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Your 2017 WWE Backlash primer

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In kayfabe, SmackDown is the land of opportunity. This is the show where guys who were floundering on Raw or on the mid-card have the chance to reinvent themselves with fresh personalities.

The idea of SmackDown being the best place for guys to move up the card was on full display during the build to a very, very interesting Backlash Pay-Per-View. Even though none of the feuds heading into the PPV have been built particularly well, it’s the fresh faces that have me intrigued.

Since his thunderous debut entrance, Shinsuke Nakamura has felt like the top babyface on Tuesday nights, but now he has to get in the ring against a veteran who the crowd hasn’t cared about for a long time. If you’ve followed Nakamura’s journey, you know how he can turn it on in big matches and this is a huge match for him. He needs to make a good first impression.

Then there’s the Fashion Police and Jinder Mahal. Two low-card jobber acts that have seen their stock rise since WrestleMania. As crazy as this is about to sound, it’s not unreasonable to think that the PoPo and Mahal could walk out of Chicago with gold around their waste.

Randy Orton (C) vs. Jinder Mahal (WWE Championship)

Whether or not you agree with the decision to give Jinder a world title match after he was positioned as a jobber since last summer, you have to admit that after Mahal shockingly went over in a six-pack challenge match to become the number one contender, he’s been booked extremely well.

The crowd is responding to Mahal as a heel, which as we know, is difficult to do in 2017. Getting over as a traditional heel is rather tough when the crowd wants to cheer for heels and boo the “good guys.” It’s just further proof that a sure fire way to get a heel over in America is to have them insult the country, especially when they’re a foreigner.

Orton on the other hand, has felt like just another guy on the card since winning the title at WrestleMania. When we look back at the end of the year, Randy’s feud with Bray Wyatt might very well be the worst of the year due to their lackluster match at Mania and the horrific House of Horrors match that needs to be locked away forever and never spoken about again.

When I was chatting with Easy Ed about the card this Sunday he made a great point about the current WWE champion.

“Orton never seems to elevate the guy he’s in the ring with,” Ed said.

I thought about the programs he’s had over the last few years and sure enough Ed was right. Orton has good matches and is a fantastic in-ring worker when he’s motivated, but his opponent doesn’t get a boost on the card after his feud with Orton is over. Randy stays in his spot, while the person he was working with usually stays in the same spot, or falls down the card.

Think about Mahal’s match against AJ Styles this week on SmackDown. It was Styles’ job to make Mahal look like he’s a credible threat to Orton’s championship and that’s exactly what AJ did.

With the inclusion of the Singh brothers in Mahal’s gimmick, it’s conceivable that he could walk out of Chicago with the WWE championship. In order for a heel to beat a babyface for a title in WWE, there has to be some sort of interference and that layer is already built into Jinder’s character.

I know I’m going to bite on a near fall after one of the Singh brothers wacks Orton and Jinder hits his finisher, but I think Orton is going to walk into SummerSlam as the champion.

I’m not saying that’s the right decision because I think this is the time to give Mahal the title. He feels fresh and the crowd is taking him serious (YES THIS IS REAL LIFE), but Orton vs. Styles at SummerSlam for the title is much more appealing than Jinder vs. whoever for the title.

Kevin Owens (C) vs. AJ Styles (United States Championship)

SmackDown Pay-Per-Views have started off with WWE title matches before, so I can totally picture the Orton vs. Mahal match going on at the mid-point of the show, or even possibly as the opener.

Let’s be honest with ourselves, Owens vs. Styles should main event in Chicago. They’re the two best in-ring workers in the company and it’s in Chicago, so you know the crowd is going be white hot.

I’ve written about Owens’ “New Face of America” character and why I think it’s a big step in the right direction for him, but he’s not the only one in this match who has had a character change recently.

