With WrestleMania 34 looming in the distance, SmackDown Live is still trying to build a completely different pay-per-view event despite the fact that a good portion of WrestleMania seems clear. They borrow the formula from Raw’s recent gauntlet match success by giving us plenty of good wrestling, but it can’t cover the holes in SmackDown’s booking.
Women’s division keeps it simple
While Monday Night Raw seems to be a little too preoccupied with who in their women’s division is friends with who, SmackDown Live keeps things a little more focused. The night opened with a great promo segment featuring current SmackDown Women’s Champion Charlotte Flair and her soon-to-be challenger Ruby Riott. It was Riott’s best mic work so far, and Charlotte continues to be as great as she’s always been. It wasn’t anything groundbreaking, but it effectively hyped their championship match on Sunday. Job well done.
The rest of the women’s division seems to be on hold until after Fastlane, but that didn’t keep them from staying relevant and competitive. Thanks to a spat on WWE.com last week, Carmella took on Becky Lynch. What followed was a great contest that, despite Becky’s submission win, reminded fans of what Carmella is capable of and kept her Money in the Bank briefcase in the forefront of fan’s minds.
After Naomi bragged about Becky’s win to Natalya, it’s set up a tag match with Becky and Naomi taking on Natalya and Carmella at Fastlane. It’s a less than inspiring pay-per-view match, but was set up naturally and is a great way for all four to showcase themselves close to WrestleMania.
On cruise control
As much as the great wrestling throughout the night tries to distract from it, nothing can cover up the obviously coasting matches heading into Fastlane. Perhaps the most meaningless is the announcement that Shinsuke Nakamura will face Rusev on Sunday. It was set up after Rusev approached Nakamura looking for revenge after Nakamura’s alleged damage to Aiden English’s vocal chords last week with a Kinshasa knee strike. It’ll be a great match, but it’s disappointing that it’s lacked any relative build. SmackDown clearly realized both men needed to be on the card, and this has been haphazardly tossed together without much thought.
Meanwhile, Randy Orton took on Jinder Mahal in what was reminiscent of the worst rivalry on SmackDown Live in 2017. The match was uninspiring, and ended in predictable fashion when Roode’s presence at ringside ultimately caused Mahal to get a quick victory over a distracted Randy Orton. It’s not clear if SmackDown is setting up a triple threat between them at Fastlane or just biding time to have that match at WrestleMania, but either way it’s left things fairly stale.
However, perhaps the most "cruise control" worthy feud would be the one we've already seen: The New Day vs The Usos. Instead of doing more to build the match, SmackDown Live simply gave us a package reminded everyone of the great matches they've had before. Despite coming off as relatively lazy writing, it only works because fans know exactly what they'll get from these two teams on Sunday. SmackDown knows that the wrestling will make up for it on Sunday.
Distract them with wrestling
Before Elimination Chamber, Monday Night Raw made a decision that, on paper, was questionable at best. They scheduled a massive gauntlet match featuring every man involved in the match at Elimination Chamber. It seemed like an odd choice that was giving away some of the pay-per-view on free television, but it turned into something truly special. Two hours of wrestling helped cover up most of the odd booking WWE had used on the road to Elimination Chamber. On top of that, the gauntlet was an undeniable ratings success.
Since that match, we’ve seen WWE taking cues more than once. When The Miz faced Seth Rollins and Finn Balor in back to back matches on Raw last week, WWE simply let the wrestling tell the story. This week, in a main event picture that was equally crowded, they did something very similar. After a solid war of words between Dolph Ziggler and AJ Styles, a main event clash between them was bumped up and started early in the second hour. They squared off for a solid fifteen minutes of action, but ultimately the match was ended thanks to interference from both Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens.
It seemed like bland heel booking, and was initially a sad ending to a good match. Shane McMahon came out and pointed out to the crowd that the obvious response would be making a tag team match where Ziggler and Styles took on Owens and Zayn. Instead, Shane shook things up by scheduling an impromptu non-title Fatal 5-Way as the main event and brought out Baron Corbin to join the mix. Much like the gauntlet match on Raw, it initially felt like an odd choice considering the same match (plus John Cena) will happen on Sunday.
Instead, it allowed five of SmackDown’s best in-ring performers to sell their main event on Sunday with some good old-fashioned wrestling. By the time the night was over, nearly half of it had been dedicated to the main event picture. As good as the match was, it was the ending that truly kicked things up a notch. With AJ Styles being constantly set up as the underdog champion who can’t possibly escape with his title at Fastlane, it wasn’t surprising that someone else might win and further solidify that theory.
It’s especially crucial because so many fans are ready to get to the rivalry being just AJ Styles and Nakamura. The lengthy build and hype to this clash, and what it means to fans, means that many see the WWE Championship match at Fastlane as a lose-lose. If anyone other than AJ wins, it ruins a dream match at WrestleMania moment that fans have been clamoring for. With all of that in mind, it’s been difficult to get fully invested in a messy championship match like this.
A few weeks ago on SmackDown Live, Sami Zayn made the potential outcome of that match interesting by telling Kevin Owens he’d simply lay down and allow Kevin to win at Fastlane. In this SmackDown main event, that’s not what happened. Instead, Sami hit a sudden Helluva Kick to Kevin Owens and pinned his supposed best friend to win the Fatal 5-Way and carry momentum into Sunday. In a few seconds, that surprise win by Zayn did more to build interest in Sunday’s title match than any of the segments that came before it.
- Nakamura's singing was truly magnificent.
- Carmella's briefcase becomes more interesting as 'Mania nears.
- Ziggler's record scratch entrance music remains impressively stupid.
- AJ Styles, like most of us, is ready to get past Fastlane and focus on Shinsuke Nakamura.
- Shane having everyone in Sunday's title match (except Cena) compete feels like a classic McMahon move.
- Entitled heel Sami is the best Sami.
Results: Jinder Mahal def. Randy Orton; Becky Lynch def. Carmella; AJ Styles vs Dolph Ziggler ended in a no contest; Sami Zayn def. AJ Styles, Dolph Ziggler, Kevin Owens, and Baron Corbin in a Fatal 5-Way
What did you think of the final SmackDown Live before Fastlane? Let us know in the comments below!