By Matt Straub and Brad Carroll
Any great sports franchise goes through adversity. Whether it’s a traditional team like the world champion Boston Red Sox fighting through their ace’s shoulder injury or my Madden Jets franchise dealing with the loss of its star quarterback right before the biggest game of our season, things happen which are out of your control.
WWE, unlike most franchises, added to its own stress by going through with Friday’s PPV, Crown Jewel. The event is being held in Saudi Arabia, whose government recently admitted that an American journalist was killed at a consulate in Turkey. We may never know what really happened, but the belief by many is he was killed because he often spoke out against their government. This has led to many wanting our government to protest or punish Saudi Arabia in a variety of ways. WWE’s idea of punishment is holding a huge PPV there, even without some big names.
Yes, WWE has a huge contract to hold events there. Maybe they can’t even get out of it legally. But WWE’s lack of any outward sense of confliction about holding the event has turned a big part of its fanbase off this week. Now it has led to two of the company’s biggest stars deciding not to even attend the show. WWE enters what it wanted to be one of its biggest events of the year in full scramble mode, but unlike the time everybody got sick right before a PPV, this mess is on its own hands.
The controversy has overshadowed the other huge hit WWE took recently, which was no one’s fault. Roman Reigns’ leukemia diagnosis was a huge shock to everyone and forced the company to change both its plans for this show and the long term. Whatever you think of Roman’s character, it’s a shame to see this happen to anyone, and how it changes the writing is the least of anyone’s worries. His return will likely be a WrestleMania moment, but no one is sure which WrestleMania that will be at this point.
With three big names gone from this show, and all leaving within the last two weeks, the deck has been reshuffled. Can WWE pull out a decent hand with the cards it has been dealt and the decisions it made helping get it in a bad spot? Let’s look at what’s left of the show and what it could mean for the suddenly murky future.
Brock Lesnar vs Braun Strowman for the vacant Universal Championship
Matt’s Breakdown and Prediction: This one isn’t WWE’s fault. Other than Owen Hart’s death, I’ve never seen anything in wrestling more gutting than Roman’s promo announcing his leave of absence to fight leukemia. Thankfully it’s beatable, and Roman is right to expect to be back someday. Unfortunately, he can’t pull a Brock Lesnar and keep the title for a year without appearing on TV or defending the belt. WWE had an easier fix than it would in most cases, however, since this was going to be a triple threat match. This was the right way to save the show’s most important match (we’ll get to what I think will be the main event in a minute), but it took away any sense of suspense. I was debating whether Roman would retain or WWE was finally going to start the Braun era in earnest, but now we don’t have to think about it. Braun is winning, if for no other reason than WWE isn’t going to make the mistake of giving Brock the belt for him to hijack on his way to UFC. The question is whether Braun really keeps the belt and goes on to start a long run, or if he’s a temporary champion. With Seth Rollins about to start a feud with Dean Ambrose, I think WWE keeps the belt on Strowman through at least the Royal Rumble. He’ll likely fight AJ Styles at Survivor Series, which seems to be going for a champion vs. champion theme this year, then start building towards TLC and the Rumble with a longer feud. For now, this is a typical big man match. These two have some chemistry, so it should be fine for what it is, but Brock doesn’t win.
Brad’s Breakdown and Prediction: Luckily Matt put forth everything you need to know about the backstory for this event and what it means on a larger scale, so I won’t rehash it. What I will say is WWE is likely getting around $50 million to put this event on, and that’s really all you need to know about why this is still happening. Money talks, and money is speaking very loudly to WWE right now. Plus, once this event is over with, nobody is going to care one bit going forward. WWE wants to just get this over with and move on. I think what we learned during the Greatest Royal Rumble and then Super ShowDown is that these events don’t really matter. Some have a problem calling them glorified house shows, but that’s really what they are. The two events so far had no major titles change hands. And this one probably wouldn’t have had one either if Roman Reigns hadn’t been dealt a real life blow in having to fight cancer, taking him out of the event. This Saudi Arabia show will be completely skippable for those that a) want to protest and/or b) just want to put their time into something that is meaningful. One match will have a result that matters, the others won’t. And the crowd in attendance won’t care either. Yes, this is all about money and little else. But the silver lining to all of this is Braun Strowman should finally get a run with the Universal championship. It’s too bad it didn’t happen when he was red-hot, but maybe it’s not too little too late just yet. While I believe it’s Braun’s time, for more reasons than just giving him the title, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if WWE put the title back on Brock Lesnar. It would be a huge mistake, but WWE really knows how to nail down mistakes. Strowman wins and up steps Drew McIntyre into the No. 1 contender role, which should be a lot of fun.