During Styles’ heel run the crowd couldn’t hold back from cheering for him. He did everything he could to try and get the crowd to boo him, but it rarely worked, besides the time when he refused to put Ambrose through a table. Note to all heels, if you tease a table spot and refuse to give it to the crowd, you’re going to get easy heat.

On the first SmackDown after WrestleMania, Styles shook Shane McMahon’s hand as a sign of respect for their match in Orlando. It didn’t seem like much at the time, but that was in fact the official face turn for Styles. He’s playing to the cheers and has been positioned with babyfaces in six-man tag matches.

Styles is an excellent seller, which is going to be on display this Sunday because the WWE style requires a heel to work over the face for a prolonged period of time. Owens has the offense to make the heat segment of the match appear to be brutal, which will only fire up the “AJ Styles, clap, clap, clap-clap-clap” chants in from the crowd.

I’d love for this match to turn into an ROH-NJPW style match, but it’s not in the realm of WWE to do that, so expect a ton of near-falls and big move after big move (a lot of power grapples if you’re familiar with WrestleMania 2000 or No Mercy for the N64).

This has the potential to be the best WWE match of 2017. I expect Owens to retain his title by hook or by crook.

Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Dolph Ziggler

If you skipped the actual build to Backlash and caught the commercials for PPV, you’d think Shinsuke Nakamura was wrestling in the main event for the championship. Every once in a while you’ll catch one featuring Mahal vs. Orton for the title, but Nakamura’s in-ring debut is getting a hard push and rightfully so.

Nakamura is a one of a kind performer. He’s unlike anything the world of professional wrestling has ever seen. If you watched him in NXT, you know that there’s more to him than his exhilarating entrance. He has the ability to put on captivating matches without having to sacrifice his body. He’s a smart worker with vicious looking strikes (Nakamura was a legit MMA fighter at one point in his career).

Has he been booked perfectly since his debut after WrestleMania?

The idea of having him cut promos in the ring with his mouthpiece in was a curious decision. Almost as curious as having him speak Japanese to Ziggler. When someone speaks a foreign language in front of a live crowd, the WHAT chants won’t be far behind.

Still, the fact that his in-ring debut is being saved for PPV and is getting this much attention is a big deal. Nakamura feels like a special attraction, which is something the WWE desperately needs right now. No one on the roster feels special outside of Brock Lesnar.

When Nakamura vs. Ziggler was announced I thought, it’s a perfect opponent for Nakamura’s introduction. Ziggler can make Nakamura look like a million bucks to the people who aren’t familiar with his work. But what I didn’t anticipate was how much Dolph would benefit from the build to this match.

The promo video pushing Ziggler’s accomplishments in the WWE was well done and it made him seem like a credible threat to Nakamura. Obviously working with Nakamura is a major upgrade over feuding with Apollo Crews and Kalisto. Even though it’s likely Dolph eats a Kinshazaaaaaaa and gets pinned on Sunday, at least this feud helped him a bit.

These two have worked with each other in dark matches for a few weeks now, so I’m expecting them to potentially tear the house down.

Charlotte/Naomi/Becky Lynch vs. Tamina/Carmella/Natalya w. James Ellsworth

Kudos to creative for coming up with something different than just another singles match for the women’s title, but I just can’t get excited for this one. I enjoyed the contract signing on Tuesday and thought Ellsworth crushed his promo (outside of one small botch), but this match just feels like filler. I expect Charlotte to turn on her team and cost them the match.

The Usos (C) vs. The Fashion Police

Who would have thought that Tyler effing Breeze and Fandango would be booked better than American Alpha?

The goofy but highly enjoyable Fashion Files segments have clearly done their job as the two got a great reaction when they came out for their match this past Tuesday. They’ve been given an opportunity to get their characters over and have hit a home run. The sudden success of Breeze and Fandango should be a reminder of how good the SmackDown (formerly the NXT) writing team is.

The Usos have also been on fire lately. They’ve clearly found their heel voice with these quick rapping/shouting promos. Every time they cut one, the crowd has no choice but to clap because they’re so damn good.

