Ryan Dilbert's 10-Count: WWE Mixed Match Challenge Will Be 2018's Sleeper Hit

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterJanuary 3, 2018

Credit: WWE.com

1. Squads of Great Intrigue

The monstrous, grizzly bear of a man Braun Strowman will team with all 5'1" of Alexa Bliss, the Raw women's champion, at the WWE Mixed Match Challenge.

It's going to be a pairing of beauty and the beast, of thunder and lightning, of a wrecking ball and an ice pick. And it's going to be awesome.

Raw general manager Kurt Angle announced Bliss and Strowman as the Mixed Match Challenge's first official team:

There is sure to be a string of other never-before-seen duos that snag the audience's attention at the mixed tag team tournament set to begin on Jan. 16. Is an Asuka-Goldust team next? Naomi and Shinsuke Nakamura? 

Seeing Superstars like these align for the first time is going to be half the fun. So often, the men's and women's division don't interact. Strowman hasn't crossed paths with Bliss on screen. Naomi and Nakamura seem to exist on different planes. The inaugural Mixed Match Challenge, though, will change that.

A number of male-female combos will collide in a tournament where the victors will win money for a charity of their choice.

At first glance, this event looks like an unimportant side project, just another bit of programming WWE stuffed into its bloated calendar. But there's a good chance for the Mixed Match Challenge to exceed expectations and be one of 2018's surprises.

There will be a novelty to it all, thanks to the format and the unique pairings. It promises to be a fun add-on where the talents are looser and freer to be themselves. What unfolds at the tourney won't necessarily be canon. It's likely to be more straight-up action than overwritten drama. 

Plus, the tournament format has inherent drama.

Each match has clear stakes. The show will intensify in the later rounds. And we'll see brand-new bouts, a rarity in an era with so much weekly content.

Ryan Satin of Pro Wrestling Sheet reported WWE chairman Vince McMahon "is pulling out all the stops with MMC to impress Facebook’s top brass." That bodes well for the event. And WWE announced Beth Phoenix will be part of the commentary team, which is a nice bonus. 

WrestleMania will, of course, remain WWE's Super Bowl. NXT's TakeOver events will be the gold standard for the company. On WWE's 2018 buffet, though, the Mixed Match Challenge is going to be the whimsical dessert at the end of the table.


2. The Usos Remain Kings of the Tag Teams

The Usos rang in the New Year with a win in a tag team title match. Of course they did. Jimmy and Jey have been steady presences atop the WWE tag title scene.

They have twice won what is now called the Raw Tag Team Championship, per WWE.com, and are in their third reign as SmackDown tag champs. During their five reigns, they have held the gold for 492 days and counting.

The Usos have been champs in 2014, 2015, 2017 and now 2018.

And the sight of them holding championships isn't getting old. The brothers were a part of one of 2017's best feuds (against The New Day) and continue to tear it up both in the ring and on the mic.


3. Throwback Video of the Week: Brian Pillman

A second-generation wrestler has officially begun his career, following his father's lead. As Bryan Rose of Fightful noted, Brian Pillman Jr. debuted over the weekend in Indianapolis. 

His dad was an engrossing talent. Not only did he deliver high-energy action in the ring, his unhinged persona was must-watch stuff. That side of him was on display in 1996 on ECW TV when he battled a giant pencil on the floor:

Whether Pillman Jr.'s story includes a pencil fight or not, it will be interesting to see how it pans out.


4. Dawkins' Long Journey

Angelo Dawkins has been in the WWE developmental since before it was NXT. The Street Profits member signed with WWE in 2012 when Florida Championship Wrestling was still the company's feeder territory.

He has seen Charlotte Flair, Sami Zayn, Aiden English, Tyler Breeze, Baron Corbin and others work their way up to the main roster. Dawkins, though, hasn't sniffed Raw or SmackDown to this point. 

Gimmick tweaks came and went. Dawkins never seems to find an ideal entry point to the next stage—until now.

He and Montez Ford have been one of NXT's most fun duos in recent months. Suddenly Dawkins is alive with new energy and has great chemistry with his partner. The path to the main roster is now clear; The Street Profits is the answer he's long been waiting for.


