WWE Elimination Chamber: Will a surprise return alter the road to WrestleMania?

Roman Reigns defends the Universal championship against Goldberg at Elimination Chamber 2022. WWE

The week leading up to WWE Elimination Chamber 2022 has been eventful. With the WWE's return to Saudi Arabia set to feature a record three women's matches, including a one-on-one title match between Becky Lynch and Lita, as well as Goldberg's return and two Elimination Chamber matches that will shape WrestleMania 38, news from beyond WWE's walls shook the professional wrestling industry to its core.

Cody Rhodes left WWE in 2016 to wrestle around the world. He eventually joined forces with wrestling compatriots Matt and Nick Jackson, along with Kenny Omega and Jacksonville Jaguars executive Tony Khan to create All Elite Wrestling in early 2019. AEW quickly became the most successful and prominent competitor to WWE in professional wrestling since WCW two decades ago, with Rhodes as an Executive Vice President. But on Tuesday Rhodes announced his departure from the company.

With rumors swirling around a potential WWE return, there's already buzz about Rhodes finding himself placed into the mix at WrestleMania.

Whether or not he shows up in a WWE ring at Elimination Chamber, or in the weeks to come, the layout of the two-night WrestleMania 38 card will become a lot clearer by the time Elimination Chamber goes off the air.

Could Cody Rhodes actually show up at Elimination Chamber on Saturday?

As of a week ago, Rhodes leaving AEW was a near unthinkable outcome, but now anything seems possible. And with only two matches for WrestleMania set in stone -- Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar, and Charlotte Flair vs. Ronda Rousey -- the possibilities are vast.

All of the movement since AEW began has been from WWE stars moving toward AEW. But with some AEW contracts coming up for the first time, Rhodes' swift departure from the company and a lean WWE roster following waves of cuts, talent could start moving in the other direction, just like WWE and WCW in the mid-to-late 1990s.

If WWE is intent on making maximum impact from such a signing, re-debuting Rhodes at the last major event before WrestleMania at the peak of his buzz would seem to make a lot of sense.

Seth Rollins and Kevin Owens are among the many wrestlers without a dance partner for Dallas, and both matches would make sense.

Regardless of timing, WWE will likely have a lot more eyeballs tuning in to watch what does (or doesn't) happen on Saturday after the events of this week.

Could Goldberg swoop in and short-circuit a Universal title run... again?

Since Goldberg made his return to wrestling in 2016, he's dropped into WWE twice just before WrestleMania to win the Universal championship from a year-round performer. In 2017, Goldberg beat Kevin Owens in 17 seconds at Fastlane to deny Owens a WrestleMania world title defense at WrestleMania 33. In 2020, Goldberg returned at Super ShowDown and immediately derailed the momentum of the dominant, and now released, "Fiend" Bray Wyatt.

So could history repeat itself a third time, as Goldberg returns to face Roman Reigns for the Universal championship at Elimination Chamber?

Goldberg's first two such wins were telegraphed pretty hard. His win over Owens set up a title match against Lesnar in 2017. His victory over Wyatt in 2020 was supposed to lead to a title match against Reigns, until the outbreak of the COVID pandemic led to a pivot and a match against Braun Strowman. In 2022, Reigns vs. Lesnar is as set in stone as a WrestleMania match could be.

Expect Reigns to score an emphatic victory as he finally gets his shot at Goldberg.

The state of the WWE championship

Reigns' brief absence from WWE due to a positive COVID test around the New Year unintentionally threw the WWE championship into chaos. Lesnar, who was set to challenge Reigns at Day 1, was instead inserted into the multi-way WWE title match on that show, and then won the title. That sent Big E, the former champion, into an on-screen tailspin that he's still yet to pull out of. Bobby Lashley then stepped in and beat Lesnar at the Royal Rumble due to Reigns and Paul Heyman plotting Lesnar's demise.

So what comes next? The six-way men's Elimination Chamber match will determine who walks into WrestleMania the WWE champion. Will Lashley successfully defend his title and walk into WrestleMania with the title for the second straight year? If he wins, will the events of Saturday's match, which features Lesnar, Seth Rollins, Austin Theory, Riddle and AJ Styles, dictate who his opponent will be?

Or will Lesnar win back the title, in another of WWE's misguided attempts to make a can't-miss Reigns-Lesnar match even bigger. In the on-screen WWE mythos, Lesnar already proved he has enough gravitas to demand a title match at will, and that's before his utterly unnecessary men's Royal Rumble match victory in January.

One need only look back a few years to WrestleMania 35 when Charlotte Flair won the SmackDown women's title shortly before WrestleMania to make the main event a double title. It was clear that a hastily cobbled multi-championship scenario does little to improve the fanfare.

This weekend, with no other clear winners for Saturday's Elimination Chamber match, the possibility of a Lesnar win looms large.

Of the rest of the field, Rollins would seem to have the best case to win. He's coming off a Universal title challenge against Reigns at the Royal Rumble that ended in Reigns getting himself DQ'd and mystifyingly not having to run it back against Rollins in the aftermath. Styles and Riddle are wild cards as well.

Who should be Becky Lynch's WrestleMania opponent?

Becky Lynch vs. Lita is a dream match between stars of two separate generations of women's wrestlers. It feels like a WrestleMania-caliber clash. But when Lynch leaves Saudi Arabia with her title intact -- and she certainly will -- she'll do so with her WrestleMania title challenger set as well.

The women's Elimination Chamber match features six women vying for that right: a returning Alexa Bliss, Bianca Belair, Doudrop, Liv Morgan, Nikki A.S.H. and Rhea Ripley. Four of the six women in this match have held a world title, including Ripley and Belair, who each won title matches at WrestleMania 37. Belair, Doudrop and Morgan were each recent challengers to Lynch's title. It's Bliss' first match since September.

The biggest WrestleMania 38 match for Lynch, and likely WWE as a whole, would've been Lynch vs. Rousey -- resolving their remaining tensions stemming from their 2019 WrestleMania clash. But with Flair getting that nod instead, Belair seems to have the most promising trajectory of the bunch.

The complete Elimination Chamber card