WWE Payback Analysis and Predictions

On the Monday Night Raw after WrestleMania 33, Vince McMahon proclaimed that the WWE is not lethargic and that the big wheel keeps on turning.  Sure enough, in the immediate aftermath of the biggest event of the year in the WWE, a new set of storylines began, a number of talents were called up from NXT, and superstars were traded between the Raw and Smackdown brands.  All of this was done with an eye towards selling us on a year’s worth of television, live events, and WWE Network subscriptions, leading into WrestleMania 34 in 2018.

Well, I have a spoiler alert for you.  Roman Reigns is going to be in his fourth consecutive WrestleMania main event at next year’s big show, and he will walk out of the Mercedes Benz Superdome in New Orleans as a winner and a champion.  Whether or not the rumors are true that there will be a repeat of the WrestleMania 31 main event with Reigns facing Brock Lesnar, it doesn’t change the situation.  Reigns was anointed to be the face of the WWE for the duration of his career.  His win over The Undertaker at WrestleMania was the figurative passing of the torch.

There is going to be a lot of hand-wringing from the fan base of the direction that Reign’s career is headed. It is a waste of time to point out all the flaws in his game and his overall lack of ability.  We are stuck with him no matter what.  Might as well enjoy booing the hell out of him every time he steps out of the curtain. It is somewhat cathartic.

While Reigns sits atop the food chain of the WWE these days, there are still lots of other compelling superstars to watch over the next year. The superstar shakeup has given us a chance to see some new matchups (except for the fact that Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens are now on Smackdown together so they’ll probably wrestle each other 25,000 times between now and WM 34), and you never know what you’re going to get with the latest round of NXT callups to the main roster.  Wrestling fans always love something new, and we are certainly going to get it.

The first Raw-themed pay-per-view since WrestleMania, Payback, takes place this Sunday and will pick up where WrestleMania left off.  Several matches on the card are rematches from WrestleMania, or they are the continuation of stories that were part of the WrestleMania build up.  Let’s take a look at what to expect.

Kevin Owens (c) vs. Chris Jericho in a Singles Match for the WWE United States Championship, if Jericho wins, he will be transferred to Smackdown

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The WWE missed a great opportunity to wrap up Jericho’s career at WrestleMania.  After a long and middling career that had been directionless for almost a decade, Jericho embarked on what was the best angle of his career when he was paired with Kevin Owens.  Their month’s long program revolving around their on-and-off again friendship produced drama, comedy, suspense, and surprise.  Jericho had never been so hot in his life.  At age 46, it would have been the perfect time for him to lose in a “loser goes home” match to Owens at ‘Mania.  He would have gone out at his absolute peak.

Instead, Jericho’s career persists with nowhere to go but down. Their match at WrestleMania was a serviceable effort, carried mainly by the younger and more talented Owens.  Chances are that this rematch will be a fun one to watch as it will likely blow off their feud for good and they will want to go out with a bang.

Prediction: Winner and still WWE United States Champion, Kevin Owens

The Hardy Boyz (Matt Hardy and Jeff Hardy) (c) vs, Cesaro and Sheamus in a Tag Team Match for the WWE Raw Tag Team Championship

Matt Hardy and Jeff Hardy returned home to the WWE to a hero’s welcome at WrestleMania 33 with their surprise entrance into the Raw Tag Team Championship match.  The Attitude Era holdovers enjoyed a successful run on the independent circuit of late and drove the crowd into a frenzy with their win.

What many probably don’t realize is that the Hardy Boyz used to lose during the Attitude Era.  A lot.  They hardly ever won a pay-per-view match in their heyday.  They were known as the team that could deliver high spots, but never come out on top.  Their win at WrestleMania was a surprise in that respect.

Cesaro and Sheamus continue to be a tag team of convenience.  The WWE didn’t know what to do with them as singles competitors anymore, so they were paired up as a babyface/heel combination.  This match gives them the opportunity to show what they can do as tag team competitors facing the veteran Hardy Boyz for the first time.

Prediction: Winners and still WWE Raw Tag Team Champions, The Hardy Boyz

Randy Orton vs. Bray Wyatt in a House of Horrors Match

While I am always reluctant to declare a match as one or the best or worst in WrestleMania history without giving it a few years to look back on things, the jury is out on the Orton/Wyatt match at WrestleMania.  The verdict is that match sucked, and it could go down as one of the bigger failures we’ve ever seen in WrestleMania history.

The WWE tried to use special effects to bolster the visual effect of the occult-like abilities of Bray Wyatt during the match.  It failed to captivate the audience when a projector suddenly showed images of bugs and grubs on the ring mat at various points during the match.  In fact, someone at my WrestleMania yelled at the TV “They’re just using a projector!  How dumb is that?”

The end result was not good for Bray Wyatt’s legacy.  He is now 0-3 at WrestleMania and will forever be associated with this dud of a WrestleMania match.  Randy Orton didn’t come out of it looking too great, either.

This House of Horrors match between the two is shrouded somewhat in mystery.  It is a stipulation we have never seen before, and it will likely build on some special effects, similar to what we saw at WrestleMania.  Given how poorly that worked out, I wouldn’t expect this match to be much better.  Besides, Bray Wyatt never wins big matches, why should we care about him?

Prediction: Winner, Randy Orton

Neville (c) vs. Austin Aires in a Singles Match for the WWE Cruiserweight Championship

I still haven’t figured out why I should care about the WWE Cruiserweight division.  Have you?  Someone wake me up if you do.

Prediction: Winner and still WWE Cruiserweight Champion, Neville

Bayley (c) vs. Alexa Bliss in a Singles Match for the WWE Raw Women’s Championship

The bar was set very low for the WWE Women’s division before Bayley arrived.  She somehow managed to lower it a great deal, and that is no small feat.  Awful gimmick, awful look, and awful wrestling.

Prediction: This match is going to suck

Seth Rollins vs. Samoa Joe

Samoa Joe is a fresh addition to Monday Night Raw.  Already in his late 30’s, he doesn’t have much more of a shelf life in the professional wrestling business, so it is go-time for the big man.  I like what they are doing with his character, presenting him as a hit-man for The Authority.  It gives him a chance to do some nice heel work, and pair well with the babyfaces on the Raw roster.

Seth Rollins has never regained the momentum he lost as a heel champion in 2015 before he broke his knee and missed an extended period of time, including WrestleMania 32.  He isn’t a natural babyface and worked much better as an arrogant and cowardly heel.  This matchup against Samoa Joe, however, could end up being the match of the night.  The two veterans are capable of putting on a compelling match.  Certainly, Samoa Joe will want to make an impression in his WWE pay-per-view debut match.

Prediction: Winner, Samoa Joe

Roman Reigns vs. Braun Strowman

I’ve said my piece about Roman Reigns at the beginning of this blog, and in pretty much every other blog post I’ve done over the past several years.  I’m getting tired of repeating myself.

The shame of it is that Reigns is killing Strowman’s momentum and credibility, just at a time when Strowman was starting to get good and be recognized by the fans.  The WWE did a fantastic job of building Strowman to be a monster heel over the second half of 2016, and he has shown constant improvement over the last year.

Unfortunately, Strowman had been used as the sacrificial lamb to get Reigns ready for his eventual win against The Undetaker at WrestleMania 33.  When he lost to Reigns at Fastlane, he lost a lot of his shine.  He recovered a lot of it with his vicious (and somewhat funny) beat down of Reigns on Raw a few weeks ago, that included him turning over an ambulance that Reigns was in!

All of that is going to be lost, when yet again, he jobs to Reigns.  I really wish that they had picked someone else for this spot and left Strowman off the card altogether.  It doesn’t benefit Strowman to be in this position at all, there is no way he is going to come out of this looking good when he loses, yet again, to Reigns.

Prediction: Winner, Roman Reigns

WrestleMania 33 Postscript: Farewell to the Deadman

Prior to WrestleMania 33, the last time WrestleMania was held at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando, FL was WrestleMania XXIV in 2008.  The most memorable match of that night was Shawn Michaels vs. Ric Flair as it was Flair’s last match in the WWE.  The running storyline was that Vince McMahon told Flair that Flair would have to retire should he lose a match.  So, it was pretty obvious that Michaels was going to win the match, sending Flair into retirement.  We could see it coming, but it was a very emotional and sad moment for fans of The Dirtiest Player in the Game.

Headed into WrestleMania 33, there were rumors that The Undertaker could be retiring soon, but nothing was confirmed.  We also didn’t know the ordering of the matches on the card, with many speculating that the Brock Lesnar vs. Goldberg match would end the show.  There weren’t loud rumors that Undertaker vs. Roman Reigns would close the be the final match of the night.

The Undertaker vs. Roman Reigns match was difficult to watch for many reasons. First off, Roman Reigns stinks and has virtually no command of the crowd with his limited offensive move set.  Someone at my WrestleMania party noted that “you could count the number of moves this guy has on one hand”.  All the Superman Punches that Reigns threw at The Undertaker were met with silence from the crowd.

But more upsetting than watching Reigns wrestle, was watching The Undertaker try to make it through the match.  There were several spots in the match that he didn’t seem like he had the strength to follow through.  Most notably, he barely was able to lift Roman Reigns up for The Last Ride powerbomb.

Father Time has caught up to The Undertaker.  His last great matches are long in the past and he was a shell of his former self at WrestleMania 33.  It was like watching the greatest shortstop to ever play baseball, Derek Jeter, struggle in his final season with The Yankees to hit .256 as they failed to make the playoffs.  It was similar to watching Martin Brodeur, the greatest goaltender in the history of hockey, make it to the Stanley Cup finals with the New Jersey Devils in 2012, only to get outplayed by the Los Angeles Kings’ young goaltender Jonathan Quick, and to watch The Kings win the cup.  In all three cases, Brodeur, Jeter, and Undertaker, it was heartbreaking to watch an all-time-great who’s career that I had followed from the very beginning while their skills eroded at the end of their careers.

Following the match, after his loss to Reigns, when The Undertaker took off his iconic gloves, jacket, and hat and laid them down in the ring to signify his intent to retire, it felt like it was the right time for him to go.  The WWE played out his exit from the ring and the sport of professional in a classy and dignified manner.  It was sad to see him go, but it was the right thing to do.  It was a beautiful moment, one that won’t be forgotten by fans of The Undertaker.

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One of the last moments of the iconic career of The Undertaker.

The flip side of the coin, however, was the baffling decision to make Roman Reigns the winner of the match.  Now the proverbial “torch” has been passed to Reigns, and he will be known as the person who retired The Undertaker.  Reigns has now been in three straight WrestleMania main event matches, and each one was a dud.

One of my readers told me before the show that if Reigns won, he’d cancel his WWE Network subscription.  After the show, he e-mailed me his confirmation e-mail saying that his subscription was indeed cancelled.  The mood at my viewing party was pretty grim when Reigns won. In fact, a guy wearing an Undertaker shirt left before the match even started because he was worried that he would lose and he didn’t want to see it.  That, and it was very late!

Our worst fears as WWE fans have been realized: The Undertaker, after 26 glorious years in The WWE has called it a career, and we are left with Roman Reigns on top.  What else is there to say?

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Here’s your new face of The WWE, Roman Reigns.

WrestleMania 33 was an interesting show, but in some ways, it was disappointing.  The big problem I had was the length of the show.  Counting the pre-show, it was just a shade over seven hours long!  This is bucking the trend in sports, the NFL, MLB, and NASCAR are all making changes to their events to make them shorter, and the WWE is bucking that trend by headed in the opposite direction.  Less would have been more for the WWE, had they cut out the women’s matches, shortened some of the entrances, and knocked out the mini Pitbull and Flo Rida concert, it would have been a much more manageable show.  Most of the people at my viewing party were falling asleep on the couch after 11 PM.  I can only imagine how worn out the live crowd was.

Only time will tell, but none of the matches jumped out at me as an “instant classic”.  Other than The Undertaker’s retirement, there weren’t too many other indelible WrestleMania moments.  There were however, some good spots and matches on the card, and I’ll break them down by looking at the winners and losers on the night.

