John Cena’s Equal in the Ring, Daniel Bryan's Conspicuous Absence and Other Takeaways From WWE Fastlane

Justin Barrasso
Sports Illustrated
John Cena’s Equal in the Ring, Daniel Bryan's Conspicuous Absence and Other Takeaways From WWE Fastlane
John Cena’s Equal in the Ring, Daniel Bryan's Conspicuous Absence and Other Takeaways From WWE Fastlane

Wrestling is all about the chase.

Steve Austin and Hulk Hogan are both 6-time WWE champions, but Hogan spent 1,600-plus more days as champ than Austin. The reason behind this is simple: the business transitioned, particularly in the 1990s, to the top babyface constantly pursuing the title but struggling to attain the gold.

WWE’s Fastlane pay-per-view on Sunday served as the final stop on the road to WrestleMania. Fittingly, it took place only hours after Tiger Woods’ failed attempt to reclaim a PGA tour title. Woods finished one stroke behind the winner, which was the equivalent of John Cena—seeking his 17th WWE championship—getting to two but never the one-two-three pinfall.

Cena failed in his bid to set the new world title record, and it’s the reason only one of Austin’s title reigns lasted over 100 days: wrestling is all about the chase.

For WWE, that chase leads next to April’s WrestleMania.

• ?Shinsuke Nakamura defeated Rusev

• Randy Orton won the United States title in his victory over Bobby Roode

• Carmella and Natalya Neidhart defeated Becky Lynch and Naomi

• The Usos and New Day fought to a no contest due to outside interference

• Charlotte successfully defended the SmackDown women’s title against Ruby Riott

• ?AJ Styles pinned Kevin Owens to retain the WWE title in a six-pack challenge match that also included John Cena, Dolph Ziggler, Baron Corbin, and Sami Zayn.

1. Despite some of the Fastlane matches coming in with little or no story (a United States championship feud over a Top 10 list seems straight out of the pages of the “New Generation” playbook), this is the type of show where WWE regularly shines.

The WWE roster is incredibly talented. Pay-per-views still serve as a safe place for fans who desperately want to watch wrestling matches. Even if the lack of interest in this card is justification for WWE’s decision to move to dual-branded shows after ‘Mania, I am of the opinion that, if you enjoy wrestling, even if we don’t look back on this card with the fondness of Savage-Steamboat at WrestleMania III, it will be worth the price of the Network.

2. Opening with Shinsuke Nakamura—and closing with AJ Styles—is a great segue to the most must-see match at WrestleMania 34. Hopefully this does not mean Rusev is collateral damage that is buried along the way.

3. Rusev and Nakamura worked an entertaining opening match, which was significantly enhanced by the energy of the crowd in Columbus, Ohio. The finish saw Nakamura knock Rusev out with a second kinshasha.

4. Imagine the excited reaction of wrestling fans if you told them in 2015 that Orton would feud with Bobby Roode over the United States championship.

But the storyline—arguing over their spots on SmackDown’s Top 10 list—is absurd. The lack of realism really grinds my gears because this program should have such a realistic feel to it, considering that Orton headlined WWE shows for years while Roode toiled away in TNA. Roode could have argued that, promotions aside, he was every bit as talented and deserving of Orton’s success. Instead, we have a Top 10 list.

5. Can anyone describe Roode in a sentence or less?

Roode has worked on the WWE main roster for seven months, but still does not have a definable character.

Wrestling is all about selling a product, which is the wrestler, and the audience needs to know what it bought. Beyond an entrance, which is fantastic, the presentation of Roode in-ring and on the mic has been very vanilla. Roode needs some type of conflict to take his work to another level.

6. Speaking of overcoming conflict and chasing a title, Roode lost his U.S. title courtesy of an RKO. This is Orton’s first U.S. title run in his 16-year WWE career, and the idea that he is better than Roode sets up a really solid story for a WrestleMania rematch. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that this is not a watered down three-way with Jinder Mahal.

7. My head is spinning from the match’s aftermath.

See if you can stay with me here. Mahal’s music hit as Orton celebrated his win, and he started his beat down on Orton, who was exhausted after his match with Roode. Then, selling no injuries or even fatigue, Roode returned to the ring to give a Glorious DDT to Mahal, and then another to Orton. Even though he lost the match (and the title), Roode’s “Glorious” music then played.

Good luck applying logic to that.

8. I’m thrilled that Sami Zayn is a heel and aligned with Kevin Owens, even if there is constant in-fighting and inherent trust issues between the two. They’d make a strong addition to an already talented tag team scene on SmackDown.

9. It’s always interesting to look at a wrestler’s yearly trajectory.

Orton won the 2017 Royal Rumble match and then defeated Bray Wyatt for the WWE championship (in a very underwhelming match) at WrestleMania 33. Rusev rode a tank to his match against Cena at WrestleMania 31, fought in a six-man tag the following year, missed last year’s card due to injury, and seemingly cannot get a singles match for WrestleMania 34.

