Welcome to Slammer Jabber, your weekly look at all things professional wrestling form the last seven days. This week WWE hosted it's final big show on the "Road to Wrestlemania", which led to a frenetic Raw and Smackdown, while a legendary WCW tag team punched their ticket to the WWE Hall of Fame. We have lots to cover, but we'll start with the WWE's Fastlane show from this past Sunday night.
With four weeks to go until the biggest show of the year, Fastlane looked to be a point at which WWE could firm up their Wrestlemania offering as well as settling any outstanding feuds before getting things moving, and doing the last-minute build for April 7th. For the most part, I’d argue Fastlane succeeded in that endeavour. However, before we get to that, we should address the main event. Not that the match has no knock on effect for Mania (we’ll get to that when we talk about Raw), but it felt like something that existed within a bubble. The Shield vs Bobby Lashley, Baron Corbin and Drew McIntyre was excellent, almost in spite of the lumbering members of the opposition for The Shield. On commentary there was a major focus on this being a final farewell for the “Hounds of Justice” and if it really is, and Dean Ambrose is leaving, then this was about as appropriate a send-off as the group could have hoped for. The pace was frantic, the action explosive and the audience bought into every big move. Was this a greatest hits album? Sure. But every great band should go out on a high of nostalgia as well as a reminder of what made them great to begin with, and that worked a treat here. Roman Reigns looked better than he did before his recent health issues (I’m not suggesting leukaemia made him a better wrestler, just that perhaps he’s leaner and fresher to the audience having been away for a few months), while Seth Rollins was his usual ball of energetic, flashy babyface offense. This was classic Shield, and made for a fun main event that gave Ambrose a final moment with his “brothers”, Rollins something to do while we wait for Brock Lesnar to re-appear next week, and Reigns a nice way to ease back into the swing of things. A very fun main event.
While Seth Rollins and Brock Lesnar is yet to really heat up, this show did provide some clarity on the direction of the vast majority of the Mania card. Becky Lynch vs Charlotte was a glorified angle in the end, and although Ronda Rousey’s interference was necessary, it didn’t make for the most compelling moment on the show. It did achieve the necessary though, so I suppose that’s something. The WWE championship programme also became a bit clearer, with Kofi Kingston positioned as the underdog babyface, cheated out of his opportunity and put in a handicap match/beat down by The Bar when he dared stand up to Mr McMahon. The troll job of promising a triple threat, only to have Mustafa Ali inserted rather than Kingston was expertly done, even if it was an odd decision. Ali vs Kevin Owens vs Daniel Bryan was a match in a tough spot, but all three went full pelt and actually put on a match that was a contender for match of the night. Ali taking the pin was also smart, given it protects Owens and keeps the belt on Bryan ahead of what is likely to either be a multi-man match at Wrestlemania, or indeed a one-on-one shot for Kingston.
The rest of the show was pretty enjoyable for the most part. Sasha Banks and Bayley vs Nia Jax and Tamina was passable, but the post-match angle with Beth Phoenix and Natalya was very intriguing and certainly signposts a possible return from the team previously known as Pin Up Strong. Asuka vs Mandy Rose wasn’t great, but the finish was very well done, and sows the seeds of dissension between Rose and Sonya Deville while still keeping Asuka strong. The US Title four-way was a nice surprise addition to the show, with Samoa Joe continuing to dominate. The Usos vs Shane McMahon and The Miz was an excellent, heated tag match with a killer angle after the match. Shane’s turn was expected, but the way it was handled was superb, and made Miz a hugely sympathetic babyface in the process. Finally, The Revival vs Bobby Roode & Chad Gable vs Ricochet and Aleister Black was excellent, and probably the best match on this show. The NXT call-ups were kept strong, but the other challengers got a nice showcase, and the Raw tag champions retained in a fashion that continued to highlight just how good they really are.
All things told Fastlane was a good show. The in-ring action was top drawer, there was plenty of interesting storyline development and nothing felt like filler. The show wasn’t overly long, nor did it drag anywhere, which in this day in age has to be considered a win when it comes to WWE pay-per-views.