The Losers

  • Rob Gronkowski: He was too injured to play the second half of The Patriots’ NFL season but he was good enough get physical on the WrestleMania pre-show? Hopefully, Bill Belichick was watching and plans to cut Gronk from the team in response.
  • Braun Strowman: He had a great build from July until the month before WrestleMania. Just as he was starting to get over, he jobbed to Reigns, backed down from The Undertaker on Raw, was relegated to the André the Giant Memorial Battle Royal on the WrestleMania pre-show, and was eliminated early in the match.  He had momentum, now he has lost all credibility and probably won’t recover.
  • The Big Show: In what was likely his last WrestleMania, he was also eliminated early from the Battle Royal. Unfortunate send off for the big man.
  • Baron Corbin: Underwhelmed and lost in his first WrestleMania one-on-one match.
  • John Cena: No, he didn’t really get engaged to Nikki Bella after their awful match. This was done as a commercial for a reality show, folks.  Cena deserved a better WrestleMania moment than this.  He once was a WrestleMania main-eventer, what happened?
  • Bray Wyatt: Now 0-3 at WrestleMania, and was champion for just over one month.
  • Samoa Joe: Why wasn’t he anywhere on the card?
  • The Cruiserweight Division: Still not over with the fans.
  • The Women’s Division: Not only is it not over with the fans, it will never be over with the fans, and now it is completely over-exposed. Both women’s matches were brutally awful to watch.
  • WWE Fans: We sat through seven hours of a show that ultimately anointed Roman Reigns as the face of the company for years to come. He’s worked three straight WrestleMania main events, he’ll never be any better than he is now.

The Winners

  • Mojo Rawley: For what it’s worth, winning the Battle Royale was an important win for him. Let’s see if he can capitalize.
  • AJ Styles: Made his match with Shane McMahon look great, and he got his first career WrestleMania win at age 39.
  • Shane McMahon: The daredevil held up his end of the bargain in his match against Styles. McMahon never disappoints.
  • Dean Ambrose: The WWE’s hardest worker walked out with his Intercontinental title in hand. He’ll never be the face of the company, but is a steady hand that the fans enjoy.
  • Kevin Owens: Owens added another title to his resume after an entertaining program and WrestleMania match against Chris Jericho.
  • Chris Jericho: After a long and mediocre career, Jericho finally got hot these past eight months. Good for him, that at his age he was able to perform well in a one-on-one WrestleMania match.
  • The Miz: The match was awful, but he drew raves for his skits spoofing The Total Bella’s show these past few weeks. He’s one of the best heels the WWE has right now and can build off of this momentum.
  • Triple H: Coolest entrance of the night. He got to ride a custom-built trike to the ring with a police escort.  How great was that?
  • Seth Rollins: Toughed out a recent knee injury to put on a good show.
  • Stephanie McMahon: The 40-year-old mother of three never looked better. She did a great job of selling her bump through the table, something she rarely does.
  • The Hardy Boyz: Triumphantly returned home to the WWE with a raucous reception from the crowd as they won championship gold.
  • Jim Ross: After he was unceremoniously fired in 2013, Ross made his surprise return to WrestleMania to call the main event match.  Good end to a tough two weeks for Ross following the tragic death of his wife.
  • Brock Lesnar: Back on top as “The Destroyer” after he beat Goldberg to win the WWE Universal Championship. It was a fast-paced match and the crowd was hot for it.
  • Goldberg: Exercised the demons from his initial WWE run with a highly entertaining program with Brock Lesnar. He got to be champion one more time, and he got to wrestle in front of his young son.  This match was immensely better than their previous clash at WrestleMania XX.
  • The Undertaker: Had one of the best careers of any professional wrestler. Thanks for the memories, Deadman.  It is hard to imagine WrestleMania without you.

With WrestleMania 33 in the books, expect things to reset starting with Raw and Smackdown this week.  There are likely going to be wrestlers called up from NXT this week, and there could be some trades between the Raw and Smackdown brands.  The WWE never takes any time off, it’s the story that never ends.  It will be interesting to see where things head this month.

If you have any questions or comments, please comment below or send me an e-mail (advice@njnonconformist.com).

WrestleMania 33 Analysis and Predictions Part 3: The Raw Matches

Part three of my four-part series on WrestleMania 33 will focus on the Raw matches.  On paper, these matches, in isolation, would make for a great pay-per-view card.  As part of the overall show which is much bigger, the performers in them are going to all have to step things up a notch in order to be noticed and remembered.  There is no shortage of opportunities here for some of these matches to considered classics if done well.

Seth Rollins vs. Triple H in a Non-Sanctioned Match

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Nothing like a contract signing to get the juices flowing for a WrestleMania match.

This match is a great example of how long-term storytelling can build a tremendous amount of anticipation for a match.  This match was made to be at WrestleMania for almost three years now and we finally can get out payoff for years of investment in the storyline.

The Shield was the most popular faction the WWE had seen in years when it made its debut on the main WWE roster in 2012.  At the time of their arrival, it seemed that all three members had unlimited potential as singles competitors, and they had their chance to do such when Seth Rollins turned on the other two members of The Shield in a masterfully orchestrated heel turn in 2014, and aligned with Triple H.  Rollins immediately overshowed Roman Reigns who turned out to be the most overrated of the three.  Rollins went on to be WWE Champion and United States Champion over the course of a torrid heel run.

Unfortunately, Rollins lost all the momentum he had when he badly broke his knee at the tail end of 2015, forcing him to forfeit his championship and to miss WrestleMania 32.  Upon his return in 2016, Rollins was eventually placed in a match for the new WWE Universal Championship which he lost to Finn Bálor at SummerSlam.  The feeble Bálor was injured during the match and had to immediately vacate the title, thus setting up Rollins for a second chance to win it in a fatal-four-way match on Raw.  Much to everybody’s surprise, Triple H, who hadn’t been seen on TV since WrestleMania 32, made his return to Raw, and gave Rollins The Pedigree.  This handed the championship to Kevin Owens and turned Rollins babyface.  It also set the stage for this match at WrestleMania 33.

Unfortunately for Rollins, he re-injured his previously broken knee in the run-up to WrestleMania 33 earlier this year.  There was speculation that he wouldn’t be medically cleared for WrestleMania yet again this year, but he appears to have re-habilitated his knee to the point that he will be able to make it through a match.  The WWE added his knee injury to the creative angle of the match by making it a non-sanctioned match, ostensibly forcing Rollins to waive any liability to the WWE if he suffers further injury.

Triple H has amassed a 9-11 WrestleMania win/loss record in his 20 WrestleMania appearances. Very few of those matches are remembered as timeless classics, he always seems to be overshadowed by somebody else on the roster.  But there is no doubt that The Cerebral Assassin brings his best to WrestleMania.

If there is one thing Triple H is good at, it is building and selling a hot wrestling angle.  His verbal assault and his beatings he’s placed on Seth Rollins these past few weeks have been absolutely brutal.  He has the crowd in the palm of his hand, with them all hoping he gets beat by his former protégé. Not to mention, he always has an outrageous entrance at WrestleMania that is sure to bring the crowd to its feet.

I have high hopes for this match, as long as Rollins’ knee is up to the task.  If he is healthy enough to perform, I would expect that Rollins will put on a technical masterpiece, and this match will tell an intense story.

Prediction: Winner, Triple H

Neville (c) vs. Austin Aries in a Singles match for the WWE Cruiserweight Championship

The cruiserweight division has not caught on and is not over with the fans of the WWE Raw flagship show.  Once the division made its debut on Raw in 2016, it lost all momentum it had gained after the critically acclaimed Cruiser Weight Classic tournament.  In the isolation of their own show on the WWE Network, the cruiserweights were able to put on an entertaining program.  When thrust into Raw, the individual competitors got lost.  There’s no good reason for the fans to care about any of them, they just showed up with over-the-top ring entrances and theme music with no other real backing of their characters.  Eventually, I would just start to fast-forward through their segments and matches because they are boring.  I’m done with it, something is going to have to drastically change for me to care about the Raw Cruiserweight Division.

I suppose that if you are actually paying attention, these two are going to lay it on the line and perform some high-flying spots designed to get a pop out of the crowd.  The match won’t go very long as it is part of the pre-show, where it belongs.

Prediction: Winner and still WWE Cruiserweight Champion, Neville

Bayley (c) vs. Charlotte Flair vs. Sasha Banks vs. Nia Jax in a Fatal 4-Way Elimination match for the WWE Raw Women’s Championship

Not even the daughter of Ric Flair can save this match from being a total abomination.  At least it will be a good time for a bathroom break during the show.

Prediction: This match is going to suck.

Chris Jericho (c) vs. Kevin Owens in a Singles match for the WWE United States Championship

This match is a shining example of how great storytelling, the right setting, and the right amount of time, can set up a stellar matchup at WrestleMania.  The months-long “friendship” angle between Owens and Jericho seemed like it was designed to be a joke or a one-night-only occurrence at first.  But the angle was kept alive for months, and delivered enough twists and turns to take us to an eventual WrestleMania match between the two.

Chris Jericho has never been the best, despite his massive ego and how he refers to himself.  He was overshadowed by his contemporaries like The Rock, Kurt Angle, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and Shawn Michaels for good reason.  They were all better than him.  His many returns as a nostalgia act over the past several years didn’t catch on at all, and resulted in some boring and routine matches that didn’t resonate with the WWE fan base.  All this changed when he paired up with Kevin Owens in his most recent run.

Kevin Owens caught on with the WWE audience since day one.  He doesn’t have a prototypical WWE wrestler’s look, in fact, he’s clearly overweight and not a physical specimen at all.  However, he connected with the fans as someone who is relatable to them.  Despite the fact that he has worked exclusively as a heel, he appealed to adult fans and gets his fair share of cheers.  Fans respect his ability to get a storyline over with his great promos, he can be funny, evil, arrogant, and sarcastic, just like any top heel should be able to do.  He has an innovative in-ring style, and his matches keep you on the edge of your seat.

The pairing of Owens and Jericho has revitalized Jericho’s career. Some say this is his best and most memorable run ever.  At age 46, he probably is nearing retirement from the ring, and this match could be his last chance to create a lasting WrestleMania memory.  Owens, on the other hand, still has plenty of gas left in the tank and wants to show the world that he can be a WrestleMania headliner at some point in his career.

Prediction: Winner and new WWE United States Champion, Kevin Owens

Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson (c) vs. Enzo Amore and Big Cass vs. Cesaro and Sheamus in a Triple threat ladder tag team match for the WWE Raw Tag Team Championship

Unlike most of the matches on the card, this one has veered towards “overbooked” territory.  It would be one thing if it were a just a triple-threat tag team match.  All three teams have had a great year and are deserving of being on the card somehow.  But the late addition of the ladder stipulation was unnecessary.  It’s almost as if somebody in WWE creative said to themselves last Monday “Oh, crap!  We forgot to book a ladder match at WrestleMania!  It’s not WrestleMania without a ladder match!”

The triple-threat ladder match at WrestleMania was revolutionized by Edge and Christian, The Hardy Boys, and The Dudleys during The Attitude Era.  The revolution grew organically because the talents in them had shown the ability to work well in ladder matches prior to WrestleMania.  The trio of wrestlers in this year’s ladder match don’t exactly have the same resume as those three classic teams had headed into WrestleMania 2000.

Gallows and Anderson have had a start-and-stop push since their WWE debut in 2016.  In the beginning, they made a big splash as members of “The Club” along with AJ Styles and were received well by the fans.  They ended up somehow getting lost in the pack after the brand split in July, but hung in there and were eventually awarded the Raw Tag Team championship.  They seem to be still finding their way in the WWE, but this championship run, along with this match on WrestleMania 33 will certainly help their cause.

Enzo Amore and Big Cass hit the floor running when they received the call to the main roster last year.  Their exposure from NXT had the crowd chanting along with their cadence on their very first night.  They are an entertaining duo despite the fact that they work exclusively as baby faces.  This is the type of pairing that is destined to break up at some point and feud with each other, so it is best for them to seize the opportunity they have now while they are still together.

