Welcome to Slammer Jabber, your weekly look at all things professional wrestling from the past seven days. This week it was all systems go for the big Royal Rumble show on Sunday, as well as NXT Takeover on Saturday, plus WWE struck a very interesting merchandising deal with a major fashion brand. With much to cover, we'll get started with Raw from Monday night.
This week’s edition of Raw had a singular focus, building up to this Sunday’s Royal Rumble. The show was much better for that laser focus and all the moving pieces came together to make for a very enjoyable show. The show opening segment with Brock Lesnar, Paul Heyman, Vince McMahon, Braun Strowman and Finn Balor was very well orchestrated. Heyman cut his usual “spoiler” promo to give his client the push as the unstoppable monster going into Sunday’s show, while McMahon continued to set out his stall in scepticism of Balor being able to beat Lesnar. The whole “David and Goliath” concept was slightly overplayed, and I’m not sure it actually does Balor any favours unless he is actually beating Lesnar. Braun Strowman coming in, despite having no real reason to, does keep his future programme with Lesnar in the forefront of everyone’s minds and sparked some interesting friction between Balor and Strowman that resulted in a match between the two. While that bout may not have had a conclusive ending, the match made Balor look strong, with Strowman beat until Lesnar got involved, which when coupled with Balor getting in some effective offence on “The Beast” mid-match, set the table for Sunday’s title match. While Lesnar is likely walking away with the belt, this match at least created a crumb of doubt over that outcome and for doing that in a mere two weeks you have to applaud WWE.
The show was bookended with the big singles titles on Raw, and the women’s belt took centre stage in the main event. Sasha Banks and Bayley vs Ronda Rousey and Natalya was a fine choice for the go-home main event. However, Rousey’s promo earlier in the show was cringe-worthily bad, although it did allow Banks to cut a scathing pre-match promo which showcased for more of the “Boss” attributes than Sasha has done in a long time. The match was very well put together, and I liked that this gave an opportunity for a tease of Bayley vs Ronda Rousey down the road. Of course, Natalya was there to take the submission, but the post-match with Banks and Rousey was the real goal, and the near-pull-apart was a great visual for a feud that began with mutual respect and has now become very personal.
The rest of the show was focused on the big push for the rumble across the board. Apollo Crews and Bobby Lashley is not a feud I particularly want to see, and the pose-off felt like a segment from a different era. The match was thankfully short, so I suppose there’s that. Conversely, Seth Rollins vs Drew McIntyre was superb, with some great near falls and brilliant in-ring action from bell to bell. Seth also cut a phenomenal pre-match promo, essentially positioning him as the number one babyface on Raw, and with the win over the super-protected McIntyre, you have to imagine Rollins is either winning the rumble or is being lined up for something big at Wrestlemania. Lucha House Party vs The Singh Brothers felt like pure filler, while the backstage promo with Dean Ambrose was pretty average, but at least he got some lines, unlike the still muted EC3. Baron Corbin vs Elias is still going on somewhere I imagine. Alexa Bliss’s Moment of Bliss segment was a good advert for the women’s rumble, and it was good to hear Bliss has been cleared to compete after her recent health issues. Heavy Machinery had a good debut outing against The Ascension, with Otis Dozovic especially getting a huge reaction. Finally, The Revival had a very good bout with Chad Gable and Bobby Roode as Dash and Dawson played the desperate heels looking for the cheap win. Given their (rumoured) real-life grievances with the company this booking and the way they are booked in the coming weeks was/will be very interesting. However, the post-match was all focused on referee Curt Hawkins, who was saved from a beatdown, by his former tag partner Zack Ryder in a sign they are reforming as a team. It’s good news for two guys who have been underutilised for some time, and with AoP out of action due to an injury it could be a shot in the arm for the Raw tag division.
This week’s show was exactly what it needed to be, with the vast majority of the matches and segments designed to build towards contests that are booked for Sunday, or build momentum for performers who could have a big role in the over-the-top-rope match for the title shot at Mania. A very good episode of Raw, hopefully, the first of many as we build towards the “Showcase of the Immortals” in April.
While Smackdown followed Raw in having a major focus on the Royal Rumble, the match that was given the biggest spotlight was the sequel to last week’s incredible match between Andrade and Rey Mysterio. This ⅔ falls bout was excellent and did so much to put Andrade over, while also making Mysterio look great. The finish for the first fall with the sit-out powerbomb was especially a thing of beauty, and the chemistry between these men is insane. As a way of building up the potential Smackdown candidates, having Samoa Joe and then Randy Orton interfere reinforced how dangerous both men are, but also it saved a definitive winner between Mysterio and Andrade for another day, perhaps on a bigger stage. A cracking main event, and a rare example of a non-finish being a beneficial way to end a big match. Expect Andrade and Rey to clash in the Rumble match.
The rest of the show has plenty of high points, as you may have come to expect from Smackdown. The face-off between Daniel Bryan and AJ Styles moderated by Vince McMahon was an interesting experiment and played into Bryan’s continued brilliant run with his new character. I particularly enjoyed his castigating of Vince before later using him as a shield against Styles. Another home run for Bryan and Styles in terms of creating interest in their feud. Becky Lynch and Asuka had a very heated exchange, followed by a very physical brawl. I also enjoyed that Charlotte was involved at least verbally, if nothing else to remind viewers that she looms large for the winner (provided she wins the rumble, but she has to be considered a favourite). Samoa Joe vs Mustafa Ali was excellent, and did plenty for Ali’s status, even in defeat. Ali should also be praised for his pre-taped promo earlier in the show which was a nice stylistic change from what WWE normally have on their flagship shows. Mandy Rose vs Naomi was fine, but honestly nothing special. Finally, Cesaro and Sheamus looked dominant after brutalising Shane McMahon and The Miz (following Cesaro’s defeat of Miz) and did a great job of regaining their heat following last week’s show.
