By Steven Flora
WWE Champion AJ Styles & Shinsuke Nakamura teamed up against Shelton Benjamin & Chad Gable, but did their mutual respect last through one final SmackDown prior to their WrestleMania 34 dream match? Elsewhere, Shane McMahon returned to SmackDown … and so did Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn.
Mutual respect between champion and challenger heading into WrestleMania
WWE Champion AJ Styles & Shinsuke Nakamura def. Chad Gable & Shelton Benjamin
Following their attempted blindside of Styles & Nakamura last week, Benjamin & Gable took on the two Superstars who will compete for the WWE Championship this Sunday.
Styles & Nakamura seemed to be on the same page for most of the contest as they engaged with the always game Benjamin & Gable. Even with their dream match title bout just five days away, the two remained composed, though Styles wore down Gable and opted not to tag in Nakamura. Instead, the WWE Champion positioned himself on the apron right next to WWE’s Rockstar, then soared through the sky and clocked Gable with a Phenomenal Forearm for the 1-2-3.
After Styles made his exit, Benjamin attempted to jump Nakamura from behind, but The King of Strong Style soon fought back and cleared him from the ring. After doing so, Shinsuke turned around to see Styles leaping in the air toward him, ready to connect with a Phenomenal Forearm. Much like Nakamura last week, though, Styles stopped short, landing right in front of his soon-to-be challenger before patting Shinsuke on the head. His message? I’ll see you at WrestleMania.
Side Note: A complete contrast to the build up to Lesnar/Reigns. You can see that both have a huge amount of respect for each other. The pat on the head from Styles was just a perfect response for what Nakamura did to him the week before and this match is not just about the WWE Championship, but who is truly the better man.
Owens & Zayn invade SmackDown Live
In an unsettling scene, Owens & Zayn crashed SmackDown, much in the same way they invaded a WWE Live Event this past weekend. The “Yep!” Movement hopped the guardrails and stood on the commentator’s desk, apologizing to Daniel Bryan’s family for what they were going to do to him and Shane McMahon, who they promised to send crying to his daddy.
However, Owens and Zayn’s microphones soon cut out, and security made their way to ringside, prompting KO and Sami to exit back through the crowd. Shane and Bryan, both now on the rampway, addressed Owens and Zayn, who were now scurrying through the crowd. SmackDown management asked for the WWE Universe to take a long look at The “Yep!” Movement because, after Sunday, they would never be seen on the blue brand again.
Side Note: Zayn was absolutely hilarious in this segment and Owens was just typical Owens, brash, rude & downright insulting to Bryan and the McMahon family. Solid end to the build up toward this Sunday which should make for a great WrestleMania match between the four.
Rusev wins ahead of RusevMania this Sunday
Rusev def. Jinder Mahal
Following the bombshell decision that Rusev would be added to the United States Title Match at WrestleMania -- making it a Fatal 4-Way -- two former allies met in the ring, as The Bulgarian Brute faced off against The Modern Day Maharaja on SmackDown.
Sunil Singh backed up Mahal, while Aiden English patrolled Rusev’s corner, and Bobby Roode added guest commentary. Both laid it all on the line while seeking a monumental victory heading into The Show of Shows. In the pivotal moments, The Super Athlete bested The Modern Day Maharaja with a pinpoint Machka Kick for the win.
Rusev’s celebration would be short-lived, as United States Champion Randy Orton slid into the ring and struck The Bulgarian Brute with a thunderous RKO. In turn, English attempted to come to Rusev’s aid, first putting the boots to Orton and then by going up to the second rope, clearly ready to pounce on The Viper. However, The Glorious One hopped onto the apron and pushed The Mozart of Mayhem right into The Apex Predator, who was waiting with yet another RKO outta nowhere.
Roode and Orton then faced off, both clearly fired up for the United States Title Match this Sunday, and The Glorious One showed his respect for The Viper by handing him the star-spangled championship.
Side Note: Not much needs to be said here, other than Rusev needs to win the title and that is all.
Other Notable Moments:
Shane McMahon returns: After a rough several weeks following the savage attack he suffered at the hands of Owens & Zayn, McMahon returned to the blue brand focused on his and Bryan’s tag team match against The “Yep!” Movement this Sunday at WrestleMania. Shane, of course, suffered multiple injuries during the attack and was diagnosed with an acute case of diverticulitis and an umbilical hernia. Shane-O-Mac and Bryan buried the hatchet over their misunderstandings during these tumultuous months, as Owens & Zayn had tried to divide them. Shane and Bryan even opted to hug it out! The two view Sunday as a chance to get much-deserved retribution on Kevin & Sami after all they have put them through and finally rid SmackDown of The “Yep!” Movement once and for all.
Charlotte Flair def. Natalya: After scoring a somewhat controversial win over Charlotte Flair two weeks ago, Natalya looked to continue depriving the SmackDown Women’s Champion of her momentum as she heads toward her title defense against Asuka at WrestleMania 34. With each competitor being so familiar with the other due to their classic encounters in the past, The Queen and The Queen of Harts duked it out in a back-and-forth contest that saw plenty of hard hits and high impact. However, the landscape changed when both Superstars were down on the canvas and Carmella interrupted, clearly looking to cash in her Money in the Bank contract. Before a referee could take the Money in the Bank contract from The Princess of Staten Island and make the title match official, Charlotte kicked it out of Carmella’s hands, which led to an enraged Princess Mella attempting to charge her. The Queen evaded and tossed Carmella from the ring, and the commotion nearly allowed Natalya to defeat Charlotte with another rollup, but Flair persevered, locking Natalya in the Figure-Eight for the tapout win. Charlotte would not have too long to celebrate, though, as Asuka arrived after the match to remind The Queen that no one, not even her, was ready for The Empress of Tomorrow. However, Charlotte cut her off, boldly telling Asuka The Empress of Tomorrow wasn’t ready for her.
Baron Corbin, Dolph Ziggler, Mojo Rawley & Primo def. Tye Dillinger, Zack Ryder & Breezango: With the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal approaching, eight of the Superstars from Team Blue looking to ascend to immortality by winning the over-the-top-rope melee this Sunday squared off in an Eight-Man Tag Team bout. Action was at a premium as both sides showed out (and showed off) in hopes of putting wind at their backs heading into the career-altering battle royal this Sunday. After getting a firm preview of what to expect on Sunday with many of the Superstars throwing one another over the top rope, Baron Corbin prevailed for his team tonight, defeating Fandango with the vicious End of Days. Will The Lone Wolf be the first Superstar to win the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal twice?
Overall SmackDown Live Rating: C
Things to look forward to next week
SmackDown after WrestleMania!!
Who will appear on the SmackDown Live after WrestleMania?
Celebration of Rusev's U.S. title victory on Rusev Day
Will Asuka stay undefeated heading into SmackDown Live next Tuesday?
Will Owens & Zayn still have a job next Tuesday?