WWE

WWE Weekly Recap: The “new era” of Raw and SmackDown begins

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Battleground feels like it took place about five years ago doesn’t it?

Sure, there were some excellent moments on Sunday’s Pay-Per-View: Bayley’s debut, a Match of the Year candidate from Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, Bob Backlund vs. his shirt, an incredible promo from Enzo and a triple threat title match with the former members of The Shield, but Monday’s Raw and Tuesday’s SmackDown were more important shows because we finally got to see the post-draft changes that have been rumored for months.

Well there is a leader in the clubhouse after week one and second place isn’t close at all. Raw was easily the superior show.

Some angry person just said out loud “well of course you stupid idiot, just look at the rosters.” Yes, the balance of talent is unfairly tilted towards Raw, but it was the new presentation elements that really made the show feel fresh.

Fresh

The opening shot of Mike Cole, Corey Graves and Coach II at the new announce position (on the left hand side of the stage) set the tone for the night. There were new camera shots (Balor’s entrance looked beautiful as well as the overhead shot that was used before the second Fatal-Four Way), live interviews before and after matches, a new set that looked like the SummerSlam set from 2012/13, a new graphics package, fresh matchups and the return of squash matches!

From the short opening promo from Stephanie and Foley to the final three-count, Monday’s Raw was paced incredibly well. Not every week is going to be this smooth, but there’s so much talent on the roster that there really shouldn’t be any down time, unless The New Day’s promos continue to run too long.

I didn’t get the same feeling of excitement when the entire SmackDown locker room was standing on the ring apron during Shane and Daniel Bryan’s opening promo. The lack of talent on the roster was quickly exposed after the first five names were announced for the six-pack challenge later in the night.

After AJ Styles, John Cena, Bray Wyatt, Dolph Ziggler and Baron Corbin walked to the back, the rest of the roster stayed in the ring for a battle royal to determine the final participant in the main event. The cat’s reaction below is an accurate depiction of my reaction when the battle royal started.

Cat

The final four participants battle royal were: Mr. Lucha Thing, Zack Ryder (without his Sting ’92 gear), Apollo Crews and Kane…

It became quickly apparent that SmackDown needs one or two more mid to upper-mid card guys. While it’s nice to have Shelton Benjamin back in the fold, Kevin Owens and Cesaro would be a perfect fit for Tuesday nights.

The roster wasn’t the only problem though. The new camera shots Shane McMahon “promised” on television turned out to be the old camera angle that was used for the original version of NXT. I found the “new” set to be very underwhelming and the commentary team of Mauro, JBL and Otunga is a major work in progress.

There are kinks that have to be worked out, but if SmackDown doesn’t improve quickly, fans may gravitate towards Raw and pick and choose what they watch from SmackDown.Let’s face it, watching another two hour show after seven hours of combined content on Sunday and Monday is a daunting task.

Morgan

The Arrival

Six hundred and thirty-one days ago, Finn Balor made debut in NXT by coming to the aid of Hideo Itami. Balor went on to become the face of the WWE’s developmental brand.  He broke Neville’s record as the longest-reigning NXT champion by holding the title for 292 days before dropping it to Samoa Joe.

For those 631 days, the Internet Wrestling Community has tried to predict when Balor would make his main roster debut. Below are some samples of what was said on the Interwebs during that time:

“He’s going to drop the title to Joe at NXT Takeover: London and then come up.”

Nope.

“Just wait until Balor shows up in the Royal Rumble.”

Hi AJ Styles.

“The Demon vs. The Undertaker at WrestleMania 32. #BookIt.”

Pieces of Shane McMahon are still on the 45 yard line.

“Gallows and Anderson have arrived. It’s time for the Balor Club.”

Instead we have this

When Joe became the first guy to defeat Balor’s Demon persona, it was apparent that his time in NXT was coming to an end. All that was left was a dream match with Shinsuke Nakamura, who went over Balor clean in the middle of the ring. There was nothing left for Balor to do in NXT.

He was positioned as the leader of the next wave of talent by HHH, but many wondered how Vince would treat Balor on the main roster. After all, he’s billed at 190 pounds and we all know the affection Mr. McMahon has for gigantic dudes.