 

Even though this is as over as officer Breeze and deputy Dango have been on the main roster, I don’t expect them to win the tag titles. There’s no need to kill the Usos run right now when they’re just getting starting to hit their stride, especially with The New Day coming soon.

Sami Zayn vs. Baron Corbin

So is Zayn’s role to work with a big guy who the company has serious plans for in order to help them get better in the ring? If so, that’s exactly why Zayn is in this match with Corbin.

The “Lone Wolf” has a presence and a good look, but his matches always seem to leave me wanting more. Perhaps it’s because the crowd always seems to be dead for them. If Styles couldn’t get the crowd interested in a Corbin match, there might be a problem.

The story here is that no matter how hard Corbin tries, Zayn is not going to stay down, which makes me wonder if it’s going to lead Corbin to do something extreme to “try and put Zayn away for good.” If so, it might be exactly what Corbin needs to get the crowd to care about his programs. Right now, Corbin is just Braun Strowman-lite and there aren’t many people who like a bad light beer.

Because Corbin got pinned clean by Orton on SmackDown, I think he’ll get his win back in a big way.

Luke Harper vs. Erick Rowan

Even though this is totally a throwaway mid-card match, don’t be surprised if Harper and Rowan go out and blast each other with stiff shots. Harper has worked himself into excellent shape, while Rowan is playing a character that could be Mankind’s third cousin.

Harper should get the win here, but I would not be surprised if Rowan went over as a total surprise.

Tye Dillinger vs. Aiden English

Man, Dillinger is already working pre-show matches? That’s something a seven would do.

Twitter: @ScottDargis

It’s His Time: Jeff Jarrett will be inducted into WWE’s Hall of Fame Class of 2018

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The phrase never say never is one that is used quite often in the world of professional wrestling. It’s a saying that is mostly used to drum up interest in a person’s potential return to a company or an unlikely dream match that sends the Internet into a tizzy.

But in this instance, the phrase couldn’t be more appropriate because Jeff Jarrett is the newest member of WWE’s Hall of Fame.

That’s right, J-E-double-F J-A-double-R-E-double-T is going into the H-O-F.

“I would have never dreamed that in 2018 I’d be going into the Hall of Fame,” Jarrett said to NBC Sports last week, “but as I’ve sat back and looked I said, ‘Welp, I guess there are some things that are just meant to be.’”

Considering how Jarrett’s tenure with the WWE ended in 2001, there are quite a few people who never thought the door would be open for Double-J to return.

When WWE purchased WCW back in 2001, Vince McMahon infamously fired Jarrett live on television. This wasn’t just a standard segment in which Vince “fired” someone, this was a legit termination:

For someone who grew up and then went on to succeed in the wrestling business, Jarrett understood Vince’s line of thinking, “Vince does a lot of things well,” Jarrett said. “And he knows how to produce great TV. To me that night was just good TV.”

Even though the wrestling landscape in the United States seemed dry after WWE purchased WCW and ECW folded, Jarrett wasn’t worried about his future after being fired live on television.

“It’s a business and I knew that I was going to be getting paid on my Turner contract for about another eight or nine months, so I didn’t even think to address it that night,” Jarrett said.

Just over a year later after his firing, Jarrett and his father, Jerry, launched a new pro wrestling promotion: Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. A promotion that would launch the careers of future WWE/NXT superstars including: AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, Eric Young, and Bobby Roode.

But what if Jarrett wasn’t fired in 2001? What if he stayed in what was arguably the biggest transition period in the history of WWE?

“I’ve never been a guy to look in the rearview mirror and talk about what ifs, I’ve always been a guy who looks forward,” Jarrett said.

“I think from an in-ring perspective, I was just hitting my prime years in the early 2000s. I would have loved to work with the guys in WWE during that time period, but it wasn’t meant to be. I took my career in another direction and I’m glad I did so, but the Hall of Fame is another opportunity for things to come full circle.”