Cesaro and Sheamus are together as a team, likely because the WWE has run out of ideas what to do with them as singles competitors.  Cesaro is never going to catch fire, and Sheamus has been to the top but that was in the distant past.  They found chemistry together and work well against both of the teams they are facing off against in this match.

This match could be either remembered as a classic, or bowling shoe-ugly.  The ladder stipulation isn’t helping matters much.  Instead of tagging in and out, all six men will be in the ring at the same time, making it difficult for them to time their spots well.

Prediction: Winners and still WWE Raw Tag Team Champions, Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson

Goldberg (c) vs. Brock Lesnar (with Paul Heyman) in a Singles match for the WWE Universal Championship

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WWE Universal Champion, Goldberg is ready for his WrestleMania rematch against Brock Lesnar.

Who would have seen this match coming this time last year?  Goldberg was an afterthought, a revered WCW hero who never caught on in the WWE, who seemed to be happy to have moved on with his life. All we knew about his departure from the WWE was that it was acrimonious and it didn’t seem like, at age 50, he was destined to come back for one more run.

What we didn’t know, was that Goldberg had the desire to come back one more time due to a life-changing event, the birth of his son.  As he grew older, Goldberg wanted to give his son, Gabe, a chance to see him wrestle one more time.  It seems that this humbled Goldberg and he was able to patch up his differences with the McMahon family and agree to return for the Survivor Series in 2016 for a match against Brock Lesnar.

The professional wrestling world was shocked at the outcome of the Lesnar/Goldberg Survivor Series match when Goldberg easily defeated Lesnar in about a minute and a half.  Critics were quick to point out that they thought that the reason this happened was because of Goldberg’s age and lack of ability, the longest he could last in a match was under two minutes.  What the critics didn’t see, however, was the WWE building towards a bigger feud between the two that will culminate in a WrestleMania 33 match between the two.

This is a very interesting angle that the WWE used to build this match.  Brock Lesnar has been presented as an unbeatable destroyer since he ended The Streak of The Undertaker at WrestleMania XXX.  By painting him as someone who “underestimated” Goldberg, causing him to lose, it keeps his credibility as a destroyer intact.  It also paints Lesnar as a credible threat to turn the tide and defeat Goldberg the second time around.

I had the misfortune of seeing their first matchup at WrestleMania XX live at Madison Square Garden.  That match was a mess as both men, and the audience, knew they both were about to leave the WWE after that night.

This time around, both men are in a different place in their careers and their personal lives.  Both genuinely want to put on a good show this time around, and make up for their lackluster performance in 2014.  Goldberg isn’t known for putting on long matches, and at this age, it’s not known if he even can perform in a long match.  But, that is beside the point.  If this match goes 1 minute, 5 minutes, or 30 minutes, it will certainly be designed to tell a story and give the live crowd something to react to.

Prediction: Winner, and still WWE Universal Champion, Goldberg

I realize I’m going against the grain with this pick.  The betting odds heavily favor Lesnar as Goldberg is rumored to be done with the WWE after this match.  But the WWE shocked us once before at Survivor Series the last time these two faced each other.  It wouldn’t surprise me if it happens again at WrestleMania 33.

Stay tuned for more analysis between now and Sunday.  If you have any questions or comments, please comment below or send me an e-mail (advice@njnonconformist.com).

 

WrestleMania 33 Analysis and Predictions Part 1

The pinnacle of the professional wrestling year, WrestleMania 33, takes place this Sunday.  The WWE has come up with a new tagline for this year’s installment: The Ultimate Thrill Ride.  Given that it starts at 5 PM EDT and will likely not end until about midnight, it had better be thrilling to keep us engaged for 7 straight hours!

WrestleMania has grown at an exponential pace over the last decade.  It has a tremendous economic impact to the city it takes place in, and it gives the WWE a chance to connect with people who are not members of its current fan base.  Most importantly, it helps drives subscriptions to the WWE Network, the centerpiece of the WWE’s long-term business strategy.

Given all of these factors, WrestleMania will have a different look and feel than other pay-per-view events throughout the year.  For one, it’s much longer because the WWE no longer is subject to the hard-out times of cable operators and can stream for as long as they’d like on their own network.  There are also entertainers brought in that don’t normally appear on WWE programming. Booking decisions behind matches are also sometimes out of the ordinary.

The unusual feel of WrestleMania may at times cause the serious fan to feel somewhat alienated.  Given that we are already hooked on the product and spend our money on merchandise, tickets to live events, and the WWE Network, we aren’t interested in the gimmicks that the WWE uses to lure casual fans to the product.  This year, however, the WWE has done a good job of protecting us in a lot of ways through the build-up and matchmaking decisions for WrestleMania 33.

With the exception of a few egregious creative missteps, the WWE has done a good job of delivering a compelling set up matches for WrestleMania 33, many of which we are emotionally invested in as the means to an end of a long-running story.  Unlike the WrestleMania’s of recent years past, this year’s card is full of one-on-one matchups, built around feuds and championships.  There are fewer all-hands-on-deck matches that clutter up the card than in years past.  For once, the Intercontinental Championship won’t be settled in a 7-man ladder match, instead the winner of a one-on-one matchup will be crowned champion.  In this WWE blogger’s opinion, this is the best WrestleMania card we’ve seen in a very long time, possibly even since the Attitude Era.

If you are interested in the entertainment aspect of WrestleMania, someone named Tinashe is going to sing “America the Beautiful”.  Pitbull, Flo Rida, Lunchmoney Lewis, and Stephen Marley are also going to perform in some capacity.  I’ve heard of none of them other than Flo Rida, and I only know him because he performed at WrestleMania XXVII.  Al Roker is going to be the guest ring announcer for the John Cena match. Most importantly, Metallica’s “Am I Savage?” will be the official theme song for the Triple H vs. Seth Rollins match.

Closer to home, The New Day are scheduled to appear, but in a non-wrestling capacity as the hosts of WrestleMania.  Other than a big entrance and a comedy-based skit, it’s anybody’s guess what their angle will be during the show.  Maybe they get involved in a match?  Maybe they are confronted in the ring by a returning WWE Superstar or NXT call-up?  Maybe one of them turns heel and attacks the other two?  How cool would that be?

The potential outcomes of the matches, or any unexpected participation by superstars not currently announced to be on the card, are almost endless.  Some feuds will come to an end, and others will continue on for some time.  Some competitors will look to deliver a career-defining performance.  In a crowded field of 13 matches, we may bear witness to an instant classic like Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XXV.  Maybe we get a double-turn ala Bret “The Hitman” Hart vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin at WrestleMania XXIII.  Maybe Roman Reigns won’t suck for once.  OK, that last one is a longshot, but one can hope for the best!

This is the first of my 4-part series on WrestleMania 33.  Part 2 will cover the Smackdown matches, Part 3 will cover the Raw matches, and Part 4 will be dedicated to The Undertaker vs. Roman Reigns match.  I’ll break down the competitors and likely outcomes of each match, and offer my expert pick for the win.  To round this first blog post out, I’ll give a rundown of the battle royal as it doesn’t fit any of these three categories.

2017 André the Giant Memorial Battle Royal

20170307_WM33_Andre--430c681388814db3ef74fcdfd3f2bdd8.jpg

The André The Giant Memorial Battle Royal Trophy along with it’s namesake.

In only the 4th installment of the André the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, the match has lost a lot of the original luster it had at WrestleMania XXX.  Nothing much came of the first two that were won by The Big Show and Cesaro, and last year’s surprise victory by Baron Corbin was unexpected.  Instead of build on last year’s momentum, the WWE has moved the battle royal back to the pre-show.  The full entrant list is already public and there will be no surprises, unlike last year when Shaquille O’Neal entered and Corbin qualified by winning an NXT even the night prior.

Most of the competitors in the match have no shot at winning.  They barely are seen on WWE live TV, and many of them are in tag teams that have lost their push and barely have an impact on any ongoing storylines.  Only a handful seem likely to emerge as the victor, either because of past experience, or an apparent desire for the WWE to give one of them a push.  Here are the competitors, bucketed by odds:

No chance

  • Aiden English
  • Bo Dallas
  • Chad Gable
  • Curt Hawkins
  • Curtis Axel
  • Epico
  • Fandango
  • Goldust
  • Heath Slater
  • Jason Jordan
  • Jey Uso
  • Jimmy Uso
  • Jinder Mahal
  • Kalisto
  • Konnor
  • Mark Henry
  • Primo
  • Rhyno
  • R-Truth
  • Simon Gotch
  • Sin Cara
  • Tyler Breeze
  • Viktor
  • Tian Bing

Longshot

  • Apollo Crews
  • Dolph Ziggler
  • Sami Zayn
  • Titus O’Neil

Favorite

  • Big Show
  • Braun Strowman
  • Mojo Rawley

It is disappointment to see the veterans Goldust, Mark Henry, Rhyno, and R-Truth in the No Chance category.  They all have an impressive resume, highlighted by solid heel runs in the past. There just doesn’t seem to be any room for them in today’s WWE product to be featured in any other capacity than a quick in-and-out at WrestleMania.

The longshots have a chance because they gather a bit more attention on regular WWE programming.  Sami Zayn and Apollo Crews are relevant as recent NXT products who appear to have a push behind them.  Dolph Ziggler and Titus O’Neil are career underachievers, but are bolstered by the fact that they occasionally do get a moderate push.

The favorites, in my opinion, are The Big Show, Braun Strowman, and Mojo Rawley.  The Big Show is rumored to be winding down his two-decade-long career and was also rumored to have almost been in a match against Shaquille O’Neal that didn’t come together.  The WWE may want to give him the consolation prize of his second career André trophy.  Braun Strowman was in the middle of a huge push when he had all of his momentum derailed as a pawn in the Roman Reigns/Undertaker feud.  The WWE might want to re-start his push with a win in this match.  Mojo Rawley is a man without much of an identity at this point, but has spent a lot more time on TV lately, and is likely somebody the WWE has plans for going forward.  The André trophy could be the catalyst for him taking the next step in his career.

Either way, this match is probably not going to be a classic.  When it starts off with 31 guys in the ring, all they can really do is throw punches and kicks at each other, and awkwardly throw each other out of the ring until there are maybe 5 or so competitors left.  At that point, the match may tell a story and give someone a bit of a push in the end.

Prediction: Winner, Braun Strowman

Stay tuned for more analysis between now and Sunday.  If you have any questions or comments, please comment below or send me an e-mail (advice@njnonconformist.com).

WWE Survivor Series Analysis and Predictions

As far as I’m concerned, everybody on Smackdown is dead to me.”  Among my circle of friends who are fans of WWE, this has been the going sentiment since the brand split in July.  None of us are really excited about another brand split and we can’t understand why the WWE is repeating an experiment that has already failed. We didn’t buy into the phony competition between the two brands the first time the WWE tried this and we aren’t buying it now.  Most of us are suffering from WWE fatigue from having to watch two shows to keep up with what is going on, or just not watching Smackdown at all.  This is not what the WWE wanted.  They really think we have enough time to watch three hours of Raw, two hours of Smackdown, and maybe a three to four hour pay-per-view each week!

The brand split comes into play at the Survivor Series as three matches on the will feature talents from both shows competing against each other.  Instead of the traditional babyface vs. heel Survivor Series teams that we have seen in the past, allegiances are based on brand.  Teams are now a confusing mess of good and bad guys that don’t have a compelling reason to care about each other.  In fact, in some cases, the card just looks plain silly.

For example, on Team Smackdown for the 5-on-5 elimination men’s match, Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton are on a team with Dean Ambrose.  It just looks outright silly to see Bray Wyatt in a blue Smackdown t-shirt and acting like he cares about the match and his teammates.  It also doesn’t make much sense for the Randy Orton storyline, having recently joined up with the Wyatt Family.  This doesn’t really cement his status as a member of an outsider heel faction if he is suddenly teaming up with several babyfaces he should be in a rivalry with instead.

