Welcome to Slammer Jabber, your weekly look at all things professional wrestling. Given we are deep into the heart of Wrestlemania season there has been plenty to catch up on this week. Raw and Smackdown were both very eventful, with multiple big returns, there was some major backstage movement in WWE, with one surreal signing and some unexpected departures, as well as as some big news from NJPW. So let's get to it, and where else could we start this week other than on Raw, with one of the single most joyous moments of 2019 so far.
When wrestling is good, it’s bloody brilliant and few moments have had quite the feel good factor that the appearance of Roman Reigns did on Monday night. In fact, I think you would have to back to Daniel Bryan being cleared last year to find a moment of such pure, non-smarky joy from the WWE Universe. Reigns' announcement that his leukaemia is in remission and that he is back made for a truly emotional moment, and one that will surely go down in WWE history. Reigns has not always been the most popular superstar, but arguably not for any reason that was actually his fault and here the fans were able to relate to him on a very human level. It also showed just how much Reigns has been missed, and how much of a star he really is compared to the vast majority of the roster. I’m not sure if he’s returning full time immediately, but he certainly seemed cleared for physicality, so he must be fairly close. Having Seth Rollins meet him on the ramp was a nice touch, and evoked memories of the original announcement Reigns made back in October, bringing everything full circle. Of course, they weren’t done for the night, as after Dean Ambrose and Elias had an earlier confrontation, Ambrose would lose to Drew McIntyre (following Elias, and then Bobby Lashley getting involved) Reigns and Rollins would make the save, before leaving Ambrose in the ring, pondering his situation. Given how they have teased Dean’s face turn following his disastrous heel run, I like that they are starting to tell a redemption story for Ambrose, and hopefully we get a Shield reunion before Ambrose heads off into the sunset in April. Overall, the involvement of Roman Reigns was brilliant, and a very welcome lift to Raw. It is fantastic to see him back, and most importantly healthy.
Roman Reigns was not the only surprise returnee on this week’s show. With Ric Flair’s 70th birthday celebration hyped throughout the show, there were various video messages (Stone Cold Steve Austin was the highlight, given he seemed to be particularly half arsing it via his iPhone) and then in the main event segment we had legends appear to kick off the festivities, with Sting, Kurt Angle and Triple H among others. However, in a brilliant swerve Flair was seen laid out backstage with the returning Batista responsible, in a segment that was superbly shot and provided a great reveal. Triple H vs Batista is match that has been long-mooted for Wrestlemania and it looks like we are getting it, which is a great addition to the show. Batista brings Hollywood star power to a show that may have been otherwise lacking in that department, and could close the book on one of the biggest rivalries in WWE history. A cracking segment.
With Charlotte seemingly kept away from this angle due to the birthday celebrations for her Dad later in the show, and Becky Lynch “suspended”, it seemed as though Ronda Rousey and Natalya vs The Riott Squad would be a straightforward affair, only for Becky to crash the party with her crutch before being arrested and removed. It was another page out of the Steve Austin playbook, and that worked fine in the continued build to the eventual title match. However, it was what Rousey did next that built the real intrigue. After her confrontation with Stephanie McMahon did Rousey relinquish her title? Or was this a power play? Either way, this was a whole extra layer to this story and certainly adds something new to the build to the expected Wrestlemania main event. This whole story felt like it was in danger of going completely off the rails with the Lynch apology a few weeks back, but credit where it is due to the performers and the writers for overcoming that misstep.
The rest of the show was actually very entertaining. Alexa Bliss’ “Moment of Bliss” continues to feel like a weird use of the former champion, essentially flirting with Finn Balor. It did set up Balor defending his title against Lio Rush, but it seems a waste of such a talented female competitor. That said, the Balor/Rush bout was very good and continues to build tension between Rush and Lashley. Speaking of Lashley, his match with Braun Strowman was more of a beat-down than anything as Strowman did his thing. Aleister Black and Ricochet had a very fun tag match with The Revival, although I’m not sure if beating the champions two weeks in a row is the best plan. That said, Ricochet and Black did come across like real superstars here, so that’s the aim achieved I suppose. Kurt Angle vs Jinder Mahal happened, as did Nia Jax vs Bayley but neither did much for me in all honesty, while Heavy Machinery had a couple of fun segments backstage with The Ascension.