And boy, are things going to come full circle.

As of now, AJ Styles is set to defend his WWE championship against Shinsuke Nakamura at WrestleMania. Styles was one of the first pieces of fresh talent that Jarrett gave a major opportunity to in the early days of TNA. Without Jarrett’s vision, who knows if the “Phenomenal One” would have blossomed into the standout performer he is today.

For Jarrett, the idea of going into the Hall of Fame on the same weekend that Styles defends the WWE title at the company’s biggest show of the year is poetic justice.

“I don’t believe in coincidences, only convergences and AJ headlining and me going in to the Hall of Fame is perfect,” Jarrett said. “He’s been a friend since the early days of our relationship and it’s been great to watch him progress as a performer. I can’t say enough about the guy.”

Not only will this be a special moment for all of the superstars on the WWE roster who were given an opportunity to learn and grow on television thanks to Jarrett, it will truly be a special moment for his family.

Professional wrestling has been a three generation business for the Jarrett family. Decades before Jeff and his father launched TNA, Jerry Jarrett founded the Continental Wrestling Association in 1977, which eventually merged with World Class Championship Wrestling to become the United States Wrestling Association.

Jeff’s grandmother got into the business in the 1940s and quickly worked her way up. Working in her promotion at the concession stand helped Jarrett realize just how viable the wrestling business could be as a form of income.

When Jarrett is inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, he’s going to make sure that it’s a memorable time for everyone in his family who has helped him achieve this career milestone.

“It’s a humbling honor and I will be accepting it on behalf of just not myself, but my wife Karen, who has had to go through ups and downs. My dad, my stepmom, my uncle, who just passed away. My grandfather, my grandmother on the other side of my family,” Jarrett said.

“It’s a three generation business, so I’m accepting it for everyone in my family because it is a family business. That is something that is so humbling to me. I’m the one who got picked, but it’s really an award for the entire Jarrett family.”

Jarrett stayed mum about his future plans, who reached out to him from WWE about going into the HOF, and wouldn’t reveal who will induct him into the Hall of Fame, even though he already has an idea of who it will be. However, he didn’t stay quiet when asked why this is the right time for him to join the collection of wrestling’s biggest names.

“Quite frankly I’ve thought about that. Who am I? Why am I going in now? They asked and I had to do a head-scratcher because it was literally a shock,” he said. “There are less than 200 wrestlers in the Hall of Fame and you think about the thousands of guys that have laced up the boots and I’m going to be one of those 200. It just doesn’t seem right in my brain.”

While it may not seem right in Double-J’s brain, the convergence of important dates in Jarrett’s life will come to a head when he walks up to the microphone for his speech in New Orleans.

“When I first heard about it I looked at my calendar and saw that the date of the ceremony is April 6, 2018 and April 6 of 1986 was the day that I had my very first match. So 32 years to the day is sort of surreal.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis

 

 

Shawn Michaels Q&A: Legendary Raw match with John Cena, the nWo, working with WWE’s future stars

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WWE will celebrate the 25th anniversary of Raw with a unique show on Monday night at 8 p.m. ET on USA. The show will emanate from both the Manhattan Center and the Barclays Center.

I had the chance to chat with Shawn Michaels about some of the memorable matches and moments he had on Raw throughout his career, his role in developing the next wave of WWE talent and one moment when he knew he was going to venture off script during a promo. 

I’m sitting here watching the match you had with Max Moon on the first episode of Raw and I’m wondering how it must feel to know that you’re going to walk back into the Manhattan Center and participate on the 25th anniversary edition of the show.  

“Well I gotta tell you, I hope that’s where I get to go. No one has made any decisions yet as far as I know. As much as I love the Barclays Center, I would rather get to go back to the Manhattan Center.

I don’t know that at the time I was mature enough to appreciate how unbelievably cool and awesome that building was.

It’s sort of like a rock band. They start out in those places and then you want to get to play in stadiums. As phenomenal as it is to be in front of 80 or 90,000 people in a stadium, it’s really hard to beat going back to those intimate places, filling them up, and feeling that electricity, that passion, that excitement in that environment.

For me if I were to get to pick, that’s where I would want to go back to, especially on that night.”

I imagine you had a similar feeling when you appeared in San Antonio as a special guest referee in an NXT show

“Yeah! The old Aztec is a great environment as well. It’s one of the things that NXT does that I really enjoy. They play a lot of similar venues to that. It was a great deal of fun. That is one of the many things about helping out with NXT and the folks down at the [Performance Center].”

So last night as I was prepping for this interview I went on a YouTube deep dive into some of your memorable matches and moments on Raw. The first one I want to ask about is your hour-long match with John Cena in London. I’m curious to know how that came together because it’s so rare to have a WWE match that pushes the hour long mark, especially one that’s on free television.

“So that turned out at the very end of our European tour that year. We had already been on the road there for over a week.

I found out what we were doing when I got to the building and was like, ‘Oh my goodness!’

When you hear that the match is going an hour, it seems like a long time, but when you’re working with someone like John so much … I’ve had the opportunity to go back and watch that match and it just flows right by. That’s obviously a testament to John and heck I’ll even pat myself on the back a little for that one (laughs).

It’s amazing how trying to do that hour-long match didn’t seem like such a big mountain to climb. It really helps when you have a history with someone. John and I were coming off of the WrestleMania [23] match and because of that, we had a decent amount of story points to work around, so it was easy.

It obviously doesn’t hurt when you’re in a phenomenal environment as well. Let’s face it, the folks in the U.K. are pretty easy to wrestle in front of. They are a very passionate group.

I gotta say that’s one of my favorite matches.”

Another one of my favorites was the match you had with Shelton Benjamin in the Gold Rush tournament. You guys made unexpected magic in the ring that night. Had you worked with him before that match, or was it something that just organically came together as you were talking it out in the ring?

“I don’t think Shelton and I worked together before that and we barely worked together after that. It was just something that came together. Shelton is a phenomenal athlete. There isn’t anything that he can’t do and he also makes everything look flawless.

One of the strengths that I bring to the table is that I can work to other people’s strengths. If you have a lot of them, that makes it easier for me (laughs).

It’s one of those situations where you have someone who can do anything under the sun and you’re not too shabby yourself and then it becomes just a matter of putting things together that makes sense.

It certainly helps when you’re building to a certain point in the match and the timing comes off perfectly and that’s exactly how that match ended.

I know there are a fair amount of times that I’ve tried to capture that lightning in a bottle again and I don’t think it’s ever turned out as well as that did.”

Agreed. The only spot like that I can think of that came close was the superkick on Rey Mysterio, but it just didn’t have the punctuation because that was during a Survivor Series match, so it was just an elimination, which is much different than the finish of a high-energy match.

“Yes and that’s the thing. You know it is just special and when somebody asks to do it again you go, ‘Uhhhhhh we can try it ….’ I certainly knew that when it happened that it’s something you don’t mess with. You shouldn’t try to go back and do it again.”

I stumbled across the promo you cut at the beginning of Raw in Montreal in the summer of 2005. You were working with [Hulk] Hogan at that point, but obviously the only thing the crowd cared about was Bret Hart. It had to be an unbelievable feeling to know that you had everyone in the building eating out of the palm of your hand.

“That was one of the few times after I came back in 2002, where I went out there and there was absolutely no way that I was one, going to hit any of my time cues and two, that I was going to stay anywhere remotely close to the script.

That was a situation where everyone who knows anything about this line of work felt the same way as the crowd, so no one was going to be angry about it because the moment was perfect.”

Another little random moment in time is when you returned in 2002 as a member of the nWo. The group’s run was cut short due to Kevin Nash’s injury, but do you know how the storyline was supposed to play out? It seemed like we were going to get to a point where the group consisted of you, Nash, Hunter and X-Pac.

