WWE

WWE Weekly Recap: The Ballad of Braun Strowman

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Throughout last Monday’s edition of Raw, the commentary team of Michael Cole, Corey Graves, and Byron Saxton promoted Braun Strowman vs. Big Show as the main event of the show. The first time Cole mentioned it I thought to myself, this seems like an odd choice.

Who would want to watch Strowman and Show go one-on-one in the final segment?

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As I watched the surprisingly solid match late on last Monday night/Tuesday morning, it made me realize just how much Braun Strowman has progressed over the last 18 months.

It wasn’t that long ago that he was lumbering around the ring like a big toddler who was learning to walk for the first time. He’d awkwardly flail his arms around while waiting for his opponent to hit him and his offense was just a series of long rest holds.

Despite his incredible size, Strowman showed absolutely zero signs of being the athlete that he has become since the brand split.

The pacing of his matches was and still remains an issue. It’s not nearly as bad as it used to be because his offense has expanded. In his initial matches, Strowman chucked Dean Ambrose and Reigns around the ring like they were cruiserweights, but the crowd just sat on their hands bored AF.

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The live audience isn’t going to react to power spots if they’re immediately killed by constant rest holds.

Do not click off of the page if you get bored by the match I’m about to put below. Just politely scroll down and continue on your way.

Flash forward to just over a month before Super WrestleMania Sunshine and the “monster among men” has blossomed into a legitimate main event talent.

His move set has greatly expanded, which has given him the ability to ditch some of the rest holds that once slowed the pace of his matches. His selling is still not great by any means, but it’s gotten worlds better since the match I posted above that you totally didn’t finish watching.

His promo skills are perfectly acceptable (I thought he did a good job of running down Foley this past Monday) and something about him screaming at full blast while putting his arms into the air after destroying someone just doesn’t seem to get old.

He runs at full speed into the barricade and ring posts too much for my liking, but you know a talent has something when you have someone who is six-feet, eight inches tall and weighs 378 pounds and can do this:

At Fast Lane, Strowman is scheduled to face John Cena 2.0 Reigns in the second highest match on the card. It’s a chance for Braun to prove that he’s ready for the even bigger push that may come after WrestleMania.

It’s also a chance for Vince to actually make a new main event player, which we all know WWE needs right now considering how thin the roster is being spread across both brands.

There is a genuine fear by many fans that Reigns will “overcome the odds” and pin Strowman clean in the middle of the ring in order to heat him up for his rumored WrestleMania match against the Undertaker.

Throughout this current feud, Strowman has gotten the best of Reigns at every turn, which if you follow the traditional WWE formula means that Roman will most likely win at the PPV.

If Braun loses to Roman clean in the middle, it will immediately put him on a level underneath the full-time main event talent, which would be a shame considering how well Strowman’scharacter has been booked since the draft.

While SmackDown has been developing Bray Wyatt, Baron Corbin, Dolph Ziggler, the entire women’s division, Luke Harper, AJ Styles, American Alpha, Heath Slater and Rhyno, the Fashion Police and a totally new version of the Usos, Raw has struggled to develop new male stars.

Kevin Owens slid into Finn Balor’s spot as the Undisputed Champion and that’s about it. Seth Rollins’ face turn hasn’t worked. Big Cass and Enzo are as popular now as they were when they debuted. Roman is still getting a chorus of boos on a weekly basis. Rusev is being wasted. Insert Sami Zayn geek joke here.

Even if he is playing a new character, Chris Jericho is an established star under the WWE umbrella, so he doesn’t apply here. It’s the same reason that I left The Miz out of the SmackDown paragraph.

BO DALLAS HAD JOBBER MATCHES

The New Day is talking about making ice cream machines. Gallows and Anderson are wearing bogus Bullet Club knockoff shirts because that’s exactly what they are right now. The Shining Stars are being wasted. You could possibly talk me into Cesaro and Sheamus, but you know that they would both be in such a better spot if they were on SmackDown.