5. EC Vicious

Cleveland fans expecting to see Sid Vicious ended up getting Ethan Carter III in a blond wig instead.

As Wrestling Inc's Daniel Pena detailed, Vicious was scheduled to appear at a recent Absolute Intense Wrestling in Cleveland but canceled.

If the powerhouse blaming Donald Trump's travel ban for why he couldn't make it wasn't weird enough, Impact Wrestling's EC3 went on to impersonate Vicious at the show (h/t Wrestling Cheers for the photo):

Carter had some fun with it all, transforming a no-show into a memorable night for fans. Here's to more lemons-into-lemonade moments like that happening in wrestling in 2018.


6. Don't Sleep on Cody vs. Ibushi

It's understandable that the Wrestle Kingdom 12 undercard isn't getting any love. The Jan. 4 pay-per-view's two main events are going to be huge.

All the buzz ahead of New Japan Pro-Wrestling's biggest show of the year is swirling around Kazuchika Okada vs. Tetsuya Naito for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship and Kenny Omega vs. Chris Jericho for the IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship.

But Cody Rhodes vs. Kota Ibushi is bound to make noise of its own.

The bout lost some of its luster when Rhodes dropped the Ring of Honor World Championship, making this showdown a non-title affair. There is still plenty to be excited about, though.

Ibushi is a world-class performer who will likely draw out Rhodes' best. There's going to be an added air of personal animosity thanks to Ibushi's frustration that he's not competing for a title, too. And Rhodes' post-WWE reinvention of himself has been a sight to behold.


7. Handicap Match Hits

The list of greatest handicap matches in WWE history will soon need to be rearranged thanks to AJ Styles. The WWE champ will face Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens for the gold at the Royal Rumble on Jan. 28.

Styles has made everyone from Shane McMahon to Jinder Mahal look terrific. It'll be exciting to see what he can do with a match type that doesn't have a long list of classics.

There have, though, been a number of good, engaging handicap bouts. Check out the following contests for a look at the stipulation at its best:

It will soon be Styles', Owens' and Zayn's turn to see if they can top these. There will be ample stakes and talent for that to happen.


8. Kane at the Royal Rumble

The Big Red Machine has been a ubiquitous sight at the Royal Rumble.

Kane has competed at 20 Royal Rumble PPVs, dating back to 1996, per CageMatch.net. He was in the event's trademark Battle Royal each of those times. He competed in every Rumble from 1999 to 2011 and then battled in the 30-man match for the past four years in a row.

This year will mark only the third time he's competed for a title at the event and the first time he didn't enter the Rumble itself.

Kane will be busy looking to claim the Universal Championship in a Triple Threat match against Brock Lesnar and Braun Strowman. History, though, says he's a long shot to win. Kane has just one victory to his name at the PPV. 


9. Rethinking the United States Tournament

The tournament to crown the new WWE United States champ has been a snoozer. So far, it has felt low rate, thrown together and not nearly as consequential as it could have been.

A number of missed opportunities have hurt an event the company hasn't made a priority. 

The easiest fix would have been to reveal the brackets right away. That would have allowed fans to get excited about the matchups ahead. It would let the audience project what's ahead for each round's winners. But WWE didn't show us that image until after the first two matches were over.

Having only eight entrants was a mistake, too. A 16-man event would have allowed a lot more Superstars a chance to make an impact.

As it stands, Big E and Rusev had to play cheerleader rather than compete for the U.S. crown.

It's all been an unnecessary letdown. Why tell the story of Dolph Ziggler vacating the belt only to roll out a half-assed tourney? A touch more effort and hype would have made a big-time difference.


10. Jericho on Wrestle Kingdom

No one has higher expectations for Jericho and Omega's battle in the Tokyo Dome than Y2J himself. 

The former WWE champion tangling with the IWGP U.S. titleholder is a significant meeting of two worlds, but Jericho believes it will be more than that. He wrote in The Players' Tribune: "No matter what happens in the end, it's going to be the biggest wrestling match of the year. Maybe the decade."

Talk about an expert salesman. He makes this sound like a spectacle one would be foolish to miss.

Jericho has provided a robust amount of the coal for the bout's hype train, this grand statement included. 


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