The weeks after WrestleMania are almost always a time of creative drought for WWE.
Having blown off most of its storylines at its biggest show of the year, the promotion tends to cruise until it starts building toward SummerSlam, its second biggest.
This year, however, WWE can't afford to cruise. Raw ratings are already
alarmingly low, and with Smackdown set to move to Fox in the fall, the promotion's return to network television could be ruined before it even begins. It could already be a matter of when, not if, Fox banishes the struggling show to one of its subsidiary channels.
So Vince McMahon has "shaken things up," as he's so fond of growling, with another superstar shuffle between the Raw, Smackdown and NXT rosters. He's even introduced a new "wild card" rule that allows a few superstars from Raw to appear on Smackdown each week, and vice versa. It's a transparent ploy to liven up each show with manufactured surprise. And, more often than not, those wild cards will surely be given to the names TV executives want to see on both shows, like Roman Reigns and Charlotte Flair. I don't see the B-Team pulling double-duty.
But there's a problem with the superstar shakeup and the wild card rule, and it's not just the fact that they make WWE's brand split pointless. It's that they don't really address the promotion's creative drought. Seeing wrestlers on the show they're not supposed to be on is a novelty, and once it fades — and it'll fade quickly — WWE will be back to square one.
On the Raw after WrestleMania, Sami Zayn returned to the hero's welcome one would expect for…
No, WWE needs to be creative the way it's traditionally been creative: storylines. And that's why next Sunday's Money in the Bank couldn't be happening at a more fortuitous time.
(Except for the fact the show will run against the series finale of HBO's "Game of Thrones," but that's neither here nor there.)
The Money in the Bank briefcase has long been one of WWE's most reliable storytelling tools. A wrestler having a briefcase that gives them an instant title shot, whenever they choose to use it, is rife with dramatic possibility. So when it comes to predicting which superstars will win this year's Money in the Bank matches, it's probably wisest to weigh which ones will maximize that possibility.
On the men's side, Drew McIntyre and Andrade stand out. I'd give the edge to Andrade because the brutish McIntyre really doesn't need the briefcase to complete his ascension to the main event. But Andrade, with both the briefcase and mouthpiece Zelina Vega in tow, would be a dynamic foil to Kofi Kingston, Reigns or whoever carries the WWE Championship into the Fox debut.
The women's side is even easier to pick. Natalya and Dana Brooke have no chance. Naomi, Bayley and Ember Moon have a slight one, but the briefcase is always much more fun in the hands of a heel. And Alexa Bliss and Carmella won the match the last two years. That leaves the scheming sexpot Mandy Rose the head-and-shoulders favorite. And as we've seen with Charlotte and now Lacey Evans, Becky Lynch has a lot of fun ripping blondes to shreds on the microphone. But I could see one way that doesn't happen: A returning Sasha Banks replacing someone (probably Brooke) and playing spoiler. Banks'
backstage issues aside, her channeling her real-life resentment at her place in the company into a program with Lynch could be terrific television, and certainly terrific wrestling.
Whoever claims the Money in the Bank briefcases this year, don't expect anyone to cash them in that night, as wrestlers have done often in recent years. WWE can't squander the opportunity.
Top 20 WWE matches of 2018
WWE United Kingdom Champion Pete Dunne vs. Kyle O'Reilly, NXT (June 13). I wanted to like this match more. Dunne might be my favorite performer in the whole company, and O'Reilly has won me over with his goofball side as part of The Undisputed Era. But his submission exchanges with Dunne in this match just feel like two guys showing off fanboy enthusiasm for MMA — I'm almost surprised they didn't call out the names of the holds as they hurried through them. The striking, and O'Reilly's work on Dunne's leg, felt just as perfunctory. But the Full Sail crowd loved it, and these two have such a high default setting that their match still snuck onto my list anyway.
Seth Rollins vs. Roman Reigns vs. John Cena vs. Elias vs. Finn Balor vs. The Miz vs. Braun Strowman, Raw (Feb. 19). Rollins started 2018 treading water after a Shield reunion and odd-couple tag team with Jason Jordan both ran aground due to injury. But his showing in this two-hour-long (!) gauntlet, in which he pinned both Reigns and Cena during his 65-minute (!!!) run, reasserted him as a centerpiece of Raw. And he's ridden that performance to impressive reigns with the Intercontinental Championship, though his fall feud with Dean Ambrose has struggled to deliver.
Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle vs. Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, WrestleMania 34. Like many of the WWE main roster's matches on this list, this mixed tag WrestleMania feature benefits from nearly perfect booking. It's a little long, sure. But its confrontations between Rousey and McMahon, as well as Rousey and Triple H, couldn't have been more compelling. The match also benefits from Rousey being a surprisingly natural pro wrestler, trash talking and throwing hands like she's been training five times as long as she has. In that sense, there was some poetry in her pairing with another preternatural talent in Angle.
