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

Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque’s quest to change WWE as we know it

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Paul Levesque, aka “Triple H”, has evolved from one of the top performers of his generation, to a prominent role behind the scenes as the Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events and Creative for WWE. I had the chance to chat with “HHH” about what he specifically looks for when he’s recruiting new talent, why this past year has been so challenging for NXT and how he presents new talent to Vince McMahon. 

(Don’t miss NXT Takeover: Orlando on Saturday, April 1 at 8 p.m. ET Live on WWE Network)

Me: You’ve had an incredible in-ring career; a 14-time world champion. As I look up and down the WrestleMania 33 card I see so many NXT alums and I wonder, what did you learn from your time as a performer that has helped you as an evaluator of talent?

Paul “HHH” Levesque: “Oh man … everything that I’ve learned since I’ve walked through the door. The funny thing for me is that I’ve been in a unique position during my career. I was fascinated early with the behind the scenes and production aspects of the business.

So, shortly after I came to WWE I was in creative conversations with Vince that led to me to being offered to come to production meetings, which I didn’t have to go to. I would get up early on TV days and go to these production meetings that I didn’t need to be a part of. People thought I was crazy, but I wasn’t trying to do anything more than learn. I wanted to learn what they were looking for.

The vision of what the talent thinks they want and what the office thinks they want are sometimes two different things.

I have the unique perspective of having both sides and that allows me to I think look at talent a different way, but to also to be able to say here’s what you need to be able to do. Here’s the way you need to be able to work at it. Here’s the way you need to perceive cameras and how cameras see you. How you put your character out there and how you put your brand out there.

At the end of the day for us, characters are all about charisma. So that’s the thing you’re looking for the most. I see a lot of unbelievable athletes come through the Performance Center; sometimes they have charisma, sometimes they don’t.

I’ve hired a lot [of people] that have charisma, but aren’t necessarily the greatest athletes we saw that week because you just can’t take your eyes off of them.

For example, there’s a guy that I hired in China that everybody on the team who was over there didn’t put this kid on the list and when we went through the list at the end of the day of who we’re going to offer an opportunity to come and train with the WWE I was like, ‘Where’s this kid?’ and everyone was like, ‘You’re kidding, right?’

I was like, ‘No, where is he?’ He was heavy and a Mongolian wrestler, so he’s athletic but he’s heavier and in some ways he’s not anything we would look for, but he worked his butt off. He was always last, but he never quit man. He just went. Some guys would pull up with an injury and they’d go sit out. You could clearly tell that they were just gasping for air and needed to sit for a second. They’d be back ten minutes later.

He gutted through everything and you couldn’t take your eyes off of this guy. He did stuff that was funny, even though he didn’t mean for it to be that way. He was always the center of attention, even when he wasn’t doing anything!

Everyone was against him and I said ‘Is there anybody in this room who didn’t watch this guy the entire day? I’ve heard everyone talk about this guy. Why? He’s the sleeper money in this group.’

So we brought him [to the Performance Center] and there’s not a week goes by that somebody doesn’t send me a clip or a photo of him doing something where there’s 10 or 15 people around him watching. He’s just one of those naturally charismatic people that you can’t put your finger on why.

I look for that more than I look for anything else.

Is he ever going to do a moonsault? Probably not. Is he ever going to be a Shawn Michaels in the ring? I guarantee you he won’t. But, if he loves it, if he works hard and keeps himself straight, he’s probably going to make it and he’s probably going to be good.

That’s the biggest thing to me, the charisma factor.”

You kind of answered my next question, but I’ll ask it anyway. When you’re scouting someone, what do you specifically look for?

“Look, I mean there are other factors as well. I don’t want to make it sound like ‘Oh, look at this guy he has a big personality and forget all of the rest of it.’ Obviously athleticism, the willingness to do this, the desire to work hard, but then there’s leadership qualities that we really look for.

When guys go to a camp, sometimes people watch them and go, ‘You’re just making these people throw-up in garbage can because you’re working them so hard.’ I want to push them to where they’re really outside of their comfort range and then see what they do with it.

It’s really easy to be nice and be the perfect professional when you feel great, but when you’re on the verge of puking in barrel and you’re exhausted and there’s someone barking at you to do more and the guy next to you just fell on you because he’s at the same place you are, do you help pick him up or do you curse at him and go about your own business?

There are differences in how people react to things. I’m looking for leaders. I’m looking for someone that can be a professional. I’m looking for the consummate athlete on all aspects.

It’s not just one thing, but if you ask me the one thing I look for, charisma is king.”

Going back for a second to the guy that you were talking about in China; it seemed as though there was and still is a certain look that a talent needs in order to reach a certain level of success in WWE. Now, obviously there have been exceptions to the rule, but it seems like over the past few years you’ve bucked that trend. How did that transition happen?

