Nobody really knows what’s happening in WWE right now. The next two Raw- and Smackdown-exclusive extravaganzas (i.e. Elimination Chamber and Fastlane, respectively) each feature main events with seven and five competitors apiece, respectively, and uncharacteristic of this time of year, it’s not at all clear who will be competing for the most prominent singles titles come WrestleMania, let alone defending them. (We’ll call this last symptom the Bootista Effect.)
Here’s what we do know: Brock Lesnar, representing Raw, will enter Mania as Universal champion, just over a year after taking the gold off, aptly, Goldberg (in his last match; Goldberg is entering the WWE Hall of Fame this year). He also gets to sit pretty three days from now as John Cena, Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Elias, the Miz (yay!), Finn Bálor, and Braun Strowman vie to see who will survive the titular Elimination Chamber match, which takes place in a sadistic structure that wouldn’t have been out of place in Stay Tuned’s Hell Vision lineup.
So as we inch closer to this weekend’s overcooked PPV card and glance ahead at mid-March’s muddled Fastlane picture, let’s first revisit what went down in prime time this week. And in doing so, attempt to make out some visible lines as we navigate a road to WrestleMania pockmarked with potholes but with plenty of time to smooth them out.
All Eyes on Asuka (and Ronda Rousey)
Because she won the inaugural women’s Royal Rumble match, Asuka, the undefeated “Empress of Tomorrow,” will be fighting for a title at WrestleMania, though she’s yet to announce whether she’ll try for the Raw or Smackdown women’s belt. First things first, she’s taking on Nia Jax at the Elimination Chamber show on Sunday, and cutting that fearsome glamazon down to size is no slight warm-up for Asuka. (Nor is it a lock that she’ll win outright, with a loss triggering a scenario that puts Jax into Asuka’s Mania match.) Which title Asuka pursues may be linked to ex-UFC icon Ronda Rousey, who will be signing her WWE contract at the PPV—if Rousey gets a shot at the Raw belt at Mania, Asuka presumably gets pushed to Smackdown, but if Rousey ends up in an exhibition match, Asuka might stand pat.
And that’s without getting into the first all-female Elimination Chamber match, in which champ Alexa Bliss has to bypass Sonya Deville, Bayley, Mandy Rose, and Sasha Banks to even get to WrestleMania as champ. As far as that first entanglement, there’s smart money to be had in teasing out an eventual Asuka–Ronda Rousey encounter way beyond April. Pivoting Asuka to Tuesdays, and either a subsequent one-on-one showdown with Smackdown women’s champ Charlotte Flair or a triple threat featuring Jax, would swell the proverbial rising tide for that show’s female ranks. That would open a window for Rousey to make Monday-night minced meat of Bliss or whoever potentially snatches the spotlight by toppling Ms. Five Feet of Fury. It’s nearly impossible to play the long game in an era with so much televised wrestling and slim margin for error or injury, but the notion of either Rowdy Ronda or Asuka forcing the other into historic submission at WM XXXV next April is awfully hard to resist. (So is the confusion in the here and now.)
Meanwhile, There’s the Raw Men’s Mess …
For all the drama surrounding Alexa Bliss and her odds of surviving Elimination Chamber as champ a month out from Mania, the Raw Universal championship—or at least the story surrounding it—has rarely felt so irrelevant. Brock Lesnar is your champion, but he’s been a characteristic no-show for the WrestleMania build so far. There’s no way to know exactly how the Shield’s abbreviated second act sabotaged whatever was in the works for New Orleans (or if Dean Ambrose’s injury, oddly punctuated by a staged beat-down, was authentic or a way to simply give the overtaxed superstar a rest once Roman Reigns’s freak illness already screwed the pooch). And this week’s Raw continued to extricate Seth Rollins from his awkward pairing with Jason Jordan (as well as his brotherhood with Reigns) and successfully steer him as an underdog in the main event scene.
Still, even after Rollins’s valiant showing in Raw’s go-for-broke gauntlet match—which showcased all seven male chamber participants well—there’s a relative lack of confidence surrounding which one comes out on top in Sunday’s clash. That leaves precious time to whip up enthusiasm about who gets to stare down the Beast several weeks hence. This is especially dicey in a year without the Undertaker, with no Rock-style returning legends of note, and no clear plans for Triple H. Although when all else fails, there’s the formula that’s worked since 1987: put two big dudes on a poster and let it promote itself. And while there may be a demon and a big dog in the chamber, there’s only one monster among these seven men. We’ll see you at the main event, Braun Strowman. (Though don’t rule out Rollins triumphing simply to effectuate Jordan sabotaging his chance at another crowning Mania moment.)
