While both Raw and SmackDown Live have struggled in the weeks following WrestleMania to find direction, things continue to improve as Backlash shrinks into the distance. Money in the Bank is still over four weeks away, but the stakes of earning a spot in one of the ladder matches are elevating what would normally be inconsequential matches.
Meanwhile, where Raw struggles without a top champion, the WWE Championship feud is only getting better on SmackDown Live. Even residual issues between Daniel Bryan and Big Cass help to elevate Cass as a despised heel and remind everyone what "The American Dragon" was once capable of.
More qualifying matches
The first qualifying match of the night provides the most storytelling potential as The New Day took on The Bar. The winning team gets a chance for one member to enter the Money in the Bank ladder match. In a classic tag match reminiscent of their clashes near the end of The New Day's record-setting title reign, it was Xavier Woods who picked up the win for his team. This could give him leverage to claim he deserves the spot in MITB, but friction in making that choice could lead to a split in the tenured tag team.
While the first qualifier provided potential, the storytelling was already set for the second as Becky Lynch faced both Mandy Rose and Sonya Deville in a triple threat match. Despite the former members of Absolution trying to leverage their former friendship with Paige, they ended up having to work against one another for a shot at the briefcase. The two worked together during part of the match, but as that cooperation broke down it was Becky Lynch who was able to capitalize and make Rose tap out.
Becky has struggled to return to the title hunt since losing the title, and this gives her the chance to remedy that. On top of that, the friction between Deville and Rose helps them find individuality while ensuring the loss doesn't significantly hurt either. Two solid matches were made great thanks to raised stakes, and that's exactly what SmackDown Live needed.
'Mellabration meets Empress
While much of the focus has been on the women's Money in the Bank ladder match and who will qualify, Carmella has been laying the foundation of a strong heel championship reign. After knocking off Charlotte a second time at Backlash, this was Carmella's best chance to gloat and push the crowd's buttons. Since the show was in London, and the Royal wedding is only days away, the SmackDown Women's Champion celebrated with a Royal 'Mellabration.
Not only did Carmella ham it up with a town crier and some guards in traditional bearskin hats, but she cranked the obnoxiousness up a notch once she was on the microphone. After showering some praise on herself for recent accomplishments, Carmella proceeded to declare herself better than Sasha Banks, Bayley, Becky Lynch, Charlotte, Ronda Rousey, Trish, Lita, and more. The audacity is a bit too much to be ignored as Carmella is interrupted by SmackDown Live General Manager Paige.
In response to Carmella's claims of her greatness, Paige announces that 'Mella will be defending her title at Money in the Bank against Asuka. As The Empress of Tomorrow makes her way to the ring, the look of fear on Carmella's face is as believable as her ego. It only takes a terrifying smile from Asuka for the SmackDown Live Women's Champion to retreat, and just like that Money in the Bank got a little more interesting.
Nakamura evens the score
For all the frustration about WWE waiting so long to give us Shinsuke Nakamura vs AJ Styles, they seem incapable of throwing it at us on a near weekly basis. While the rivalry has been hindered by wonky finishes, we've seen Nakamura continue to improve and settle into his role as a threatening heel. The majority of the night has Money in the Bank in its sights, and the next chapter between Nakamura and Styles is no different.
In their fourth one on one encounter, the stakes were changed as the championship wasn't on the line. Instead, the winner would get to choose the stipulation for their next championship encounter at Money in the Bank. Promos from both competitors throughout the night did a good job of hyping the match up, but there was still the chance we'd have another inconclusive ending.
After what was arguably AJ and Nakamura's best match in this feud so far, it was a page out of Eddie Guerrero's playbook that allowed Shinsuke to outsmart the champion. With the referee down, Nakamura feigned as if AJ had hit him with a low blow. The brief confusion allowed him to hit an exploder and Kinshasa to pin the WWE Champion. With the win, Nakamura not only gets to choose the stipulation for Money in the Bank, but he successfully evened the score. Now we've seen a win from AJ, a win from Nakamura, a no contest, and a double countout. It gives Shinsuke valuable momentum on the road to Money in the Bank, and this rivalry is finally becoming the instant classic maker that so many fans knew it could be.
- It's downright impressive that Carmella can moonwalk in heels.
- Big Cass is about as obnoxious as they come on the mic, and it's working.
- Andrade "Cien" Almas needs to be in a championship picture immediately.
- Hoss fight incoming. Big Cass vs Samoa Joe set as a MITB qualifier next week.
- Nakamura finally feels like the dangerous heel he was in NJPW, and it's wonderful.
The New Day defeated The Bar (Money in the Bank qualifier); Andrade "Cien" Almas defeated Jake Constantino; Becky Lynch defeated Sonya Deville and Mandy Rose (Money in the Bank qualifier); Shinsuke Nakamura defeated AJ Styles (non-title).
What did you think of SmackDown Live this week? Let us know in the comments below!