Smackdown put on another very good show this week. The big matches for Sunday (Bryan/AJ, Asuka/Becky and Shane and Miz/The Bar) were all given time and focus, while competitors for the Rumble match were given plenty of spotlight. Good work all around on this show.
NXT Takeover: Phoenix preview
With the Royal Rumble taking place this Sunday, that means it’s also time for the next NXT Takeover, and it’s quite the line-up this time out. In the main event, Tomasso Ciampa takes on Aleister Black in what should be a very good match, although Ciampa winning seems like a foregone conclusion. Bianca Belair vs Shayna Baszler could be excellent, but given Belair’s relative inexperience and the weird Heel/Face dynamic it also could be a difficult night for both women. The Undisputed Era vs The War Raiders should be a very good tag match, but I find it hard to get excited about Rowe and Hanson, as I’ve been largely unimpressed with them since their arrival in NXT. Matt Riddle vs Kassius Ohno is likely to be a hard-hitting, strike-heavy affair, although I do wonder if Ohno gets the win having lost the last two bouts between the two. Finally, in what should be the match of the night Ricochet defends the North American title against Johnny Gargano. On paper, this has the potential to be something very special indeed, and the result will likely have some impact on the main event. I still see Gargano ending up the hero who dethrones Ciampa in the end, but how they get there is anyone’s guess. However I suspect this show will pivotal in that journey, and on paper could easily be a better show than the main roster put on the night after.
Royal Rumble preview
No WWE event sells itself in the way the Royal Rumble does. We’ll get to the rumble matches shortly, but let’s look at the undercard for now. On the Smackdown side of things, The Bar vs Shane McMahon and The Miz should be an interesting match, although I suspect there is an angle afoot rather than a straightforward match. Asuka vs Becky Lynch could easily be the match of the night, and I do foresee it having a bearing on the outcome of the women’s rumble later in the night. Honestly, I wouldn’t like to call who wins. Daniel Bryan vs AJ Styles will undoubtedly be a very hard-fought affair between two of the very best, although Bryan retaining seems likely. On the Raw end of proceedings Finn Balor vs Brock Lesnar is a very intriguing battle, and although I believe Brock will retain, Balor could be a made man in defeat if handled correctly (and if the rumours of Brock being keen on a match with Balor are true then he may have his working boots on). Ronda Rousey vs Sasha Banks is another match that could be a something very memorable, but it could be for good or bad reasons. Rousey is still very green and Banks likes to take risks, some of which do not pay off. If all goes to plan this should be a corker, but one slip up could see it fall apart.
The rumble matches themselves are always difficult to predict. For the men’s match, there are multiple obvious potential winners, including Drew McIntyre, Braun Strowman, or even a Samoa Joe or a Jeff Hardy. However, I believe all signs point towards Seth Rollins getting the win and taking on Brock Lesnar at Mania. That feels like the money match for the men, although it will likely not be going on last as that spot seems reserved for Ronda Rousey and whoever her challenger may be. There could be a surprise winner with Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn or even a Velveteen Dream appearing, but unless WWE has lined up a shock entrant (and it would take a CM Punk or someone of that level for it happen) I think Rollins seems like the obvious choice.
For the women’s match, I could see Charlotte getting the win, or perhaps Becky Lynch if she fails to beat Asuka. Hell, if Sasha Banks beats Rousey we could even see Ronda enter and win the rumble just for the curveball. Whatever happens, it is sure to be an exciting night full of surprises.
Undertaker for HoF?
With Wrestlemania on the horizon, that also means we can expect announcements of the Hall of Fame inductees in the next few weeks. However, WWE may have tipped their hand this week with an email to network subscribers (incidentally that email detailed the upload of 1992’s episodes of Superstars, which are superb and I wholeheartedly recommend you watch). There were various Hall of Famers listed, but the notable addition was The Undertaker, who is not a part of that “elite” group, or not yet at least. This has got many people talking about whether this could be the year Taker goes in, but if he goes into the HoF you have to imagine that means he is finally retiring. We shall see how this unfolds, but you have to wonder if this will finally be the year for The Undertaker, and this email only adds fuel to that particular fire.
WWE-New Era deal
In terms of commercial deals, you don’t often hear wrestling companies managing to align themselves with brands who are even vaguely in the realm of the cultural zeitgeist. The Young Bucks/Bullet Club and Hot Topic is perhaps one of the rare exceptions. However, this week WWE did the unthinkable and partnered with a relevant, popular brand in the form of New Era. The hat designer will be making a series of branded, specially commissioned snapbacks to celebrate the major PPV events of the year including Wrestlemania. This is a nice deal for everyone involved, and it goes to show that WWE has opened up to new opportunities and partnerships as well as marketing their brand in a way that actually appeals to the sort of consumer they are trying to reach. More New Era and less Tapout going forward, please.
Well, that is it from me for this week. I will be back at the same time next week with a look at the fallout from the Royal Rumble, 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.