While there were some big moments on this week’s show, and Reigns and Batista will very much be the headline makers, Raw this week felt more vibrant and more urgent than anything they have produced in a while. There may have been some potholes and speed bumps, but the red brand finally feels like it is on the road to Wrestlemania proper after this show.
While Raw was getting things back on track for Wrestlemania, Smackdown was following suit this week in the build to Fast Lane. The contract signing for Kofi Kingston vs Daniel Bryan was a perfect example of using a swerve, but not doing so just for the sake of it. Playing the Kofi tribute video and setting him up for finally getting his shot after eleven years, only for Vince McMahon to bring in Kevin Owens to replace him in the match was a stroke of genius. It was well known Owens was coming back, and the match with himself and Bryan was set for Wrestlemania, but with Kofi Kingston gaining traction among fans, and momentum building for him to get his Mania moment it makes a lot of sense to switch the matches around. This also continues the trend of Vince overruling his children, something that is surely going somewhere rather than just being the result of lazy writing. Having Owens team with Kingston at his request against Bryan and Rowan helped position Owens as a face, or at least a tweener, even after the McMahon switcheroo, and giving him the clean win over Bryan (with the stunner no less!) sets the table for the title match at the PPV. This whole scenario also gives Kingston the impetus to chase the opportunity he was denied, which should ostensibly culminate in a title match with Bryan at the big show in April. Kofi is the most over babyface on the Smackdown roster not named Becky Lynch, while Kevin Owens, who looked to be in much better shape, returned with a bang. This was crowbarred and awkward, but it worked, and it created some exciting possibilities. Good work WWE.
The rest of the show was just as enjoyable as the main event developments. Charlotte Flair cut a great promo, essentially reacting to the Becky-Ronda angle from Monday, even using some of Rousey’s own words from a promo last year. Aleister Black and Ricochet had another excellent outing, this time with Shinsuke Nakamura and Rusev, with a great finish that needs to be seen. I would definitely like to see Black and Nakamura have a singles match, but this was another great showcase for Black who seems to be breaking away from the pack of the NXT call-ups.
The Hardys return was unexpected, and Matt Hardy looked to be in sensational shape, especially given he was supposedly on the verge of retirement last year. The match with The Bar was a very exciting TV match, but it did make me wonder what happened to the scheduled Johnny Gargano vs Cesaro match (unless I missed the explanation). Randy Orton and AJ Styles had a brief backstage confrontation that continued the tease for their inevitable feud. It was nothing memorable, but it was effective. Finally, Andrade and Rey Mysterio both accepted R Truth’s US Title open challenge (ala John Cena) and Truth fought both of them, and the ensuing match was decent, although you have to feel it’s a distraction before we eventually get one of the two winning the title and defending against the other at Wrestlemania.
A very respectable episode of Smackdown, it lacked the emotional punch of Raw, but how could it not in the circumstances. However, it was an efficient, well put-together and cleverly booked edition of Smackdown with plenty to enjoy.
If you’re familiar with the phrase “hell freezes over”, you may want to cast your eyes over towards Stamford, Connecticut where it’s looking mighty chilly. Bruce Prichard, who was formerly arguably Vince McMahon’s right hand man, has returned to the fold in a position of power within the creative team in WWE. As you can imagine this was a pretty shocking move by WWE, and one many expected never to happen, given he apparently left the company in very acrimonious fashion in 2008 and had a major falling out with Stephanie McMahon in the process. However, with his Something to Wrestle podcast finding major success over the past few years, even ending up on the WWE Network, and relations warming between the two recently, it makes some semblance of sense that he is coming back. The company needs a shake-up creatively and Prichard has proven himself time and again on that front so we shall see if it helps the product. A more cynical person would argue this was done to avoid Prichard going to AEW, given the start-up has a relationship with Bruce’s podcast co-host Conrad Thompson, or even to use Prichard to try and get The Undertaker back on side, given apparently his relationship with Vince has somewhat been weakened by Taker’s appearing at Starrcast, if the rumours are to be believed. I think it is fair to say this story will develop more in the coming weeks, and there is more to come, but it is worth keeping an eye out for major changes in the WWE creative output in the near future.
