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Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! Goldberg’s going into the Hall of Fame, Paige may be done in a WWE ring and the biggest brand in sports entertainment rolls back into Texas tonight. Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, January 15th 2018.

Raw (AT&T Center, San Antonio TX)

Announced: Asuka vs Nia Jax. WWE has also today confirmed Goldberg for this year’s Hall of Fame, so there’ll likely be a video package on him tonight too.

What to expect: It’s not unfair to note that next week will be a much bigger deal for Raw than this week. Apart from a load of legends dropping in for the 25th anniversary, next Monday sees an Intercontinental Championship rematch between Roman Reigns and former champ The Miz – so expect Reigns to seek some payback for last week’s show-ending sneak attack here. Meanwhile two title matches have been set up for the Royal Rumble: Seth Rollins will likely continue to suffer Jason Jordan’s arrogance while Sheamus & Cesaro lie in wait for their shot at the tag titles (although the surprise win for Titus Worldwide over Sheamus & Cesaro last week may cause the challengers a temporary diversion), while Enzo Amore will probably give an update on his ‘injury’ during last week’s match with Cedric Alexander (though the rematch has already been confirmed for Sunday week, so that’s where it’s heading).

Asuka vs Nia Jax seems a shame to give away on television with hardly any build rather than, for example, as a SummerSlam championship match for Asuka. Nia Jax is not winning this match. The other big news in Raw’s women’s division at the moment is the worrying reports about Paige; hopefully some clarification might come this week, but we’ll see. Elsewhere, Balor Club are still a thing, which is great and will probably see them involved on the show in some capacity. Bray Wyatt and Matt Hardy stepped up their program last week by laughing at each other face-to-face rather than via videolink. Will we graduate to physicality finally? Or perhaps a total diversion featuring Vanguard 1 now that Hardy has the entire ‘Broken’ gimmick at his disposal? Finally, there’s no Brock Lesnar this week – the announce team will sell Braun Strowman’s latest act of destruction to explain his absence – while Samoa Joe is also missing due to a (legitimate) foot injury.

Spotlight: Outside of the comments sections, at least, I feel I’ve been fairly restrained in these columns over the past year and spoken relatively little about Alexa Bliss. Have I mentioned I’m a huge fan of Alexa Bliss? Because I used to mention it pretty regularly. And then, as her title reign(s) lengthened, it became pretty obvious that a) WWE saw the same potential in her from the NXT days that I was seeing, b) she didn’t really need a cheerleader any more and c) not everyone’s convinced about her ability to hold down the 10-15 minute championship matches on pay-per-view. So, more often than not, I’ve bitten my tongue and talked about the other people in WWE’s women’s division.

If anything, I think ‘the other people in WWE’s women’s division’ is where Bliss has been put in a tough spot – and to be clear, that lies at the door of WWE’s executives and senior creative decision-makers, not the talent themselves. Yes, as soon as next week we’ll be previewing the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble match, but the build to it so far has been pretty vague. Bliss seems to be manipulating Nia Jax to take out Asuka, who she clearly sees as the biggest danger, and otherwise the story is Absolution vs everyone else. Over on SmackDown Live, there’s even less nuance. The depth of stories we get, the number of women who get to be properly profiled, these are all presumably mandated to the writers each week by what the balance of what the core demographic wants. And that balance currently tips in favor of the men.

Consider Raw’s men. After WrestleMania, Roman Reigns will likely be Universal Champion. He’ll be wrestling 20-25 minute main events on pay-per-views; he’ll surely perform soundly in them but he’ll just as surely win. As with Alexa Bliss as champion, that’ll inevitably leave some people feeling cold. What softens the blow on the male side of the roster is you also have other 15-20 minute title matches showcasing strong workers (the tag division), regular character-based segments the crowd engage with (Elias, Matt Hardy), long promos that flesh out stories and get people over (The Miz). In the women’s division – as with the cruiserweight division outside of 205 Live – it’s a top-down system; most of those responsibilities get dumped on the champion of the day (and/or their challenger) because that’s where business starts. Then the only trickle-down is a general Absolution promo and quick six-woman match before, whoops, it’s time to rejoin the men!

However, lack of development for WWE’s women shouldn’t be the price we pay for Cesaro wrestling classic tag matches. This is where the women in NXT – alumni now on Raw’s roster included – tend to have been better catered for. NXT being only one hour a week but tending to feature talent in rotation probably puts it in the ballpark of the same available exposure for individuals as Monday Night Raw. The difference seems to be how those minutes are committed. If they’re not in pursuit of a slow-burning goal, they’re tailored to the needs of the characters; for example, giggly self-shot tours of the Performance Center by Peyton Royce and Billie Kay, or Shayna Baszler showing up to needlessly wreck someone. Nia Jax’s strengths aren’t played to by doing promos with Enzo Amore or eating 90% of the pins she’s eaten (and will presumably add to tonight). Committing, every week, to a slow-burn of Sasha Banks turning on Bayley would be better for both women than wrestling throwaway matches as nondescript best buddies.

Alexa Bliss, meanwhile. Her matches may rarely excite in the way that those of her predecessors as Raw Women’s Champion have, but outside the ring everything else she does is so much stronger. She’s still the best promo in the division by some distance and, corny material she’s asked to work with aside, the fact is she’s still acing segments on a weekly basis. This role just happens to be her wheelhouse. Back when she won that first title on SmackDown, I noted her character work was too strong to justify leaving her off television any more. Like it or not, Bliss is a fixture for as long as she can continue cramming buckets of expressiveness into her television minutes every week. She keeps taking every opportunity she’s offered. So I don’t think the spotlight should be taken off her – I just wish other women were able to share it. I propose to you not ‘less Alexa Bliss’, but ‘more of everyone else’.

SmackDown Live (Laredo Energy Arena, Laredo TX)

Announced: Jinder Mahal vs Xavier Woods, and Bobby Roode vs Mojo Rawley in the semifinals of the United States Championship tournament. The Riott Squad vs Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair and Naomi.

What to expect: Mahal and Roode are winning those matches, right? One would think Roode vs Mahal, face vs heel, for the title seems the best match to happen at the Royal Rumble. Though Dolph Ziggler remains conspicuous by his absence. Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens (and probably Daniel Bryan) are likely to have issues with Shane McMahon for restarting last week’s main event twice, before they then turn their attention to Royal Rumble opponent AJ Styles. Meanwhile, Becky Lynch looked strong last week and will probably be SmackDown’s most prominent woman going into the Royal Rumble match in a couple of weeks. The Riott Squad have challenged Lynch, Charlotte Flair and Naomi to a six-woman tag match this week, which one imagines may result in Ruby Riott’s team getting some shine back after her singles loss to Lynch.

Elsewhere, it’s all about the tag teams at the moment on SmackDown. The Tag Team Championships match at the Royal Rumble – two out of three falls – promises to be a treat. Might it result in one further, single-fall non-title match between The Usos and Shelton Benjamin & Chad Gable before then? Elsewhere, Rusev Day are entering the Royal Rumble and will surely feature again, although perhaps targeting Breezango after last week’s loss would be the first thing on their agenda. Breezango themselves managed to extract themselves from the path of destruction caused by The Bludgeon Brothers last week, with The Ascension getting crushed instead. Who might The Bludgeon Brothers face this week? Some, all or none of the above?

Spotlight: Here’s an exercise: Next time you speak to a friend who does not watch pro wrestling, explain to them what Rusev Day is. And end by noting it’s one of the most popular things on WWE programming right now. Not easy to keep a straight face, is it? I love shit like this about wrestling. A Bulgarian man can decide that every day is a special celebration about him and convince a sympathetic soul to sing about it when they’re together, then before you know it we’re all chanting and buying t-shirts. Both men are capable of more complex work. Rusev has been an outstandingly consistent character performer in previous feuds and on social media. Aiden English, meanwhile, has achieved a rare feat – successfully falling back onto an old developmental gimmick (classical singing) after seeing the act which brought him to the main roster, The Vaudevillains, scuppered after the departure of Simon Gotch last April.

I’m not sure whether the success of something so simple and context-free is heartening or concerning to me. On the one hand, it’s a beautiful thing to see both men being accepted by the audience at such a basic level. On the other, both are performers who have demonstrated a greater range than this and I’m not sure it sets the best precedent; if it reinforces an assumption that ‘simple works’ then it can risk hampering future development – both for creating possible future characters who are anything more than a one-note joke and for Rusev and English themselves. They will need to be pro-active in changing and evolving their gimmick, squeezing in new things if they’re ever told to ‘go out and do your usual stuff’ and bringing the audience something new before the old catchphrases become stale.

The New Day got themselves over by being masters of this. They’ve always been immensely talented guys, but it was when they started pushing the envelope with mannerisms and running jokes – and kept going rather than rest on their laurels – that they broke out of their relatively simple gimmick (gospel singers). Elsewhere on SmackDown, we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop on Tye Dillinger (believes he’s a ‘perfect ten’) and Breezango (weekly segment as fashion cops parodying a movie or TV show). Previous one-dimensional characters to eventually hit a dead end include Adam Rose, for example. Will Dillinger and Breezango be able to evolve their act before creative runs out of things for them? Will Rusev and Aiden English manage to diversify while they’re riding the crest of this wave? Let’s hope so.

Again, as with my notes earlier on its opportunities for the women, NXT’s environment tends to be better for allowing talent the chance to branch out and try things than the main roster. That’s where English nailed down the singing (and seriously, if you never saw his stuff opposite Big Cass, seek that out on the WWE Network for both men’s sakes). With the main roster, the primary goal seems to be to deliver what the audience expects from the product; whatever you do, fit in Catchphrase X and Punchline Y (and wear Merchandise Z, please and thank you). Any risks taken must happen strictly within that framework. NXT has the freedom to be more explorative. To take Dillinger as an example, his ‘perfect ten’ got legs partly due to his coming out during other people’s matches at house shows and rating them – always poorly, of course – out of ten. It subverted the narrative about how you expect the audience to consume other parts of the product.

Can you picture Tye Dillinger coming out during matches on SmackDown Live, in feuds he is no part of, in the same way? Even on house shows? Disrupting the story the people in the ring are trying to deliver to the paying customers is probably too big a risk, yet it’s arguably exactly the sort of thing that would keep Dillinger’s gimmick relevant. Heaven knows we’re trusted to focus on AJ Styles wrestling a WWE Championship program with Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, even when there are bickering authority figures at ringside. So although I’m happy to see the love being shown to Rusev Day, I really hope WWE allow both men the space to keep growing and let them reflect their talent and versatility beyond the sweet spot they’re currently enjoying.

Also This Week

Something new! As you’ll have seen and heard around WWE’s various social channels, Mixed Match Challenge (Tuesday) – hereafter ‘MMC’, because we’re wrestling fans and initialism is totally our bag – starts this week. It’s one intergender tag match, as part of a knockout tournament, per episode (and no doubt a bit of backstage content too) that goes out on Facebook immediately following SmackDown Live. This week’s opener sees Finn Balor and Sasha Banks teaming up to face Shinsuke Nakamura and Natalya. WWE.com has the full brackets. There’s some variety on offer here, with the intergender pairings offering genuinely fresh dynamics, an angle with every team wrestling for charity, the promise of ‘being able to influence the match’ through interaction (which sounds perilous, but okay) and a lot of very cute additional content already on WWE’s MMC facebook channel. Definitely warrants giving a chance.

205 Live (Tuesday) follows MMC, shunted back to half past the hour. Apparently still an hour (according to the WWE Network schedules) and presumably standing by its styling as ‘live’, the new schedule adds another difficulty multiplier for the talented cruiserweight division in their battle to keep the crowd warm. Perhaps let’s show them a bit of love and all tune in this week?

I’ve already given the show a bit of credit, at the expense of the main roster, this week so I’ll just note here that NXT (Wednesday) features The Street Profits vs The Authors of Pain to decide the challengers for tag champions Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish. NXT’s ability to rehabilitate its tag division (as well as its women’s division) every time talent leaves for the bright lights remains instructive.

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. Will you be watching the Mixed Match Challenge and what do you make of it?
  2. Would Jinder Mahal make a better United States Champion than WWE Champion?
  3. What impact do you think Titus Worldwide’s surprise win last week will have on their standing in the Raw tag team division?

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

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