Finally, the long, winding expressway that took us from Backlash through weeks and weeks of build-up is about to culminate Sunday at Money in the Bank.
The 42-day stretch is the longest between pay-per-views this year, a spell that has often seemed as lingering as it has been anticipatory. For weeks, the WWE has pieced together one of the biggest events of the year. But because of the wait, the recent fallouts have largely felt eminently familiar, if not just formulaic.
But Tuesday night on SmackDown Live, though it added little storyline advancement to MITB, the overall show was one of the better all-around performances the WWE has seen in a while. As a matter of fact, it was strong enough that we might very well look back on the week that was and earmark these two hours as the best of the past seven days.
We got three high-end, first-time matches on the card: Shelton Benjamin-Daniel Bryan, Jeff Hardy-Shinsuke Nakamura and Rusev-Samoa Joe. Then, in the main event, there was a 10- woman tag team match, which according to the broadcast was the largest ever on SmackDown.
Feels a little pay-per-view-worthy, no?
All three of these bouts featured performers who had instant chemistry. True, only one ended without controversy, but with the hourglass nearly empty as Money in the Bank approaches, it was expected that the creative team would do its best to keep its main attractions on equal footing.
But seriously, did we get Rusev-Samoa Joe in what was ostensibly a throwaway show? It goes without saying that these are two large, eminently intense dudes who engage audiences week in, week out. To add a twist The Miz, who will join them in the field of eight for the men's Money in the Bank ladder match Sunday, was designated as the special quest referee by general manager Paige, a decision that pretty much guaranteed some semblance of disarray even before the competitors walked down the aisle.
From the outset, Joe and Rusev went at each other; unlike The Miz, neither dances around looking for a deceptive advantage. But something had to go awry. As Joe locked in a Coquina Clutch on Rusev, Aiden English distracted The Miz long enough for Rusev to escape. Joe took his frustrations out on The Miz, who in retaliation refused to count when Joe had Rusev lying flat on the mat again. From there, Rusev rebounded, struck Joe with a superkick and The Miz fast-counted to three. Chaos, yes. A harbinger for more encounters between Rusev and Joe? Let's hope so. They even folded The New Day into the story when Miz retrieved the briefcase, brought it over to Byron Saxton and discovered it was filled with pancakes.
Earlier in the night, Bryan got the fans out of their seats with a spirited battle of technical stalwarts, as he faced off with Benjamin. For Benjamin, sadly, he has more or less been relegated to stepping-stone material. That's too bad, because he, far more than a project like Big Cass, is worthy of filling up some pay-per-view real estate.
There's no shot Bryan was going to come up short in this match, save for the possibility Big Cass interfering. The match allowed for a few memorable spots from Benjamin first, though, including an incredible superplex that left Bryan stunned.
Ultimately, Bryan caught Benjamin in a Yes Lock that wore him down, followed by a Heel Hook, which was too much for Benjamin, who tapped out.
This match came with absolutely zero build between the two men, but it reminded us that it doesn't really matter, so long as the competitors put on a solid show and tell a story inside the ring. Isn't that the way it should go? Just saying, Sami Zayn and Bobby Lashley -- and you, too, Bryan and Cass. Put the mic down and get back in the ring.
Not to be outdone, Hardy and Nakamura squared off in a short match that ended, shockingly, when Nakamura struck Hardy with a low blow -- a flagrant reminder of what AJ Styles can expect in a few days' time.
But again, like the other first-time matchups Tuesday night, there was a lot of potential between Hardy and Nakamura to engage in a feud down the line, perhaps even for the United States championship under the right circumstances.
After all these weeks, it's nearly Money in the Bank time. Now let's just hope it's as entertaining as Tuesday's episode of SmackDown was to watch.
Asuka plays the leading woman ... for now
We're accustomed to seeing nearly every relevant woman on the roster in the ring at once, particularly on SmackDown over the last year.
Unfortunately, this match showed the clear delineation between the flourishing stars and those who can't seem to gain much traction. Charlotte Flair, Naomi, Becky Lynch and, yes, even Lana have been on a decent trajectory, and you can kind of make the case any of them could walk away from Sunday with a briefcase in tow.
And then there's Asuka, who might just walk away with the belt come Money in the Bank.
But as for the former Absolution members and The IIconics, there just isn't anyone who stood out -- once again highlighting one of SmackDown's biggest weaknesses, in that there's little semblance of a bona fide top heel in the women's division outside of Carmella.
And even she hardly feels like she could carry the Tuesday night torch as champion for an extended time.
In the end, Asuka forced Carmella to tap, giving the all-MITB team the win. Was it a prelude to Sunday? All indications would seem to suggest the title will flip, but if the WWE creative is thinking long-term plans and character building, an upset and successful title defense by Carmella would serve everyone.
Hits & misses
In an effort to make AJ Styles seem like he had any relevance to Tuesday's show, Memphis legend Jerry "The King" Lawler made a surprise appearance to interview the champ in the latter's hometown. Granted, it was more or less an underwhelming couple of minutes with Styles only saying he "was sorry he did not knock off [Nakamura's] head with my fists" at the contract signing. While Styles did not have the spotlight very long Tuesday, he and Nakamura very well could spend more time in the ring than anyone in their "last man standing" encounter Sunday.
More height jokes, Big Cass? Can the creative team not come up with anything more, well, creative? It's pretty much cringe-worthy listening to Cass, and it's too bad he doesn't play back the tape and realize that himself. There's nothing more we can really say about that except ... just stop it already.
OK then -- we're officially out of SmackDown episodes before Money in the Bank, and we still don't know which New Day member will get the nod for a shot at the briefcase. Something tells me this won't be a straightforward decision come Sunday, and what they have planned is anyone's guess.
So who comes up big on Sunday? How about a couple of Money in the Bank predictions? I'm going with Rusev (because how can you not?!?!) and Alexa Bliss. Yes, Bliss has had her time on top, but a top-tier deceitful heel will add some intrigue to the women's narrative on Raw. Truthfully, I'd love to see Ember Moon walk away with the briefcase, but it would serve her best if she had more time to showcase her incredible skills before catapulting to the top too early in her time on the main roster.