Triple H and 205 Live, Plus Ponderings From WWE Smackdown

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Over the last few weeks, 205 Live seems to have gained something it’s desperately needed from the start: Buzz. And the one we have to thank for it is, of all people, Triple H.

Or rather, the real-life Paul Levesque. Levesque, who serves as WWE’s Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events and Creative, has become the new showrunner for 205 Live. As such, the name of the game seems to be reemphasizing the wrestling, and toning down some of the more cartoony elements in the show.

Case in point, this week’s episode. We had two lengthy matches, one between Akira Tozawa and Mark Andrews, and the other between Drew Gulak and Tony Nese. The presentation was very much akin to what we’d previously seen from the Cruiserweight Classic, the UK Championship tournament, and quite often from NXT. Very much sport-oriented, with the announcers largely focused on what’s happening in the ring as opposed to traditional Vince McMahon style “storytelling.”

Backstage segments with new GM Drake Maverick are being used as a reset button of sorts for various wrestlers. We saw one last week with Gulak and Nese, which led to what we got on this show. This week we got one with Jack Gallagher, who was told to start wearing standard ring attire again.

We’re also introducing names from the NXT and the UK rosters. We spent a good amount of time getting to know Wales native Mark Andrews. Former NXT Tag Champ Buddy Murphy was also profiled, with the story being about him reinventing himself and cutting weight to make the 205 Live roster.

This is good. This is a change. One that makes sense, given 205 Live airs on the WWE Network. They can skew a bit more toward the devoted wrestling fans who pay that money every month rather than casual viewers. We’ve got plenty of time for that on Raw and Smackdown. The time has come to make 205 Live what it should have been from the start: An offshoot of the Cruiserweight Classic. That’s where WWE fans were first introduced to most of these guys. Let’s see if we can get some of those folks back.

Ponderings From Smackdown:

Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn ambush Baron Corbin and Dolph Ziggler before they can wrestle for a spot in the title match at Fastlane. Shane McMahon later makes Corbin vs. Owens and Ziggler vs. Zayn. If Corbin and Ziggler win their respective matches, they get added to the Fastlane match. So Ziggler is apparently a babyface now, for no apparent reason. That’s fine, as Ziggler has proven he can do well in either role. I just wish they’d come up with a coherent reason for him to be back after voluntarily relinquishing the US Title. Later in the show, he talked about wanting to main event Wrestlemania. That’s a fine reason, but he still looks like a dope for walking out.

I don’t know why I’m even complaining at this point. As far as the writing and booking for Ziggler are concerned, this kind of thing is par for the course. What’s more, he reportedly just signed a new two-year deal for $1.5 million annually. Hey, at least he’s well paid.

Charlotte Flair def. Sarah Logan. At this point, Logan stands out the least among the three Riott Squad members. So I had trouble getting invested in this match for that reason. They made a point to talk about how Charlotte has now beaten both Sarah Logan and Liv Morgan, and is now targeting Ruby Riott. So what happens if she beats all three? Do they have to break up?

Baron Corbin def. Kevin Owens to earn a spot in the WWE Title Match at Fastlane. The finish to this one was pretty obvious, and it dragged as a result. I was surprised to see Corbin get the clean win, though.

Randy Orton attempts to accept Bobby Roode’s open challenge for the United States Title, but Jinder Mahal interrupts. A fight breaks out, and Jinder is left standing tall. So Jinder was trying to goad a reaction out of Orton for only being number 9 on the Smackdown Top 10. But the story behind the list is that it’s decided by votes from fellow wrestlers, and is essentially a popularity contest. Why would a loner character like Orton care?

On the other hand, this could open the door for a Randy Orton heel turn. It wouldn’t be a big stretch. He could talk about being disrespected by both the wrestlers and the fans, and throw in that he apparently wasn’t even invited to Raw‘s 25th anniversary show. And if he really wants heat, he can retire the RKO.

The New Day def. Shelton Benjamin and Chad Gable. This match spun out of a segment about pancakes. No, seriously.

How Gable was able to hit that roll-through German Suplex on Big E, I’ll never know. Absolutely sick strength.

Dolph Ziggler def. Sami Zayn to earn a spot in the WWE Title Match at Fastlane. Like the Owens/Corbin match, my interest in this one was pretty low. They were starting to get me toward the end, though. Hell of an Exploder Suplex.

So now we’ve got a Fatal Five-Way for the title. I’d love to know why they’re so fixated on these five-man matches as opposed to four or six-man matches. Comparatively, it’s such an awkward number. The good news is that with AJ Styles, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, and Dolph Ziggler in there, they’d have to try pretty hard to make this a bad match.

Conspicuous by his absence this week was Shinsuke Nakamura. Now that we’ve got five guys in the main event, and what appears to be a three-way between Randy Orton, Bobby Roode, and Jinder Mahal, who does that leave for Nakamura? Rusev, maybe? Could they feed him a lower midcard guy like Mojo Rawley?

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The Elias/John Cena Connection, Plus Ponderings From WWE Raw

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

I found myself on a podcast binge this past Sunday. Among my backlogged shows were two respective episodes of The Steve Austin Show and E and C’s Pod of Awesomeness. As if by fate, the both happened to feature the same guest: Elias.

I hadn’t realized just how into this guy I was. But I found myself listening pretty intently to what he had to say, and it occurred to me: If portrayed the right way, Elias could be huge. To an extent, he actually reminds me of John Cena. Not necessarily in terms of his personality or the way he works, but in the uniqueness of his persona.

When John Cena started using his hip hop inspired persona in 2003, it had a flair of originality to it. We’d seen wrestlers incorporate certain rap elements into their characters, but never seen anything quite like this. Once that character became more fully developed, Cena’s battle was half won. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t as polished a wrestler as most of his peers. People bought into him because was unique, and even real to an extent.

We’ve seen our share of guitar-playing wrestlers. The Honky Tonk Man comes to mind immediately, as does Jeff Jarrett. Outside the WWE umbrella you had names like Van Hammer and Maxx Payne. But Elias has an entirely different flavor. He’s got a more grounded, modern feel to him, sprinkled with a little Johnny Cash, Jim Morrison, etc. It didn’t click with the more hardcore fans in NXT. But on the mainstream level shows like Raw and Smackdown, it works.

