With another pre-taped show on tap for tonight, and the spoilers already widely available online, there didn’t seem a lot of point in doing a forecast column for this week’s edition of Monday Night Raw. Instead, as we wind down this holiday season and ramp up the return to normal lives, we’ll take this opportunity to simply have a good look at the bigger picture, and what we can expect to see from Raw in the new year.
In somewhat a case of deja vu, we head into 2019 with what is assumed to be a lame-duck Universal Champion, on the brink of a UFC return. At this time last year, everyone knew Lesnar had a date with Roman Reigns at WrestleMania, and most everyone expected Reigns would take the title that night and send The Beast back to the Octagon. Vince McMahon, either because he was eager to swerve the masses, afraid to see his roster’s top name disappear, or unsure of his new top guy, resigned Lesnar instead and kept the belt on him. Here we are, on the brink of the new year, and our champion is knee-deep in rumours of a UFC Heavyweight Title fight against Daniel Cormier, with many fans thinking Braun Strowman will take the red belt at the Royal Rumble. Wrestling Observer Dave Meltzer has reported Lesnar as being under contract for at least one more match past the Rumble, with most assuming that would be WrestleMania. If last year taught us anything, it’s not to expect Lesnar’s UFC dealings to mean anything in the world of WWE. The duality only seems to really matter when it comes time for Brock to negotiate a new contract with Vince, something even UFC chief Dana White said this weekend. While swapping Universal champs would certainly fit the narrative of ‘change’, it doesn’t feel like a safe expectation. Especially considering how terrific Lesnar was in the ring his last time out. Expect Lesnar to retain at the Rumble, and Raw story lines revolving around multiple top contenders positioning themselves to look like potential Rumble winners, and credible challengers.
Intercontinental Champion Dean Ambrose finds himself in an interesting position. Because of Lesnar’s status, Ambrose is holding the only single’s title on the show, which should make him the number-one target. But when Tyler Breeze was the first challenger for the belt, it suggested the #McMahonChangeMovement had made their initial big shift. Will the IC title go back to being more of a tool to lift lower-midcard talent up the card? It’s not like Breeze got 20 minutes to showcase himself, but he did get time on the main show in the ring. He got to look viable as a wrestler, not just part of a comedy duo. That small, incremental change in his usage increased his value, even just slightly, and that’s a positive move. If the plan for Amrbose’s title run is to build his heel persona while making under-utilized talent look good, there’s nothing wrong with that plan. Expect a long IC title run for Ambrose, which shouldn’t end until someone from that midcard spot is deemed worthy by the fans of stepping up.
It looked like the Raw tag belts were going to quickly be flipped to internet favourites The Revival following the reset, but it wasn’t to be. There was a lot of negativity around the web when Bobby Rooooooo and Chad Gable retained their belts on the Christmas Eve edition of Raw. But the argument can be made that, despite dropping their title encounter, The Revival came away ten times stronger than they’ve looked since their main roster debut. The whole tag division did. Instead of the typical non-title win over the champs, The Revival had to win their shot. While they did, the commentary team basically kept saying, ‘forget everything you’ve seen, these guys are, in fact, the real deal, and it’s only a matter of time before they’re the champs.’ Instantly flipping the belts would have been great for The Revival, but crippling for Roode and Gable. This is the right way to build the division, and hopefully means we can expect a true revival for tag team wrestling in 2019.
About the only thing WWE got right in 2018 was their women’s division. There was a lot of trepidation when Ronda Rousey debuted, but she’s dispelled all concerns. Rousey followed in the footsteps of Ken Shamrock and Kurt Angle in making an excellent transition to the squared circle, and she continues to improve. There was a lot of outcry when the Bella’s were suddenly thrust into the spotlight, but it turned out to be a fairly decent piece of story telling, led to some good matches, and they ended up using the twins effectively. There’s no doubt, they also used their midcard ladies in some terrible throw-away matches and spots. Which is why the women’s gauntlet match to close Raw a few weeks back was a high spot, while also being a downer. The match itself went on far too long; having said that, more time in the ring equals more potential for audience investment, more in-ring character development. And the time was still better spent than having some of it instead wasted on four of the same girls in a forgettable tag match for no reason. It was another sign they understand where the issues in the product lie; it will of course be another matter to see if they intend to follow all the way through to fix things. Expect to see more proper focus on more of the women’s roster throughout the next year, especially with the addition of the women’s tag division.
Specifically, is there anything we can expect from individual SuperStars in 2019? Drew McIntyre, Finn Balor and Dolph Ziggler seem set to continue fighting among themselves, at least until the Rumble. Having surely done all they can do with each other, Elias and Bobby Lashley should be moved into fresh programs prior to the Rumble. Both would work well against the aforementioned underutilized talent, although Lashley up against Seth Rollins could lead to some decent matches. Neither seems a fit for the ready-to-return Bray Wyatt, who surely needs to come back with a winning feud. It can only be hoped that when Kevin Owens is cleared to return, he gets to come back to the top of the heap – and not paired with annoying lap dog Sami Zayn. It should be hoped that Zayn gets a nice re-package when he comes back, because his last characters have been awful. No more comedy sidekick, no more cowardly heel, just let him wrestle and he could get over as the ‘old’ Daniel Bryan. Strowman might be the hardest one to predict, but that’s because his character had some massive swings in 2018. He was a brutal monster, he was a friendly giant winning tag titles with children, he tried to murder some people, and he was a comedy act. He destroyed all comers with reckless abandon, and was in turn decimated by Lesnar. Who knows what to expect booking-wise from their upcoming Rumble encounter, except of course that The Beast will win? Will Strowman come away with any monster mojo remaining, or is this the start of him tumbling back down the card?