“That is a phenomenal question and I honestly don’t know where it was supposed to go because I had just gotten back to WWE. The extent of it, that I knew, was that Kevin was supposed to work with Hunter at the next Pay-Per-View.

(Writer’s note: Triple H appeared on the next PPV, Vengeance, in a segment backstage where, in storyline, SmackDown commissioner Stephanie McMahon and Raw commissioner Eric Bischoff tried to convince Triple H to sign with their brand, but Shawn Michaels persuaded Triple H to sign with Raw and then Hunter turned on him the next night when they appeared as D-Generation X.)

I know that we had turned on Booker and then we turned on [Big] Show, but I honestly don’t know where it was going because I was just finding my footing and didn’t know enough to be asking someone, ‘Where is this going?’

I had no intention of wrestling at that point and then of course so many things changed after Kevin went down. I need to hunt someone down and find the answer.”

In an interview you talked about fading into the background, but now here you are working at the Performance Center and helping out with NXT. What was it about being down there that made you want to get involved?

“It’s honestly the environment at the PC. Matt Bloom, Sara Amato, Terry Taylor, Robbie [Brookside], Norman [Smiley], Steve [Corino]. There are just so many great people who are there to do one thing.

Everyone is pulling the rope in the same direction. Absolutely nobody is trying to prove anything to anyone. Nobody is looking to do anything but help these young men and women have an opportunity to go out there and do what we had a chance to do.

It doesn’t work if all of those men and women you work with are all pains in the backside, but they’re not. If there was something that stuck in my craw I’d tell ya, but that’s what drew me to it.

For me, it was a situation where I looked at it and said, ‘Oh my goodness, all of the stuff that I absolutely love about this business is here and all of the stuff that I don’t care for and that I don’t feel like doing again are also here.’ It was just an absolutely perfect situation. It’s infectious and you feed off of the desire and the passion.

And then of course the direction and the vision of the people who are running that place. I’m not even talking about Hunter. He’s my buddy, obviously, and I can hang around him no matter what, but it’s what Matt and Sara and everyone else brings to that place.

It’s just a fun thing to be a part of and it’s fun be a part of the wrestling business.”

I have to imagine it’s great for someone like you who has so much experience in the business to help people when they’re struggling to find the answer with something and you can call back on an experience that will help them understand how to solve the issue.

“For sure and also getting them to think in ways that they might not know, or even more importantly, letting them know that what they were thinking about was right.

It also helps them because I was a risk-taker during my career. I’m certainly less structured than almost everybody else there (laughs). There’s a little bit of a rebellious gunslinger in me and that’s something that might be a part of some of them and I think those are the people who can be put with me and we can see where it goes.

I think they understand that if I say it’s too much, then it’s probably too much because let’s face it, there isn’t much that I think is too much.”

So what talent has stood out to you down there?

I love my guys. That’s [Johnny] Gargano, Roddy (Roderick Strong), Velveteen Dream, Adam Cole, Drew McIntyre, Killian Dain, Alexander Wolfe, [Tommaso] Ciampa, Authors of Pain, they’re doing great.

But as I’m learning now, there’s so much talent worldwide that I think the wrestling business is in great shape for the future.

What makes NXT standout to me in this clustered landscape of professional wrestling is the way it blends old school storyline building blocks, but with a new school twist in terms of in-ring style.

“I 100 percent agree with ya. It’s all of the sort of stuff that you like about the old school wrestling, but it’s done in today’s style. I think it’s a perfect dose of both.

Again one of the things that really helps down at the PC is, I’m not the bitter old timer (laughs). I encourage the change, I encourage the evolution, but it’s important for them to hear when they need to slow down. I tell them, you won’t slow down as much as they probably want you to, but neither did I. It’s all a learning curve.

I think it’s important for them to know that people said the same things to me when I was that age.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis