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WWE Weekly Recap: The Welcomed Return of Selling + Backlash Preview

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The first brand specific Pay-Per-View since the draft will take place this Sunday, but before I preview the glorified episode of SmackDown that’s entitled Backlash, let’s dive into a recent trend that’s been taking the WWE by storm.

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The concept of selling an injury seemed non-existent in WWE’s world of professional wrestling. Let’s travel back to April, when Rusev beat the crap out of Kalisto on the final set of TV tapings before their U.S. title match at Extreme Rules.

Instead of selling the “rib injury” he suffered at the hands of Mr. Lana, Kalisto did his lucha entrance thing and acted as though he was 100 percent. It wasn’t until midway through the match when Kalisto finally sold an injury that played into the finish.

As a fan, Kalisto’s entrance infuriated me. Why should I care about the buildup for any match when I know the participants are going to act like they’re in perfect condition? Also, Kalisto sold a back injury during the match instead of a rib injury.

According to Bryan Alvarez of the Wrestling Observer, Vince wanted to make sure that everyone who paid for a ticket would see everyone at “full health,” which meant that Kalisto had to do his entrance so the 15 kids in the crowd who cared about him would get excited.

It’s a ridiculous line of thinking considering WWE is supposed to be in the storytelling business, but this is Vince McMahon we’re talking about.

Well I don’t know what has gotten into the company over the past couple of weeks, but we’ve seen a total 180 in terms of injuries being sold before, during, and after matches. Perhaps the recent string of legit injuries made the creative team push the line between reality and fantasy.

Likely considering the amount of “shoot” style promos we’ve seen recently.

Or maybe someone bought Vince a subscription to New Japan World. Unlikely, but it really makes me want a YouTube series of Mr.McMahon watching matches like this:

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Whatever the case, the in-ring product now has a much more realistic feel. Raw’s main event between Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn used an “injury” that was sustained by Zayn as the climax. As Zayn tried to run across the ring to deliver his Helluva Kick finisher, his ankle “gave out” and it left him vulnerable for a superkick-powerbomb combination finish.

This wasn’t the first time Zayn has shown his world-class selling ability recently. Two weeks ago he worked most of his match against Seth Rollins on a “bum” ankle after “injuring” it during a springboard spot. He modified his move set and made every step that he took on the ankle look painful.

(Zayn should probably watch out, because Dolph Ziggler was once known as the king of selling.)

Hell, Cesaro and Sheamus are using an injury angle to drive the main story in their best out of seven series. In the second match between the two, Sheamus back body dropped Cesaro into the new ring post.

The Uppercut Man sold the injury like a million bucks and then came out on Monday with Kinesio-tape all over his lower back. Sheamus “targeted” the injured area and then laid Ceasro out with a Brogue Kick to take a 3-0 lead.

The best example of this new philosophy, IMO, comes to us from the world of NXT-CWC. Johnny Gargano’s knee was “ravaged” in his loss to The Revival at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn II and then three days later he faced T.J. Perkins in the second round of the Cruiserweight Classic.

Gargano’s injury from Takeover played into the finish as Perkins forced Gargano to tapout due to a kneebar (this was a tremendous match). Here’s the real beauty to this scenario, the CWC match between Perkins and Gargano was taped weeks before the Takeover special, so the writers came up with this idea well in advance and executed it to perfection.

On SmackDown this week the Usos turned heel after their 45 second loss to American Alpha in the tag team tournament. They beat down Gable and Jordan after the match and targeted Gable’s leg. The crowd responded nicely and it set up a grudge match for the titles at No Mercy.

Pro wrestling 101 everybody.

We’ll see how long this new attitude towards selling lasts because ish like this changes after Vince sneezes the wrong way.

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Backlash Preview

Intercontinental Championship match: The Miz (C) vs. Dolph Ziggler

So in a month Dolph Ziggler goes from wrestling Dean Ambrose for the WWE World title at SummerSlam to defending Daniel Bryan’s honor against The Miz. A dirty win by Miz makes the most sense for everyone involved. There’s no reason to take the IC title off of Miz at this point and another loss for Ziggler will push him towards a potential heel turn.

The Usos vs. Hype Bros (Winner faces Heath Slater/Rhyno, or Slyno, in the SmackDown Tag Team Tournament finals)

I was a big fan of the Usos heel turn on Tuesday night. The beat down on American Alpha looked great and you could feel the passion in their promo with Renee. The Hype Bros have proven that they belong on the main roster, but they shouldn’t go over here.

The Usos vs. Slater/Rhyno

Note: If Heath Slater and Rhyno win the titles, Slater will “become” a member of the SmackDown roster.

Time for me to give credit where credit is due, the booking of Heath Slater has been wonderful. The crowd has taken to The One Man Band and has made him feel like a star, which has rubbed off on Rhyno. Seriously, go back and listen to the reaction Rhyno got this week when he set up for the Gore.

