With Wrestlemania in New Orleans little more than a month away, WWE storylines start to shape the card.
This week, the WWE worked hard to sell the idea that John Cena, one of its biggest superstars—one of the few performers to affect ratings despite “Cena Sucks!” chants—might miss Wrestlemania. He lost the Royal Rumble and Elimination Chamber matches, so at the start of the week, he was officially matchless for Wrestlemania when it returns to New Orleans April 8. Nevermind that he’s front and center in the advance PR art for Wrestlemania—on Monday, he pitched the idea of facing The Undertaker, announced that the idea got nixed backstage, so he said he was going to Smackdown Live to find his route to “the grandest stage of them all,” as we were reminded regularly on Raw and Smackdown Live this week.
On Smackdown, Cena announced that he wanted in the fatal five-way between WWE Champion A.J. Styles, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Baron Corbin, and Dolph Ziggler, and remarkably, Shane McMahon thought this was a good idea. There was a time when McMahon was concerned that Smackdown GM Daniel Bryan wasn’t doing right by Styles, but in the last two weeks, McMahon added three people to Styles’ title defense of “Fastlane”—the last pay-per-view before Wrestlemania—thus increasing the odds that the title could change hands without him being a part of the pin. Styles will be because he could have the kind of match with Shinsuke Nakamura at Wrestlemania that could finally put Nakamura over as one of the WWE’s most exciting performers. Cena would give Nakamura, who won his way to Wrestlemania at the Royal Rumble, a very different, less dynamic match.
Bryan made Cena earn his way into the title match by beating Styles—which he did—but his more probable route to Wrestlemania is rumored to be The Undertaker. Roman Reigns’ win over The Undertaker last year at Wrestlemania did a lot to damage Reigns’ reputation with fans, and its easy to imagine Cena giving The Undertaker a good match and taking the loss to put him over one last time.
Reigns was scheduled to meet Brock Lesnar for a promo battle Monday night on Raw, but Lesnar no-showed. The two are scheduled to main event Wrestlemania, and Lesnar’s absence gave Reigns the opportunity and reason to be himself on the mic, and like most of his promos leading up to his match with Cena at “No Mercy,” he showed personality his standard tough guy routine masks. On Sunday before the “Elimination Chamber” pay-per-view, UFC owner Dana White posted a photo on his Instagram feed of himself with Lesnar in a UFC T-shirt, and that fueled the on-screen speculation that Lesnar had hung out in Las Vegas with the MMA crowd instead of his WWE brethren, and that he was turning his back on wrestling. In fact, Lesnar’s contract with the WWE ends after Wrestlemania, so Reigns is expected to beat him for the belt, after which Lesnar will likely return to UFC and resume his MMA career.
That photo and Lesnar’s absence Monday night gave Reigns the chance to portray himself as a wrestling lifer who grew up in the business. His father was one half of The Wild Samoans, and he is a cousin of Yokozuna and Rikishi. Since the knock on Reigns has always been that he didn’t deserve the push he got from the WWE front office when he quickly ascended to main event status, an opportunity to position Reigns as a wrestling true believer against an opportunist like Lesnar could help improve Reigns’ standing with the fans.
It will be interesting to see how the build to this match progresses. When Reigns gets to be himself in promos and not a generic tough guy, he’s much better than the haters give him credit for. According to Justin Barrasso’s story in Sports Illustrated, Lesnar has already given the WWE all the days he was contracted to give, and he is more interested in his next contract—possibly with UFC—than being a sweetheart for the one that’s ending. Monday night, people wondered if Lesnar’s absence was a shoot, but his “advocate” Paul Heyman was likely backstage and could have gone out to rep Lesnar in the spot. He’ll likely end up doing that a few times in the next month as is, but it’s more likely that when the WWE learned that Lesnar didn’t plan to be there, they let the moment look like Lesnar blew off wrestling for MMA and gave Reigns an opportunity for what sounded like a shoot promo, which put him more over with the Anaheim crowd than he usually is.
Smackdown Live still has to deal with “Fastlane” in two weeks, but WWE television is really all about Wrestlemania now. During the two-hour Smackdown show, the camera got the Wrestlemania logo hanging from the rafters into the shot in its entirety 32 times—almost once every three and half minutes. To be fair, at least 10 of those were in the Cena/Styles match, three of those were during an Usos promo, and one was in a replay. The archetypal pre-Wrestlemania pose is to stand and point dramatically at the Wrestlemania sign, and that happened seven times on Tuesday night. All three members of The New Day pointed at it at the same time, and Cena would have pointed at it twice during his match with Styles if his hands hadn’t been busy. Instead, he stopped to look longingly over his shoulder at the sign while grinding the prone Styles into the mat.
The next month will fill out a Wrestlemania card that needs to be fleshed out. We know it will feature Reigns vs. Lesnar, and unless there’s an upset at “Fastlane,” Styles vs. Nakamura. On Monday night, The Miz faced Seth Rollins and Finn Balor in back to back matches, and the rumor is that those three along with Elias and Braun Strowman will complete for the Intercontinental title. Ronda Rousey will make her in-ring debut likely in a tag team match with her and Kurt Angle (likely) against Stephanie McMahon and Triple H. On Smackdown Live, The Usos and The New Day cut promos in the ring to preview their “Fastlane” match when The Bludgeon Brothers entered the ring. That likely points to a three-way match between those teams at Wrestlemania.
Asuka earned a Wrestlemania match by winning the Women’s Royal Rumble, but she hasn’t announced who she’ll face yet. Since she’s on Raw, a match against Alexa Bliss and maybe Nia Jax seems logical, but the women’s division on Smackdown Live hasn’t put much meaningful opposition up against Charlotte Flair, so perhaps Asuka will pull a swerve and choose a match with Flair. Flair’s more credible competition for Asuka, and her current program with the Riott Squad is reaching what I hope will be a stopping point because it’s just not that interesting. Ruby Riott is the best of the bunch, and she has yet to give Flair a memorable challenge. I expect Asuka to stay focused on Raw and Bliss, but Asuka would shake up a Smackdown women’s division that needs a shaking. I think a handicap match of some kind between Flair and the Riott Squad seems more probable. It could end with a hard-fought win for Flair, after which Carmella could cash in her Money in the Bank briefcase, pin Flair and become the Smackdown Live women’s champion.
“Woken” Matt Hardy has proposed “The Ultimate Deletion” as another chapter in his feud no one has cared about with Bray Wyatt. The only way this makes any sense is if it leads to something as brilliantly insane as "The Final Deletion," then the whole sad feud will have been worth it. A Hardy tweet points in that direction: “I absolutely CRAVE the opportunity to go to WAR with you once AGEEN. For the COMPLETION of the DELETION of ABIGAIL. HOWEVAH, it shall only be on MY terms. On MY Battlefield.” Such a match could also see the return of Jeff Hardy as Brother Nero.
Bayley and Sasha Banks have finally quit being besties, and if that develops into a feud, it could qualify for a Wrestlemania match, but with two others on the card—I assume something with Bliss and something with Flair—it’s not clear that there will be room for a third women’s singles match. Maybe a pre-card match, or the feud around which a bigger match is made.