Kurt Angle’s Acting Woes, Plus Ponderings From Raw

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

You know who we really could use right about now? The Big Show.

Or at least someone like Big Show. People can say what they want about the pace he cuts in the ring. But that guy can take WWE’s scripted material and act the hell out of it. We’ve seen him break down and cry on live television. He can garner an amazing amount of sympathy for someone so big and powerful. Case in point, those segments from a few years ago when Stephanie McMahon would blackmail him into doing the Authority’s bidding.

Kurt Angle really needs some acting tips from the giant. Because they’re trying to cast him in a similar role heading into Wrestlemania. Coming off the contract signing at Elimination Chamber, it’s obvious Ronda Rousey’s first WWE match will see her team with Angle against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. Rousey has taken to sticking up for the Raw General Manager as he’s been condescended to, belittled, and as we saw on Raw this week, outright attacked by WWE’s power couple.

The trouble is that in trying to recite WWE’s scripted dialogue, Angle often comes off like a bumbling fool. A likable fool, perhaps. But still a fool. That undercuts the story they’re trying to tell. And one with pretty high stakes, considering all they’ve invested in Rousey. On paper, Angle is a fantastic choice to team with Rousey. But depending how they script this, he could wind up dragging her down.

There could be one saving grace, however. Remember when Triple H surprised Angle with a Pedigree at Survivor Series? The next night on Raw, Angle marched up to him and said if he ever did it again, “…you can take this job and shove it, because I’m comin’ for you!” We’re inevitably going to see that Kurt Angle again in the next few weeks. The Raw General Manager will go away, and the Olympic champion will return. That’s got the potential to be a hell of a moment, and Rousey’s presence will only accentuate it.

If they can’t make this thing work from a story perspective, then maybe they can pump in a little more of that big fight feel….

Other Ponderings From Raw:

Alexa Bliss and Mickie James open the show. Asuka emerges, but walks into a trap set by Bliss, James, and Nia Jax. Sasha Banks and Bayley join the fight, and a six-woman tag match is made. The babyfaces prevail, despite Bayley refusing to tag Banks out of a predicament. God damn. Alexa Bliss cuts a career promo for the second night in a row. This woman is money on the mic. I don’t know if it’s right to call her an overachiever or not. But she’s damn sure maximized her minutes.

Supposedly, Sasha Banks and Alexa Bliss had legit heat at one point. Supposedly Banks didn’t think she had legit passion for the business. Seeing how well they work together, I wonder if that’s still a thing…

Banks isn’t a full fledged heel yet. But she’s damn close, and she’s that much better for it.

Question: Why exactly did Mickie James turn heel? I missed that memo.

John Cena talks about his failure at Elimination Chamber, challenging the Undertaker, and earning a match at Wrestlemania by moving to Smackdown. The big news item coming out of this segment was Cena announcing he will not be wrestling the Undertaker in New Orleans. Mind you, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. It just means he said it’s not happening. Time will tell.

Personally, I think ‘Taker shows up at Wrestlemania. The fan interest is obviously there, as illustrated by how the crowd popped when Cena said his name. But after what we saw from him last year, I wouldn’t be heartbroken if he is fact done. If anyone has earned the right to stay retired, it’s him.

Bray Wyatt destroys Heath Slater and Rhyno, says the “great war” with Matt Hardy is far from over. STOP LAUGHING, you idiot. You lost a big match. On pay per view. Again. You’re on the road to becoming as much of a jobber as…well, Heath Slater and Rhyno.

After an impassioned promo from the Miz, the Intercontinental Champion loses a non-title match to Seth Rollins. Finn Balor comes out to upstage Rollins’ win. Miz is in a really special place right now. He was always a good mic guy. He became a great mic guy. But when he cuts promos like the one he did on this show, he proves he’s becoming one of the greatest promos of his generation. Not just the passion he spoke with, but some of the little entitled character bits he threw in there. And of course, he got to look in to the camera, which never hurts a damn bit. Homie was in the zone out there.

I wasn’t around last week to talk about it. But Seth Rollins’ stock is pretty damn high after last week. Probably as high as it’s been since he turned face. I’m well aware I’m not the first to say this, but I’ll say it anyway: Last week Rollins put on one of the best performances in Raw history. That being said, a lot of fans got swept up in the afterglow of the match, declaring Rollins could now feasibly be put against Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania. Assuming Roman Reigns went down with an injury, of course.

