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WWE Weekly Recap: Let’s rank the post-WrestleMania surprises

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The first Raw after WrestleMania is a key moment for WWE in setting up future storylines that will fill the time until the build for SummerSlam begins. There have been points in time where the company would keep a WrestleMania feud alive through the next PPV, but more often than not, the first live show after Mania represents a change from the WrestleMania season stories.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that the Raw after WrestleMania became dominated by a crowd of hardcore fans from around the world. The “smarks” cheer for whatever they want. From #BeachBallMania to perfectly timing the “YEAH!” portion of The Revival’s entrance, it’s an environment that every wrestling fan should experience at some point.

This year’s schedule presented WWE with the opportunity to keep fans who traveled for WrestleMania around even longer with the addition of Tuesday’s SmackDown Live tapings. The crowd that attended the SD taping sounded like a beefed up NXT crowd, which was particularly enjoyable when they all chanted “ONE FALL!” in unison before the women’s title match between Naomi and Alexa Bliss.

Thanks to the rowdy nature of this specific crowd, Monday’s Raw and Tuesday’s SmackDown presented an ideal opportunity to bring up a few key talents from NXT and return some familiar faces who have been off of TV for awhile due to injury. If there’s a time to make NXT guys and girls feel like a big deal, this is the week they’re going to come off like the most over talents on the show.

So let’s take a look back at all of the surprises from this past week and rank them from worst to OMFG did that really just happen?

Erick Rowan

The big redheaded stepchild of the Wyatt Family has been out of action since early October after getting surgery on his right rotator cuff. Rowan has been reportedly available to return for a few weeks, but clearly, Vince wanted to wait until after Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton had their WrestleMania match.

On Tuesday, Rowan posted this very creepy video on his Twitter account that apparently was supposed to signify his return:

Rowan returned in the opening segment to help Wyatt beat down Orton, but his place on the totem pole was quickly established when Luke Harper and Orton combined for a superkick-RKO combination after Wyatt used some of his “magical powers” to leave Rowan all by himself in the ring. Not only did Orton “fight” his way out of a sneak attack from Rowan, but the gigantic goof ate a clean pin.

I’d say Rowan is in a slightly better position than Curt Hawkins, which isn’t where you want to be.

Emma

Unlike the debut of Emmalina, we didn’t have to wait four months to get the return of Emma’s character from NXT and her brief run on the main roster before she ruptured a disc in her back during a live event last May.

Sure, the Emma vignettes aired for a few weeks longer than they should have, but with the Superstar Shake-Up coming, Emma could be a valuable piece of the Raw women’s division if Charlotte ends up switching brands, which is currently rumored. The move would make total sense in storyline considering that Bayley pinned Charlotte clean at Mania and then Sasha made her tap out on Raw.

Emma’s actual return was lackluster. She was slotted in a six-woman tag match, which was not a showcase for her. She bailed out of the ring before Nia Jax “beat up” Charlotte, so if you’re a fan of Emma’s, this is probably not how you wanted her to come back, but it’ll have to do for now.

Be patient, the women’s division on Monday is so thin that she will have a chance to shine and her aggressive style did get over once, so why can’t it happen again?

Kurt Angle

The rumor of Angle becoming the general manager of Raw immediately after WrestleMania had been floated around for quite a while, so it was no surprise that Vince introduced Angle as the next G.M. character on the company’s flagship show.

Even though Angle’s segments after his in-ring promo felt very similar to what we’ve had over the past few months with Mick Foley, the novelty of seeing Angle interact with Enzo, Cass, Sami Zayn, and Seth Rollins was enough to keep me entertained. Monday’s three-hour Raw did not drag and these segments with Angle played a big role.

Finn Balor

Am I excited Finn Balor is back on Raw after his shoulder/upper arm was destroyed at SummerSlam after he took a powerbomb from Rollins into the corner of the barricade?

Did it make any sense for Balor to team with the guy who legitimately put him on the shelf for seven months, which included WrestleMania?

I know WWE can think at times that no one cares to remember what happened seven months ago, but there is an easy story to tell here. Why not have Balor team with Rollins and then walk away when Rollins reaches out for a tag? It’s a logical way to continue a story that the crowd will actually invest in because it blurs the line of reality and fiction. The two would eventually have a match and then shake hands after.

The tag-team match between Rollins/Balor vs. Owens/Joe that closed Monday’s show should have been a super-hot tag match between four guys who all established themselves on the independent scene before making their way to WWE via NXT. Instead, it was just an OK match that didn’t have as nearly as much heat as you would think.

The crowd was dying for Balor to return during Brock’s segment, but he’s not going near the Universal title picture anytime soon, it appears. Lesnar isn’t going to be at Payback and when he does defend the title, it will likely be against Braun Strowman and then Roman Reigns.

There are plenty of guys for Balor to work with and if AJ Styles comes over to Raw (heavily rumored), we could have a dream match scenario on our hands.

Tye Dillinger

The crowd was finally able to use the “10!” correctly when Dillinger “answered” Hawkins’ Open Challenge on Tuesday. Because the show felt at times like a big NXT event, the crowd at the Amway Center in Orlando made Dillinger feel like a bigger deal than he will probably end up being on the main roster.

