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WWE Weekly Recap: Samoa Joe is here to stay

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The night of the Royal Rumble was not one of my finer moments since I’ve been given the opportunity to write in this space. In the days following the Rumble, I couldn’t help but think that I was just another fan shouting about what the company had gotten wrong that night.

Specifically, the handling of Samoa Joe.

I yelled from my soapbox that night because I thought it was the perfect opportunity to introduce Joe, but in hindsight I realize that it would not have been nearly as good as the way he debuted the next night on Raw.

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If he entered the Rumble match at say number 17, it would have broken up the string of mid-carders and given Joe a brief moment of shine, but he would have felt like just another jabroni when Brock Lesnar, Undertaker and Goldberg made their way down to the ring.

Instead, Joe was inserted as a main event player right away by “attacking” Seth Rollins and aligning himself with HHH as Hunter’s personal hitman. Even though it’s terrible that Rollins legitimately tore his MCL during their scrap, the reality of Rollins’ injury helped the aura of Joe’s character.

The portion of the crowd who is unfamiliar with Joe’s work around the world and in NXT had a reason to hate him when his music hit during the opening segment on Monday night. Rather than being positioned in the midcard with 99 percent of the roster, he has been placed in the upper echelon of performers.

Not only did he cut a superb promo in the opening 15 minutes, which was incredibly impressive considering the microphone isn’t the strongest weapon in his arsenal, he was given the main event slot against the guy Vince is continuing to push as the company’s next John Cena.

Going into his match on Monday against Roman Reigns, I was worried that Joe would get placed in a 50/50 match against him, which is not how someone gets over with the crowd during their first appearance in the ring.

Thankfully, Joe “beat down” Reigns before the bell rang and then controlled a good chunk of the match before Reigns made his inevitable comeback.

If you want to complain about the finish (Braun Strowman stormed down to the ring when Reigns was in position to vanquish Joe), I’m not going to stop you, but no one should be upset that Joe was given a pinfall victory over Reigns in his first match on the main roster.

It’s clear that Joe is viewed as an asset during the company’s biggest time of the year, which is key for him after WrestleMania. When the part-timers go away and the full-timers are called on to handle the bulk of the shows week in and week out, Joe will be one of the featured attractions on Raw.

Who knows what he’s going to do at Fast Lane now that Rollins is out until WrestleMania and his spot at Super WrestleMania Sunshine appears to be just as murky now that we can piece together a good chunk of the card (HI FINN BALOR), but whatever spot he’s given, the crowd will react appropriately because the company is telling us that we should take him seriously.

Especially when he’s wearing a suit.

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The prettiest GIF you’ll see all day

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Time to “Go Home”

– So is Baron Corbin beginning to make a face turn? Last week he was positioned on commentary with The Miz, but I didn’t think anything of it because Miz has such a big personality when he has a microphone that anyone who opposes him in that space is going to come off as a face.

But during the AJ Styles-Dean Ambrose match last week in which Miz and Corbin were on commentary, Baron kept putting over both guys during the match. Then, this week on SmackDown he interrupted Miz during the opening segment and the crowd cheered for him because he was once again positioned in a spot where they were going to pop.

Ambrose and Styles eventually made their way down and had a very, very good fatal four way match, but let’s rewind for a second. Ambrose could have been positioned in the spot to interrupt the Miz because Dean is a face. Styles would have been next and then Corbin could have been last and declared that he didn’t care who was in the Elimination Chamber because he’s going to run through everyone.

Whatever the case, I’m really digging how they’re pushing Corbin now. The creative team on SmackDown has done a great job with him and Alexa Bliss; two people that never reached their full potential in NXT and are now beginning to thrive on the main roster.

– Was anyone else shocked at how Styles took the End of Days? I thought it would look so much better.

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– Kevin Owens, Chris Jericho and Bill Goldberg had quite the entertaining segment on Monday. It began with Y2J putting Tom Brady on the list for people calling him the G.O.A.T and it ended with Jericho putting Owens in a title match against Goldberg at Fast Lane.

It is a bit of a bummer that Goldberg is going to walk into WrestleMania with the Universal title considering how well the “best friends” angle between Owens and Jericho has gone, but the idea of Goldberg facing Brock Lesnar for the red strap at Mania will appeal to the casual viewer who resurfaces for the company’s biggest show of the year.

– At first I was not a fan of the Braun Strowman’s push because it felt like Vince was once again forcing a big dude on the crowd when he wasn’t ready to take the ball, but now I’m sad that he’s going to get fed to the Roman Empire at Fast Lane.

Strowman has gotten so much better in the ring. Sure, he’s still reckless at times (he dropped Roman right on his head during the powerslam through the barricade spot this past Monday, the link below has the spot queued up), but think about how green he was last July. Kudos to him for improving this much in seven months.

