WWE

WWE: The three positives in a post-WrestleMania world

Leave a comment

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve had the ability to share my thoughts on WWE’s weekly television product. Despite a 13-hour time difference for two weeks, I watched Raw and SmackDown. I even squeezed in an episode of NXT, thanks jet lag!

Let’s just say, it wasn’t exactly easy to get through the last three episodes of both shows. There were bright spots here and there, but the amount of forgettable segments dwarfed the segments that kept me sports entertained.

It feels like we’re in an elongated holding pattern until the build for SummerSlam begins, which is strange considering we had a “Superstar-Skakeup.” Why did this need to happen so suddenly?

Wouldn’t a mix-up of the rosters work better after the Payback-Backlash PPV cycle?

It’s ridiculous to ask that question because as a viewer of the WWE, I shouldn’t be asking that question. I should be able to trust the people backstage to put on an entertaining product, but if you pay attention to the inner-workings of WWE, you know that big booking decisions get made on the day of the show far too often.

Not only did this Superstar-Shakeup come at a time when it didn’t need to due to an influx of talent that was called up from NXT (less so on Raw because of Dash Wilder’s broken jaw), it happened in the middle of the build for the first brand specific PPVs after WrestleMania. We had two crossover matchups on Payback, which brought Smackdown guys onto a Raw show…

No, B.J. Novak, it doesn’t matter.

You’re just supposed to enjoy your favorite characters’ entrances every week. You’re not supposed to care about what they actually say or do. Wins and losses don’t matter. Almost every promo or backstage segment is rooted in comedy (bookmark: Which can sometimes produce entertaining segment like “The Fashion Files”). Nothing is serious. Nothing matters.

Sorry! I didn’t want to make you cry. Look, there are still plenty of reasons to enjoy the WWE product right now. Here are the three things that I’ve enjoyed post-WrestleMania.

Elevation of Mid-Card titles: Now that Brock Lesnar has joined the list of celebrity departures from The Leftovers and Randy Orton is off working a mid-card feud with Jinder Mahal for the WWE championship, the Intercontinental and United States titles are actually being elevated.

Part of this is due to the sudden emphasis on the titles. Both number one contender matches main evented an episode of Raw and SmackDown and featured full-time main event talent in a pair of triple threat matches.

The other part of this is the Kevin Owens’ Face of America character. The whole “Prizefighter” gimmick never got off the ground on the main roster because outside of his opening feud with Cena. Owens rarely felt like the guy who quickly rose to prominence in NXT as an ass kicker.

Before winning the United States title from Jericho at WrestleMania, Owens has held the Intercontinental championship and the Universal title and in both instances, he wasn’t booked strongly enough to make the titles seem important.

That sounds like a slight on K.O. and it’s not. That’s just a product of the amount of comedy segments he was featured in. In NXT, he was “the guy” and booked appropriately. In kayfabe, Owens was a dangerous, unpredictable dude. For a while on the main roster he’s a full-time guy who is cracking jokes. (Bookmark: For the record, the jokes with Jericho were funny, but that’s not the point here.)

Now it feels like he’s capitalizing on the heel momentum his character gained during the build for his Mania match against Jericho. His beat down of Y2J on this past week’s episode of SmackDown came off really good. It reminded me of moments like this:

This “Face of America” gimmick is going to be perfect for Owens. It’s a different spin on the evil foreigner storyline, which means easy heat, especially when Owens starts speaking fluent French.

K.O. is being positioned as a focal point of SmackDown Live (Bookmark: Out of all of the superstars who changed shows, the #FOA will benefit from the change the most), but the triple threat match to determine the number one contender for featured three prominent names: Baron Corbin, Sami Zayn, and Styles.

The three tore the house down in what was my favorite WWE TV Match of the Year so far. Styles pinned Zayn to become the number one contender for the U.S. title, which in the moment seemed a bit strange considering that Styles, in kayfabe, should be going after Orton’s title, but now that some time has passed, it makes sense.

I can’t imagine Orton vs. Mahal for the title is going to main event Backlash. If it doesn’t, you would have to imagine that Styles vs. Owens for the U.S. title will close the show in Chicago. Deputy Dango and Breezy sure ain’t getting that spot.

Which means the mid-card title will main event a PPV with two of the company’s best workers wrestling for it. Sign me up. I’m curious to see what style of a match they put on. Will it feel more like ROH? Or will it still be a traditional style WWE match?

#FantasyBookingIdea: Owens holds the title for a few months and then John Cena answers K.O.’s open challenge.

Over on Raw, the Intercontinental champion is Dean Ambrose, which you wouldn’t know if you watched Payback this past Sunday. Dude just wasn’t on the show, but he was back on Monday to “call” Kurt Angle in the ring and book a triple threat (sound familiar?) match between Seth Rollins, The Miz, and Finn Balor.

Those three put on the best Raw main event in ages. Now even though the IC title is underneath the U.S. title on the WWE totem pole right now, it’s the most visible title on Raw as long as Lesnar holds the Universal title.

