WWE

WrestleMania 33 Roundtable Preview

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Instead of me rambling on for 2,000 words about WWE’s biggest show of the year, I thought it would be a good idea to bring a few other wrestling fans from NBC Sports along for the ride:

Jeff Graubart who will be attending WrestleMania 33 and “Easy” Ed Williams who is a big reason why I’m able to have this space to share my thoughts about the world of WWE.

So buckle up and get ready for the ultimate thrill ride before the “Ultimate Thrill Ride.”

Which match are you looking forward to the most?

Darg: Kevin Owens vs. Chris Jericho. This is as close as we’re going to get to an old school, main event level build. Both guys are coming in hot, especially Jericho who is a WHITE HOT (sorry for the gimmick infringement Jeff) babyface. Usually, long builds + over acts X (in-ring veterans who can go) = Four star match, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Jeff: It’s a toss-up for me between Rollins vs. HHH & Y2J vs. KO. Rollins and HHH has been a long time coming and you know they’re going to put on a show. The doubt factor with Rollins’ injury has worked for me and I’m just glad he’s getting an opportunity to take down the “King of Kings” on the biggest stage of them all.

Ed: On paper, the match I should be looking forward to most is Austin Aries challenging for Neville’s Cruiserweight Championship. Especially with the launch of the latest Game of Thrones trailer, I should be on the edge of my seat waiting to see if A Double can overthrow the King of the Cruiserweights, but the fact that it’s on the pre-show takes some of the luster off this potential gem. Yes, the fact that it’s on the pre-show means it may get more time than it would on the main card, but there’s also a good chance they’ll be fighting in front of just hundreds of people. One of the big negatives of 205 Live has been the lack of crowd reaction as people don’t want to stick around after SmackDown Live. Now they’ll face the same problem, except this time they’re going on too early. If anyone can overcome it, though, it’s these two.

On the flip side, especially now that it’s being billed as a normal wrestling match, most people think A.J. Styles vs. Shane McMahon is a total waste of the Phenomenal One’s talents. Of course I’d much prefer to see him face Samoa Joe, Finn Balor or even Luke Harper, but any time a McMahon is in a match, the company sees it as a high-profile attraction. This match had a late start, but the build over the last few weeks has been pretty good. A.J.’s initial beat-down of Shane was great, and the Boy Wonder’s (although at his age, maybe it’s time to retire that nickname) elbow through the table two weeks ago was vintage. At the risk of being put on the List of Jericho, many consider Styles to be the best in the world at what he does, and this is will be his biggest test of that to date. If he can carry Shane-O-Mac to a great match, then his reputation is cemented forever. And something tells me, he’s saying, “Challenge accepted!”

And I think it’s also worth noting that the John Cena & Nikki Bella vs. The Miz & Maryse match has had the best build of the entire card. Everyone was up in arms when the match was announced, since many were clamoring for a Samoa Joe vs. Cena match, but the build for this intergender tag team match has been perfect. It’s had the right balance of humor and intensity. The Total Bellas spoof was hilarious. Cena eviscerating The Miz on SmackDown this week was fantastic, and given The Miz’s character, I wasn’t that upset he just stood there and took it. But with all that being said, I still don’t care about the match at all. The build has made for some great TV, but I don’t think the match will.

What will be the Match of the Night?

Darg: If we’re talking pure in-ring action, it’s gotta be Austin Aries vs. Neville for the cruiserweight championship. Being on the pre-show might end up working out in the end because they should get more time than they would on the main card, but if Camping World Stadium isn’t close to full, the lack of crowd reaction could really hurt the match.

My pick from the main card is HHH vs. Seth Rollins. The non-sanctioned gimmick will really work in their favor. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw blood here.

Ed: As long as it gets enough time, I’m going to go with Kevin Owens challenging for Chris Jericho’s United States Championship. This match has had the best long-term build by far, but it really feels like it’s been overshadowed over the last three weeks or so and has lost some steam. Otherwise this probably would be the match I was most looking forward to. These guys have an undeniable chemistry with each other, and they’re two of the best workers in the company.

It’s amazing what Jericho is able to do in the ring at his age, and his ability to reinvent himself is second-to-none. This run is definitely the best he’s had in years, and you could even argue it’s his best ever (and that’s saying a lot). When a clipboard and the word “it” is over more than the majority of the RAW roster, that’s impressive (or is it…).

Owens has played his role to perfection as well. While Balor was reportedly slated to have a long run at the top before his injury, Owens stepped up in a big way. It was just the boost he needed, too, as he was starting to get a little stagnant. While it’s annoying he relied on interference and heel shenanigans 99 percent of the time, that’s just the nature of the beast nowadays if you’re a heel. These two should have the perfect blend of great in-ring work, humor and psychology to tell one of the better stories on the card.

