Welcome to Slammer Jabber, your weekly look at all things professional wrestling from the past seven days. This week it was all about the start of the much vaunted "Road to Wrestlemania" and the Royal Rumble. This included an eventful NXT Takeover show, a lengthy Royal Rumble show and two busy episodes of weekly WWE TV. In addition, there have been a couple of big departures announced from WWE, as well as some interesting arrivals. Let's start right at the beginning with NXT Takeover: Phoenix.
NXT Takeover: Phoenix and Halftime Heat
The standard set by NXT Takeover shows over the past few years has created quite the lofty bar for all WWE events, let alone just those that take place within NXT. As such, a very good show is almost seen as a disappointment, and underwhelming. In many respects that was how I felt after watching Takeover: Phoenix. This was by no means a bad show whatsoever but it certainly didn’t have the wow factor of previous shows. That said nothing was bad per se. The main event between Tomasso Ciampa and Aleister Black was solid and very hard hitting, but it never quite grabbed me in the way Ciampa’s other bouts have done. In contrast, Johnny Gargano vs Ricochet was stunning, and both men managed to pull off some spectacular spots. However, the storyline between Gargano and Ciampa continued as the former partners seemingly reunited to close the show. It’s an interesting move, but having Gargano and Ciampa as the top heel unit is very intriguing, even if it's only a short term alliance.
Shayna Baszler vs Bianca Belair was far from a disaster, but it was certainly a step down from Baszler’s matches with Kairi Sane and Ember Moon. Belair was made to look very strong in defeat, but she’s still in need of plenty of seasoning, while Baszler managed to carry the bout, again proving she is very much ready for the main roster. Matt Riddle vs Kassius Ohno was a decent back and forth match, and the right man won although I would happily have seen Ohno get a bit less offence on Riddle, and the finish could have been better expected (but that was due to a minor referee positioning issue, and it’s a very minor gripe). Finally, The Undisputed Era’s Kyle O’Reilly and Roderick Strong had a white-hot opening match with The War Raiders, which set the bar for the whole night. I’m not sure how much I buy into O’Reilly or Strong as singles competitors, but as a tag team, they are phenomenal. War Raiders looked the best they have since turning up in NXT, but I do fear for their chances of success on the main roster.
A very good NXT show, but one that felt like it was focused on storylines as much, if not more than the in-ring product. Nothing was bad, and nothing deserves criticism, but it’s unlikely to be a show that is ranked as one of the more memorable Takeover offerings from WWE’s developmental brand.
But wait, there’s more. NXT will have a role in WWE’s counter-programming for the Superbowl on Sunday. After Takeover finished, Velveteen Dream (who won the World’s Collide Tournament at Axxess that guarantees him a title shot in the future), Adam Cole, Ricochet, Aleister Black, Tomasso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano were all involved in a brawl, which is leading to the return of WWE Halftime Heat. The six men will face off, with Ricochet, Dream and Black taking on the heel trio in a special attraction to be broadcast live on the network, Facebook, Youtube and other outlets online for free. This is a really smart move by WWE, given the controversy over the halftime show, and the backlash towards Maroon 5 so I expect WWE to do very well out of this arrangement, especially on the 20th anniversary of the first Halftime Heat featuring The Rock and Mankind fighting in an empty arena.
Ok. Well, that was a long show. Including the pre-show, the whole thing clocked in at around seven hours, which feels like a long time to watch a wrestling show. That said, the main card was on-the-whole, excellent. Let’s start with the big story coming out of the show, regarding one Becky Lynch. The opener featuring Lynch taking on Asuka for the Smackdown Women’s championship was everything I’d hoped it might be, with both women giving everything. I was delighted to see how much chemistry the two women had in the ring, and the even nature of the match told a great story. Lynch taking the clean submission loss was a surprise, but given the way in which it happened with Asuka having to put her in a super-modified-Asuka-lock meant Lynch lost nothing in defeat.
Of course, that would not be the last we saw of “The Man”, as she would later end up taking Lana’s spot in the rumble to a major reaction from the crowd, only to have her very own injury angle up against Charlotte. The final stretch was engrossing, dramatic and incredibly satisfying, setting up Lynch as the biggest babyface in the company of any gender. The rest of the match was a mixed bag, with some memorable performances from lesser-known competitors like Kacey Catanzaro, Rhea Ripley, and Xia Li. Lacey Evans looked good initially but faded as the match went on while Kairi Sane, Io Shirai and Candace LeRae all had good performances. The hat spot with Maria Kannellis and Alicia Fox wasn’t great, and much of the rest of the match plodded along. While last year’s match was a fun nostalgia trip, this year’s women’s rumble could have done with a few more surprises, although it did provide a snapshot of where the female roster could be in a year or two. A serviceable match with an intense and riveting conclusion.