On the other side of this match on Team Raw there is an even more ridiculous scenario with Roman Reigns teaming with Seth Rollins.  What possible reason could these to have to get along as teammates following Rollins’ betrayal of The Shield two years ago?  Why are they suddenly cooperating with each other?  Where is the logic behind this?

The overall issue with the three Survivor Series matches on the card is the fact that we won’t be able to really decide which teams to root for.  The fans don’t really care about Smackdown vs. Raw, we just care about good guys vs. bad guys.  And we want to decide who the good and bad guys are, not be told who they are (see Roman Reigns for example).  The best thing to hope for is some entertaining spots in these matches and hope the storylines progress on individual levels.  As such, I’m not going to attempt to predict who will win or lose these matches.

There are some things to look for with the rest of the card, certainly highlighted by the return of Goldberg to face Brock Lesnar. There is also a chance that we will see The Undertaker return in some capacity, and we may also see the beginnings of some WrestleMania storylines. Let’s take a look at the remaining matches.

The Brian Kendrick (c) vs. Kalisto in a singles match for the WWE Cruiserweight Championship; if Kalisto wins, the title and the cruiserweight division will transfer to SmackDown

That certainly is some stipulation!  I have no idea why it’s needed.  Do the fans really care which show the cruiserweight division competes in?  Is this stipulation going to somehow enhance this match?  Can’t Kendrick and Kalisto have a championship match without having to worry where they show up for work this week?

The Cruiserweight division seemed to do well on its own when it kicked off this summer with the Cruiserweight Classic specials on the WWE Network.  It was marketable to a niche set of WWE fans that appreciate the type of fast-paced and high-flying action that the cruiserweights deliver.  It had a mix of young and veteran talent, and was well received by the fans.

When the division made it to Raw, it has gotten lost in the shuffle.  It doesn’t pair well with the rest of the roster, and in many cases, it is illogical in the sense that there are other competitors that compete at under 205 pounds but are not obligated to only compete as cruiserweights.  Maybe it needs more time to settle in, but the division doesn’t work well for me right now.

This match will be a typical cruiserweight match with lots of quick spots and back-and-forth action.  Look for Kalisto to attempt to defy gravity, and hopefully for Kendrick to use some sort of underhanded means to gain an advantage in the match.

Prediction: Winner and still Cruiserweight Champion, The Brian Kendrick

The Miz (c) (with Maryse) vs. Sami Zayn in a singles match for the WWE Intercontinental Championship; if Zayn wins, the title will transfer to Raw

Here we go again with another Raw vs. Smackdown angle, this one around the prestigious Intercontinental title. The Miz surprisingly won the title from Dolph Ziggler on Raw and was inserted into this match at the last minute.  I’m not sure I understand the logic behind this, especially since Ziggler was the one who issued the challenge to the Raw roster to defend the title against one of them.  Then again, there isn’t much logic to what we’ve seen lately in the run up to Survivor Series, so what’s the difference?

The title pictures are a muddled mess between the two brands.  It’s hard to tell what is what.  The only obvious ones are the Smackdown Women’s and Tag Team Championships because they are named after their own brand.  But the Intercontinental title isn’t named after a brand so somehow it floats in the middle of things.

What is important to me is the prestige of the IC title itself. Some of the greatest wrestlers of all time have proudly worn the IC championship belt, and it often has been misused in the past decade or so with forgettable and brief championship runs.  The Miz is one of the best IC champions we have seen in a long time and has held the title for most of the last six months since the Raw after WrestleMania.  He is a dependable heel, and cuts some of the best promos in the business.  The fans genuinely hate the guy and that in turn helps his opponents look better as they chase the title.

Sami Zayn continues to underwhelm audiences all over the world.  Having been known as a Kevin Owens ally prior to their WWE runs, Zayn has been outshined by the more talented Owens in every way.  His matches and his promos are average at best and he really hasn’t done much to distinguish himself.  It would be a disservice to see him win the IC title.  The title works best when the talent is already over before winning the belt.  It doesn’t work very well when the title is used to get the talent over.

I wouldn’t expect this match to be remembered as a classic.  One thing for sure, Maryse will certainly interject herself in the match in an attempt to help Miz gain an advantage.  Other than that, this will probably be a pedestrian effort and an average match.

Prediction: Winner and still Intercontinental Champion, The Miz

Brock Lesnar vs. Goldberg

At least this match has nothing to do with Raw vs. Smackdown!

I had the privilege of attending WrestleMania XX in person in 2004 at Madison Square Garden.  The worst match of the night was Brock Lesnar vs. Goldberg.  Stone Cold Steve Austin was the guest referee, and even he couldn’t bring any excitement to the match.  At some point during the match, a fan in the upper deck dressed up as Hulk Hogan started posing to the crowd, and he got bigger cheers then either of the two combatants in the match.  It was a forgettable affair, not suitable for WrestleMania, and both men left the WWE immediately after WrestleMania XX.

For some reason, in Goldberg’s first match after a 12-year absence, we get the exact same matchup for his return.  The placing of this matchup tells you a lot about what WWE things of Goldberg.  His first match back is at Survivor Series, not WrestleMania.  The rivalry had a short build, and it started with an ESPN interview in which Goldberg said he’d like to grant Lesnar a rematch.

The build has been shaky at best.  Even Paul Heyman himself has struggled to get the crowds to treat Goldberg as the babyface and Lesnar as the heel.  His promos were designed to get the crowd to chant “Goldberg” and more often than not, the crowd cheered “Goldberg sucks!” instead.  It didn’t help that the WWE tried to push this angle in Lesnar’s home state of Minnesota.

It would be a huge mistake for Goldberg to win this match.  The WWE painted themselves into a corner when Lesnar ended The Streak at WrestleMania XXX.  Once Lesnar made The Undertaker 21 and 1, they set him up for a future as a destroyer that can’t be beat.  If Lesnar loses to a man who is in his late 40’s and hasn’t wrestled in 12 years, it invalidates everything they built for him as The Conqueror.

One final note about Goldberg, he was advertised as “The Greatest WCW Champion” upon his WWE return.  Did the person who wrote this line think we’d forget about Ric Flair? Please!

There’s not much of a need for me to predict what this match is going to look like.  Pull up their match at WrestleMania XX on the WWE Network and see how bad the first one was for yourself.  Is the rematch somehow going to be any better?  I would doubt it.

Prediction: Winner, Brock Lesnar

WWE SummerSlam Analysis and Predictions

The 29th annual WWE SummerSlam pay-per-view is upon us at a time of major change in the WWE.  Between the explosion of content on the WWE Network and the brand-split between Raw and Smackdown, which is now live, it takes an overwhelming amount of time to keep up with everything that is going on in the WWE.  On that note, an interesting trend started at WrestleMania earlier in the year; pay-per-views no longer have to be off the air at 11PM Eastern Time and can stretch longer than in years past.  I’m not sure if that is a good or bad thing because a wrestling show that is longer than four hours could lend itself to less than stellar content.

On paper, this card is superior to that of WrestleMania 32.  A lot of the main event-level talents that were injured in the spring are back in action and will compete on Sunday.  There were also a lot of NXT call ups since ‘Mania and many will also be featured on the SummerSlam card.  It also features a large number of straight-up singles matches and doesn’t really have any over-booked, over-crowded matches that tend to be formulaic and somewhat underwhelming in execution.  With any luck, this could be the pay-per-view of the year.  Let’s take a look at the card.

John Cena vs. AJ Styles

This has turned into one of the more entertaining feuds of the year.  AJ Styles burst on to the WWE scene as a surprise entrant in the Royal Rumble and has been featured in a high-profile match in every pay-per-view since.  At first, he didn’t find a good footing as a babyface, but since his heel turn in the early summer, he has become one of the top performers on the WWE card.

John Cena was the perfect mark to use for Style’s heel turn.  The interactions between the two have been compelling and their shoot-style promos against each other have set the stage for another emotional match.  Styles’ “Beat Up Cena” catchphrase is genius in its simplicity, and Cena has countered with brilliant responses to it. This will likely be the “blow-off” match for this feud so I’d expect both performers to want to deliver a memorable performance on Sunday.

Prediction: Winner, AJ Styles

Rusev (c) (with Lana) vs. Roman Reigns in a singles match for the WWE United States Championship

This is a clash between two very high-profile developmental talents who have had roller coaster careers in the WWE, and who are both headed in different directions.

Rusev made his debut as a monster heel and rode an impressive undefeated streak for almost an entire calendar year as a rookie.  He subsequently was felled by injuries and damaged by being placed in an ill-advised love triangle angle with the dreaded career-killer, Summer Rae.  After some down time, Rusev was given his original gimmick back and has run with that opportunity, regaining his momentum.  He plays well off of the natural irony of being a foreigner with the WWE United Stated Championship.

While Rusev is on his way to the top of the WWE, Roman Reigns is sinking like a stone.  He was once the WWE golden child, being put in two consecutive WrestleMania main event matches.  Following an embarrassingly short run as champion, and an even more embarrassing drug-related suspension, Reigns is rapidly moving down the card.  This demotion is well deserved, as he was one of the weakest WWE champions we have seen since the Psycho Sid and Lex Luger days.  Vince McMahon is right more often than he is wrong, but when he picked Reigns to be his top guy, he made one of the biggest miscalculations of his storied career.  Luckily for the fans, the WWE got the hint and took Reigns out of the main event picture.  With any luck, his career will be relegated to doing jobs during dark matches before TV tapings and we don’t have to see him on TV for much longer.

I expect Rusev to carry this match as he is the superior in-ring performer.  He has a lot of subtle mannerisms and maneuvers in the ring that make him deliver a convincing performance.  On the other hand, his opponent, Roman Reigns clearly missed the “Ring Psychology 101” class when he was in NXT developmental and has many holes in his game.  His matches lack continuity and he never seems to know when or how to sell, or when to make a babyface comeback.

Prediction: Winner and still WWE United States Champion, Rusev

The New Day (Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods) (c) vs. Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson in a tag team match for the WWE Tag Team Championship

The New Day have had a stranglehold on the WWE Tag Team Championship for an entire calendar year.  They used a heel gimmick to eventually get over as a babyface team, exploiting the “Freebird Rule” to share the titles amongst the three of them.  Like them or not, you have to respect the fact that they found a way to stay on top of a very crowded tag team division for so long.

Gallows and Anderson have been solid since their debut in the WWE earlier this year.  Buoyed by their success in Japan and their affiliation with AJ Styles, they earned a title shot at SummerSlam in a relatively short period of time.  They stay in their lanes as heels, and play the role well.  Especially as they participated in a worked-injury angle with Big E that has him sidelined from the match as part of the current angle between the teams.

It is hard to say if Big E will somehow make a comeback and help his New Day teammates.  Or, conversely if he shows up and turns on them.  Or, if he just doesn’t show up at all.  His unknown status makes this match a bit of a wildcard in terms of predictions.  If Big E doesn’t show up, I would expect a technically proficient match between these two teams.  If he does show up, expect him to have a hand in the outcome of the match.  Either way, it is time for a new team at the top of the WWE Tag Team division.

Prediction: Winners and new WWE Tag Team Champions, Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson

Sasha Banks (c) vs. Charlotte in a singles match for the WWE Women’s Championship; Dana Brooke is barred from ringside

Prediction: This match is going to suck

Enzo Amore and Big Cass vs. Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens

New Jersey’s own Enzo Amore, and his tag team partner Big Cass were over with the fans before they even made the main WWE roster.  During their Raw debut, the crowd chanted their entire set of catchphrases in unison, having learned it from watching them in NXT.  They have made the most of their opportunity to draw attention to themselves as an odd-couple team with comedy flair.  They are going to have to work on new material as some of their lines are about to get pretty stale, but if they keep improving, they have very high upside potential.