– While the Natalya-Nikki Bella segment started off a bit awkward, it ended with a bang. I was pleasantly surprised that the idea of John Cena leaving Nikki for Natty was suggested by Natalya.

– There were quite a few good to great matches this week: Joe vs. Reigns, Zayn vs. Jericho, Styles vs. Ambrose vs. Corbin vs. Miz, the 12-man tag team match on SD, Cena vs. Orton, but none were better than the Fatal Five Way elimination match on 205 Live between TJ Perkins, Cedric Alexander, Mustafa Ali, Noam Dar, and Jack Gallagher.

– For the first time since the cruiserweights were reintroduced on the main roster, this is a match worth seeking out. It was physical and high-flying.

– The Ascension got a win?!?!

– Quit teasing us Mauro by name dropping Kurt Angle during an American Alpha match.

– Also, this was a rough week for Mauro. He called the Elimination Chamber the “Hell in a Cell” twice and had quite a few slip-ups on commentary. No one is going to be robotically perfect in this role, but Mauro can make so many mistakes at times that it wouldn’t surprise me if making mistake becomes his gimmick. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen.

– So Lesnar and Paul Heyman showed up after Raw for a dark match segment with Big Show. Got it.

– I thought the duel contract signing segment on SmackDown was very effective. Mickie James, Becky Lynch and Alexa did an excellent job with their promos, especially Lynch. Naomi still has some work to do on that end, but the head kick she delivered to Alexa over the table looked really good.

– The finishing sequence to Akira Tozawa’s debut on Raw was pretty slick. The snap German suplex got a nice reaction.

– So Sasha is definitely costing Bayley the title next Monday, right? Does that mean we’re going to get Nia Jax vs. Charlotte at Fast Lane?

– Don’t get on Cody Rhodes’ bad side:

Twitter: @ScottDargis

Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque opens up about WarGames and returning to the ring at Survivor Series

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This weekend is going to be a busy one for Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque.

On Saturday night he will be behind the scenes producing a match that hasn’t been seen in 19 years at NXT TakeOver: WarGames, which will stream live around the world on WWE Network at 8 p.m. ET.

And then on Sunday he’ll make his televised return at Survivor Series as a member of Team Raw in the five-on-five elimination match against Team SmackDown. (You can stream his return live around the world on the WWE Network starting at 7 p.m. ET.)

I had the chance to chat with HHH about how the return of WarGames came about, what makes the Undisputed Era special, and how long it took him to get comfortable in the ring again during his recent stretch of matches overseas.

Me: There have been rumors of a ‘WarGames’ match under the WWE umbrella for a long time now and after almost two decades we’re now just three days away from witnessing one. Walk me through the process of how we got here.

HHH: “For me ‘WarGames’ has always been a very viable concept. It wasn’t just a name, it was a branding of a match that was meaningful in WCW. It’s something I’ve always had interest in. I’ve always liked the concept as a fan.

As we move forward with NXT, it’s really started to become its own brand. We’ve had opportunities to do different things, whether that is ladder matches, or cage matches. But there was an opportunity that came along, given the weekend with Survivor Series and given the position [NXT] is in to brand something out and create something that NXT could own.

It seemed like the perfect time to bring it out, so I dusted it off. Throughout the years, I was aware of Vince’s feelings about it. There were some things about that match that he liked and there were some things about the concept that he didn’t necessarily think worked, especially in today’s world.

So I brought it back up to him and we walked through the process and I said here’s the way I think we can make this match work for us and he liked it, agreed with it, thought it worked great for NXT and was real happy to do it. So here we are.

When you do this, the goal is not to go backwards. My goal isn’t to make people go, ‘oh is this as good as it was back then?’ I want to put a slightly different spin on it, so that it begins again and takes a life of its own because it can’t be what it was.

I grew up watching it in the Dusty [Rhodes], [Ric] Flair, Four Horseman vs. the world sort of iteration of it and this cannot be that. It has to be today’s version of it. Hopefully it’ll be something that our fan base really enjoys.

I think the NXT fans are going to love it. I know the talent is very excited about it. When we announced the match and word began to spread on the Internet, a bunch of main roster talent came to me and said, ‘oh my God, you’re doing WarGames? Anyway I can do something in that?’

For me, it’s also a cool nod to Dream [‘The American Dream’ Dusty Rhodes]. It’s cool that his vision is able to continue.”

How long did it take you nail down the format of this iteration of ‘WarGames’?

“In terms of creative or …”

More the structure. It’s one of the more complicated matches in the industry in terms of laying it out, so how did you get to a point where you felt comfortable with how the match will work?

“There is some complexity to it, even though there are some people saying, ‘But it’s three teams, it isn’t the same as it originally was.’ The thing is we don’t have the Four Horseman, with a manger, to make a five-man team. It convoluted the concept to me if you hogedpodge things together.