Balor was “selected” ahead of Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns (exhibit A and B of giant guys Vince loves), but there were still plenty of reasons to be skeptical about how he would be presented on the flagship show.

After the first Raw of the post-draft era, the IWC can be rest assured that Balor is going to be treated just fine. Not only did he pin Rusev clean in the middle to qualify for the main event, he later pinned Roman CLEAN IN THE EFFING MIDDLE.

No ref bumps, no distractions from Anderson and Gallows and certainly no Pokemon Go antics from R-Truth. Just a slingblade, a drop kick of death and a Coup de Grace.

Typically Pittsburgh is one of the worst wrestling crowds in the country due to their noise level, but on Monday night they made Finn Balor feel like a superstar, which is exactly what needed to happen.

Stealing the spotlight

There have been plenty of times when Dolph Ziggler was extremely over. His Money in the Bank cash-in on the 2013 post-WrestleMania edition of Raw is a legendary moment. He scored the winning pinfall in the huge main event of the 2014 Survivor Series PPV. He’s one of the best in-ring performers in the company, but it feels like his time as a main event player, at least with this current character, has passed.

Every time that Ziggler was given a push, it was immediately countered with a negative force. He either lost momentum due to injury (concussion that cost him the title in 2013) or bad booking by creative (remember his the Kiss me Arse match vs. Sheamus? Or the awful stretch of television he had with Lana that ultimately went nowhere?).

After his win at Survivor Series in 2014, Ziggler has slowly tumbled down the mid-card.

giphy

So on Tuesday night when he hit Styles with a superkick, it seemed like a transitional spot for Styles to kick out of, but instead the ref’s hand slapped three. It was more shocking, IMO, than Balor pinning Reigns clean on Raw. Ziggler has no momentum at all. He’s coming off of a cold feud against Baron Corbin that lasted forever and he just admitted on the Draft Central show that he “hasn’t been stealing the show lately.”

I’m sure Ambrose and Ziggler will put on a fine match at SS, but Corbin or Crews would have been a better choice than Ziggler unless we’re about to see a big makeover for the “Show Off.”

Which show was better this week?

Rollins

Time to “Go Home”

– What an incredible match by Sasha Banks and Charlotte. This was the match that the division needed last year to really get the Women’s Revolution’s off of the ground. The action was solid throughout and there were spots that really grabbed the audience’s attention (Sasha’s suicide dive, Charlotte’s moonsault from the top rope to the floor, the Eddie Guerrero tribute from Sasha and the final sequence). While it was a bit shocking to see Sasha win the title before SummerSlam, it was still a special moment and gets my pick for Match of the Week.

– At first I cringed when Foley announced that the name of the new title on Raw is going to be the WWE Universal championship, but by the end of the show I actually found myself liking it. It has a nice ring to it.

– Roman Reigns has been pinned clean in three out of his last four matches. Don’t do drugs kids.

– I couldn’t tell if Randy Orton was legit hurt or just selling his shoulder after Miz threw him to the outside. Well done Mr. Orton.

– Neville has officially entered bathroom break territory. Please just put him against some cruiserweights ASAP.

– Curtis Axel’s face was crushed by Neville’s Red Arrow.

– Nia Jax really should be using the jackknife powerbomb as her finisher. It looks way more devastating than her leg drop.

– Ryder was a botch machine this week.

– The Pokemon Go angle with the Golden Truth was pretty damn funny. The conclusion to the night long angle was pretty satisfying and it sets up a program with the Shining Stars.

– That was a nice reaction for Heath Slater, he’s starting to get over.

– Why the hell is Rhyno on SmackDown?

– Eva Marie’s new entrance is awesome, such a smart decision to send her out there without a live mic and it generated some serious heat.

– Fandango responds to Orton’s comment from Battleground:

– The jobber who faced Braun Strowman is my hero.

– Alexa Bliss has improved so much, her reaction to Eva Marie’s ridiculous entrance made me laugh out loud.

– Styles’ live reaction to Anderson and Gallows being drafted was similar to everyone else who was watching live:

Twitter: @ScottDargis

Shawn Michaels Q&A: Legendary Raw match with John Cena, the nWo, working with WWE’s future stars

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WWE will celebrate the 25th anniversary of Raw with a unique show on Monday night at 8 p.m. ET on USA. The show will emanate from both the Manhattan Center and the Barclays Center.