Besides Owens, Strowman has been the only male talent on Raw who has been given a designed push to get over. It’s been said before, but Vince does know how to book a big guy and Strowman is an athletic giant. There’s a reason McMahon requested that he work on his skills in developmental without appearing on NXT.

Vince’s vision is now coming to life, but he’s about to hit a potential barricade on the road to WrestleMania.

Reigns is already an established star. He may not receive the type of crowd reaction that Vince and Co. would like (MEEKMAHAN is still determined to push him as his next big babyface), but this point cannot be disputed: Reigns is one of the biggest names on the current roster.

The Roman Empire (ew) could be beaten clean in the middle of the ring by Strowman and wouldn’t lose a bit of momentum heading into his match against the “Deadman,” but with how defiant Reigns has been in storyline about getting this match, it doesn’t seem like he’s going to be eating a pinfall on Sunday.

This is an opportunity to go against the grain and give Strowman a star-making win, but the timing just isn’t right.

The best case scenario for Braun is a double count-out after a huge spot on the outside that “takes out” both men. It gets both guys out of the match without a legitimate finish.

Will Vince pull the trigger?

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Photo of the week (Thanks to Redditor KrispinDallas2)

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That’s a teenage Kevin Owens wearing a Y2J shirt.

Time to “Go Home”

Raw was so bad this past week, so my apologies for all of the negativity that’s about to follow:

– Even though Nia Jax continued to look terrible in the ring, the blown spot between her, Bayley, and Sasha was not Jax’s fault. Sasha forgot that Bayley tagged her into the ring and then proceeded to botch a spot where she and Bayley were supposed to hit the ropes at the same time.

– Dana Brooke had one job and totally blew it. No wonder Charlotte didn’t want to team with her.

– The Oscar joke that the New Day attempted was just embarrassingly bad.

– One day I’ll care about the cruiserweight division, but at this rate, I’m not sure that day will ever come.

– Big Cass and Luke Gallows is a match I never want to see again.

– Enzo is turning heel … right?

– The Seth Rollins segment before HHH came out was worse than the New Day’s Oscar joke. I lost count at how many times Rollins called Graves “dude” and this is coming from someone who says dude multiple times on a daily basis.

– Here’s something I enjoyed from Raw: Kevin Owens and Bill Goldberg’s opening segment. It was a nice, quick 10-minute promo to open the show, but Goldberg posing to Owens’ music at the end of the segment was just awkward.

– Samoa Joe vs. Cesaro was WAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY too short. After the multitude of short wrestling segments on Monday, I thought for sure those guys were going to go for at least 15 minutes and put on a clinic.

OK, now onto the good stuff:

– AJ Styles vs. Luke Harper was very good. Harper once again got the chance to shine, even though he got pinned twice by Styles.

– I’m expecting Shane McMahon to “find” a different angle from the battle royal that shows Styles’ feet hitting the ground before Harper’s, which will springboard us into a Shane vs. AJ feud …

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– Cena and The Miz talked for 20 minutes and I didn’t want them to stop. Both cut excellent promos and I was legitimately shocked when Cena told Miz that he “stole Chris Jericho’s character” after debuting with the company 10 years ago.

– Even Maryse did a good job!

– I underestimated how much I like seeing Cena and Nikki Bella on screen together.

– I don’t understand why some people think Cena seems checked out heading into this Mania program against the Miz. He was “on” during this past week’s SmackDown and has been channeling the word life version of his character for weeks now.

– Becky Lynch and Mickie James worked a very, very good two-out-of-three falls match, but with Lynch picking up the victory and Natalya challenging Bliss backstage after the match, I have no idea who is going to wrestle for the SmackDown women’s title at WrestleMania.

– I was not a fan of Randy Orton’s closing promo. I loved how it was shot, but it felt like Orton was talking forever and most of the dialogue made me hover over the fast-forward button for a solid five minutes.

– Is Wyatt or Orton the babyface heading into their Mania program? It was really easy to sympathize with Wyatt as Orton burned down his compound.

The 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