After Raw took center stage at the Royal Rumble, with SmackDown Live's WWE championship and a kickoff show six-woman tag team match, SmackDown Live has its best chance to define the Road to WrestleMania at the Elimination Chamber pay-per-view.
Because of how well SmackDown has built its characters during the past few months, the possible outcomes are far from certain. Unlike previous years, when certain world title pictures seemed to be telegraphed months out from the biggest show of the year (as it does on Raw right now), there are at least three very logical possibilities for the Elimination Chamber alone. Like the Royal Rumble, the match is also likely to influence several different stories that will lead directly into WrestleMania.
After winning the Royal Rumble, Randy Orton has the perfect pit stop against Luke Harper, who's had a few big weeks in a row of his own. The lone negative against SmackDown, a lack of attention of late to the tag team division, is also seemingly on its way to being remedied as six teams compete in a "Tag Team Turmoil" match for the titles.
But the biggest story of all, when we're talking about wrestling history and progress, is going on in the SmackDown women's division.
For the first time in the history of the WWE, there will be three different one-on-one women's matches at Elimination, comprising nearly half of the overall pay-per-view card. There were three women's matches at the Royal Rumble too, but that was a co-branded show split between ongoing stories on Raw and SmackDown Live.
It speaks to the depth and quality storytelling going on in the women's division on SmackDown Live. There's no denying the impact that the Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte Flair rivalry had in 2016, but all three matches set for Sunday's pay-per-view have had compelling, nuanced builds and proved that, when you compare what's going on on both shows, SmackDown undeniably has the edge when it comes to women's wrestling.
It's even more impressive when you look at what Raw and SmackDown received in terms of experience in last year's brand extension draft. Raw got ready-built stars in Flair and Banks and strong prospects in Nia Jax and Dana Brooke.They also brought on Bayley, the fourth of the "Four Horsewomen" of NXT to debut on the main roster, and have Emma, Paige and Summer Rae, all currently sidelined by injury. Alicia Fox, who was also drafted, has largely been utilized as part of 205 Live.
As for SmackDown, Becky Lynch was the only one already groomed to be a next-generation star after wrestling for the women's championship at WrestleMania. The blue brand also picked up veterans in Natalya and Naomi, but there were also three women in Alexa Bliss, Eva Marie and Carmella with a lot of room for improvement.
After some growing pains in the division, Lynch won the first SmackDown women's championship and led things in its earliest days. Natalya and Naomi, who were at times lost in the women's division, each got a spark with TV time on an almost weekly basis. And Bliss and Carmella each took well to being thrown into the deep end. Bliss' character work in particular was immediately evident, and as she quickly ascended to the top as the second SmackDown women's champion, her in-ring repertoire has improved by leaps and bounds.
The women's division has become a vital asset for SmackDown as Raw enjoys a bigger overall roster including 205 Live, and the Elimination Chamber pay-per-view serves as the fitting showcase for the work they've done.
Elimination Chamber match for the WWE championship: John Cena (c) vs. AJ Styles vs. Baron Corbin vs. Bray Wyatt vs. The Miz vs. Dean Ambrose
The 20th Elimination Chamber match has stakes that are as high as any of its predecessors, with the WWE championship and, seemingly, a prominent spot at WrestleMania on the line. Newly-crowned champion John Cena makes his sixth Elimination Chamber appearance (tied for second-most with Triple H and Orton, behind only Chris Jericho, with eight), hoping to leave with the WWE championship in said match for the third time. Other than The Miz, everyone else in this match is a first-timer, but each man has a lot to gain and a huge stage to prove themselves in Sunday's main event.
With how intricately intertwined all of the ongoing stories have been on SmackDown, the permutations on the way to WrestleMania 33's WWE championship match are plentiful. Sure, it seems unlikely that Corbin takes this enormous a leap in one match, though he has been strong of late, and Ambrose becoming just the second man to hold the Intercontinental championship and WWE championship concurrently also seems a bit of a stretch. But The Miz, Styles and Wyatt all have enough ties to both Cena and Orton, who will face the WWE champion on April 2 in Orlando, Florida, thanks to his Royal Rumble victory, to make some compelling arguments.