Elias has something that’s been missing in wrestling for a long time, but seems to slowly be creeping back in. The “cool factor.” That swagger,  that demeanor, that aura that makes the male audience in particular look at you and think, “I wish I could be like him.” Names like Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Sting, and Goldberg had it. Groups like DX and the nWo had it. John Cena had it at one point. Nowadays you can see it in guys who’ve been associated with the Bullet Club. Braun Strowman has it to a degree.

We’re now starting to see traces of it in Elias. He’s hearing more boos than cheers. But give it time. Once Wrestlemania comes and goes, it wouldn’t surprise me if fans around the world are ready to walk with Elias. And when that time comes, WWE needs to be ready to pounce.

Ponderings From Raw:

John Cena opens the show, and is interrupted by the Miz. Cena challenges Miz to a match with the stipulation that the loser enters the Elimination Chamber Match first. Cena wins with the Super AA. The best line of Cena’s promo? Wrestlemania can bring a legend back from the dead.” Foreshadowing, anyone?

To anyone who’s been a fan for more than a few years, the notion of Cena not having a match at Wrestlemania is downright laughable. But that’s obviously the story they want to tell with he and Undertaker. Cena has to get a match at Wrestlemania by goading the Dead Man out of retirement.

Incidentally, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever heard an “And the loser of this match is…” announcement.

The Revival def. Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson. Anybody else see Dash Wilder trip after he got tagged in to feed for Anderson? Whoops. Still, at least they won. A hell of an improvement over their loss to Anderson and Finn Balor last week.

Kurt Angle stands up for Jason Jordan, who will miss Wrestlemania with a neck injury. Seth Rollins emerges and asks to be inserted into the Second Chance Fatal Four-Way later that night. Angle grants his wish, making it a Fatal Five-Way. Oh good. Another Fatal Five-Way. Isn’t that just so…asymmetrical.

Rollins was presumably going to work with Jason Jordan at Wrestlemania. Obviously that’s not happening anymore, which leaves Rollins without a dance partner. So who do you put him with? Angle? I doesn’t seem like the highly speculated Triple H/Kurt Angle match is on the books anymore, and Rollins would likely give Angle a better match anyway. Finn Balor might work, as they obviously have some history. There’s also the Miz, though he’s rumored to be working with Strowman.

Bayley def. Sasha Banks. Nia Jax ambushes both women after the match. Hardly their best match, but still damn good.

While the turn isn’t official, Sasha was working heel here. It’s about damn time. I’ve been ready to boo the hell out of this woman for months. What’s more, working with a heel Sasha could do wonders for Bayley. The audience needs to be reminded why they liked her in the first place. Casting Sasha as a vicious, bratty heel could garner her some valuable sympathy.

Mandy Rose and Goldust were a team on WWE Mixed Match Challenge last week. While they lost, if you watch some of the online content WWE has put out with them, they make a hell of a duo. How about we drop the Absolution stuff and make them a next-gen Goldust and Marlena?

Braun Strowman gives his own take on one of Elias’ performances, smashes the Drifter with a cello. These WWE comedy segments crash and burn so much that you wonder if they’re even worth the effort. Then something like this comes along and it almost makes the bad ones all worthwhile. Even after accidentally breaking the strings, Strowman sold the bit and made it work. And seeing him smash Elias with the cello? Priceless.

How is this man not headlining Wrestlemania? Apparently Brock doesn’t want to work with him anymore after what happened at the Rumble. So what? Brock makes a hell of a lot of money working fewer dates than almost anyone. Suck it up, buttercup.

Roman Reigns def. Sheamus. This match brings back bad memories from late 2015. But then they wind up going at each other so hard that you wind up forgiving them.

The announcers actually brought up a valid point early on in this match. A pretty damn sad point, at that. Cole noted that Sheamus may be one of the most underrated stars in WWE history. They listed of all his singles accomplishments, and then added that they’re often forgotten because he’s now in a tag team with Cesaro. Think about that. On paper this guy has a Hall of Fame resume. WWE Champion, World Heavyweight Champion, King of the Ring winner, Royal Rumble Match winner, Money in the Bank winner, US Champion. And yet all that gets glossed over.

I don’t doubt the history books will be kind to Sheamus. But I can’t help but wonder if he’ll ever get the respect he truly deserves. 

Ivory announced for WWE Hall of Fame Class of 2018. Ivory was always a favorite of mine. Ahead of her time, in that she could always do the sports entertainment stuff, but she was a wrestler’s wrestler. And a good chunk of her WWE career was spent with ladies who, with due respect, really had no business being in a wrestling ring. Thus, she had to stoop to performing in various slop matches, Evening Gown Matches, Bra and Panties Matches, and a various other things that really don’t age well. She a lot was classier than the material she was given. The real-life Lisa Moretti has earned her spot in the Hall of Fame as much as just about all of her peers. 

The “Second Chance” Fatal Five-Way Match ends in a tie between Finn Balor and Seth Rollins. Both earn a spot on the Elimination Chamber Match. We’ve never had seven guys in a Chamber Match before. I assume it’ll be three guys in the ring at the start, with the remaining four entering as usual. Either way, it doesn’t matter. Roman Reigns is winning.

It’s curious that they’d put Apollo Crews in this match. In terms of his spot on the card, he was clearly below everyone else in that match. The good news, however, is that he definitely held his own out there. I feel like I talk about how athletic this guy is every single week. This was a hell of a chance to show off, and I think he took full advantage of it. Also, Apollo has some personality buried in there somewhere. We just need to dig…

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A Superman, Vol. 1: Son of Superman Review – A Family Affair

TITLE: Superman, Vol. 1: Son of Superman
AUTHORS: Peter Tomasi, Patrick Gleason
PENCILLERS: Gleason, Jorge Jimenez, Doug Mahnke
COLLECTS: Superman: Rebirth #1, Superman #16
FORMAT: Softcover
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
PRICE: $16.99
RELEASED: January 4, 2017

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

This is the first ongoing Superman book in a long time that actually feels happy to be a Superman book.

