to dispute. Cutting promos, backstage angles, even the odd comedy skit has always and will always be key to getting characters over and making an audience believe in stories. However, every now and then, it’s important to remind people that these men and women are athletic freaks who specialize in stepping between the ropes and competing. If one only ever saves the lengthy, dramatic, consequential matches for pay-per-view, how will casual viewers know to put down their money? Occasionally you need to bear all to your network audience and let them invest in watching these performers do what they’ll do on the big Sundays.
As noted, Raw has offered a lot of this recently and it’s not hard to see the mutual benefits. Seth Rollins’ stock rose significantly last week. Rollins has always been one of the company’s top in-ring performers, though we haven’t always been reminded of it recently. Last week, he once again came across as the sort of star he hadn’t looked like since his run as WWE Champion, and all it took was for him to be given time, allowed to let everything hang out – oh, and the small matter of pinning the two biggest names in the company. But having the chance to work long matches on television is something that’s also helped the likes of Tag Team Champions Sheamus & Cesaro and Intercontinental Champion The Miz establish themselves as top-line acts on Raw – so in my book? The more long matches on WWE TV the better.
SmackDown Live (Staples Center, Los Angeles CA)
Announced: Ruby Riott vs Naomi.
What to expect: Firstly, the announced match should end in a victory for Ruby Riott, who is moving on to a Women’s Championship match against Charlotte at Fastlane (at the end of next week) and should go into it looking as strong as possible. Other matches on this week’s show are likely to include another combination (or combinations) of AJ Styles and his four challengers for the WWE Championship, Dolph Ziggler, Baron Corbin, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. This may be another configuration of singles matches, as last week, or a tag match of some sort. Will we see Shinsuke Nakamura outside of a video package? Hopefully. More Nakamura or Rusev would be welcome.
Bobby Roode vs Randy Orton for the United States Championship has been set for Fastlane, but Jinder Mahal is still hovering around that scene stirring the pot. Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon disagreed (again) last week over who out of Orton or Mahal deserved the shot, so it’s possible that Mahal may still come into the picture via authority figure shenanigans this week. Another Fastlane match that’s established in theory but doesn’t feel safe in practice is The Usos defending their Tag Team Championships against The New Day. Now, I’m all for more Usos vs New Day action, but The Bludgeon Brothers in close proximity makes me wonder if another match between them really will go ahead without a detour beforehand. We may find out this week.
Spotlight: I find myself being interested in whether Jinder Mahal will be added to the United States Championship match at Fastlane. This is an odd sensation, because I can’t honestly say I’ve been interested in the unilateral fate of Jinder Mahal before – at least not outside of the fate of those who were challenging him for the WWE Championship last year. Time heals much though, and I find myself more willing to accept Mahal as a malign, disruptive influence on other programs (I mean that in a nice way) in the midcard than as a headline act. Is his character work much improved? Not especially. Am I bursting to see him wrestle for 20 minutes? No. But I could watch him rub Bobby Roode and Randy Orton the wrong way for some passable television.
Being a third wheel in a program with two other men who make viable, believable contenders for a secondary championship is not the worst spot for Mahal, and would probably have been a lot more forgiving one than that which he was suddenly thrust into last year. That was generally a polarizing, binary situation, where ways needed to be found for Mahal to compete with and triumph over one guy at a time who was invariably seen as being of a higher pedigree than him. If Mahal can’t lose, then how does he win? That’s basically what it boiled down to. Here, he has a freer hand as a lurking threat while Roode and Orton supply the peer-to-peer conflict. Meanwhile there’s a sad irony that AJ Styles – much better equipped to work headline singles feuds – is currently buried in multi-man contests during his WWE Championship run.
Mahal as United States Champion is not the biggest jump an imagination has ever been asked to make. The ‘foreign heel’ stereotype is pretty tired, but we’re likely to find it still works in 2018 and Mahal’s run with the major title showed that WWE believes that kind of material to be his bread and butter. I find it impossible to believe Jinder Mahal won’t be United States Champion at some point this year; it seems too much of a lay-up for WWE to pass on, even if it’s for a short period. Leveraging the legitimate heat he was drawing for his complaints about being an ‘outsider’ and disrespected by the audience against the stars and stripes around his waist is a potent (if potentially ugly) combination.
In his SmackDown Live review last week, TJRWrestling supremo John Canton suggested that, if he doesn’t make it into the United States Championship match at Fastlane, a good use for Mahal would be to provide a trophy victory to Shinsuke Nakamura – currently MIA on Tuesday nights, or so it would seem. I have to agree with this. It’s a fairly short four-week run to WrestleMania after Fastlane and anything that can put the challenger to the WWE Championship on a pedestal at the beginning of that has to be a positive development. Giving Nakamura a definitive win over Mahal, after their frankly one-sided program last year, is a necessary exorcism before Nakamura goes on to challenge for the big prize.
A note on that, quickly. The absence of Nakamura on television has been notable, and odd. On the face of it, the only rationale I can see for keeping him away from SmackDown is to ensure the presence of the Royal Rumble winner doesn’t overshadow the WWE Championship program currently being resolved. The problem with that is that the current WWE Championship program already feels like an enormous placeholder anyway; the way it’s been developed – and no disrespect to the four men challenging – it feels like AJ Styles against a load of randoms, killing time until the build to WrestleMania can start. Get Nakamura on the show this week, WWE. Have him show some interest in competing at Fastlane, or at least show some interest in who’ll come out of the WWE Championship match with the title.
Also This Week
We’re into the quarterfinals of the Cruiserweight Championship tournament on 205 Live (Tuesday), with Kalisto vs Roderick Strong and TJP vs Cedric Alexander both scheduled. 205 Live has felt a lot closer to the template established by 2016’s Cruiserweight Classic tournament in recent weeks, so there’s a good chance these matches will get bigger and better as the tournament goes on.
Announced for NXT (Wednesday) is Shayna Baszler vs Kairi Sane, while you can also check out the brackets for the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, which will be making a welcome return to the Wednesday night show in the near future.
Mixed Match Challenge (Tuesday Facebook Watch, Thursday WWE Network) is into the second round, with Finn Balor & Sasha Banks vs The Miz & Asuka taking place this 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!
- Are you excited for Roman Reigns vs Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania?
- Is Roode vs Orton vs Mahal a better match or worse match than just Roode vs Orton?
- What did you think of Ronda Rousey’s segment last night and where does it go from here?
Until next week, strap in, enjoy the ride and remember to stick with TJRWrestling.net for your show recaps and analysis.