With Jericho scheduled to go back on the road with his band Fozzy soon, one would think Owens will walk away with the gold. Owens will definitely end up with the belt, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see Y2J get the win just to lose it the next night, perhaps, on the RAW after Mania.  

Jeff: I really think that KO and Jericho are going to bring the house down. We all know that KO can put on a solid match with anyone and Jericho is the GOAT, seems like a solid formula. If this is the last match of Jericho’s run, you better bet your ass that I’m gonna drink it in, mannnnnnnnnnn.

Speaking of, who or what will make you mark out maaaaaaaaaan?

Jeff: AJ STYLES – this guy is going to make Shane McMahon actually look like a legitimate wrestler. With no crazy rules or a cage to jump off of, this match is going to be AJ guiding Shane through the best match of his career, just watch.

Ed: If the Ultimate Thrill Ride is brought to a screeching halt by the Broken Matt Hardy, Brother Nero and any other members of the Broken Universe, it will be a WrestleMania moment for sure. There have been plenty of teases that it could happen as WWE and the Broken one himself have been going back and forth on Twitter, but it’s by no means a lock and could easily be saved for the next night or two on RAW or SmackDown Live. They’d be a great fit on the blue brand to feud with the Usos and/or American Alpha.

Since that’s something not scheduled to be on the card, though, I’ll go with Roman Reigns officially turning heel. This is the third-straight WrestleMania the company is trying to push Roman Reigns down our throats, and it’s already rumored he’ll be main eventing next year against Brock Lesnar. He’s going to be booed out of the building Sunday against the Undertaker, and he’ll be booed almost as badly next year against Brock Lesnar if they stay on that path. So, why not just finally pull the trigger and make him a heel? He has shown flashes of a heel persona in the past, and most notably over the past couple of weeks.

The role just seems much more natural for him. He might be the only one in the company capable of getting The Rock booed which happened when the People’s Champ tried to help him celebrate his Royal Rumble win in Philadelphia a couple years ago. The irony of the situation is that The Rock went through a similar situation when he debuted with the company. It got so bad that Hollywood’s highest-paid actor was showered with, “Die Rocky die,” chants. Rather than stay down that path for three years, Rocky Maivia turned heel, and The Rock was born. History needs to repeat itself with his cousin Roman. And Sunday in Orlando is most definitely the time.

Darg: If you’ll let me #FantasyBook for a minute, what if Samoa Joe runs out to help Triple H and Finn Balor makes his shocking return, but instead of taking out Joe, he takes out Rollins and aligns himself with the group of NXT guys that is currently forming around HHH.

Will anyone make a surprise appearance?

Jeff: WrestleMania is the place where anything can happen right? If dreams really do come true, we’ll get an appearance from a very Broken Matt Hardy. Hopefully Broken Matt and Brother Nero get involved in the Raw ladder match for the tag titles.

The other big mystery is Kurt Angle. We know he’s going to be there for the Hall of Fame but is this the time and place for him to debut as the next General Manager of Raw? My gut tells me this will be saved for the Raw after WrestleMania, but a man can dream.

Darg: I’m crossing my fingers and toes that New Day’s big WrestleMania moment will be interrupted by Broken Matt Hardy and Brother Nero. Not everyone in the crowd is going to know why Matt Hardy looks like “Doc” Brown’s cousin or why Jeff Hardy looks possessed, but that’s OK because the pop will be so loud from the hardcore fans that the causals will join in.

Ed: I’d love to see the Hulkster finally make his return to the company, but I think a more likely surprise would be Finn Balor. I know the RAW side, and the company in general, is short on faces, but I think this would be the perfect opportunity for Balor to come back as a heel.

Just picture this. At the end of the Rollins-HHH match, Samoa Joe and Kevin Owens come out for a  3-on-1 beat-down of Rollins, attacking his leg even more. With Rollins’ career in jeopardy, the lights go out, Balor’s music hits, and the Demon emerges. You get the full Demon entrance, which is tailor-made for such a big stage. The crowd is going nuts, HHH, Samoa Joe and Owens look shocked. Balor helps Rollins to his feet. And then cuts his leg out from under him and joins in on the attack. After all, Rollins was the one who knocked Balor out of commission in the first place. So, Balor makes a surprise return, gets his revenge, and completes HHH’s new NXT stable. Dare to dream.

How long will Goldberg v. Lesnar last?

Darg: If we include entrances, the main event will probably last in-between 15-20 minutes, but I‘m not expecting the actual match to last more than 10. I can’t imagine we’re going to get a one-two minute encounter where Brock goes over clean. I can’t imagine Vince closing the company’s biggest show of the year with the equivalent of a flash knockout.

