Small steps forward.
That's probably the best we can ask for during a time of year in which Money in the Bank -- arguably the biggest pay-per-view outside the big four -- is still more than three weeks away.
After a disappointing, if not confusing, Monday Night Raw, SmackDown Live once again proved advancement in storytelling and decent action supersede any sort of attempts at clowning around. No, this show was not anything close to perfection, with some promos a little too long and the levity falling flat. But, hey, Bobby Lashley's pretend sisters weren't anywhere in sight, so that in itself was a win.
He and Jeff Hardy ended SmackDown with a business-as-usual approach, one that offered excitement from start to finish and a satisfying result. But most important, the showdown was bereft of too much extraneous hoopla. Yes, Samoa Joe was hanging out ringside, awaiting the victor he'll face next week for a berth in MITB, but Bryan and Hardy thrilled an engaged audience with their high-energy affair.
No doubt, this was the top match of the week on WWE television. Even though he's been back for only a couple of months, there's no ring rust for Bryan. He is a one-of-a-kind performer who's had plenty of time in front of a mic, whether it was laying down the law as general manager or delivering an emotional farewell/return soliloquy.
Bryan is most comfortable capturing our attention by dazzling us with what he can do inside the squared circle. After a thorough beatdown of Big Cass last week that rendered the big man too injured to compete Tuesday, Bryan changed tactics against Hardy, relying on his guile and acumen to beat the U.S. champion and keep alive his hopes of reaching the MITB ladder match on June 17.
It was hardly an easy win. After a few moments of feeling each other out Tuesday, Hardy delivered his usual array of aerial theatrics against Bryan, including a Whisper in the Wind, then a Twist of Fate and near Swanton Bomb finisher (Bryan got his knees up just in time). Bryan eventually emerged from the match thanks to an inescapable Heel Hook, a submission move that forced Hardy to tap.
As Bryan celebrated with the elated crowd, Joe grabbed the mic and warned Bryan not to rest on his laurels for too long, as he has big plans to squash his much smaller opponent next week and snare his spot in MITB.
If Bryan and Hardy was a solid showdown, the Joe-Bryan clash has the potential to be that much better. It's a terrific juxtaposition of styles between two guys who have unrelenting intensity and extensive history in the squared circle. Whether Bryan emerges from that one as the winner -- and most indications suggest he will -- you can at a minimum count on him to salvage any sort of nonsensical narratives leading up to that match.
It's just what he does.
Hits & misses
OK, I'll admit it: A week after I lamented the fact that any stipulation was needed at all, I am intrigued by the prospect of AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura throwing down until one of them cannot respond. On Tuesday, Nakamura chose the precondition for their Money in the Bank showdown for the WWE championship: a last-man-standing duel, meaning one performer has to essentially incapacitate the other to the extent he cannot answer the ref's count of 10. The rivalry between these two has morphed from a battle of well-established stars to an all-out, acrimonious dog fight. Rendering one of them a loser by knockout only seems fitting.
So who's it going to be? We were supposed to find out which New Day member would get the nod to join seven other men in the MITB ladder match, but alas, we did not. But as The Miz said, Xavier Woods has leaped further into stardom quicker than his two teammates and likely deserves a shot -- especially when you consider both Big E and Kofi Kingston have nice singles resumes, while Woods does not. So, yeah, it's going to be Woods, right?
On Tuesday, The Miz seemed to end any aspirations Big E might have of winning the briefcase by laying him out with a skull-crushing finale. Of course, Miz needed some assistance from The Bar, who interfered in the match, to upset the powerhouse babyface. Still, a win is a win.
Move over, Rusev Day, it's Lana's turn. In a match that lasted less than a minute, she stunned Billie Kay, thanks to a nasty kick to the IIconic member's head, followed by an X-factor to win it. And wouldn't you know? The fans, led by Aiden English's cheerleading, went berserk for Lana Day. ("Lana is the best; Lana is No. 1," they cried in unison.) Those few seconds showed Lana has the chops to make a Rusev-life renaissance. Imagine both coming out of Money in the Bank with respective briefcases in tow. Odds are slim, but it would be pretty cool.
- WWE (@WWE) May 23, 2018
It's been quite a year for Naomi, who, despite not having the SmackDown championship like last year, won the inaugural women's battle royal at WrestleMania, then Tuesday beat Sonya Deville to grab one of the final spots in the Money in the Bank ladder match. Naomi is a terrific performer and deserves every shot she gets, but it's too bad Deville can't gain any traction. She has a Ronda Rousey-like MMA style that seems like it would catch on with the WWE universe if she were given a chance. She just needs, you know, a chance.
Andrade "Cien" Almas, along with business partner Zelina Vega, spent little time in the ring once again. Facing another jobber dude, Almas was dominant. The slow build is a smart play, but at some point, he's going to have to take on stiffer competition. Randy Orton seems to be a logical starting point, no?
Somewhat surprising to see Gallows and Anderson come out on top of The Usos, who have far and away been the most dominant tag team in the past year, to earn the No. 1 contender's spot. The former Bullet Club members will square off against The Bludgeon Brothers at Money in the Bank. Early prediction: an Erick Rowan-Luke Harper win in less than two minutes.