In some years, the time between the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania can feel interminably long. The big matches are set, and it's just about filling in one or two key details along the way with pay-per-view cards at Elimination Chamber and Fastlane. In other years, there happen to be one or two major speed bumps along the way that lead to dramatic shifts in key matches.
Even with both Royal Rumble winners out of commission, with storyline reasons not to be and perhaps some real injuries to deal with, Elimination Chamber is all but guaranteed to alter the course of the road to WrestleMania 35 -- and that makes Sunday's show a must-watch.
There seem to be some key indicators that make leaning one way in most matches a smart bet, but even one of these bouts going opposite the expected direction could have cascading effects that reverberate all the way through to April.
By the time the lights go out at Houston's Toyota Center on Sunday night, we should have a clear picture of which direction everything is heading in for three of the four major titles on Raw and SmackDown. There's also the matter of crowning women's tag team champions for the first time in many years in the world of WWE, as well as a number of other title matches that could easily swing one way or another.
There are plenty of ways for this show to slide off the tracks, but hopes are collectively high for a reason.
(c) - indicates defending champion
Elimination Chamber match for the WWE championship: Daniel Bryan (c) vs. Kofi Kingston vs. AJ Styles vs. Samoa Joe vs. Jeff Hardy vs. Randy Orton
Kofi Kingston put on quite the performance during the go-home episode in the gauntlet match to determine the person who will enter the Elimination Chamber match last. For more than an hour, Kingston reminded us all how capable he is of bringing the very best out of almost any type of opponent. He went well over 20 minutes against WWE champion Daniel Bryan and pinned him, and then went on to defeat Jeff Hardy and Samoa Joe in kind. At the brink of utter exhaustion, Kingston still battled AJ Styles for an extended stretch before finally succumbing.
I want to key on something Kingston shouted at Styles. It was two words: 11 years. That's how long it's been since Kofi Kingston debuted as part of the WWE's ECW revival, and in that time he's won a multitude of titles, from every different tag team belt the WWE's had to offer several times over, to four Intercontinental championship reigns and three runs with the United States title.
But in those 11 years, Kingston has had a grand total of three world championship matches -- the 2016 Royal Rumble and Elimination Chamber matches in 2010 and 2012. Kingston was scheduled to take part in a third Chamber match, at No Way Out 2009, only for Edge to attack prematch and take his spot. There were other points in late 2009 during which it seemed that Kingston was ready to take a leap to that final level during a rivalry with Randy Orton, but it never fully clicked into place.
Kingston has enjoyed the most successful run of his career over the last four-plus years with the New Day, but this WWE championship match is a chance for him to prove what he can do alone when the spotlight is at its brightest. It's hard not to be gutted for Mustafa Ali, who saw his chance in this match slip away due to injury, but Kingston stepping in is a silver lining. At the age of 37, it's hard not to look at Kingston's career and say he's done everything but climb the final peak.
Whether or not he can do so on Sunday is a different matter entirely. There's been a groundswell of support since Kingston's performance on Tuesday, and Big E and Xavier Woods have been vociferous cheerleaders for world champion Kofi Kingston for quite some time. In looking at the big picture, Kingston vs. Bryan on the way to WrestleMania would seem an unusual direction to go in -- but anything can happen, and Kingston is far from the longest shot.
It would seem rather premature for Bryan to drop the title, having just redesigned the belt in his image, but it could theoretically be a case of misdirection in order to make a title change less expected. Jeff Hardy seems unlikeliest to walk out of Houston with the win, and an Orton win would set up a rehash of Bryan vs. Orton with two villainous personas in play -- and that wouldn't really seem to move the needle. Kingston would be a fan-favorite move but short on narrative, and that leaves just two realistic candidates.
On the surface, Samoa Joe winning the Elimination Chamber match seems a little bit tough to envision, but there's a caveat. If there's some type of unclear or disputed finish -- especially if AJ Styles is involved -- there's enough history and story to try to steer toward a triple threat WWE championship match. The potential of two triple threat title matches on one WrestleMania card seems a bit of a stretch, to be fair, but with the ballooning size of the WWE roster it's more likely now than it's ever been.
Ultimately, it feels like there's unresolved tension between Bryan and Styles, and that seems the likeliest direction for the biggest show of the year. Rather than the unsatisfying endings to rivalries Styles has had with Shinsuke Nakamura and Samoa Joe over the last year, WrestleMania feels like a fitting place to bring a rivalry for the ages to an end with a tremendous match. This match will come down to the two rivals, and Bryan will find a way to snake out a victory, whether it's Rowan or a new compatriot who comes into play
Prediction: Daniel Bryan retains his title by last defeating AJ Styles, with a little help from his friend(s) -- and don't count out Samoa Joe being involved.
Elimination Chamber match to crown WWE women's tag team champions: Bayley & Sasha Banks vs. The Riott Squad vs. The IIconics vs. Nia Jax & Tamina vs. Mandy Rose & Sonya Deville vs. Carmella & Naomi
As the WWE's women's roster has grown larger over the last few years, there's been a balancing act between building up top stars and keeping as much of the roster engaged as possible without pushing too far, too fast. It's been a strain at times, with the Raw or SmackDown women's championships (and sometimes both) tied up between two women and everyone else left to fight for airtime.
