WWE

2017 Royal Rumble: What did we learn?

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WWE’s “Road to WrestleMania” kicked off with the 30th annual Royal Rumble from the Alamodome in San Antonio.

With numerous plausible outcomes on the table in the two world championship matches and the 30-man over the top rope battle royal, this was one of the most anticipated Rumble Pay-Per-Views in many years.

Shockingly, it was the lack of surprises in the Rumble match that made the show feel a lot less memorable than it should have been.

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The most unpredictable Royal Rumble in years ended with a surprising finish, but it wasn’t the right choice

Randy Orton is one of the best performers in the business, but this Royal Rumble match was promoted as the biggest Rumble match ever. It was a golden opportunity to make a new superstar.

The PPV overall was a thumbs up show because every match was entertaining, but the booking of the Rumble match itself was highly questionable. After Tye Dillinger’s surprising entrance at number 10 (who would have guessed it?), every person who entered the match up until Brock Lesnar (26th), was a full-time mid-carder.

If you want to make the case that Corbin (entered 13th) is higher on the card than the other guys who entered around him, you can, but the point stands. Besides Corbin, Dean Ambrose, all three members of The New Day, Cesaro and Sheamus, James Ellsworth, Miz, Randy Orton, Rusev (who was a total afterthought), Bray Wyatt, Dolph Ziggler, Luke Harper and Apollo Crews entered the match in some order from 11-25.

westbrook

And then we finished off with Lesnar (26th), Enzo (27th), Goldberg (28th), Undertaker (29th) and finally Roman Reigns (30th). When Undertaker came out 29th, I thought OK there are two possible options for the final entrant.

Either Kurt Angle (very unlikely) or Samoa Joe (a lock I thought) is making the ridiculously long walk to the ring.

NOPE.

Here comes Reigns out to a chorus of thunderous boos so loud that you couldn’t hear his music over the speakers in the Alamodome.

If Vince is really trying to get Reigns over as the next big babyface, why is he coming out 30th? And why the (expletive deleted) is he booked to eliminate the Undertaker? The latter spot should have been reserved for a heel because the crowd was predictably going to respond in a negative way when Undertaker’s feet hit the floor.

Perhaps Meekmahan wanted Orton to get a huge babyface pop and knew that he could use the crowd’s hate for Roman as a springboard to get that reaction, but whatever the case, Orton is headed for a championship match at WrestleMania and John Cena is currently holding the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.

Cena vs. Orton for the 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000th time? Don’t sign me up.

I guess the rumor that popped up last week about Orton facing Wyatt for the title at Super WrestleMania Sunshine has some legs.

Goldberg vs. Lesnar was handled perfectly

love that Goldberg has Lesnar’s number. Brock’s shockingly quick elimination by Ol’ Bill should set Paul Heyman up for a great promo.

Lesnar wanting redemption vs. Goldberg at Mania is such a simple storyline, but the crowd will eat it up.

Why no Samoa Joe?

If you’ll allow me, I’m going to rant here for a bit. If you don’t care about Joe, skip to the next section.

Would this not have been a perfect time to bring Joe in and establish him as a powerhouse?

Maybe he could be Shane’s representative to face AJ Styles at WrestleMania. I suggest this because I think we’re headed for Shane vs. AJ at Mania; even though after Shane-O-Mac’s last showing in the ring, he should hang up his wrestling sneakers and wind pants forever.

Seriously though, Joe has nothing else to prove in NXT. He’s turning 38 in March and SmackDown’s roster could really use a boost heading into WrestleMania season. Much like Styles did last year, Joe could have established himself as a threat on the main roster in 20 minutes.

This felt like a gigantic opportunity that was wasted. Plus, the Rumble match could have really used a surprise in the middle of the match.

The biggest shocker of the weekend was Seth Rollins showing up at NXT: TakeOver

After Rollins “lost” his spot in the Rumble match to Sami Zayn, I kept trying to figure out when Rollins was going to show up. The idea of him causing havoc at the NXT special on the WWE Network seemed like a fantasy booking idea that was never going to come to fruition.

And then it actually happened! Rollins snuck into the ring and stole the microphone from ring announcer Mike Rome and demanded that HHH come out and fight him. The crowd exploded and made Rollins feel like a white hot babyface. Triple H of course didn’t fight Rollins and instead sent out security to “forcefully” remove Rollins from the building.

Even though Rollins vs. HHH is a predictable WrestleMania program, this moment provided the feud with extra fuel it desperately needed.

AJ Styles and John Cena had an excellent match, but it wasn’t as good as their SummerSlam classic

The concept of hitting a big move after big move that leads to constant near falls has been the crutch for Cena matches since his run with the United States Championship.

There’s a reason why Cena always does this. It works.

genius

But when you’ve already seen Cena and Styles go through sequences similar to what we saw on Sunday, the spectacle of Mr. WWE vs. Mr. TNA wrestling for the company’s biggest prize just doesn’t feel as big as it should have.