Are Shane and Daniel Gonna Wrestle or What?
Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan (Smackdown’s respective commissioner and GM) have been jawing for months. We all know Shane will get a match at Mania, but Bryan’s been kept out of the ring by WWE doctors for years. Will their feud culminate in a match? Probably not. But whatever’s been simmering for months best come to some kind of boil by WrestleMania—and hopefully it will be worth the wait. Bryan could barely be bothered to go through the motions as his onscreen boss kept dutifully selling conspiracy theories about Daniel playing favorites on behalf of bad-guy BFFs Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. It’s still hard to tell whether this beef is about Shane’s paranoia ever since getting screwed by Sami and KO at last fall’s Hell in a Cell, or if it’s evolved into something tangential that could massively shift the balance of power in Smackdown’s upper ranks. There’s very little, however, to foreshadow WWE champion A.J. Styles dropping his strap to any of the four men in his path at Fastlane (sorry, Dolph and Baron), or to prevent him and Shinsuke Nakamura—the men’s Rumble winner, and the WWE championship challenger—from completing the company’s cross-continental coup come April 8.
Not for long. Yes, Shane overruled Daniel Bryan and booked U.S. champion Bobby Roode vs. Randy Orton for Fastlane, but that was largely in service of the suits’ ongoing differences. Jinder Mahal will surely be either inserted into the match between now and then or find himself on deck somehow for Mania. An antagonistic foreigner grabbing hold of the U.S. title and thumbing his nose at American fans is nothing new (see: Bulgarian brute Rusev), but there’s a palpable imperative to keep Jinder’s improbable upper-card run (and the WWE’s commitment to connecting with South Asian consumers) feeling fresh. Or we could just sit through another few PPV cycles of Roode’s workaday promos. Whichever.
In the mold of their one-time Wyatt Family brother Braun Strowman, Luke Harper and Erick Rowan have gotten over by feasting on less-than-formidable talent as the Bludgeon Brothers. This, despite being dubbed, well, the Bludgeon Brothers, in addition to wielding oversized stadium-concession hammers, and dressing for action like they’re recreating the Pagan bonfire scene in Dragnet. (How, again, did Raw bungle Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows’s initial, ready-made migration from New Japan?) The Usos, meanwhile, have been a different kind of success story, slowly winning favor with their street-tough shtick. Their revival owes as much to Jimmy and Jey’s standout 2017 grudge with impish trio New Day as their own twin magic in the ring. (Those familiar foes are squaring off again at Fastlane in a couple of weeks, but this seems strictly like a placeholder, biding time for Harper and Rowan.)
The Usos and Bludgeon Bros. are as well positioned as any adversaries on either roster to pay dividends on a patiently plotted feud that comes to a head on wrestling’s biggest night. (Though admittedly, New Day make for a more compelling contrast and would hardly lose any shine lying down for Erick and Luke.) And a Mania match would be Harper and Rowan’s crowning achievement as an on-again, off-again tag team after years of individually paying their dues. Plus, we all know Luke and Erick’s new gimmick was designed with a certain near-future, primal rivalry in mind.
Smackdown has arguably offered a brisker and more consistent product of late than Raw, but we also know to temper expectations for Fastlane, a flyover event en route to the show of shows. (Not to mention that March 11 is a virtual eon away in WWE years.) This week’s immediate drama concerns Elimination Chamber, and how or whether it will steady the company’s flagship prime-time program heading into its most crucial month-plus stretch. In the interest of streamlining our own scattered thoughts, our forecast for Sunday looks like this: 70 percent chance of Braun Strowman queued up to lay it on the line with Lesnar at Mania; near-certainty of Alexa Bliss hanging on to her women’s title just long enough for Ronda Rousey, Asuka, or Nia Jax to jack it off her waist in six weeks; and a 50-50 shot that Jeff Hardy (ahem, Brother Nero) consoles his Woken brother Matt in defeat opposite Bray Wyatt, allowing Team Extreme to ditch the dayglo JNCOs for good and make one last, postmodern go at glory. Surprises might be in store, but let’s not get greedy: some historic, double-barrel chamber action and a contract signing that ends with someone in a Rousey armbar is plenty to look forward to.