With the most recent wave of additions to Raw and SmackDown, the timing of this introduction of women's tag team championships feels right. For as obvious an advantage as it seems the three teams from Monday Night Raw have, this match is an opportunity for all 12 women involved to step up in a big way. The first women's Elimination Chamber match was a chance to establish a baseline for what can be expected moving forward, but with twice as many participants involved, the tag team version will test the limits of creativity for all involved.
The obvious choice and the feel-good story would have to be Sasha Banks and Bayley walking out with the titles in hand, but establishing the chase on the way to WrestleMania could make one of the four heel teams the right fit from out of the gate. Nia Jax and Tamina would be a traditionally bruising pairing, lording over the division until someone could chop them down. Mandy Rose and Sonya Deville could use a spark, but with the ongoing conflict between Rose and Naomi, this seems an unlikely moment.
The Riott Squad could sew chaos, or The IIconics could become the absolutely unbearable champions who use their mental prowess to hold on to the belts by any means necessary. Creatively speaking, the canvas is blank, but sometimes the simple answer is the right one. I think Bayley and Banks walking out of the Chamber as champions should make for one heck of a moment.
Prediction: Boss & Hug Connection
Raw women's championship: Ronda Rousey (c) vs. Ruby Riott
The WrestleMania promotion is already in full swing, which started with lots of imagery of Becky Lynch and Ronda Rousey and transitioned into Rousey and Charlotte Flair. In the meantime, a Raw women's championship match against Ruby Riott was revealed in a Twitter post and merely seems like window dressing heading into Sunday night. Riott has been indignant, both on screen and on social media, and it's nice to see a character calling foregone conclusions into question.
That's not going to change the inevitability of the result of this match by any means, to be fair, but Riott has an opportunity to prove that her championship potential is worthy of a closer look down the line. Riott's first major step forward on the main roster was a very entertaining title challenge at a secondary pay-per-view between Royal Rumble and WrestleMania at Fastlane.
Flair is guaranteed to be in the crowd, and with Becky Lynch on the brink of exploding after losing her contractually guaranteed title shot, this match seems almost guaranteed to dissolve into chaos. Rousey walks out with her title intact, but Lynch gets one step closer to clawing her way back into the Raw women's championship match at WrestleMania 35.
Prediction: Ronda Rousey
Handicap match for the Intercontinental championship: Bobby Lashley (c) & Lio Rush vs. Finn Balor
Even with some chicanery and a prematch attack, the match between Lio Rush and Finn Balor was tremendous. It's hard to say if this rivalry has legs outside of this final showdown between Balor and the two men who have been tormenting him over the last month, but Balor's chemistry with both involved parties should make this an enjoyable, if occasionally clunky, title match.
Lashley hasn't had enough time to benefit from being Intercontinental champion, while Balor winning would feel a bit like he was spinning his wheels. Neither Lashley nor Balor has a clear path or story to carry him into WrestleMania, but a clean break here would give each of them enough time to find his way.
Prediction: Lashley and Rush cheat to win.
No disqualification: Baron Corbin vs. Braun Strowman
Braun Strowman has had the Money in the Bank briefcase, a good number of title shots and another that slipped through his fingers because of questionable decision-making leading into the Royal Rumble pay-per-view. It feels like Strowman should've been a world champion by this point, and while he still has a strong connection to the crowd, it feels like the highest point of the wave may have already crested. Strowman is in need of a major shot in the arm, and no matter how well Baron Corbin commands the ire of any crowd in the world, this match isn't it.
It's likely that Drew McIntyre, who otherwise doesn't have a spot on this card, will get involved here. If this path leads toward a true one-on-one rivalry between the two giants, then this match is worth it. If the future contains a muddy way forward with Corbin staying in the picture, it'll just feel like more of the same in terms of what we've gotten on Raw for far too long a stretch.
Prediction: Braun Strowman. Drew McIntyre can't do enough to help Baron Corbin win, but McIntyre gets the last laugh.
SmackDown tag team championships: The Miz & Shane McMahon (c) vs. The Usos
Let's leave this conversation to what's going on in the ring. It feels like the last year-plus of SmackDown has been a never-ending loop of matches in which one of The New Day, The Usos and The Bar defend their titles -- typically against another team among that trio. It's nice to have some fresh blood in the mix, even though this Miz and Shane McMahon story is a bit tough to put a finger on, but if this ends up any way other than a win for the defending champions, it'll feel like we're headed towards another loop back to that same baseline. No matter how many great matches those three anchor teams have put on, it doesn't feel like there's any steam left in that story.
Prediction: Miz and Shane McMahon retain. They stay on the same page, for now.
Kickoff show: Cruiserweight championship: Buddy Murphy (c) vs. Akira Tozawa
The cruiserweight championship is once again relegated to the kickoff show. Buddy Murphy and Akira Tozawa will have one heck of a match, and hopefully it happens as late in the kickoff show as possible. Though it's not appreciated often enough, the work that Murphy has done since joining 205 Live has been utterly undeniable. If only there were a better way to hype the show, and the cruiserweight title.
Prediction: Buddy Murphy.