While Wyatt seems the most interesting and apropos winner (and his first world title victory would mean a great deal), there's certainly an argument to be made that Cena's 16th world title reign will last more than two weeks. These are the two likeliest possibilities, but Styles and Miz can't be completely dismissed out of hand:
Both Styles and Orton have been clamoring for a chance to face each other, and it would likely be a great physical match
The Miz has been the MVP of SmackDown since the brand split and a win would ignite his rivalry with Daniel Bryan by becoming world champion. He also has a significant history of his own with Orton.
No matter who wins, all indicators suggest a thrilling match is in the cards.
SmackDown women's championship: Alexa Bliss (c) vs. Naomi
If there was one woman seemingly left behind during the SmackDown women's division's surge (other than Eva Marie, who has dealt with a wellness suspension and is currently off shooting a movie with Nicolas Cage), it was Naomi. The biggest risk-taker and high-flyer in the WWE's women's ranks seemingly found herself without a dance partner for a few weeks while the other women paired off, but a pair of pinfalls on Bliss in tag team matches during the past few weeks instantly thrust her into the title picture.
Despite her professed hopes of walking into WrestleMania 33 and her home town as SmackDown women's champion, her odds of walking out with the title seem a bit slim as Bliss continues her reign of terror. However, after giving us an instant reminder of just how impressive her in-ring repertoire has become, including a split-legged springboard moonsault that earned her her second win on Bliss, Naomi is making a strong case for inclusion in what's shaping up to be a potential multiway match for the SmackDown Live women's title at WrestleMania.
SmackDown tag team championships: American Alpha (c) vs. The Ascension vs. Breezango vs. Heath Slater & Rhyno vs. The Usos vs. The Vaudevillains
There was nothing pretty about the awkward segment that led to this match being made, but the 12-man tag team match on SmackDown this past week offers hope of bigger and better things to come Sunday. After American Alpha and the tag titles essentially disappeared for a few weeks, this match should hopefully give the kick-start that's been needed to bring the tag team division up to the level that the rest of SmackDown Live has been operating at. While the defending champions seemingly have the edge going in, there's promise in finally getting back to the seemingly strong potential of a rivalry against The Usos. With the format in place, there's also the (small) possibility that The Revival could make their long-awaited main roster debuts and pull double duty at WrestleMania weekend, a la Sami Zayn in 2016.
Randy Orton vs. Luke Harper
The animosity between Orton and Harper has been evident since before Orton seemingly gave up trying to fight the Wyatt Family and joined their ranks. There was never any real trust, even as they briefly held the SmackDown tag team titles together, and losing them was the spark that ignited the disintegration of the relationship between Wyatt and Harper. With the latter seemingly having broken his former master's spell over him, this match and everything that will come out of the Elimination Chamber should be big for all three members of The Wyatt Family, past, present and future.
Becky Lynch vs. Mickie James
This was one of the last matches added to the card, but it has the potential to be one of the best matches of the night. The conflict is there, between James adopting and adapting the La Luchadora character to cost Lynch her shot at the SmackDown women's championship, and James' assertions that Lynch is driving the story of forgetting James' generation's contributions to women's wrestling.
Nikki Bella vs. Natalya
The seeds were sown to potentially push this match off or call it off entirely on "Talking Smack" this week, as Natalya smashed Bella's face into the commentary desk in brutal fashion. With rumors of health issues stemming from Bella's neck injury starting to swirl, I'm hopeful that things move forward and that this heated rivalry gets the proper blow-off it deserves. But ultimately, health and well-being trumps all else.
Two-on-one handicap match: Kalisto and Apollo Crews vs. Dolph Ziggler
I'm uncertain of why a heel (that's not a monster like Braun Strowman) is being put in this underdog situation, and I'm unsure who benefits no matter who wins. Either Kalisto and Crews are proven incompetent, or Ziggler takes another puzzling loss and further disrupts the momentum of what was a very promising heel turn at its start.