Naomi won the SmackDown women’s title last year at ‘Mania, but she is now just a complimentary character–along with the equally talented Becky Lynch–stuck in the shadows as we head into WrestleMania 34.

10. Unfortunately for Carmella, this is the worst possible time to hold the Money in the Bank briefcase. If the post-Mania women’s champions are Nia Jax and Asuka, there is no room whatsoever for Carmella to win either title.

11. Call me crazy, but my gut tells me that Xavier Woods will never host Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards.

12. The Usos and New Day have always combined for compelling tag matches, but their work is at an entirely new level with the contrasting personalities of the two teams.

The New Day’s comedy act is layered and nuanced, but it is comedy nevertheless. Jimmy and Jey Uso are perfectly playing the role of bitter champions, evolving considerably from their days as face-painted protagonists.

13. The Big E promo from last Tuesday’s SmackDown—where he dropped his entire comedy act—served as an audition for how Big E would perform on the mic as a singles star (and, without question, he passed).

With that said, Big E is a disappointing choice to sit out of the match. The Big E/Kofi Kingston pairing is the money team for New Day, but hopefully this can be part of the storyline for a rematch against The Usos at WrestleMania with Big E included in the match.

14. For those who enjoy tag team wrestling, and I do, it is a major disappointment to see the Bludgeon Brothers booked to interfere in the tag title match.

Beyond the fact that the Bludgeon Brothers’ music played during the match, which makes absolutely zero sense, their inclusion into the storyline only weakens a great feud between two of the top tag teams in the world.

The Bludgeon Brothers would have been a great addition to the tag title picture after WrestleMania, but instead it appears we are destined for another multi-tag match.

15. WrestleMania should not have a spot on the card for every talent.

WWE’s insistence on multi-man matches—which is now the direction for the intercontinental title match, the United States title match, and the SmackDown tag team title match—serves to dilutes the matches, not highlight them.

16. I’m trying to search for positives after that tag team debacle, but this is not going to help: the 2017 Fastlane marked the inexplicable end to Charlotte’s undefeated pay-per-view streak when she lost to Bayley.

17. I had the chance to watch Ruby Riott during her time as Heidi Lovelace on the indies throughout New England, particularly in Beyond Wrestling, and hopefully she and Charlotte Flair get an opportunity to really shine here.

18. It feels a lot longer than a year ago, but Bill Goldberg headlined that card against Owens.

The 2017 Fastlane card also included Neville, Rich Swann, and Enzo Amore.

19. Charlotte defeated Riott with the figure-eight, and the story made sense: when the odds are even, and Riott is without her squad, Flair is simply better.

After the match, Asuka arrived–in a fashion only she can–to challenge Charlotte for the SmackDown women’s title at WrestleMania, which was reported in the February 14 edition Week in Wrestling column on SI.com.

20. Shane McMahon has arrived for a ringside view of the six-pack challenge WWE championship main event, which begs the question—why didn’t McMahon intervene when the Bludgeon Brothers wreaked havoc on the tag team title match? This could be easily solved by a quick line from the broadcast team, who could simply state that McMahon is looking into suspending Harper and Rowan for their actions.

I’ve always been a firm believer that, as long as wrestling promotions present storylines in a legitimate fashion, the fan base will respond accordingly.

21. Conspicuous by his absence at Fastlane—which Tom Phillips explained as “away at a family function”—was Daniel Bryan.

Bryan told Sports Illustrated at the end of December that he would know his WWE future by WrestleMania.

I assume that if I don’t wrestle by WrestleMania, I probably won’t be wrestling at all,” Bryan said during a promotional appearance during an AHL game hosted by the Springfield Thunderbirds. “That’s my assumption.”

His absence—on this past Tuesday’s SmackDown and now Fastlane—does not bode well for Bryan’s future with WWE.

22. AJ Styles’ refusal to mindlessly run into a John Cena Attitude Adjustment to open the match highlighted the champion’s intelligence. For fans of Styles, it is extremely encouraging that the WWE broadcast team continues to highlight him as Cena’s equal in the ring.

23. WWE’s formula for multi-man matches was on display in the main event, with each wrestler given time to deliver a “memorable moment.”

Owens’ moment occurred as he superkicked McMahon. The McMahon-Owens-Zayn feud is in desperate need of closure, which could be accomplished if Bryan is cleared to return to in-ring action by WrestleMania. If not, does WWE add another three-way match for ‘Mania?

24. AJ Styles reappearing from the heavens to deliver a phenomenal forearm to Owens is not the way I envisioned the card ending (I thought Styles needed to pin Cena and avenge his SmackDown loss from two weeks ago), but it is reassuring to see the company fully behind a Styles-Nakamura match for the world title at WrestleMania.

25. As much as a win over AJ Styles could elevate Shinsuke Nakamura’s standing in WWE, I would prefer to see Styles retain the title at WrestleMania. UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic has generated an organic buzz by setting the record for most times successfully defending the heavyweight title, and having one long-standing champion only accentuates the chase for whoever (Cena and his quest for 17) finally dethrones the champion.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.

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