The other women’s match with Sasha Banks and Ronda Rousey was somewhat divisive among fans, but for me, it was one of the highlights of the show. I enjoyed the story of Banks working arm of Rousey to try and neutralise Rousey’s finisher, and although there were a few shaky moments in the early going both delivered big. The post-match was overblown and went on a bit long, but it at least offered the tease of a Four Horsewoman vs MMA Four Horsewoman match, which may not happen but is at least an interesting possibility.
The two world title matches played out in front of vastly different reactions. AJ Styles vs Daniel Bryan was a technically proficient, incredibly tight affair, but the crowd were burnt out by the lengthy women’s Rumble match and the non-finish wasn’t a popular one in front of a restless throng. Personally, I’m very pleased with the decision to pair Bryan up with Erick Rowan. It’s something new for Rowan and prevents the potential Wyatt Family reunion that seemed like his likely next step. Conversely, Finn Balor vs Brock Lesnar was a sprint fought at a breakneck pace with some big spots, and one very, very convincing near fall for Balor. Lesnar had his working boots on and sold like a trooper for Balor who looked great in defeat.
The men’s Rumble match was a very enjoyable contest, although arguably it suffered somewhat from a lack of star power and surprises. Jeff Jarrett entering and confronting Elias was a nice start, but a few more legends spots would not have gone amiss. It was nice to see NXT talent get the nod with Pete Dunne, Aleister Black and Johnny Gargano all having strong roles in the match. There were plenty of developments, including Mustafa Ali continuing his feud with Samoa Joe by eliminating him, as well as eliminating Shinsuke Nakamura. Another big story came from Nia Jax getting involved, signalling WWE’s first foray into intergender matches for some time. Jax had a good showing, but the commentary was uncomfortable as she was on the receiving end of offence from Randy Orton et al. In the end, it came down to Braun Strowman and Seth Rollins, with Rollins finally getting the win with a stunning cub stomp on the apron. It was the right winner and the crowd reacted accordingly.
Finally, The Miz and Shane McMahon had a surprisingly fun, emotional opener against The Bar. Although much of the focus will be on Shane and his shooting star press, which was spectacular but also made me cringe expecting him to land on his head. Luckily he managed the full rotation. However, The Miz was the real star here, showing that as good as he is as a heel; he is equally adept at soliciting a pure babyface reaction, with his father sat in the front row. Although this team will likely dissolve in a few weeks after one of the members turns heel, I am enjoying Shane and The Miz as a team for now, and this was a great way to kick off a PPV.
The Royal Rumble was a long show, there’s no way of getting around that. WWE is clearly focused on the number of hours consumed as a metric for success for the WWE Network, but there is a very real danger of crowd fatigue. I do wonder, with NJPW moving to running two nights at the Tokyo Dome in January whether WWE might follow suit and have a two-night Wrestlemania event in the next few years. For now, though, we have these marathon PPV offerings, and I’m not complaining. The level of in-ring performances on the show were up there with the best ever and the value for money is very much there. This was a good show, with two enjoyable rumble matches, and minimal filler. It also set up two clear cut crowd favourites for big roles at Wrestlemania, which can only be a good thing.
Following on from Sunday’s Royal Rumble, this week’s Raw was all about striking while the proverbial iron was hot, and boy did WWE do just that. Bookending the show were two excellent segments featuring one Seth Rollins. The man who won the Royal Rumble the prior night opened the show with the traditional sign pointing and promo before Triple H came out. This was a little odd, considering Rollins uses the “Kingslayer” nickname when the King being referenced is Triple H. That said, they’ve hinted at the Mentor/Mentee relationship between these two before, and Triple H getting choked up was actually a nice emotional moment. Dean Ambrose coming out (and we’ll have more on the big news with him in a bit) and getting involved was well done, and it set up what seems like the closing chapter in their underwhelming rivalry. The match was very good, and put Rollins over strong, although Ambrose’s selling for the stomp was bordering on Shawn Michaels vs Hulk Hogan levels of ridiculousness. I also have no idea what the post-match altercation between Ambrose and Nia Jax was about unless they are angling for an intergender match between the two in the future, but I digress. I liked that this story of Rollins having to make his choice continued throughout the show, even including a Daniel Bryan promo, teasing that as the direction for Rollins at Mania. The final segment of the show featured Rollins heavily, as he seemingly made his choice for Wrestlemania and confronted Brock Lesnar who would deliver five F5’s, with Rollins playing the plucky underdog babyface who won’t stay down, to perfection. This sets a clear direction for Rollins, and a proper face-heel dynamic for what should be an epic encounter between the two on April 7th.