While Fastlane was the final match for The Shield (or so we’re told), Raw offered an opportunity to refocus all three members as to what is next for them. After they entered as a group and gave a moving farewell address, Seth Rollins had the usual confrontation that challengers have with Brock Lesnar’s advocate, Paul Heyman. I enjoyed that they made creative use of Lesnar not being on the show by bringing in Shelton Benjamin, who has a storied real-life history with Lesnar, and having Rollins beat him, as well as the announcement that Lesnar returns next week, felt like the start of this feud finally moving up through the gears after a series of diversions. For Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns, things went in a different direction. The attack from Drew McIntyre on Reigns was a nice bait and switch (as well as keeping everyone waiting a bit longer for the first Roman singles match after his return), and the resulting impromptu wild affair between McIntyre and Dean Ambrose was not only a worth main event, but the absolute destruction of Ambrose by Drew was a real star-making moment for the Scotsman. In a couple of segments, Drew McIntyre effectively took out Ambrose (in what is presumably his final TV appearance if he really is leaving) as well as setting up a first single programme with Roman Reigns for Wrestlemania. WWE deftly moved McIntyre away from Baron Corbin and Bobby Lashley here, which also does his chances as a possible main eventer a world of good.
Without Becky Lynch or Charlotte on the show, Ronda Rousey was able to show the full extent of her heel turn this week, ripping into the fans, the company and eventually attacking Dana Brooke. It was brutal, and she looked like the badass they probably should have booked her as for a while now, miles from the smiley one-dimensional babyface of 2018. Ronda excels in this role, and even if you disagree with the social media work put in by Ronda, Becky and Charlotte, this is definitely a massive leap in the right direction for Ronda.
Triple H and Batista’s showdown was a bit more of a shouting match than perhaps I had been hoping for, although Batista is brilliant as the dickhead heel in this feud. With the Mania match confirmed as no-holds-barred and as seemingly Batista’s final match, this has a big time feel to it, even if some of the verbal shots were not as well delivered as both men were clearly hoping for.
The rest of the show was busy, and eventful. Bobby Lashley vs Finn Balor was the same match they’ve been having for the 472 years (or so it feels like), and Lashley winning back the belt definitely feels like a step backwards. Alexa Bliss' reveal as the host of Wrestlemania does nothing for me really, although it won’t help quell the rumours she is seriously injured. Braun Strowman smashed a car. So there’s that. Ricochet & Aleister Black vs Gable and Roode was an enjoyable TV match, but very much designed to showcase the recent NXT call-ups. The stuff with Elias and No Way Jose was just sort of there, and felt like filler. I can only imagine the overuse of Elias on Sunday, as well as here is going somewhere. Maybe The Undertaker to appear and tombstone him? Or The Rock to “duet” with him? Or John Cena? Some sort of non-wrestling appearance with a legend at Mania seems to beckon. Nia Jax vs Natalya was uneventful and pretty dull until the post-match with Beth Phoenix and then Banks and Bayley backstage. I can only assume a three-way title match is on the cards here. Finally, Kurt Angle announced he would have his retirement match at Wrestlemania, although not against whom. I hope they have something good lined up for him, because Kurt deserves it, even if he’s not quite the same wrestler he once was. Still, his match with Apollo Crews was actually very good, and probably the best Crews has looked in ages.
Raw was a bit jumbled and there was a lot to process, but all the big matches for Mania got time to shine. WWE have made some missteps along the way, more so with the Raw matches than their Smackdown counterparts for Wrestlemania, but finally, hopefully they seem to be on track for the biggest show of the year.