Having said that, he will be in a position to overachieve with his gimmick on SmackDown. If he was on Raw, he would quickly get lost in the shuffle, but with the lack of depth on Tuesday nights and a gimmick that is over to a certain degree (it’s more popular than the Fandango chant IMO) he might end up as a solid mid-card hand for SD.

#FantasyBooking idea: I’d love it if SAnitY followed Dillinger up to the main roster as Eric Young continues to try and recruit him.

The Revival

This was arguably the biggest surprise from the post-WrestleMania shows. I suspected Nakamura would show up on SD as well as Dillinger, but I wasn’t sure which brand the #TopGuys would pop-up on.

When the New Day issued their open challenge on Monday, I wasn’t expecting to see Dash and Dawson show up, but when they did I’ll admit I popped. Scott Dawson has been in developmental for years now (as well as Dillinger), so it’s always great to see someone like that finally get their opportunity to shine on the main roster.

The Revival were given a clean win over Big E/Xavier Woods and then “injured” Kofi Kingston’s knee after the match. It was classic Revival, which is the only way that they’re going to get over with the bigger audience.

Match you didn’t know you wanted until right now: Revival vs. The Hardys

Shinsuke Nakamura

Whoever pitched the idea of having Lee England Jr. perform Nakamura’s entrance live deserves a raise. This was an amazing moment that I will not do justice with words, so if you haven’t seen it (IDK what is wrong with you) or if you’ve already seen it, watch it again and enjoy just how magical this moment was:

As I watched his entrance live I wondered if he would grab the microphone and make a joke to The Miz about being dressed up like John Cena, or if he would simply kick Miz right in the face. Shockingly, neither of these scenarios played out. Instead, Nakamura performed his entrance, soaked in the thunderous “NA-KA-MURA” chants and then left the ring and went to the back.

I was not a fan of how awkward the end of this segment felt as it was happening, but when I went back and watched it a second time (or maybe 10 more times, who’s counting right!?) I thought the segment ended fine. There’s no reason for Nakamura to make Miz look like a jabroni with one strike. He’s right on the cusp of being a main eventer again and Nakamura needs someone to feud with. Don’t underestimate just how entertaining a Miz TV segment with Shinsuke could be.

Time to “Go Home”

So who knows what’s going to happen with the Hardy’s gimmicks, but here’s my idea for the immediate future. What if Matt Hardy became CURED Matt Hardy or something similar to that. My thinking would be that WWE could continue the BROKEN storyline, but create their own character.  

Every now and then, Matt could “relapse” and start a delete chant or use other mannerisms from his BROKEN character.

Jeff Hardy is just going to be Jeff Hardy, don’t expect Brother Nero to make an appearance.

– Something has to be done about the Hardys theme, it just doesn’t sound right with their current look/character.

– Why is Nia Jax making goofy faces at the camera?

– The New Day are also rumored to leave Raw for SmackDown. I’m a big fan of this move because it would hopefully lead to a singles push for Big E.

– Was Tuesday the beginning of Styles’ face turn or was it a one off? I know he gets cheered all of the time like a babyface, but he’s still very much a heel.

– The opening segment on Raw with Roman Reigns vs. the crowd was pretty damn memorable. I can’t think of a person in the last few years outside of Cena who has had that kind of heat during a segment.

– You should go out of your way to listen to the Talk is Jericho podcast with Reigns. He comes off like such a nice dude.

– Even though I briefly mentioned the match earlier, the tag match between Orton/Harper and Wyatt/Rowan was an incredibly lackluster way to end the extended weekend.

– I really enjoyed NXT TakeOver Orlando. Especially Roode vs. Nakamura. The triple threat tag team elimination match between Authors of Pain-DIY-Revival was the best WWE match of the entire weekend.

– I think my favorite match from the marathon that was WrestleMania was Goldberg-Lesnar. It hit all of the right notes and was perfectly mapped out.

– Isn’t it crazy that WrestleMania lasted seven hours and Samoa Joe wasn’t on the show at all?

– During Naomi’s entrance on Tuesday, I thought to myself, damn it would be awesome if the women’s title glowed along with her outfit and then this photo appeared.

– The #RawafterMania really should just be renamed Cesaro appreciation night. Cass got massive boos when he ran wild on Cesaro during a hot tag.

– Those Jordan 8’s Enzo rocked on Monday night are worth around $800-$1200.

– Tom Phillips has done an excellent job filling in for Mauro Ranallo.

– I’d love to see Jim Ross call main events on PPVs. Similar to what he did during his last part-time gig with the company when he called main event matches on NXT.

– I felt so bad for Neville and Mustafa Ali. They busted their ass in the ring on Monday, but the crowd was way more worried about getting themselves over and playing with a beach ball.

– You’d think for being “hardcore” fans that they would, you know, show their appreciation for the product.

The Twitter: @ScottDargis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter: @ScottDargis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Paul “Triple H” Levesque

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s been Samoa Joe.”

Simple enough.

Twitter: @ScottDargis