When the stories logically go to the next place and they just kind of connect together, that’s when they’re the best and I feel like that’s how this happened. Once we knew we were going to do it, it organically started to come together. You have Authors of Pain, you have Sanity, you have the Undisputed Era. There’s a three-way thing that is combustible and needs to be solved inside a double cage … what other way would you solve it? (Laughs)

So you organically get there and then there were some logistical ways to figure out the issues that were created by the concept. For example, someone could say, ‘well, why doesn’t the rest of the team just run out and try to get into the cage?’ Well they can’t because they’re in this other cage.

Hopefully this becomes a yearly event. Is this exact iteration of what we’ll see in the future? I don’t know. I hope so, but if there’s something in this that doesn’t work, then we’ll tweak it a little and try to perfect it.

Everything goes through its little changes in the beginning and then where it ends up you just kind of naturally end up and you forget about those little changes that happen over time. When you go back and look at them 10 years later you might go, ‘oh my God, I forgot that they started it that way.’

I’m really excited. I know the NXT locker room is really excited about doing this. There’s something really cool about being a part of something that’s historic, but making it new and making it the future. I think it’s a good opportunity. I think everyone is feeling the weight of that.

The TakeOver events are always kind of special for the NXT talent because they’re not often and they really encompass the storylines together, but this one seems to have more weight than normal, even for the people who aren’t in the ‘WarGames’ match itself.”

And that’s going to make them want to step up their game.

“Absolutely. Fan excitement combined with their excitement all leads to making magic. There’s been a lot of greatness surrounding this match in the past and they want to make sure that they not only live up to that, but also make it their own.”

What have been some of the production challenges that you’ve faced with the unique setup of a show with a ‘WarGames’ match on it due to the presence of the second ring?

“There’s a difficulty to everything because it doesn’t line up the same way. You set up your lighting rig, you set up your ring and it’s all based on centers and everything is structured a certain way and now you add in a second ring to that and you add in a cage that is going to hang and lower around two rings.

We had to build a whole new cage setup. We have to light differently. We had to arrange our ticketing differently. All of it is slightly different that require some logistic challenges.

The great thing about WWE and our team … I’ll go out on a limb here and say … that we have the best live event team anywhere. They see something like this as a challenge and they just go for it.”

The Undisputed Era has been the focal point of NXT since the ‘TakeOver: Brooklyn III’ show. What gave you the confidence in Adam Cole, Bobby Fish, and Kyle O’Reilly to ‘give them the ball and see where it goes?’

“I think they’re talented guys. You’re never 100 percent sure with anybody who walks in the door, but there are certain talent that you see come in who have an innate ability right away.

Are there things we have to work on with them? Absolutely, they’re learning every day.

The one thing I liked about those guys and why I was confident in ‘giving them the ball right off of the bat’ is because when we spoke and talked about things, they absorbed it. They’re sponges. They’re students of this. They want to learn.

They’re not walking in the door going, ‘I know, I know how to do this.’ They’re walking in the door going ‘Wow, I have this opportunity to work with Shawn Michaels at the Performance Center, or with Terry Taylor, or this person, or that person.’ They can learn TV production from all of these different people. They are wide open to it.

To me, that’s what makes you successful. It’s the guys that walk in going ‘ah, I got this’ that make it difficult. When you have someone who just wants to be a student, wants to learn and wants to, no matter how good they are, just take their ability to a whole other level.

In this business, you constantly have to be willing to morph, grow, and think differently because it’s the nature of the beast. There are guys who have that hunger and desire to constantly evolve and you can see it from the first time you speak to them.”

Shifting gears a bit; you’re back in the ring and have worked quite a bit over the last month. It made me think about the adjustment period athletes, who have been away from their sport for a while, deal with when the bright lights are shining on them again.

How was your adjustment period while working on the overseas tour? Did it hit you as you walked through the curtain after hearing the first few beats of your music, or was it after the bell rang and all of the eyes were on you again?

“When I went to Santiago, Chile to do the first show, I hadn’t stepped in the ring to do anything since WrestleMania. That’s a long time. You think that you remember how to do everything and in your mind, you’re the same as you were the last time you were there.

Just taking that first bump in ring is jarring. It’s like riding a bike, you don’t really forget how to do it and if anything in your mind you go, ‘oh yeah, I still remember how to do this’ and then you get back into your groove. That’s not to say there isn’t rust, but the positive thing for me as opposed to some of the years when I haven’t done this for six, eight, 10 months and is that my first match back wasn’t at WrestleMania in front of the biggest audience that we’re going to have. That’s a whole different world of pressure.

I’m not saying Santiago, Chile isn’t important, but it wasn’t a televised event. There’s a lot less pressure, so you can relax a bit and be yourself a little bit more. If the opportunity arises you can twerk, you can do whatever.”

