Ever have one of those days when so much is going on, yet at the same time, nothing is really happening? That's what Tuesday's go-home edition of SmackDown felt like for most of the night. Everyone jawed at one another, making promises that they would be the one to come out of the Fastlane pay-per-view victorious and head to WrestleMania with all of the momentum. A couple of matches were added to the card and a few parting shots were delivered.
Everything was pretty much as formulaic as you would have expected -- until a last-minute swerve that might have changed the dynamic of Sunday's six-man battle for the WWE championship.
On Tuesday, in a five-man maelstrom involving all the competitors in the upcoming Fastlane match (sans John Cena) duking it out to close the show, Sami Zayn revealed his true motivation. Amid the punches, superkicks, sidekicks and other pugilistic poundings, Zayn -- who had promised Kevin Owens he'd lie down in the middle of the ring Sunday, essentially handing KO the title -- Helluva kicked his "best friend" then pinned Owens for the win.
Who saw that coming? Was Zayn's sidekick shtick a ruse all along?
In an interview on his way back to the locker room, an animated Zayn roared that he is the most underlooked performer in the WWE and that he deserves his opportunity. Owens, with his mouth agape and eyes hopelessly glaring down the ramp, could not believe what just happened.
We've criticized SmackDown for its lack of creativity in recent weeks, and while the show was still by and large little more than a pep rally to get us amped for Sunday, that one moment added another dimension to an already crowded set of narratives in play.
It took some time to get there Tuesday. The scheduled finale was supposed to be AJ Styles against Dolph Ziggler. But after an intense verbal spar, they began their match earlier in the night. Back and forth they went in a well-executed, high-pace affair until Owens and Zayn interfered, abruptly stopping the match.
But Shane McMahon, as he and/or Daniel Bryan tends to do every week, emerged from the backstage area and demanded that not only will the match continue, but it would also be a souped-up five-person brouhaha between the two original performers, along with Owens, Zayn and Baron Corbin.
While the conceit was along the lines of what you'd expect, the ending had a clever twist in Zayn's U-turn -- the kind of twist you'd expect in a pay-per-view event. A well-played decision from the SmackDown creative team, even if neither Zayn nor Owens is likely to emerge as champion come Sunday.
Despite Zayn's antics and now-obvious ambitions, there's little to suggest Styles won't overcome the odds and walk away with his belt. The anticipation between he and Shinsuke Nakamura at WrestleMania is too great at this point. Anything else seems anticlimactic.
"I want you, Shinsuke," Styles said in the ring before his matches Tuesday.
Lost amid the eventual anarchy was the smooth in-ring chemistry between Styles and Diggler, not to mention their impassioned words before they took one swing at each other. There were some real-life zingers reminiscent of Cena and The Miz in recent months or Roman Reigns' verbal beatdown of Brock Lesnar last week.
Ziggler wondered aloud what has happened to Styles. "You used to be cool. You're not phenomenal anymore. Now you're just desperate."
Styles wasted no time retorting. "This from a guy who's been in the WWE for 13 years and still [can't find] his potential."
Back and forth they went. Ziggler begrudged the idea that he -- the self-proclaimed greatest performer in the business -- has never had a one-on-one match at WrestleMania.
He has a point. He's still one of the brightest talents on the roster. It's too bad he and Styles could not finish what they started, instead giving way for a go-home show trying to add value, when in reality it wasn't. Until Sami Zayn did his thing.
#SDLive #WomensChampion @MsCharlotteWWE has to be TRANSCENDENT to be successful, but @RubyRiottWWE remains confident that she will DESTROY the myth at #WWEFastlane... pic.twitter.com/IsmZtxBaGV
- WWE (@WWE) March 7, 2018
Flair, Riott getting serious for Sunday's battle
Sunday's Fastlane pay-per-view is a big step up for Ruby Riott, who will have both her first one-on-one pay-per-view match and first SmackDown women's championship match at once against Charlotte Flair. She opened the show by directly addressing her motivation for bringing her trio up against the champ. It all began on Nov. 14, 2017, when Flair won the SmackDown women's championship. Riott said her enemy had it made in this business because she is the daughter of a two-time WWE Hall-of-Famer and labeled Charlotte's aura as a myth. So what if Flair had become the first and only woman to win the NXT, Divas, Raw and SmackDown women's championships? She was still a myth, and Riott wanted to destroy it.
Flair was having none of it. "I had to work harder than anyone because of who I am," she said. "When I fail, it's magnified. I can't just be successful -- I need to be transcendent."
Hard to argue with that. But this was a moment that could prove to be important. For the first time since Riott and her Squad leaped to the main roster, we got something more than ho-hum threats and ambitions or a three-on-one attack. Riott told us a story. Though it seems unlikely that she will win Sunday at Fastlane, Riott walked away from this edition of SmackDown with a clearer picture of an identity, which should serve her well moving forward. And Sunday's match should do more of the same.
Hits & misses
Nakamura finally has a Fastlane foe. Turns out Rusev does as well. The two will square off Sunday in a battle between the ultimate babyface and the most beloved heel on the planet. I don't typically root for interference and matches with an underhanded outcome, but here's hoping Rusev doesn't get buried again for the sole purpose of elevating Nakamura ahead of WrestleMania. It seems like a weekly plea, but please let Rusev build off his newfound fame. Perhaps English will intervene and allow Rusev to escape with his hands held high.
By the way, Nakamura has some pretty decent pipes, huh? Who knew?
Sounds like @ShinsukeN is planning to turn #WWEFastlane into... #NakamuraDay!#SDLive @RusevBUL @WWEDramaKing pic.twitter.com/outk2etmmo
- WWE (@WWE) March 7, 2018
One final match was added to the Fastlane card, as Becky Lynch and Naomi will team up to take on Natalya and Carmella. While there is little appeal to another tag-team match just for the sake of getting everyone involved, there are a couple of things in play. Carmella still has not cashed in her Money in the Bank briefcase, and Natalya said she wants the winner between Flair and Riott at WrestleMania. Will either happen? Safe to say the latter is more than unlikely. So if Natalya isn't an option, who will Charlotte face? As my colleague Tim Fiorvanti wrote, it seems more and more likely that Asuka, the women's Royal Rumble winner, could make the leap to Tuesday nights and square off against Flair in New Orleans. Seems like the perfect opportunity for Carmella to finally cash in, no?
Randy Orton and Jinder Mahal went at it again, this time with nothing at stake. Of course, Orton's opponent at Fastlane, Bobby Roode, was at ringside -- and after Orton launched Mahal into the U.S. champ, Roode ultimately distracted Orton, costing him the win. Does Mahal step into the U.S. title picture Sunday? What's the play here? Not many believe Orton will leave Fastlane with the title, but I am going to go out on a limb and predict he does. Wouldn't that be the perfect opportunity for Orton and Cena to reignite an old, all-time great rivalry and challenge Orton to a WrestleMania battle with gold on the line?