I had the chance to chat with Shawn Michaels about some of the memorable matches and moments he had on Raw throughout his career, his role in developing the next wave of WWE talent and one moment when he knew he was going to venture off script during a promo. 

I’m sitting here watching the match you had with Max Moon on the first episode of Raw and I’m wondering how it must feel to know that you’re going to walk back into the Manhattan Center and participate on the 25th anniversary edition of the show.  

“Well I gotta tell you, I hope that’s where I get to go. No one has made any decisions yet as far as I know. As much as I love the Barclays Center, I would rather get to go back to the Manhattan Center.

I don’t know that at the time I was mature enough to appreciate how unbelievably cool and awesome that building was.

It’s sort of like a rock band. They start out in those places and then you want to get to play in stadiums. As phenomenal as it is to be in front of 80 or 90,000 people in a stadium, it’s really hard to beat going back to those intimate places, filling them up, and feeling that electricity, that passion, that excitement in that environment.

For me if I were to get to pick, that’s where I would want to go back to, especially on that night.”

I imagine you had a similar feeling when you appeared in San Antonio as a special guest referee in an NXT show

“Yeah! The old Aztec is a great environment as well. It’s one of the things that NXT does that I really enjoy. They play a lot of similar venues to that. It was a great deal of fun. That is one of the many things about helping out with NXT and the folks down at the [Performance Center].”

So last night as I was prepping for this interview I went on a YouTube deep dive into some of your memorable matches and moments on Raw. The first one I want to ask about is your hour-long match with John Cena in London. I’m curious to know how that came together because it’s so rare to have a WWE match that pushes the hour long mark, especially one that’s on free television.

“So that turned out at the very end of our European tour that year. We had already been on the road there for over a week.

I found out what we were doing when I got to the building and was like, ‘Oh my goodness!’

When you hear that the match is going an hour, it seems like a long time, but when you’re working with someone like John so much … I’ve had the opportunity to go back and watch that match and it just flows right by. That’s obviously a testament to John and heck I’ll even pat myself on the back a little for that one (laughs).

It’s amazing how trying to do that hour-long match didn’t seem like such a big mountain to climb. It really helps when you have a history with someone. John and I were coming off of the WrestleMania [23] match and because of that, we had a decent amount of story points to work around, so it was easy.

It obviously doesn’t hurt when you’re in a phenomenal environment as well. Let’s face it, the folks in the U.K. are pretty easy to wrestle in front of. They are a very passionate group.

I gotta say that’s one of my favorite matches.”

Another one of my favorites was the match you had with Shelton Benjamin in the Gold Rush tournament. You guys made unexpected magic in the ring that night. Had you worked with him before that match, or was it something that just organically came together as you were talking it out in the ring?

“I don’t think Shelton and I worked together before that and we barely worked together after that. It was just something that came together. Shelton is a phenomenal athlete. There isn’t anything that he can’t do and he also makes everything look flawless.

One of the strengths that I bring to the table is that I can work to other people’s strengths. If you have a lot of them, that makes it easier for me (laughs).

It’s one of those situations where you have someone who can do anything under the sun and you’re not too shabby yourself and then it becomes just a matter of putting things together that makes sense.

It certainly helps when you’re building to a certain point in the match and the timing comes off perfectly and that’s exactly how that match ended.

I know there are a fair amount of times that I’ve tried to capture that lightning in a bottle again and I don’t think it’s ever turned out as well as that did.”

Agreed. The only spot like that I can think of that came close was the superkick on Rey Mysterio, but it just didn’t have the punctuation because that was during a Survivor Series match, so it was just an elimination, which is much different than the finish of a high-energy match.

“Yes and that’s the thing. You know it is just special and when somebody asks to do it again you go, ‘Uhhhhhh we can try it ….’ I certainly knew that when it happened that it’s something you don’t mess with. You shouldn’t try to go back and do it again.”

I stumbled across the promo you cut at the beginning of Raw in Montreal in the summer of 2005. You were working with [Hulk] Hogan at that point, but obviously the only thing the crowd cared about was Bret Hart. It had to be an unbelievable feeling to know that you had everyone in the building eating out of the palm of your hand.