Ed: I talked about this one in a previous question, but I think this one will go at least 10 minutes and no more than 20. So, let’s split the difference and say 15 minutes once you factor in entrances etc.

Jeff: I give this final showdown (thank God) only about two minutes and I think the majority of it will be a staring contest. After that incredibly main event worthy stare down, expect to see a spear attempt turned quickly into a F5. Lesnar fans will then rejoice.

Which titles will change hands?

Darg: SmackDown and Raw women’s, Raw tag team, United States, Intercontinental, Universal

 Naomi received a shocking reaction from the crowd when she returned on Tuesday, so I think she’s going to get a nice hometown pop after winning the match which may or may not be on the pre-show. I think Charlotte will win the Fatal-Four Way after Sasha turns on Bayley. Owens could really use a title. Corbin does as well, even though his feud with Ambrose has been, for a lack of a better term, suspect.

Enzo and Cass winning the tag titles would be a cool moment, especially if Cass lifts Enzo up the ladder to grab the titles. Even though their act has grown a tad stale, the duo gets a nice reaction every week. If they do win, let’s hope their reign lasts longer than Zack Ryder’s did the night after he had his WrestleMania moment.

Jeff: Raw Tag, Universal, Intercontinental, U.S. Title, Cruiserweight, Smackdown Women’s

I think we’re going to see quite a few titles change hands. The Universal title change appears to be the most obvious. Goldberg clearly only signed on to have a few one minute matches and then ride off into the sunset. I think we’re going to see Enzo and Cass take home their first WWE gold. After what I would consider the best run of Chris Jericho’s career, we’ll see it come to its gracious end courtesy of Mr. Owens.

I also think Corbin, Aries & Naomi will walk out of Mania with gold around their waists.

Ed: Raw and SmackDown women’s, Intercontinental, Universal, WWE World, Raw tag, United States

 The logical outcome for the majority of championship matches would indicate a title change, but you can never think logically when it comes to WWE.

I think the Raw Women’s Championship will go back to Charlotte after Sasha turns on Bayley, bringing Charlotte one step closer to breaking her father’s (and now John Cena’s) record for title reigns over the course of just a couple years.

I think Baron Corbin beats Dean Ambrose for the IC title in the match I probably care the least about. When the build for a WrestleMania match makes you think back to the infamous Judy Bagwell on a Forklift match in the dying days of WCW, that’s not a good thing.

It seems obvious that Lesnar will beat Goldberg, and he should. I can’t see them swerving us on that one.

I think we see Enzo and Cass get their first taste of gold in the Ladder Match. Not much else to say about that one unless the Hardys are somehow involved, which I doubt. It also seems obvious that Owens defeats the soon-departing Chris Jericho. I wouldn’t be shocked to see them drag this out a little while longer, but I’ll stick with a title change prediction for the U.S title.

Bray Wyatt needs a win in the worst way in the WWE Championship match, but I have no faith that’ll happen. I think it’s an RKO out of nowhere for Randy. It looks like there should be a lot of heel victories, so this helps balance things out a bit.

The SmackDown Women’s Championship is a tough one as well. Like with Wyatt, I think Alexa Bliss overcoming five opponents (at least) would go a long way in building up her credibility, but I’ll predict Naomi winning to get the hometown pop.

So, I guess that means the only title I’m predicting not to change hands would be the Cruiserweight Championship. Moving the title to Aries seems a little too quick, and since it’s on the Kickoff Show anyways, it makes sense to hold off on a switch. So, that would make seven title changes. Maybe Bray has a shot after all.

Will this be the Undertaker’s final Wrestlemania match?

Darg: Remember two weeks ago when the “Deadman” chokeslammed Braun Strowman? He made an odd face after he slammed Ol’ Brauny to the mat. At the time it just looked goofy, but after I watched it again I thought …hmm… that looks like the face of pain.

Let’s face it, he’s 52 years old. His body is beat up. He’s not going to embarrass himself because he’s a professional, but I’m not expecting his match with Roman Reigns to be memorable, outside of the reaction from the crowd after Reigns goes over clean.

Ed: I’ll never predict that any match will be Undertaker’s last match. He’s the “Deadman” after all. Based on how he’s moved around in the ring in his limited appearances the last few months, I think it might be a good idea for him to hang it up. And I think Taker may go into this match thinking it will be his last (just like he did last year), too.

But even if that’s what he’s thinking now, he could change his mind as WrestleMania season starts to heat up again next year.

Jeff: Yup, this is it and the man to do it will be Roman Freakin’ Reigns. We all know that Roman “can do anything” and burying the career of a legend like the Undertaker seems only logical. The only thing we can hope for is that a long awaited heel turn comes with it.