“So, I’m a big believer in talent is talent. It comes in all shapes, sizes, looks, feels, everything. I think sometimes there’s been a bad rap of like take this as the thing that’s most successful, so that’s what we’re going to give.

I think that’s happen here in the past. People can say whatever about WWE and look, is there a particular style of athlete [we look for]? Sure, it’s like that in anything.

If you’re shown steak all of the time, it’s no surprise that you’re going to eat steak. So when everybody coming to you with the same look and feel, a certain pattern begins to develop because that’s what being put in front of you and that’s what you have to select from.

My selection process is different. Yes, I understand what Vince likes and what Vince sees in an ideal archetype performer, but I also know him well enough to know that he likes a lot of different archetypes, so I’m not going to give him one; I’m going to give him a little bit of everything.

He’s going to see a Bray Wyatt and go (Vince voice) ‘That’s great!’ He’s going to see a Braun Strowman and go ‘Ah yeah, that’s my wheelhouse right there. I love that.’ He’s going to see Finn Balor and hear the girls going nuts and then see the paint and go ‘Geez look at that, I love that!’ That’s something that I don’t think would have been put in front of him eight years ago.

I sometimes wonder if Bray Wyatt would have been put in front of him 10 years ago. I don’t know that he would of. That doesn’t mean that Vince wouldn’t have loved him back then.

I want there to be so much diversity on every level. I want it to be international diversity. I want there to be something for everybody within WWE so you can gravitate towards characters that you can relate to. That’s still a work in progress.

It’s a work in progress when you look at the Performance Center and you look at the talent there and see that 40 percent of the talent is international now, there’s 17 countries represented. A quarter of the talent there is women. The diversity level is at an all-time high and that’s on purpose. We’ve done that for desired effect.

Is it showing right now on the main roster? Nah, not necessarily because it’s going to take a little bit of time to percolate up, but it’s there.

I want that diversity. When you talk about the women, I want there to be a Sasha Banks; the smaller, run her mouth, cocky, arrogant, little athlete. I want there to be a bigger, dominant athlete like a Charlotte. I want there to be a Nia Jax that brings a whole different danger component. I want there to be a Bayley that is this naïve, fan-friendly, little girl centric character that everybody loves.

Then you still want there to be the Bellas, who are like the Kardashians of the women’s division. You want that variety.

It’s the same with the guys. I want there to be a Cena, I want there to be a Randy Orton. But I also want there to be a Bray Wyatt. I want there to be a Braun Strowman. I want there to be a Finn Balor. I want there to be a Samoa Joe or a Kevin Owens. Big Cass and then a little guy like Enzo that can run his mouth nonstop.

I want that diversity.”

As I looked at the WrestleMania card and noticed all of the former NXT stars, I thought about how much the roster has changed over the last year. There have been so many guys and girls that have gotten the call-up to the main roster, how challenging has it been to deal with such a major transition to NXT?

“So that’s been the most challenging thing for me in the last year. When we had the draft, 16 talents got called up. I started over with the women’s division. Thank God I kept Asuka because she’s been the anchor. My male division was pretty much stripped down. I lost a lot of it.

Behind the scenes, the same thing happened. My executive producer that works with me on the show got called up. I got a new one; he made it two weeks before he got called up.

I lost my edit team that helped me get the feel and the look of the brand because they got called up. I was thrilled for them. They were so good that the office said, ‘Look we’re expanding, we’re going to do 205, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that. We need these people.’

I’m very hands on with the writing of NXT and the team that was writing NXT with me got called up. When we split the brands, we needed a different writing team and they got called up.

So I started over with this whole new team and they needed to get their feet on the ground. It was really a brand new start over point for us. That’s challenging, but that’s also to me part of the strength of NXT. It’ll change, but it’ll be fresh and it’ll be different than it was a year ago. I’m not saying it’s always going to be better, but it’ll be different.

I just got a whole new behind the scenes team and it’s taken me since SummerSlam to get them, but I just got them and I’m really excited about it. I feel like for the first time since the draft, NXT is back in business and we’re going to rock and roll.

I’m looking forward to NXT constantly keeping us on our toes and the demand for more and more on the main roster, the demand for more and more shows, whether that is localized content in the UK, or the cruiserweight division or the women’s tournament that we’ll have coming up sometime this year.

All of those things are exciting opportunities and make NXT an exciting opportunity.”

Can you describe what it feels like to see a talent that has had success in NXT, but struggles to find their footing on the main roster?

“It’s hard for me. It’s hard for them. It’s a difficult situation. I say this to talent all of the time, careers are marathons, they are not sprints.

Even though we say it’s a third brand, it really is and you might never make it out of NXT and you’ll do really well in your career, but if you do get the chance to go to Raw or SmackDown, it’s like starting over. You’re starting over with new management and new everything. The job is the same, but you’re starting over and you have to re-earn your stripes. It’s a slightly different product.

