With the ebbs and flows of the week-to-week sagas of Raw and SmackDown Live, there are certain elements of the show that eventually get taken for granted because they are so consistent. Roman Reigns will probably be in the main event. Brock Lesnar probably won't show up. Elias will insult the city he is in, and that city's crowd will eat it up.
More than anyone else on the roster, through thick and thin, AJ Styles' ability to get the very best out of almost any opponent has simply become second nature. Even in the lowest points of his rivalry with Shinsuke Nakamura, Styles was having the best matches on almost every show he was on.
As Nakamura eased into his new role as United States champion, the question of what could be next for Styles loomed large. Rusev got his first shot at the WWE championship at Extreme Rules and showed up in a big way as he and Styles told a familiar story -- Rusev targeting the back to set up the Accolade, and Styles targeting the leg so that he could prevent the Accolade while also building up damage for the Calf Crusher. Both guys put it all on the line and told a fresh story that fans could easily buy into.
With Rusev cast aside for the time being after an unsuccessful challenge, Andrade "Cien" Almas got a chance to step up to the plate against the WWE champion. Almas, who was white-hot as NXT champion during his last stretch in NXT, has been a complete nonfactor since his call-up to SmackDown, but in the opening match on Tuesday, Styles brought out some flashes of just how much Almas is capable of when presented in the right way.
Styles is the rock upon which SmackDown is built. Whether it's Nakamura, Daniel Bryan, Samoa Joe, Rusev, Cesaro, Almas, Randy Orton or anyone else the SmackDown roster has to offer, Styles will go into SummerSlam on the momentum of more than 250 days as WWE champion. Like Ric Flair before him, Styles plays the vulnerable yet capable champion to near-perfection, night in and night out. As SmackDown digs its way back up from some iffy months on the way to SummerSlam, it's all but guaranteed that Styles will have some of the best matches along the way and a certifiable show-stealer once we reach Brooklyn.
And that's why he's back to No. 1.
Rankings are based upon the perceived value of a superstar to the on-screen product of WWE, which is determined by the voting of a panel of WWE on ESPN contributors. Number in parentheses indicates first-place votes.
SmackDown is starting to settle into its direction for SummerSlam, and while Styles' opponent is still yet to be determined, he's sure to put on a show. -- Tim Fiorvanti
Strowman keeps getting chances to deliver memorable power moves, like when he threw Kevin Owens off of the top of the steel cage at Extreme Rules. Yet there is the palpable sense that his most memorable power move is yet to come. Could it end up being a crushing blow that ends Brock Lesnar's record-setting title reign at SummerSlam? -- KC Joyner
He might have lost the Intercontinental championship to Dolph Ziggler, but that could be a blessing in disguise for Rollins. He has been absolute on fire lately, and despite losing an opportunity to challenge Brock Lesnar for the Universal championship this past week on Raw, that's the direction in which he needs to be moving. Rollins is the definition of Universal championship material, and it's going to be exciting when he actually enters the title picture. -- Sean Coyle
Seth Rollins seems to be moving into the main event picture on Raw, but his position isn't 100 percent clear after not getting through to the No. 1 contender's match for the Universal championship next week on Raw. What we do know is where Ziggler will be -- taking on the role of workhorse Intercontinental champion, carrying the heavy load in big matches week in and week out. It's a role he's fit to take on, doing what he does best -- stealing the show. -- Matt Willis
It took a little while, but we're finally getting the version of Rousey that could anchor the Raw women's division going forward. Rousey is adding high-impact, visually-impressive moves to her résumé, and despite being "suspended", she's primed for a title match with Alexa Bliss at SummerSlam. Her game face is also on point. -- Willis
Bobby Lashley did well transitioning from a lame-duck feud with Sami Zayn to a marquee matchup with Roman Reigns at Extreme Rules. The Pittsburgh crowd didn't do them any favors, but Reigns and Lashley quietly delivered in a physical and, at times, borderline dangerous match. Lashley followed up that performance with another strong showing in his triple threat win over Elias and Seth Rollins in the main event of Raw the next day. Lashley will need to beat Reigns a second time to face Brock Lesnar for the Universal championship at SummerSlam. WWE needs to do the right thing and let us see a dream matchup between two behemoths in a main event worthy of the biggest event of the summer. -- Michael Wonsover
Man, The Miz can make any moment special. It's going to be amazing to finally get the Miz-Daniel Bryan feud that has been years in the making. The story goes back to Bryan's earliest days in the WWE, and then tension has been building as long as they've been together. Let Miz and Bryan have a little bit of freedom and they'll go a long way. -- Andrew Feldman
Though Bryan's ascension as a singles performer was put on hold due to the reunion of Team Hell No, he's still performing at a top level. Whether he pursues the WWE championship or a showdown with The Miz, as was hinted at on SmackDown Live this week, Bryan's return has been satisfying. Seeing him perform inside the squared circle is enough of a treat for me to deem his comeback successful. -- Coyle
The Big Dog might have yet another shot at Brock Lesnar's gold, which won't sit well with a lot of WWE fans, but it is probably warranted from a time investment perspective. What good is all the hype and buildup and unending time in the spotlight if there isn't going to be a payoff at some point? Just give the man his title already. -- Matt Wilansky
NXT call-ups are, at this moment in time, largely known for having slow starts on the main roster. But Drew McIntyre has completely shattered that notion since he re-debuted on Raw during the Superstar Shakeup in April. McIntyre continues to show every week that he has all the ingredients of a WWE megastar -- Herculean looks, jaw-dropping athleticism, and most surprisingly an ability to cut attention-grabbing promos. McIntyre shined in a main event against Seth Rollins heading into Extreme Rules. After helping Dolph Ziggler come out victorious at Extreme Rules, McIntyre solidified his place as a future world champ in a standout performance against Roman Reigns and Finn Balor on Raw the next night. -- Wonsover