“That was one of the few times after I came back in 2002, where I went out there and there was absolutely no way that I was one, going to hit any of my time cues and two, that I was going to stay anywhere remotely close to the script.

That was a situation where everyone who knows anything about this line of work felt the same way as the crowd, so no one was going to be angry about it because the moment was perfect.”

Another little random moment in time is when you returned in 2002 as a member of the nWo. The group’s run was cut short due to Kevin Nash’s injury, but do you know how the storyline was supposed to play out? It seemed like we were going to get to a point where the group consisted of you, Nash, Hunter and X-Pac.

“That is a phenomenal question and I honestly don’t know where it was supposed to go because I had just gotten back to WWE. The extent of it, that I knew, was that Kevin was supposed to work with Hunter at the next Pay-Per-View.

(Writer’s note: Triple H appeared on the next PPV, Vengeance, in a segment backstage where, in storyline, SmackDown commissioner Stephanie McMahon and Raw commissioner Eric Bischoff tried to convince Triple H to sign with their brand, but Shawn Michaels persuaded Triple H to sign with Raw and then Hunter turned on him the next night when they appeared as D-Generation X.)

I know that we had turned on Booker and then we turned on [Big] Show, but I honestly don’t know where it was going because I was just finding my footing and didn’t know enough to be asking someone, ‘Where is this going?’

I had no intention of wrestling at that point and then of course so many things changed after Kevin went down. I need to hunt someone down and find the answer.”

In an interview you talked about fading into the background, but now here you are working at the Performance Center and helping out with NXT. What was it about being down there that made you want to get involved?

“It’s honestly the environment at the PC. Matt Bloom, Sara Amato, Terry Taylor, Robbie [Brookside], Norman [Smiley], Steve [Corino]. There are just so many great people who are there to do one thing.

Everyone is pulling the rope in the same direction. Absolutely nobody is trying to prove anything to anyone. Nobody is looking to do anything but help these young men and women have an opportunity to go out there and do what we had a chance to do.

It doesn’t work if all of those men and women you work with are all pains in the backside, but they’re not. If there was something that stuck in my craw I’d tell ya, but that’s what drew me to it.

For me, it was a situation where I looked at it and said, ‘Oh my goodness, all of the stuff that I absolutely love about this business is here and all of the stuff that I don’t care for and that I don’t feel like doing again are also here.’ It was just an absolutely perfect situation. It’s infectious and you feed off of the desire and the passion.

And then of course the direction and the vision of the people who are running that place. I’m not even talking about Hunter. He’s my buddy, obviously, and I can hang around him no matter what, but it’s what Matt and Sara and everyone else brings to that place.

It’s just a fun thing to be a part of and it’s fun be a part of the wrestling business.”

I have to imagine it’s great for someone like you who has so much experience in the business to help people when they’re struggling to find the answer with something and you can call back on an experience that will help them understand how to solve the issue.

“For sure and also getting them to think in ways that they might not know, or even more importantly, letting them know that what they were thinking about was right.

It also helps them because I was a risk-taker during my career. I’m certainly less structured than almost everybody else there (laughs). There’s a little bit of a rebellious gunslinger in me and that’s something that might be a part of some of them and I think those are the people who can be put with me and we can see where it goes.

I think they understand that if I say it’s too much, then it’s probably too much because let’s face it, there isn’t much that I think is too much.”

So what talent has stood out to you down there?

I love my guys. That’s [Johnny] Gargano, Roddy (Roderick Strong), Velveteen Dream, Adam Cole, Drew McIntyre, Killian Dain, Alexander Wolfe, [Tommaso] Ciampa, Authors of Pain, they’re doing great.

But as I’m learning now, there’s so much talent worldwide that I think the wrestling business is in great shape for the future.

What makes NXT standout to me in this clustered landscape of professional wrestling is the way it blends old school storyline building blocks, but with a new school twist in terms of in-ring style.

“I 100 percent agree with ya. It’s all of the sort of stuff that you like about the old school wrestling, but it’s done in today’s style. I think it’s a perfect dose of both.

