Fast Lane is behind us, which means that WrestleMania 35 is now well in sight. Raw has laid the foundations for its top matches, so it was time for SmackDown to do the same, though significant hints had already been dropped about what the blue brand will give us on April 7.
Shane McMahon Promo
Opening the show was Shane McMahon to explain why he viciously attacked The Miz after their loss to The Usos at Fast Lane. The newly-heel Shane, with the WWE World Cup trophy back in the ring, insisted that ring announcer Greg Hamilton give him a worthy introduction, even scrunching Greg’s face up several times to get the speech he felt that he required. With the fans heavily booing him, Shane explained that he was fed up of everybody relying on him, and needing him to succeed, in particular Miz. Shane noted that he was the best in the world not because he won the trophy at Crown Jewel, but because he was born to do this. He said he felt “awesome” for assaulting Miz last Sunday, so much so that he felt like doing it again, so he booked himself to face Miz in a match at WrestleMania. I’m assuming that we hear from the newly-babyface Miz on next week’s show.
Aleister Black, Ricochet & The Hardy Boyz vs. The Bar, Rusev & Shinsuke Nakamura
Given that Black and Ricochet are firmly in the Raw tag team division right now, I’m not sure why they keep appearing on SmackDown as well, unless you assume that we’re seeing the gradual end of the latest Brand Extension (which is very much possible). This was a decent enough match, but it felt a bit like filler, and it didn’t have a proper conclusion: The New Day, angry that how they have been treated recently (and especially at Fast Lane by the heels involved here) ran in and destroyed everybody, heels and faces, clearing the ring with a purpose. Afterwards, The Usos cut a speech backstage inviting any teams who wanted to step up to join them in The Usos Penitentiary; I still think Matt and Jeff Hardy answer the call of Jimmy and Jey Uso, but it’s possible that other teams are thrown into such an encounter for WrestleMania.
Randy Orton-AJ Styles Promo
There have been minor confrontations between these two backstage lately, culminating in AJ flattening Orton with a Phenomenal Forearm at Fast Lane. This was the first real promo battle, and it was fantastic. Orton cut a powerful speech noting how AJ was doing minimal things on the independent circuit (including “getting a tan with Dixie Carter”, the first time she’s been referenced on proper WWE television) while he was making history at a young age, and saying how he, not AJ, built the “house” called SmackDown. Styles came out and threw some heavy barbs himself, noting how Orton running down the indies is funny because he’s surrounded by many veterans of the “minor leagues” now, and that Randy himself wouldn’t have succeeded on the indies because he’s always had help in WWE, from Evolution to Legacy to Rated RKO. AJ even noted how the RKO was a “knock-off Diamond Cutter”. Randy in response reiterated that he has earned his way to the top, and using the idea that he runs the SD house, he delivered a great line: “I’m the landlord, and rent’s up, you son of a bitch!” The upshot was that an AJ vs. Orton match was teased, if not unofficially announced, for WrestleMania. I was intrigued by this pairing beforehand, but this segment was a home-run that suddenly makes this a bout well worth seeing, especially if we get similar worked-shoot debates over the coming weeks.
Asuka vs. Sonya Deville
If you was hoping that we’d find out the identity of Asuka’s WrestleMania opponent here, you’d be disappointed. Instead, this moved along the potential split of the Mandy Rose/Sonya tag team. This was a better match than Asuka vs. Rose at Fast Lane, though not by much, and it had the same unconvincing finish of Rose lifting the apron up in such a manner that Deville was tripped, leading to her defeat (except that on this occasion, it seemed deliberate for Mandy to do this, as a subtle form of revenge from the other night). Further quarrels between Rose and Deville followed the match.
Charlotte Flair-Becky Lynch Promo
Next, we had the latest discussion between Charlotte and Becky ahead of the Raw Women’s Championship match with Ronda Rousey at WrestleMania, following a production snafu in the display of the match graphics. Other than Becky abandoning her crutch as she came to the ring (though she still hobbled on), this didn’t leave much of a lasting impression on me. Maybe it’s because we have seen these two engage in spirited debates so often, or maybe it’s because, as some have suggested, the storyline has peaked too early due to the large number of twists, but it feels like some steam has been lost in recent days. That isn’t to say I’m not looking forward to the match, nor that it won’t be a roaring success, but it might be a good way to give the three characters involved a short rest (or at least a break from one another on-screen) next week. Perhaps we get training videos for all three, or just an extended video recap, leading to a contract signing in two weeks’ time and then one final big three-way promo the Monday beforehand. Either way, the super-hot storyline is cooling off right now, so I’m hoping WWE recognises this before it goes from a minor dilemma to a major problem.