Will the Wrestlemania 33 set be the greatest ever?

Jeff: It has to be – I mean, they are building a freaking roller coaster. The sets are so lackluster these days that WWE should be splurging on the show of shows. Supposedly it’s the largest and most expensive set built to date so I’m really looking forward to seeing the final product in person.

Darg: From what I’ve seen so far on the Internetz, the set is very impressive, but it’s ripe for Universal Studio ripoff jokes on social media come Sunday. I don’t know if it’ll be better than WrestleMania 24, 26 and 30.

Ed: There’s a roller coaster. So, uh, yeah. Best. Set. Ever.

Will anyone besides Braun Strowman win the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal?

Darg: Have you seen the jabronis from SmackDown in this match? With Samoa Joe out of the equation, Strowman could really use a strong showing here and really I don’t see how anyone else will win, unless Sami Zayn finally gets his revenge on Strowman.

Ed: No. In fact, it should be booked so that Strowman eliminates every other competitor by himself. And after he wins, he grabs his ridiculous trophy and smashes it to pieces, screaming that he wants more competition.

Jeff: Who cares? But if I did care, my answer would be simple…ANYONE BUT THE BIG SHOW. Braun Strowman really deserved a high profile match at Mania and I really hope they use this battle royal to have him absolutely destroy two rosters worth of talent. I wouldn’t mind Sami Zayn sneaking in for the win either. It’s to give one of the hardest working guys on the roster a WrestleMania moment.

Will WrestleMania be 33 be too long?

Darg: After last year’s monstrosity (close to seven hours if you watched from the beginning of the pre-show through the end of Roman Reigns vs. Triple H), I would have to imagine this one will finish before or just after 11 p.m.

But then again, there are 13 matches, with a New Day segment and an obligatory performance from Pitbull, so I may end up melting into my couch by the final hour.

Future live look-in at my living room around 10 o’clock:

Jeff: I’m leaning yes. There are SO many matches but this is a direct result of the brand split. Definitely a few matches I have no interest in but I don’t think the length of the show is going to affect the impact of some of these high profile bouts.

Ed: I’ve been a fan since I was three years old. I watch RAW and SmackDown Live (and usually 205 Live and Talking Smack) every week. I read the “Dirt Sheets” and listen to wrestling podcasts. And I even worked there for a couple years. But yes, seven hours (minimum) is too long for this show given the matches on the card. With the amount of talent on this roster, you could have easily set up a card where seven hours would probably fly by (ok, maybe not fly by, but you get my point. If you had Cena vs. Samoa Joe, Styles vs. Nakamura, Reigns vs. Balor, Undertaker vs. Strowman and even kept Orton vs. Wyatt, Rollins vs. HHH, Owens vs. Jericho and RAW women’s match, then you have yourself a card worth setting aside 7 hours for. That being said, I’ll still be watching all seven hours. I may need several adult beverages to get me to the end, but I’ll still stick it out.

What match will make you say, “wow, that was much better than I thought it would be.”

Darg: AJ Styles vs. Shane McMahon. When Styles “told” Shane that he wasn’t going to be able to climb anything or use any weapons and had to face the fact that he was going to step into the ring for a “pure” wrestling match, I laughed out loud because the idea of Shane O’Mac wrestling AJ in a gimmick-less match seems preposterous.

This is AJ Styles we’re talking about though, so anything is possible. I don’t know how he’ll do it, but Styles will pull an entertaining performance out of Shane. He’ll figure out a way to make Shane’s ridiculous offense look acceptable and will tell a story with the in-ring time he’s given.

Jeff: I can’t believe I’m saying this but Miz & Maryse v. Cena & Nikki at least has me interested. The Miz and Cena have been KILLING IT with their promos on Smackdown and I can only hope that it translates to in-ring action, although I’d say that’s doubtful. I think there will be a few entertaining spots, but for a concept that I originally LOATHED, I’m at least a little intrigued.

Ed: I’m hoping it will be the SmackDown women’s match, but I don’t think it will be. I think there’ll be too many moving pieces in this one, and unfortunately, it has cluster____ written all over it. I think Alexa Bliss is a phenomenal heel. Her delivery on the mic is different than anyone else. She has some of the best heel facials of anyone in the company, and she doesn’t have to yell to get her point across. She still has a long way to go in the ring, but the last couple of weeks aside, she has shown steady improvement. Becky Lynch, Mickie James and Natalya are proven commodities in the ring and have to be the glue to hold this one together. Naomi looked good during her return Tuesday night, but will she be just as good when Orlando will be unable to see her glow since it’s during the Kickoff show? Carmella just isn’t on this level yet, but she’s been entertaining in her role with James Ellsworth. Put all of them together (and possibly some surprises), though, and I think this one is better on paper.

