The road to WrestleMania 35 is in sight, and by the end of Sunday's Royal Rumble, we'll have our first real sense of the direction in which WWE is headed over the next few months.
That goes for all four top title matches as well as both Royal Rumbles, but it wouldn't be surprising if one of the other three matches shook things up enough to send shockwaves all the way through to April, and beyond.
Men's Royal Rumble
Seth Rollins, Finn Balor, Drew McIntyre and Braun Strowman have been the workhorses of Monday Night Raw, showing up every week and chugging along to carry the show in Brock Lesnar's absence. Each could argue why they would make for a compelling winner of the 2019 men's Royal Rumble match. Balor's chances seem slim after he won the right to face Lesnar for the Universal championship, but for the other three members of that quartet, the men's Royal Rumble match seems as close to within reach as they could possibly hope for.
First and foremost, Rollins has a lot of factors weighing in his favor. He has unfinished business with Lesnar dating back to WrestleMania 31, when Rollins interrupted the main event between Lesnar and Roman Reigns by cashing in his Money in the Bank briefcase and leaving the building with the WWE championship in hand. Since Rollins had to vacate that title in November 2015, however, he's spent a grand total of a few minutes as a world champion and has largely existed on the fringes of the world title picture.
McIntyre is simply waiting for his big moment to step up to the plate and prove he can be the top guy. He had tremendous matches with a variety of Raw's top stars in 2018, most notably his series with Rollins. If the desire is to put someone into the ring who can physically go toe-to-toe with Lesnar, McIntyre meets the requirement. He hadn't had quite enough time on the microphone to prove himself until very recently, but it would not take a major leap for him to push past "nearly there" and reach top-tier status -- and that could happen over the next two-plus months.
Finally, Strowman was unceremoniously bounced from the Royal Rumble Universal title match due to "bad behavior," and everyone's first instinct was to point toward his recent injuries to explain the switch. Monday night's match against Balor seemed to change those perceptions, as he appeared to be moving perfectly well opposite Balor. If he indeed is in the men's Royal Rumble match, Strowman could easily push toward the eliminations record and would be in line to finally get his big win over Lesnar at WrestleMania. Many wonder whether this moment might be a little too late to cash in on Strowman's popularity and momentum, but only time can tell.
Finally, a dark horse could also come into play. Despite his WWE-announced injury concerns, John Cena's record-smashing 17th world title reign could be in order for WrestleMania, and either AJ Styles or Daniel Bryan would be an intriguing opponent along the way. Most anyone else on the SmackDown side would have to be considered a major shock, although it would be a tremendous vehicle for elevating a new star in a hurry.
In my mind, it all seems likely to boil down to Rollins and Strowman. I lean toward the former, if only because the timing seems right for Rollins to step into the roles of Lesnar's worthy challenger and, eventually, a champion of the people.
Prediction: Seth Rollins
Women's Royal Rumble
On the surface, the women's Royal Rumble match seems to have a shallow pool of potential winners. Depending on how the night's pair of title matches play out, the winner would likely challenge Ronda Rousey at WrestleMania -- making Charlotte Flair or Becky Lynch the likeliest candidates, given the context and story already built into those matchups. There's also an outside chance we see something screwy, like a dual-winner scenario to set up a triple threat between Flair, Lynch and Rousey, a la Bret Hart and Lex Luger in 1994 or Batista and Cena in 2005.
By most any measure, these are the likeliest outcomes for Sunday. On the other hand, WWE often hates to lean toward any scenario that's too predictable. All of the aforementioned outcomes depend on Rousey and Asuka both holding onto their titles. If Lynch were to defeat Asuka and regain the SmackDown women's championship, however, that could throw the result of the women's Royal Rumble into chaos. Flair could certainly win and set up a rematch with Rousey at WrestleMania 34, leaving Lynch to face Asuka once again or come up with a new challenger out of thin air over the next few months.
If Lynch loses her title match and later enters the Royal Rumble, the overwhelming likelihood is that she would go on to win and face Rousey. Though the women's Royal Rumble match doesn't have much precedent -- only one such match of data to go off of, in fact -- the odds seem to point in a different direction. Of the 33 Royal Rumble matches, including the Greatest Royal Rumble and last year's women's Royal Rumble, only two previous winners had a match earlier in the night and went on to enter and win the Royal Rumble. Bret Hart lost a tag team title match (along with his brother Owen) against The Quebecers in 1994 before being crowned a co-winner with Lex Luger in 1994. In 2003, Lesnar's Rumble victory was preceded by a match against the Big Show, which Lesnar had to win to even enter the 30-man match later in the night.
All the same, sometimes the obvious answer is the right answer. Lynch and Rousey is the match the world wants to see, and few would bat an eye if that were the WrestleMania 35 main event. The last time Lynch and Rousey were in the same building at TLC, Rousey went out of her way to cost Lynch the title -- and any such action by Rousey on Sunday would only throw gas on that fire. Flair could certainly get involved in that match as well, but a rematch from WrestleMania 34 against Asuka seems to be as strong an option as SmackDown could ask for come April.
Prediction: Becky Lynch
Universal championship: Brock Lesnar (c) vs. Finn Balor
A lot of fans anticipated Balor would don the persona of "The Demon" for this, one of the highest-profile matches of his career, but as he told ESPN earlier this week, his plan is to face Lesnar as Balor, the man.
Nothing would make a significant portion of the WWE Universe happier than to see Balor come through and pull off what would have to be deemed one of the biggest upsets in recent memory. But if the last few WrestleManias and their results are any indication, WWE prefers to have as much mainstream star power and name recognition near the top of the card as possible.
The closest parallel to this match would be Bryan's showdown with Lesnar at Survivor Series, and though it seems unlikely Balor walks away from this match as a two-time Universal champion, he could well spark a tremendous 2019 to come with a strong performance in Phoenix.
Prediction: Brock Lesnar
WWE championship: Daniel Bryan (c) vs. AJ Styles
Daniel Bryan's rivalry with AJ Styles has helped drive Bryan toward some of the most inspired work of his WWE career. Some fans have been shocked to see how naturally Bryan has taken to the role of the villain, but the evidence speaks for itself.
If Bryan wins decisively on Sunday, even if that victory comes via cheating, it's hard to map out a scenario in which Styles has any real claim on the title moving forward. This rivalry has been a major boost to both men, and if last year's WrestleMania can be used as a guide, WWE's greatest showcase is far more effective as an endpoint to a major rivalry than as a starting point. Styles doesn't have to win the title in order to be victorious and remain in the hunt for the WWE championship.
There might have to be a few twists and turns along the way to carry this feud all the way to WrestleMania (and they could do worse than involving someone like Samoa Joe in the equation). If we're talking about potential WWE championship rivalries worthy of WrestleMania, it's hard to find any that projects to be as strong and as well-told as Styles-Bryan.
Prediction: AJ Styles via DQ
SmackDown women's championship: Asuka (c) vs. Becky Lynch
Since winning the SmackDown women's championship in mid-December, Asuka seemed fairly listless until she started getting directly involved with Lynch. The last two weeks of tension and scrapping have offered a reminder of just how excited fans should be at the prospect of this match. Lynch is one of the most popular WWE superstars in recent memory, and Asuka is one of the most skilled in-ring performers the WWE can boast.
Asuka hasn't been able to fully regain her swagger since losing her undefeated streak to Flair at WrestleMania 34, but a win over Lynch could certainly propel Asuka back to the top in the hurry. It would be doubly effective if Asuka established herself as the uncaring destroyer of anyone who steps in front of her, an approach that propelled Asuka into historic, rarefied air during her time in NXT. Bonus points if she bends the rules along the way.
Lynch seems to have a date with destiny when it comes to Rousey, and it would be a significant disappointment if that's not the path that WWE chooses. A loss here would be quickly forgotten should Lynch go on to win the women's Royal Rumble later in the night.
Prediction: Asuka (with the potential of Ronda Rousey getting involved)
Raw women's championship: Ronda Rousey (c) vs. Sasha Banks
Rousey has faced a variety of opponents over the course of her first year, and she's typically exceeded expectations every time she's stepped into the ring. Sasha Banks isn't quite like anything Rousey's seen to this point, though, and the result could be as strong a performance as Rousey's been involved with to date.
Banks has the ability to make any move look borderline lethal, and both women are capable of giving as well as they get. Few could imagine Rousey losing her Raw women's championship at the Rumble, but we have every right to expect a tremendous match along the way. It would also be foolish to dismiss Rousey stepping into the ring with another of the NXT 4 Horsewomen in this match. No matter the result, this could easily be the next piece of the puzzle in a larger ongoing storyline that could grow to include all of Lynch and Rousey's compatriots before all is said and done.
Prediction: Ronda Rousey
SmackDown tag team championships: The Bar (c) vs. The Miz & Shane McMahon
There are two potential outcomes to this match. The Miz could show that he's been setting up Shane McMahon all along and feed him to the wolves by the end of this title shot, which could lead to a potential WrestleMania match. The other possibility is that Miz and Shane actually beat Sheamus & Cesaro and win the SmackDown tag team titles. That win wouldn't preclude a future rivalry -- in fact, in would likely strengthen it -- but as the SmackDown tag team division struggles to grow beyond matches between The Usos, Bar and New Day every week, this may not be the long-term salve that could start pushing things in the right direction.
Prediction: Shane and Miz win the SmackDown tag team titles and make their dads very proud.
United States championship: Rusev (c) vs. Shinsuke Nakamura
Nakamura has made Rusev's life miserable, and he even contributed to Lana getting injured amidst the chaos. The United States championship was not doing a lot for Nakamura in the time he held it, and unless there's some grand new plan, separating Nakamura from this situation seems to be the smart idea here. Give Rusev a decisive win, bring this rivalry to a close and let the United States championship mean something again.
Prediction: Rusev Day
Cruiserweight championship: Buddy Murphy (c) vs. Akira Tozawa vs. Hideo Itami vs. Kalisto
The performances that Murphy has put together since joining the cruiserweight division, and especially since he won the cruiserweight championship at Super Show-Down, have been astounding. Although 205 Live does not receive the type of spotlight that the performances to which it has played host might warrant, it's all but guaranteed that this Fatal 4-Way title match will turn heads. Here's hoping it'll close out the kickoff show rather than open it, so that the spectacle they put on doesn't happen in front of a sea of empty seats at Chase Field.
Prediction: Buddy Murphy