COLUMBUS, OH, USA—We’re finally down to the last PPV before WrestleMania 34. After this, it’s being reported that the brand-exclusive PPVs will be retired (once again), leading us back to PPV events featuring both RAW and SmackDown. I’ll save my analysis of that for another column.
The biggest focus of this year’s Fastlane (now exclusive to the SmackDown Live brand after they traded events following WrestleMania 33) is the gargantuan six-pack challenge for AJ Styles’s WWE Championship. What started out as an organic triple threat match with Styles, Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens after the Royal Rumble—a continuation of their big storyline involving SmackDown authority figures Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan—turned into a fatal five-way including Baron Corbin and Dolph Ziggler. Everything was rounded out with the addition of John Cena last week, presumably to punch up the main event’s star power.
It’s a clear band-aid boost to revive falling numbers, but the SmackDown creative team only has themselves to blame for it. In general, SmackDown used to handle their sprawling narrative pretty well, but the latest one with Styles, Owens, Zayn, McMahon, and Bryan meandered for so long that people are starting to get restless. Things fired back up after Zayn hit Owens with the Helluva Kick in this week’s episode, but I’m not sure how they’re going to follow up on it—if they will follow it up at all.
Because of SmackDown’s relatively limited two-hour format, however, a lot of the Fastlane card is a little half-baked. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Rusev is a throwaway match meant to keep the Royal Rumble winner in action, and was only decided up on after a quick two-week build. Becky Lynch and Naomi vs. Natalya and Carmella was only created in this week’s episode. There isn’t even an announced pre-show match yet. The Blue Brand is definitely trailing when it comes to resources to build their show.
The biggest implication of the main event, however, is the WWE Championship match at WrestleMania 34, in which Shinsuke Nakamura is already a penciled-in participant. The stories surrounding the Fastlane main event involve Styles wanting to repeat their Wrestle Kingdom 10 performance in the WWE, while Dolph Ziggler wants to spoil everyone’s fantasies of that match. I’m not really feeling any other matchup besides Nakamura vs. Styles, and the six-pack challenge is at least a good way to throw in some reasonable doubt there.
Jinder Mahal vs. Zack Ryder or Tye Dillinger in a kickoff match
I’m just predicting a preshow match here, because there’s gotta be one. And the best way to spend it is to build up the odd man out in the United States Championship story. It’s either a Jinder Mahal match, really, or a Bludgeon Brothers match—anything to retain both parties’ momentum heading into WrestleMania.
Winner: Jinder Mahal
Becky Lynch and Naomi vs. Natalya and Carmella
This could realistically go either way: we could get a throwaway feel-good win by having the good girls win, or we could build up Ms. Money in the Bank by throwing Natalya and Carmella a win. Let’s go by pro wrestling logic—because Becky Lynch beat Carmella this week on SmackDown, it should probably follow that Natalya and Carmella will steal a win here.
Winner: Natalya and Carmella
Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Rusev (with Aiden English)
This is clearly meant to be a puffer win for the Royal Rumble winner Nakamura as he heads into WrestleMania, but I do hope they’re given at least 10 minutes to work with. I can imagine this match being in the running to steal the show, as Rusev should inspire Nakamura to pull out a solid one.
Winner: Shinsuke Nakamura
Randy Orton vs. Bobby Roode (c) for the WWE United States Championship
Two things: either Orton wins, or Mahal costs Orton the win. I’m thinking the Modern Day Maharajah gets involved as he has been doing so over the past month, so they all get into it at WrestleMania.
Winner: Bobby Roode
Ruby Riott (with Liv Morgan and Sarah Logan) vs. Charlotte Flair (c) for the SmackDown Women’s Championship
Interestingly, I think Flair retains in order to take on Asuka for the title at WrestleMania. To the best of my knowledge, Asuka hasn’t yet chosen an opponent after her Royal Rumble win. Because there’s really no other compelling woman on the SmackDown Live roster (they’ve done a terrible job of building on the post-WWE Draft work on the women, especially after RAW got Alexa Bliss) it’s most likely to happen.
Winner: Charlotte Flair
The New Day vs. The Usos (c) for the SmackDown Tag Team Championship
Going back once again to the well for SmackDown’s tag team titles, I’m actually disappointed they’re recycling this given how low-key robust the division is, even though it’s the technically the best matchup they can give us. I’m convinced, however, that the only reason they’re doing this is to give New Day the titles back and reopen the division to new credible challengers; namely, the Bludgeon Brothers. Or everyone else, really.
Winner: The New Day (new SmackDown Tag Team Champions)
John Cena vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. Baron Corbin vs. Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens vs. AJ Styles (c) in a Six-Pack Challenge for the WWE Championship
The problem with the PPVs before WrestleMania is that they’re generally just there to reinforce the status quo. Rare is the world championship that changes hands a month before WrestleMania; the only example that comes to mind, really, is Eddie Guerrero beating Brock Lesnar at No Way Out 2004, or Goldberg beating Kevin Owens at Fastlane last year. So because everyone knows that, they threw AJ Styles in with five other guys to stack the odds and make it look like he won’t be going to WrestleMania.
But he has to, anyway. It’s the only way, because no one’s going to settle for less than AJ Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura. And we all know that’s what’s gonna happen. I just hope Shane McMahon vs. Daniel Bryan develops even further after this.
Winner: AJ Styles
Who do you have for Fastlane this Monday (Manila time)? Let’s talk about it!
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