Again one of the things that really helps down at the PC is, I’m not the bitter old timer (laughs). I encourage the change, I encourage the evolution, but it’s important for them to hear when they need to slow down. I tell them, you won’t slow down as much as they probably want you to, but neither did I. It’s all a learning curve.

I think it’s important for them to know that people said the same things to me when I was that age.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis

Q&A: Natalya on WWE’s Mixed Match Challenge, Nakamura, and why she didn’t want Sami Zayn as her partner

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WWE’s Mixed Match Challenge debuts tonight and will stream live in the U.S. exclusively on Facebook Watch at 10 p.m. ET.

The first match of the inaugural Mixed Match Challenge will be Shinsuke Nakamura and Natalya vs. Finn Balor and Sasha Banks. I had the chance to chat with Natalya about why she’s so excited to team with Nakamura, the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble and why she was thrilled that Sami Zayn wasn’t her teammate.

How is your relationship with Shinsuke Nakamura? This is someone who you haven’t worked with on television before, so I imagine you have to be excited to have the opportunity to share some on-screen time with him.

“I’m so excited to be working with him. When we first found out that there was a group of girls and a group of guys who were going to be competing in the Mixed Match Challenge concept, he was one of the first people I wanted to team with because he’s very quirky, he’s very unusual, he’s very different.

It’s hard to explain exactly what Nakamura is like. His persona on TV is kind of like how he is backstage. He has this mystique about him. He’s very, very charismatic. He leaves people talking and guessing and wondering.

He’ll walk through an airport and grab attention in a different way than say somebody like Braun Strowman. Obviously their proportions are different (laughs).

He’s really cool. He’ll wear like really weird shoes, or a really cool hat, or a really big scarf and you’re like he’s so cool.

Nakamura embraces his own unique eccentricities and that’s what we, at WWE, want to express, especially when we’re talking to kids about bullying and having goals and being different in this crazy thing called life.

We talk to kids about being different and embracing it and Nakamura totally embraces that. It’s very important to be different. I don’t want to be like the person next to me and nor should anyone. When I see Nakamura, he loves to be unique. He is proud of it.

It’s so funny, we’ve been filming a lot of these backstage vignettes on my phone and yesterday I showed him a gift I got for Finn [Balor] and Sasha [Banks] when they lose to us because I don’t want them to feel sad.

So I was explaining this to Nakamura and he’s like ‘a present? Why did you get them a present?’ And I was like, when they lose, they’re going to be sad, and we don’t want that. So I showed him the present was and it was magnets with cats’ bottoms. I saw them at the dollar store and thought they were so stupid and funny at the same time.

I showed them to Nakamura and he was like ‘I want them!’ And I was like no you can’t have them, they’re for Finn and Sasha when they lose. He was fighting with me about wanting to keep the magnets for himself. We got it on tape and I was like Nakamura these are presents for them! And he was like ‘oh yes, yes, yes, yes, we will give them presents.’ He just cracks me up. That’s why I think partnering with him will be so great.

The charity aspect of the Mixed Match Challenge is the cherry on top of this whole thing. Yeah we’re doing this for fun and it’s a great thing for the superstars, a great dynamic for us backstage, and a great way for us to perform. It’s a great way for the WWE Universe to see a different concept because you don’t always see girl and guy tag teams and it’s so cool to see inter-branded tag teams matches.

But then you throw in the charity aspect and there are so many charities the WWE is working with from Connor’s Cure, to Make-A-Wish [Foundation], to Rescue Dogs Rock and so many more. It’s really cool.

Make-A-Wish is the charity that Nakamura and I are representing and it’s one that is really close to my heart because I have granted wishes. And when you can change a kid’s perspective or change their quality of life, even if it’s for a few moments, you realize what the worth of your actual career is. I want to make people happy and lift kids up who don’t have that much time left.”

The use of cats in the promos you’ve done with Nakamura has been hilarious. Was there any thought of having 2pawz as the manager for your team?

“I thought about it and then I thought well, I don’t want PETA coming after me because 10,000 people are yelling as I walk down to the ring with my cat (laughs).

You know, 2pawz doesn’t get out of bed for just anyone or anything. I truly had thought about it because that would be so cool if he came down with us. My mom actually made him a costume that matches Nakamura’s ring costume.