So I’m going to go with Brock Lesnar challenging Goldberg for the Universal Championship. It seems weird to pick what is likely to be the show-closing main event, but most people don’t have very high expectations for this one. Their first match went less than 90 seconds at Survivor Series, but I think the reason for that was to save everything for the Showcase of the Immortals. There’s a very good chance this is Goldberg’s last match, and he’s in phenomenal shape. I have a feeling he’s going leave it all out in the ring and do everything he can to make this match an entertaining one. This may only go 10 minutes or so, but this isn’t the kind of match that needs to go a half hour. Brock Lesnar matches are not like other matches. There’s a legitimate feel to them. There’s a sense of danger to them. And given Goldberg’s age, that sense of danger will be heightened even more. Given Lesnar’s past and the fact that Goldberg already busted his head open on a door, don’t be surprised to see some “color” in this one either. It won’t be a five-star match, but I think this one will be much more entertaining than anyone expects.

Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque on the future of NXT and his match with Jinder Mahal

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For the first time ever, USA will air a special one-hour NXT special tonight at 7 p.m. ET and the head honcho of NXT, Paul “Triple H” Levesque, took some time to talk with me about how some of the brand’s biggest stars have upped their game in 2017, the three-to-five year plan for NXT and his match with Jinder Mahal in New Delhi.  

Let’s keep this first one simple, is this the most important night in the history of NXT?

“It’s one of them. I think it’s a pretty cool opportunity when you think about the original concept of what it was. This small developmental thing in Florida that has grown and evolved over the last few years to where NBC Universal, one of the largest television and entertainment companies in the world is willing to give up a primetime slot on a Wednesday night to air an hour of NXT programming. That’s pretty cool to me.

I’m really proud of everything that it has accomplished. No matter how it does, I see it as an opportunity to expose a lot of people to NXT who haven’t seen it yet because as much as people talk about it, or you hear about it on Raw like ‘this person was an NXT champion or this person came from there,’ there’s a lot of people who have never seen it because it just airs on the network. Hopefully this is their chance to sample it.”

How did this special airing of NXT on USA come about? Was this an idea that NBCU came to you about, or was this something that you pitched to them?

“They approached us with it as far as I know, I wasn’t there when it happened. Every year we do ‘WWE week’ on the USA Network and with Raw being on Monday, SmackDown now being live on Tuesdays and now there’s the content that they can fill the rest of the week with. Tribute to the Troops on Thursday is the signature event of the week.

Wednesday was the perfect opportunity for us. They presented it to us this year as an opportunity and I was asked if I would be interested in creating a show for that and I was like absolutely. Is that a trick question?

I’m really excited about the show. Coming out of the last TakeOver that we did, there’s a new champion, but there was also an injury to Drew McIntyre and it forced us to reboot a little bit and come up with a new number one contender, but it allowed us to put on an excellent show for USA, which includes the NXT champion Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas against Fabian Aichner, who some fans saw in the Cruiserweight Classic. He’s just a phenomenal performer.

The Authors of Pain will be on there as well and then in the main event Aleister Black vs. Adam Cole in a match that will help determine the eventual number one contender to the NXT champion. It’s a really strong show.”

It’s fair to say that Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas’ first few months in NXT were rough to say the least and now I feel like with Zelina Vega, he’s really starting to find his stride. What have you seen from him in the past few months that gave you the confidence to put the title on him?

“I’ve seen the same thing you have.

There’s a curve to doing what we do when you walk in the door for the first time, no matter where you’ve been. People talk about other promotions around the globe, but I haven’t seen anyone who doesn’t come in the door that doesn’t feel a difference when they walk in. That can lead to a lot of things. Intimidation, loss of confidence. You can take a step back.

It’s also a different style for him. There’s a lot of factors and I think when he first came in … and I’ve seen this with a lot of talent, whether that be Hideo Itami, Ember Moon, really, really talented people walk in the door and it takes them awhile to get their feet under them. It takes them awhile to get used to the style change. It takes them awhile to get used to how we shoot television. To have that confidence is really what it comes down to.

If you look back to where he started to where he is right now with us, it’s a completely different performer. As I saw that taking place over time I thought, now he’s starting to get it, how do I give him the platform to regroup?

It’s hard to have a guy all of a sudden go from being not good to being really good. So what’s that shift? What’s that platform that allows him to grow even more?

That was Zelina Vega. With the way we presented it, she came in, gave him the confidence and put him back on track. It all led him to changing who he is as a performer. I think you see that now. The swagger that he has. He comes off like the cocky, arrogant guy who knows he’s that good and he is.”