Styles kicking out of an “avalanche Attitude Adjustment”: Check.

Cena hitting a Code Red for a nearfall: Check

Styles hitting five of his cool moves that he busts out every once and awhile: Check

I don’t want to totally bury this match. It was very good and both men should be praised for performing at this level on such a big stage, but when you’re stepping into the ring with someone for the third time in a one-on-one situation, the match should feel different than the first two and this one did not.

Kudos to Cena for coming up with a very cool finishing sequence that we haven’t seen before.

Neville wins the Cruiserweight Championship

But will he save the division? The crowd was mild at best for his match with Rich Swann.

Gallows and Anderson finally win the tag titles

It’s about time! With the amount of times G&A have “failed” to become the tag team champions, they really needed a win and could benefit from a nice long reign with the titles.

Will they get that long reign? Probably not. I wonder if Enzo and Cass are going to win the titles at WrestleMania….

Bayley and Charlotte put on one hell of an opening match

I hope both girls got a standing ovation when they walked through the curtain. This was a wonderful opening match, which played to the strengths of both performers.

Charlotte mocked Bayley by yelling at her that she should be sitting with the fans. This ignited Bayley to make her comeback, which got a big reaction.

It seems like every show now must include a big spot on the apron, but the Natural Selection looks like one of the safest moves to take in that position. Even though you wouldn’t know it by how well Bayley sold the move.

I can’t wait to see these two face off again at WrestleMania. Unless Nia Jax gets involved, which seems likely with how quickly she ran through Sasha Banks.

Braun Strowman “saves” Kevin Owens from dropping the Universal title to Roman Reigns

Apparently all of those pep talks backstage between Owens, Jericho, and Strowman got the big guy in the spirit to help Owens.

Wait, what am I doing? That’s not how we cover sports entertainment here!

The idea of having Jericho drop an object that plays into the finish is so elementary that Vince probably figured the match needed an extra surprise in the final act. Enter an angry Strowman who chokeslammed Reigns on an announcer’s table that still had two monitors on it. Luckily, Roman didn’t land on top of them.

Even though Owens walked away with the championship, this wasn’t a particularly strong win for him. Don’t expect him to carry the red strap into WrestleMania, but who knows who K.O. will face at Fastlane.

With Finn Balor almost ready to return, it would make sense for those two to square off for the title and a spot in the Universal title match at WrestleMania.

The Twitter: @ScottDargis

Paul “Triple H” Levesque on Shinsuke Nakamura’s transition from NXT to WWE’s main roster

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I had the chance earlier in the week to chat with Paul “Triple H” Levesque about multiple topics including the Mae Young Classic (story coming next week), the evolution of NXT over the past few months, Samoa Joe’s road to the main event of SummerSlam (you can watch SummerSlam live around the world on WWE Network this Sunday, August 20 at 7 p.m. ET) and about Shinsuke Nakamura’s somewhat difficult transition from NXT to the main roster.

Here’s what Mr. Levesque had to say about Nakamura:

“I cannot over-emphasize the difference WWE and any place else and I mean any place. While Nakamura had success and you can talk about Japan. They do a stadium show here and there, but it’s just a totally different world. It really is. How we approach it, how we do it, while he’s a big star in Japan, the level of what we do and the global nature of what we do is a big transition.

I say this a lot to the talent who are down in NXT and you don’t have to be a football player to get it, but people talk about the difference between college football and the NFL and man it’s just a different game. The speed of it, the way it’s played, all of it. Some guys can make the transition and thrive. Some guys it takes them awhile to acclimate and some guys never do and it just falls apart for them. They go from being this college phenom that becomes the number one overall pick in the draft, but then three years later they’re not in the NFL anymore.

It takes time, but the greats will rise and I think that’s what you’re seeing in [Samoa] Joe, I think that’s what you’re seeing in Nakamura. When fans ask ‘why does somebody like that have to go to NXT?’ because that’s the transition point. They have to learn that. If they went straight in [to the main roster] it would be overwhelmingly difficult and guzzle them. Anybody that’s come through and done it has stated the same thing.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis

Samoa Joe’s long, strange journey to the main event of SummerSlam

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The concept of “pushing” a talent to the main event or top level in a form of entertainment where the outcome is predetermined seems rather simple because a performer can just be booked to “go over” their opponent and be positioned as a character the audience should be invested in.

But it’s not quite that simple because as we’ve seen with numerous acts in the world of professional wrestling, just because a company wants the audience to care about someone it doesn’t mean that the people will play along.

If you followed Samoa Joe throughout his career, prior to his debut on WWE programming, you were aware that he was capable of being a main event level talent. Joe was an integral performer for the then second biggest wrestling promotion in the country during what many would consider the best time period for TNA/IMPACT/GFW.

