On Sunday at Royal Rumble, Asuka submitted Becky Lynch to retain her SmackDown Women’s title.
This is more of a big deal than that line in the record book indicates. Lynch is the hottest act in WWE right now, and would go on to win the Rumble match itself and set up a WrestleMania showdown with Ronda Rousey which stands a good chance of closing that show on April 7 at MetLife Stadium. It validated an Asuka title reign which needed validating after it began just last month with a ladder match win aided by interference from Rousey. That she successfully defended her belt against a top star with a clean tapout victory was seen as a sign WWE had big plans for Asuka, as well as Lynch.
Fast forward three days. Asuka did not appear on SmackDown last night (Jan. 29), although she did work a match with Charlotte Flair after the cameras had been put away. That’s not a “burial” (whatever that means). It’s a spot given to performers WWE believes fans will stick around to see — Daniel Bryan, AJ Styles and Jeff Hardy work there sometimes as the company tries to entice the live crowd to sit through 205 Live or Mixed Match Challenge. But it’s not, you know, being on TV to follow-up on your momentous win.
Compounding the issue is the fact Lynch was on both Raw and SmackDown. You might think some time during Becky’s appearances was dedicated to putting over the woman who made her submit on Sunday. If you did think that, you would be wrong. Other than a passing reference to the Rumble not starting the way she wanted it to, Asuka was as much of an afterthought for The Man as she was for WWE creative.
The amount of time dedicated to Lynch is a sign the rocket’s been strapped to her back. And it is, but the rocket isn’t that big, nor fully fueled. Not only do we have the pay-per-view (PPV) tapout - something WWE’s main event fan favorites rarely if ever do - as proof of that, but there are also signs on-screen and reports in the dirt sheets the company plans to add Flair to her WrestleMania match.
A Triple Threat for Rousey’s Raw Women’s title not only dilutes the impact of that match as three people share the promotional spotlight and the winner can’t claim a definitive victory over both opponents, but it deprives Asuka of the biggest match available to her. An Asuka/Charlotte bout at ‘Mania is a big deal. Asuka vs. anyone else on the SmackDown roster... isn’t.
Wrestling, like most sports and entertainment, is a star-driven business. Unlike sports, WWE has more control over who becomes stars, because it controls who wins, who loses, and how. In a time when the company is publicly traded and there’s no competition of any scale on the horizon, Vince McMahon and team have chosen to make the brand the star. It’s working for Wall Street. Is it working for anyone else?
Ratings are down, but in an age of cord-cutters & streaming services, the broadcast & cable networks bidding for WWE’s live television offerings don’t seem to care about where the numbers are compared to even a year ago. A vocal portion of the fanbase says it’s unhappy, but mostly seems to stick around anyway. Why risk making really big stars when they’ll eventually get hurt or walk away? And when it takes a multitude of medium-sized stars to fuel 7 - 10 hours of programming per week?
That seems to be the argument. And maybe it’s the right one. On the men’s side of the roster, The ‘E has proven they can heat up someone like Finn Bálor in almost no time at all. So if they use him for a main event-caliber bout and cast him back down for more 50/50 booking in the midcard, what’s the harm? Especially if it doesn’t hurt the sales of Bálor Club merch?
Somewhat counter-intuitively, the two stars WWE does protect are the two who are most likely to leave - and two created in part with dominant win streaks in the unscripted world of MMA. The booking of Brock Lesnar and Ronda Rousey over the past year (or more, in Lesnar’s case) could lead to their putting someone else over on their way out the door at WrestleMania 35, which is how most of us have always heard the pro wrestling business is supposed to work.
Will the next Universal and/or Raw Women’s champion be booked like Rowdy and the Beast? Or like Asuka and Finn? Does it matter if the stock price stays up and Raw & SmackDown remain near the top of their respective nights’ charts?
I don’t know. This week has reminded me to not read too much into any one win or loss, though. A pinfall or submission can be prelude to a match for the ages, the latest multi-woman bout, or a week off. Don’t pin your hopes and dreams on their stars, because at WWE, there’s only one star that matters... the brand itself.