Chris Jericho is in the middle of yet another nostalgia run and his act is wearing very thin.  He was never the best in WCW or in the WWE during the Attitude Era, and he isn’t fooling anybody now.   In this “New Era” of the WWE, it is time for him to be put out to pasture.  Kevin Owens deserves better than this matchup and really should have been given a singles match. This team is being set up to fail as both men are heels that clearly don’t like each other and will likely turn on one other before the match is over, thus costing them a victory. This finish is pretty easy to see coming.

Prediction: Winners, Enzo Amore and Big Cass

The Miz (c) (with Maryse) vs. Apollo Crews in a singles match for the WWE Intercontinental Championship

The Miz has been a steady hand as a heel that anchors the mid-card, he will say or do anything to annoy the crowd and draw heat to himself.  With the addition of his equally annoying wife, Maryse at his side, he has become one of the most dependable bad guys the WWE has had in quite some time.  He can work a promo or a match with just about any babyface on the roster and make them look good.

Apollo Crews is still looking for his niche after his NXT call-up to the main roster.  He is using a classic whitemeat babyface gimmick which makes him a good opponent for The Miz.  I’m not convinced that there is room for this type of gimmick in the WWE anymore and would think that he would need some sort of an edge if he really wants to reach a high level of success.

This match will give Crews a chance to showcase his abilities and make a statement.  The Miz has been in many high profile matches in his career and I expect him to hold up his end of what should be an athletic competition.

Prediction: Winner and still WWE Intercontinental Champion, The Miz

Carmella, Becky Lynch and Naomi vs. Natalya, Alexa Bliss and TBD in a six-woman tag team match

This match is going to suck.  Even if Eva Marie hadn’t been suspended for using drugs this week, this match would still have sucked.  It’s not like they can even use Paige, she got suspended for using drugs this week, too!  Maybe all of this drug abuse explains why women’s wrestling is so bad in WWE!

Prediction: This match is going to suck

Brock Lesnar vs. Randy Orton

Brock Lesnar is coming off of what should have been one of the most successful events of his career, a win over Mark Hunt at UFC 200 in July.  He is the only athlete that the WWE has allowed to compete in the UFC while still under contract.  It was a huge risk for Lesnar to take, it could have ruined his reputation as “The Conqueror” had he lost his MMA match against Hunt.  He dominated the match, but we learned shortly thereafter that he was using performance enhancing drugs, just as his opponent had accused him of doing.  This is pretty much the worst case scenario for the WWE, the UFC, and Lesnar himself.  Now we all know that he is a complete fraud and cheated his way to the top.  He’ll probably be suspended from the UFC for two years and he will forever lose face with the WWE fan base who wanted to believe he was a natural monster.

Randy Orton is back after a sustained layoff due to a badly injured shoulder.  He missed all of WrestleMania season and is likely itching to regain his spot at the top of the WWE card.  This is a manufactured feud that didn’t grow organically.  Neither man had been on WWE TV for a while when it was announced they would face off at SummerSlam, the narrative of the match being that they came up together from the same developmental territory 15 years ago but never faced each other in a high profile match.

I expect this to be the match of the night.  These two are consummate professionals and are two of the most athletic men on the roster.  The build-up that “It only takes one RKO” will play out as Orton will likely attempt to steal a quick win at several points during the match by trying to use his signature move.  Brock Lesnar is a freak of nature (even if he used drugs to reach his athletic peak) and always delivers a spot that reminds the crowd just how strong and quick he is.

Prediction: Winner, Brock Lesnar

Finn Bálor vs. Seth Rollins in a singles match for the WWE Universal Championship

This match will have a significant historical meaning as it is the first time that a new WWE Universal Champion will be crowned.  This is the first time the WWE has issued a major championship in over a generation, and the winner of this match will be the answer to a trivia question for years to come.

Seth Rollins is the best heel on the roster today.  He managed to take any goodwill he had with the fans after returning from injury and dismissed it immediately, thus remaining on their bad side. He looks like he hasn’t missed a step since his return, and he is guaranteed to step it up in a prominent spot like this at the 2nd biggest pay-per-view of the year.

Finn Bálor will be the luckiest guy of the night come Sunday.  He has accomplished very little in his WWE career, his only successes in the lesser-known New Japan Pro Wrestling circuit, as well as a run as NXT champion.  He was just called up to the main roster about a month ago, and has yet to prove himself on the biggest professional wrestling stage in the world.  He is undersized (topping out at a billed 190lbs), and is a one-trick-pony in the ring, relying on high-risk maneuvers from the top rope to gain credibility as a wrestler.  His split-personality gimmick in which he changes from a regular guy to a painted “Demon King” is cliché at best, and highly derivative of several other superstars we’ve seen in the past such as Mick Foley and Kane.  Bálor should enjoy this main event while he is in it, because it is straight to the mid-card for him after SummerSlam.

Prediction: Winner, and the first ever WWE Universal Champion, Seth Rollins

Dean Ambrose (c) vs. Dolph Ziggler in a singles match for the WWE World Championship

Dean Ambrose continues on as one of the unlikeliest of WWE Champions.  He doesn’t have the look, nor the technical proficiency we have seen from champions in the past.  However, his attitude and hard work have resonated with the fans.  He refused to get lost in the shuffle when The Shield broke up and Roman Reigns was given an ill-fated monster push.  Ambrose made the most of the opportunities he had to showcase his talents and the fans took notice.  He is now in the middle of an impressive run, and I’d expect it to continue after SummerSlam.

Dolph Ziggler was the surprise number one contender for the WWE Championship headed into SummerSlam.  His career has long since plateaued, and he was a pretty consistent jobber over the past few years, mostly brought in to make heels look good.  It looks like he is getting one last shot at a main event before he gets pushed back down the card.

Both men are working this angle as “tweeners”, neither emerging as a strong babyface or heel.  Instead, they both have cut shoot-style promos against each other, built up some heat, and have let the crowd decide who to cheer for. If the Orton/Lesnar match is going to be the match of the night, this will be a close second.  It is built around two guys with a score to settle and the WWE Championship on the line.  What can be better than that?

Prediction: Winner and still WWE Champion, Dean Ambrose

WWE Money in the Bank Analysis and Predictions

This year’s WWE Money in the Bank pay-per-view card looks to be potentially very exiting.  On the heels of the “New Era” NXT call ups following WrestleMania 32, the MITB card is indicative of all the creative improvements the WWE has shown these past few months.  It will feature matches between young and veteran talent, and will showcase the resurgent tag team division.

I had the opportunity to attend the last PPV, WWE Extreme Rules, in person in Newark, NJ in May.  It was good to get my finger on the pulse of what the live crowd is thinking these days.  One thing for sure is that Roman Reigns, and anything that has to do with Roman Reigns, is roundly despised by the crowd.  Reigns’ cousins, The Usos, who have enjoyed a babyface run for the entirety of their WWE careers were loudly booed by the crowd when they entered the ring.  Reigns, of course, continues to flounder as WWE Champion and the Jersey crowd made sure to disrespect him at every chance.  Even when he hit a move that made him look like he knew what he was doing, the crowd serenated him with a “You still can’t wrestle” chant.  When Seth Rollins made his triumphant return to the WWE following Reigns’ match, the crowd gave its loudest cheer of the night as Rollins planted Reigns with The Pedigree.  On the way out of the building, I spoke with several fans who were genuinely upset that AJ Styles failed to win the match and capture the belt.

While Reigns continues to bungle his opportunity to be a babyface champion, the rest of the talents around him are carrying pay-per-view cards and I have high hopes that MITB will be among the best we see in 2016.  I’ll break down the matches and explain why.

Apollo Crews vs. Sheamus

Apollo Crews is one of the latest NXT call ups and was packaged in a classic whitemeat-babyface gimmick with the billing that he is a five-tool superstar.  I don’t know exactly what the five-tools are (I’m guessing strength, size, speed, charisma, and verbal skills?) but he is reminiscent of a young Tito Santana or Ricky Steamboat.  I don’t know if this type of gimmick still has legs in today’s WWE, but so far the crowd has seemed receptive to him and he has a good opportunity to showcase his skills against the veteran Sheamus.

I like the somewhat realistic angle that sparked the rivalry between the two, as the veteran Sheamus appears to be threatened by the influx of new talent on the roster and wants to protect his spot.  This is a real-life concern among WWE veterans as older talents are constantly cycled through in favor of new ones.  In this case, I would assume that a dependable performer like Sheamus is safe for a while, but it makes for an entertaining storyline.

Hard to say exactly what to expect out of this match as it is the first time that Crews will get a chance to work a one-on-one match on a PPV.  With any luck, his style will complement that of the brawling style of Sheamus and this will be an entertaining match.

Prediction: Winner, Sheamus

Dolph Ziggler vs. Baron Corbin

This running feud between Ziggler and Baron is a good example of WWE creative sometimes missing the mark.  Baron Corbin had all the momentum in the world, when he was the surprise victor in the André the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania 32.  He was immediately put into a feuding program with Dolph Ziggler and that was things started to go off the rails.  Ziggler’s career, having plateaued years ago, is pretty much only good as a jobber these days, and his duty should be to put other talents over.  Over the course of their program, both Ziggler and Corbin have traded victories which I think is a mistake.  If the WWE wants to build up Corbin as a legitimate heel, the best thing for him to do is regularly crush Ziggler, thus setting him up for programs with members of the upper card.  This so-called “50/50” booking isn’t helping either guy look good.

With any luck things turn around for Corbin this weekend, he emerges victorious over the hapless Ziggler, and regains some of his lost momentum in his pursuit of relevancy.

Prediction: Winner, Baron Corbin

Charlotte and Dana Brooke vs. Natalya and Becky Lynch

My buddy took a picture of me sleeping during the women’s match at WWE Extreme Rules and posted it on Facebook.  I wasn’t embarrassed at all, in fact, I would have been more embarrassed had he posted a picture of me actually paying attention to a WWE women’s match.

Prediction: This match is going to suck

Rusev (c) (with Lana) vs. Titus O’Neil in a singles match for the WWE United States Championship

Rusev has been on a roller coaster ride during his WWE run, having been at the top as a monster heel in a major program with John Cena, and at the very bottom in a love-square storyline between himself, Lana, Dolph Ziggler, and the career-killing Summer Rae.  Luckily, someone in WWE creative realized what they had done to a talent that they had worked so hard to create, and reunited Rusev with Lana and gave him back his monster-heel-from-a-foreign-country gimmick.  He even re-captured his US Championship at WWE Extreme Rules.  With any luck, he can shake the fan’s memories of the horrid angle with Summer Rae, and charge back towards the top of the card as a heat-seeking bad guy.

Titus O’Neil is back on WWE TV after a bizarre suspension following an incident between himself and Vince McMahon shortly after Daniel Bryan’s retirement speech in Seattle, Washington.  He had enjoyed some marginal success on WWE TV prior to his suspension, but really wasn’t ever given enough TV time to connect with the fans and let us know who he really is.

This should be a physical match between these two big men.  I would expect Titus to really go the extra mile now that he has a rare title shot in a singles match on a pay-per-view. Rusev always delivers in his matches, and I would expect him to be on the attack against O’Neil.

Prediction: Winner and still WWE United States Champion, Rusev

The New Day (Big E and Kofi Kingston) (c) (with Xavier Woods) vs. Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson vs. Enzo Amore and Big Cass vs. The Vaudevillains (Aiden English and Simon Gotch) in a Fatal 4-Way match for the WWE Tag Team Championship

As I eluded to earlier, the WWE has made a significant investment in its tag team division of late.  The WWE is at its best when it has a strong and diverse tag-team division as it gives performers a lot more options to express themselves creatively, both in the ring and when cutting promos.

The four teams featured in this match are all riding hot streaks, and should be able to tell a compelling story.  The New Day have been the top faction in the WWE since re-capturing the Tag Team Championships at Summer Slam in 2015.  Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson have been well received by the fans since they came over from NJPW just over a month ago.  The Vaudvellians have somewhat of an odd gimmick, but they managed to get over as heels and will certainly generate a lot of heel heat during this match.  Big Cass and Enzo Amore have shown a great deal of potential both as individuals and as a team.  They have a great look and both have great mic skills.

Fatal 4-Way matches always have the potential to be awkward as there are a lot of spots to manage with eight competitors in a match.  I predict that this match will be well-paced and will give each team a chance to showcase their talents and get over with the fans.

Prediction: Winners and still WWE Tag Team Champions, The New Day

John Cena vs. AJ Styles

For fans of wrestling circuits outside of the WWE, this match is a long time in the making.  Both men, in their late 30’s have been regarded as the best in their respective companies for years but have never faced each other in a WWE ring.  It’s almost surprising that this match wasn’t saved for a bigger event such as SummerSlam but it should be one of the best matches on the card at MITB.

AJ Styles stumbled a bit out of the gate in WWE.  He was received well by the fans, and then proceeded to job to an over-the-hill Chris Jericho, and then lose twice to Roman Reigns.  Fortunately, a well-executed heel turn a few weeks ago, along with his new program with John Cena, should really help him turn things around.

John Cena is always dependable in big spots.  He works well with new talents on the WWE roster, whether they are NXT rookies or newcomer veterans such as AJ Styles.  His matches deliver excitement more often than not, and he will surely be motivated to look strong in this match, having missed an extended period of time with a shoulder injury.

This match should be very entertaining and should feature a lot of drama and some high spots.  If anything, AJ Styles really needs a clean victory here if he is ever to be taken seriously as someone who can win in WWE.  Cena has a history of laying down when the time is right to get another talent over, I would expect tonight to be no different.

Prediction: Winner, AJ Styles

Sami Zayn vs. Cesaro vs. Chris Jericho vs. Dean Ambrose vs. Kevin Owens vs. Alberto Del Rio in a Money in the Bank ladder match for a WWE World Heavyweight Championship match contract

This is one of the most anticipated matches of the year on the WWE schedule.  Not only is a MITB match good for some thrills, but it sets up a storyline that can persist for the better part of a year, as the winner can attempt to steal the WWE Championship at any time.  Of course, the greatest cash-in of all time saw Seth Rollins steal the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 31 in 2015.  It’s hard to say what will come of this year’s MITB match winner, but the possibilities are endless for each of the competitors.

  • Chris Jericho is the least likely to win. He has delivered a number of dud matches since his latest full-time return to WWE.  Chances of him ever recapturing the WWE title are pretty much zero and he should consider hanging up his boots sometime soon.
  • Cesaro is a persistent fan favorite, especially since his return following a shoulder injury. Still, he isn’t championship material, and the WWE would really have to make some changes to his character and persona to ever get him into the position to be the face of the company.
  • Sami Zayn has built up a bit of a cult following since his return from injury (there sure were a lot of guys on the injured list lately), and his feud with Kevin Owens has been a lot of fun to watch. Still, it’s unlikely that Zayn is going to get a WWE title shot anytime soon, it is just too early in his WWE career for that kind of push.
  • Dean Ambrose is one of the WWE’s top earners and is very popular with the fans. If there is a dark horse in this match, it is Dean Ambrose.  He is the kind of guy who the WWE could make into at least a transitional champion for a short while.  An Ambrose win could also potentially set up a three-way feud between himself and the other former members of the Shield, Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins.
  • Alberto Del Rio is a former WWE Champion himself and the WWE is always very high on his potential, especially due to his marketability with the WWE’s Hispanic audience. He has been a bit aimless these past few months, a MITB contract would make him interesting to watch again.
  • Kevin Owens, in my opinion, is the favorite to win this match. He is a genuine heel and an offensive innovator.  He has built up a great deal of name recognition, and a lot of critical acclaim for his in-ring workrate and ability to cut top promos.  He would carry the WWE Championship very well if he were to win MITB.

Although those are my views as to who the favorites and the underdogs should be, it wouldn’t surprise me if any one of them won the match and were to run with the opportunity to hold the MITB contract.

Prediction: Winner, Kevin Owens

Roman Reigns (c) vs. Seth Rollins in a Singles match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship

I’m getting tired of blogging about how bad Roman Reigns is, so I’m not going to repeat myself this time.  Just look back to the beginning of my WWE blog if you want to know more.  There are enough other guys on the roster who can take his spot and run with the WWE Championship, it is time to put this nonsense to an end and give the belt back to someone else.

Seth Rollins, who got the call up to the WWE roster at the same time as Reigns, is immeasurably more talented than the current champion.  In 2015, he was in the midst of one of the best years we’ve seen from a WWE superstar in quite some time when he was felled with a badly broken knee in November.  He missed an extended period of time and should pick up right where he left off, as the top heel in the company.  He never lost the championship, and should be primed to go in his first match back.

Seth Rollins will have to carry the inferior Roman Reigns if this match is going to be interesting at all, but if the result is what the WWE fans want to see, it could be remembered as one of the best main events for quite some time.

Prediction: Winner and new WWE World Heavyweight Champion, Seth Rollins

 

WrestleMania 32 Analysis and Predictions (part 1 of 3)

Where have you gone, John Cena?  What’s become of you Daniel Bryan?  Does anybody know what actually happened to Randy Orton?  What about the “Next Best Thing”, Seth Rollins?  What fate befell Cesaro, Luke Harper, and Neville?

WrestleMania week is here and we are about to watch a show without the majority of the top and mid-level stars that we have come to love and hate over the past few years.  The WWE roster is riddled with injuries from top to bottom headed into WrestleMania and many performers who would have likely been featured in top matches are not going to be on the card.  And that is not counting C. M. Punk who abruptly quit two years ago and who fans still chant for to this day.

Still, the roster is loaded with talent, and WrestleMania always features a high-profile match or two with part-time talents that are a throwback to a previous era so there is potential that we could be treated to a very entertaining show.  Unfortunately, there is the specter of the main event hanging over our heads.  A match which will feature a legendary icon of professional wrestling versus an opponent who is not worthy of being the top star in the company.  For a second year in a row, the WWE fans are furious that Roman Reigns was given the top babyface spot in the main event of a WrestleMania, and we are cringing at the thought that he could finally begin his long-term championship run that most of us have feared for the last two years.

While this situation has persisted for quite some time, the flames of our ire were fanned in the lead-in to WrestleMania pay-per-views and Raw episodes.  First, at the Royal Rumble, the fans were exuberant when Reigns was eliminated from the rumble match, thus stripping him of his title.  Triple H was serenated with cheers when he won the title himself.  This, despite the fact, that Triple H was booked as the heel and Reigns booked as the babyface.

Any good feelings that were present at the end of the Royal Rumble were quickly squashed as Reigns was announced to be in a triple-threat match at FastLane against Brock Lesnar and Dean Ambrose for the #1 contender spot for the championship at WrestleMania.  Suddenly, the whole main storyline for WrestleMania 32 became very predictable: Reigns would win the match at FastLane and go on to defeat Triple H for the title at ‘Mania.

Sure enough, the first part of that dire prediction came true when Reigns did indeed win his match at FastLane and will headline WrestleMania for the second year in a row.  It is likely only a matter of time before the other shoe drops and he walks off with the title on Sunday.

WrestleMania is known as the most unique show of the year on the WWE schedule.  It looks different and feels different than every other pay-per-view.  As such, there is more to look forward to than just one main event match, typically there are several main event matches that fill out the card.  There is potential for this show to be remembered for more than just a disappointing end to the main event.

From the outset, it doesn’t look like this WrestleMania is going to become an instant top-to-bottom classic like WrestleMania X-7.  There aren’t too matches that are candidates for consideration as an all-time-great such as Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker at WrestleMania 25, or Randy Savage vs. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat at WrestleMania III.  But hey, my WWE Network subscription is already paid for and I have a room full of people coming over to watch the show.  I’ll keep an open mind and hope for the best.

We have a card loaded with the best (and healthy) talents on the roster today, and a Hell in a Cell match between The Undertaker and the returning Shane McMahon so there are pieces in place that could steal the show and give us something to look forward to. We also know that The Rock will be on the show and there are rumors that Shawn Michaels and Stone Cold Steve Austin will be there as well.

This is the first of my three-part series featuring my expert analysis and predictions for WrestleMania 32.  Last year, my overall pick record wasn’t stellar, but I nailed the prediction that Triple H was going to beat Sting and I’m pretty proud of that.  Thank you for reading so far, and let’s see how I do this year.  Part 1 is going to feature the pre-show matches.

The Usos vs. The Dudley Boyz

A straight-forward tag team match is a safe way to get things started at WrestleMania.  While a lot of matches on a ‘Mania card tend to be over-booked or over-crowded, this matchup will showcase two pure tag teams in a grudge match without any stipulations or championships on the line.

The Dudley Boyz returned to the WWE in August of 2015 after a lengthy hiatus of roughly a decade and were immediately put in the tag team championship picture.  They were welcomed back as heroes by the fans and resumed their gimmick of a team that puts their opponents through tables.  Most of us who remember them from their heyday in the Attitude Era recall they did their best work as heels who became one of the most decorated tag teams of all time.

At first, it appeared that they were going to be back for a nostalgia run and ride a wave of good feelings towards them.  Finally, in Feburary of 2016, the Dudley Boyz did what they did best and turned heel when they attacked The Usos after a match on Raw.  For the first time since their return, the Dudley Boyz started to act like their old selves.

The Usos had an up-and-down 2015 as Jey Uso suffered a serious shoulder injury and missed six months, thus derailing their momentum.  The Usos returned in a lower spot on the card upon their return as their status as the #1 tag-team in the WWE was eclipsed by The New Day.

The lead-in to this match has somewhat been lost in the shuffle this WrestleMania season. We were given enough to see that there is bad blood between these two teams and it is clear who the good guys are and the bad guys are.

Stylistically, this match should look familiar to long-time WWE fans as The Usos have lifted most of the offensive move set from The Hardy Boyz, a long-time rival of the Dudleys.  The high-flying and risk-taking style of the Hardys formed an odd complement to the bruising and brawling style of The Dudleys in their many encounters.

I would expect this match to feature a lot of high-risk high spots off the top rope from The Usos, and at least one combatant in this match getting put through a table.  It probably won’t be given too much time to play out, so expect this to be fast-paced and quickly resolved.

Prediction: Winners, The Dudley Boyz

André the Giant Memorial Battle Royal

For the third time, WrestleMania will feature a 20-man-over-the-top Battle Royal to determine the winner of the André the Giant Memorial Trophy.  This match hasn’t been too kind to its participants in its first two iterations.

Cesaro won the first one at WrestleMania XXX with a memorable spot by lifting The Big Show and tossing him out of the ring.  Following his victory, he immediately turned heel and failed to get over with the fans, even with Paul Heyman as his advocate.  He lost all momentum from his victory, didn’t really do anything noteworthy over the following year and a half, and then broke his shoulder and is currently out of action.

Last year, the Battle Royal match was bumped down to the pre-show.  The Big Show won the match, this time getting the upper hand from Cesaro and finally eliminating the crowd-favored Damien Mizdow.  He posed with the trophy for the next few weeks on TV and then went back to flip-flopping between babyface and heel, and jobbing most of the time.  Once again, the André trophy failed to give any lift to its winner.

This year, it looks like the WWE has completely given up on trying to make this a meaningful match.  The participants announced for the match look like they are only there as a consolation prize to get them on a WrestleMania card for just being on the roster.  Other than a few sentimental favorites such as The Big Show, Kane, Goldust, and Mark Henry, there is barely anybody left to root for in this match.  With such bums as Konnor, Viktor, Darren Young, Fandango, and The Social Outcasts in the match, it’s hard to pick a clear-cut winner as practically nobody in this match appears to be going anywhere with his career at this point.

I have a theory that we are going to get swerved.  The Wyatt Family has been mysteriously written off of TV lately.  Usually when that happens, they make a surprise return at an unexpected moment to cause some sort of havoc.  I think that one or more of them is going to enter the match and end up the surprise victor.