This topic has been beaten to death, but let’s touch on it quickly: It’s time to stop trying to modernize, freshen up, or worst of all, “darken” Superman. It’s been done time and time again, and it never clicks. They’ve changed his costume. They’ve made him moody and broody. One time they even de-powered him and put him on a damn motorcycle. No more. It’s time to stop being ashamed of Superman. Let the character be who and what he’s always been at his core: A champion of values. Truth, justice, hope. and yes, the American way. Let the guy smile. Embrace the character’s legacy instead of hiding from it. Let him be the hero we need in these trying times.

Son of Superman does all of that, while still carving out a new direction for the Man of Steel. Simply put, it’s the best Superman book in years. Almost a decade, perhaps.

The DC Rebirth incarnation of Superman puts the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths version of the character back in the cape and boots. He’d been brought back for Convergence, and eventually became an ongoing character again in the pages of a new book, Lois and Clark. With him was his timeline’s incarnation of Lois Lane, and their young son Jonathan. As Clark Kent finds a balance between protecting the Earth and raising his son, Jonathan must learn to manage his emerging superpowers. With those powers come responsibility, risk, and a legacy…

Instead of focusing on Superman facing a threat, we spend most of this book learning about Jonathan. We see his response to living with a secret identity, how he reacts to challenges, and how Clark and Lois are raising him. They’ve accepted that he’ll one day inherit the Superman legacy, and are gently preparing him for the role. In theory, Superman works on two levels. Youngsters can identify with Jonathan, while older parent-aged readers connect with Clark and Lois. It’s by no means a sexy approach. But artistically, it’s true to the soul of the Superman character. His adopted parents instilled him with a set of principles. Now he has to pass those principles on to his son. But the dynamic is tweaked, because he’s able to relate to what Jonathan is going through. It’s a premise that lends itself to heart-felt storytelling, not unlike what we saw from Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s work in Batman & Robin.

We kick things off with Superman: Rebirth #1, which establishes our “new” hero, with some nice fan service thrown in. The New 52 Superman was killed off, and as the post-Crisis Superman is the one who famously died and returned, he sets about bringing his counterpart back in a similar fashion. Te issue is highlighted by artists Doug Mahnke, Jaime Mendoza, and Will Quintana giving us their take on the iconic Superman/Doomsday battle. It was out of continuity for so long, and it’s brought back in what I’ll call a “wide screen” sequence that plays out over about seven pages. Mendoza’s inks compliment Mahnke’s richly detailed pencils, and Quintana’s color make it every bit the glorious and epic scene it needs to be. The same applies to when they return for issue #5. We’ve got Superman talking to ghosts, we’ve got the Eradicator trying to eradicate things, we’ve got a big Batman robot straight out of a Snyder/Capullo comic…

Actually, I don’t mind the “Hellbat” returning from the Tomasi/Gleason Batman & Robin book. Maybe it’s because Lois Lane is the one using it, as opposed to Batman. It makes for a fun holdover.

But artistically, this book belongs to Patrick Gleason, inker Mick Gray, and colorist John Kalisz. Obviously, as a co-writer Gleason has the advantage of molding the story to fit his strengths. But just from a basic figure rendering perspective, it’s so amazing to see Superman look like Superman again. Even the classic spit curl, which I’ve never been a huge fan of, is a breath of fresh air. These pages are bright, flamboyant, and unabashedly sentimental. Gleason’s slightly exaggerated, animated style is a perfect fit for a story about a pre-teen learning to be a superhero. There’s a lot of fun on these pages.

Gleason also has an amazing knack for classic Superman iconography. The page at left comes to mind, with our hero in the classic pose as an American flag waves in the background. For obvious reasons, he lays it on a little stronger in issue #1. We’ve got a two-page spread that simply shows him opening his shirt to reveal the “S” insignia. That’s followed up immediately with another two-page spread giving us snapshots from Superman’s history. This is who Superman is, and who he’s always been. To see it all reemphasized is borderline beautiful.

The biggest obstacle this book faces is establishing that this is a “new” Superman from another timeline. They obviously devote a good amount of time to it. But it’s still a lot to wrap your head around, and has the potential to be really confusing for someone jumping on. This book is about a family trying to figure out how they fit into a new world. But that runs counterintuitive to how the average reader sees Superman, as he’s so ingrained in the fabric of the DC Universe. By the time we close the book, most of that awkwardness has subsided. But to say the least, this hasn’t been the smoothest Superman relaunch we’ve ever seen.

But it’s worth it in about every possible way. It’s been far too long since a Superman book has been this good. While this is obviously a new direction for the Man of Steel, in many ways it feels like he’s finally gotten back to his roots. That’s the Superman we need right now. That’s the Superman we’ve always needed.

Welcome back, Big Blue. We’ve missed you.

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Booker T/Corey Graves Heat? Plus Ponderings From WWE Raw

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Booker T isn’t happy. But we all should be.

Last week on his Houston-based radio show, the former WCW Heavyweight Champion made some bold statements about being replaced by Jonathan Coachman on the Raw announce team. Comments specifically directed at Corey Graves.

According to Booker, Graves is “the reason that I’m not on Monday Night Raw right now.” Booker claims he was removed because people in the company were worried about a physical confrontation between the two, based on how they were interacting on television.

He continued: “Me personally, everybody knows my reputation… I get mean, when you mess with my green. And right now, my green is being messed with, you know what I mean? So, me and Corey Graves… Wrestlemania coming up, right? There’s room for one more match. … I’m calling Corey Graves out to a fight. Not a match. Not a pre-show posedown or anything like that. I’m calling Corey Graves out to a fight.”

Graves’ only response was the following tweet…

Then on Raw, Graves randomly threw out the line: “You better be careful, Coach. You’ll be doing ESPN radio locally.” Yeesh…

This feels like a work, especially given what Booker said about Wrestlemania. But for a moment, let’s go with the notion that he was shooting. Let’s say Graves somehow got Booker moved back to pre-show duty.

He did us a favor, folks.

When Booker subbed in for David Otunga on the Raw announce team, I think most of us were relieved. Almost anyone is a better choice than Otunga. And for awhile, Booker was a breath of fresh air. But as the months went on, his work went off the deep end. It became a ongoing gag for Cole and Graves to make fun of him for saying nonsensical things. As a wrestler, Booker was a bona fide star. But as an announcer he was drowning. Given the choice between Booker T and Jonathan Coachman, they’d have been foolish not to go with Coach.