No. Just, no.

I’ve never taken anything away from this guy’s talent or his drive. He’s one of the best in the world right now. But the Seth Rollins character isn’t ready for a big match like that. He took a big step in that direction week. But he still needs to give us a little more to latch on to. Calling him the “Kingslayer,” or worse “the Architect” does nothing for his identity.

It’s a shame, especially when you look at some of the stuff this guy does out there, i.e. that freakish Frog Splash across the ring.

Finn Balor def. The Miz. So are we looking at a Fatal Four-Way for Wrestlemania? Miz vs. Rollins vs. Balor vs. Strowman? Or is Strowman even in the IC Title hunt anymore? You’d think he would be after what we saw in the Chamber Match.

Roman Reigns: “Brock Lesnar is an entitled piece of crap who hides behind his contract.” They were smart to play this card. It’s similar to the one Cena played against the Rock several years ago. The loyalty card. The full-timer/part-timer card. The “I care and he doesn’t” card. It’s simple, but effective. Because it’s rooted in truth. Roman is there almost every week, Brock isn’t.

Between Alexa Bliss and the Miz, I’ve talked a lot about mic work this week. While I wouldn’t call Roman a great talker, he can deliver big when he’s got something to sink his teeth into. He showed us that here tonight.

I highly doubt it’ll get Roman cheered any more than he would have been otherwise. But it’s about as good a shot as they can take.

The Bar def. Titus O’Neil and Apollo in a 2/3 Falls Match to retain the WWE Raw Tag Team Titles. The champs gloat on the mic. Sheamus and Cesaro have a point. Who have they got left to beat? Is it time to call up a team from NXT? This close to Wrestlemania, that seems doubtful.

Braun Strowman def. Elias via disqualification. This one really dragged. But both these guys are hot right now. I’ve actually been on quite the Elias kick lately. To the point that I actually looked forward to his song routine this week.

So are these two headed to Wrestlemania? Seems like that might be the case…

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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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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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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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Women’s Royal Rumble Match, Plus Ponderings From Raw and Smackdown

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

I’ve been gone for a few weeks. As such, I haven’t gotten the chance to talk about the upcoming women’s Royal Rumble Match.

Like almost everybody else, I’m cool with the match itself. I just wonder if this isn’t the beginning of WWE continuing to water down their big pay per view shows. Historically, there’s only been one Rumble Match each year. Now we’re getting a second. I imagine we’ll get the women’s Rumble at the top of the show, and the men’s Rumble as the main event. I’m very curious to see how that Philadelphia crowd reacts to two of these matches on one show. Does the novelty wear off for the second one?

I’m also curious to see how they fill those 30 slots. Almost every eligible woman on the main roster is now in the match. Factoring in Dana Brooke and Alicia Fox, who haven’t been announced yet, you’ve got 19 main roster names you can put in there. Thus, they have 11 spots they have to fill with either NXT talent or returning wrestlers. That’s a pretty big gap…

Obviously all of this is still very much in the experiment phase. Growing pains for the Women’s Division, which continues to grow. Much of what goes wrong (if anything) this year can be corrected in the years to come.

Ponderings From Raw and Smackdown:

Jason Jordan interrupts Roman Reigns’ opening promo, talks about a three-man group between Reigns, Jordan, and Seth Rollins. Finn Balor, Luke Gallows, and Karl Anderson interrupt. A six-man tag is made for the main event. This Shield reunion was apparently snake bit from the start. First Reigns has to bow out of their first main event together, and now Dean Ambrose goes down with an injury that’ll put him out for nine months. That’s a rotten break. But as these things sometimes are, it may be a blessing in disguise. Going away for awhile will hopefully freshen Ambrose up, and maybe even lead him back to heavyweight title contention.

Jason Jordan came off really well here from the standpoint of being a hokey, lame daddy’s boy trying to insert himself into the Shield. On the flip side, it’s great to see Balor teaming with Gallows and Anderson at long last. But the cool vibe they’ve got going for them gets undercut real quick when they have to recite that contrived WWE dialogue.

Sasha Banks and Bayley def. Mandy Rose and Sonya Deville. After a few weeks off, I still find Sasha Banks annoying. Absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder.

