<
>

WWE looks to right the ship at TLC

Asuka stands above Charlotte and Becky Lynch holding a kendo stick ahead of their TLC match. Courtesy WWE

It's the final pay-per-view of 2018 and on the precipice of TLC it's clear that Raw and SmackDown are in drastically different situations as 2019 draws near.

Raw is without four of its top stars -- Roman Reigns, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn and Braun Strowman -- and has seemed to bounce between inconsistency, occasional brilliance and maximum strain on the suspension of disbelief. The universe has revolved around Baron Corbin's thirst for power, and while it has undeniably helped him personally, the show around him has become repetitive and hard to sit through for three hours. Sunday's pay-per-view could bring Strowman's return and the end of Corbin's reign of terror, though, and a fresh slate is just what the doctor ordered for what Raw's become.

On the other side, SmackDown is in the midst of a very special moment that came together through a mix of luck, unpredictable circumstance and sheer force of will. Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair and Asuka are set for what should unequivocally be the main event of TLC with the SmackDown women's championship on the line. Any one of these three women could conceivably leave San Jose Sunday night with the title in their possession, having snatched it down from the heavens. This match should tell us a great deal about how the next few months will play out, and there's plenty of meat left on the bone to get through the six weeks between TLC and the Royal Rumble with room to spare.

Both shows have hope shining off in the distance as WrestleMania season beckons, but while Raw needs a sharp right turn to correct course, SmackDown simply needs to stick to the plan.

TLC triple-threat match for the SmackDown women's championship: Becky Lynch (c) vs. Asuka vs. Charlotte Flair

Outside of the circular flurry of kendo stick attacks she engaged in Tuesday night with Asuka and Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch has largely been building up her cult of personality without having to do anything remotely physical. She hasn't had a match since Nov. 9, thanks to the damage she suffered from a Nia Jax punch on Nov. 12 as she simultaneously experienced one of the biggest moments of her career and a heartbreaking injury that kept her from an insanely hyped match against Ronda Rousey.

There will be no escaping physicality on Sunday, as tables, ladders, chairs and any number of other elements get introduced into this car crash of a match that will likely tell us Rousey's likeliest opponent come WrestleMania 35. If Lynch retains, there's still six weeks until the Royal Rumble and plenty of time for twists and turns along the way including the possibility of Rousey losing her title, but it feels as though that would somewhat dampen the possibility of a Lynch/Rousey main event. If Flair wins the title and breaks Lynch's heart again, it could solidify Flair as the hated foil for her long-time friend and set the stage for months of back-and-forth -- and also clear the path for a Lynch Royal Rumble win in the process.

play
1:42

Becky Lynch appreciates fans always having her back

WWE star Becky Lynch joins Ariel Helwani to share how fans appreciate that they can relate to her.

But the third, and most intriguing option of all, would be Asuka coming from out of nowhere to upset the apple cart. Tuesday's WrestleMania rematch between Asuka and Flair was an instant reminder of everything that Asuka is capable of doing in the ring when she's put in the spotlight. Flair and Asuka are opponents that are tailor-made for each other, and adding Lynch to that equation should be like throwing gasoline on a fire. Having Asuka walk out of TLC as SmackDown women's champion would go a long way in repairing her reputation after eight forgettable months, and depending on the fan reaction she could go in any of a dozen different directions. More importantly, after Lynch and Flair battled it out to try to regain the title over the next month-and-a-half, they'd be free to do something big and memorable in the Royal Rumble -- perhaps a finish ala Bret Hart and Lex Luger that could set up an undeniable triple threat WrestleMania main event?

Regardless of the finish, Sunday represents another major step forward for women's wrestling in the WWE.

WWE championship: Daniel Bryan (c) vs. AJ Styles

It's hard to say what a satisfying ending to this match looks like, but there's every reason to hope that a Daniel Bryan versus AJ Styles championship match will carry its weight on this TLC pay-per-view card. Bryan has slipped into his new role as a self-absorbed, judgmental environmentalist like a glove, and it seems like another example of a character steering enough toward someone's real personality that something clicks.

Styles has largely been licking his wounds since losing the WWE championship, but he's well-suited to play the fed up good guy chasing the title; it's a role he knows all too well. It's unclear which direction either of these two men could go in after this match, if Bryan does indeed win and retain his title at TLC, but with the depth and creativity that exists on SmackDown at this moment, it seems likely to be a soft landing for both Styles and Bryan.

Intercontinental championship: Seth Rollins (c) vs. Dean Ambrose

This reignited rivalry between former brothers started off hot, with Dean Ambrose betraying Seth Rollins immediately after their bittersweet tag team title victory on the night Roman Reigns announced he had leukemia. There have been flashes of fun moments, like Ambrose flexing his promo skills and Rollins returning to form in IC title defenses, but it's high time they settle the score inside the ring. In the midst of all of the injuries and absences on Raw, Rollins has carried a heavy burden as Raw's workhorse, but with an opponent as familiar as Ambrose and as tense a scenario as they find themselves in, this match shouldn't have to work too hard to hook the crowd.

Raw women's championship: Ronda Rousey (c) vs. Nia Jax

Ronda Rousey has impressed inside of the ring in her first year in WWE, but she faces a major test in a rematch of her showdown with Nia Jax at Money in the Bank that went sideways after Alexa Bliss cashed in Money in the Bank (was that really this year?). Many expect Rousey to walk into WrestleMania as the conquering hero no matter who she ultimately matches up with, but it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility that a conspiracy of sorts involving Tamina pries the Raw women's championship from Rousey's grasp. If that's the case, look toward the Royal Rumble and a potential move toward SmackDown.

TLC match: Braun Strowman vs. Baron Corbin (If Strowman wins, he earns a Universal championship match at Royal Rumble and Corbin loses his status as Raw general manager. If Corbin wins, he becomes permanent Raw GM.)

Baron Corbin has been playing his role as Raw's temporary general manager (sorry, general manager-elect) as though he's the prototypical villain in an '80s comedy. He's flexed his chops in and out of the ring, and though Corbin's been positioned as something of a caricature, he's the only person who's been driving the overarching story of Raw forward in recent months (although it's still not very clear what the endgame of that story is meant to be). All mentions of Braun Strowman not showing up and having to forfeit this match have been heavy-handed, so don't expect that simple a resolution on Sunday. If Strowman ultimately shows up -- and there's no reason to believe he won't at least make an appearance -- we can expect Heath Slater to be the referee, and for Drew McIntyre, Bobby Lashley and Lio Rush to get involved (as long as they aren't incapacitated earlier in the night).

Drew McIntyre vs. Finn Balor

If there's been one consistent bright spot on Raw of late, it's Drew McIntyre. Every time he steps into the ring the intensity ratchets up several levels, and there's no half-speed when it comes to a Drew McIntyre match. McIntyre is an equal opponent for giants and a mobile adversary for smaller guys, and if he isn't in a serious world-title discussion by the end of 2019, something's gone seriously awry. Finn Balor has gotten the short end of the stick far too often of late on Raw, but this match in particular should be a calling card for both men to point to as they hope for a bright future.

SmackDown tag team championships: The Bar (c) vs. The New Day vs. The Usos

Let's hope the SmackDown tag-team division reaches deeper in 2019 and remembers how good Gallows & Anderson and SAnitY are, but if you're looking for a match to steal the night, this one could easily be the winner in that category. Every time it seems like any combination of these teams is set to be overlooked on a big show, they take it as inspiration to blow everyone away -- and they typically do.

Ladder match (guitar suspended above the ring): Bobby Lashley vs. Elias

In a strange combination of a ladder match and an (insert object here)-on-a-pole match, Bobby Lashley and Elias go to battle. Lio Rush has been a godsend for Bobby Lashley, and he seems likely to get involved once again. Elias has played the fool one too many times of late, and this appears to be a chance for him to pick up a big win.

Tables match: Natalya vs. Ruby Riott

Any time there are at least three women's singles matches on a card it's worthy of noting, and even though the rivalry between Natalya and Ruby Riott has been uncomfortably melded with the real-life death of Natalya's father Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart, there's a fair bit to look forward to on Sunday. Riott is as solid an in-ring performer as you're going to find on Monday Night Raw, and she has a lot of upside as the women's division continues to evolve. It would be a bit heartbreaking to see Riott persevere after all of the nasty things she's done to Nattie, but that's also how potent heels are made.

Chairs match: Randy Orton vs. Rey Mysterio

Randy Orton has already battered Rey Mysterio and stolen his mask -- what more can he do? It's been fun to see Orton return to a more naturally heelish role, but it's hard to say where either of these guys are headed as 2018 winds toward a close.

Cruiserweight championship: Buddy Murphy (c) vs. Cedric Alexander

All Buddy Murphy did at Survivor Series was put on a standout match with Mustafa Ali, and it's the same thing that he's been doing since he debuted on 205 Live. Murphy's match against Cedric Alexander at Super Show-Down, when he won the title in front of a hometown stadium crowd, was likely the match of the night. As Ali showed Tuesday night on SmackDown, the cruiserweights should not be looked upon as a secondary sideshow act when compared to the "main roster," as they've tended to outshine Raw and SmackDown at every opportunity. The bar for such a move at TLC seems high, but Murphy and Alexander will try to steal the show anyways.

Mixed Match Challenge Finals: R-Truth & Carmella vs. Jinder Mahal & Alicia Fox

With so many injuries and replacement teammates, the second season of the Mixed Match Challenge has been a little tough to follow. All you need to know is that the winning team locks up the No. 30 spot in their respective Royal Rumble matches, and that there will be a lot of fun and silliness to be had in this match (dance break guaranteed).