Booker T is a bona fide Hall of Famer, and he deserves our respect. But the time had come to bump him off Raw. At least for the time being.

Ponderings From Raw:

Roman Reigns def. Bray Wyatt to qualify for the Elimination Chamber. Woken Matt Hardy attacks Wyatt after the match. It doesn’t get much easier to call than this. Crowd was into it, though. Has it only been a year since Bray won the WWE Championship in a Chamber Match? Seems like a lot longer…

Loved those opening pre-tapes. What’s more, they were looking into the camera!

Finn Balor and Karl Anderson def the Revival. My ears perked up when Scott Dawson used the phrase “tag team specialists.” On a recent episode of Something to Wrestle, Bruce Prichard explained that phrase used to be applied to teams made up of smaller guys, i.e. the Midnight Rockers. The idea was they were relatively easy to beat as individuals, but as a team they were nearly unstoppable.

Then Dash and Dawson lost to Balor and Anderson, who teamed up on a whim. Whoops. Hey, at least Balor beat somebody.

Cedric Alexander and Mustafa Ali def. Drew Gulak and Tony Nese. New 205 Live General Manager Drake Maverick (formerly Rockstar Spud) joins the announce team. I’m familiar with Rockstar Spud’s work from Impact Wrestling, though not extensively so. Here’s what I’ll will say: He did amazing out there on commentary. An absolute natural. That was his first time out there on Raw. I say we make this guy the new Austin Aries. Put him out there on commentary every week for the Cruiserweight matches to give them some unique flavor.

Alexander took a beating in this match. Not just the fall on the shoulder, but that landing after the somersault over the ropes. He looked like he landed on his tailbone.

I’m not a regular 205 Live viewer. But with Roderick Strong debuting against Hideo Itami, tonight’s show is appointment television.

Kurt Angle announces Bayley, Sasha Banks, Mickie James, Mandy Rose, and Sonya Deville will challenge Alexa Bliss in the first ever Women’s Elimination Chamber Match. Bliss calls Angle out for not having Brock Lesnar defend the Universal Title in a Chamber Match. I was actually surprised to hear Alexa call Kurt a sexist. You’d think with everything being so ultra PC these days, they wouldn’t even want to suggest such  thing. It got a nice reaction, though.

Angle also announced Asuka vs. Nia Jax for Elimination Chamber. If Jax wins, she gets in on Asuka’s championship match at Wrestlemania, whoever she picks. I don’t see Nia beating Asuka. But this could help pave the way for her challenging Alexa at Wrestlemania.

Asuka def. Bayley. This was pretty good. Loved the reverse roll-through counter to the Asuka lock. That was almost an old Bret Hart spot. Probably Bayley’s best Raw match since the night she won the title from Charlotte. Now if only Bayley had gotten any kind of reaction when her music hit. If she keeps having matches like this, she’ll be on the comeback trail. But she’s not there yet.

The Miz def. Apollo Crews to quality for the Elimination Chamber Match. Crews has had a good couple of weeks. Now if only he could find some personality.

The Bar def. Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns to retain the WWE Raw Tag Team Titles via DQ, with an accidental assist from Jason Jordan. Apparently Jordan has some neck and back issues, which is why we haven’t seen him wrestle in awhile. The timing couldn’t be worse, of course. But they’ve been creative in how they’ve kept him involved. Based on what we saw here tonight, the official heel turn should be coming sooner than later.

Nia Jax won an enhancement match. In her post-match promo, Nia announced to Asuka that she’s “the only one in that locker room you can’t beat.” Um, she did beat you. Less than a month ago. It was the best match you ever had…

Mickie James def. Sonya Deville. I’d love to know what Sonya Deville thinks about Ronda Rousey and Shayna Baszler both being under the WWE umbrella. I imagine it’s something to the effect of, “So much for my gimmick…”

Elias def. John Cena and Braun Strowman in a Triple-Threat Match to earn the right to enter last in the Elimination Chamber Match. There’s been a good amount of buzz about Strowman challenging Miz for the Intercontinental Title at Wrestlemania. But I think they’d do just as well to put Elias in that spot. The guy’s getting cheers.

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Ronda Rousey’s WWE Debut, Plus Ponderings From the Royal Rumble and Raw

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

“The landscape has changed.” That’s one of their go-to lines, isn’t it? Whenever something supposedly big happens, somebody has to say: “The landscape has changed.” It doesn’t really make sense, does it?

But last night the landscape did change, didn’t it? At least as far as women’s wrestling is concerned. Ronda Rousey is apparently now a full-time performer with WWE. What exactly “full-time” means for her has yet to be determined. Somehow I doubt she’ll be making all the house shows. She may end up being the female equivalent to Brock Lesnar. But one way or another, this is happening. Ronda Rousey is a professional wrestler.

People can say what they want about how Rousey last few fights went. But this woman is a legit superstar, and a true trailblazer in the world of women’s sports. Would the so-called “women’s revolution” in WWE have even occurred if not for what Rousey did in the world of MMA? The answer is no. What’s more, she’s a legit wrestling fan. This is apparently a legit passion project for her. Look no further than what she was wearing when she showed up after the Women’s Royal Rumble Match last night. A clear homage to Rowdy Roddy Piper, whose nickname she adopted in the UFC as “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey. That leather jacket legitimately belonged to Piper.

I always hesitate to use words like “legitimacy” or “credibility” when it comes to pro wrestling. This stuff is worked. It’s not the same as what Rousey did in the UFC, and it never will be. But a superstar like Rousey choosing to devote the next chapter of her career to WWE lends the business an amazing level of credibility. It’s a message to the world at large about what wrestling is and what it means to our popular culture. It’s also a hell of a shot in the arm for women’s wrestling overall.

We may be in the midst of a women’s revolution. But Ronda Rousey is about to start a revolution of her own.

Ponderings From Raw (with some added from the Royal Rumble):

Shinsuke Nakamura wins the 2018 Royal Rumble Match, challenges AJ Styles for Wrestlemania. Simply put, this was the best Royal Rumble Match in years. And not just because the right guy won. The Philadelphia crowd was hot, and they milked the drama so perfectly during those last several minutes. It’s been a long time since a wrestling match has actually made me nervous. But when we were down to Nakamura, Reigns, Cena, and Balor, my heart was in my throat.