On Wrestling Observer Radio last week, Dave Meltzer mentioned that WWE has given up on Bayley. I’m inclined to believe him. But they’ve got no one to blame but themselves for that one. They wrote Bayley into a hole that she still hasn’t been able to escape.

Matt Hardy def. Curt Hawkins, stares down Bray Wyatt. Memphis was pretty quiet for this one, unless Matt was prompting them to chant. Then they had that weird staredown. Not the best night for the Woken one…

The Miz returns on Miz TV, announces he’s coming for the Intercontinental Title. This was pretty by-the-book. Good to see Miz back, of course. Raw missed him.

So apparently Miz and Maryse are getting a reality show on the USA Network. That’s actually a pretty big deal. I’m not a Total Divas fan at all, but that show caters to an audience that Raw and Smackdown obviously don’t. Given Miz’s background as a reality TV star, not to mention the couple’s work on Total Divas, this could be an awesome thing for them.

Cedric Alexander def Enzo Amore via count-out. Enzo retains the Cruiserweight Title. Ouch. Kudos to Enzo for finishing the match after getting busted open by a kick. Also, he was either selling really well, or he legit hurt his ankle. Did they have to call an audible on the finish?

Got a chance to catch Enzo on Straight to the Source, Corey Graves’ interview show on the WWE Network. Enzo spouted off a lot of catchphrases, but he still did damn good with that platform. He also seemed to set up a feud with Big Cass when he returns.

Titus O’Neil and Apollo Crews def. Seams and Cesaro. So Dana Brooke is obviously with Titus and Apollo now. That business casual look actually suits her. It’s sort of a throwback to Debra’s old look. I would never have pegged “statistician” as a good role for Dana Brooke. But for now it’s working.

Kane ambushes Brock Lesnar after a Paul Heyman promo. Braun Strowman surprises them both, and then brings a lighting rig down on his Royal Rumble opponents. Firstly, since I didn’t get to say it last week, Brock sitting up and laughing at Kane’s Chokeslam was awesome. A really nice nod to the Undertaker.

So…that lighting rig obviously didn’t touch either Lesnar or Kane. That was pretty clear even on television. But still a pretty cool stunt for Strowman. And I liked the juxtaposition of Kane pulling himself back up with Lesnar getting loaded into the ambulance. I just wish the match stood a chance of living up to this hype.

Samoa Joe def. Rhyno, announces he’s targeting John Cena at the Royal Rumble. Crowd was dead for this one too. But in all fairness Rhyno has essentially become an enhancement talent. The final ECW Heavyweight Champion, ladies and gentlemen.

Finn Balor, Luke Gallows, and Karl Anderson def. Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, and Jason Jordan. The Miz and the Miztourage ambush Reigns after the match. Teaming with Gallows and Anderson is already producing results for Balor. He got to score the pin and beat a team that’s not the Miztourage!

AJ Styles is interviewed at the top of the show. A Handicap Match is made for the main event. AJ’s end of this promo was weird. For one thing, he actually said “smart booking” on WWE television, which feels like something he’s not supposed to say. He also seemed legit flustered at one point. That’s sort of where he was supposed to be coming from in the promo. But I’m not sure he’s that good an actor…

Becky Lynch def. Ruby Riott. It was confusing that Charlotte and Naomi came out after Becky. Neither of them were in the match…

During this match I tweeted: “If Absolution is Coca Cola, then the Riott Squad is RC Cola.” That’s to say, Ruby and her crew seem like a cheap knock-off. That’s a shame, as Ruby’s look is so distinct. The big difference is Paige. Between Absolution and the Riott Squad, she’s the only established WWE name. We’re still getting to know everyone else.

Mojo Rawley def. Zack Ryder to advance to the semi-finals in the United States Championship tournament. This was hardly a shock. Ryder was always going to end up putting Rawley over. Though I still maintain a heel turn would have worked for Ryder.

There’s not much suspense in this tournament, as it’s obviously going to be Bobby Roode against Jinder Mahal in the finals at the Rumble. I’m assuming they’ll give it to Jinder as a way to rehab him after his WWE title run.