Before Joe made his way to the Impact Zone in Orlando to work for TNA, he was a key member of an absolutely stacked Ring of Honor roster that included the likes of Bryan Danielson, Claudio “Cesaro” Castagnoli, Chris Hero (Kassius Ohno), Austin Aries and CM Punk (which if you haven’t seen any of Punk and Joe’s matches from ROH, do yourself a favor and watch them ASAP).

The WWE is a different animal than the other wrestling companies in the United States because there are many casual viewers who don’t pay attention to the other numerous promotions that can be viewed right now on your phone, tablet, laptop, smart TV and fridge, and probably even a fidget spinner.

When Joe appeared for the first time on Raw this past February after working in NXT (WWE’s developmental “territory”) for 19 months, he received a nice reaction from the section of the crowd who were familiar with his journey to WWE’s main roster, but a big chunk of the audience watching at home and the casual fans in the building wearing a John Cena shirt instantly thought to themselves:

Those people had no idea what to expect from Samoa Joe. His in-ring style isn’t flashy. It can be downright brutal at times. It doesn’t mean that he isn’t athletic because he can move around at a pace of a cruiserweight, but he isn’t going to do a springboard forearm or a 450. His punches, kicks, and power moves are the reasons why he comes off like a legitimate badass in the ring.

Joe’s time in NXT was very different than his run in TNA/IMPACT. Before Kurt Angle left WWE and signed with TNA Wrestling way back in 2006, Samoa Joe was, in storyline, getting a push similar to Goldberg/Brock Lesnar. He didn’t “lose” a one-on-one match for his first 15 months on TNA television, but Angle, a legitimate WWE superstar with plenty left to give the business inside of the ring, went over Joe in Angle’s first match with the company.

The two went on to headline two of TNA’s most successful Pay-Per-View events in terms of buyrates. Sure the draw of Angle’s first in-ring appearance with the company helped hype for their initial match, but the MMA-style battle between the two at Lockdown 2008 was a major success for the promotion and it was a year-and-a-half after they locked up for the first time.

Joe’s character in TNA took a major turn in 2009 when he returned to television. He was noticeably heavier and had a face tattoo that looked like one Mike Tyson probably passed on.

This was the beginning of a turning point for Joe’s character. His aura began to fade. Despite the company’s attempts to heat him back up, their terrible booking couldn’t save Joe’s starpower. This is where I must mention the storyline in early 2010 when Joe was “abducted.” The storyline was dropped without a resolution.

Joe became just another guy on the roster who was wasting prime years of his career wilting away in a company that was the size of a small jet ski on a similar trajectory as the Titanic.

When I asked Paul “Triple H” Levesque about Samoa Joe’s road to the main event of this year’s SummerSlam (which can be streamed live around the world on WWE Network this Sunday, August 20 at 7pm ET), he began his answer with this vocal paragraph that made me think about the setbacks Joe had during a good chunk of his run in TNA/IMPACT.

“When you’ve been doing this a long time, and Joe has, there’s things that come up and then there’s opportunities and what you do with those opportunities, how you reinvent yourself or refresh yourself and not get in a rut and avoid the status quo of going through the motions and doing your job. It happens to everybody, it just does.”

Joe left TNA/IMPACT in February of 2015 and then debuted in NXT three months later when he “confronted” Kevin Owens. When Joe signed his contract with WWE, he was still allowed to appear on independent shows, which is highly unusual for a WWE performer. After Joe’s NXT debut, his merchandise sales reportedly blew up and he was quickly signed to full-time deal.

Finn Balor “passed the torch” to Joe in NXT after Balor was called up to the main roster, but it was really more of Joe taking the torch from Balor. Even though Joe’s first few months with NXT were a bit shaky at times due to his feud with Owens that wasn’t nearly as good as it should have been, his “heel turn” on Balor and set of matches with Finn represented another key moment in Joe’s career.

“I think he’d been in just cruise mode for a long time in his career. NXT was fresh for him and he was excited about it and he really liked it,” Levesque said. “He would talk about it all of the time about how excited he was, not even looking at doing anything else, just to be in NXT because he felt like he was launching and being on the ground floor of something really exciting.”

After his feud with Balor ended, Joe clashed with Shinsuke Nakamura in a series of matches that were a lot of fun, outside of a stunningly mediocre match in Japan. Joe was way over with the NXT audience, but I seriously thought that Joe may struggle to get a similar reaction on the main roster due to how previous NXT standouts had been presented on Raw and Smackdown.

In order for Joe to seem like the badass who could beat up the toughest guy in the room, he was going to have to be in the ring with guys who could make his offense look hellish.

He “attacked” Seth Rollins on his first night on the main roster, but Rollins suffered a legit MCL tear during the skirmish and their match that was rumored for the Fast Lane PPV was postponed. If Joe’s push was a flame, Rollins’ injury was like a gigantic wet blanket being thrown on top of it.