Prediction: Winner, Braun Strowman

The Total Divas (Brie Bella, Paige, Natalya, Alicia Fox and Eva Marie) vs. B.A.D. & Blonde (Naomi, Tamina, Lana, Emma and Summer Rae) in a 10-Diva tag team match

Just thinking about this match makes my stomach hurt.  This has the potential to be the worst WrestleMania match since Jerry Lawler vs. Michael Cole at WrestleMania XXVII.  On a scale from one to five stars, I’m going to go ahead and give it a zero right now.

Prediction: This match is going to suck so much that I can’t even think of a word to describe it.

Kalisto (c) vs. Ryback in a Singles match for the WWE United States Championship

This is one of the more unusual pairings on the card and has a potential to be a surprise hit match.  Both participants are performing at a very high level in their own respect and will compete in a standard match with a title on the line.

Kalisto was a bit of a face in the crowd on the WWE roster for most of 2015.  He was one half of the token Luchador style tag-team in the WWE, The Lucha Dragons along with Sin Cara.  Despite not having much of a chance to display any kind of personality traits from behind a mask, he managed to distinguish himself at WWE TLC in December by performing his Salida Del Sol (a form of a standing sitout shiranui DDT) from the top of a ladder and through another.  He was awarded with a Slammy, and went on to a feud with Alberto Del Rio, emerging with the United States Championship.

Ryback was on another aimless run, a one-dimensional babyface hero with a repetitive catch phrase and a hulking physique.  It seemed like the crowd was tired of him until he masterfully executed a heel turn following WWE FastLane and shifted his gimmick to more of a monster heel.  This turned the crowd sufficiently against him and he instantly began to draw heat on himself.

What we are left with is a perfect contrast in style, size, and attitude between the two combatants in this match.  I would expect Ryback to display several feats of strength by tossing the smaller Kalisto around the ring like he is a paperweight.  Of course, Kalisto is going to stick with his bread and butter by executing several fast-paced high spots, showcasing his speed and agility.  If given enough time, this match could tell an interesting and entertaining story.

Prediction: Winner and new WWE United States Champion, Ryback

Later this week, part 2 will feature all of the mid-card matches.

WWE 2016 Royal Rumble Analysis and Predictions

WrestleMania season is upon us in 2016.  What should be the best time of year for any wrestling fan begins with the WWE Royal Rumble.  This year, the WWE hopes to rebound from two very poor showings at the last two Royal Rumble events, where fans revolted at both of them forcing the WWE to change around their WrestleMania plans on the fly.

In 2014, the plan was for Batista to make his triumphant return to WWE active competition after a lengthy absence with a win at the Royal Rumble and a main event championship match at WrestleMania XXX.  The only problem was that the fans wanted Daniel Bryan to get that spot instead.  The returning Batista was booed out of the building when he won the Rumble match.  The ensuing build to WrestleMania was clearly re-written on a week-to-week basis and included a Batista heel turn. It culminated in a triple-threat match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship and Daniel Bryan ended up with the title.

The 2014 Royal Rumble is also notable as the unofficial beginning of Roman Reigns’ big babyface push.  Although he didn’t win, he eliminated 12 competitors from the rumble match, breaking Kane’s 13-year-old record of 11 eliminations.  This certainly foreshadowed what would happen at the 2015 Royal Rumble.

The 2015 Royal Rumble was notable because the wheels figuratively fell off of the train right in front of our eyes.  Once again, the crowd wanted Daniel Bryan to win.  When he was eliminated early on, everybody in the building and everybody at home realized the inevitable was about to happen.  It was rumored for months that Reigns was going to win the Rumble match and go on to main event WrestleMania.

Maybe it was the fact that Bryan was a non-factor in the match.  Maybe it was because people didn’t like the predictability of Reigns winning the match.  Maybe it was because most fans think that Roman Reigns outright sucks.  Whatever the case may be, the Philadelphia crowd booed the last 5 minutes of the rumble match very loudly.  They seemed like they were on the verge of a riot when Reigns finally won the match.  He looked scared and confused as he looked at the crowd in what should have been a shining moment for a victorious hero.  The WWE fans wanted no part of this.

The build to WrestleMania suffered as a result.  The entire two months was designed to brainwash us into getting behind Roman Reigns as our champion.  They even staged a match between Daniel Bryan and Reigns at FastLane and put Reigns over cleanly as if to say “get used to it” to the fans who clearly were behind Bryan.

The rest of 2015 was about starting and stopping the Roman Reigns push and championship run.  Seth Rollins “stole” the championship title at WrestleMania by cashing in his Money in the Bank contract.  Rollins had a solid championship run while Reigns continued to flounder.  Reigns had a few useless feuds with Bray Wyatt and The Big Show, showing very little improvement along the way.  The fans still didn’t seem to care much about him.

Finally, the time came to give Reigns the championship title shortly after The Survivor Series.  It felt like the WWE couldn’t wait any longer and decided that they just had to go ahead and give him the belt and execute their long standing plans to make him the face of the company.  But it also felt like they knew they still had work to do to get him as over with the fans as they would have liked.  This is evidenced by the fact that they pulled Triple H off of TV and resurrected the Mr. McMahon character as Reign’s main antagonist.  It seems, for lack of a better idea, they are trying the whole “McMahon vs. Austin” storyline some 17 years later hoping that some sort of magic will happen again.

This leads us to this year’s Royal Rumble.  This will be the third straight rumble match that the WWE will attempt to condition us to love Roman Reigns.  This time the deck is stacked against him and his championship run, he is the victim of the evil Mr. McMahon’s plot to take away his championship by forcing him to not only defend his title in the rumble match, but enter the ring as the first out of thirty competitors.  As fans, we are supposed to be outraged that this happened and we should cheer the underdog champion to victory.

In addition to the perennial Roman Reigns mess, the WWE has painted themselves into a corner creatively these past three years with the rumble match itself.  The old stipulation was that the winner of the rumble match went on to WrestleMania to face the champion of his choice.  That left the match hard to predict as there were many people in the match who could challenge for either the WWE Championship in a ‘mania main event, or challenge for the lesser World Heavyweight Championship (formerly the WCW championship) in a mid-card match.  Once the WWE consolidated the two titles before WrestleMania XXX, there really were only a small handful of competitors who had a realistic shot of winning.  The other 27 or so were just kind of in the way during the match.

This year, the WWE championship is on the line for the first time since 1992.  In the 1992 Rumble, Ric Flair won his first WWF championship in inspiring fashion, entering the ring at number three and surviving until the end.  This year, even though the stipulation has changed from the winner being top contender to the actual champion, the creative dilemma still persists.  How many entrants in the rumble match have a realistic shot of winning the WWE title and going on to defend it at WrestleMania?  Not too many.  In fact, as I’ll address shortly, I’m left to wonder why they are bothering with the rumble at all and why not just have Reigns and one other wrestler square off in a singles match instead.

Anyway, even if it doesn’t sound like it, I am the eternal optimist when it comes to the WWE.  I look at every pay-per-view as a chance to be something special and I’m hoping that the Royal Rumble surprises me and is an outstanding show.  With my preamble out of the way, here is my expert analysis and my picks for all the announced matches on the card.

Darren Young and Damien Sandow vs. The Dudley Boyz (Bubba Ray Dudley and D-Von Dudley) vs. The Ascension (Konnor and Viktor) vs. Mark Henry and Jack Swagger in a Fatal four-way tag team match to qualify for the Royal Rumble match

Yawn.  Is this the best they can do to get us excited for the Rumble?  Eight guys we barely care about that have no shot of actually winning the rumble match in a four-way tag?   Jack Swagger, Darren Young, and Damien Sandow have barely been on TV in months.  The Dudley Boyz are a nostalgia act and are barely noticeable on the show since their return in the fall.  And what happened to Mark Henry?  He used to be near or at the top of the card for years.  Has he fallen so far that this is the best they can do for the World’s Strongest Man?

Anyway, this match would be fine if it were on Smackdown but I don’t expect it to be very noteworthy.  No matter who wins, they aren’t going to be a factor in the rumble match itself.

Prediction: Winner, Mark Henry

Alberto Del Rio (c) vs. Kalisto for the WWE United States Championship

The checkered history of Alberto Del Rio in the WWE has continued upon his return to the company.  What started out as a promising run in the early 2010’s had fizzled out towards the end of his run in 2014.  The Mexican Aristocrat had a grand entrance with his own ring announcer and a never ending line of expensive cars.  He won the Royal Rumble and numerous championships along the way but somehow faded to middle card status before he was unceremoniously fired for a reported backstage incident with a WWE staffer.  Having toiled in a few lesser promotions in the meantime, the WWE decided that all was forgiven in 2105 and brought him back.

The problem with his return is that it was completely botched almost from the get-go.  It started off well on the first night as he made an unannounced return to Hell in a Cell and defeated John Cena cleanly for the US Championship in a very entertaining match.  Shortly thereafter, he was paired with his former xenophobic adversary, Zeb Coulter.  The two of them bizarrely promoted the idea of combining Mexico and America into one country called “Mexamerica”.  Nobody knew what to make of this and the WWE quickly backtracked and separated the two.  With no real backup plan for Del Rio, he has been drifting aimlessly ever since.

His involvement with the hastily arranged “League of Nations” faction has the potential to be interesting, but we haven’t seen much from the group, and Del Rio appears to be lost in the shuffle.  I would assume that there are plans for Del Rio at WrestleMania, but at this point, nothing seems to be building towards anything interesting involving his character.

Kalisto is a lower-profile superstar as a member of the Lucha Dragons tag-team.  The Lucha Dragons are the token masked luchadores on the WWE roster these days and have a narrow fan appeal.  They are usually good for a few high-spots per match but have no personalities as they are masked and rarely speak.  Kalisto did, however, distinguish himself in December at the TLC pay-per-view by performing his signature Salida del Sol finishing move from the top of a ladder.  His partner, Sin Cara, was hurt shortly thereafter, so the WWE decided to strike while the iron was hot and put him in a feud with Alberto Del Rio for the United States Championship.

In a sequence of matches on Raw and Smackdown, Kalisto surprisingly won the US Championship from Del Rio only to lose it back the next night.  Their feud continues at the Royal Rumble on Sunday in a rematch for the US title. It was an interesting way to build interest in a pay-per-view match by repeating the same match for a third time in a short period.  On the one hand, it could seem repetitive.   On the other, it could be interesting to see who walks away in the third of three matches in the feud with a victory.  I’m guessing that it is going to be the former and remind us of two matches we just saw with not much new to offer.

Prediction: Winner and still WWE United States Champion, Alberto Del Rio

The New Day (Big E, Kofi Kingston and/or Xavier Woods) (c) vs. The Usos (Jimmy Uso and Jey Uso)

There isn’t much new to say about this match due to its repetitive nature.  These are the two most popular tag teams in the WWE right now and always seem to cross each other’s path.  If it wasn’t for the fact that Usos missed time due to an injured member, this match would probably have happened ten times by now.

The New Day was a surprise hit after their heel turn gave them an edge that resonated with the fans.  They certainly are annoying and good at cheating to win matches.  However, they seem to be running out of ideas, likely due to over-exposure every single week on Raw.  They are given too much time on the microphone and simply seem to be running out of material.

The Usos found their rhythm again after their hiatus.  They are back to the kid-friendly Hardy gimmick that made them popular in the past.  Their in-ring style mimics that of Matt and Jeff Hardy, although their target audience is way too young to realize that they are copycats.

Expect more of the same from these two teams.  The Usos will flash some highspots.  The New Day will use numbers to their advantage and attempt to cheat to win.  We’ve seen it all before.  Many times.

Prediction: Winners and still WWE Tag Team Champions, The New Day.

Charlotte (c) (with Ric Flair) vs. Becky Lynch for the WWE Divas Championship

The Divas division is horrible and is the least entertaining part of the WWE right now.  Not even Slick Ric himself can save this debacle of a match.

Prediction: This match is going to suck.

Dean Ambrose (c) vs. Kevin Owens in a Last Man Standing match for the WWE Intercontenintal Championship

This match is clearly the most interesting out of all of the matches on the card, maybe even more so than the rumble match itself.  These are two of the most underrated in-ring talents on the roster, and also two of the more charismatic.  They both are only limited by how they are being used by the WWE right now and have limitless potential.

