Fact: SmackDown has been the superior weekly WWE prime-time program since WrestleMania. Also fact: It has to split every PPV card with Raw, which is a real liability given the Monday night “flagship” show’s lagging storylines and stalled momentum (thanks for nothing, Brock Lesnar). But the real black cloud hanging over the collective roster is that, even with SmackDown’s budding talent and nascent feuds, nearly every individual angle heading into this Sunday’s Extreme Rules is fairly slapdash, more palate cleanser-cum-table setter for the August 19 marquee SummerSlam than meaningful standalone event.
There’s really only so much to say about whether Finn Bálor will stop smiling long enough to make Baron Corbin rue the day he donned his Constable’s vest, or, frankly, if Shinsuke Nakamura finally claims gold against U.S. champ Jeff Hardy (he will). So in lieu of a match-by-match breakdown (scroll to end of column for complete card with predicted winners), here are a handful of questions we hope to have answered by the time Extreme Rules rallies to its end and sets us off on a hastened run-up to SummerSlam.
Could Roman Reigns Really Lose to Bobby Lashley?
There’s been plenty of on-camera chatter about whether a re-emergent Lashley, fresh off wreaking havoc on the MMA scene, is the man to take down former UFC champ and current WWE Universal Champion Brock Lesnar. (Off camera, fans are less than convinced.) And Reigns’s year—and to some extent, career—have been caveated by his inability to conclusively topple Lesnar and strap on that elusive Universal belt. It makes sense, then, that with the Beast still in hibernation (i.e. prepping for his next UFC bout against Daniel Cormier, a fact WWE isn’t exactly running away from), two guys with little in common except for their enmity toward Brock would butt heads first. It also foreshadows a dreaded Triple Threat fracas between all three, provided Lesnar aka the human timeshare is SummerSlam-bound. It’s not ideal, but with Lesnar’s contractual appearances running out, there needs to be somebody for Reigns to argue with on Raw, and, well, Lashley is definitely somebody. Reigns losing would be a shocker, and any means of removing Roman from the title picture would be seen as a U-turn for WWE. So it’s hard to see this as anything but a placeholder. Best guess? Lesnar stomps the yard on Sunday and takes them both out before a winner can be crowned, and several weeks of Reigns and Lashley running hot and cold with each other in common pursuit ensues. Yay?
Is Kane Secretly Miz’s Hired Gun?
It’s no secret that the Big Red Machine has a real-life political race to run down in Tennessee (not to mention an enormous family to pose for photos with). And it’s more than a little conspicuous that Daniel Bryan’s perma-foe The Miz has been idling without a real adversary during Team Hell No’s recent resurgence (and even more conspicuously meddling in their chemistry). Kane’s self-effacement in the role of Bryan’s erstwhile straight man comes easy, and anything’s better than watching DB keep slumming it in thankless duty opposite the likes of now-jettisoned bully Big Cass. But it’s all a bit too convenient and familiar, and is arguably beneath everyone involved. Which is why you’d have to think that perhaps Kane has, um, ulterior motives. Miz and Bryan have a long-simmering issue, so Kane being his hired muscle would make some sense—as would Kane calling the shots himself (or following Miz’s instruction) as part of some unholy, Ministry of Darkness for the new era (maybe featuring SmackDown tag champs Bludgeon Brothers and SAnitY?). Whatever the case, odds are good that Team Hell No’s title bout against Luke Harper and Erick Rowan ends with poor Daniel getting ganged up on and forced to surmount lopsided odds once more. All of which is fine, so long as he finally gets his hands on Miz—or something resembling a headline feud.
Will Kevin Owens Finally Grow a Pair?
What is Kevin Owens’s issue with Braun Strowman, exactly? And shouldn’t a steel cage typically be reserved for antagonists with a serious, long-standing beef, not just a gimmick to keep a fraidy-cat from scurrying for the hills? (That’s what lumberjack matches are for, after all.) The history of Strowman and KO’s entanglement is, briefly, this: Owens tried to manipulate all the Money in the Bank ladder match participants to pile on Strowman; Strowman more or less murdered Owens in said MITB showdown; and ever since there’s been some weird cat-and-mouse thing happening involving turned-over cars and porta-potties. Strowman has made his name toppling big things and turning unlikely storylines into successes, but Owens is no Roman Reigns—the risk here is that the more Terminator-like Strowman is, the more Owens seems … sympathetic? Sure, there’ll be entertainment value in watching Owens desperately climb and cling to the ring’s surrounding reinforcement, inevitably taking a number of major bumps, but this better be heading to a place where Kevin gets to be the aggressor and their story takes a more dramatic turn in time for SummerSlam. With the aforementioned Universal champ Lesnar not in action on Sunday, Strowman has little to cash in except for whatever mystique he and Owens can co-create in this so-far one-sided hunt.
If Asuka Doesn’t Become Champion Now, Then When?
More often than not, you want your best competitor heading into SummerSlam as champ to heighten the night’s profile relative to more intermediary PPVs like, well, Extreme Rules. And for the SmackDown women’s ranks, that person at present is Asuka. She’s taken more than one for the team since riding hot on her two-plus-year winning streak (since, apparently, NXT notches get grandfathered into individual statistics in random cases), falling to Charlotte at WrestleMania and current champ/Extreme Rules opponent Carmella at Money in the Bank (and even deigning to square off with with resident pest James Ellsworth). And in that time, an array of talent (Carmella, Lana, the IIconics) has had a chance to elevate their game before—presumably—Asuka embarks on a lengthy run with the belt. But the time to move on an Empress reign is now. On Sunday, Ellsworth will be in a shark cage above the ring (not sure how this qualifies as an extreme rule, but whatever). That’s fine and funny and his hijinks will probably only trip up Carmella and send her to a karmic loss. It better. So long as Asuka’s legend is at last allowed to grow, getting us ready for SummerSlam and beyond.
Will Aiden English Truly Have Something to Sing About?
In other words, will Rusev Day rule as the Bulgarian Brute and do what Shinsuke Nakamura couldn’t do on two occasions and take AJ Styles’s WWE title? No reason to build suspense here, since WWE hasn’t: Probably not. The real question is whether this an affirmation of Rusev’s rush to superstardom or simply the company’s way of throwing fans a bone even though they have no intentions of pushing the unlikely babyface Rusev to the next stratosphere? Very likely the latter. If I keep asking questions within questions, does that undermine the substance of my headline question? Definitely. It’s never a great sign when someone endorsed by the supposedly sacrosanct, collective voice of WWE’s universe still gets pigeonholed to type. And judging by this week’s SmackDown, in which Rusev reverted comfortably to heelish form by disrupting Styles vs. Nakamura Part 75, it sure doesn’t appear that Sunday’s challenger has turned a definitive corner toward fun-loving fan favorite. That said, this could all be in service of stirring up some kind of heat for he and Styles’s otherwise arbitrary tango, and Rusev—following a presumed loss—could very well pick up where his softening character left off. What any of this portends for either man going into SummerSlam is hard to say (unless digital ads during Australian soccer games are a sure thing as early live-show ads are), lending some credence to the chance that Rusev will leave Pittsburgh victorious, and he and Styles will stage a low-key SummerSlam reprise that doesn’t dare overshadow the return of a sleeping beast. (Lesnar. We mean Lesnar.)
Extreme Rules Card (in Order of Intrigue)
Bludgeon Brothers (c) vs. Team Hell No for SmackDown Tag Team Championship
Predicted Winner: Bludgeon Brothers
Dolph Ziggler (c) vs. Seth Rollins in a 30-Minute Iron-Man Match for Intercontinental Championship
Predicted Winner: Dolph Ziggler
Matt Hardy and Bray Watt (c) vs. Bo Dallas and Curtis Axel for Raw Tag Team Championship
Predicted Winner: Matty Hardy and Bray Waytt
Roman Reigns vs. Bobby Lashley
Predicted Winner: No Contest Due to Outside Interference
Alexa Bliss (c) vs. Nia Jax in an Extreme Rules Match for Raw Women’s Championship
Predicted Winner: Alexa Bliss
Carmella (c) vs. Asuka With James Ellsworth Above Ring in Shark Cage for SmackDown Women’s Championship
Predicted Winner: Asuka
Braun Strowman vs. Kevin Owens in a Steel-Cage Match
Predicted Winner: Braun Strowman
AJ Styles (c) vs. Rusev for WWE Championship
Predicted Winner: AJ Styles
Jeff Hardy (c) vs. Shinsuke Nakamura for U.S. Championship
Predicted Winner: Shinsuke Nakamura
The New Day vs. SAnitY in a Kickoff Show Tables Match
Predicted Winner: The New Day
Finn Bálor vs. Baron Corbin
Predicted Winner: Finn Bálor