Traditionally, well at least the past few years, it is not an understatement to say that Smackdown has been the stronger wrestling show of the two weekly WWE offerings. However, while this week’s show had plenty of fun in-ring action, there was more significant story development on this week’s show, and it was both necessary and actually very fruitful. The closing segment with Kofi Kingston, The New Day and Vince McMahon was a great back and forth, and Kofi asking for an opportunity to earn an opportunity to face Daniel Bryan for the WWE Championship, and McMahon giving him the option of doing so by going through a monumental gauntlet match next week was excellent. Given Kingston going through a gauntlet was what kicked off the renewed crowd reaction to him before Elimination chamber, it makes sense to revisit that concept. It’s a simple story, which if done correctly could give WWE a huge match at Wrestlemania. That said, the mere fact Daniel Bryan (with Rowan) was in a match involving Kevin Owens and Mustafa Ali (which was enjoyable for what it was) suggests that perhaps this won’t be as straightforward as a simple Kofi win. It will be a tremendous shame if they go down that convoluted road, as simplicity will likely yield the biggest reaction, but that hasn’t seemed to be WWE’s MO in recent weeks, so we will have to see. Either way, it sets up a huge main event next week.
Elsewhere on this show, Becky Lynch and Charlotte engaged in some cutting, potent verbal sparring that helped continue to rehab the three-way with Rousey at Wrestlemania after some wonky booking over the past few weeks. Shane McMahon’s explanation for his turn on The Miz at Fastlane was satisfying and essentially set the table for the two to wrestle at Wrestlemania. Shane was surprisingly good in this new heel role, and I look forward to see how this story develops. The Hardys, Ricochet and Aleister Black vs The Bar, Shinsuke Nakamura and Rusev was fun until The New Day interrupted. Asuka vs Sonya Deville was a nothing bout, and the champion was a real afterthought compared to the growing friction between Deville and Mandy Rose. Rey Mysterio and R-Truth vs Samoa Joe and Andrade was fun tag match, and Rey getting the pin on Joe sets up a potential programme there, although Andrade still seems to be involved. Finally, in one of the best segments on WWE television this year, Randy Orton and AJ Styles traded some stinging barbs, including mentions of Dixie Carter, TNA, bingo halls, Diamond cutter rip offs and more. It was a great exchange and basically puts everything you need in place for the two to have a cracking match on the undercard of a busy Wrestlemania show. Great lines, and even better delivery from both men.
A very entertaining Smackdown, with a bucketload of story development. Did the talking segments overshadow the wrestling this week? Yes. Is that necessarily a bad thing? No. There’s a time for wrestling, but sometimes in order for those matches to actually mean something you need to create interest, and all the talking segments on this show seemed to do just that.
NJPW Royal Quest
After weeks of speculation, tickets finally went on sale this week for New Japan Pro Wrestling's first ever fully fledged UK show, Royal Quest. The show, taking place on August 31st at the Copper Box arena in London is looking to be a huge deal for NJPW. Currently, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, Tetsuya Naito, Will Ospreay and Zack Sabre Jr are all confirmed, while Kota Ibushi, Tomohiro Ishii and Minoru Suzuki have all been heavily rumoured. For me, I hope Jushin Thunder Liger and Tiger Mask make the trip, while you imagine "Switchblade" Jay White will likely also make the trip. As of the time of writing theventen is not sold out, but it can't be far off, and if you are planning on nabbing tickets I would act fast to get yourself along to what should be a great show.
Harlem Heat HOF
WWE announced this week that former WCW tag team champions Harlem Heat would go into the WWE Hall of Fame this year over Wrestlemania weekend. While Booker T is already in the HoF it is nice to see Stevie Ray getting recognised for his part in one of the most revolutionary tag units in modern wrestling history. Harlem Heat were stalwarts in 90s WCW and given some of the other inductees over the years it is more than time that this team are where they should be. The real-life Huffman brothers had sterling feuds with The Steiners, The Nasty Boys, The Outsiders, Sting and Lex Luger and countless other duos during one of the peak periods in the history of WCW, and in an industry that has often been historically criticised for its treatment of African Americans, they were featured in very prominent arguably blazing a trail for teams of ethnic minorities in the modern era (providing you forget some of the dodgy booking of the team in their early days alongside Colonel Robert Parker, but the less said about that the better). Booker T and Stevie Ray were arguably the most successful tag team in WCW history, and for that alone I am delighted they are finally being inducted. Also, from a purely selfish point of view, Stevie Ray giving an acceptance speech has the potential to be very entertaining indeed. If I don't hear the term "fruit-booty", I for one, will be disappointed.
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 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.