By Tony Cline, Columnist
WWE takes over the Big Easy this weekend for their premiere events of the year, the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, NXT: TakeOver, and, of course, WrestleMania 34. There is a lot to preview, so let’s jump right into it (exact match order is not yet known):
UNDERTAKER vs JOHN CENA
Technically, this match isn’t booked, but it seems difficult to believe that something won’t happen. Cena has spent the last several weeks trying to incite the Undertaker to answer his challenge, and I see no reason why they would book such a segment repeatedly without a payoff of some sort. It is always possible that Taker shows up to cut a promo and set up a future match, but it seems far more likely that an unannounced match will take place in New Orleans. I was pretty adamant that this shouldn’t happen, especially given Taker’s performance at WrestleMania 33 and his display of leaving his gear in the ring, but it seems that he is in much better shape after having more fully recovered from his hip surgery. The best way to handle this is to leave the Dead Man gimmick retired and bring back the American Bad Ass. If this match happens, expect Undertaker to go over.
JOANIE LAURER WOMEN’S BATTLE ROYAL
This is not the official name of this match, but after the Fabulous Moolah’s name was removed due to some of her dirty laundry coming to light, it makes the most sense, so I have renamed it for the purposes of this article, mainly because I can. This would be a perfect posthumous honor for a woman the WWE treated pretty badly while she was alive. The men’s battle royal match usually signals a lower mid-card guy that will be getting a push in the coming year, and I hope they use this match the same way. However, the plethora of big names in the match seems to indicate to me that that is an unlikely scenario. Ruby Riot or Sonya Deville (or maybe Sarah Logan) should win this inaugural event, but it’s more likely we will see Sasha Banks, Bayley, or Becky Lynch with their hand raised.
ANDRE THE GIANT MEMORIAL BATTLE ROYAL
This is an event that has historically allowed a lower-mid-carder to shine and lead into a decent push in the following year (Mojo Rawley being the exception). However, if we assume that formula, I am completely lost as to who could possibly win this year. Perhaps Matt Hardy would qualify with his new “Woken” gimmick, but that would be a very tenuous qualification. It seems unlikely this year’s match will follow the previous formula. I think we are most likely to see Ziggler or Corbin win this match, though Hardy would be my third pick. Dark horse: Samoa Joe returns and wins this match.
MUSTAFA ALI vs CEDRIC ALEXANDER (CRUISERWEIGHT TITLE)
The first of three babyface vs. babyface title matches, the bout to crown the champion (and top babyface) of 205 Live promises to be an excellent display of ring and air talent. The fact that this title has once again been relegated to the preshow is unconscionable, but it is what it is at this point. These two will provide an excellent show. I am a huge fan of Ali and would like to see him grab the title, but Cedric was being built into the top babyface prior to the tournament, and he likely fulfills that role by winning one of the most technically superior matches of the night.
KURT ANGLE/RONDA ROUSEY vs HHH/STEPHANIE MCMAHON
The build to this match has been fairly poor overall, though the fault lies with creative for the late decision-making, not with the performers. Even Rousey, who can’t seem to stop grinning like a 16-year-old on prom night, has been able to deliver her lines fairly decently and has handled all physicality so far pretty well. This match carries a lot of interest for me because it will be our first opportunity to see Ronda in the ring and assess her ability to transition from shoot fighting to the scripted sort. I expect that Ronda will not spend a lot of time in the ring due to her inexperience and Stephanie’s fairly limited in-ring abilities. The best way for this match to end, in my opinion, is with HHH scoring a less-than-clean pinfall over Kurt Angle. Such a finish would give Rousey her first loss in a manner that doesn’t sully her character while starting to truly build up the persecuted warrior that is fighting back against the evil authority figures. The more likely finish is Ronda locking Steph in an armbar for the submission.
DANIEL BRYAN/SHANE MCMAHON vs KEVIN OWENS/SAMI ZAYN
The only other non-title match on the main card also has an authority vs. anti-authority theme, but the roles of good and evil are reversed here. Zayn and Owens have assaulted both members of SmackDown Live management in recent weeks, and have been fired as a result. If they manage to win this match, they will get their jobs back. There is a slight possibility that McMahon and Bryan get the W, pushing the best friends to seek shelter on the Raw brand, especially with the annual shakeup coming soon. However, I think it is more likely we see Owens and Zayn nab the win. The twist that makes this match: Daniel Bryan turns on Shane and joins his former friends, revealing that this whole exercise was a set-up. Now that Daniel can wrestle again, he is unlikely to want to remain in his role as SmackDown general manager, and a heel turn involving Bryan would provide a level of shock that keeps fans talking for weeks.
RANDY ORTON vs JINDER MAHAL vs BOBBY ROODE vs RUSEV (US TITLE)
The US title is somehow on the line in a Fatal Four-Way match that simply does not have enough heat to generate much interest. The one thing that does create interest in this match is Rusev’s late inclusion. Rusev is one of the most over superstars in the WWE right now, and his chance to regain the United States championship brings with it more interest than anything else about this match. It’s pretty unlikely that Orton retains. His current reign was orchestrated simply to give him the last title he has never held, but he really has little interest in a mid-card title at this stage of his career. The best-case scenario is that Rusev leaves New Orleans as the US champ. I think that possibility is slightly more likely than one in which Roode or Mahal walk away as champ.