What’s more, they’re giving us a match truly worthy of Wrestlemania: Shinsuke Nakamura against AJ Styles for the WWE Championship. Depending on how much time they have, these two could make magic. This was the career moment Nakamura needed, and the smart bet is he’ll have yet another one at Wrestlemania.

Rey Mysterio Jr. returns to WWE as a surprise entrant in the Royal Rumble Match.  As I type this, the YouTube clip of Ronda Rousey’s appearance has almost two million views. The clip of Rey’s return? Almost five million. That should tell WWE all they need to know about whether to bring him back. Supposedly they want him to work a full-time schedule and he’s not up for it. I can’t say I blame him. The last time we saw him in WWE he looked tired and beat up. He’s earned the right to some breathing room.

Stephanie McMahon brings out Women’s Royal Rumble winner Asuka at the top of the show. An Elimination Chamber Match for the Raw Women’s Title is made for the upcoming pay per view. Sasha Banks challenges Asuka to a match, which is made for later in the night. When Asuka started speaking in Japanese, I wondered if they needed to give her a translator. But I’d say she got her message across just fine…

The Women’s Royal Rumble Match itself worked out fairly well. The right woman won, obviously. And despite my general distaste for Sasha Banks, I give her a world of credit for being out there as long as she was. Ditto for Becky Lynch.

However, the match did suffer for featuring several women who were either relatively inexperienced, hadn’t wrestled in a long time, or weren’t necessarily qualified to be wrestlers in the first place. While former stars like Trish Stratus and Beth Phoenix looked outstanding, I could have easily done without Vickie Guerrero, Kelly Kelly, and Torrie Wilson (despite the pop she got). The biggest problem this match had was its need for bodies. They were filling space for the sake of filling space. It’s forgivable this year. But next year they need to do better.

Jonathan Coachman rejoins the Raw announce team full-time. Given Coach’s experience with ESPN, this was a nice get for WWE. I appreciate that he’s in an analyst role, as opposed a lead announcer. He’ll certainly do better than Booker T, whose commentary had long since gone off the deep end.

At least it’s not David Otunga.

Braun Strowman overturns part of the Raw stage on to Kane during a Last Man Standing Match to earn a spot in the upcoming Elimination Chamber Match. At this point, Braun is essentially WWE’s answer to the Hulk. Every week he performs some kind of superhuman feat of strength, leaving a trail of destruction behind him. That’s not a bad role to have. People love the Hulk, don’t they?

Gotta love Kurt Angle yelling at Braun about the whole thing. Um, Kurt? You booked it…

Elias def. Woken Matt Hardy, with an assist from Bray Wyatt, to advance to the Elimination Chamber. It’s been several weeks since we first saw Woken Matt on Raw, and my interest is tapering off. It doesn’t help that he’s been losing more than winning. The whole reason for Matt’s awakening in the first place was that he couldn’t win a match. So where does that leave him now?

The Miz def. Roman Reigns to retain the WWE Intercontinental Title. Why would Miz try to chop him? Roman Reigns wears a damn vest. Think, you idiot! Think!

Good match, though. These two have better chemistry than you would think, given how different their backgrounds are.

The Revival def. Heath Slater and Rhyno. You know what I wouldn’t mind seeing? The Revival against a babyface Sheamus and Cesaro for the Raw Tag Team Titles. Sounds like a Wrestlemania match to me.

The Dudley Boyz announced for WWE Hall of Fame Class of 2018. I still say it’s a shame Bubba and D-Von never got to hold the tag belts again after they came back. Even so, this is obviously well-deserved. They’d never tell you this on Raw, but the Dudleys are the only team to have won championships in WWE, ECW, TNA, and New Japan Pro Wrestling. They’re one of the most widely popular tag teams in wrestling history. This has long since been an inevitability. Congrats, gentlemen.

Asuka def. Sasha Banks. I expected to see Bayley during this match after Sasha tossed her out of the Rumble last night. That’s the kind of thing that’d make you think a Bayley heel turn is coming. Personally, I’d rather they do babyface Bayley right.

Loving all the talk about Asuka’s streak potentially ending. We need more of that. The streak is on the line every time Asuka steps in the ring, and with each victory it grows.

Between the Rumble and this match with Asuka, Sasha’s had a hell of a weekend. It looks like they’re finally working toward a heel turn for her. Works for me. I don’t think it’s a secret that I’m done with her as a babyface. As a heel, though…

Whether hero or villain, she needs to stop those damn dives. This wasn’t the first nasty fall she’s taken with one of those. She’s tough as hell for getting up and continuing the match, and it was obviously a hell of an effort from both ladies. But enough is enough.

The Miz, Finn Balor, and John Cena cut backstage promos using handheld devices. I ADORE this. Scripted or not, it comes off so much more naturally. And by God, they’re looking into the camera! Glory, glory, hallelujah!

The Bar def. Titus O’Neil and Apollo Crews to retain the Raw Tag Team Titles. Corey Graves said something during this match about Dana Brooke being the missing ingredient for O’Neil and Crews. As unlikely as it is on paper, that seems to be the case.

Crews was a stud out there this week. Eve after taking that nasty Power Bomb from Sheamus. He’s so explosive. Like a damn human super ball.

John Cena def. Finn Balor to advance to the Elimination Chamber. There’s no shame in losing to John Cena. Cena certainly puts enough people over in his own right. I just wish they’d let Balor pick up some steam. He’s one of the coolest acts on the roster, and he puts on great matches consistently. But he just keeps losing. This guy can headline Wrestlemania this year if they wanted him to. But he just can’t seem to bust through the glass ceiling. What gives?

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WWE Royal Rumble 2018 Predictions. Plus: This is the XFL…again.

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

He’s really going to try this, isn’t he? I can’t believe it…

As most of you reading this already know, Vince McMahon announced this week that the XFL will be revived in 2020.

This revamped version of the league, which hosted one season in 2001, will attempt to come at the game from a different perspective. McMahon noted the league will emphasize safety, be non-political, and exclude players with criminal records.