The result of the other Rumble match would not be ignored here either, with a big focus provided for Ronda Rousey and Becky Lynch. Rousey attempted to cut a promo before being cut off by a lively and vocal crowd, and she did not deal with it particularly well. They got where they needed to go by sending Bayley out for the open challenge match Ronda was supposed to lay out, and Michael Cole had to basically fill in the blanks. OK, so that was horrendous, but the match with Bayley was a good TV match without ever veering into memorable territory. However, things took a huge upward turn once Ronda secured the victory as the 2019 Women’s Royal Rumble winner Becky Lynch marched out to ringside cutting a scathing promo on Rousey and chose to challenge her at Wrestlemania. To her credit, Rousey struck back with a quasi-heel promo that was inch as good as Lynch’s verbal assault. This felt like a huge moment, and a proper goosebump rendering confrontation. This should be the Wrestlemania main event this year, and it should be just the two of them. This is the rivalry, and as good as Charlotte is, she has no business in this match. Sadly, I suspect we will be getting that the three-way unless cooler heads prevail. Still, this was a memorable, electric moment for Raw, and set up a monumental bout at Wrestlemania.
The rest of the show had plenty of action, and for the first time in a while, everything seemed to have both purpose and thought behind it. Braun Strowman vs Drew McIntyre was a physical affair, but the non-finish and Baron Corbin continuing to be involved with Strowman was a bit of a turn off for me. Speaking of Corbin, he had a by-the-numbers match with Kurt Angle, who I have to presume they are retiring at Wrestlemania, given the losing streak he’s been on and the idea they seem to be pushing that he’s not on this level anymore (presumably he can summon one last great performance at Mania to crown his career). The two women’s tag matches were functional, but not particularly exciting. They did succeed in getting Tamina and Jax over as the dominant monsters, and The Riott Squad as the most cohesive unit, so there’s that I suppose. Finn Balor’s promo was very good by his standards, and although I’m not eager to see him take on Bobby Lashley again, a run with the Intercontinental title would be a good fit for Balor after pushing Lesnar to his limit. Mojo Rawley’s backstage promo was interesting, if not a bit goofy, but it is certainly intriguing to see him being pushed in a new direction. The Revival vs Curt Hawkins and Zack Ryder was a fine tag match, and even with Dash and Dawson getting the win this set up for the big eventual moment where Hawkins ends his losing streak. Finally, Elias, who is apparently a heel again now got into it with Jeff Jarrett and Road Dogg after they heckled him and sang “With My Baby Tonight”, which was a fun continuation of their rumble spot the night before, but hopefully isn’t the start of a longer storyline leading into Wrestlemania.
Overall, this week’s Raw was very good. Nothing felt like it dragged and even the women’s tag matches that weren’t quite to the standard of everything else on the show were at least enjoyable. The two big programmes as far as Raw is concerned are now set for Mania and this was achieved through some superb storytelling and excellent promo work. More of the same next week please, WWE.
Not to be outdone by Raw’s announcements of big matches at Wrestlemania, the blue brand started moving the pieces around themselves for the big show on April 7th. Daniel Bryan did a great job of explaining his newfound friendship with Rowan (no Erick now apparently), and eventually, this led to the big reveal, a new WWE title made of hemp! Honestly, this was one of my favourite bits of creative in several years and shows how much trust they have in Bryan with his new character. It makes so much sense, and the new belt is a glorious heat magnet. Of course, this led to AJ Styles, and then Mustafa Ali, Jeff Hardy, Randy Orton and Samoa Joe all coming out looking for a title opportunity. Joe was the star of the show here, cutting perhaps the best promo of his career running down the other would-be challengers in the match. It didn’t take a genius to see where this was going and Triple H did the honours, declaring Bryan would defend his title against all of the challengers in the Elimination Chamber.
Another show, another big Becky Lynch performance. Not content with having a huge segment on Raw, and winning the rumble, Lynch almost stole the show here too. Lynch cut another fiery, charisma filled promo about her plans for Wrestlemania before she was interrupted by Charlotte. For all her talking, it was Lynch punching Charlotte square in the face after Charlotte spouted some heel-ish lines that got the biggest reaction. These two do have remarkable chemistry, both verbally and physically and that gave the ensuing brawl a big, important feel. The “injury” to Lynch, as revealed by her backstage interview, could well be how we end up getting Flair shoehorned into the title match at Wrestlemania as a three-way, but I really hope not. Having Lynch overcome Flair one more time at the next big show before moving on to face Rousey would leave Charlotte free to face Asuka in a sequel to their excellent match at Wrestlemania 34. We shall see.