Shelton Benjamin and Chad Gable demand justice for the Smackdown Tag Team Titles. Daniel Bryan puts them in a Two-Out-of-Three Falls Match at the Royal Rumble. Gable and Benjamin were alright on the mic here. The big reason Benjamin was never able to reach that top echelon was he never had much of a personality. I think his opportunity to be a main-eventer has come and gone But if Gable can help bring a little more charisma out of him, he could still reap some big benefits down the road.

Breezango def. Rusev Day. Despite their loss here, Rusev and English should be tag champs before the year is through. For whatever reason, this Rusev Day thing is over.

AJ Styles, Randy Orton, and Shinsuke Nakamura def. Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn in a Handicap Match. Shane McMahon adds stipulations to the match when Owens and Zayn try to get counted out, and then disqualified. I’m never a fan of the babyfaces outnumbering the heels in Handicap Matches. It throws the psychology out of whack. You can make a legitimate case that Shane is the heel here. He’s essentially trapping Owens and Zayn in this match. But that seems to be what they’re going for. This Shane McMahon/Daniel Bryan thing is all about shades of gray. It’s interesting, but confusing at times.

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WWE’s Most Fascinating People of 2017

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Yeah, I’m still stealing this Barbara Walters bit. What can I say? I like it. I’ve been able to do it every year (with one exception) since 2012.

This list is subjective, as always. These are 10 people who, for reasons both good and bad, stood out to me over the course of 2017. We’ve got unlikely champions, call-ups from NXT whose journeys have been more tumultuous than anticipated, a veteran who’ll be on the Wrestle Kingdom 12 card, and many more.

So let’s get down to business…

1. Jinder Mahal

Jinder was one of WWE’s biggest gambles this year. The company made him their poster child for their attempts to break into the Indian market. In the process, Mahal went from glorified enhancement talent to WWE Champion in a matter of weeks. With help from the Singh Brothers (the former Bollywood Boyz), Mahal scored three consecutive pay per view victories over Randy Orton. He went on to retain over Shinsuke Nakamura at Summerslam and Hell in a Cell.

Though he held the title for most of the year, Mahal became a controversial figure for a variety of reasons. The question of whether he deserves this sudden shove into the limelight has always been there, with his matches and promos being highly critiqued. Also, the nature of his physique has been in question for quite some time. Many have suggested his increased musculature has come from steroids, or other performance enhancing drugs. The racial overtones used in his program with Nakamura did him no favors either. He actually got “That’s too far!” chants during a promo in October when he said of the Japanese star: “You always rook the same.”

Signs pointed to Mahal being the champion and the focal point of WWE’s two December shows in India. But by the time they got there, not only had the belt been taken from Jinder, but one of the shows had been cancelled. The “Maharaja” was still in a high profile match with Triple H. But he ended up eating the pin. He’d also been pulled from a headline match against Universal Champion Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series.

While success inevitably breeds envy and criticism, it’s safe to say the Jinder Mahal experiment hasn’t worked out the way anyone hoped. He may have an uphill battle ahead of him if he wants to stay near the top of the card.

2. Asuka

The “Empress of Tomorrow” made her long-awaited debut on the main roster in October. While she’s maintained her undefeated streak, Asuka has run into a familiar problem. Like many of her peers, she’s had trouble translating her NXT success to the main roster.

To WWE’s credit, they brought Asuka in with a ton of hype. But her match with Emma at No Mercy left fans underwhelmed. She scored a hard-fought victory, but she wasn’t presented as the dominant destroyer they’d come to know. They quickly switched gears, placing her in enhancement matches akin to those done for Braun Strowman and Nia Jax early in their Raw tenures. But you only get one chance to make a first impression, and for Asuka it had come and gone.

Thankfully, they seem to know what they have in her. She was the sole victor in the women’s match at Survivor Series, has started to score decisive wins over lower card wrestlers like Alicia Fox and Dana Brooke, and has publicly declared her intent to come after the Raw Women’s Championship. Asuka would be a perfect pick to win the recently announced Women’s Royal Rumble Match.

Asuka got off to a rocky start. But she seems to be picking up speed. I’d certainly hate to see her end up like a certain other woman on the Raw roster…

3. Bayley

Bayley’s 2017 was…okay. Just okay. She started out fairly strong, defeating Charlotte Flair on Raw to win her first Raw Women’s Title, and then breaking Flair’s pay per view undefeated streak shortly thereafter. She would go on to retain the title in a multi-woman match at Wrestlemania. Things seemed to be going well for her.