Backstage, Daniel Bryan and Rowan had left Vince McMahon’s office following what D-Bryan had described as a “private discussion”, which made it funny when Bryan revealed almost everything that they chatted about (namely, Kofi Kingston). Bryan also revealed that he and Rowan would face Kevin Owens and Mustafa Ali later on.
Rey Mysterio & R-Truth vs. Samoa Joe & Andrade
This followed on from the two four-way matches involving these competitors last week for the United States Championship. It was essentially a watered-down version of those bouts, because it was watchable, yet not quite as exciting due to the reduced stakes. There may be something to the outcome, though, as Rey pinned Joe for the victory. Afterwards, Samoa (?) attacked Truth and even his own partner Andrade, almost seeming overcome with rage at being pinned by Mysterio. Doesn’t look like John Cena will be facing Joe at Mania, which means he’ll almost certainly be taking on Kurt Angle in the latter’s farewell match. As for Joe, this result suggests he’ll defend his gold against Rey, though another multi-man match is very much possible.
Kevin Owens & Mustafa Ali vs. Daniel Bryan & Rowan
This match highlighted one of the issues that WWE occasionally faces. A regular SmackDown viewer who doesn’t watch the PPVs would never have known that Mustafa Ali was inserted into the WWE Championship match between Bryan and Owens until this bout took place, almost 90 minutes into the broadcast. Anyway, the match itself was alright, even if it feels like Owens now has no direction, following his sudden return as a babyface just two weeks ago. Rowan face-claw slammed Ali for the pin, which keeps him and Bryan strong (understandably). As they left, Vince McMahon came down for the big show-closing angle.
Vince McMahon/New Day Segment
We had been told that Vince McMahon had a WrestleMania opportunity for Kofi Kingston. He strangely said at the very beginning that he’d give him a WWE Title shot, and the fans didn’t actually pop that much, perhaps because you knew a twist was coming. McMahon noted how he hadn’t lied or misused Kofi at Fast Lane because he said there’d be a three-way title match, but he didn’t specifically state that Kingston would be in it. The New Day then came out, with Big E and Xavier Woods championing Kofi’s cause (Big E in particular). Vince responded by saying Kofi was a tremendous athlete, but noted how he would only ever make it into the Hall Of Fame as a member of New Day, not for his own achievements, and how Daniel Bryan was right in telling Vince, with no shred of irony of course, that Kofi was “a B+ Player”. Kingston then took the mic and cut a passionate speech, noting how he had done everything without complaint over the course of 11 years, missing birthdays and Halloween parties and travelling wherever required. Kofi asked “what do I have to do?” At that point, Randy Orton came out (it felt like they were running low on time, so they had to skip over a step), as Vince said Kingston had to beat him next week, along with Samoa Joe, The Bar and Rowan (they all came out and stood side-by-side like comic book movie villains), in a Gauntlet match. They then had a brawl with New Day, with the babyfaces standing tall as Bryan looked on. Kofi will have to overcome massive odds to get his WrestleMania opportunity against Bryan for the gold; I’m assuming he will, because if he didn’t who else could face Bryan at such short notice?
This episode of SmackDown was very productive. Shane vs. Miz was confirmed for Mania, AJ vs. Orton was all but confirmed too, and the stage is set for Kofi to have another big night next week to earn the most important match of his career against Bryan at MetLife Stadium. In addition, the Orton-AJ segment was terrific, and the show-closing angle was very good as well. Interestingly, the segment hyping the match with the biggest buzz was underwhelming, while the rest of the content was acceptable enough. There are still some questions to be answered, but SmackDown is progressing nicely as it prepares its top matches for WrestleMania, with only three more episodes now separating the blue brand from the Showcase Of The Immortals.