Triple H & Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker & Kane
Matt’s Breakdown and Prediction: As we mentioned the last time WWE went to the middle east, the company wants to bring some legends over to make the fans who never got to see them in their primes happy. Having a legends match is also supposed to raise the stature of the event, but in this case, I don’t see it. Undertaker is an all-timer who can do whatever he wants. I will defend Triple H to the end (seriously, who didn’t he put over?), and Michaels and Kane have important parts in the history of the company. At this point in their careers, however, they should all be feuding with younger wrestlers who can use the rub which comes from being in the ring with a Hall of Famer. Having them all in the ring together makes for a fun moment, but doesn’t achieve anything for the company. Nothing comes from this feud, other than HBK ending his vow to make retirement matches meaningful. All we get is a bunch of old guys who aren’t what they used to be in what will be a snoozefest in the ring and was a total waste outside of it. But it makes for a big moment for a new fan base, so I get it, even if I don’t want to watch it. Taker pins HBK to end it.
Brad’s Breakdown and Prediction: I think Straub might be overvaluing the crowd that is going to take in this event. If anyone watched the Greatest Royal Rumble, the crowd, at least those on camera, looked completely uninterested. Possibly those in the higher seats cared, but those nearby sure didn’t. The big stars on the show, aka Undertaker, are only here cause the guy asking from the Saudi government knows him. Just like he wanted the Ultimate Warrior and Yokozuna last time around. They are both dead. Obviously, there is a lot wrong with this event. But moving back into the actual wrestling part of it, if you watched Undertaker vs. Triple H at Super ShowDown, you saw one of the worst matches of the year. I love Taker but even I cringed watching this. It was really, really bad. Adding two more players to the mix helps, as it takes the pressure off any one wrestler, but I don’t have high hopes for this. I have really low expectations, which is probably needed to enjoy this. Besides nostalgia and a nod to the Attitude Era, this doesn't mean anything. Undertaker and Kane win because that would even the score from Super ShowDown. And if you want more nostalgia, Hulk Hogan's gonna give it to you in spades in Saudi Arabia. Oh boy.
Eight-Man World Cup Tournament to take place at WWE Crown Jewel
Matt’s Breakdown and Prediction: This is like the Mae Young Classic on a larger scale. Does anyone have any idea what this means? If this were for the belt (the other option WWE could have gone with once Roman got sick) it would make sense. As it stands, it serves to fill the show with matches for an otherwise small card. The seven matches will be largely short affairs (think the old King of the Ring events), and a couple of them should even be good. With no real purpose other than a big trophy which means less than the Andre the Giant memorial trophy, it’s hard to get into it. Much of the promotion seems to be built around Kurt Angle, and I could see him winning in order to shift him away from his GM role. WWE seems to like Baron Corbin, who has done well with the spot, and Angle is a terrible talker. Let him have one more brief run before he retires. I’m going to lean towards Smackdown, however, since Shane told his guys they’d be fired if they didn’t win. I’m going to go with the Miz, who has earned a huge push but needs something fresher than another Intercontinental title run. This will get him into the title picture as well, which would make something good come from this otherwise random angle. By the way, I understand not wanting to do this show for all the reasons we mentioned in the open. But for John Cena to pull out a week before the event was disgraceful. At least the Rock was upfront about leaving the company because he cared about his image in Hollywood. Cena, who I defended for everything he said about the Rock, has become everything he said he hated. He’s a part-timer who floats in whenever he feels like it, taking a spot away from someone who might be able to do something with it. That’s nothing new for aging superstars, but it makes Cena a hypocrite. To make matters worse, aging wrestlers typically come in for their unnecessary runs and stay until the conclusion. Cena left after all the hype was already done, but before the payoff. The fans aren’t at fault for what happened in Saudi Arabia, don’t take it out on them. Show up for the people who bought tickets because you were coming. And as wrong as WWE is for deciding to go through with this show, it’s the place which made Cena a star. He wouldn’t be having bit parts in awful movies and pretending he’s a huge Hollywood star like the Rock is without WWE. Without wrestling, he’d be John from West Newbury, calling WEEI today to talk about the Red Sox winning the championship. It’s amazing how quickly some people forget the people who made them when they don’t need them anymore. Go be the fifth credit in Bumblebee, which sounds awful, behind two other people no one has ever heard of. The Rock sold out and made a new life for himself. You just continue to embarrass yourself.