But by mid-year she’d fallen off track. WWE writers seem unsure of how to write Bayley. To an extent that’s understandable. Her character is very unique. You don’t see very many relentlessly positive, squeaky clean underdogs in 2017. But when paired against the spunky brat Alexa Bliss, she became a wishy-washy wet noodle. Bayley needed to show fire against Alexa. We needed to see that she could get angry when she had to. We didn’t get that. Instead we got bad dialogue, capped off by an absolutely atrocious “This Is Your Life” segment that was meant to garner sympathy for her.

By the time summer game around, she was getting the opposite. There were noticeable boos for WWE’s resident hugger, even when she was sidelined with a separated shoulder. These days, Bayley essentially just another name on the roster. From a creative standpoint, that’s an absolute travesty. Bayley is a special kind of character, who at one point had a special connection with a variety of fans. If there’s one person in all of WWE who could use a little character rehabbing, it’s her.

4. Matt Hardy

When it came to Matt Hardy, we spent most of 2017 waiting.

But just a few weeks ago, an on-screen breakdown led to the emergence of “Woken” Matt Hardy. The difference between Woken Matt and Broken Matt? Semantics. He’s got the same gear, the same hair, the same accent. For all intents and purposes, Broken Matt Hardy has come to WWE.

We haven’t seen a lot of him yet. It’s mostly been pre-taped promos, going back and forth with Bray Wyatt. Die-hard wrestling fans were already sold on Broken Matt. But the more casual fans watching Raw are seeing him for the first time. So far so good. Crowds have been reacting fairly well, and Matt has even breathed a tiny bit of life back into Bray.

There’s no shortage of options as to what can be done with this alternate version of Matt Hardy. In Impact, Jeff got in on the action as Brother Nero. But Matt’s wife, father-in-law, and children also became on-screen characters. We saw outrageous stuff on location at the Hardy compound. We saw a friggin’ drone. If Matt has a decent amount of control here, which he reportedly does, he could be one of the best parts of Raw in 2017.

5. Enzo Amore

Enzo faced a lot of criticism in 2017, but wound up proving a lot of his haters wrong. He started the year doing his usual shtick with Big Cass. Now he’s got the Cruiserweight Title and has essentially been made the star of 205 Live.

He could very well have fallen off the map after Cass went heel on him in June. But he ended up cutting some of the most passionate, scathing promos we heard on WWE TV all year. When Cass went down with an injury, Enzo was quickly moved into the Cruiserweight Division and put with Neville. Smart marks cried foul when Enzo somehow pinned Neville for the Cruiserweight Title in September. But the double turn that followed, turning Enzo heel and Neville babyface, turned out to be amazing. Enzo’s mic work and undeniable star power are undeniable. He’s earned his spot.

Enzo reminds me a lot of an early incarnation of the Miz. He won’t win any prizes for his wrestling. But his character work is on a different level than almost everybody else. When he talks, you believe him. In WWE, that’s a golden ticket that can take you almost anywhere. Enzo can be a singles wrestler, a tag team wrestler, a manager, an announcer, or whatever they need him to be. If Enzo is as tenacious and hard-working as Miz, he’s going to be around a long time.

And as long as we’re talking about him…

6. The Miz

Mike Mizanin’s suitability for pro wrestling stardom has been questioned from the start. Mainly because of his background as a reality TV star. But his wrestling ability has also been heavily critiqued. Throw in his success, including headlining a Wrestlemania, and he’s been a polarizing figure amongst die-hards.

But 2017 seemed to be the year Miz finally won over his critics. The majority of them anyway. He’s no slouch in the ring. But it”s mostly been a matter of his mic work and the presentation of his character. The continued inclusion of his wife Maryse, the slick suits, the good to great promos week after week, the incorporation of Bo Dallas and Curtis Axel as his “Miztourage.” It’s all come together. Now, roughly seven years after he main-evented Wrestlemania, he once again feels like a main-eventer. In 2017 he continued to make the Intercontinental Title feel prestigious again. He defended it, and in some cases traded it with, the likes of Dean Ambrose, Jeff Hardy, and Roman Reigns. It’s likely he’ll challenge for it again when he returns. Then again, perhaps it’s time for a new frontier…

Perhaps 2018 is the year Miz once again becomes WWE Champion.