Or you can work with The Shield and give the fans a once in a lifetime experience.

“Yeah … and I can tell you the one thing that has happened to me this time is that I’m having a different level of fun.

Sometimes when you’re in the throes of getting ready for WrestleMania, it’s fun, but it’s so much pressure. You’ve got the world leaning on you and you’re leaning on yourself. You’re putting the pressure of, ‘man, I hope I can still do this.’

People forget at the end of the day that we’re just people. We’re human beings. No matter what persona you put on, when you go to that ring, you have doubts and fears just like everyone else. Anyone who says they don’t have those things is lying to themselves.

When you can go do it in this environment, it makes you go like, ‘yeah man, this is the coolest gig in the world.’ Yeah, you get beat up and it sucks to knock the rust off, but it’s a lot of fun.”

The five-on-five Raw vs. SmackDown match at Survivor Series has a throwback feel in the sense that there are a lot of fantasy matchups that can be teased. 

What does it feel like knowing you’re going to step in the ring again with Shane McMahon, Kurt Angle and John Cena, and alao have the opportunity to work with Bobby Roode and Shinsuke Nakamura for the first time?

“There’s this crazy part of me that goes through the past few years and thinks about stepping into the ring with Roman Reigns at WrestleMania, someone who came through the [development] system when I was beginning to take it over. And then I think about Seth [Rollins] and now doing this at Survivor Series.

I haven’t been in the ring with Kurt Angle in a long time. Same goes for Shane and even Cena.

I think about the phone conversations with [Finn] Balor about coming in. It’s a crazy thing to think about and it’s something I’m very excited about. You go back to the whole having fun part of the job and this is just cool.

Whenever I’m looking at talent, even when I’m developing NXT guys, I can’t help but look at it from a performer’s point of view. I did an interview a few years ago when Nakamura was first coming in and they asked me if there were guys I would like to wrestle and I was like yeah, I’d like to wrestle him. Am I planning to do it? No, but it would be awesome if I could just fantasy book it in my head. Now I’m going to be able to actually get in the ring with him.

I’m going to get to step into the ring with Bobby [Roode], which I think for a lot of fans there could be some cool moments there, but I think there are also some cool moments for us.

I have a bond with any of the guys and girls who came through our system and to be able to step into what we actually do with them is like a whole other level of cool.”

So, I would say one of the more anticipated matches in a long time is taking place this Sunday when AJ Styles and Brock Lesnar square off. 

The build for the match has taken me back to the root of my fandom as I feel like a little kid again who is excited to see these two meet for the first time. I was wondering if there was a match, and it could be this one, that gets you excited to just sit back and watch it as a fan and not as the vice president of WWE.

“Sometimes people ask me about when we’re booking and writing NXT and in a lot of ways I just book stuff that I want to see [as a fan]. 

Like I go, ‘man that match really intrigues me, how am I going to get there and how am I going to make it even more interesting. Like how cool would that be. Ooh those two will really go at it and stylistically they’ll tear it up.’ This is one of those matches to me.

Brock Lesnar is a once in a lifetime athlete and it’s hard to not say the same about AJ Styles in some ways. With AJ, you go back five years ago and some people never thought he would even be here.

When you ask me about going back to being a fan, I think about a lot of this card that way. I’m excited to watch Cesaro and Sheamus vs. The Usos. I know it’s not the first time ever, but man they always awe me with something new and different.

You go back to the WarGames show, I’m looking forward to Drew McIntyre vs. Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas for the NXT championship. I can’t wait to see that match! I know the level both guys are going to take it to.

I look at the Kairi Sane vs. Peyton Royce vs. Ember Moon vs. Nikki Cross four-way match for the NXT women’s title and even though I’m writing it, as a fan I’m like ‘I can’t call that one.’

In some ways you get into that fantasy booking thing in your head and you just put it on paper and try to make it the best you can make it. To me, it all comes from being a fan.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis

WWE Will Celebrate Raw’s 25th Anniversary on January 22nd

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Monday Night Raw is turning 25 next year and on January 22nd, WWE is going to have one hell (yeah!) of a celebration.

Raw will air live on the USA Network from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and also from the Manhattan Center, the venue where Raw debuted way back on January 11th, 1993.

Superstars from Raw and SmackDown will appear at both sites, with Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash and other WWE legends scheduled to appear at the Manhattan Center. It should be noted here that the Undertaker and HBK appeared on the very first episode of Raw.

“We look forward to celebrating this unmatched milestone with our fans around the world, but 25 years only marks the beginning of WWE surprising, delighting and entertaining generations to come,” said WWE Chairman & CEO Vince McMahon.

Raw is the longest-running, weekly episodic program in U.S. primetime TV history.

Tickets for both venues will go on sale starting this Friday through all Ticketmaster outlets.