Having said all of that, Slater and Rhyno should not win the titles. The Usos heel turn was pushed as the biggest storyline on Tuesday night and in order to accelerate their new attitude, they should steal a victory over one of the biggest fan favorites in the company right now. Plus, there’s a future match against Alpha down the road that will have a little extra punch.

Six Pack Challenge to crown the first SmackDown Women’s Champion

I seriously have no idea who to pick in this match. Becky Lynch appears to be the favorite, which is exactly why she won’t win it. Carmella and Nikki should spin off into their own program after the match. Perhaps Carmella gets eliminated and then costs Bella Twin 1…

That leaves Naomi, Alexa Bliss (or like on Tuesday Alexa Miss) and Natalya. I like Alexa, but she isn’t quite ready to be the face of the SD women’s division. Naomi’s entrance and new move set is impressive, but she can’t feel the glow when a microphone is in her hands.

By process of elimination, Natalya is the only person left. She hasn’t been lighting the world on fire by during this heel run, but is still capable of putting on good matches with greener talent. If this new women’s title is going to get over, it has to happen in the ring.

With just six matches announced for the card, I’m expecting this to get a ton of time.

Kane will destroy some random local talent or jobber

Randy Orton vs. Bray Wyatt

The promos leading up to this match have ranged from very good (Orton last week, Bray this week) to wtf (Orton this week), but I’m expecting the physicality to be off of the charts. Wyatt has some of the best looking offense in the company and we all know how smooth Mr. RKO is.

Bray could really use a win here, maybe Luke Harper returns to lend him a hand? Whatever the case, the finish shouldn’t be clean, because this feud should carry over to No Mercy in October. Thinking Wyatt wins here.

WWE World Heavyweight Championship match: Dean Ambrose (C) vs. AJ Styles

Ambrose has been on a cold streak lately with his in-ring performances. Idk if he’s trying to be extra cautious to avoid an injury because he doesn’t want to jeopardize his spot by missing time, or if he’s just burned out and going through the motions, but it’s hard to remember the last time Ambrose looked impressive in a singles match that didn’t have Rollins in it.

That pattern should change on Sunday against Styles, who is the best performer in the world at this current moment in time. Styles should walk out of Richmond, Virginia as the only man to ever win the IWGP, NWA, and WWE world title, but we could be in for a screwy finish that leads to a stipulation match between the two for the title at No Mercy.

In Ambrose’s promo this week, he dropped a line about taking his opponents to places they’ve never been before, which makes me wonder if we’ll get another Asylum match.

Which show was better this week?

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SD Live wasn’t even that good this week and it was still easily better than the bizzaro Raw from Monday. Everything on the show that didn’t involve Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Chris Jericho, Mick Foley, or Seth Rollins was atrocious.

Time to “Go Home”

– People are going to be upset with me about this, but it’s time to break up The New Day. Their segments have been way more miss than hit lately and there’s nowhere for the act to go from here.

– Which segment was worse? Sasha’s announcement or the Old Day?

– It’s closer than you think.

– Seth Rollins is going to be a white-hot babyface. His up-tempo style is easy for the crowd to get behind and his offense is just so crisp. I’m a bit surprised he’s going to continue using the pedigree. It would be awesome if he put his own spin on the move a la The Angel’s Wings.

– It’s a shame this isn’t Rollins’ new theme because it’s so damn good.

– It was not exactly the best seven days for Big Cass. Guy went from the Universal title picture to a loss at the hands of The Shining Stars.

– Am I the only one who prefers the SmackDown set over Raw’s?

– I can’t believe Bo Dallas had the best squash match on Monday.

– Can anyone explain to me why Sin Cara needed to be protected via countout finish against Braun Strowman?

– Remember when Vince wanted Strowman to be the Undertaker’s Wrestlemania opponent?

– I don’t want to totally crap on the guy because his look could take him far in the industry, but he needs to be able to sell much, much better at this point. I’m still laughing at the head scissors spot from Monday.

– So Bayley beats Charlotte, but Sasha gets the title match at Clash of Champions? Makes sense.

– I LOVED the quick finish to the Alpha-Usos match. Surprise finishes like that will keep the crowd on their toes. It’s so easy to just sit back and not care about a good chunk of matches due to the amount of near falls.

– David Otunga needs to drink some of Dean Ambrose’s coffee, maybe then he’d actually be worth listening to.

– This Darren Young-Titus O’Neil feud is never going to end is it?

– The cruiserweight division can’t get to Raw quick enough. If you’re not watching the CWC for some reason, please change that and watch it right now. It’s easily my favorite show every week.

– Ambrose’s promo in the final segment of SD was amaaaaazzzzzinggg.

– Almost as ammmaaaaazzzinnngggg as Kevin Owens’ new shirt.

Follow me on 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