7. Sami Zayn

Under the WWE umbrella, Sami Zayn was always portrayed as a sentimental underdog. It’s a role he wears well. Case in point, his work with Braun Strowman early in the year. But the underdog role isn’t always a good one to have. Yes, cases like Rey Mysterio Jr and Daniel Bryan will always exist. But the thing about being an underdog is that you sometimes have to lose. A lot. And despite what some in the WWE creative department would have you believe, wins and losses matter. As such, Sami Zayn’s time on the main roster as “the Underdog From the Underground” hasn’t been the most eventful. Even Sami himself has dropped hints of his frustration at how things have gone.

Then Hell in a Cell came around, and Sami aligned with nemesis Kevin Owens against Smackdown General Manager Shane McMahon. In the days to come it became clear that the underdog had become the villain.

It was just what the doctor ordered. Zayn tapped into a side of his personality that’s delightfully annoying, and become an atypical sort of heel. He described it on a podcast as: “…like when you’re dating a girl and she kind of has these quirks, but they’re lovable. But once you break up, it’s like, ‘oh, God! She was so annoying! … the things you used to love about her, now, you hate about her because you don’t love her anymore.”

Lovable or not, it’s working. Zayn has been a lot of fun to watch these past few months, and at the Royal Rumble he’ll be wrestling for the WWE Title. Now that’s progress.

8. Shinsuke Nakamura

Hopes were high this past spring when Shinsuke Nakamura was called up to Smackdown.    Performers like him don’t come by every day, and having him be on American television for the first time (not counting NXT) was a big deal. But WWE isn’t exactly known for giving their performers the best material to work with, even less for letting the performers be themselves. So the question of how he’d fare loomed ominously.

Coming from someone who hasn’t seem much of his work in Japan, Nakamura’s time on the main roster has been underwhelming. Almost a year later, it still feels like we hardly know the guy. The announcers call him things like “Artist” and “Rock Star.” But those are empty nicknames. Who is this man? Why is he the way he is? Granted, they’re not exactly writing Shakespeare for him. His program with Jinder Mahal was a low point for WWE television all year, particularly when the racial stuff started coming into play.

Still, bad creative can’t take away the performer Nakamura is. The crowds are still into him. There’s even been a little bit of buzz about him winning the Royal Rumble Match this year. Hope isn’t lost for Nakamura’s WWE tenure yet. But the guy needs a hit. That one great match. That one great promo or vignette. Something.

9. Braun Strowman

There’s an argument to be made that Braun Strowman, not Roman Reigns, should be WWE’s poster boy. At the very least, he’s not hearing the kind of boos Roman is.

It’s fitting then, that Strowman’s best work this year was with Reigns. They had an uncanny amount of chemistry, especially when you consider Strowman’s experience level. He’s only been around a few years. But these matches with Reigns have been damn good. That image of Strowman heaving a chair at Roman’s head is as awesome today as it was when it happened.

More importantly, Braun Strowman represents a tremendous success on WWE’s part. They’ve created a genuine homegrown star. And unlike a John Cena or a Roman Reigns, the male fans aren’t threatened by him. So if WWE went with Braun, he could potentially have a relationship with the audience that we haven’t seen from a “chosen one” in a long time. A top babyface that the fans actually want to cheer for. Imagine that. This could be it. This could be the year the “Monster Among Men” stands at the top.

10. Chris Jericho

One of WWE’s most fascinating people just wrestled Kenny Omega at New Japan Pro Wrestling’s biggest show of the year.

Chris Jericho’s choice to compete at Wrestle Kingdom 12 made a hell of a statement about NJPW’s foray into the United States, and its potential as an alternative to WWE. It also speaks volumes about who Chris Jericho is as a performer, and his resolve to continually challenge himself and grow. As if he wasn’t already the most versatile and multi-faceted performer in wrestling history.

Jericho also ended his latest WWE tenure on a high note. Coming into 2017, his rapport with Kevin Owens continued to be highlight of Raw every week. It culminated in a “Festival of Friendship,” which was arguably the most entertaining segment all year. Jericho and Owens weren’t nearly as compelling as enemies. But Owens got a Wrestlemania victory out of the deal, which is a nice feather in his cap. It’s a feather in Jericho’s cap too, as he got to help elevate yet another wrestler on their journey to WWE superstardom.

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