Written By: Mark Armstrong
I noted last week, during an extremely eventful SummerSlam weekend along with its wealth of fall-out, that this current week wouldn’t be anywhere near as exciting. While that proved to be the case, there has still been plenty going on in wrestling, including a major angle and an unsurprising departure from the WWE roster, so let’s get to my thoughts on another week in the wacky world of wrestling.
Before I begin, it was sad to hear that Mr. Fuji had passed away at the age of 82. Although Fuji was an accomplished wrestler and a multi-time Tag Team Champion in the WWWF, I knew him more as a devious, evil yet entertaining and almost lovable rogue manager from the boom period of the late 1980s for the WWF. He managed the likes of Demolition and Yokozuna to championship gold, playing a vital role in Yoko’s first WWF Title win at WrestleMania IX, and cutting a humorous promo on Hulk Hogan to set up Hogan’s impromptu title win (“Come on, ya yellow-belly, come on!”). He was also well-known for practical jokes, some of which went a bit extreme (Roddy Piper recounted one such tale on a Q&A tour in 2014, which involved Fuji, another Japanese wrestler and a dog, which is probably best not repeated here). But Fuji was unquestionably a legendary name, and fittingly entered the WWE Hall Of Fame in 2007. RIP Mr. Fuji.
- Now onto developments in WWE: the big news came from Raw, and the Fatal Four Way match to crown a new Universal Champion in the wake of Finn Balor’s injury. Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens and Big Cass all delivered strong performances in an excellent main event match, aside from Reigns hitting a laughable number of increasingly-ineffective Superman Punches (the move is virtually dead after this bout). But the talking point was Triple H’s shocking return (I guess it isn’t Game Over after I suggested such a possibility last week), Pedigreeing Reigns to cost him the match, and then in a major swerve, also Pedigreeing former Authority golden boy Rollins, allowing Owens to win the Universal Championship. The look on HHH’s face, and the shocked expressions sported by Stephanie McMahon and Mick Foley, suggest that a HHH/KO alliance is upon us, contrary to Stephanie’s support of Rollins and, erm, can Foley be a babyface while endorsing Seth?
- Anyway, this extremely exciting shock conclusion to Raw was arguably the show’s best moment of the year (depending how you rank it over Shane McMahon’s return and the sudden rise of Finn Balor), and it sets up plenty of intriguing developments going forward. I am guessing that we’ll see Owens vs. Rollins at Clash Of Champions, with Reigns either battling HHH in a WrestleMania rematch or resuming his feud with Rusev. Rollins is surely a babyface after these scenes, and I wouldn’t bet against Stephanie siding with HHH, leaving Foley as the man to back The Man. Owens is now a true main eventer and the face of Raw, a lot earlier and in a very different fashion that people would have anticipated, and there’s no reason why KO can’t rule the Raw roost for months to come, especially with HHH backing him (not to mention the potential for one final Owens-Sami Zayn showdown, this time for a major championship). As for Rollins vs. HHH? If WWE is smart, that match will be saved for WrestleMania 33, which alongside potential matches pitting John Cena vs. The Undertaker and Brock Lesnar vs. Goldberg, already give us a mouth-watering card for next year’s Mania.
- Annoyingly, some people still found a way to criticise this angle, complaining about HHH making it all about him. While more people were talking about HHH than Owens to some extent, his involvement was crucial to the new storyline being laid out. Really, what those fans wanted was for Owens to pin Reigns and Seth clean to become Universal Champion, but doing that doesn’t enhance KO as a villain, which he is meant to be. Having HHH help him win, and at the expense of the popular Rollins, increases the chances of Owens being booed regularly going forward, even though a lot of fans respect his talents and his hilarious banter. One man who does come out of the situation in a pickle is Roman Reigns: that 30-day suspension has been a real anchor to his career, as the best Roman could now hope for is a title shot against Owens at, say, Survivor Series. He could be selected to eventually face Owens at WrestleMania, but that’s only going to continue the perception that Reigns is shoved down people’s throats as a babyface. The path that Roman really should take is for him to become a heel, but this major angle means that such a development is probably not imminent. While he’s not in the main event, fans are a bit more tolerant of good guy Roman, but WWE wants him in the main event long-term, so it’s a tricky catch-22. One final note on that match: Big Cass looked quite impressive, and even he basically admitted that he wasn’t ready to become Universal Champion, but if he can grow as a performer, then he may have major gold in his future, say in around 18 months’ time.
