Whenever the sun sets on WrestleMania each year, once the highs diminish the focus almost always shifts toward where the stories branch next. With Roman Reigns and Bobby Lashley retaining, with new IC and U.S. champions being crowned, and with the guard changing in the women’s divisions with new faces sitting atop the thrones, it’s an opportunity for WWE to build a new foundation heading into the great product reset that typically follows the grandest wrestling show on Earth.
The weekend’s shows saw the winds of change, which began with NXT’s top titles changing hands mid-week, continue through the two-day event with Bianca Belair, Rhea Ripley, Apollo Crews and Sheamus all picking up title wins across night one and night two. This is an opportunity for WWE to step ahead from the high of their big show — the first with substantial fans in attendance — and continue that momentum in the coming months in the build into SummerSlam.
Sasha Banks and Belair stole night one. Even if the build was underwhelming as can easily be argued, the match on its own told the story that needed to be told. Belair looked every bit the world beater that night, and there was nothing Banks could do story-wise to gain any momentum against her challenger. I was an early adopter of the notion that Banks and Belair needed to main event night one, conceding Reigns and Edge were going to headline the second show. They deserved it, and it was warranted. Few could match the work Banks, alongside Bayley put forward throughout 2020 in terms of stories, ringwork and the longevity of their arcs that finally, firmly established Banks as an elite champion. She deserved to be there on her own merit. Couple that with the need to create new stars for the shows, once Belair won the Rumble it only made more sense to match the two up and “make” Belair off a convincing win over Banks. Within the match Belair outmuscled, outclassed and outworked Banks, and ultimately the champ floundered and lost her title. That’s where this gets interesting on Smackdown.
I can see the argument in branching them off now, but the opportune road to take is them having a more balanced rematch to blow off the feud at Backlash with Belair again going over convincingly and cleanly. That accomplishes two things: First it sets in stone that the first wasn’t a fluke, that Belair is a serious threat and a new standard for the division to topple, and it doesn’t harm the bulletproof Banks. And she should hold the title until SummerSlam at least; they need to capitalize on her story and the emotion deriving from her win and continue forward on that story point. Athletically there are few on her level, and coupled with her character, it makes her a good babyface champion. She can benefit from being in the ring more with Banks though, who has proven she can work with anyone and have great matches. The path forward for Belair is to continue her feud with Banks, and payoff the story definitively which serves to firmly set her as a champion off the back of the much more established Banks.
Once we hit that point, they need to be separated. Unless there’s an outside reason for Banks to step away now, do another month, build out the story further and remove any doubt from Belair’s title win. With her being a fresh face at the top, then you can rotate in heel challengers, give new people opportunities and cycle in stalwart threats to really challenge and push her. That includes cycling Bayley into the mix, who should perhaps be one of the first up in lieu of having no program around WrestleMania at all. There are many cards to play with Belair as champion, many stories to tell with her on the back of the different characters WWE has stockpiled. She’s athletically gifted, and many of the women on the roster can play right into that and work around and with her.
Sasha Banks is another matter. She needs to be credited for the work she and Bayley did last year, when they were the only seriously entertaining, bankable act on Smackdown prior to Roman Reigns’ return. They carried the show, that isn’t a debate point, it just is. Recall for a moment though prior to winning the Smackdown title that she was also the Raw Women’s champion, a title she quickly lost. Losing big matches is built into her long-term story. Face or heel, she drops the ball (as a character) in big matches. She doesn’t get it done. And so we come around to her defeating Bayley, and immediately the billing becomes her not just winning the title but defending the title successfully. The monkey is off her back, until it isn’t anymore.
Her loss on Saturday night retreads old ground for her. It’s a reminder for her character that as big as she thinks she is, on the biggest stage of all and when it mattered most she lost again. That’s an interesting story wrinkle to come back to, and moreover gives her something to come back from. While I think they could shift now, I think it’s more important long-term for her to be decisively beaten again and rebuild from there. You can then tell year-long stories with both (if you wanted to make Belair a long-term champion too) and build toward the bigger events throughout the year, if not WrestleMania 38. The Smackdown situation is the best opportunity from the weekend to tell really good stories over the next several months with a new champion.
It’s the same situation on Raw, however while the Smackdown title had the prestige of two lengthy reigns with Bayley and Banks as champions anchored by good stories and better matches, Asuka had been languishing as Raw champion in terms of pure booking. She herself delivers always, but the Raw women’s title booking has been hot and cold over the last year since Becky Lynch forfeited it. Asuka is a great character and a great champion, but the title has played second string to alternate feuds, such as her teaming with Charlotte for the tag titles; it was never the focus and surely Charlotte’s positive COVID test forced some tinkering. Nonetheless, endemic to the company, the title’s build has not been stellar and overall its booking has left much to be desired over the last several months.
Ripley’s title win works much in the same way as Belair’s victory. Ripley is a fresh face at the top, who’s a little more of an unknown with her spending most of her time on NXT beyond her brief appearances leading into last year’s WrestleMania opposite Charlotte. With her being as physically imposing as she is, it’s an opportunity to build another piece for the future by having her work with more new faces in the women’s division, some of the old stalwart contenders but more importantly I think she and Charlotte need to have an extended feud, perhaps with a title change, that ultimately, triumphantly puts Ripley over Charlotte to erase her loss last year at WrestleMania. Being younger than Belair as well, they do have the benefit of having much more time to build her and refine her, but with them having similarly physical ring styles you can run the same template and create a optical shift in the division. For now though, coming out of Raw it seems we’re headed toward a triple threat between Ripley, Asuka and the returning Charlotte.
If the objective was to build the future this weekend, Belair and Ripley is a step in that direction. What matters now is how they capitalize on what’s in front of them, develop both further; which is always the question and concern.
IC and U.S. Titles
The Intercontinental title is a little more clear cut, although you simply never know what is planned on the company’s end.
WrestleMania weekend saw Sheamus and Apollo Crews win their respective titles rather convincingly (with or without interference). The United States title picture is a little murkier at the moment, however given that Riddle was wrestling a throwaway match against Lashley to open Raw, it’s fair to presume he and Sheamus are moving away from each other. While this may still change, it’s a little concerning that the new U.S. champion can only secure an appearance on Raw’s post-show. That isn’t how you build buzz around the titles, especially one with the title’s history, that is now owned by a new champion.
Regarding the path forward, if Riddle is being separated from the picture, it’s a little unclear what that pathway actually is. Ali could be given an opportunity. Aleister Black could be re-debuted as a face, taken seriously and be given a shot. They could capitalize on Damian Priest, however judging from Raw he’s still embroiled in his feud with Miz and Morrison, and is reportedly dealing with an injury. A returning Keith Lee could be a possibility as well, and is probably the most best, most likely option. While you can fault WWE for not really giving their secondary titles too much thought at this point, you can still usually point toward a handful of wrestlers who could be challenging and too few jump to mind right now; none of them you can really take seriously due to their previous booking. Some of that is circumstance, but it feels like the title is in a holding pattern.
However, the IC title situation is a little more interesting. While the branding for Backlash leaves this in question (WrestleMania Backlash) and implies many of the matches will in some form be rehashings of the Mania card, there’s an opportunity here to start building Big E toward a Universal title shot. This line of thinking could all be for naught and notwithstanding Backlash, but I don’t see any value in retreading Apollo and Big E; the caveat is what WWE has planned for Edge and Daniel Bryan on Smackdown, but nonetheless Reigns should not be losing the Universal title to either of them. I’m not sure how much more mileage the feud has left in it, if any at all, after Reigns’ double pin on Sunday night. While they could drag this out, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to rehash the 3-way dynamic. I just don’t otherwise see what Reigns will do in the short term, but you can easily slot Big E into a feud with Edge or someone in the upper card if you keep Edge with Reigns, while you can place Bryan into the IC title picture opposite Crews. Crews deserves a run with the title, he’s a good athlete and someone who would work well with someone like Bryan.
They need to be looking toward SummerSlam now. Yes it is four months away, but with no other clear challengers on the horizon for Reigns, foresight is key. Once this week shakes out, I think the most likely scenarios are Edge and Reigns having their singles match, Big E moving onto another challenge (bring back King of the Ring. King Big E. Book it), and Crews defending his title against names who carry some value. There are countless WWE tropes they’ll likely play that will carbon copy WrestleMania, so this paragraph is really a gigantic waste of time. So we’ll see.
Much more similarly to the women’s division, the world titles are a little more open, however Lashley and McIntyre are already re-booked for Backlash as of Raw’s conclusion. This again shouldn’t come as a shock considering Backlash’s historical relationship to WrestleMania, but even so, there just aren’t any other ready-made challengers currently. That can change with some NXT call-ups, or the annual roster shakeup/draft/refresh, but for now this is the only logical story point to make. The larger question coming out of their date at Backlash is who comes out as champion. Lashley deserves more time as champion, and there is still a money match on the table for SummerSlam if WWE can get Lesnar back into the U.S. for the one show. There are challengers you can have Lashley run through already on the roster, such as McIntyre in May, maybe Jeff Hardy, Shelton Benjamin, or even Riddle who can come back from his drubbing Monday night. Interject one other longer program and you can have Lashley carry the belt easily into August. Whatever happens then is politically out of WWE’s hands. Another option you could seriously consider if the desire is there is John Cena and Lashley.
This feud needs to be McIntyre’s blow-off away from the world title scene for now. One option, considering the dearth of challengers on Smackdown, is to move him over to Friday nights to rekindle his quarrel with Reigns stemming from Survivor Series. It’s something that needs to be seriously considered, because much like the U.S. title on Raw there isn’t anything readily apparent for Reigns to do other than continue feuding with Edge until May at least. While Reigns’ pin on Sunday was badass and cool, it also stamps out any legitimacy either loser has to the throne. They can kind of twist it if they play up that Edge never received his singles match, but this feud can’t go past May one way or the other and I cannot see them taking the belt off Reigns anytime soon. It benefits the brand and the title most right now to have him reign for a long period, and be consistently active; as opposed to the contrary, which was a problem with Lesnar as champion. If McIntyre does not come over, I think we’re looking at Big E, Cesaro, Hardy and maybe Rey Mysterio in the short-to-medium term. You can even run a short story with the Mysterios and Reigns to showcase Dominic. Those are all multi-month programs that would serve Reigns’ further.
The women’s titles and WWE title certainly have the most options for contenders, while the other belts are going to need to some building and shuffling to install new contenders in scenes where challengers aren’t clear past May. For the moment, as easy as it would be to slide back into McIntyre as WWE champion or put the Raw Women’s title back on Charlotte, now is the time to break new ground — not simply retread what has been the standard for the last year through the pandemic. Anything less is a missed opportunity.