The rest of the show was eventful, but not entirely in a good way. The US title situation with Shinsuke Nakamura, Rusev and R-Truth was strange. Truth beating both, even with the initial screwy finish that led to his victory over Nakamura seems a leftfield choice, but not as odd as Rusev and Nakamura suddenly teaming up as a heel unit. Shane McMahon and The Miz had a surprisingly touching segment with Miz’s Dad, which was actually quite a nice watch, although it should also make the eventual heel turn all the more impactful, regardless who is turning. The four-way elimination tag match with The Usos, The Bar, New Day and Heavy Machinery was easily the best match on the show, but I’m not sure how the dynamic is likely to work with the makeshift Shane/Miz team and The Usos as opposed to the more clear cut heel/face alignment of The Bar vs McMiz (still working on a good team name). Andrade attacking Rey Mysterio was well done and got Andrade some nice heel heat for aping the mannerisms of the late Eddie Guerrero. I’m looking forward to these two having more matches, especially now the rivalry has gotten more personal. Finally, Sonya Deville and Mandy Rose “declared” for the women’s tag title match at Elimination Chamber. Apparently, they don’t do qualifiers on Smackdown. Logic gap aside, these two are my picks to win the belts. They are a team who would greatly benefit and as a duo can continue to develop as champions.
A very good episode of Smackdown, with a couple of bizarre booking decisions and some great creative on the main event end of things. That hemp belt is an absolute stroke of genius.
Dean Ambrose leaving WWE? Hideo Itami too? Producers coming in
WWE looked to have two notable departures this week, as news broke after Raw that Dean Ambrose has opted not to renew his contract with WWE and to leave when it expires in April. Ambrose has reportedly been unhappy for a while with his creative direction and turned down an offer reported to have a $1 million dollar downside guarantee, and a five-year duration, which shows WWE were keen to keep hold of him. Other than perhaps during the heyday of the late 90s, there has never been a better time to test the free agency market in professional wrestling with WWE, AEW, ROH, NJPW and to a lesser extent others like Impact and MLW all in the market for talent in an increasingly busy marketplace. The way this was announced by WWE raised a few eyebrows, and certainly made plenty of fans suspicious this could be a work, and that is very possible. However, it could just as easily be an effort to placate Ambrose’s wife, Renee Young and hopefully convince him to stay or at least to return in time. Ambrose has never quite lived up to his potential in WWE. He was amazing in FCW (the forerunner to NXT), and when he was in The Shield he always seemed like he would be the breakout star of the three, often compared to the late Brian Pillman. However, when the split came it was Rollins and Roman Reigns who got the big main event breaks, and Ambrose felt like he never quite kicked on to the next level. Sure, he was a WWE World Champion in 2016, but he always seemed like a short term champion rather than someone to build the brand around. That said, Ambrose has also had to deal with some terrible booking, including losing a match due to an exploding TV, the gas mask and germaphobe stuff recently, and a variety of other issues, and all this despite getting into the best shape of his career for his return in the summer. I can see why he might be frustrated. If he genuinely is leaving, hopefully, he can go elsewhere make strides forward and eventually return to WWE and a main event push as well as the obvious eventual Shield reunion.
The other big departure this week comes from 205 Live, and Hideo Itami who has been granted his release. Itami, the former KENTA in Japan, was a big name signing in 2014 for WWE starting in NXT before the template for signing international stars like Finn Balor and Shinsuke Nakamura had really been established. He came in with some major momentum and looked to be poised to be a big deal in NXT. However, the years that followed saw him hampered by recurring injuries and an influx of talent in a similar mould that would overshadow him, and he never really got to where he had probably hoped. He did get to wrestle in a battle royal at Wrestlemania, and he did eventually have a strong run on 205 Live, but ultimately I can see why he would choose to leave WWE. While he may not have made such a big splash in WWE, he’s still a big name in Japan and with NJPW needing more talent to bolster their junior and heavyweight divisions, KENTA could be a welcome addition, plus their working arrangement with ROH would allow him to return to another familiar stomping ground. Alternatively, he may opt to return to NOAH, which leaves the door open to work for AEW. One thing is for sure, for all parties this seems like a good move, and hopefully, we see KENTA back to his best outside the WWE system.
However, it’s not all departures from WWE. There has been some recruitment too with a number of high profile backstage signings. Jeff Jarrett (as seen at the rumble), and former TNA stalwarts Abyss and Sonjay Dutt, plus Shane Helms and Shawn Daivairi have been recruited for additional backstage producer roles. With WWE looking to continuing expanding globally it appears WWE is beefing up its experienced production staff to deal with an influx of even more content.
In the coming months, I expect there to be a bigger turnover of staff in WWE, with wrestlers seeking new opportunities outside WWE, and the company aggressively pursuing new talent, both in the ring and backstage. It’s an interesting time to be a fan, but a very promising time to be a performer or an experienced producer.
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 Elimination Chamber and 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.