Even though he was positioned as Triple H’s right hand man in storyline, Joe was put in a mid-card feud with Sami Zayn after Rollins was put on the shelf. This was a step down for Joe. Sami was coming out of a feud with Braun Strowman that greatly helped BRAUUUUUUNNNNNNN, but did little for Zayn, which was by design.

Zayn is one of the best sellers in WWE, so he made Joe’s strikes seem deadly, but after injuring Rollins in his first night on the main roster, it seemed like “The Samoan Submission Machine” toned down the impact of his offense just a bit, which is a big deal for a character who needs his striking to look dangerous.

Even though WrestleMania was a seven hour marathon, Joe didn’t appear on the show. He watched backstage with Finn Balor who was still recovering from a serious shoulder/arm injury he sustained at SummerSlam:

Joe would eventually get his match with Rollins at Payback in May, but their encounter failed to help either guy as they wrestled a forgettable match with a questionable finish. Both guys were then placed into a Fatal-Five Way match at Extreme Rules with the winner getting a shot at Brock Lesnar’s Universal title at Great Balls of Fire.

There were reports that Lesnar was scheduled to work with all five guys in the match throughout the rest of the calendar year. Out of the five performers in the match (Joe, Balor, Roman Reigns, Bray Wyatt, Seth Rollins), Joe instantly stood out because his program with Lesnar would not only be fresh for the character, but it was one of the final dream matches that hadn’t happened yet.

In many ways, Brock Lesnar is the perfect opponent for Samoa Joe. Lesnar really stands out when he has someone to brawl with and well, if you made it this far in the column, you know that someone like Lesnar is a great foil for Joe in the ring. However, you probably didn’t realize just how great Paul Heyman and Joe would work together on the microphone.

The brawling between Lesnar and Joe was always going to look good because Joe is a veteran and a professional, but the intensity Joe showed while storming the hallways to “fight” Lesnar in the interview room got him over with the casual audience and more importantly, Lesnar himself.

“Joe coming up to the [main] roster was just the opportunity and the thing that needed to happen to him in order to re-light that fire in him. It took him awhile. We talk about it all of the time, he’s a great guy, I love working with him. When the timing came for the opportunity on the main roster it was like, while NXT had lit that fire in him, the opportunity on the main roster was like pouring gas on him.”

 Paul “Triple H” Levesque

 Here’s a guy in Joe who, in storyline, isn’t scared of Brock. He can step into the ring and credibly stand across the ring from Lesnar, which garnered a big reaction from hardcore fans who were aware of Joe’s past. This keyed the casual audience to pay attention because something important was about to happen.

When Lesnar pinned Joe clean with one F5, it was a bit concerning. The match and especially the finish felt rushed, but when the opening beats of Joe’s music hit the next night on Raw, the halo effect from being in a competitive match with Brock Lesnar immediately appeared.

The “Joe, Joe, Joe” chants from the crowd immediately caught on and you can tell Joe noticed the decibel level of the crowd because he snaps his head and raises his eyebrows before starting his promo:

According to Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer, the main event for SummerSlam was at one point going to be Lesnar (C) vs. Strowman, but then it was changed to Reigns vs. Lesnar (C), which was originally scheduled to be the main event of WrestleMania 34, but then the main event was changed into a Fatal-Four Way between Lesnar, Reigns, Joe and Strowman.

Now at one point, it was clear that the Raw women’s championship was building towards a Fatal-Four Way, but then it was changed to Alexa Bliss vs. Bayley (before Bayley suffered a shoulder injury). Now this is speculation on my behalf as an educated viewer, but there has to be a correlation between the match styles changing for the women and men.

There are already quite a few multi-person matches booked for SummerSlam, so it makes sense to switch one in order to switch another, but why did this change happen?

Was it that Lesnar expressed his desire to fight Jon Jones and Vince McMahon decided to change the next nine months of main event storyline plans and then that eventually led him down a path where he just mixed the four guys in the two most important feuds on his main show?

Or is it that Samoa Joe took the ball when it was given to him and made the best out of a great opportunity to propel himself in the eyes of the fans and the decision makers backstage?

(Side note: Braun Strowman has also “taken the ball” and succeeded, but his situation is a bit different than Joe’s. Strowman is Vince’s long-term pet project.)

It’s likely a combination of both, but there are people behind the scenes trying to help Samoa Joe’s stock. SI’s Justin Barrasso reported that Heyman has literally advocated for Joe to win the Universal title at SummerSlam.

But this is Vince McMahon we’re talking about here, so you just never know.

Whatever the case, Joe is in a position to win one of WWE’s world championships and cement himself as a legitimate main event player because as Triple H told me:

“He’s been Samoa Joe.”

Simple enough.

Twitter: @ScottDargis