It’s probably saying something when the most entertaining moment in recent WWE history was some poor, underdressed cameraman taking a spill outside the arena. That said, what’s been written and rehearsed as SmackDown careens toward Sunday’s Fastlane PPV (and WrestleMania) hasn’t been half bad. The past several days saw some scintillating mic work from the estimable Paul Heyman pumping up Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns’s Universal Championship match; a marquee-worthy battle between Nia Jax and Asuka that has virtually overshadowed intrigue over who the latter’s Mania opponent will be; Bayley and Sasha Banks continuing their slow burn of a simmering rift; Royal Rumble winner and WWE Championship no. 1 contender Shinsuke Nakamura putting over Fastlane opponent Rusev’s ridiculous gimmick in his best backstage promo yet; and, not to be overlooked, Ronda Rousey mixing it up in earnest with Stephanie McMahon.
As a reference point before unpacking the above and more, here are match lists for Fastlane and WrestleMania as of this column’s publication (the latter, naturally, being a bit more in flux).
Fastlane, March 11
- Six-Pack Challenge for WWE Championship: A.J. Styles (c) vs. John Cena vs. Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. Baron Corbin
- SmackDown Women’s Championship: Charlotte Flair (c) vs. Ruby Riott
- SmackDown Tag-Team Championship: The Usos (c) vs. New Day
- United States Championship: Bobby Roode (c) vs. Randy Orton
- Natalya and Carmella vs. Naomi and Becky Lynch
- Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Rusev
WrestleMania 34, April 8
- Universal Championship: Brock Lesnar (c) vs. Roman Reigns
- WWE Championship: A.J. Styles (or whoever wins Fastlane’s main event) (c) vs. Shinsuke Nakamura
- Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle v. Triple H and Stephanie McMahon
- Challenger’s Choice: Asuka vs. either SmackDown Women’s Champion (currently Charlotte Flair) or Raw Women’s Champion Alexa Bliss
- Cruiserweight Championship: Tournament finals (Roderick Strong, Cedric Alexander, Drew Gulak and Mustafa Ali remain)
- Triple Threat for Intercontinental Championship: The Miz (c) vs. Seth Rollins vs. Finn Bálor
Rousey Works the Angle
Ronda’s been given a wide berth by fans and critics as she evolves from celebrity wrestling fan to in-ring talent. When she gladhanded her way down the ramp at Elimination Chamber and tried (and failed at) flipping a switch to icy stares and a finger pointed skyward toward the Mania sign, we shrugged it off. When she struggled to sell herself as an untameable wrecking ball (super-sweet takedown of Triple H notwithstanding) at the following night’s contract signing, we all wondered aloud whether she had the goods. And look, Monday wasn’t perfect; Ronda stood idly by while her ally nearly got Pedigreed by a determined Triple H, and she didn’t quite hit her mark declaring Stephanie as her desired opponent, but there was little suspense to that revelation anyhow. The crowd wanted it, and they got it. The added bonus of Rousey and Kurt Angle getting this physical this early with Mania adversaries the Game and Stephanie McMahon was a clarion call for our collective attention to be fixed on April 8. And despite some less-than-stellar padding for most of Raw’s duration (yeah yeah, Seth Rollins and Finn Bálor in a Mania triple threat for the Miz’s Intercontinental honors, etc.), the message was received. The only bummer is lack of intrigue over who’ll actually come out on top in just under five weeks … until you consider the possibility that Angle is a lame duck and Rousey — fulfilling the promise of Stephanie’s hallowed women’s revolution — will become the Authority’s newest face.
Asuka v. Who the Hell Knows
For somebody who WWE has dubbed “The Empress of Tomorrow,” Asuka’s future is persistently hazy. Or maybe that’s the point: “Tomorrow” is a metaphor for punting on decision-making — as in, who, exactly, the Royal Rumble winner will face at WrestleMania. This “choose-the-champion” stipulation from the Rumble has created more confusion than it’s worth for both the men and women. But the mixed messages regarding which queen — Raw’s Alexa Bliss or SmackDown’s Charlotte Flair — Asuka will seek to dethrone have been dizzying. It’s becoming more and more clear that the choice isn’t just a story line contrivance, but rather that WWE itself hasn’t made the decision yet. The undefeated phenom’s opponent is apparently still up in the air, despite proclamations on last week’s Raw that indicated Alexa vs. Asuka was set in stone. SmackDown’s awkwardly abbreviated, go-nowhere verbal sparring between Charlotte and Ruby Riott — who the former will face on Sunday — didn’t give us any reason to believe that their showdown will shake things up. The villainous, self-satisfied Bliss is a more natural foil for Asuka, although there’s probably more prestige to toppling overall six-time women’s champ Flair. At this stage, so far removed from Asuka’s Rumble triumph, the suspense isn’t exactly thrilling us. Just tell us the match already.