- The Four-Way was the obvious highlight of Raw, which aside from the main event situation was pretty much run-of-the-mill. Cesaro vs. Sheamus was an enjoyable second entry into their Best-Of-Seven series (Sheamus backdropping Cesaro into the ring post en route to victory was a unique move), but otherwise there was nothing must-see before the headline bout began. It was actually more notable for a couple of awful moments: the attempts to made Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson a “funny” team aren’t working due to crap material, and Dana Brooke isn’t very good at acting or wrestling at this stage, based on her contributions to Monday’s show. And the feud between Titus O’Neil and Darren Young is actually playing out worse than their 2014 conflict, which is some achievement since their previous feud wasn’t much, and their current storyline has more of a story behind it (well, Bob Backlund is involved). For Titus, at least he came out of Raw looking better than he did last week where he cut the most botched promo of the entire year on WWE television.
- SmackDown was okay for the most part, but there was nothing that would be described as essential viewing. AJ Styles has now taken to calling himself “The Face That Runs The Place” to mock John Cena, and fans are taking to him almost too well, considering that he remains a heel. With a ton on momentum, and another win on SD over Apollo Crews (which admittedly had a lame set-up based around spelling), Styles is red-hot right now, and almost everybody wants to see him become WWE Champion when he faces Dean Ambrose next Sunday at Backlash. Ambrose had a decent bout with Baron Corbin to main event the show, but yet again it felt like Dean is, I don’t want to say phoning it in, but he is coasting to some degree. I can’t remember the last time that fans were wowed by an Ambrose match, in singles at least (I’d hazard a guess at it being vs. HHH at Roadblock). Looking closely at this match, the problem seems to be that Ambrose’s offence at times is a bit slow, his strikes only barely connect, and he almost looks like too much of a performer; Shawn Michaels used to hit flying forearms regularly, but he might punch them head-on, he might dive forward like Superman, he might have to hit more than one against a larger opponent; basically, he slightly modified his offence each time depending on the situation, something that Ambrose doesn’t do. It’s not like Ambrose is in a bad place; he is the WWE Champion, after all. But right now, fans would much rather see AJ win the gold, and since so many wanted Ambrose to become titleholder in the first place, that is a sign that Ambrose isn’t meeting expectations on top. I am anticipating a great match between Dean and AJ at Backlash, but Ambrose needs to give people a reason to want him to win, otherwise his title reign will be seen as a disappointment, should it be curtailed against Styles next weekend.
- The rest of SD wasn’t much to speak of. The Miz followed up his electrifying promo last week with another strong effort here, but diverting him into another feud with Dolph Ziggler isn’t the best follow-up (mind you, who else could WWE have chosen to face Miz from the SmackDown roster?). The other stand-out aspect was the very unexpected WWE comeback of The Headbangers, presumably brought in as a one-off for Heath Slater and Rhyno to defeat. Will Slater regain his job by virtue of him and Rhyno winning the Tag Team Titles at Backlash? I still envision an American Alpha-Usos final, but a lot of people are hoping for Slater to win, for possibly the first time in his entire career. Randy Orton vs. Bray Wyatt was also confirmed for Backlash, which will probably be the first of a series of matches between the two, since it’s a fresh feud and it should deliver some good action. Overall, though, Raw beats SmackDown this week due to that amazingly unpredictable angle to close out a fantastic main event match.
- Elsewhere, NXT is just moving on from Takeover: Back To Brooklyn, although the smart money is on a rematch between Shinsuke Nakamura and Samoa Joe for the NXT Title at the next Takeover (the date for which has yet to be confirmed). The Cruiserweight Classic is nearing its finale, and fans are becoming excited by the fact that seven CC entrants have been announced as a part of Raw’s upcoming Cruiserweight division. Expect this to be hyped up heavily by WWE over the next few weeks.
