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Looking Ahead At WWE Smackdown’s Fantastic Road To WrestleMania by Matt Corton

As I write this, there are 44 days until Wrestlemania. As I write this, Bray Wyatt is WWE and SmackDown’s champion. As I write this, I’m one happy WWE fan because that’s 44 days of what should be great TV on Tuesdays (or Wednesdays by the time you get around to watching it if you’re a UK fan like me).

It’s going to be great because it’s 44 days of a new champion, and one which a year ago I was a bit worried about. Bray announced himself in an interview in April 2016 that the Wyatts “never need to have any titles”. I know that was only part of the point he was making in that interview. He was trying to say they could dominate without having the title, but I’ve always taken a very different view to a lot of people about title wins.

They really, really matter to me. Cena and Orton go down as two of the best ever purely because of the sheer amount of their title wins – it shows their importance to the company if it doesn’t show anything else. John Cena will eventually end up with the highest number of title wins ever when he surpasses Ric Flair later in the year. Randy may well add to his twelve this year too.

Those things matter. They are part of wrestling folklore and as well they should be. They matter because who holds the title matters, driving feuds, storylines and maintaining the focus of a show.

But it matters more in reverse. Jerry Lawler never having won THE title mattered, both to his career and in several storylines. Roddy Piper, similarly. It matters.

Does it mean that the careers of Rick Rude, Roddy Piper, Jerry Lawler, Ted DiBiase, British Bulldog, Jake Roberts and Mr Perfect among others mean any less? No, of course it doesn’t. They still had great careers, had a huge impact on the business and will always be remembered fondly. Does the fact that Shawn Michaels and Undertaker have won fewer titles than others make their careers any less? No, of course it doesn’t. Does it mean that Shawn and Taker can be considered as having more successful careers than those who didn’t? Well, I would argue yes.

Bray’s win at Elimination Chamber has legitimised him. He’s no longer a man blustering hot air about dominating, changing people’s lives and then simply losing – he has become justified in everything he has said and done because he holds the title. That’s the strength of it – and that’s why it’s important, for certain wrestlers, to make sure they have the title on occasion to make sure you know they can be a threat not just a pleasant part of the show.

I’ve written before about how one of my favourite wrestlers ever is Kane. Not a popular choice for a fan’s Mount Rushmore, and he doesn’t quite make mine either, but I didn’t love him for his in-ring ability as much as for what Kane represented. Slow, methodical destruction. Unstoppable destruction. Or at least, he should have been.

A one-day title reign before shortly being dispatched by Stone Cold Steve Austin summing up his title career until he got a second chance many years later in a few months that were hugely fun for me, was a joke. Kane stopped being threatening, stopped being a ‘threat to win’ whenever he was in a title match, because he simply never won any of them. Sure, he was always impressive in wins vs. his ‘brother’ Undertaker, but he always fell short in title matches. So much so that I used to groan when he was involved in them because you knew what the outcome was going to be.

It was boring and predictable and those are two things that Kane should never have been. The guy should have had five (probably short) title wins at least under his belt. That simple accumulation of titles would have given his future title feuds legitimacy, given his career an extra threat and given Kane the gravitas he deserved from a character and impact perspective.

Bray has all of that, now. Not just for his title win but because he defended it against AJ and Cena in the triple threat on this week’s SmackDown. There’s every indication that he will now be champion going into Wrestlemania, and that alone will mark Bray Wyatt out from this day forth as a threat.

Unless they ‘do a Miz’ on him and turn him comedy.

While I shudderingly put those thoughts aside, let me go on to why I’m saying this is going to be a fantastic 44 days watching SmackDown.

Bray as champion doesn’t only elevate him in a way they should have elevated Kane, it furthers a story and character that had become quite stale. Bray has now made it to the top and he is taking his followers there with him to be given the keys to the kingdom. Add in the fact Bray is pitching himself as sticking it to the man, and if it goes on past Wrestlemania it could become something of epic proportions.

Unfortunately, I do believe he’ll lose it at Wrestlemania, but the 44 days on the road there will revitalise Bray’s promos, add meaning to his matches and also build on the intrigue between himself, Randy Orton and Luke Harper, which has been brilliantly built up over the course of the past few months.

It also makes Bray look as strong as he should. Even having been beaten down by Harper before the triple threat on SmackDown, he beat AJ and Cena to retain his title – he is now a serious top guy, from that fact alone. He can hang with the best of them in terms of being tough whereas before he had just come up short. As a top tough guy with his own agenda, offering something different to what I think any other potential champion could offer, I think we’re going to see something really interesting around the title picture and more important than it being interesting, it’s going to be different.

It’s not just Bray though. SmackDown has done what wrestling in general should have done years ago and made women’s wrestling not just great but important to the show. The women’s feud of the year and the matches of the year for 2016 will all go to Charlotte and Sasha, but the best show to watch women’s wrestling? That’s SmackDown.

Elimination Chamber was the first single PPV to have three women’s matches. That’s absolutely freaking great. What’s even greater is the fact that Mickie James’ arrival has added a level of legitimacy through history which I didn’t think was quite there when all the women came out at once last year. I worried for the division then, not from a talent point of view but because they weren’t being presented in what I thought was quite the right way, but now I see Nikki in a great and serious feud with Natalya, Alexa Bliss’s rise to become one of the best performers on either show, Mickie feuding over the very legitimacy I’m talking about with Becky Lynch (who would benefit greatly from the removal of the shouty ‘fire’ gimmickry), Carmella in a prominent segment on every show and Naomi offering something which is actually quite different and something they can build on as champ.

Mickie and Becky’s match at Elimination Chamber was actually the one that gripped my attention the most out of the whole card beyond the Chamber itself, a match I always love. The focus of attack from Mickie on Becky’s arm for so long was something I don’t see nearly enough in the ring these days. It was so refreshing to see an actual wrestling match, with a strategy and focus clearly played out and huge credit to them both for taking the time and effort to tell that story in a compelling way.

What I loved most about the match was it showcased the craft of wrestling. Each move meant something; each hold delivered either damage or led to the next phase of the match – no wasted effort. I groaned slightly at the ending, but I think in part I was probably supposed to. It was match of the night for me and the one that held my attention the most – absolutely more of the same please.

If I think about the potential matches between Bliss, Lynch, James, Naomi, Natalya, Nikki and Carmella over the coming year, I feel pretty good about that – in fact I’m going to go right ahead now and say that if Nikki faces Mickie one-on-one before (if) she retires it will easily be the best match of Nikki’s career. Even without that though, and with someone else replacing Nikki should she retire (they’d have to) then that’s a strong division for the rest of 2017. Beyond that of course we get into repetition and familiarity, but I’m going to enjoy it while it’s fresh.

It’s fantastic to see Mickie back, it’s fantastic to see women’s wrestling being showcased rather than the women and it’s fantastic to see Bray as champ – this show really does have the potential to beat the living heck out of Raw until Wrestlemania in terms of quality and I’m going to enjoy every second of the 44 days before Wrestlemania which is, frankly, a show I’m not particularly excited about.

But what do you guys think? Happy to see three women’s matches on the card? Was Mickie vs. Becky as good as I thought? What about Bray as champ?