This is it. WWE Fastlane! This Sunday, March 11th, marks the last PPV pit stop on the Road to WrestleMania 34. The last chance to fill out and finalize the 'Mania card which is, still, about 70% empty.
With dozens of wrestlers' WrestleMania fate still up in the air, and plenty of people still without matches, somehow it's become all about John Cena and how he's going to contribute to 'Mania - a storyline that's worked to paint him out as a bit of an entitled brat.
Randy Orton and Bobby Roode don't have 'Mania matches and you don't hear them bugging out. There aren't even matches set for many of the major titles, but you don't hear the champs kvetching. Hell, even Braun Strowman doesn't know if he'll "be a part of WrestleMania" yet. But somehow Cena's fretting he'll get left off the card even though everyone else, technically, is in the same boat.
Yes, it's all, apparently, about Cena and whether or not he'll have to slum it on the mid-card (let's just assume Cena NOT being a part of the show isn't an option - like he'd have us believe). See, Cena wants to be in a main event and since he flopped at his chance to face Brock Lesnar, he's now trying to push AJ Styles out of the way and walk into New Orleans as WWE Champion. Will it work? Probably not. Unless WWE somehow wants both of the WrestleMania world title bouts to be boooooo!-fests.
But Cena's grabby hands six-pack challenge title match is only one part of Fastlane. There's also Roode vs. Orton, New Day vs. Usos, Charlotte vs. Ruby Riott, and Nakamura vs. Rusev. Let's sift through the PPV card and see if I can muster up some match predictions. As usual, "Opposite Momentum" rules are in full effect. This is science-driven analysis, folks.
Becky Lynch & Naomi vs. Natalya & Carmella
There's no real story here except for "When will Carmella cash in?"
I know that has nothing to do with this match specifically, but you do have to wonder, after the year she's had since her (double) Money in the Bank ladder match win, if she's even seen as someone who could be SmackDown women's champion. Sure, it wouldn't look all too great for the first woman with a MITB contract to fail during a cash in, but she's also not really...there yet. And time's running out.
For this match, since Becky beat Carmella on SmackDown this past week, I picture a 50/50 swap. The heels win out here just because. If Carmella was going to try and cash in at Fastlane, later on in the night, maybe she'd lose here (since WWE always has the cash-in winner lose a lot beforehand), but I'll just stick with her and Natalya getting an "Opposite Momentum" win.
Predicted Winners: Natalya and Carmella
Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Rusev
Here's an odd match. Not just because these two don't have a real feud going on at the moment but because...Rusev is massively over right now. Maybe more so than Nakamura given the whole Rusev Day gimmick. Why put Nakamura in a match this close to 'Mania where he might not be, by default, the top babyface?
WWE has a long history of being terrible when it comes to shifting long-set plans in favor of something else, something new, that pops up and is better. It rarely matters if we want something to happen way more than what they have in mind. Daniel Bryan at 'Mania 30 became a thing because CM Punk quit and we were loud and "X, Y, and Z" happened in just the right way to force their hand. It hardly ever goes down like that.
Rusev Day is the perfect example of them either A: being way too late to the game, B: not pushing someone who manages to get something mega-over organically, or C: giving us as little as possible as a way to acknowledge that they know we want something.
Basically, without the popularity of Rusev Day, would Rusev even be on this PPV? He's certainly ain't winning, that's for sure. Fastlane falling on Rusev Day or not.
Predicted Winner: Shinsuke Nakamura
United States Champion Bobby Roode vs. Randy Orton
Now, you would think Orton has this one locked. He's the company veteran who WWE always seems to feel needs something big in place come WrestleMania time. Even though most of us run lukewarm on him at best. Last year, Orton was in a top-line feud with then-WWE Champ Bray Wyatt. It was a storyline that led Orton to a huge 'Mania title.
The U.S. title is a step down for Orton, surely, but do you think WWE still thinks of him as a top name? One big enough to bump Bobby Roode aside just weeks before WrestleMania?
Smart money says "yes." The easy bet here is that Orton, as the bigger name, gets the U.S. title and walks into NOLA as champ. I'm going to go against the grain here and say...he's not winning. Or, in the very least, he's not winning the belt. I'm going to (probably wrongly) predict a Bobby Roode win here. I think, perhaps in this case, WWE's going to try and go with someone else and just use Orton to make both the U.S. title and Roode feel more important. Granted, that didn't really work out to well with Jinder Mahal but...I'm going for it, guys. I'm doing it! See you all in hell!
Predicted Winner: Bobby Roode
SmackDown Women’s Champion Charlotte Flair vs. Ruby Riott
On the upside, Ruby Riott actually getting a PPV title shot is the first big payoff for that two-night two-brand invasion a few months back when both Absolution and the Riott Squad showed up as new trios on RAW and SmackDown. It's the first time either of those storylines led to something. Sure, Sonya Deville and Mandy Rose got spots in the women's Elimination Chamber match, but as underlings (to a leader who can't wrestle right now - or ever) they didn't stand a chance of winning.
Ruby's the head of her particular outfit. It's named after her. No, I don't think she'll win, but this is a defining "put up or shut up" moment for the Squad.
Predicted Winner: Charlotte Flair
SmackDown Tag Team Champions The Usos vs. The New Day
Other than this one being a guaranteed (assumedly) awesome match, since these two teams work so damn well together, I'm actually not quite sure what to expect from New Day/Usos. It's just a regular tag match for the titles. There are no extra stips. The "big bad" that awaits either team, regardless who the champions are, is Harper and Rowan. In fact, I can see the Bludgeon Brothers coming down and laying waste to everyone in the ring, turning this contest into a zero-sum schmoz.
I guess, in the case of Fastlane, you just have to pick who you think's heading into New Orleans as the SmackDown tag champs. Last year, New Day got stuck hosting and had to watch the Hardys return and win gold. The Usos though have had a horrible bad luck streak with WrestleMania in general. Barring injury, they've only ever had Kickoff Show matches. I don't know. With no real heat behind this feud revival, and the last minute nature of it all, I'm going Usos. This is their time.
Predicted Winners: The Usos
WWE Champion AJ Styles vs. John Cena vs. Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn vs. Baron Corbin vs. Dolph Ziggler
Using the sheer and sublime science behind the "Opposite Momentum" rule alone, Styles is taking this. There's absolutely no reason to interrupt, cancel, change, or alter Styles vs. Nakamura at WrestleMania. None whatsoever. Cena beat Styles clean on TV so Styles is due to go over.
Zayn got the pin in the Fatal 5-Way on SmackDown, so it's also a good bet that he'll eat the pin here. Cena's going to be aggressively "down in the dumps" after failing to win, post-Fastlane, so no need to make HIM take the loss when you have plenty of SmackDown expendables to do it.
There's not too much to say overall here. The suspense will be making us think, during several close calls, that Cena's going to win his 17th world title and head into 'Mania as champion. It won't happen. I still think he's due to face Undertaker and this has all been a wild and crazy misdirect, but whether or not that happens isn't the point. The point is, he's not butting in on AJ vs. Shinsuke.
Predicted Winner: AJ Styles
Matt Fowler is a writer for IGN and a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA). Follow him on Twitter at @TheMattFowler and Facebook at Facebook.com/MattBFowler.