Well yeah and it gave him essentially the mouthpiece he needed because obviously English is still a challenge for him, but having her there and having her express his confidence gives him the ability to just focus on being a standout in-ring performer.

“My goal … and I try to combat this with NXT all of the time, as we’re putting performers out there people will come to me and say like ‘well we shouldn’t have Andrade do this promo because it’s not his strong suit’ and it’s like well he has to learn to do it right?

You have to put them out there and you have to give them the ball. Sometimes you have to throw the guy the ball, while understanding that he might fumble it, or he might fall down, but he has to get used to catching it and then eventually he’s going to run for a touchdown.

We run that fine line of what their performances are. Putting the spotlight on their strengths, but not hiding the weaknesses to a point where they’re covered up. They’ll never grow that way.

I want to make him a well-rounded performer. I want him to continue to get better at English. I want him to continue to grow as a performer to a point where he doesn’t need those other things, but that’s not where he’s at yet, so we try to do the best we can with him right now.

To your point, she brings a totally different dynamic to him that allows him to just be that cocky, arrogant champion.”

So NXT has gone through a lot of changes since you created it. What’s your vision for what’s next? Is it a weekly spot in primetime on USA? Is it presenting the brand as a legitimate alternative to Raw and SmackDown, where it doesn’t act as developmental for those brands? Where do you see this product going in the next three-to-five years?

“It’s funny the terms people put on things. Like a ‘legitimate alternative.’ Well if you don’t like one and you watch the other it’s an alternative right?”

Sure.

It’s an alternative now. I think that the more variety you can give the better. Raw is presented a certain way. SmackDown is presented a certain way. NXT is presented a certain way and there are markets for all of those products.

Do I see it not being developmental? Look in some ways the brands are just the brands and as talent improve and move up, where they end up, whether that’s Raw, whether that’s Smackdown, or if that’s NXT at some point in time, they’re all just going to be part of a brand.

I think there’s going to be a learning curve where NXT will always sort of be developmental for some, but I think we’re going to reach a point where we’ll say, ‘Well clearly this guy or girl isn’t developmental, he or she has been on the main roster. They’ve done this or this on the main roster and now they’re back down doing this in NXT.’

I think there’s going to be that shift back and forth. I think you’ll see, as you said earlier, a more legitimate alternative brand, although, I think on the lower and middle end of the roster, you’re going to have talent who have only been in the business for two years. The first time you’ll see them perform anywhere will be on NXT.

As talent come in from other places who have not yet had that experience to be on Raw or SmackDown, I don’t care where they’ve been, they’ll need the learning curve.

In some sense it will continue to be developmental, but it’ll be different from where it is today because I think you’re going to see talent move up and move down. I don’t think it should be seen as a demotion when they go to NXT. I think it should be seen as they’re competing in a different environment.”

Outside of Braun Strowman, I don’t know if there’s anyone who has impressed me more this year than Johnny Gargano. His performances stick with me every time I watch him. When I think about the five best matches I’ve seen this year, his name pops up multiple times. What has he done to up his game this year?

“I think he’s become a storyteller. There’s a lot of emotion in Johnny Gargano’s matches.

He knows his role. He’s the underdog who will never quit. You’re not going to beat him easily and he can always pull it out. He’s willing to tell a phenomenal story.

It’s the hardest thing sometimes … we have this conversation in the Performance Center a lot, Shawn [Michaels] will have it with guys, Matt [Bloom] will have it with guys, it’s about storytelling and that’s truly is what we do. The spots are the spots, but the storytelling is key.

When guys learn that and then they get in the ring with guys who are in the process of learning it, the difficult part is to try and get them to do what you’ve learned and not reverting back to doing what they do.

Johnny is one of those guys who has begun to learn that process really well and then brings everybody up with him and that’s a really impressive thing. He just gets it, but he’s also one of those guys that is 24/7. There are a lot of people who are that way, but it’s different with him.

You can be having a conversation with somebody else about their angle, or their match and you see him two feet away listening to the conversation trying to help figure it out, or give his point of view. He’s in the pocket all of the time. Those are the type of guys you love to work with because it’s passion. He’s passionate about the business, which is why he’s successful and will continue to be successful.”

I have to ask about the match with Jinder Mahal in New Delhi. Were you surprised at all by the reaction you got there? From what I read and watched on YouTube you got the biggest reaction of the night.

“It’s funny, you see a lot of comments to the reaction of the fans there. India is totally different market and WWE is huge there. One thing that people forget is the first time I went to India to perform was in 1996. I’ve been on their TV for a really long period of time.

There are certain guys there, in that market, who transcend the business for them. When we were talking to our television partners there about the marketing for the event, it was one of the things that kept coming up. It’s why I was put on the card.