Professional football has never been my thing. But even I can see that Vince is once again aiming for disenfranchised NFL fans. He still doesn’t wish to compete directly, as the XFL season will kick-off after the NFL season has wrapped up. The league will supposedly not effect McMahon’s role as chairman and CEO of WWE.

As facepalm worthy as this is, I do give Vince credit. The guy wants a football league, and he’s going to try again regardless of the inevitable criticism and ridicule. There’s a lot to be said for that. He’s also not using WWE money this time. He’s started a new company, Alpha Entertainment LLC, specifically to pursue outside entertainment endeavors. Did we mention he’s 72 years old. That old catchphrase rings true: Vince really does have balls the size of grapefruits.

That said I have virtually no interest. I’m a pro wrestling guy. Vince McMahon is also a pro wrestling guy. WWE has always been his bread and butter, and almost every time he’s tried something else it’s ended badly. The original XFL obviously comes to mind. But he also tried the World Bodybuilding Federation in the early ’90s. In 1998 he bought the Debbie Reynolds Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas for $10 million, which nothing came of. WWE Studios hasn’t exactly set the movie industry on fire, though at least it’s still alive after more than 15 years. You might even lump Linda McMahon’s senate campaign in there. So despite what WWE would have you believe, Vince McMahon is not a genius.

But let’s not miscast him as a fool, either. At his core, Vince McMahon is a gutsy and stubborn entrepreneur who takes calculated risks and is willing to endure failure. Most of his greatest successes are things he’s willed into existence. The global expansion of WWE. The creation of Wrestlemania. His ratings war with Turner Broadcasting. Now he’s trying to will the XFL into existence once again.

Part of what makes Vince so successful is his penchant for both spectacular success and spectacular failure. So in the end, win or lose, this XFL resurrection will be a sight to behold. It’s hard not to root for the guy sometimes. Even when it seems like he’s stubbornly beating a dead horse.

With that, let’s take a look at the Royal Rumble. I’m skipping the kick-off show matches this year, as we’ve already got a lot to cover on the main show…

2/3 FALLS MATCH FOR WWE SMACKDOWN TAG TEAM TITLES:
The Usos (c) vs. Shelton Benjamin and Chad Gable

I’m going with Benjamin and Gable on this one. The Usos have had the belts for awhile now. As babyfaces, it might do them good to chase a heel team. Benjamin and Gable have also been growing on me as complaining heels. Gable in particular has done some really nice mic work, which is a good sign as far as a potential singles run is concerned. So let’s give ’em the belts and see what happens.

By the way, do Benjamin and Gable have a team name? I was never a fan of the “World’s Greatest Tag Team” name. Nothing like that, please.

PREDICTION: Shelton Benjamin and Chad Gable

WWE RAW TAG TEAM TITLE MATCH:
Seth Rollins and Jason Jordan (c) vs. The Bar

A win for Sheamus and Cesaro might help everybody here. I’d wager the Bar are on their way to a babyface turn. The respect factor is getting tougher to ignore as the weeks go by. On the flip side, Jason Jordan is starting to come into his own as an annoying heel. A loss to the Bar can easily transition into a feud with Rollins, who could sorely use a program with some heat to it. An audience clamoring for Rollins to curb stomp Jordan doesn’t sound so bad.

I can’t say I’m any less tired of seeing Rollins wrestle Sheamus and Cesaro. But even so, this one could be the dark horse to steal the show.

PREDICTION: The Bar

HANDICAP MATCH FOR WWE HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE:
AJ Styles (c) vs. Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn

If the Raw Tag Title Match doesn’t still the show, this one probably will. These three have all proven they can turn in epic pay per view matches. The 2-on-1 format also lends itself to good storytelling. So I’ve got high expectations.

I don’t see why Styles wouldn’t retain here. Though it doubt it’ll be without controversy. Expect to see Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan during this one, leading to a confrontation or a dispute that allows Styles to pick up a win. Something is obviously going to happen with Bryan and Shane at Wrestlemania. It’s just a question of what, and whether it involves Bryan lacing up his boots again…

PREDICTION: AJ Styles

TRIPLE-THREAT MATCH FOR WWE UNIVERSAL HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE:
Brock Lesnar (c) vs. Braun Strowman vs. Kane

In terms of match quality, these three are fighting an uphill battle. Brock’s matches are hit or miss depending on who he’s in there with. His match with Strowman at No Mercy was a groaner. And despite his status as a WWE icon, Kane’s matches tend to be slow. It might be better if they got this one over with quickly.

On the other hand, Brock’s multi-man matches have historically been pretty great. The fatal four-way match at Summerslam, the triple-threat with John Cena and Seth Rollins a few years back. If Brock, Strowman, and Kane can pique the audience’s interest early, they could overachieve

Either way Brock wins, hopefully pinning Kane. He’d better pin Kane. So help me God, if he pins Strowman again…

PREDICTION: Brock Lesnar

2018 WOMEN’S ROYAL RUMBLE:

I was pretty excited for this until I read that Stephanie McMahon will be on commentary for it. From a publicity standpoint, I get it. They want her to be heavily associated with the “women’s revolution.” But I have no desire to hear that woman talk for an hour. Especially when there are multiple women they could plug in who’d be a better fit. Lita comes to mind, as she did commentary for the Mae Young Classic. But there’s also Renee Young. What about Charlotte Flair and Alexa Bliss? They’re the two champions and they’re not wrestling that night. So have them lend some insight to the match. Yes, a five person announce desk is overkill. But it beats having Stephanie out there.

You know who really deserves to win this match? Becky Lynch. Crowds love her, and she deserves a big match at a Wrestlemania. They’ve also played up her friendship with Charlotte for awhile now. That could set up a great reluctant opponents storyline. But I have very little faith they’ll do the right thing with her.

Nia Jax is a possibility. Notwithstanding the beatdown Asuka put on her, they’ve established her as a dominant force from the start. She and Alexa Bliss have been connected as far back to their NXT days. A match between them could be intriguing, but I don’t see it for Wrestlemania. More likely she gets ganged up on and eliminated, or someone surprises her.

The big favorite is Asuka. She’s finally starting to pick up speed on the main roster as an undefeated, unstoppable force. In that respect, winning the first Women’s Royal Rumble Match could be like tossing gasoline on a fire. But it seems so obvious. It feels like they want us to think it’s her just so they can swerve us.