MIZ vs SETH ROLLINS vs FINN BALOR (INTERCONTINENTAL TITLE)
Raw’s mid-card belt will be on the line as Rollins and Balor try to unseat the best Intercontinental champ in many years. Miz just had a new daughter, and it is highly likely he will want to take some time off to spend with her. If that is the case, odds are fairly even between Seth and Finn (assuming human Finn shows up and not the demon) for the new titleholder. If Miz does not require time off, he probably will and should retain.
USOS vs NEW DAY vs BLUDGEON BROTHERS (SMACKDOWN TAG TITLES)
At Fastlane, the Usos and New Day were locked in a tag team title match when the Bludgeon Brothers appeared to…bludgeon…both teams. Jey Uso, Kofi Kingston, and Xavier Woods sustained injuries from the attack that kept them out of action for several weeks. All are now healthy and ready to face off against one another and the Bludgeons in a triple threat match for the titles. New Day has the least chance of coming out of this match with the belts. I think the Usos are the most likely winners, and that is the best outcome at this point. The shakeup will give them a new set of teams to oppose them, perhaps leaving the Bludgeons in place and adding in the Revival and/or Authors of Pain.
THE BAR vs BRAUN STROWMAN AND ? (RAW TAG TEAM TITLES)
In an effort to find worthy challengers for Cesaro and Sheamus, Raw held a tag team battle royal. For some reason, Braun Strowman was entered into the match without a partner and won. Now, after screwing up what should have been his title match at Mania, Raw’s creative team has butchered the tag team division. Rather than showcasing a great tag team like the Revival or the Good Brothers, WWE has created an odd matchup that pretty much no one cares about because anyone with any sense knows that the Bar is not losing their titles to Braun and his mystery partner. Strowman’s partner is the only interesting part of this match. I expect the WWE to use this for one of those huge pop moments by bringing back someone the WWE Universe has not seen in a while, perhaps James Ellsworth. Either way, WWE is not going to want to tie the Monster Among Men up in the tag division for any length of time.
ALEXA BLISS vs NIA JAX (RAW WOMEN’S TITLE)
While Alexa Bliss is an amazing performer and perhaps the best heel in the WWE today, the teenage girl drama behind this feud has been absolutely cringeworthy. These are not teenage girls, they are grown women, and the WWE should learn how to treat them as such in its storylines. Much of the WWE Universe is ready to see Nia get her chance to carry the belt and the division for a while, but I seriously doubt here and now is the place and time it will happen. Babyface champs are rarely monsters, and Jax winning a belt in a division without someone who can seriously challenge her one-on-one seems to offer little in the way of future options. An underdog heel chasing a title simply doesn’t draw as much interest from fans, so don’t expect to see it now. Little Miss Bliss will have her hand raised once again at WrestleMania.
CHARLOTTE FLAIR vs ASUKA (SMACKDOWN WOMEN’S TITLE)
Asuka won the inaugural women’s Royal Rumble match, earning her the right to face any champion she chose at WrestleMania. She seemed on a collision course with the Raw women’s champion, Alexa Bliss, until she showed up on SmackDown a few weeks ago to challenge Charlotte for her belt, insisting that Charlotte was the more worthy opponent. The foregone conclusion among many fans seems to be that the undefeated Asuka will keep her streak intact with a win in New Orleans, but I am a little unsure of that. Obviously, the most likely scenario is one that sees the Empress of Tomorrow wrap the strap around her waist at the end of the night, but Charlotte also has a big reputation, especially in major events, and she could very well exit this match as the champion. Breaking Asuka’s streak here would allow her to move on to newer and deeper storylines where she doesn’t have to dominate all the time. While Asuka ending the weekend as champion is the most likely situation, it is far from assured.
AJ STYLES vs SHINSUKE NAKAMURA (WWE TITLE)
For those of you who cannot figure out what all the excitement is about with this match, I implore you to Google “Wrestle Kingdom 10” and watch their final match together in New Japan. These two can put on an awesome show, and if the WWE really gives them time to work, you will be blown away. Unfortunately, the lead-in to this match has been less than stellar, and yet another babyface-babyface match has no organic heat behind it, but the excitement among fans is still just as palpable as it was in January when Nakamura won the Royal Rumble and assured us of this dream rematch. Chances are high that Styles retains his title here, but a Nakamura win could set the stage for AJ to turn heel and create a wonderful long-running feud between these two immensely talented competitors.
BROCK LESNAR vs ROMAN REIGNS (UNIVERSAL TITLE)
Ho hum. Roman wins. Brock goes back to the UFC. I was bored with this match the day Roman beat Strowman at Elimination Chamber. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a Roman hater, but the WWE really missed a chance to allow an exciting, young, hard-working talent to get a huge rub by destroying the Beast Incarnate and becoming Universal Champion. Instead, Roman Reigns, a guy who doesn’t need a rub so much as a heel turn to establish him in the eyes of the fans, will once again be set up as a top babyface champion that no one actually likes. Roman’s promos have improved in the last couple of months as he has built to this confrontation, but it was certainly surreal to see Vince’s “boy” accuse Lesnar of being the same. Either way, the outcome of this match is the most certain on the card. You can feel free to tune out early knowing you won’t miss much.