Just two days removed from the Royal Rumble, closing out a long weekend in Philadelphia in the very same building, Tuesday's episode of SmackDown Live set the tone for what's come over the next two months with what should ultimately be the top WrestleMania matches for the SmackDown roster.
We already knew one thing coming in, with Shinsuke Nakamura making his intentions to challenge for the WWE championship clear after winning the Royal Rumble. More specifically, Nakamura uttered just one thing in his post-Royal Rumble interview -- "AJ Styles."
Of course, there's the small issue of more than two months between now and WrestleMania 34, and Styles could lose the championship at Fastlane, a SmackDown-exclusive pay-per-view in March. But all signs point toward a match between the two -- a match that hardcore fans have been clamoring for that could ultimately become a career-defining moment for each of them.
In the meantime, a common enemy in Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn united them as a team, while underscoring a competitive edge and intensity between Styles and Nakamura that's sure to grow.
"At Royal Rumble. Sami Zayn: knee to the face," said Nakamura. "John Cena: knee to the face. Roman Reigns: knee to face. At WrestleMania, AJ Styles: Knee. Face. New WWE champion."
His eccentricities shined through in a backstage segment later in the show in which he teased Styles while blurring the lines between mind games and playful banter. The rapport between Styles and Nakamura has already begun to lay the groundwork for what's to come.
So who will Styles have to get through at Fastlane? Well, that tied into everything he and Nakamura faced, and everything that was laid upon Owens and Zayn throughout the show in a way that tied everything together. After a tough break of a referee's call at the Royal Rumble, Zayn and Owens were granted another shot at the WWE championship -- only one will have to take it from the other as they face off on next week's edition of SmackDown for the right to become the No. 1 contender.
After buddying up after the events of Hell in a Cell, the seeds of dissent between Owens and Zayn quickly germinated as they tried to talk through how everything might play out. Zayn needled Owens for taking the pinfall loss at the Rumble, while Owens pointed out that Zayn essentially wasted the Royal Rumble opportunity they essentially stole from Tye Dillinger.
It all spilled over into the tag team main event, as Zayn teased and then ultimately did abandon Owens to the wolves by walking out on his friend. Sure, it may have had something to do with his Mixed Match Challenge match that immediately followed SmackDown, but Zayn quickly pointed out it wasn't personal -- it was just a matter of looking out for himself in much the same way Owens was looking out for himself when he attacked Zayn the night he won the NXT championship a few years ago.
The history behind the friendship and rivalry between Owens and Zayn is as rich as any other in the WWE right now, and it far predates their WWE and NXT wars. If you take the best friends, to enemies, back to best friends story back to their days on the independents, it's last year's Owens-Chris Jericho feud times 100.
But that could be the issue with Owens. If we do indeed get an Owens vs. Zayn match at WrestleMania, rather than them patching things up, it has a very similar feel to Owens' match last year in Orlando. While the Owens-Zayn story as a whole deserves a top spot on the WrestleMania card, this chapter in their story hasn't been told as long or as well in this iteration as Owens-Jericho was last year.
Neither of the two won a world title, the way Owens and Jericho held the Universal and United States championships during their run together, despite multiple chances. It wasn't as long of a partnership, if we are indeed seeing the end of it, and it didn't feature the shocking turn, a la the Festival of Friendship. While Owens and Zayn deserve a one-on-one match on "The Grandest Stage of Them All," it might mean more if the two of them could stand side-by-side for a little longer, or have a little more time and distance from Owens vs. Jericho.
The biggest question of all lies in the uncertainty around where Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan stand, which could allow Owens and Zayn to re-forge their bond thanks to a mutual hatred. Before the Royal Rumble, it seemed like those two were going to butt heads as part of the Owens/Zayn vs. Styles feud, but the Rumble came and went without them getting involved in the match. In fact, they've barely interacted in recent weeks.
Next week's show will tell us a lot more, but it's clear that SmackDown is ready to roll out the heavy artillery for WrestleMania season -- it's just a matter of how they're going to use it.
DID @CarmellaWWE JUST CASH IN HER #MITB OPPORTUNITY?!?!? #SDLive @MsCharlotteWWE pic.twitter.com/Vl3ZWXWMsR
- WWE (@WWE) January 31, 2018
Hits and misses
After the Riott Squad ran roughshod over Charlotte Flair, Carmella tried to cash in her Money in the Bank briefcase but unintentionally dropkicked the referee. That was the first time in a while her briefcase came into play. The timing is odd, as she seems unlikely to be involved in the WrestleMania title picture. A cash-in before WrestleMania suggests it won't be successful, a very brief reign, or a dramatically different WrestleMania picture for the SmackDown women's division than what was teased with Ronda Rousey at the Rumble
I hope WWE gave a sizable raise to whoever is in charge of putting graphics on the screen. From "Rockstar" scrolling in size-128 font across the screen during Nakamura's entrance, to the animation of a jail door slamming shut as the Usos ran down their list of incarcerated tag teams, the graphics team put in some serious overtime. In a related story, could the folks on commentary or in creative be a little less in-your-face about the nicknames their trying to make stick for Nakamura, like and "The Artist Known as Shinsuke Nakamura" and Rockstar.
Just let us call him the "King of Strong Style", maybe?
The Usos continue to impress, and a matchup with The Bludgeon Brothers seems inevitable. The first tease of such a match came when they crossed paths on the ramp between an Usos promo and a Bludgeon Brothers tag team squash match. Is it a WrestleMania match, or for Fastlane? The Usos have been in five WrestleManias, each time on the preshow. Their work this year is deserving of a spot on the main card. I wouldn't mind another chapter in their feud with The New Day either, if they got there the right way.
While every day is Rusev Day, Tuesday was an especially important Rusev Day as Rusev defeated Kofi Kingston, Jinder Mahal and Zack Ryder to become the new No. 1 contender to Bobby Roode's United States championship. He'll get his shot next week.
Daniel Bryan is starting a SmackDown Top 10 list. While all the tweaks to this week's show may have not been your favorites, there's some credit due for taking creative chances to give SmackDown a different feel from Raw.