There are 30 women in this match. As of this writing, only 18 have been announced. So I’m making this prediction with more than a third of the participants unknown. As I’ve said, I’m inclined to think some of the women we saw at Raw 25 will be here. Trish Stratus, Jacqueline, Nikki Bella. Maybe Torrie Wilson and/or Kelly Kelly. They need bodies in this thing. We almost have to see some NXT names. Ember Moon, Peyton Royce, Billie Kay, Nikki Cross, etc. Maybe Shayna Baszler.

It should be noted that Ronda Rousey has denied she’s in this match. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. It just means she’s denying it.

In the end, I’ve got to go with Asuka. Yes, it’s obvious. But they’ve gone the obvious route with Rumble Matches before. Asuka vs. Alexa Bliss is one of the more intriguing matches they can do on the main roster right now. For that matter, so is Asuka vs. Charlotte. They really can’t lose with her.

PREDICTION: Asuka

2018 MEN’S ROYAL RUMBLE:

Oddly enough, there are only 17 names announced for the Men’s Royal Rumble compared to 18 for the women. You wouldn’t think that’d be the case, as they’ve obviously got so many more male wrestlers.

Like the John Cenas and Randy Ortons of the world, Roman Reigns is always a top contender for the Rumble Match. The buzz since Wrestlemania 33 has been about him headlining this year’s show with Brock Lesnar. So in theory, he could take this one home….*shudders*

I doubt it, though. I can’t see them wanting the Rumble Match drowned out by boos again. So we’ve got to look elsewhere. So with Lesnar occupied on the Raw side, we’re looking for a challenger for the WWE Championship on Smackdown. Going into Wrestlemania, your champion is probably going to be AJ Styles. Who do you put with AJ?

Finn Balor’s name jumps out immediately. Yes, he’s on Raw. But we’ve seen guys win the Rumble and jump ship before. Balor is with Gallows and Anderson now, and we’ve established that they have a history with AJ in Japan. And of course, AJ was with Gallows and Anderson in WWE for awhile. I’m not sure how much they’d want to go into all the New Japan/Bullet Club stuff. But they can always touch on it and then branch off into their own story. Remember, Finn pinned AJ in that throw-together match at TLC. Balor can be a marquee player for WWE. He just needs the right story. This could be it.

They could do AJ Styles vs. Randy Orton. But the match Orton had with Bray Wyatt left a bad taste in people’s mouths. Plus, Orton just won it last year. So I’d steer clear of him.

The only other name that makes sense is Shinsuke Nakamura. That’s a bigger risk than some would admit. Nakamura is clearly special and obviously a star. I can’t complain about most of his matches. (The Jinder Mahal stuff notwithstanding.) But I don’t know that he’s connecting with the audience at a level that justifies a Rumble win. The language barrier is part of it. But I still don’t feel like I know anything about this guy. Yes, he’s a legend in Japan. But why? What makes him such a “Rock Star” or an “Artist” or whatever they want to call him?  I’d like to see Nakamura win the title. I’d like to see him work with AJ. But if they still don’t have a solid grasp on how to portray him, maybe now isn’t the time.

Then again, they put the title on Jinder Mahal. If they can take a risk with Jinder, they can take a risk with Nakamura. A win for him win would get a big reaction. It could also make for a feel-good story about the Japanese legend who comes to America and wins the title. I’m not overly confident with this pick. But Nakamura has a shot this weekend.

PREDICTION: Shinsuke Nakamura

MISCELLANEOUS RUMBLE MATCH PREDICTIONS: 

I expect Elias to eliminate Cena, and going on to face him at Elimination Chamber. He’s essentially getting the role Samoa Joe was supposed to have.

There’ve been rumors about EC3 making his debut in the Rumble Match, now that he’s left Impact Wrestling. More power to him. It did wonders for AJ a few years ago.  He went somewhere else and made a name for himself. He deserves another shot.

As they’re in Philadelphia again, a surprise ECW entrant seems likely. Tommy Dreamer, maybe? They could always throw Rhyno in there. But as an ECW fan, I’m still not over Rhyno dressing up like Mrs. Clause.

So does Tye Dillinger have to come in at number 10 every year now?

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Enzo Amore’s Release, Plus Ponderings From Raw and Smackdown

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

It was only a matter of time before the #MeToo movement touched pro wrestling. I can’t say I expected Enzo Amore to be the one effected. But here we are.

The real-life Eric Arndt was suspended and subsequently released by WWE this week after rape allegations against him emerged via Twitter. Supposedly Enzo was fired not because he was accused, but because he failed to alert WWE that he was being investigated.

Either way, it’s a rotten situation. If he did it, then he deserves everything that’s coming to him. If he didn’t, and simply failed to be transparent with WWE about it, then this whole thing was needless. Arndt certainly isn’t the best in the ring. But he’s still incredibly talented, and can go far. If he is innocent, then hopefully he’ll be back. Perhaps a little wiser for the experience.

Ponderings From Raw and Smackdown:

Vince McMahon is honored by his children, Shane and Stephanie. Stone Cold Steve Austin interrupts, hitting the Stone Cold Stunner on Shane twice, and once on the chairman himself. This Raw 25 show as a disappointment for a variety of reasons. But we can’t say they didn’t start strong. At 72, Vince is every bit the showman he’s always been. And of course, it doesn’t get any hotter than Steve Austin.

Remember the days when Austin could hit the Stunner on Stephanie? Ahhh, good times…

Asuka, Sasha Banks, Bayley, and Mickie James def. Nia Jax, Alicia Fox, Mandy Rose and Sonya Deville. Asuka throws her teammates over the top rope afterward, in a preview of the Women’s Royal Rumble Match. Asuka is obviously a heavy favorite in the Women’s Royal Rumble Match this Sunday. But she’s also a little obvious. Who’s the dark horse candidate? Nia Jax? Becky Lynch, maybe?

The Undertaker returns to the Manhattan Center, says it’s time for those who’ve fallen to “rest in peace.” Lots of fans holding up smartphones during the Undertaker’s entrance. I’ll never understand that. Be in the moment, folks. Put your damn phones away.