Smackdown Women's Champion Charlotte Flair vs. Asuka, WrestleMania 34. This women's dream match makes the list in spite of itself. It has Charlotte making a show-stopping entrance and looking the most poised and queenly she has in her career, as well as some slick wrestling and striking with Asuka. But it ends far too abruptly, with the wrong person winning in Charlotte, and quickly cedes the stage to John Cena's dumb storyline with the Undertaker. Because of this match, Asuka would take awhile to recover, and fans would grow tired of Charlotte's superwoman treatment. But with Asuka winning the Smackdown Women's Championship in December and Charlotte finding a new level of intensity in the ring, both are thankfully in a better place at the start of 2019.
WWE Universal Champion Roman Reigns vs. Finn Balor, Raw (Aug. 20). Reigns' first match after finally dethroning Brock Lesnar for Raw's top championship was also his last great singles match before vacating that championship to resume treatment for his leukemia. He and Balor are just perfect dance partners: Reigns brings power and timing, Balor strikes and flying. There was no better first opponent for Reigns to set a new tone as Raw's first full-time Universal Champion in a year and a half. And hopefully he kicks his leukemia's ass so he can get back to having bangers like these every week.
The women's Royal Rumble match, Royal Rumble. If you didn't smile at least once during this match, you have to be dead inside. It made history with one terrific moment after another: Lita rocking #TimesUp gear, Kairi Sane's elbows, Beth Phoenix facing off with Nia Jax, Asuka crossing paths with recent rival Ember Moon only to make fun of her injured arm, Trish Stratus facing off with old foe Mickie James and hopeful new one Sasha Banks, and of course the debut of Ronda Rousey. I didn't need to see Kelly Kelly or Michelle McCool again, but otherwise, the first women's Royal Rumble could go down as its best.
NXT Champion Aleister Black vs. Tommaso Ciampa, NXT (July 25). The irredeemable Ciampa is the best heel in WWE in years. Pivoting him from his blood feud with Johnny Gargano to winning the NXT Championship read like Triple H rewarding him for that work. And Ciampa proved why he deserved the nod, having a nail-biting match with Black that put the championship not only around Ciampa's waist, but with its clever finish, at the center of his feud with Gargano. Also, leave it to Drake Younger to take his first ref bump on exposed cement.
Raw Women's Champion Ronda Rousey vs. Charlotte Flair, Survivor Series. Rousey hasn't just proven to be a gifted pro wrestler, she also brings to her matches the kind of big-fight unpredictability that fellow UFC champion Brock Lesnar does. And this match with Charlotte is anything but predictable, with the advantage frequently shifting through stiff grappling sequences and shows of raw power. Rousey just takes a beating, not only getting busted open during the match but getting brutalized by a kendo stick after Charlotte snaps in despair. Rousey could have sold the beating a little better — walking out after having her neck Pillmanized made her deserving of the boos — but everything else made the match a pleasant surprise.
Buddy Murphy vs. Mustafa Ali, 205 Live (July 3). Murphy and Hideo Itami have been establishing WWE's cruiserweight show as a place where floundering NXT prospects can revive their careers. Murphy has been especially revelatory, reinventing himself as a brawny "Juggernaut" with vicious power offense and the will to fly when needed. And this brutal no-disqualification match against the always dynamic Ali may be his best showcase of that range yet. Ali, for his part, is a phenomenal babyface with a likable presence and fun offense that's just the right amount of flash. It's no surprise he was the first "205 Live" wrestler to graduate to Raw or Smackdown, but Murphy could just as easily follow soon.
Meiko Satomura vs. Mercedes Martinez, Mae Young Classic. The best of the legendary Satormura's dream run in WWE's women's tournament saw her trade devastating strikes and snappy power moves with another veteran in Martinez. The offense was crisp, the near-falls nail-biting, and the respect for both women palpable as they neared the finish. It wasn't just the best match of the second annual tournament but one of its most important, showing WWE fans that the history of women's wrestling is much more than divas and the women's revolution — and much better.
WWE World Champion Daniel Bryan vs. AJ Styles, WWE TLC. Bryan's surprising heel turn in November didn't just give his character a refreshingly dark new direction. It allowed him to overhaul his offense by moving away from the high-risk dives that helped retire him in the first place. And against Styles at TLC, the best of their 2018 series, that new offense included vicious but grounded leg attacks to set up his heel hook. One even saw Bryan tell the referee he has a five-count, surely titillating Ring of Honor fans. In the end, though, it was a small package (another callback) that allowed Bryan to cleanly retain his championship and continue his thoroughly entertaining reign.
NXT Women's Champion Shayna Baszler vs. Kairi Sane, NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn IV. Sane may look diminutive next to the bully Baszler, but the Japanese star's outsize ferocity makes her such a fun opponent for the former mixed martial artist. This match, the best of their series, sees Sane go toe-to-toe with Baszler but outsmart her at the right moment, using her sharper instincts to escape a rear naked choke with the rollover pin Bret Hart made famous. Hopefully, by the end of 2019, these two meet again on the main roster.
NXT North American Champion Ricochet vs. WWE United Kingdom Champion Pete Dunne, NXT (Oct. 10). Though Ricochet is a flyer and Dunne a technician, they overlap enough to produce the kind of wrestling that makes styles clashes so fun. The biggest question was whether Ricochet would bring the aggression his aerial offense usually lacks, but he gamely answered Dunne's strikes with ones of his own. The match ending in a no contest due to interference from the Undisputed Era was disappointing, but with the winner-take-all stipulation, it's no shocker NXT wanted to keep gold around both men's waists.
WWE Universal Champion Brock Lesnar vs. WWE World Champion Daniel Bryan, Survivor Series. Bryan taking a double-digit number of German suplexes wasn't fun to watch, nor was Lesnar pulling the world champion up from a pin attempt before Bryan could muster any offense. But after the newly heel Bryan turned the tide with a kick in the groin, the match got awesome. Bryan leaving footprints on Lesnar's face and clubbing him with forearms to continue the LeBell Lock were highlights of a fantastic main event that found Lesnar raising his game for the first time since last year's Survivor Series classic against AJ Styles.
TLC match: Smackdown Women's Champion Becky Lynch vs. Charlotte Flair vs. Asuka, WWE TLC. Lynch was returning to the ring at the height of her popularity as "The Man," and Asuka finally won her first WWE championship, but this brutal TLC match was by and large Charlotte's show. The match started slow, with spots that required some waiting and obvious cooperation with each other. But midway through it got vicious. Charlotte sounded like she was legitimately dying after Lynch dropped a leg on her from the top of a ladder, and look on Charlotte's face after spearing Asuka through the guardrail was pure ferocity. I'm not in love with Lynch and Charlotte both facing Ronda Rousey at WrestleMania, but between the setup for that match at the end of this one, and Charlotte and Lynch's terrific work since the fall of 2018, they've both earned it.
Ladder match for the new NXT North American Championship: Ricochet vs. Velveteen Dream vs. EC3 vs. Lars Sullivan vs. Adam Cole vs. Killian Dain, NXT TakeOver: New Orleans. Monsters, flyers and dirtbags came together WrestleMania weekend to have one of the best multi-man ladder matches in WWE history. From Ricochet's graceful dives to Dain manhandling everyone in sight, the action was unbelievably varied. Even EC3 got to appear useful. And Cole, the opportunist with the most over crowd participation spot in the whole company, was the perfect one to crown the first NXT North American champion.
NXT Tag Team Champions Mustache Mountain vs. The Undisputed Era, NXT (July 11). A nuclear Full Sail audience was the perfect complement to this throwback tag team match, which saw Kyle O'Reilly and Roderick Strong annihilate the knee of Trent Seven in a way that would make the Andersons and the Midnight Express proud. The Undisputed Era often wrestle like showoffs, cycling through moves simply because they can, but here, their strikes and submissions had fiendish purpose. Seven, to his credit, sold each of them like instant death. And his partner, Tyler Bate, followed an explosive hot tag with some solidly acted anguish before throwing in the towel to save his partner's leg.
Unsanctioned match: Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa, NXT TakeOver: New Orleans. As hateful as it was long, this hellacious match between former friends also had maybe the best finish in NXT history. Like many, I thought Gargano would fall for Ciampa's attempt at a reconciliation, lose the match and move on to 205 Live. Instead, he avoided Ciampa's sucker punch, grabbed his knee brace and applied an STF with the device across Ciampa's face, a flash tapout that ended the match on a feel-good and deliriously exciting note. It figures the former partners' feud has only produced diminishing returns since.
WWE Smackdown Women's Champion Becky Lynch vs. Charlotte Flair, Evolution. Lynch and Flair just wrestled the hell out of this blowoff to their fall feud. As plunder matches go, it wasn't particularly imaginative, aside from Charlotte's use of a ladder to intensify her Figure Eight submission. But she and "The Man" found a way to convey their hatred for each other through every facet of the match, from their enthusiastic bumping to their emotive facial acting. The fact the match happened at Evolution, WWE's first all-woman special event, only underscored just how good, and how essential, those women have become.
NXT Champion Andrade "Cien" Almas vs. Johnny Gargano, NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia. Almas may be the most relentless wrestler in the company, and his act with Zelina Vega is certainly one of the best — despite their infrequent use these days on Smackdown. So "El Idolo" was the perfect opponent to deliver punishment to the nerdy everyman Gargano, whose expression just gets more and more faraway the longer this match goes. With fantastic striking, flying and submission wrestling, this match had it all, and both its ending and its epilogue was just devastating for fans of Gargano. It also began quite the arc for him in 2018.
Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or
email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.