For the second consecutive year, a flurry of changes in the lead-up to Survivor Series has dramatically changed the composition of the show.
Although a heartbreaking injury to Becky Lynch derailed the most anticipated match on the card (against Ronda Rousey), the two matches made Tuesday on SmackDown Live are tremendously intriguing and wouldn't look out of place on a WrestleMania card.
Though the focus is rightly pointed toward Rousey versus Charlotte Flair, and new WWE champion Daniel Bryan vs. Lesnar, that's not all that's in store. The trio of 5-on-5 elimination matches is back, although the stakes are as muddy as ever. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Seth Rollins looks like solid gold on the surface, although each of their histories points toward a low probability of a clean finish. AoP vs. The Bar is a dark horse coming in with no expectations, and the cruiserweight championship match between Buddy Murphy and Mustafa Ali is a rematch of what might be the best match in 205 Live history.
Universal champion Brock Lesnar vs. WWE champion Daniel Bryan
We'll never know for certain whether the WWE title switch and Survivor Series match change was a direct effort to boost excitement and limit disappointment after Lynch's injury, which pulled her from the card. But can we take a moment to appreciate how far Lynch and women's wrestling in general has come that the possibility of a men's title change was done on the fly to balance out a lack of a particular woman on the card?
Less than a week ago, if someone suggested Bryan vs. Lesnar was a possibility in any capacity, let alone as a champion vs. champion match at Survivor Series, you probably would have thought they were a crazy person. This is a match that Bryan has been vocal about wanting since at least 2014, and to see him fulfill that wish on a big platform is tremendous. There's still a lot to process, as Bryan won the title by nailing AJ Styles with a low blow and then proceeded to stomp Styles' face in post-match. It's been a long time since we've seen a heel Bryan, let alone a heel champion Bryan, and the fallout to come on SmackDown is immeasurable.
In the meantime, a heel vs. heel dynamic that's unusual in this time and age of WWE could make for any different number of ways for this match to play out. Most will be holding their breath because of Lesnar's intensely physical style and Bryan's history of injury, but the intrigue and possibility hovering over this contest instantly makes it a compelling contest regardless of the long term stakes (or lack thereof).
Raw women's champion Ronda Rousey vs. Charlotte Flair
The only cross-branded match that really had any tension and build -- Rousey vs. Lynch -- was called off when Lynch's invasion of Raw led to a stray punch from Nia Jax "breaking Lynch's face," as WWE so eloquently put it. From slapping a Dis-Arm-Her on Rousey to the indignant, bloodied stance Lynch took as Raw went off the air, all the work for the most important match on the Survivor Series card was done -- only Lynch couldn't be cleared to compete.
So what do you do when your white-hot star of the moment can't get into the ring to face your star with the biggest worldwide name recognition? You take what many conceived of as a future WrestleMania main event and you make it a reality by putting Flair in Lynch's place. Even with no build to the match, the anticipation for two of the most athletically gifted women to ever step into a WWE ring together for the first time is high, to say the least.
While it's heartbreaking to see Lynch miss out on a moment like this due to circumstances entirely out of her control, there's always a silver lining. Not only do we get to see a match that has been talked about since Rousey first signed her WWE contract, but Lynch might now be set up to make a little WrestleMania history of her own with Rousey in the not-too-distant-future.
For now, we'll have to settle for Rousey and Lynch bickering on Twitter. Oh, and yeah, this other great match to come as well.
Intercontinental champion Seth Rollins vs. United States champion Shinsuke Nakamura
WWE has made a big to-do of a number of first-ever matches over the past couple of years, even when it's just a matter of those two opponents never having faced each other inside of a WWE ring. Come Sunday, fans will get to see Seth Rollins vs. Shinsuke Nakamura for the first time. Full stop.
There are certain matches that don't need stakes beyond a test of wills and a display of talent, and this match seems to qualify in every way, shape and form. Rollins' Intercontinental championship reign took something of a back seat to the reunion of The Shield and the Raw tag team championships (along with the subsequent betrayal of Dean Ambrose), but his matches over the past few months with Dolph Ziggler, Drew McIntyre and Kevin Owens completely reinvigorated the excitement around that title.
Nakamura, on the other hand, started the year off strong by winning the Royal Rumble, but his WWE championship rivalry with AJ Styles and his eventual U.S. title win have led to an up-and-down run. This match against Rollins feels like a chance to recapture some of the magic that made Nakamura such an icon before he joined WWE and in his best performances in NXT. There's potential in his vision of "Nakamerica", and if Ambrose can stay out of the mix for at least 15 minutes, this match could be something special.
Raw tag team champions AoP vs. SmackDown tag team champions The Bar
On one hand, it's hard to know what to make of this match, as AoP hasn't done a ton to prove themselves since making the move from NXT to Monday Night Raw. On the other, what AoP was able to do in two key matches during their NXT run -- a triple threat with The Revival and DIY, and last year's War Games triple threat against Undisputed Era and SAnitY -- shows what they're capable of. The Bar always tends to show up in a big way when the spotlight shines brightest, as was the case in tremendous performances against New Day and The Usos over the last couple of years.
It's probably best that everyone comes into this match with little to no expectations, because it'll make it all the more entertaining if these two teams can pull it all off.
5-on-5 men's traditional Survivor Series match: Team Raw (Bobby Lashley, Braun Strowman, Dolph Ziggler, Drew McIntyre & Finn Balor) vs. Team SmackDown (Jeff Hardy, The Miz, Rey Mysterio, Samoa Joe, Shane McMahon)
Raw's team features five guys with several intertwining rivalries, while SmackDown has a heavy dose of nostalgia, a wild card in Samoa Joe and Shane McMahon's annual return to Survivor Series action. Expect Strowman to either keep it together long enough, dominate and cash in on all of Stephanie McMahon's incentives, or he'll otherwise destroy his team and allow SmackDown to cash in with a victory of some kind. There's some tension based on Shane inserting himself in the finals of the World Cup tournament at Crown Jewel (and then winning), but it's hard to see interconnected tension between Raw and SmackDown after this show is over. It would be a mistake for this match to main event.
5-on-5 women's traditional Survivor Series match: Team Raw (Mickie James, Nia Jax, Natalya, Ruby Riott & Tamina) vs. Team SmackDown (Asuka, Carmella, Naomi, Sonya Deville & [TBD])
The Raw men's team is a powder keg of dysfunction, but their women's team is set up to fail solely on the conflict between Natalya and Riott. They could easily take each other out and fight to the back, ala some of the early Survivor Series classics, but still allow for the Samoan powerhouse team of Jax and Tamina to take care of business. This match could swing upon whomever the women of SmackDown pick up as their fifth member, and some combination of Asuka, Carmella and Naomi seems a strong pick as the sole survivors.
10-on-10 tag team traditional Survivor Series match: Team Raw (The Ascension, The B-Team, Bobby Roode & Chad Gable, Lucha House Party, The Revival) vs. Team SmackDown (The Colons, Gallows & Anderson, The New Day, SAnitY, The Usos)
Let's just hope the making of this match reminds the powers that be in the WWE that there actually is some depth to the tag team divisions on both Raw and SmackDown. Your guess is as good as mine as far as how this match will play out, though I'm hopeful for some kind of creative endgame featuring The Revival, The Usos and New Day.
Cruiserweight championship: Buddy Murphy (c) vs. Mustafa Ali
If you haven't been watching 205 Live, I implore you to go back and watch the No DQ match between Buddy Murphy and Mustafa Ali from back in July. Among all of the crazy matches the cruiserweight division has put on over the last two-plus years, that may well be the best one to date. If watching that doesn't get you excited about their return match on Sunday, you may not have a pulse.