I haven’t been there in a long time. I was excited and really happy to hear the reaction. It’s sort of what we expected. We know what resonates in markets and we can see it in our numbers and see it in the research that are partners have done as well as on social media.”

I think a lot of people were just assuming and this is a short-sighted thought that Jinder was going to get the biggest reaction. The fact that you’ve been on television for so long, combined with the attraction of seeing you for the first time created the reaction. Those fans have a longer emotional investment with you.

“I often think it’s funny to me that people in America, who have never been to India, put their thoughts and their beliefs onto other people, ‘like clearly that’s the truth.’ (Laughs). It’s totally different there!

The way they see things and react to things is very different. There are certain guys that once they reach a level there, it’s a whole different ballgame; Undertaker, [John] Cena. It’s just a different level of stardom.

When we were over there a few months ago having business meetings, to hear the people who are running television studios or Internet companies say to me ‘I watched you when I was a teenager. You were like the biggest guy in the world.’

I met a massive Bollywood star the other day who told me that I was his entire childhood. He got suspended from school for telling someone to ‘suck it.’ At a time in ’96 when there were like three channels there, we were on one of them all of the time.

It’s not to say Jinder wasn’t ‘over’ there. He was! You have to understand the market. It’s not like everyone just went, ‘Oh my God he’s Indian! He looks like us so we love him.’ They are a savvy market. They understand that he’s [playing] a bad guy [on television].

Even though he got a massive reaction, he still needs to earn their respect. He’s still growing and still new. You know what I mean?”

Well back to the storytelling point from earlier, that’s the emotional attachment right?

“Yeah.”

Jinder still new in many ways, especially in this role. The audience has to grow with him in order for him to reach that level of stardom you mentioned.

“Absolutely. Just even being on this tour will help him. The reaction he got at the beginning of the night was much different than the reaction he got at the end of the night. It just grew. Their appreciation of him grew. It was all handled in the right way and done in the right manner.

Over time he’s going to grow and become a cultural icon for them.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis

Dolph Ziggler Isn’t Going to Stop Pushing Himself

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Before WWE’s most patriotic show of the year, Tribute to the Troops, airs on Thursday, December 14th on USA at 8 p.m. ET, Dolph Ziggler chatted with me about the state of his career, if there’s anything about it he would change and why he thinks Naomi has the best “comeback” in the business.  

Give me one word to describe your career this year?

“Wow one word? OK you tell me how your career has been this year in one word.”

Ummm …. That’s a good question (laughs)

“See it’s not that easy.”

I would say winding. Where I’m at now as opposed to where I was in January is drastically different.

“OK that’s fair. I would say solid. I’m pretty reliable no matter what situation I’m in at work and also solid in that I’ve been pretty busy doing things beyond wrestling.”

On Edge and Christian’s podcast you opened up about your unhappiness with the placement of your character right now ….

“That was a sentence in an hour and a half discussion. I know it makes for a great click-bait article where I’m like ‘yeah it sucks!’ But they left out the part where I talk about how I want to be better and here’s why everyone should be working to be better. That’s the part people leave out, which is fine.

If you’re … you’re at NBC Sports right?

Yeah.

“OK if you’re doing great work for the last 10 years and you want to be in the top position at your job and you’re scratching and clawing, wouldn’t you be unhappy if there was no movement? You would go ‘Sure, yeah I want to be on top!’ But not everyone gets to be on top at once. Of course I hate not being the champion and not having the show revolve around me, but I love it. That chip on my shoulder drives me to keep going and keep proving how good I am, until somebody somehow shows me some instance where I wasn’t great at my job.”

What I was going to ask was, is there a certain point in time that you can point to where you say “this is where the downward turn started” or was it a gradual process?

“It was very gradual. It went from ‘Wow, we have something special here with Dolph. The crowd is feeding off of him whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy.’ But after a while, a really good match here and there or a special moment here and there is not enough to create a star. So after a big match and then just going back to being Dolph, it’s hard to not be Dolph.

I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve been able to make the most out of those situations. Anytime people see me or the character, you can kind of see how they mesh together and I’m pretty sure there’s nobody who blends that gray area with the character better than me. And that’s a fact.”

I was going to ask this a bit later on, but it fits perfectly here. A few months ago when your entrance gimmick started I thought it was a bit odd, but then I started to realize that a meta-type character who understands his placement on the card and understands what the crowd pops for is perfect for this era. What are some things you’re looking to explore with this character in the coming weeks?

“We’ve opened the fourth wall a lot with this business and we’ve let reality become a huge part of it, which is awesome. Being able to interact with fans every single day gives them the ability to know what’s going on behind the scenes a little bit and you can actually use that as part of your character.