Seriously, if you’re a casual fan who started watching WWE again after WrestleMania, you would have no idea that the Universal title exists, or that Lesnar is the current champion. He’s never mentioned during the bajillion hits the announcers have to do on a weekly basis. It’s absurd.

Due to Lesnar’s absence, Ambrose finds himself in a position to move himself up the card and improve the Intercontinental championship, but we’ve seen Ambrose vs. Miz plenty of times last year and none of their encounters were memorable, but that’s not what’s important here.

Two main event level guys and an upper-mid card guy were positioned in a number one contender’s match for the title. This does appear to be a shift in philosophy around the role of the mid-card titles, which is a WELCOMED change.

Alexa Bliss: Even though last Sunday in Bayley’s hometown of San Jose wasn’t the right time to take the title off of Ms. Hug Life and give it to Bliss, Alexa hasn’t dropped the ball since it was given to her back in the fall.

Out of all of the women on the main roster, I would put her mic skills just slightly behind Charlotte’s. It’s one thing to be a cool heel in 2017 like Bliss is, it’s another to play a heel who actually gets booed, which is exactly what Charlotte achieved before her inexplicable face turn last week.

Bliss overshadowed Bayley in the talking segments they had together leading up to their match at Payback. The crowd just isn’t feeling Bayley right now on a week-to-week basis. Her dialogue has been pretty weak since her call-up (we get it, she’s a lifelong fan) to the main roster, but her delivery has been extremely awkward.

She’s not queuing up the crowd correctly and just seems to not understand the proper beat for her character to speak. I get that she’s supposed to play a fan that has the opportunity to live her dream, but I shouldn’t be cringing during her promos and when she’s in the ring by herself, the cringe meter starts going up in my apartment.

You could really see the difference level between the promos when Alexa and Bayley shared the ring leading up to the PPV. Bliss was able to successfully counter the crowd’s “what” chants that have swallowed up thousands of promos. There’s a reason why a pocket of the live crowd in San Jose cheered for her when she pinned Bayley, who was again, the hometown babyface.

Bliss speaks in a tone that no other woman on the main roster speaks in. Her character knows that she’s better than everyone else and she’s going to tell you about it in a smart way that the hardcore fan appreciates. It’s hard to think of anyone who has had a rise on the main roster quicker than Alexa has. Baron Corbin comes to mind because he never got to the main event level in NXT (Vince and Co. has big plans for him on the main roster) but he’s still in a holding pattern.

There’s nothing holding Alexa Bliss back.

Braun Strowman: The post-Mania episodes of Raw might as well be referred to as the Braun Strowman saga. His feud with Roman Reigns has been the focus of the show for weeks. There was an incredible beatdown angle that featured Strowman “throwing” Reigns off of a loading dock while Roman was tied down on a stretcher, but Braun wasn’t done there. He then “tipped” over the ambulance that Reigns was supposedly in.

He then bullied around the jobbers backstage, which included putting Kalisto in a dumpster, before the Big Show knocked him down and challenged him to a match. In the main event, Strowman suplexed Show and “broke the ring” (it’s the third time WWE has pulled off this stunt and once again the crowd went bananas).

The next week Kalisto “challenged” Strowman to a dumpster match. Even though Strowman “lost” (beyond dumb, but it’s WWE in 2017, wins and losses don’t matter) he pushed a dumpster off of the stage with Kalisto inside. The drop was about three feet, but still it’s been awhile since someone got pushed off of the stage while they were in a dumpster.

Vince knows how to push a big guy and Strowman is the equivalent of a wet dream for McMahon.

He’s a gigantic dude who can move around the ring like he’s 6 feet 1 inch tall. Strowman has greatly improved in the ring to a point where it’s totally conceivable to picture him as a world champion, but will he actually get pushed to that level?

We know how stingy Vince can be about giving someone too much too soon, especially with how successful The Rock, Brock Lesnar, Batista and now John Cena are doing with projects outside of WWE. Strowman isn’t going to fight in the UFC and who knows if he has any sort of acting chops.

Strowman is a professional wrestler and becoming a damn good one with every day that passes. Raw would have been significantly worse after WrestleMania if he wasn’t on the show. He’s earning a title run with every solid match and over-the-top backstage segment that he performs in.

The reason why we should all be worried about Strowman is; there have been instances where a person was given the title well after they earned it (RVD and Jeff Hardy come to mind). I’m not saying Strowman should be given a title reign tomorrow because he’s still a bit green, but with Lesnar vs. Reigns penciled in as the WrestleMania 34 main event according to Dave Meltzer, you begin to wonder what Strowman’s ceiling is.

When Lesnar vs. Strowman does happen, the crowd is going to explode and Vince will know how to clean it up.

Twitter: @ScottDargis

(Bookmark: If you’re wondering where the Hardy’s section is, don’t worry. It’s coming. Let’s see how this rumored legal situation with Anthem works out.)

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

WWE
Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In terms of creative or …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter: @ScottDargis

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

WWE
Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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