Tonight is the last brand specific PPV: WWE Fastlane, which in case you didn’t know is the last stop before Wrestlemania! We have six matches ahead of us an- wait, six? When did that happen? There’s a women’s tag team match? Huh?
It doesn’t really matter, and not just because that likely won’t have any impact whatsoever on Wrestlemania, but also because that’s amazingly not the match I’m writing about. No instead, I’m writing about a match between two people whose appearances on SmackDown over the last month or so have been few and far between. 2018 men’s Royal Rumble winner Shinsuke Nakamura vs possibly the most popular man on the roster right now, Rusev.
This is a match that has blatantly been put together as one of those “we have two big names who have nothing to do for a PPV, and we need to kill time” matches. Worse, it’s really not what either man needs right now.
Rusev needs to be on TV, and then to be in a role where he might win. On the last PPV before Wrestlemania, facing the Royal Rumble winner who will be challenging for the WWE Championship, he has no chance. It wouldn’t make any sense for WWE to weaken one of their biggest stars right before his biggest match on the main roster, and that’s not how WWE does things.
Even if it was as a tag team alongside Aiden English, a match against Chad Gable & Shelton Benjamin would be a much better spot for Rusev on this show. The fans love him, they want to see him in a featured position. It’s been weeks since Shane McMahon told the WWE Universe that he heard them chanting Rusev Day, and I don’t think Rusev has been in a match between then and tonight. Rusev just needs something, anything, and he’s popular enough right now that it will work.
There always seems to be the recurring thought that WWE, and Vince McMahon specifically, doesn’t listen to the fans anymore. I think it’s difficult to argue against that using Rusev as a case study. Trying to figure out the logic in not using him is a baffling process – surely they want to cash in on his popularity? I get that it’s Wrestlemania season and there are plans that have been in place for months, but this is a show with multiple throwaway matches, surely he could have been given a spotlight here even if it only leads to an Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal spot at Mania.
And then there’s Shinsuke Nakamura. There’s a fine line between keeping someone’s appearances special to aid their aura, and someone just being absent. I think WWE are just on the wrong side of that right now. After losing so much to Jinder Mahal Nakamura’s star power was seriously damaged. He will be fine at Wrestlemania because of the type of crowd, but that’s not going to last with casual fans if he’s not shown to be dominant before then.
After the Royal Rumble, Nakamura should have been running through the lower to mid-card heels. He could have beaten the likes of Mike Kanellis, Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin, and then after Fastlane the likes of Baron Corbin and Dolph Ziggler again. He needs to be shown to be a level above in the ring again, and not just a charismatic presence.
Pairing him with Rusev does Nakamura no favours either. As I said before, Nakamura will win, but beating someone as popular as Rusev may not do him any favours. Ideally he would have faced someone like The Miz on this show, someone who the fans could easily rally against and want to see Nakamura beat. Ironically, the closest SmackDown has to that is Jinder Mahal.
And despite the matches not being great last summer, I think it would have been the right call to have Shinsuke Nakamura vs Jinder Mahal at Fastlane. The fans would have been right behind Nakamura, and he would have avenged his previous WWE Championship losses on the way to battling for the title again at Wrestlemania. Plus, Jinder wouldn’t have been hurt by it, he could still have been inserted into the US Title picture by Mania, since it seems unlikely he’ll be added to that match tonight.
Instinct tells me that Nakamura is going to walk out of Wrestlemania as WWE Champion, clearing the way for AJ Styles to move to Raw in another Superstar Shake-Up. But if a Seth Rollins or Finn Balor comes to Tuesday nights at the same time, Nakamura might not be the clear superstar face he should be. He could be undermined by being at the top of the show as the second most popular superstar.
But that’s quite a way down the line for now. There are more immediate worries for Rusev’s spot. And that’s not going to get better tonight. But I think the crowd should be hot for it, and it could be a really good match. WWE just need to decide if they want the Bulgarian Brute to be a face or a heel. Because a throwaway match between the number one contender contender to the WWE Championship at Wrestlemania and a guy who hasn’t wrestled in weeks isn’t a good thing when it’s the latter who’s more popular.