We will reign victorious in the first ever #WWE #mixedmatchchallenge! #NAKAMEOWA

A post shared by 2pawz (@2pawz) on

We filmed some videos and posted them on my account. 2pawz has posted them on his Instagram account. He’s very into Nakamura’s music, his costume and Japanese culture. He’s very ready to do this!

But like I said, I thought about him, but I just think it might be too much for him. I don’t want to traumatize the cat.”

Nakamura does strike me as someone who would have a cat.

“Yes. Now I know he has a dog, but he definitely has cat-owner-like qualities because cats are … Cesaro is a cat owner and he’s kind of like a cat. My husband, TJ, is kind of snippy. They’re like cats. Everything is on their terms.

Whereas dog people … dog people are like Mojo Rawley and Bayley and Becky Lynch. They’re happy. They want to hug you. They want to play and jump. They want attention (laughs). But us cat people, we make you work for it.

Your reaction to Nakamura being revealed as your teammate for the Mixed Match Challenge was noteworthy because of how excited you were that Sami Zayn wasn’t your partner. Why were you so excited that Sami wasn’t standing behind you in the selfie?

“What’s so funny about this is that I actually forgot I said that because I have such spontaneous reactions. The WWE producers were like we need to film a video for you because soon you’re going to find out who your partner is, but it’s not today. So I was doing this interview and then all of a sudden they were like do you want to take a selfie because you’re going to need a selfie for the Mixed Match Challenge and all of a sudden I see these red teeth behind me and it was Nakamura wearing a mouthguard and I was like oh my God, Nakamura is my partner! Like it just clicked to me that this was the reveal.

 

I was so excited, but I had this feeling that I was going to get Sami because he and I were both bad guys on TV. I was like I’m going to get Sami and I don’t know if I have chemistry with Sami, I don’t know if it’s there. It wasn’t that I don’t like Sami, I just couldn’t see us gelling together in the ring. In order to have really compelling and great matches, you need to be able to gel with your partner.

So my first reaction was to jump up and down and yell ‘I didn’t get Sami!’ And then later on that day Sami walks up to me and goes ‘are you and I OK?’ And I go yeah, why? And he goes, ‘because you jumped up and down and said you were so happy that I wasn’t your partner and WWE aired that on Twitter to like 12 million people.’ I was like, ‘I don’t recall doing that (laughs).’ Of course it was like the first thing I did (laughs).

It was so funny because Sami thought I was mad at him. He was like I love you and TJ so much that I didn’t know if I ticked you off and I was like, ‘No!’ I just wanted Nakamura.”

With the first women’s Royal Rumble coming up quickly, I was wondering how much you’ve thought about the potential impact of the match on the division as a whole.

“The WWE is really putting their money where their mouth is. They’re really pulling out all of the stops for this. It’s not just 20 girls in this Royal Rumble. They’re trying to, as much as humanly possible, make it as equal to the guys as they can.

We can try to be as equal to the men as we possibly can, but there are some things that … look you’re not going to have girl who is the same height as Braun (6’8”). There are reasons why different is good. There are a lot of things that the women bring to the table that the men can’t do and there’s a lot of things the men bring to the table that the girls can’t do.

WWE has gone above and beyond in every way, shape, and form to make this first-ever women’s Royal Rumble feel equal and that to me is huge. We have 30 women competing and it’s over-the-top-rope.

It’s all about us girls standing out and showing that we’re equal and WWE has been awesome about embracing that.

I have thought a lot about what I’m going to do in the Royal Rumble. I’ve thought a lot about who could possibly be in the match. There has been a lot of speculation and that’s really the fun part. Who is going to be a part of this? Am I going to see Trish Stratus? Am I going to see Michelle McCool? Is there going to be someone who isn’t even a female superstar come and be a part of it?

I was thinking about the girls from G.L.O.W. like what a shock that would be to see one of the girls from the show because it’s so popular. Anything and everything can happen and there’s this huge element of surprise.

The crowd in Philadelphia will let you know … they’re one of those renegade, rowdy, wild, awesome, amazing powerhouse of a crowd. They’re going to let us know what they love and they’re going to let us know what they hate and they’re going to put the pressure on us more than ever.

I think you’re going to see some magic for sure.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis