Less than two weeks to go until WrestleMania 35, and Daniel Bryan still didn’t have a confirmed challenger for the WWE Championship. Kofi Kingston’s quest to get to Mania has been handed many hurdles, and having defeated five competitors in a Gauntlet match last week, an impromptu bout with Bryan saw him lose to the dismay of almost everybody watching. How would he and The New Day react to this, and could they find a way to still get Kingston to Mania?
The New Day Promo
As expected, The New Day opened the show with a promo. After paying homage to Lance Storm (Xavier Woods saying “If we could be serious for a minute”), they noted how stacked the odds had been against Kofi, and how New Day themselves had gone from the early days of New Day Sucks to New Day Rocks, all while delivering the Power Of Positivity. But their disgust at Vince McMahon’s recent treatment of Kofi had led them to consider quitting WWE, so to discuss the matter, they requested that Vince himself come out. That he did, though Daniel Bryan (backed up by Rowan) interrupted to say his piece. Namely, that Kofi had lost every opportunity he had been given, that he was a B+ Player, and that New Day themselves were a “stale nostalgia act”, suggesting that he could recruit a few NXT guys to form a new version called Fresh Afternoon, which made me laugh. If anything, this only riled up Vince, who also claimed that New Day didn’t have it in them to quit. He then proposed an alternative: in his mind, Kofi shouldn’t receive the chance to earn a Mania shot again, but Big E and Xavier could do so on his behalf, so long as they won a Tag Team Gauntlet on this very night.
Backstage, Becky Lynch had begun noting how Charlotte Flair didn’t deserve to be in the Raw Women’s Championship Match at Mania, only for Flair to come to the ring and say that she was about to prove why she was worthy of that opportunity.
SmackDown Women’s Championship Match
Asuka (C) vs. Charlotte Flair
Only during the ring announcements by Greg Hamilton did we (and the shocked commentary team) learn that Asuka’s title would be defended here. Bearing in mind that we were supposed to have a four-way between Carmella, Naomi, Sonya Deville and Mandy Rose to determine Asuka’s challenger at Mania, this was quite the surprise. The match itself was very good; only a small notch below the fantastic battle they had at WrestleMania 34. Charlotte pulling out a Spanish Fly off the ropes again was unexpected, and considering the risk involved in the move, she took quite a chance doing this so close to this year’s supershow. Asuka almost had Charlotte beaten with the Asuka Lock, but Flair stayed in the fight and locked the Empress in the Figure-Eight, to which Asuka submitted, crowning Charlotte as the new SmackDown Women’s Champion! Fans looked stunned, and it was later revealed that both the Raw and SmackDown Women’s Championships would now be on the line in the Flair vs. Lunch vs. Ronda Rousey showdown at Mania.
I really liked this booking swerve (bro). Let’s face it, whomever Asuka had faced, her match would have been greatly overshadowed, to the point where it might not have made it to the main card, all through no fault of her own. And she either would have crushed her opponent, lost to someone that fans would have deemed in some way inferior, or it would have been a routine defence that hardly anybody would have remembered after the bell. Instead, WWE have found a way to make the already-significant three-way clash between Ronda, Charlotte and Becky even bigger, enhancing its status as the WrestleMania main event. Asuka and pals will likely now participate in another women’s battle royal, which could potentially have a future title shot at stake. This also means that whoever triumphs next Sunday (cough cough Becky) will raise two titles instead of one. All in all, an unexpected diversion, but one that makes perfect sense. Well, except for the lack of explanation as to why Flair got a shot here.
Kurt Angle vs. AJ Styles
As Charlotte left, Kurt Angle wandered out (can’t anybody allow Charlotte to celebrate in peace when she defeats Asuka?) to continue his farewell tour, this time against AJ Styles, who proclaimed that this would be no exhibition contest. As it turned out, they only battled for little over a minute, with a few submission lock-ins leading to Randy Orton interfering with an RKO to AJ. Kurt caught The Viper with an Angle Slam, and he helped Styles up as the two remained buddies. And that was that. This was presumably truncated after Angle had struggled against Samoa Joe on Raw, which leads you to wonder if Kurt’s last match against Baron Corbin will be a near-squash. It seems probable right now.
