AJ Styles wasted no time striding down the aisle and into the ring to get a closer look at his destiny. But this was no ordinary destiny Styles was eyeballing Tuesday as SmackDown Live came to a conclusion. It was Rusev, a global odyssey who has been injected with a new life, a rejuvenated career and now, finally, a shot at Styles' championship gold.
Rusev was the last man standing in a five-man gauntlet match that was every bit as ruthless as it was relentless to determine the No. 1 contender.
EXCLUSIVE: @RusevBUL is looking ahead to his #WWETitle opportunity at #ExtremeRules, but he and @WWEDramaKing have a few things to say about their interaction with @AJStylesOrg tonight on #SDLive... pic.twitter.com/eN6KfHDSCD
- WWE (@WWE) June 20, 2018
For months, the fans have longed for Rusev to have his moment. A footnote for a good part of the year after he was moved to the blue brand in April of 2017, Rusev has vaulted his way up the food chain and into the bloodline of his adoring spectators.
Styles is going to have big shoes to fill come Extreme Rules, which is somewhat ironic since his latest run as WWE champ has lasted more than 220 days. But Rusev and the four other men who went at it Tuesday with high-flying takedowns, bone-crushing kicks and paralyzing submissions were that good.
Even the first guy eliminated, Big E, put on a championship-caliber display against Daniel Bryan, including a turbocharged suicide dive through the ropes that knocked Bryan silly. Ultimately, Bryan would prevail with a devastating knee to Big E's head. Despite the loss, just like every other time Big E goes solo, he showed he legitimately could make a sweet living without Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods by his side.
Up next for Bryan was Samoa Joe, who was overpowering and overwhelming. In one sequence, he caught Bryan with a powerbomb, followed by a modified Boston Crab submission and sleeper -- but to no avail. A little while later, Joe would nearly lock in a Coquina Clutch on Bryan outside the ring. Bryan escaped and hopped back into the squared circle and beat the ref's count of 10. Joe did not, and that was it -- he was counted out.
But what would a gripping gauntlet match be without inference by the Bludgeon Brothers, who apparently were fighting mad because Bryan's music began to play a little while earlier in the night as the tag-team champs were exulting in their latest win? Luke Harper and Erick Rowan decimated Bryan in one fell swoop, which allowed The Miz to bolt ringside and hit Bryan with the Skull Crushing Finale for the shifty victory.
That left only The Miz and the man of the hour, Rusev, to trade licks. Multiple times it appeared The Miz might prevail, including another Skull Crushing Finale attempt that he just couldn't fully lock in, and later, a DDT, which landed him a two-count.
But this was Rusev's day, the result of a long journey back to relevancy and into the rare space of stardom. One match-ending Accolade did the trick and immediately gave him his first opportunity for heavyweight gold, against Styles.
After everything Styles has accomplished, including taking care of Shinsuke Nakamura in a bloodthirsty showdown two days earlier at Money in the Bank, the idea of Styles as anything but the top dog on SmackDown Live sits somewhere between surreal and sacrilegious. But this is not small-ball time. It's Rusev. And destiny might very well be on his side this time.
Hits & misses
On a day in which Big Cass was released, James Ellsworth made his return to SmackDown Live. Dare we say ... upgrade? Perhaps that's a little harsh, but the reunion of Carmella and her sidekick only opens more opportunity for the champ to get away with her conniving tactics. On Tuesday, Ellsworth came to the ring with an Asuka mask and music only to reveal his identity like he did at Money in the Bank. As the real Asuka finally made her way ringside, she took her frustrations out on Ellsworth and leveled him. The distraction allowed Carmella to superkick Asuka. That's Ellsworth, though, the top martyr in the business.
A Jeff Hardy-Shinsuke Nakamura feud? Yes, please. With MITB behind us, each needs a new storyline, and each got one. As we saw last week on SmackDown when they met for the first time, they have solid chemistry and should have a good few weeks taunting each other before a likely showdown at Extreme Rules.
Am I the only one who forgot SAnitY was called up in April? Now more than two months later, they finally made their debut -- well sort of. Eric Young, Killian Dain and Alexander Wolfe beat down The Usos before their match ever began. It's early, but SAnitY sure looks like it could be a team that will challenge the Bludgeon Brothers.
Surprisingly solid match between The Bludgeon Brothers and Gallows & Anderson, especially for two teams that aren't exactly moving at Usain Bolt speed. Harper and Rowan beat their rivals for the second time in three days but, maybe more than any other time since they jumped to the WWE, Gallows & Anderson look like they could eventually win gold. Big emphasis on the word "maybe."
I'm just not getting The IIconics shtick. Yes, their goal is to annoy us, and let's just say mission accomplished. But it's so over-the-top juvenile that it's hard to get listen to. Peyton Royce and Billie Kay (the latter of whom lost to Becky Lynch on Tuesday) would be served well to listen to Alexa Bliss and how she delivers her messages, and when she knows how to tone it down. It's just too much.