Filming at both the Barclays Center and the Manhattan Center was a complete waste. I feel for the fans at the Manhattan Center, who obviously felt cheated with what relatively little they got. Watching current stars on that throwback set is such a great visual. Why not just do the Manhattan Center? Just jack up the ticket prices. The die-hards will pay.

There was a ton of speculation about an angle being shot for Undertaker vs. John Cena at Wrestlemania. I’m not necessarily disappointed we didn’t get that. But we didn’t get much of anything from ‘Taker. He said some drawn out stuff about his old enemies, and then he left. Again, seeing him back in the Manhattan Center was cool. But in the end, this was a big disappointment.

The Miz def. Roman Reigns to win the Intercontinental Championship. Loved the finish to this one, with the exposed turnbuckle pad being a surprise. Miz cheats to win, and gets his belt back in a match that the crowd was pretty into. Take note future champions: For the Miz, that IC Title is every bit as important as the WWE Title. That’s how you lend prestige to a championship.

Christian hosts Seth Rollins and Jason Jordan on the Peep Show. Jason Jordan’s got heat. Bar babyface turn? Sheamus and Cesaro interrupt. A brawl ensues. and Rollins accidentally takes out Jordan. A babyface turn for Sheamus and Cesaro is probably inevitable. They’ve got that cool factor going for them. Especially when they’re up against someone like Jason Jordan, who’s definitely coming into his own as a heel. He’s gettin’ there. Slowly but surely…

Bray Wyatt def. Woken Matt Hardy. Another opportunity they missed with the Manhattan Center presentation? Howard Finkel. That had him announce Undertaker’s entrance, but they switched to Greg Hamilton for the remainder of the night. The never even showed Finkel on camera. Why? What’s their aversion to letting this guy be on TV?

On the plus side, it’s always great to hear Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler on headset. Lawler alluded to us one day finding out who/what Sister Abigail is. I’d like to think that means the whole Bray in drag thing is being forgotten. More likely, they’re not as familiar with the recent product.

Chris Jericho appears in a backstage segment with Elias. Again, a total waste not having Jericho appear in front of the live crowd. Though at least for this one they have an excuse, what with the whole New Japan thing. He was even wearing his “Alpha Club” t-shirt. Did they just miss that?

Elias is interrupted by John Cena. A fight breaks out. Elias low blows Cena, and smashes him in the back with a guitar. Very cool to see Jimmy Fallon in the front row. Like him or not, he’s the host of The Tonight Show. That means something.

One thing I love about Cena? His love for spontaneity. He’ll go with the crowd. Even if he’s just pointing out the stupid beach balls. That lends an energy to things that’s been sorely lacking for a long time.

Mark Henry finds out the Godfather is “grown up,” and now a married man. Of course the Godfather can’t have hoes anymore. That was an edgy gimmick back in the ’90s. I’m almost surprised they even let him be on TV nowadays.

The Dudley Boyz interrupt a tag team match. Heath Slater takes the 3D through a table. Why exactly couldn’t we get that Bubba Ray heel run last year? Hell, why couldn’t the Dudleys even get a token tag team title run? This seems to be a recurring theme, but what a waste…

Shawn Michaels, Triple H, the New Age Outlaws, X-Pac, and Scott Hall celebrate Raw’s 25th anniversary with the Balor Club. Gallows and Anderson defeat the Revival. The legends beat up Dash and Dawson. It tugged at my heartstrings to hear Hunter name-drop Chyna. It’s such a damn shame she never got to come back and take a bow. She absolutely deserved it.

Supposedly, this Revival stuff was supposed to have been done by Enzo. Dash and Dawson did just fine, of course. And somehow it wasn’t as bad as what the Ascension got from JBL and the gang a few years back.

The “Too Sweet” bit with the Balor Club felt like an unofficial passing of the torch moment. BNow if only Balor hadn’t lost to Seth Rollins last week.

A confrontation between Brock Lesnar, Kane, and Braun Strowman ends with Strowman Powerslamming Lesnar through an announce table. They did this table spot at Summerslam, right? Still a good spot. Now if only Strowman were winning the title this Sunday.

Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn open Smackdown. AJ Styles agrees to face them in singles matches later in the show. They really want us to get behind the “Kami” nickname for Owens and Zayn. Coming from AJ, it almost feels like a dad joke. Good thing he’s the best in the damn world…

Chad Gable def. Jey Uso. Gable’s roll-through German Suplex somehow never gets old.  He’s so smooth in there. But at 5’8, his height could work against him in terms of a singles push. Granted, guys like Eddie Guerrero have been Heavyweight Champions at around that height. So it’s not unheard of.

Naomi def. Liv Morgan. The women’s locker room empties in anticipation of the Women’s Royal Rumble Match. Charlotte Flair wishes them good luck, “especially to the winner.” Saw someone on Twitter say that Liv Morgan looks like a Bratz doll. I’m not even sure what that means. But somehow I know it’s true.

We haven’t heard anything official about past stars coming in for the Women’s Rumble Match, which seems odd. I would imagine everyone they trotted out for that little hello on Raw is a candidate. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Nikki Bella show up. I’m sure Jacqueline would be happy to get in there. Trish Stratus seems like a must. I’ve also heard Molly Holly’s name mentioned. You’d think at least a few names would have been announced. Especially with them in attendance like that.

Randy Orton interrupts a match between Shinsuke Nakamura and Baron Corbin. Hits the RKO on both. Baron Corbin’s entrance music may be the best thing he’s got going for him right now. True story.

Hell of an entrance by Orton. He friggin’ flew into frame with that first RKO. His wife went on a little Instagram rant about how he was left off Raw 25. At least he didn’t miss much…

Bobby Roode, Kofi Kingston, and Xavier Woods def. Jinder Mahal, Rusev, and Aiden English. That “Keap of Faith” Kofi does over the top with his back turned is damn crazy. Talk about a trust fall…

AJ Styles def. Kevin Owens quickly after Owens seemingly injures his knee. After a pre-match beatdown, Sami Zayn pins the WWE Champion. The best part of all this? Zayn finally won a match with the Blue Thunder Bomb. It’s the best move he’s got, but he’s always used it as a set-up move.

The dead giveaway that Owens wasn’t really hurt? They kept showing him on camera during the match. Typically if somebody gets hurt, they don’t do that if they can help it.

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