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.
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10. NXT World Champion Bobby Roode vs. Shinsuke Nakamura, NXT TakeOver: Orlando. Roode's NXT Championship run has been almost as miraculous as it's been, yes, glorious. Two of the best examples are his overperforming pair of matches with Nakamura, who was all too prone to autopilot during his own reign. And with relentless old-school limb work and a nail-biter of a finish, the second match is the superior one.
9. Seth Rollins vs. The Miz vs. Finn Balor, Raw (May 2). The Miz is magic. Put him in a multi-man match and it overachieves (see: his fatal four-way against Cesaro, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn last year). This Raw main event was no exception, mixing the Intercontinental Champion's chickenshit ways with Balor and Rollins' athleticism to edge-of-your-seat effect.
8. Roman Reigns vs. Finn Balor, Raw (May 15). These two have a hell of a pay-per-view main event in them. Two of the slickest and best-looking wrestlers in WWE (in both senses of the word, if the signs they inspire are any indication), Reigns and Balor match up about as perfectly as the Big Dog did with AJ Styles. The commentary teased a fun story about Balor's technique making him as dangerous a striker as the more powerful Reigns, but I suppose we'll have to wait until that pay-per-view rubber match to get the whole thing.
7. Elimination Chamber: WWE World Champion John Cena vs. AJ Styles vs. Bray Wyatt vs. Baron Corbin vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. Dean Ambrose. It would end with a spectacularly crappy series against Randy Orton, but Wyatt's long-awaited first championship reign began rather well. He authoritatively pinned the two previous champions, Cena and Styles, in a match that also saw Corbin re-established as a legitimate upper-card threat.
6. Roman Reigns vs. Braun Strowman, Payback. Strowman's improbable growth into one of WWE's best acts owes much to Reigns, whose low regard among fans and terrific selling and timing abilities make him the big man's best possible wrestling dummy. Thank god he's not finished with Reigns yet.
5. WWE Universal Champion Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar, WrestleMania 33. "Elegant" is the last word one would associate with either of these brutes. But their third match was just that, stringing together a captivating series of their biggest bombs and nothing else. Everything worked perfectly, starting with the camera shot of Lesnar boasting about his opening salvo of three German suplexes, only for Goldberg to storm into the frame with a blindsiding spear. And the turning point of the match, Lesnar's spear-avoiding leapfrog, was so improbably athletic for a man of his size, it was almost nightmarish. Name a better match with only four moves.
4. WWE World Champion AJ Styles vs. John Cena, Royal Rumble. I wasn't hot on this match at first, as it felt too similar to their SummerSlam epic and, well, just about all of Cena's recent encounters with indie darlings like Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, etc. My second viewing was kinder to it, though. If nothing else, the match is great for Cena's two murderous lariats, the first that absolutely clobbers Styles and the second that barely misses him at full, uncompromising speed. It has the usual glut of 2.9 kickouts and despondent facial expressions, but Cena and Styles go all out giving the now-16-time champion perhaps his hardest-fought victory ever.
3. NXT Tag Team Champions The Authors of Pain vs. DIY vs. The Revival, NXT TakeOver: Orlando. The work in this triple threat is as crisp, fast-paced and creative as you'd expect given what the three teams bring to the table: The horror movie power of the Authors, the breakneck strikes and dives of DIY, and the scheming limb work and rule-bending of The Revival. What made this match so great, though, was the story of the two smaller teams trying to put aside their many, many differences and align against the champions, doing so with a battery of killer double-teams, and the monsters still standing tall in the end.
2. Last woman standing: NXT Women's Champion Asuka vs. Nikki Cross, NXT (June 27). From a character standpoint, you likely won't see a single better performance in WWE this year than Nikki Cross' against the dominant NXT Women's Champion. The Sanity member wrestled like someone truly out of her mind, smiling through a series of brutal kicks and weapon attacks and goading her opponent not to stay down so she could inflict more punishment of her own. Asuka obliged, dialing up her fluid viciousness to defend her championship in what may be her most epic WWE match yet.
1. WWE United Kingdom Champion Tyler Bate vs. Pete Dunne, NXT TakeOver: Chicago. Jim Ross isn't a great commentator. Between his Oklahoma cliches and his fixation on wrestlers' athletic histories, he can be a positively bad one. But I can't recall a match that's ever made Ross sound so inessential, so Mike Adamle, as Bate and Dunne's show stealer at TakeOver: Chicago. A thrilling fusion of hyper-technical European and heart-stopping independent U.S. styles, this match was its own pocket universe where no other titles and no other wrestlers mattered for 15 amazing minutes. Ross could only watch in awe right alongside us.
Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.