It used to be that way in the territory days. You might be over in one territory and take the gamble to go to another territory and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

It can be frustrating for them. They ask a lot of questions and we try to give them as much guidance as we can.

The other thing though that everybody has to remember is that in today’s world if you’re not “The Guy or The Girl” at the very top, the number one draw, you can still be a talent on Raw or SmackDown and working all of the time and be doing very, very well for yourself.

Do you always want more? Yes. Will that come over time? Maybe.

You reinvent yourself, you work hard. You continue to do the things you’re doing.

Back to the career being a marathon and not a sprint; when you’re a few years in, being on Raw or SmackDown and you’ve only been in the business for four years or whatever, it’s not a bad place to be.

If two years down the line you get that ride up to a much higher level, it’s a pretty good run.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis

WWE’s Bayley: Facing Stephanie McMahon would be a ‘dream’ match

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Even though Bayley made her main roster debut back in late-August, she’s quickly become one of the biggest fan-favorites on the main roster. Before she defends her Raw Women’s Championship at WrestleMania, Sunday, April 2 at 7pm ET live on WWE Network, I had the chance to chat with Ms. Hug Life about her extra time in NXT, if she asked for any advice from The Rock and her dream opponent. 

Me: While three of the “Four Horsewomen” were called up to the main roster, you stayed down in NXT. Do you think you needed the extra time in developmental?

Bayley: “Yeah, now looking back I definitely did. At the time obviously I was like what about me? I’m ready, let’s go! I wanted to do everything that they did. Now looking back, I think that has been the most important year of my career. I look back and think I wasn’t ready. I was so dependent on them throughout my years in NXT. If something went wrong, I always had them, but the year without them was all on me.

The whole division relied on me, everybody came to me for advice. If something went wrong, it was my fault. I really needed that leadership to build confidence in myself. In the future if I’m the leader for the locker room in WWE, I know that I can handle it. I was able to work with girls that have never been in a wrestling ring with before, girls who were just getting started, and girls who have been doing it forever like Asuka.

It was the most important year and maybe one of the most fun years I’ve had.”

You’ve been on the road with the main roster for seven months now; do you find yourself still adjusting to what life is like on the main roster?

“A little bit … the actual backstage and being in WWE was easy because in NXT the coaches and Triple H had prepared us for what to expect. That’s what the Performance Center is for, from doing promo class, to being in the ring for hours, to watching your matches back.

It’s the traveling and not being able to see my dog every day when I get home (laughs) that’s a little bit harder to deal with. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that, but it’s all worth it though.

The brands are split right now; I can’t imagine what it would have been like to do two TV [tapings] every week.”

What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think about winning the Raw Women’s Championship?

“Oh man … just unbelievable. I just didn’t expect all of that to happen so fast.”

Obviously you’re a lifelong fan and I’m sure you envisioned that moment happening, so what went through your mind as you stood there with the title, in the ring, in front of thousands of people?

“I wish my family was there. That was the first thing that I thought about. My mom always says, you have a title match, should I be there? She was at every single NXT title match because she never knew if that was going to be the night. I just knew that she was going to be so mad that she wasn’t there.I knew they were watching.

I was in the Cow Palace when Eddie Guerrero won his first [world] title. I felt like I knew him and was so happy for him. I remember him jumping into the crowd and the crowd being so happy and then I did that and I just had that vision in my mind. It was weird! The crowd just made it more special considering my family wasn’t there. It was just amazing.

Did The Rock give you any advice when you met him?

“He told me that he watches and said you’re the champion so you must be doing something right. I was like, yeah I guess so. I didn’t want to take up too much of his time. He said that he really enjoys watching. I hope he wasn’t just saying that to be nice though.”

Recently you’ve been paired on television with Stephanie McMahon quite a bit and she plays a character that rarely gets one-upped by a babyface. Have you thought about Bayley-Steph in the same way that “Stone Cold” Steve Austin had Vince McMahon?

“I’ve thought about that so many times. Even when I was a kid (laughs). When she was having matches with Lita, I was like I want to have matches with Stephanie one day. That’s one of my dream matches to be honest.

If it could continue on, like you said with Austin and Vince, that would be so much fun, but I’m sure it’s a little much to ask for right now.”

Do you find yourself putting extra pressure on your shoulders because you’re the champ going into WrestleMania?

“Yeah totally. I’m probably doing way too much. Leading up to it I’m just stressing myself out. Do I need to get into the gym three times a day and try to still make everyone happy by doing all of these things that I need to do? I don’t even really know how to prepare for Mania, so I’m just doing what I think I need to do and I might be doing too much.

I think once I get to Orlando and I can digest what’s actually happening and appreciate it and know like holy crap dude, you’re here, then I’ll be able to calm down a bit. Right now, I have to be over-prepared.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis