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WWE’s announcement on Thursday that A.J. Styles would face Jinder Mahal for the WWE Title rather than face Rusev for a chance to join Team Smackdown was a jolt to expectations going into Survivor Series and the month after.
There had been a focus on “What will the finish be between Brock Lesnar and Jinder Mahal?” I wondered if WWE would protect Jinder, or just have Lesnar plow through him to keep Lesnar strong for the presumed match against Roman Reigns at WrestleMania 33 next year.
Now the questions, at least until we see (or read) what happens on Tuesday, are all switched around.
Why did Vince McMahon change his mind between Tuesday’s Smackdown Live and the Thursday announcement? I can’t imagine WWE planned to announce Styles vs. Rusev with the intent to change the match and announce it online. Styles receiving a title match before December when he was penciled in to get title shots against Jinder is indicative of some sort of change in mindset.
It could be as simple as Vince being spooked by the Halloween night rating, the lowest of 2017, and wanted to hot-shot something to try to create a buzz and increase viewership this week (for the pre-taped show from Europe).
Let’s look at a few ways this can go, the likelihood, the ramifications, and the pros and cons of each.
•Styles could beat Mahal and become WWE Champion: If that happens, what role does Jinder Mahal play at Survivor Series? I’d assume he’d end up on Team Smackdown. But then what happens in the Lesnar vs. Styles match? Is that the circumstances in which we’d want to see the first Styles-Lesnar match – something thrown together as almost an afterthought, with Styles given the title run just so Lesnar could get a clean decisive win over him and Vince could protect his latest project, Jinder Mahal? I think most fans would end up very disappointed if they went that way (SEE OUR POLL), and Smackdown would lose even more ground with the ardent fans who believe they are suffering through a business strategy with Jinder’s title reign rather than being served the best product they deserve.
Alternatively, Styles could end up beating Lesnar or fighting to a non-conclusive finish (such as an angry Jinder interfering, costing Styles the match, setting up their feud that follows). That would give Styles protection from a clean loss to Lesnar. Then I wouldn’t be surprised if Styles lost quickly to Kevin Owens so Owens could then lose it back to Jinder Mahal on one of the December live events in India. Or, I suppose, Styles could go to India and be the “heel” there to the local fans and Jinder would win the title there. I can see the possibility that Vince wants Jinder to win the WWE Title in India as the “local babyface chasing the champion” rather than being a defending champion, as a title win would “make news” and put India in the WWE history books as a location for a major title change.
PROS: History happens in India, which can help WWE’s profile with their expanding fanbase.
CONS: Styles has a short title reign that is a conduit for concerns about Mahal rather than maximizing Styles’s potential to be a top babyface draw.
•A disputed finish could lead to the title being held up (perhaps Shane McMaho and Daniel Bryan disputing who is the title holder) and a Triple Threat with Lesnar, Styles, and Jinder involved in the main event: That could be bad news for Styles, as he’d likely be the designated jobber in the match. That could be an “escape hatch” for Vince McMahon if he felt boxed into a corner, wanting to protect both Lesnar and Mahal, which I think he does.
PROS: It would “protect” Jinder or Lesnar from having to lose, keeping both champions strong coming out of Survivor Series, assuming Mahal ended up as champion after the Shane-Bryan dispute played out.
CONS: Styles, being a designated jobber, could be hurt by being thrown, rather transparently, into this match just to get Vince out of a “bind” he created.
•Mahal beats Styles and all goes on as we thought: This would mean, likely, that Styles vs. Rusev would take place the following week on Smackdown and Styles would probably end up on Team Smackdown. Then we’re back to wondering if Vince is willing to sacrifice Mahal to keep Lesnar strong. If Lesnar beats Mahal clean, what does that do to the narrative WWE has introduced that Smackdown is the B-Brand? I suppose Styles could incorporate that into his promos after Survivor Series, saying as long as Jinder is champion, fans will perceive Smackdown as inferior, so it’s his job to restore Smackdown’s honor by becoming champion.
PROS: Smackdown could see a viewership boost for one week, and a Jinder win over Styles, in theory, could strengthen his perception as a valid threat to Lesnar at Survivor Series.
CONS: It takes away hope fans have that this change in plans includes shifting the focus of Smackdown’s WWE Title picture from a heel champion few are excited about and hasn’t produced strong ratings, promos, or matches (they’ve been fine, not a disaster, but Mahal has hardly been a spark to business and a must-watch performer).
What do you think will happen? Vote in our poll below.
And what alternative scenarios did I not cover that you think are plausible? Email me at email@example.com. (Or add your thoughts in the Reader Comments section below.)