- It’s been reported that, as expected, Alberto Del Rio will be leaving WWE after his suspension ends (his contract had a clause allowing him to leave in September if he were so inclined). ADR’s second WWE run was a pretty big let-down, really: aside from his surprise comeback win over John Cena for the United States Title at Hell In A Cell 2015, it’s been downhill all the way for ADR. While the booking of Del Rio was poor throughout this year, meaning that you couldn’t blame the guy for leaving, there’s still something about Del Rio that prevents him connecting with fans: we’re six years on from his WWE debut, and he hasn’t evolved much at all. In fact, he’s gone backwards, since Ricardo Rodriguez and the flashy car entrance were removed from his act. He showed fire as El Patron in Lucha Underground and elsewhere, but he couldn’t do the same in WWE. I don’t expect him to return to WWE outside of a potential cameo appearance in a few years time, but he could contribute to other promotions should he modify his style and show more charisma. TNA would certainly have him if they can afford ADR, as that would be further evidence of the promotion making something of a comeback after several years of almost impending doom. Some have wondered if Paige will follow her boyfriend Alberto out the door; whilst I don’t see that happening anytime soon, it wouldn’t surprise me if she was no longer with the company by this time next year.
- Other than that, the only other standout topic from the week has been the news that Bill Goldberg is apparently having serious talks with WWE about a comeback of some sort, following his WWE 2K17 appearance. If all goes to plan, I imagine that we’ll see Goldberg take on Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 33, as mentioned earlier: if WWE does go with Brock vs. Shane McMahon, it’ll either be that Shane drafts in Goldberg as his representative for a major fight, or Lesnar fights Shane and pounds him into oblivion, only to be interrupted by the return of Da Man. It’s too early to say for sure, since Goldberg hasn’t officially returned yet, but one more match at WrestleMania is plausible, with Lesnar being an ideal opponent. A Hall Of Fame induction in 2018 would likely follow, which coincidentally could be the weekend of Lesnar’s own final WWE match at WrestleMania 34 based on his current contract – but we’re getting ahead of ourselves now.
- I was lucky enough to attend a Q&A event with Eric Bischoff in Manchester last Friday. Bischoff was a nice guy and pleasant to everybody there, and answered plenty of questions ranging from stories from the WCW days and his WWE run to his opinions on wrestling today. Although Bischoff’s career as a wrestling personality is pretty much done, one can’t help but think that the very knowledgeable and business-savvy Bischoff could still have a role to play in wrestling. His TNA stint didn’t do much, admittedly, but perhaps Bischoff could help Ring Of Honor or another promotion to find increased television exposure, given his contacts in the world of TV. Alternatively, a role in helping the WWE Network to expand or hosting a show on the Network might be options. Either way, the Bischoff story doesn’t feel like it’s quite over yet, although Eric seems more than happy if the book on his time in sports-entertainment were to be at an end.
- Finally, a WWE Network recommendation. There was an episode of Raw from the Attitude Era which I watched a while ago that bears another viewing, and that is the March 26 2001 Raw. Not only was it the last episode before WrestleMania X-Seven, but it was the landmark night when the WWF and WCW had that simulcast across Raw and (the last) Nitro. It’s obviously worth watching for historical value, but the show as a whole has such energy, and the roster was so loaded at the time, that it isn’t hard to realise why the boom period was still alive for the company at the time, and it firmly prepares the viewer for WrestleMania that Sunday. Ironically, things would begin sliding for the WWF after WM X-Seven with Steve Austin turning heel at the same time that The Rock began his first major movie-related departure, and the wrestling industry would never be the same again. Still, at least you can relive the glory days, and a very historic show, before things took a downturn. Some would argue that things took a downturn because of the events of March 26 2001. It’s the end of an era, whatever way you look at it.
That’s my random round-up of wrestling opinions this week; I’ll return with my thoughts next week, including my predictions for Backlash!