Brad’s Breakdown and Prediction: Hell has indeed frozen over, as Straub has officially turned on John Cena. This is like Shawn Michaels super-kicking Marty Jannety through the glass window. Like Kevin Owens turning on Chris Jericho at the Festival of Friendship. Actually, this is way more surprising than those. Straub is right about Cena being a hypocrite, as everything he said about the Rock is exactly what he’s doing now, even though the Rock is a infinitely bigger star than Cena is. But the bottom line is Cena has the clout and part-time, I don’t care status to call his own shot and skip this controversial event. He’s flat-out thinking about his Hollywood career, so it makes sense. Why ruffle feather in that realm when he needs it more than wrestling? Plus, he was in this stupid tournament, which is stupid, so it would be stupid to risk anything to be part of this stupid thing. Get it? This tournament is stupid. It makes no sense and is just here so they can bring over a limited group of talent to the show, which is best for everyone. Now for the tournament, I’ll go with Rey Mysterio winning, cause why not? He’s returning and has a lot of momentum, so WWE might as well take advantage of it. SmackDown needs more top of the line stars and Mysterio can be one. Unless, of course, they ruin him like they ruined Shinsuke Nakamura and Asuka. I wouldn't be surprised if Kurt Angle won it either, which would send a message, even if WWE isn't thinking that way. An All-American character winning in Saudi Arabia? Interesting.
WWE Champion AJ Styles vs. Samoa Joe
Matt’s Breakdown and Prediction: A couple months ago, this was the best angle WWE has delivered in years. Now it’s a throwaway match put together at the last minute because Daniel Bryan did what he always does, imitate John Cena. I’m actually glad WWE punished him by making him tap out to Styles Tuesday. I have no problem feeling strongly about not going to Saudi Arabia. Bryan, however, is another guy who always feels like he’s just doing whatever will get him attention. And like Cena, he decided at the last minute, screwing his employer and the people who made him what he is. As for the match, I hope WWE lets this one be as good as it can be. Throw in a pre-match spot which reignites the hatred these two built so beautifully. Styles wins, but it’s probably a better match than the broken-down Bryan would have been a part of.
Brad’s Breakdown and Prediction: Straub eviscerates Daniel Bryan here, and I admit, I popped over his John Cena line. Pure magic. Kudos to Straubby. Bryan has nothing to worry about when it comes to a career in Hollywood, so he’s only doing this because he’s a tree-hugging hippie with some moral objection he probably picked up from TV. If I’m WWE, I plunge him down the card for backing out, and it’s only partly punishment for his decision to ruin the world title match. It’s more so because Bryan’s return has been abysmal, and unlike so many other times where it was WWE’s fault, this time it’s Bryan’s. He’s been boring and stale and lame and all those things rolled into one giant uninteresting character. I have no interest in watching him anymore, so I’m completely fine if the result of this is him being dropped from the main event picture. Bryan even on social media has jumped the shark, when he said fans calling out his wife Brie Bella for botching match after match and move after move was cyberbullying. If he believes that was cyberbullying I think Bryan needs to actually mean with real victims of that hateful crime, and maybe he’ll get a clue. So, anyway, luckily Bryan’s out and Samoa Joe is in. Maybe this feud continues for a bit because of these turn of events, which would be welcome news for the blue brand. But there’s no way AJ Styles is losing. We’ll have to wait and see where the title picture on SmackDown goes from here, as it's anyone's guess now. Mysterio? The Miz? Randy Orton?
SmackDown Tag Team Champions The Bar vs. The New Day
Matt’s Breakdown and Prediction: If you were going to put the belts on the Bar, why not do it at your big show? Give it a little drama and something memorable other than the 50-year olds fighting. Instead it’s a rematch, though it should be solid. I think New Day wins to give the fans something to pop over during a dull show. Too bad we couldn’t have a good women’s match in this spot instead. Oh wait, they’re in Saudi Arabia. What a disappointment this has been. Way too many serious topics. Hey Brad, wanna talk baseball?
Brad’s Breakdown and Prediction: Baseball? The only thing I’ve heard about baseball is the Red Sox fans and players and manager constantly bringing up the Yankees. And here I thought the Yankees were eliminated in the Divisional Series. Classify that in the “who’s your daddy” department. And speaking of women’s matches, boy was Evolution a fun, exciting show. I enjoyed it from start to finish and if WWE wanted to do it again, I think it will get even bigger play next time. Of course, that could ruin the whole thing in the process. Special shout out to Becky Lynch, the most over superstar on the roster today, including Ronda Rousey, her opponent at Survivor Series. A show without Becky shouldn’t be a show. The Bar are going to win this match, as they are the best tag team on either show. But thanks to The New Day for bringing back The Brood on Tuesday. That was a positive. This show won’t be. You can skip it and tune in Monday to Raw to find out who the new Universal champion is. But, of course, never skip our previews, or Straub will turn on you. Ask John Cena, it’s not fun.