The Miz Promo
The Miz came out to discuss Shane McMahon. Unlike last week, where he had a face like death, here Miz was the smirky babyface that he had been in 2013. But he still harboured anger towards Shane O Mac, and challenged him to make their WM contest a Falls Count Anywhere match. Shane came out, but only after introducing six security guards and a few SmackDown wrestlers to serve as back-up; namely, Primo, Shelton Benjamin and Sanity. Shane agreed to the stipulation, but only after noting how euphoric it was to destroy Miz and humiliate his dad at Fast Lane. He even suggested that his dad should be punished for impregnating his wife with Mike Mizanin, which ticked Miz off no end. He charged outside, battling through security and swatting away Primo and Benjamin. Sanity pounced, allowing Shane to escape, but Miz managed to take out Eric Young, Alexander Wolfe and Killian Dain in a brawl that ended up in the crowd. The feud rolls on, and no doubt we’ll get a crazy fight between Miz and Shane at MetLife Stadium.
A pre-taped selfie promo allowed The IIconics to celebrate that they were part of the Women’s Tag Team Title match at Mania. If you were a first-time viewer, you’d never have known from this that Billie Kay and Peyton Royce are heels.
The New Day Run The Gauntlet
There was a sense of deja vu with our main event. Big E and Xavier Woods were about to run the gauntlet on Kofi Kingston’s behalf, and this time it was Kofi, surrounded by SD’s babyfaces, who watched on backstage, and increasing in number as the bout rolled on (this included Asuka, who didn’t look at all bothered that she had just lost a title and her Mania opportunity). First up were Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson, and as fast as you could say “Too Sweet”, they were eliminated with Up Up Down Down (formerly the Midnight Hour). Next up were Rusev and Shinsuke Nakamura, who enjoyed more offence against E and Woods (which included Nakamura executing Bad Vibrations while making a ridiculous yet hilarious quivering noise). Still, there was no chance that New Day would fall at this stage, and it was Shinsuke who succumbed to UUDD.
The Bar, a common thorn in Kofi’s side as of late, were the third opponents for New Day, and they certainly gave Big and Xavier a hard time. Nevertheless, if Cesaro and Sheamus couldn’t beat Kofi consecutively, they were unlikely to defeat New Day as a unit here, and so it proved as Xavier rolled up Sheamus to eliminate him. But The Bar weren’t finished, as they pummelled New Day and drove Big E through a table. The Usos, who have a storied history with New Day, were out to pick the bones, or so they would have if they remained heels. As babyfaces who were cheering on Kingston last week, they knew that they couldn’t bring themselves to do it, and so they forfeited their spot.
This enraged Daniel Bryan and Rowan backstage, who served as the final obstacle. And it looked like they may have been able to succeed, with Bryan unleashing wicked strikes while Rowan ran roughshod in the manner that one would expect from a big hoss. With Kofi’s WrestleMania dream at stake, though, it would take an enormous effort to defeat E and Woods on this night. And that didn’t happen, because New Day found a route to victory via unlikely means: Big E sent Rowan flying over the announcer’s table, then tipped the desk onto him, allowing ND to triumph via countout. I thought there may have been one last swerve, but it wasn’t to be: Kofi was now officially facing Bryan for the WWE Title at WrestleMania, as per Vince’s comments after the match, and the trio celebrated in the ring, backed up by babyfaces, referees and even Byron Saxton.
They’ve done a terrific job of promoting Kofi as the underdog challenger, and let’s not forget that he wasn’t even in the minds of anybody as a potential contender for the WWE Title, at any point in the future, as recently as seven weeks ago. It may not have been the original plan, but once WWE realised that Kofi was getting over big-time as a possible opponent to Bryan, they have built his campaign up extremely well. I would say that, in hindsight, Kofi may as well have just earned his Mania match last week, but perhaps there’s a deeper meaning to having New Day earn the shot for him. Bryan can still argue (as he has several times) that Kofi has failed in his big opportunities as of late, and it also may lay the groundwork for one member of New Day (likely Big E) to eventually grow resentful and lash out beyond Mania season. At this point, the story must surely end with Kofi snatching the gold from Bryan, but we’ll have to wait and see.
This was a very good episode of SmackDown, and superior to Raw the previous night. Charlotte becoming an eight-time women’s titleholder was a big surprise but a logical one, and Kofi finally has his date with destiny against Bryan on April 7. Little else happened, but this was all enough to carry the programme, and right now SmackDown is marching into WrestleMania in pretty good shape. Only one more episode of SD now separates us from the Showcase Of The Immortals.