It'd be an understatement to say that SmackDown Live's build to Fastlane was atrocious on every level. It was one of the worst builds I can remember from the last few years, a criticism that's even more troubling when you consider it wasn't all that long ago that the show was bungling its build to Survivor Series. The Blue brand has been off for quite some time now; the heyday of AJ Styles, Dean Ambrose, The Miz, and, shockingly, James Ellsworth all doing good work week in and week out has long since passed. Now, the show is cramming every single person it can think of into a main event match with WrestleMania implications, as if the sheer number of bodies can distract from the lackluster storytelling.
I shouldn't say there hasn't been any storytelling. The problem, rather, has been that so much of it has revolved around the authority figures of Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan, two performers who can certainly be useful in a storyline, but in their current capacity can't sustain a months-long build that leaves the actual active wrestlers in storytelling limbo. The hope then, if you were feeling optimistic heading into Fastlane, was that this PPV would be the final punctuation mark on a seemingly never-ending, sluggish story. Perhaps SmackDown's vision for WrestleMania would finally clarify and give us something to be excited about. Let's break the card down match by match and see if the Blue brand found any momentum heading into WrestleMania.
Rusev and Nakamura set the tone
The opening bout, Rusev vs. Shinsuke Nakamura, would be the match of the night if it weren't for the glorious chaos of the main event. It's a match that doesn't really have any stakes—commentary keeps blabbering on about Shinsuke's WrestleMania "momentum" though—but nevertheless succeeds because of the performers in the ring. This is the best showcase for Nakamura heading into WrestleMania, especially when you consider how little he's been wrestling on the show. It's probably his best match since his debut against Sami Zayn in NXT.
Not only that, this match once again proves that there isn’t a talent like Rusev on the roster. I hate how much he's forced to heel it up here, but it's understandable considering his opponent; you have to keep Nakamura on the right side of the audience, guiding his story. Still, the "RUSEV DAY" chants are echoing through arenas every Tuesday, and even some Mondays, and Rusev continues to be one-of-a-kind in the ring. WWE is perhaps running out of time to capitalize on such a special moment and performer. Rusev likely isn't getting a significant spot at WrestleMania, which is a crime. Hopefully WWE rights that ship after Mania, and hopefully it isn't too late.
The weekly SmackDown Live portion of Fastlane
What to say about Randy Orton vs. Bobby Roode? It was everything you would expect, except it also somehow ran 20 minutes. That's a ludicrous length of time for a match that doesn't matter, even with the title on the line, and that ends with the revisiting of the atrocious feud between Orton and Jinder Mahal that, for all intents and purposes, was the downfall of the Blue brand last year. SmackDown Live has never recovered from that laborious feud, and it's truly baffling that they'd want to revisit it again. The U.S. title could be a great storytelling piece for so many on the roster—Rusev, Tye Dillinger, Mojo Rawley, or members of tag teams like New Day and the Fashion Police—but is instead stuck being the meaningless piece of hardware that three of SmackDown's least compelling performers are fighting around.
Orton vs. Roode is just like every other "big" Roode match in both NXT and main roster WWE, much in the same way that the women's tag match that follows is just a weekly SmackDown match under a PPV label. It's a meaningless match that, I guess, hopes to remind everyone that Carmella has the Money in the Bank briefcase and maybe even deserves it. Seriously, the whole match focuses on Carmella's ability to pull hair and be, according to commentary, "vicious." This feels like a match that tries to make up for months of nonexistent storytelling. It's the equivalent of reading the Cliff Notes version of the novel you didn't read before the exam; you get the gist of the story, but there's no nuance in sight.
Shifting stories in the tag team and women's division
A little more promising is the Tag Team Championship match that doesn’t end up being a full match. The Usos and New Day are well on their way to wrestling another classic when, after a dual dive that left every member of each tag team lying on the floor, the Bludgeon Brothers come to the ring and absolutely destroy everybody. The Usos get ruined by one powerslam after another. Big E gets a boot to the face and the double team in the ring. Xavier, getting the worst of it, takes a superplex off the apron and then gets powerbombed onto the steel steps.
It's a truly brutal beat-down, and one that's been a long time coming. It's, of course, a little disappointing to not get another classic from the two best tag teams of the last year, but this at least shifts the story in a new direction and gives the Bludgeon Brothers an aura of destruction that wasn't quite there with one squash match after another. Who knows what's on the way—a Triple Threat at Mania, or maybe another multi-team ladder match—but expanding the division to treat more teams seriously is by no means a bad thing.
Ruby Riott vs. Flair, much like Orton vs. Roode, doesn't feel all that consequential. It's a much better match than the one for the U.S. title, but it's also just a placeholder for a more momentous moment. Still, Ruby Riott remains the standout of the Riott Squad, and this is a good showcase for what she can do on a bigger stage and with more time against one of the best on the roster. The match itself feels too much like something they'd run on SmackDown Live, with Sarah Logan, Liv Morgan, Becky Lynch, and Naomi all getting ejected from ringside. The ejection angle doesn't work all that well when both teams get sent to the back; there's no story or consequences there. All that said, we're getting the WrestleMania match that will tear the house down. Asuka vs. Charlotte, the Streak vs. the Queen. This is the path forward, for SmackDown Live, for WWE, and for women's wrestling within this company.
It's Styles vs. Nakamura at WrestleMania
That brings us to the main event. It's difficult to remember a time when a shoddy build led to such a gripping match. From the get-go this match is turned up to 11, and it never lets up. Cena hits 4 AAs right out of the gate, leaving just him and Styles in the ring. It's the first of many big spots that dominate the match. There's no technical wrestling here, and really no room to breathe. Every single massive sequence seems to lead into another one. One sequence in particular stands out, largely because production nails the direction for once: Ziggler hits a Zig Zag on Corbin, and when he falls on his back Owens hits him with a frog splash from the top rope. What's unique is the way the camera never shifts position, so that Owens comes in from the top of the frame, like an intrusive, angry bull, and smothers Ziggler. It's beautiful.
The match contains its fair share of Shane McMahon shenanigans, but if you've accepted that this is the story WWE is going to tell, the way it all goes down isn't half bad. Shane essentially screws both Owens and Zayn out of the WWE Championship, and that opens up the door for Styles to retain. What's nice is that Shane's involvement only extends to Zayn and Owens. There's enough distance between his involvement and Styles' win that the match doesn't feel tainted. Instead, SmackDown Live tells a frantic, unhinged, compelling story, something it hasn't done for months. Now, we can look forward to Styles vs. Nakamura at WrestleMania. I'd say that's exactly the focus that SmackDown Live has been looking for.
- While it's just the kickoff show, I love seeing Tye Dillinger and the Fashion Police actually get a win.
- Rusev kicking Shinsuke's head off while he tries to execute the Kinshasa is a thing of beauty.
- You could easily fill out a tag team championship ladder match at WrestleMania. Plenty of teams vying for attention on SmackDown Live.
- It's been awhile since I've had chills in the way I did when Asuka came out to confront Charlotte. I am so ready for that match.
- I truly have no idea where John Cena goes from here. The story has been interesting, but it's time to give Cena an opponent and a sense of direction.
Shinsuke Nakamura defeated Rusev; Randy Orton defeated Bobby Roode (c) (United States Championship match); Carmella and Natalya defeated Becky Lynch and Naomi; New Day vs. The Usos (c) ended in a No Contest; Charlotte Flair (c) defeated Ruby Riott (SmackDown Live Women's Championship match); AJ Styles (c) defeated Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Dolph Ziggler, Baron Corbin, and John Cena (WWE Championship match).