Since August 2017, the simmering war between Kevin Owens and SmackDown Commissioner Shane McMahon has dominated the landscape in a variety of forms. It started hot, with McMahon disrupting Owens' United States championship run amid a series of matches with questionable officiating -- culminating with McMahon donning the stripes at SummerSlam as Owens lost to AJ Styles.
The vendetta ultimately became personal when, after an actual helicopter crash involving McMahon, Owens suggested his kids would've been better off without their father. From there, it only got crazier, as Owens headbutted Vince McMahon in the middle of the ring -- setting the stage for a Hell in a Cell match between Owens and Shane at Survivor Series. That's where Sami Zayn got pulled into this feud, as he got involved as Owens' "guardian angel," pulling Owens off a table as Shane flew from the top of the Hell in a Cell.
Owens and Zayn became thick as thieves and eventually cost Shane and Team SmackDown their Survivor Series match last November. But as Shane tried to fire Owens and Zayn, and GM Daniel Bryan stepped up on their behalf, it began a series of passive-aggressive back-and-forths between Bryan and Shane that became less about Zayn and Owens as individuals. A wedge was ultimately driven between Owens and Zayn, sure, but in the process SmackDown was bogged down by a rivalry between Shane and Bryan that couldn't physically be paid off because of Bryan's current medical situation.
Finally, after Sunday's Fastlane pay-per-view main event, in which Shane directly prevented both Owens and Zayn from becoming WWE champion, a final line was crossed. On Tuesday's edition of SmackDown, Shane McMahon announced he was stepping aside as SmackDown Commissioner indefinitely -- but not before driving one final nail into the friendship of Owens and Zayn by scheduling them to go one-on-one at WrestleMania.
Owens, and then Zayn, came out to congratulate Shane on his "first great decision" as Commissioner for having stepped down. As Shane, somewhat facetiously, insisted he'd given them each a great opportunity, it became clear that Owens and Zayn had one more thing to do collectively before going to war in New Orleans.
"We appreciate that Shane," said Owens. "And we think you might appreciate this, too..."
With that, Zayn blindsided the now-former Commissioner, and a two-on-one attack ensued. An assisted Helluva Kick was followed by an assisted Pop-Up powerbomb. But that was only the beginning. Owens and Zayn wrapped a steel chair around Shane's neck and drove him and the chair neck-first into the ring post. They fought off referees, each grabbed one of Shane's arms and dragged him all the way up the entrance ramp and backstage. With one final act -- a double powerbomb onto some kind of metal apparatus backstage, which sent McMahon into hysterics on the ground -- the deed was done.
With wrestling's injury timelines existing in a nebulous state, there's still a chance that Shane could get involved once more in the next few weeks or at WrestleMania 34, but it seems as though he's taking a step back for a longer stretch than that. And while the build up to a Sami Zayn versus Kevin Owens match at WrestleMania would've benefited from a longer stretch of partnership before their split, it's still Zayn vs. Owens at WrestleMania and it's going to be good.
Most importantly, with Bryan now serving as a singular figure of authority, there will be more of a focus on the performers and less of a focus on the people who should simply be a mechanism for nudging stories in the right direction when they need it.
Shinsuke Nakamura saves AJ Styles' skin
After nearly two months of beating around the bush and after all the roadblocks put in front of AJ Styles, the WWE championship match between Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura is finally locked in for WrestleMania. Styles came out to soak in the moment and to reiterate he'd earned the opportunity to walk into WrestleMania as WWE champion in every way, shape and form imaginable.
At this moment, Nakamura predictably walked to the ring -- triggering dueling "A-J-Styles" and "Nak-a-mura" chants from the crowd. Always a man of few words, Nakamura summed it up simply. "Everyone likes you. Everyone like me, too. I respect you. At WrestleMania, dreams come true," said Nakamura. "My dream? Knee to face, and I become champion."
Rusev interrupted the lovefest in the ring to challenge Styles, which led to a match that reiterated what we saw on Sunday at Fastlane -- Rusev can go, he just needs the opportunity. It was a strong performance on both sides, but as Styles seemed poised to lock on the Calf Crusher, Aiden English charged into the ring and started a two-on-one attack. Nakamura, still sitting at ringside, intervened on Styles' behalf, to the champion's chagrin. The fact that Nakamura wants Styles at his very best for their long-anticipated rematch should tell you just how big a deal this match will be.
Hits and misses
-- With Xavier Woods, Kofi Kingston and Jey Uso put out of action during a mid-match assault by the Bludgeon Brothers on Sunday, Big E and Jimmy Uso joined forces to try to gain a measure of revenge. While they did each manage to get a few licks in, Harper and Rowan ultimately gained a pinfall victory and finished off the remaining members of New Day and The Usos, respectively. Depending on various injury statuses, a triple threat seems a likely outcome for the SmackDown tag team title match at WrestleMania.
-- Charlotte Flair and Asuka went face-to-face in the middle of the ring, and the message was mutual respect and a desire for a challenge. "I've never faced anyone like you -- but you have never faced anyone like me," Flair said. "Be careful what you wish for. I'm going to end your streak, and cement my legacy."
"I chose you because I like a challenge," said Asuka. "You are the queen, but I am the empress. Asuka bows to no one, because no one is ready for Asuka."
-- Bobby Roode will cash in his rematch clause for the United States championship against Randy Orton at WrestleMania, but after Jinder Mahal beat him in the middle of the ring Tuesday night, a triple threat for that title also seems to be in the cards. Orton, who talked about what winning the U.S. title and completing WWE's Grand Slam meant to him, hit Mahal with an RKO post-match to reiterate the three-headed nature of this rivalry.
-- After picking up the pinfall at Fastlane against Becky Lynch, Carmella got her second win in three days against Naomi. There's a reason why Ms. Money in the Bank is being brought back into the spotlight just before WrestleMania, and while she could lose her cash-in attempt, few things would bring Carmella as much heat as ending Asuka's streak to become SmackDown women's champion.