Happy Nakamura Day
The men’s side of the SmackDown-WrestleMania equation is almost as perplexing. We know that Shinsuke Nakamura will be challenging for the title — he won the men’s Rumble — but his opponent will be determined in Sunday’s main event, featuring six of SmackDown’s highest-profile fellows. It was a curious decision, to say the least, for John Cena — he who defeated WWE Champion A.J. Styles last Tuesday to turn Fastlane’s main-event quintet into a title-hungry six-pack — to pop up on Raw this week and not SmackDown. In lieu of his presence (Blockers isn’t gonna sell itself), SmackDown capped off its Fastlane go-home high jinks with a cockamamie five-man tussle featuring everybody vying for Styles’s title (Dolph Ziggler, Baron Corbin, Sami Zayn, and Kevin Owens) on Sunday but Cena. Zayn’s decisive pin over BFF Owens killed a few birds: stirring the pot of their tenuous bromance, focusing our attention on anything other than Daniel Bryan’s conspicuous absence (and, thus, further delaying a payoff on Bryan and Shane McMahon’s animosity), and all but ensuring that neither Zayn nor KO will win this weekend. It’ll be bittersweet watching Rusev throw himself at men’s Rumble winner Shinsuke Nakamura’s feet Sunday at Fastlane, but at least by six-pack challenge’s end we’ll finally — maybe — discover who “The Artist” will hit the canvas with in New Orleans.
Lazing the Bar
Not all tag-champ reigns are created equal, but it’s still hard to get around how Sheamus and Cesaro’s stature as four-time titleholders downgrades current SmackDown pacesetters the Usos’ similar accomplishment. Raw did its damndest this week to illustrate the Bar’s supposed divisional dominance, punctuating it with a sound defeat over wannabe WrestleMania opponents the Revival. But the truth is Monday night’s tag scene has been a hodgepodge of place fillers ever since the Hardy Boyz dropped their belts last April. However, this whole “Who will represent a real challenge to the Celtic Warrior and Swiss Cyborg?” motif leaves the door wide open for a highly touted NXT duo to stride in and step up. As we’ve noted, the Authors of Pain are poised for promotion, but now that they and the team of Roderick Strong and Pete Dunne are triple-threating it up against Full Sail Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly, signs might be pointed toward the ironically dubbed Sanity stable. (Not that it’s ever too soon for War Machine to stomp the yard.) Their honcho — the batshit ring veteran/fishing enthusiast Eric Young — has seen the promised land before alongside stablemate Alexander Wolfe, and could be ready to bring the Bar crashing down. This is a WrestleMania mystery on par with Asuka’s or Nakamura’s, but the drama isn’t nearly as compelling. (And hey, they could always just turn Sheamus and Cesaro against each other again for a best-of-seven or until one of them self-destructs.)
Twilight of the Delete
Credit to Bleacher Report’s Alfred Konuwa for calling the culmination of this mystical feud between “Woken” Matt Hardy and Bray Wyatt way back in August 2016. Konuwa’s headline at the time, “TNA’s ‘Final Deletion’ Series a Blueprint for a New Era of Storytelling in WWE,” could not have been more on point, as the company is shamelessly reconstructing the quirky fantasy world Hardy established while resurrecting his career in TNA (not a sentence you hear every day). Hardy and Wyatt will go at it at Matt’s “Hardy Compound” for a WrestleMania “Ultimate Deletion” (because “Ultimate” is to “Final” as “Woken” is to “Broken”), which does prevent a win-win of sorts: Hardy gets to take his warped vision to another level, while WWE and Wyatt get a make-good on their disastrous, initial attempt to ape what Matt and his brother Jeff manifested on a comparatively micro budget. Although given that the aforementioned New Day vs. Wyatts debacle has been streamed exponentially more times on YouTube than the Hardys’ superior creative stab, the lesson, as always, is: WWE is the true eater of worlds.
Glorious DDZzzzz …
That wordplay’s about as creative as whatever’s going on with Bobby Roode’s United States Championship tenure on SmackDown. Best we can ascertain, Jinder Mahal was pissed he wasn’t more popular with online voters, Roode was riled up at getting RKO’d outta nowhere, and now Roode and Randy Orton are squaring off at Fastlane while Mahal — who pinned the Viper on Tuesday with a classic heel-style assist (interesting) from Roode — mulls his odds in an inevitable WrestleMania triple threat.
Not in the body-sculpting sense, of course (no offense, Paul E.), but Brock Lesnar’s blustery mouthpiece once again blew the doors off a Mania-worthy Raw promo, working in insulting wordplay about Universal Championship challenger Roman Reigns’s relatives and shooting off an utterly un-PG string of mild profanity. Then we got the requisite intimidation from Reigns and Heyman’s patented retreat, but the story continues to be Roman’s slow evolution from defensive neophyte to self-possessed superstar. The upshot is that Reigns and Lesnar will trade licks next week. But in the immediate term, even “Big Dog” skeptics have to confess that — along with Rousey’s push forward to open hour one — that was one hell of a bookend to close out and cover for a largely lackluster show.