Shinsuke Nakamura barely had time to raise his arms in celebration after his latest win, when John Cena's music hit. Cena strolled from the backstage area and, before entering the ring to face AJ Styles in the main event of SmackDown Live, stopped and glared at Nakamura, who looked back with palpable frustration.
Before they left each other's side, both turned their heads in unison and pointed toward the large illuminated WrestleMania sign in the distance. It was, of course, a not-so-subtle message of all that gold that will be on the line in just under six weeks' time -- and that Cena's sudden presence on SmackDown and in the WWE championship picture could derail Nakamura's destiny of a one-on-one dream match against Styles in New Orleans.
Nakamura, by virtue of his Royal Rumble win, already earned his spot in the WrestleMania WWE championship match, while Cena's prospects are hazy at best. First, he had to beat the current champ Styles on Tuesday night and, if successful, would be added to the Fatal 5-way battle at Fastlane, where the title will be on the line. Assuming all that went his way, Cena would then need to take down a collection of WWE stars in that match -- just for the right to face Nakamura.
Pretty daunting, no? Perhaps, but Cena didn't hop over to Tuesday nights to find himself lying on his back as he did Sunday at Elimination Chamber. Arguably the most accomplished performer in the history of this business, Cena had a Plan B lined up, and it started with Styles -- as SmackDown commissioner Shane McMahon announced in the beginning of the show.
The two don't have a long history, but they have an indelible one. Three times they had met in pay-per-view events, including their last encounter at the 2017 Royal Rumble, where Cena won his 16th heavyweight title.
Just like that match, this one, as WWE announcer Corey Graves noted on air, had a big-fight feel. And like that match, the action Tuesday was top-level quality. It was desperation time for Cena, who started quickly by first landing a Hurricane DDT, followed by a devastating facebuster and his first of a handful of AA bombs on Styles. But Cena could muster no more than a two-count for all his efforts.
From there, Cena nailed his opponent with a code red and locked in a paralyzing STF, but couldn't quite force Styles to tap. For his part, Styles was becoming equaling as effective as the battle wore on, striking Cena with a huge clothesline and a Phenomenal Forearm. But he, too, failed to fully keep his foe on the mat.
The turning point came soon after when an infuriated Cena drilled Styles through the announcer's table with another AA bomb, sending the crowd into delirium. "Wow, Styles is broken!" Graves shouted in disbelief. "And so it our table."
- WWE (@WWE) February 28, 2018
Styles courageously made his way back into the ring before the 10-count, but he had for all intents and purposes been beaten. Ultimately, Cena would deliver a final AA bomb for the win, earning him inclusion into Fastlane's all-important main event on March 11.
This was a five-star finale to a refreshing, albeit far-from-perfect, episode of SmackDown. Cena and Styles had the crowd roaring from start to finish. After the final bell, the rest of the participants in the now six-person upcoming championship match made a predictable beeline to the ring to clobber each other. It's too bad the creative team went in this direction, because the shenanigans failed to allow the audience to fully digest the outstanding Cena-Styles clash, instead stooping to the usual tactics of an all-out fiasco, as if we didn't already know the divisive feelings they all have toward each other.
Still, the addition of Cena was exactly what SmackDown needed. For a couple of weeks, the show had grown painfully stale. The never-ending McMahon-Daniel Bryan dynamic had continued to obfuscate, maybe even bore, viewers, while Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn have been running in circles.
In the short term anyway, Cena offers a fresh take, a reason to talk SmackDown at the office water cooler. Will he prevail at Fastlane and earn his way into one of the featured matches at WrestleMania? It's hard to imagine we'll get anything but a Styles-Nakamura showdown. The history and parallels between them are fascinating, and the matchup on a WWE platform is new and exciting.
If Cena falls short in a couple of weeks, he'll again lament his road-less path to WrestleMania, but he'll be there. Not just because he's John Cena, but because he can still perform at the level he did Tuesday night.
Hits & misses
Baron Corbin has recently looked as good as he ever has since joining the SmackDown roster. On Tuesday, he took out Sami Zayn in a high-energy affair -- before Dolph Ziggler, one of the six men in the upcoming Fastlane pay-per-view, jetted down to the ring and struck Corbin with a zig-zag post-match (after nailing Owens, who was on commentary, with a superkick). Here's hoping Corbin -- and Ziggler, too -- can come out of Fastlane on a positive note.
Solid effort from Ruby Riott, who beat Naomi on Tuesday, but the real takeaway here is that Carmella continues to loom in the background with her Money in the Bank briefcase. Not that we're keeping track, but it's been 247 days and counting since she won it (for a second time). So, does she attempt to cash in at Fastlane, or WrestleMania?
- WWE (@WWE) February 28, 2018
In case you're wondering, The New Day are more than pancake-wielding goofballs. Ahead of their showdown with The Usos at Fastlane, the five men had a high-intensity verbal sparring match that got serious in a hurry. Big E was most vocal when he shouted, "While we hosted WrestleMania, you were in back eating catering. We didn't get [to the WWE] because of our dads." Of course, Big E also quipped the rivalry between the two teams is "hotter than my inner thighs in the summer." Gross.
The tension between The Usos and New Day was broken when The Bludgeon Brothers cleared the ring, mallets in hand. If that isn't foreshadowing ...
In a backstage interview with his upcoming Fastlane foe Bobby Roode, Randy Orton reminded us that the United States championship is the only title he hasn't won in his 16 years in the WWE. If he were to win, Orton would become the 22nd performer to capture "Grand Slam" honors by owning a world championship, both secondary titles and tag-team gold.
This just in: Rusev is so over right now, and to a lesser extent, so is Aiden English by proxy. So why does the creative team insist on keeping their heel vibe alive? English told the crowd Tuesday that none of them deserve to celebrate Rusev Day. But here's the thing ... they do! They want to. Just go with it. Embrace it. Don't foil this opportunity because Rusev Day won't last forever. Or will it? Let me look at a calendar.