Last week we reported on Tye Dillinger requesting his release from WWE, presumably to head to AEW. This week, we found out that Dillinger had his request accepted, but he was not the only member of the roster who was given their marching orders. Along with Hideo Itami (who we knew about) and Dillinger, TJ Perkins and Arn Anderson were also released. The latter two were perhaps more unexpected. Perkins was apparently let go without asking for his release, which suggests he had pissed off someone, or multiple people backstage given WWE seems intent on holding on to their talent at all costs currently.
Anderson is more of a shock, as he has been with WWE since WCW closed eighteen years ago and he is close with the likes of John Cena and Triple H. Dave Meltzer reported that Anderson was let go after an incident at a house show that he took the blame for led to a confrontation with Vince McMahon. However, given the company have hired loads of new producers recently, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise to see some of the old guard being let go. Anderson won’t be short of offers from AEW, ROH, or even the spoken word circuit should he want to go down that road. For “Double A”, this could lead to all kinds of opportunities.
New Japan Cup + Royal Quest news
The biggest news coming out of New Japan Pro Wrestling this week was the brackets for the upcoming New Japan Cup. Among the first round matches there are some notable clashes that stand out, with Michael Elgin vs Kazuchika Okada an intriguing clash of styles, Evil vs Zack Sabre Jr likely to be another stellar effort between the two, and Hirooki Goto vs Sanada likely to be a hard-hitting, underrated affair. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Shota Umino is a phenomenal opportunity for Umino to show how far he has come, presumably prior to going on excursion pretty soon. The inclusion of Colt Cabana against Togi Makabe is an odd fit, but I’m more than willing to see how that plays out, while the singles debut of “Mad” Mikey Nicholls (the former Nick Miller of TM61/The Mighty in NXT aka TMDK in Noah/NJPW) against Hikuleo certainly raised a few eyebrows. Nicholls is a solid worker, and reportedly he asked to be released from his WWE contract to be closer to his son in Australia, making Japan a sensible option, and with NJPW needing new blood this could be a great opportunity for all involved. However, no match raised more eyebrows than the first round contest between Tetsuya Naito and Kota Ibushi. Both men would have to be considered leading candidates to win the cup, especially with an IWGP Heavyweight title match at Madison Square Garden on offer, so it’s difficult to decide who goes through. However, if Ibushi is to be the winner to face "Switchblade" Jay White at the world’s most famous arena, beating Naito en route is certainly a credible way to establish your credentials. It is a very exciting bracket, with unique and fascinating combinations that you might not normally see, and I believe that will make for a cracking tournament overall.
The previous updates from New Japan Pro Wrestling regarding their August show at the Copper Box arena in London had been somewhat lacklustre, and were more announcements that there would be announcements. However, this week the news was released that Kazuchika Okada, Tetsuya Naito and Hiroshi Tanahashi will all be performing on the show, which is a pretty huge array of talent. When you add to that the usual Rev Pro/NJPW regulars (Minoru Suzuki, Tomohiro Ishii, and Zack Sabre Jr etc.) and a few more New Japan guys yet to be announced, this actually could be an amazing show. The Strong Style Evolved shows last year were criticised for being very heavy on UK talent, but this is certainly a statement of intent from NJPW, and I for one will be aiming to get a ticket for this event based on the announced line-up.
Well, that is it from me for this week. I will be back at the same time next week with a look at the continued build to Wrestlemania via Fastlane on Raw and Smackdown, as well as whatever major stories break in the next seven days. 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.
Photos: WWE.COM & NJPW1972.COM