Tuesday, WWE will pass an exit ramp to one of its least appealing main events in years. But I doubt Vince McMahon and co. will take it.
That night's edition of Smackdown will see WWE World Champion Jinder Mahal defend his title against AJ Styles, with the winner going on to represent the blue brand at Survivor Series against Raw's WWE Universal Champion: Brock Lesnar. It'll be the first champion vs. champion match since WWE's second brand split last summer.
So WWE could give us Lesnar vs. Styles, a match-up of former IWGP World Heavyweight Champions and simply two of the best, most dynamic and most innovative wrestlers ever. Or it could stay the course and give us Lesnar vs. Mahal, a match-up that — if you told fans it was the Survivor Series 2017 main event as recently as a year ago — would make them ask if McMahon had a stroke.
But, much as Styles may be the better, more interesting opponent, he probably won't win Tuesday. Mahal's reign since May has all the makings of a McMahon pet project, and it looks to be more about WWE Network numbers and mainstream appeal than star ratings and message board freak-outs. And McMahon probably saw Mahal's recent hero's welcome in India as a sign of its success.
Furthermore, the announcement of John Cena as the match's special referee all but seals Mahal as Lesnar's opponent. Considering Lesnar's collision course with Roman Reigns and Styles' recent feud with Cena, the only reason for the 16-time champion to wear stripes at Survivor Series is to start a feud with Mahal that would lead to a match at WrestleMania 34 in New Orleans.
And if that doesn't seal it, Smackdown being in England Tuesday just might. Given the time zone difference, the show will be taped while it's late afternoon stateside, and spoilers will spread quickly. WWE has delivered many memorable moments at these taped Raws and Smackdowns from across the pond, but epochal world title changes have not been one of them.
But I'll play devil's advocate and argue for a Styles win on Tuesday — starting with the fact Smackdown will be taped. Perhaps WWE will make the switch knowing spoilers will encourage viewership of the popular Styles' win, like when Tony Schavione's spoiler of Mick Foley's title win swung ratings to Raw that night. Perhaps Cena's involvement in the match has nothing to do with WrestleMania 34 and is simply about star power. And perhaps McMahon will want to protect Mahal from a loss to Lesnar by hot-shotting the title to Styles, then returning it after Survivor Series.
Perhaps. Or perhaps it's Styles whom WWE is protecting by keeping him out of the ring with Lesnar, whose uninspired matches with Samoa Joe and Braun Strowman were the work of a man who just wants to hit his suplexes and go home early. Or perhaps McMahon and WWE are once again getting your hopes up for the match you want to see while going with the one they want to see.