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Happy Monday, TJRWrestling faithful! John Cena has stepped from one brand’s pay-per-view main event to the other’s within a fortnight and I can’t be alone in wondering why my regular employment doesn’t work like that. Welcome to the Week In Preview for World Wrestling Entertainment, March 5th 2018.

Raw (BMO Harris Bradley Center, Milwaukee WI)

Announced: Asuka vs Nia Jax.

What to expect: Lots of talk about Brock Lesnar being pulled from Raw last week, which seemed to have been a creative decision resulting in an excellent Roman Reigns promo. Definitely no Lesnar scheduled this week, but expect to see his absence played on again as a sign of disrespect. Ronda Rousey is expected on the show, and the most likely onward direction of that story sees her sticking up for fellow Olympian Kurt Angle after Angle received a cheap shot from Triple H. Seth Rollins and Finn Balor will likely square up over the question of who’ll challenge The Miz for the Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania and Braun Strowman might not be finished with Elias yet.

The match between Asuka and Nia Jax might be the former’s last on Raw and – as with their previous encounters – probably can’t result in a Jax victory. The question of a WrestleMania challenge for Alexa Bliss will probably come around next week. The fallout of Bayley bailing on Sasha Banks in last week’s tag match is more likely to be featured. The Tag Team Champions Sheamus & Cesaro are surely comprehensively finished with Titus Worldwide, so challengers for WrestleMania (The Revival?) will be on the agenda. Finally, Bray Wyatt and Matt Hardy derp dee derp. God’s sake, please let Matt reclaim some of his Broken Universe elements from TNA this side of WrestleMania if we’re having to sit through more of this feud.

Spotlight: It’s approaching the point where we can begin to offer some legitimate takes on how Ronda Rousey is being presented by WWE. Cards on the table, my prior knowledge of Rousey is by reputation only. I don’t watch or particularly follow mixed martial arts, only really going on what I pick up by osmosis through following other, related subjects (e.g. pro wrestling, sport in general). I took an interest in the fate of CM Punk when he switched disciplines, while I have to admit my awareness of Conor McGregor owes assists to him being from this side of the Atlantic and his boxing match with Floyd Mayweather. Rousey’s name I’d heard in passing – no doubt partly thanks to WWE’s early interest – before she showed up at WrestleMania 31 for a segment pairing up with The Rock.

I’d therefore like to think I’m in the vast majority of WWE’s mainstream ‘sports entertainment’ audience who know Rousey by reputation but not by content. How she is now presented to that audience is a key point in her potential success in the company, balancing the need to capitalize on her crossover value by getting her onto programming at the earliest possible opportunity and the limitations of what she can and cannot do at this stage of her development. The technical side, ultimately, shouldn’t present a lasting problem; Rousey has athletic nous, combat technique and experience in a highly relevant contact sports setting. Yes, there’s plenty to learn, from running the ropes to working spots, but any fear she might drag down the women’s locker room average for in-ring work will surely be laid to rest in time.

The bigger questions remain over how she’ll do at telling a story and how much the audience will believe in her as a character. The latter has particularly been on my mind. The easiest way to portray a legitimately tough former MMA star is as a legitimately tough former MMA star. The two problems with that are, firstly, it says virtually nothing (hence Paul Heyman’s role with Brock Lesnar being essential to add color to his character, not just to help tell a story) and secondly, as with MMA – and as Rousey herself knows well – the individual’s value can rapidly diminish if they start getting defeated. Rousey isn’t getting defeated in WWE any time soon, but if this current feud gives her a strong anti-authority angle – a Stone Cold for the Women’s Revolution – it’ll be a better long-term investment than banking on her toughness alone.

In my opinion, the most promising character moment Rousey’s had so far was when she showed up after the women’s Royal Rumble; specifically where she offered Stephanie McMahon the handshake. That was picture-perfect. Mischievous smile, Joan Jett playing in the background, Roddy Piper’s oversized jacket, too cool for school. Whether Rousey will ever be able to tell a story like Piper, a well-reported inspiration to her, is more doubtful (even if Piper hadn’t been an absolute one-off). Last week’s coded threats on Raw were better fare than her ‘just happy to be here’ dithering at Elimination Chamber, but more will be demanded in time – both in and out of the ring. The expected mixed tag with three of the company’s more accomplished character performers and a possible pairing with Heyman subsequently looks a good move in the short term.

SmackDown Live (Resch Center, Green Bay WI)

Announced: Becky Lynch vs Carmella.

What to expect: Six men compete for the WWE Championship on Sunday. The big change in dynamic this week is the introduction of the sixth of them, John Cena, and the way the other five men respond to it. After a few solid but throwaway singles matches between them over the last few weeks, there may be more of the same or that old fall-back option the six-man tag. There’ll definitely be talk of John Cena being desperate for a WrestleMania match and there’ll definitely be disagreements between Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan. It would be nice if there was more to it, but that might not happen before Fastlane is out of the way this weekend.

The announced match between Becky Lynch and Carmella came out of a backstage exclusive video where the two women clashed about stuff on Twitter. It’s pretty meaningless, but with Naomi and Natalya nearby it may play into a tag match either on the same night or on Sunday. Charlotte and Ruby Riott will probably come face to face before their title match at Fastlane while with Bobby Roode and Randy Orton, plenty of words in previous weeks may need to give way to some actions this week. The Usos and The New Day might find The Bludgeon Brothers hampering their build towards the weekend and Shinsuke Nakamura and Rusev will both be looking to make it two consecutive weeks of appearing on the show – which shouldn’t be that much of a challenge – possibly opposite each other.

Spotlight: Put yourselves in the shoes of the SmackDown Live writing team. You have one more brand-exclusive pay-per-view to struggle through before you get to share the creative load at every following big event for the foreseeable future. You’ve just seen Raw’s last show run a seven-man main event packed with star power. Your upcoming main event has stumbled towards being a five-way affair, featuring one crowd favorite and four antagonists, with no strong narrative behind the motivations and concerns of the majority of those involved. Your priority appears to be to plant doubt in the minds of the audience as to who will face Shinsuke Nakamura (therefore being held in reserve from the main event scene) at WrestleMania – despite the fact that we’re all fine with it being AJ Styles, thank you very much. What do you do?

Did you answer: “Sod it, let’s pour gasoline on this fire, throw in John Cena and make it a six-way”? Congratulations, right answer! But also, why on earth would you do that? The contenders in this Sunday’s WWE Championship match were already losing definition – the question of whether Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens are still on the same page has been demoted to the background, while Baron Corbin and Dolph Ziggler have also hopped on board thanks to the whims of clashing authority figures – while the involvement of WWE Champion Styles himself has stretched as far as getting pinned in a non-title match last week and little beyond that. The chances of any of those five men getting better definition this week is slim, because the most likely narrative angle involves defining them against Cena rather than just defining them on their own terms.

Cena’s current angle of not knowing if he’ll get a match at WrestleMania may be preposterous for viewers of an educated disposition (he’s John Cena; if he’s fit he’s on the card and, even if he’s not fit, he’s on the show in some capacity), but it’s interesting viewing. To that extent, at least, though SmackDown’s main event story on Sunday will be swallowed up by it, it is something of an improvement. The portrayal of Cena as desperate, arrogant even, being prepared to slingshot from show to show and elbow people out of the picture for his chance is a development of his character that many of us will totally buy, playing up to heel tendencies to the ‘smart’ fans while doing nothing unreasonable enough to betray (the majority of) his WWE history and be an out-and-out bad guy. I wish WWE had the nerve to run with this kind of angle for Roman Reigns, earlier than him beating The Undertaker last year and harder.

The aforementioned Undertaker still probably lies in John Cena’s future. Cena’s desperation has echoes of the retirement storyline of Shawn Michaels, which is interesting. Might it be possible that Cena has to put a similar amount on the line to get his match in New Orleans? It’s a tempting fantasy booking scenario to do a career vs career stipulation, as Undertaker is – at the very least – deep into encores and Cena has new entertainment horizons. It would have a convincing premise and at least one valid way out for booking it (Undertaker ultimately taking the fall). But whatever happens there, hopefully the desperate version of John Cena will be sticking around as no matter how much he may overshadow main events he’s dropped into, he provides a little more intrigue. Now let’s get on with Styles vs Nakamura, please.

Also This Week

The quarterfinals of the Cruiserweight Championship tournament conclude this week on 205 Live (Tuesday) with Buddy Murphy vs Mustafa Ali and Drew Gulak vs Mark Andrews. Meanwhile on NXT (Wednesday) a new tournament begins with the welcome return of the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic. The first match is TM61 vs The Authors of Pain – a repeat of the finals the last time the tournament ran.

If you still need a tournament fix on WWE programming, Mixed Match Challenge (Tuesday Facebook Watch, Thursday WWE Network) features Braun Strowman & Alexa Bliss vs Jimmy Uso & Naomi.

Fastlane (Nationwide Arena, Columbus OH; SmackDown Live pay-per-view)

Announced: As always, the card is subject to change and additions during the week are likely. Official matches at time of writing are:

  • WWE Championship: AJ Styles (c) vs John Cena vs Kevin Owens vs Sami Zayn vs Baron Corbin vs Dolph Ziggler
  • SmackDown Tag Team Championships: The Usos (c) vs The New Day
  • SmackDown Women’s Championship: Charlotte Flair (c) vs Ruby Riott
  • United States Championship: Bobby Roode (c) vs Randy Orton

What to expect: Of WWE’s two main roster brands, SmackDown Live probably benefits the most from a return to joint-brand pay-per-views across the year (and would also probably benefit more from a post-WrestleMania roster adjustment). Building a full card of matches with engaging storylines seems quite a chore for Team Blue right now, and this Fastlane lineup is the ne plus ultra of that problem.

I’ve touched on the main event above; there’s not much to add apart from a) it’ll go on for ages, b) the men involved will bust their asses to make it entertaining (if not necessarily compelling) and c) AJ Styles is surely winning. The match for the Women’s Championship should similarly be fine but the build has been paint-by-numbers unimaginative. It’s not that I don’t have time for Ruby Riott – I very much do – but her collective Squad have been written to provide quantity over subtlety while the likes of Becky Lynch and Naomi have been almost entirely sidelined. A gentle reminder at this point that, around a year ago, SmackDown was booking three women’s singles matches with storylines you could explain on a pay-per-view. What happened?

Then we have the Tag Team Championships match. While this could still be changed to add The Bludgeon Brothers, the fact we’ve ended up coming around to The Usos vs The New Day once more seems if not like a failure then a limitation. After their supposedly feud-ending Hell in a Cell match, The Usos burned a hole right through Shelton Benjamin and Chad Gable and here we are again. The match will be great, absolutely, but I just wish it felt fresher and that the division was deeper. The only other announced match – Roode vs Orton – might also be solid and is, at least, a genuinely fresh matchup. Elsewhere? Shinsuke Nakamura vs Rusev might be a candidate for addition, but it’s otherwise a thin, thin crowd. Roll on the joint-branded pay-per-views.

Be sure to check in with John and the guys at the end of the week for the full TJRWrestling preview. I’m sure they’ll have a few more optimistic things to say than me. And I know they’re all suckers for Usos/New Day matches like me, so it’s not all gloom.

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 do you make of Ronda Rousey’s start in WWE?
  2. Would you like to see The Bludgeon Brothers added to Sunday’s tag match, or is it better left as Usos vs New Day?
  3. Are there any reasons why you’ll be sorry to see brand-exclusive pay-per-views go?

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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