Them both have followed an unconventional path to their current spots on the WWE roster.  Neither of them has the “look” of a classic wrestler.  They aren’t tall and don’t have impressive physiques.  They made up for all of that by putting on entertaining matches and cutting interesting and passionate promos any chance they are given.

They are a natural pairing in their current feud.  Both their wrestling styles and ability to talk complement each other very well.  Although Ambrose is booked as a babyface, I would expect to see a split crowd during their match as Kevin Owens has made a good connection with the fans.  This match is designed to be a brawl, with each competitor trying to render the other unconscious for a ten count in order to win the IC Championship.  If we are lucky, this could be an early Match of the Year candidate.

Prediction: Winner and new WWE Intercontinental Champion, Kevin Owens

30-Man Royal Rumble match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship

As I mentioned before, all eyes will be on Roman Reigns in this match.  He is the underdog champion, having been screwed over by the McMahon family and forced to defend his title against 29 other superstars in the same match.  This is the longest set of odds any WWE Champion has ever faced in a single match.

Given the ramifications of this match, there really only two people who have a viable shot of winning: Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns.  Everybody else is likely just going to fill time between action.  Maybe we might get a setup for a feud or two headed into WrestleMania, and there could possibly be a heel turn somewhere in the mix.  Some of the notables to keep an eye on besides Roman Reigns:

  • Brock Lesnar has a very good chance of winning the match and going on to WrestleMania as champion. If that doesn’t happen, look for an interaction that sets him up for a grudge match at WrestleMania instead, maybe against a member of the Wyatt Family or a returning superstar.
  • Chris Jericho has returned for the 1,000th time as a full-time wrestler. For reasons I can’t explain, the WWE features him very heavily at pay-per-view matches when he does return.  Jericho is a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.  To steal the phrase, he was a “B+ player” during his wrestling heyday.  When he isn’t wrestling, he is a mediocre rock star, a boring podcast host, and a terrible talk show host (see last summer’s WWE Tough Enough).  I have no idea what is still so interesting about Jericho other than his over-inflated ego.  I expect him to end up in a feud with someone following this match.
  • The Wyatt Family is probably going to tangle with someone in this match with an outcome that will lead to something else shortly down the road. Bray Wyatt was actually made to look strong and powerful in the go-home Raw last Monday, as if his leadership of the fearsome group could lead to him contending for a win of the rumble match itself.
  • Returning superstars could play a factor in this match. Usually we get a surprise entrant or two every year (Diamond Dallas Page, Bubba Ray Dudley, etc.) that gets a minute or two of TV time before they are eliminated, but it is fun to watch them while it lasts.  This year, there could be several returning stars (other than Jericho) that enter the match, some with an actual chance of making a dent in the outcome of the match.  Also, while he is still very much a member of the active roster, we haven’t seen Kane in quite some time, this would be the perfect time for him to return to television.  Who knows, maybe Randy Orton or Daniel Bryan aren’t hurt as badly as rumored and they come back this Sunday?
  • NXT developmental superstars stand a good chance of getting a spot or two in this match. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Finn Bálor or Hideo Itomi make their main roster debuts in this year’s rumble.

Prediction: Winner and still WWE World Heavyweight Champion, Roman Reigns

I can’t fathom a realistic outcome of the rumble match other than Reigns or Lesnar winning it. Hopefully, it turns out to be an entertaining rumble that sets us up for a big WrestleMania season this winter.

The Bumpy Road to WrestleMania 32

It seems of late that many WWE bloggers have seized on the opportunity to twist the WWE’s annual “Road to WrestleMania” metaphor that is used to create hype for WrestleMania season.  I figured I might as well join in the fun, considering the state of affairs in the current WWE landscape.  Between the rash of injuries, questionable storylines, a failed “Divas Revolution”, and the horrific decision to make Roman Reigns the WWE champion, there has been a viewer exodus of WWE programming since the beginning of 2015. There is both empirical and measurable evidence that 2015 ended on a sour note for the WWE and that things aren’t looking up any time soon.  The timing couldn’t be worse as we are just about 3 months away from WrestleMania 32 at AT&T Stadium, a facility which has the potential to hold the largest crowd ever to attend a WrestleMania event.

Injuries on The Road to WrestleMania

There seems to be a WrestleMania 31 curse on anybody who won or retained a men’s championship at last year’s event at Levi’s Stadium:

  • WWE Tag Team Champions Tyson Kidd and Cesaro are both on the shelf with injuries. Tyson Kidd suffered a career-ending injury and was nearly killed in the ring when he broke his neck during a match with a careless Samoa Joe.  Cesaro injured his shoulder and is out indefinitely following surgery.
  • Daniel Bryan wasn’t able to defend the WWE InterContinental title he won at WM 31, having suffered a career-ending concussion shortly thereafter. The WWE medical staff will not clear Bryan to return and we have seen the last of the charismatic fan-favorite as an in-ring competitor.
  • John Cena won the WWE United States Championship at WrestleMania 31. In early January 2016, he announced on Twitter that he was having surgery on his shoulder.  The timeline for his return is unknown, but he won’t be back for WrestleMania 32 in an in-ring capacity for sure.
  • Seth Rollins saw his inspirational WWE World Heavyweight Championship run come to an abrupt end when he broke a knee during a match with Kane on a recent European tour. He had to vacate the title and will be lucky to be back in the ring by the time SummerSlam rolls around. This is probably the most upsetting story out of the four as his surprise championship win at WrestleMania 31 was the feel-good story of the year in the WWE.

The curse didn’t stop with the champions at WrestleMania 31, as several other talents that were prominently featured on the show were also felled with major injuries:

  • A decrepit 56-year-old Sting, who had no business in a WWE ring at his age, suffered a neck injury at WWE Night of Champions against Seth Rollins. Sting, of course, jobbed to Triple-H at WrestleMania 31.  His WWE career pay-per-view record has ended at a pathetic 0 and 2.
  • Randy Orton defeated Seth Rollins in a hotly-contested grudge match at WrestleMania 31. In late October, he badly dislocated his shoulder while taking out the trash.  The subsequent operation to repair the damage is going to keep him out for an extended period of time.  It’s unknown if he will recover in time for WrestleMania 32, but it doesn’t seem likely.

Considering the fact that none of these competitors will be physically able to compete in time for WrestleMania 32, it is going to have a drastically different look than last year’s event.  But it is going to be a big question mark as to who on the current roster, or what legends will be called out of retirement, will be featured in the main events this year.

Bad Storylines

When professional wrestling is at its best, you can find yourself immersed in a match that tells a story and you forget that it is a work.  When it is at its worst, you get bad television which not only ruins the moment, it damages the talents that are forced to participate in them, leaving them as afterthoughts in most fans minds.

While there have been a lot of poor story arcs in the WWE in the past 8-9 months, the one that stands out to me as the worst was the Dolph ZigglerSummer RaeRusevLana love square.  Not only was it bad television at the time, but it did irreparable damage to each of the four talents that will dog them for the rest of their careers.

Dolph Ziggler has floundered in the mid-card for his entire career so he pretty much broke even at the end of this debacle.  Summer Rae was already the kiss of death (see her association with Fandango) for anybody she latched on to, so she as well wasn’t harmed much.

The one who suffered the most from this mess was Rusev.  Headed into WrestleMania 31, he was among the hottest heels on the roster.  He was booked strongly with a “destroyer from an enemy country” gimmick. His pairing with Lana was one of the few instances in recent years that an association with a diva was helpful for a superstar rather than harmful.  He had an undefeated streak and was on a roll.

Once Rusev lost to John Cena at WrestleMania 31, his momentum slowed down.  He could have easily recovered had he not ended up in this storyline.  Whereas Lana made him look strong and powerful, Summer Rae made him look weak and vulnerable.  Mercifully, the angle was killed off abruptly when TMZ reported that Lana and Rusev were engaged in real life.

Rusev was once again paired with Lana, but the damage was done.  Instead of being a feared and hated destroyer, he’s now languishing in the mid-card as a member of the hastily arranged “League of Nations”.   Anytime he enters the ring, it is hard to take him seriously as someone who can win any match he is in.  In fact, he’s expected to lose.

Early in 2015, Rusev was poised to become a main event-level heel.  His entanglement in one bad storyline has destroyed his credibility.  At a time when the WWE desperately needs talent to step up to replace those on the injured list, Rusev is not currently an option to take that spot due to bad booking.  It remains to see if he can recover at all.

The Divas Revolution

I can’t remember a time as a wrestling fan that a fellow fan has ever said to me: “I can’t wait to see the Divas match at the next WWE Pay Per View”.  I also can’t find any evidence that a Divas match has ever ended a pay-per-view.  It doesn’t seem to me that the division has been much of a draw of any kind for the WWE.  Conversely, the Divas matches on the development promotion, NXT have drawn critical praise and the division has drawn the attention from senior management within the WWE.

Following the momentum of the NXT Divas division brief success, the WWE decided to double-down on the main roster WWE Divas division by calling up several NXT talents at once and calling it a “Divas Revolution”.  Several months into this Divas Revolution, not much has changed at all.  In fact, it’s likely that this Divas Revolution has done the talents more harm than good.

The Divas segments on Raw (the word Diva still drives me nuts!) are nearly unwatchable.  It is impossible to distinguish between the babyfaces and the heels.  Their matches are three minutes long and are filled with blown spots. Despite his involvement in the story with his daughter Charlotte, not even Ric Flair himself has been able to save this train wreck of a division.  Some revolution this turned out to be.

Roman Reigns as Champ

It was rumored for years that Roman Reigns was the golden boy, the chosen one that Vince McMahon personally selected as the next megastar babyface champion and face of the company.  The WWE fans made it clear during the Royal Rumble in 2015 that they were not onboard with that sentiment.  The booking decision to have Roman Reigns win the Rumble was met with a near-revolt from the Philly fans in attendance that night and the Internet crowd wasn’t much better.

The WWE wisely decided against making Reigns the champion at WrestleMania 31 and instead put the title strap on Seth Rollins.  Rollins carried the title well during his reign, slowly winning over critics as time went by.  During that same time, Reigns continued to flounder, showing no improvement whatsoever.  He still can’t carry a long promo and his matches lack basic ring psychology.

Late in 2015, the WWE made the fateful decision to make Roman Reigns the champion.  They booked him as the underdog against The Authority, reprising a tired and old storyline that goes back to the Attitude Era and Stone Cold Steve Austin’s days a champion.  The biggest problem here is that Reigns still isn’t very good and the fans aren’t buying the underdog angle at all.

Headed into WrestleMania XXX, Daniel Bryan gained a lot of momentum with his conflict with The Authority.  The big difference with Daniel Bryan was that senior WWE management really didn’t like him at all and were frustrated by the fan base that demanded he become champion.  They finally caved and made him the champion when it was apparent that the fans were not going to accept Batista in that spot.  The Roman Reigns conflict with the authority, however, has no basis in reality.  Everybody knows that this is the opposite situation and that management was behind Reigns all along.  This is not an organic movement and the fans are still not behind Reigns.

Right now, the Roman Reigns experiment has us facing a situation with a weak hand-picked champion, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Lex Luger’s run as champion over twenty years ago.  He isn’t going to approve any time soon, or probably ever, and we are likely stuck with him at the top for quite some time.

What Happens Next?

Time marches on and The Royal Rumble is upon us.  Right now we know virtually nothing about the WrestleMania 32 card of who will be featured on it.  We could see some faces from the past such as Bill Goldberg or Shawn Michaels come out of retirement to add a jolt to the card.  We could see current mid-card stars such as Kevin Owens be called on to carry main event level matches.  We could see NXT talents such as Finn Bálor called up to the main roster.  No matter what happens, all we can do is hope for the best headed into WrestleMania season, and hopefully get a turnaround from what has been a big downturn in the quality of the WWE product as of late.