With both Raw and Smackdown having fairly uneventful shows this week, aside from Matt Hardy looking to be finally ready to become "broken", I've taken the decision to use this week's column to survey the landscape of WWE as it stands before we hit the yearly peak of the "Road to Wrestlemania". WWE are in a small holding pattern currently, so it seems a good time to look back on the good things WWE have done this year, the bad things, and what might lie in the future of the promotion over the next few months.
For me, you can't discuss anything WWE has done better this year, than Braun Strowman. Although Strowman himself has improved tremendously in the ring and on the microphone, he has been booked very strongly, and is a huge success story for the company this year. Despite ostensibly being a heel, Strowman has garnered cheers and become a main eventer, accepted in the eyes of the fan base. Admittedly, that may have started because he was paired with Roman Reigns and anyone who is will generally be a babyface by default, but since that feud he has continued to be cheered. Strowman is now at a level, where you have to wonder if he can go on and become one of the biggest names in the industry. He gets "it", and everything he does is always fitting for his character. Strowman is definitely the biggest success story in WWE in 2017.
There have definitely been a few huge moments in WWE this year that are definitely worth discussing. For me, AJ Styles winning the WWE Championship in Manchester was a huge moment. Styles has been the best wrestler on the WWE roster for nearly two years, and although he had a reign as champion towards the back end of last year, and some incredible matches as champion including a classic at the Royal Rumble with John Cena, seeing Styles as a babyface champion and succeeding in rising back up the card and being given the ball to run with shows how brilliant he's been. The title change itself and seeing Styles cemented as a top guy in WWE is incredible and fully deserved. He even dragged a good match out of Jinder Mahal (more on him later). I'm hoping Styles is used well in the next few months and not kept as a placeholder champion, or worse used to put the belt back on Mahal. His match with Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series shows he can very much compete at the very highest level and look the part as a main eventer. Styles at the peak of his powers, and is more over than ever so hopefully WWE capitalise on that and give him a big spot at Wrestlemania.
NXT has been a mixed bag this year, with the promotion in a rebuilding phase of sorts. However, it has provided some of the brighter spots for WWE this year. As mentioned in-depth last week, the whole Alestair Black vs Velveteen Dream feud has been one of the biggest highlights of 2017 for me. Both men shined, with Black looking like he could be one of the biggest break out stars from NXT in some time, while Dream has the potential to go even further. It's crazy to think he is still in his early twenties, and has only been wrestling for three years. His ceiling is non-existent, and given his level of talent I can only see him reaching the top of WWE. NXT has also had arguably the match of the year for 2017 between Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne for the WWE UK Championship at NXT: Takeover Chicago. Although the WWE UK show has yet to materialise following the tournament in January (which was also excellent), the title has been kept alive by Dunne appearing on NXT shows, and briefly on WWE during the UK tour. This match in Chicago is one of the most well-paced, well executed WWE matches of the year and I implore you to go and search it out if you haven't already. While I'm still not totally sold on some of the top line talent in NXT, especially Undisputed Era who don't look ready for the main roster as yet, but there is plenty to enjoy in NXT, and plenty to look forward to as we approach 2018.
Although there are many great things in WWE that I could mention from 2017, I'll round up a few briefly before we move onto some of the less positive aspects of the company this year. The main roster debut and rise of Samoa Joe has been excellent. He looked great in defeat to Brock Lesnar, has dominated most matches and been booked very strongly, which is great to see. Rusev has solidified himself as one of the most entertaining performers on the roster and his partnership with Aiden English has done wonders for both men. Asuka has looked great since debuting on the main roster, and while I do fear that they will falter in their booking of her as unstoppable, so far it's been very well done. Kevin Owens has been great despite an up and down year (I recommend watching his 365 special on the WWE Network if you want to get a better idea on that front), but his heel pairing with Sami Zayn has been great for both men and given both new purpose. Obviously, it goes without saying that the Festival of Friendship with Chris Jericho in February was excellent too. Finally, the Mae Young Classic was a huge highlight for me in WWE this year. The matches were excellent, and if it means that Kairi Sane, Shayna Baszler and a few others make it to the main roster then it's been a worthwhile experiment.
Of course, it's not all been good, and no-one epitomises the low points of WWE this year more than Jinder Mahal. A very average, although not woeful worker, Mahal should not have been anywhere near the main event. While WWE trying to create a credible Indian main event star is laudable, and frankly smart business, Mahal is not that guy. His promos are average, his in-ring work is middling, and he lacks the certain special quality that main event star need to possess. The company's insistence on pushing him to the moon, despite his limitations has been very telling, as has the demotion of the WWE title to midcard status at points this year. Thankfully (or hopefully at least) it looks like the experiment may be over, but Mahal will absolutely go down as one of the most laughable WWE Champions of all time. Plus, we had to endure a Punjabi Prison match, something we all assumed had been consigned to history, but which was wheeled out and was still as abysmal as always. It’s bad concept for a match, and despite appearing to be an impressive structure it always makes for a bad match.
Outside of the Jinder experiment, few have had as awful a year as Bray Wyatt. It started really well, and he even got a WWE title reign going into Wrestlemania. However, between Randy Orton burning down his house (and still being the babyface somehow) in one of the silliest angles ever, the weird projections on the canvas during his match with Orton at Wrestlemania and the fact he lost again (as he does in all feuds), and then brought us the "House of Horrors" match which made him look like an idiot because he didn’t claim it as his mandatory rematch, it was all pretty bad for Bray coming into the summer months. Then he started feuding with Finn Balor, culminating in him losing on PPV again, and then his weird turn in drag while possessed by the spirit of his dead sister. Thankfully, he got sick and the whole thing was quietly dropped, but it's still one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. Wyatt has been booked so badly that now he is just an irrelevance on the roster. He is another midcard heel, with nothing to really offer, the victim of his own ridiculous promos and some woeful booking.
While most WWE booking this year has been pretty good, and I prefer to stay positive where possible (I remember the mid-90s, things could be a whole lot worse), there have been some bad booking decisions this year. Roman Reigns committing an attempted murder on Braun Strowman with no real consequences was pretty awful, the reveal of Jason Jordan as Kurt Angle's "son" was terrible, and wasting Bobby Roode in a feud with Dolph Ziggler was perhaps an even more offensive bit of booking. However, one of the most egregious offences featured the booking of Shinsuke Nakamura. One of the best wrestlers in the world, dripping in charisma and with a highly unique style, Nakamura was the highlight of his time in NXT. He was a special attraction, and a big deal and was promoted as such. Despite starting out that way on Smackdown, and having some good matches after losing to Jinder Mahal on PPV twice (yes you read that correctly) he has become just another upper midcarder. If you needed any more proof of that fact, see the way he was treated in the Survivor Series elimination match, or the fact he was just another blue t-shirt wearing invader during the whole "Under Siege" incident. Nakamura is a special talent, and it's not too late to rehabilitate him, but so far it's been a very disappointing run on the main roster for the "King of Strong Style". Although his entrance is still awesome, so that's something.
So with 2017 almost in the rear-view mirror, it is time to look ahead to the next few months and "Road to Wrestlemania". The main event of Wrestlemania is still rumoured to be Roman Reigns vs Brock Lesnar for the Universal Championship. Logically, this makes plenty of sense and they have been mostly separated this year, barring the Summerslam fatal-four-way. The problem there is that it is hardly the main event that anyone is clamouring for. I can’t imagine WWE having Reigns win the Royal Rumble (especially given it's happening in Philadelphia again), but then who knows. I do see this being the Universal championship match, and given their bout in 2015 at Wrestlemania 31 it should be a great match. It just feels a little predictable. Personally I'd like to see Samoa Joe get the nod, but I can’t see WWE plumping for that. As for the WWE title, it really depends on who is champion by January. If Styles holds onto the belt I could see Shinsuke Nakamura getting rehabbed with a rumble win and that being the Wrestlemania match, which would be amazing. Equally, John Cena vs AJ Styles would make sense, and Cena winning the rumble before going on to try and pick up the record number of title wins is a story worth telling. If Jinder Mahal regains the title at Clash of Champions then Cena winning the rumble is a lock for me, and they'll have him beat Mahal at the big show in April.
Outside of the two title matches, you have to imagine that if Reigns is busy that Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose will either be challenging for the tag team titles (perhaps with all three members of The Shield closing Wrestlemania as champions) or Ambrose and Rollins having a fall-out between now and then leading to match at Wrestlemania. It really depends on how much merchandise The Shield are shifting, and whether there is any interest in turning Dean Ambrose heel. For me, that would be a great move, and would do great for both Ambrose and Rollins, but it would mean The Shield splitting up again.
The women's division should have a high-profile role at Wrestlemania. Ronda Rousey is still rumoured to be training for a possible WWE match, and you have to imagine if it happens it'll be against Charlotte at the biggest show of the year, which would be very intriguing, especially after the angle they shot at the Mae Young Classic. This would be a huge coup for WWE if they can make it happen. In the meantime, I would not be surprised to see a first ever Women's Royal Rumble, and even maybe a Women's Elimination Chamber in the run up to Wrestlemania. Plus Carmella still has her briefcase to cash in. Many exciting possibilities exist for the women's titles, and it'll be interesting to see what direction they take in the next few months.
The final big question is what happens with the big names left over. WWE have hinted at Braun Strowman vs Triple H, which is a fine consolation or Strowman if they are keeping him clear of the possible rumble win and Wrestlemania main event. Equally, Triple h vs Kurt Angle has been teased too, so I'm not sure where they land with this. The Kurt Angle-Jason Jordan angle is surely leading to a turn for Jordan and a match between the two and if Triple H is busy that could be a potential direction for Angle.
Whatever happens, it looks like we are in for an exciting ride over the coming months, I just hope WWE have some original ideas and some big matches and surprises planned for Wrestlemania because it certainly feels a bit lacklustre currently. However, as WWE manage every year, I'm sure they'll make things interesting and get everything in place by January to make for an enjoyable Wrestlemania and a good build.
Well that is it from me for this week. I will be back at the same time next week with all the news from Raw and Smackdown, as well as touching on any major stories that might break in the next week. In the meantime, keep it locked here at Screenjabber for all the best movie, Blu-ray, DVD and video game reviews, as well as all the latest news, podcasts and more. Until next time, so long folks.