It would be stupid to let them in on all of these different aspects of the show and then pretend that I win every night because then we’re basically calling them stupid for believing that. But if I go ‘Hey I don’t win all of the time, but I’m really good and you know this and I know this’ and one of the nights could be the time that we go with it and that’s very realistic in this world.

It’s one thing to joke around with fans, but to disregard huge aspects of a career would be a mistake.”

Is there something that you would change about your character right now?

“Yeah I’d be about three inches taller, so I could be a 10-time world champion (laughs).

I’m a big 80s hair metal guy, like a David Lee Roth or someone like Nikki Sixx or Vince Neil to where I could put on a big show and be awesome at wrestling, but in this character right now where I focus on throwing that all away because I see the transparency in characters and my character hates on them.

It’s a special place that I get to go and I walk to the ring with disdain for the fans knowing that they sit there and bury everything that we do, but then they cheer for who their supposed to because their such hypocrites it’s so great.”

If I could give you a time machine to go back and change any part of your career, what moment would you go back to?

“Ummm … you have anything in particular off of the top of your head?”

Well I was thinking about the period of time after you cashed in Money in the Bank the night after WrestleMania 29 against [Alberto] Del Rio and it felt like you had so much potential, then the double turn happened at Payback. It felt like the right move in the moment, but in hindsight I wonder if that decision was a mistake.

“Hmm.”

And you’ve talked about this before. The curse of the start-stop push. Every time it looked like you finally had momentum, it was killed. I just think that moment specifically began the downward spiral that I asked about earlier.

“I could see how you would think that, but what was I going to do? It’s pretty clear that there wasn’t long-term plans with me as champion.

I’m so proud of that match with Del Rio because it was … if I was an artist, that was a masterpiece I painted. I always enjoyed being in the ring with him because he brought it every time and we beat the hell out of each other and we got to do something special that night by switching things around.

When everyone says how much better the attitude era was just because more teenagers watched it then and I say well we did something special here, when I was someone who wasn’t in the championship picture until basically a couple weeks before that. I was always in the middle of the card … losing and all of a sudden it changed in one night.

It’s hard because you either go with it or you don’t and sometimes you deal with the cards your dealt and you go ‘OK, well if they’re not going with me as the champion, this top guy, how do I make another opportunity down the line?’

You can switch around any one day and it really doesn’t change 12 years.”

What do you “pop” for now that you’ve been in the industry for this long?

“Let’s see … I like watching Naomi work. She’s one of my favorites to watch.

Ahh … there’s a million things … what do you like?

Oh man …. This is going to sound generic, but watching AJ Styles work is one of the reasons why I still look forward to tuning into WWE programming every week.

“That’s great!”

It’s just the little intricacies of how he sells and his offense, which always stands out. I’m curious as to why you said Naomi.

“I remember a couple years ago, she was just a smiling athletic performer and she became a member of [Team] B.A.D and I was like there’s no way in hell she’s going to pull this off.

And then I saw her first day and I was like I don’t know how she’s doing this. Her offense is amazing and she has the best comeback in the business. I’d even rival hers to your boy AJ.”

I would agree with that.

“She has such a cool, fun, unique, explosive comeback that no one else can do.”

She also has one of the best hot tags in the business.

“Oh yeah.”

Going back to the Del Rio discussion for a minute, who are some people that you felt amazing in-ring chemistry with?

“I used to give this other answer all of the time, but it’s been years. Kofi and I for about four years wrestled every SmackDown, every Raw, and every live event. We had a best-of-500 series that I love 497-to-3.

We were wrestling so much that we were trying to think of counters to counters of counters to make it interesting and different every time. We had so much fun.

My favorite part is, the Dudleys came in and were like ‘we know you and Kofi do all of the high-flying stuff’ and I was like no! Kofi does the high-flying stuff.

I love when people throw a little amateur wrestling background into their stuff. Just modifying the most basic of all moves is really fun for me to see. Gable and Jordan will throw in a little stutter step or fake that no one else is doing and I’m like oh that’s nice.

Have you worked with Gable yet?

“A little bit during a live event in a triple threat, but we haven’t gotten in there to do anything big yet.”

Let’s talk a bit about visiting the troops in San Diego, I imagine that has to be one of your favorite events of the year.

“Yeah it’s great. We love doing it. It’s a long day for us, but we love it. We get to give this tiny percent back to these brave men and women are doing for us every single day. Anything we can do, we’ll bring in singers, comedians, we’ll shake hands, we’ll talk about wrestling, we’ll talk about high school football, we’ll talk about anything they want just to take a few minutes to thank them.

It is so rewarding to us and it means the world to us to put on our most patriotic show of the year. When we get to perform for them in person, nothing is better than that.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis