Don't look now, but as of Friday, we're only 100 days out from WrestleMania 36 in Tampa, Florida. The Royal Rumble is less than a month away, and from there the road to WrestleMania is full steam ahead.
If 2019 is any indication, the creative process along the way is bound to take a few hard right turns over the next few months, if not the next few weeks. But as we start to see the first signs of how the card will take shape, it feels like the perfect opportunity to take a step back and project how everything will play out.
After trying to project the WrestleMania 35 card following the 2019 Royal Rumble and struggling mightily in the process, I decided to up the degree of difficulty this time around. The only hard-and-fast rule in this exercise is that anyone featured on this card had to have appeared on WWE programming in the past 12 months.
Let's dig in.
Universal championship: 'The Fiend' Bray Wyatt (c) vs. Roman Reigns vs. Daniel Bryan
This is, admittedly, a leap, but hear me out. Wyatt, since adopting the "Fiend" persona, has been built up as an undefeatable monster who can absorb any and all damage that any person or weapon can deliver. Bryan, along with Finn Balor and Seth Rollins, has tried and failed to slay the monster and come out far worse for the wear. After losing his hair and his beard, Bryan has been on the warpath and out for revenge against Wyatt.
Bryan has an opportunity Friday night to earn another title shot at the Royal Rumble in a triple-threat match also featuring King Corbin and The Miz. In this scenario, Bryan loses in some kind of underhanded way and has to find an alternative path back to Wyatt. After many close calls in years past, and many disappointed fan reactions along the way, Bryan wins the 2020 Royal Rumble and makes an immediate beeline back to Wyatt. But that's when things get interesting.
Reigns has been surprisingly distant from the world title picture in 2019 and hasn't had a televised WWE or Universal championship match since he last defended the Universal title in September 2018. Don't expect that to last too much longer. With Bryan already having failed at putting away Wyatt, Reigns will step in as the archetypal hero and claim he has what it takes to beat Wyatt, because he's done it before.
How Reigns gets into the match is secondary. All of the Wyatt-Reigns backstory dating back to the Wyatt Family-Shield battles and the history between Wyatt and Bryan give the story plenty of juice. And Bryan-Reigns is surprisingly fresh; they've faced each other in only three televised matches, and the last time it happened, Reigns' seeming WrestleMania coronation tour went directly through Bryan in 2015.
Whether you continue Wyatt's path of destruction or finally pull the trigger on making Reigns the true villain at Bryan's expense (and before you sigh at a Reigns heel turn after all this time, Bayley and Dakota Kai, two of the purest characters of the past decade on WWE TV, both fell to the dark side in 2019), there are a lot of different creative directions you can take.
WWE championship: Brock Lesnar (c) vs. Samoa Joe
Lesnar is in the midst of one of his lengthier sabbaticals, and no clear challenger to the throne has emerged. Rollins beat him twice for the Universal championship in 2019, giving that match a "been there, done that" vibe. Looking at the roster, only a handful of options seem like they could fit; that short list includes AJ Styles, Kevin Owens, Randy Orton, Rey Mysterio and Cain Velasquez.
Taking Velasquez and Mysterio out of play for the moment, because those matches didn't exactly set the world on fire. Owens is an interesting option, but there's no telling when he'll come back to TV, and he has to deal with getting his revenge on Rollins first. Styles had arguably Lesnar's best match since his return in 2012, but it doesn't seem like a clean fit character-wise right now. And while Orton has plenty of history to build upon, I think WWE would prefer not to remind those who have mostly forgotten about their bloody mess of a match at SummerSlam 2016.
So let's think outside of the box a little bit and revisit a rivalry that was far too short for my taste. In the summer of 2017, Samoa Joe was riding a huge wave of momentum and opened a lot of eyes with a pair of standout performances in Universal title matches. Joe and Lesnar told a very compelling story in just over six minutes at the unfortunately named "Great Balls of Fire" in July, and they then showed out in a Fatal 4-Way match at SummerSlam that featured Lesnar, Reigns and Braun Strowman.
Lesnar moved on, and Joe, despite some strong performances, never quite reached that level again. After Rollins' attack on Joe at the commentary table on Raw, it's clear that Joe is on the brink of a return to in-ring action, and after standing up to the bullies, he could certainly carve his way back to Lesnar off the backs of a brave showing opposite Rollins and the Authors of Pain.
This match would check two key boxes. It would remind the world how good Samoa Joe is while elevating him back to a main event level, and it would give Lesnar a credible opponent he can beat without causing too much damage. My gut instinct is that Lesnar's WWE championship reign, for better or worse, will carry well into 2020.
The Undertaker vs. Seth Rollins
What can a villain trying to make a name for himself do when a world title isn't in play? Challenge The Undertaker at WrestleMania, of course. Rollins has been in the ring with The Undertaker exactly once, when The Shield faced Bryan, Kane and The Undertaker on an April 2013 edition of Monday Night Raw. But what better way to lock in some nuclear heat for Rollins than to have him put away The Undertaker for good at WrestleMania. Big Saudi show paydays might point toward another path forward, but it would be a fitting send-off for The Undertaker, against an opponent with whom he would be quite likely to have a match fitting of a WrestleMania farewell battle.
Raw women's championship: Becky Lynch (c) vs. Asuka (with Kairi Sane)
We likely will see Lynch vs. Asuka as a title match at Royal Rumble for the second straight year, but for once, it would be nice to see a rivalry that fans actually want to see stretch from Royal Rumble all the way through WrestleMania. The January 2020 match likely would have to have an unsatisfying finish, like Asuka getting caught spraying green mist, but giving Asuka and Lynch a big, blank canvas to paint upon can only end well.
Lynch could cost Asuka and Kairi Sane the women's tag team titles along the way, and Asuka could even earn her way back inside of the Elimination Chamber. As good a year as Lynch had in 2019, the past few months were not the triumphant flourish she likely would have wanted. There's going to be an obvious attraction for WWE Creative to steer back toward Lynch-Flair, Part 27, but why not elevate other women in the division in a way that feels fresh instead -- especially Asuka, who was unceremoniously relieved of her women's title weeks before WrestleMania last year?
Asuka and Lynch bring a lot out of each other, and that's just what the doctor ordered for the Raw women's division.
SmackDown women's championship: Bayley (c) vs. Sasha Banks
From the moment Banks returned, everyone has been waiting for her to stab her best friend, Bayley, in the back. But then Bayley cast off her buddies, cut her hair, changed her music and embraced all things evil like an angsty teenager searching for a new niche. That put her right in line with Banks, and the pair has settled nicely into an "us against the world" approach.
Despite a puzzling title flip-flop with Charlotte Flair, Bayley has now spent the most days as SmackDown women's champion of anyone in that title's history. As a pair, Banks and Bayley have been absolutely inseparable, but they haven't really been pushed by anyone. Their rivalry with Lacey Evans, for example, who had previously been irredeemably evil and ego-driven, surprisingly turned Evans into the hero of the story, and has largely fallen flat.
What lies ahead is an opportunity to turn history and expectation on its head. Banks wins the 2020 women's Royal Rumble and is seemingly poised to hop over to Raw so that she and Bayley can take over the world together. But the increasingly paranoid champion Bayley, a monster Banks helped create, lashes out and turns on Banks instead, setting up their WrestleMania clash.
Their NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn match is legendary at this point. It's finally time to give Banks and Bayley a showcase on an even bigger stage.
Drew McIntyre vs. Randy Orton
This is an instance of me opening my eyes to a match I never knew I wanted until that very moment. McIntyre needs a signature win, and a WrestleMania victory over Orton still carries some serious weight. Orton gets the chance to mix it up with a versatile bigger guy and show that he still has elite-level skills. It's a win-win, and it doesn't have to be much more than two guys hashing it out in the ring to test themselves.
United States championship gauntlet match: Andrade (c) vs. Aleister Black vs. Bobby Lashley vs. Buddy Murphy vs. Kevin Owens vs. Rey Mysterio vs. Ricochet vs. Rusev
Ladder match for the Intercontinental championship: John Morrison (c) vs. The Miz vs. Braun Strowman vs. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Cesaro vs. King Corbin vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. Mustafa Ali
It's unlikely we'll get two matches of this size, but why not? To go so far as to squeeze some of this talent into matches like this seems unfair, but with the Raw and SmackDown rosters bursting at the seams, this is the only way to get this many wrestlers on the card in a meaningful way.
In this scenario, Raw goes to the increasingly popular gauntlet match format and rolls along at a dizzying pace as newly crowned United States champion Andrade tries to fend off some serious challengers. Meanwhile, Morrison returns in early 2020, engages in a brief rivalry with Nakamura and then gets thrust into a car crash of a match in which he'll be able to show off some of his dizzying acrobatics opposite a cornucopia of different styles of competitors.
Triple threat for the SmackDown tag team championship: The New Day (c) vs. The Revival vs. The Usos
This will require a little bit of sleight of hand, as The Usos were drafted to Raw, but why not take the two teams that have brought out the very best of The New Day and get them all in the ring at once? You could give it eight minutes or 18 and you'd be at risk of these three teams stealing the spotlight early in the night.
Charlotte Flair vs. Beth Phoenix
It's unthinkable that Flair would be left off the WrestleMania card, and if she doesn't have a spot in one of the title matches, why not give her a showcase against another Hall of Famer? Phoenix got the chance to wrestle alongside Natalya at WrestleMania 35, but a solo spotlight against Flair would be another experience entirely.
Triple H vs. AJ Styles
If Triple H is going to blow the dust off his boots for WrestleMania again, why not have him tangle with someone challenging authority and playing by their own rules, like The OC? In Styles, Triple H would have an opponent who would undoubtedly make him look good, while Styles would once again step into a showcase role with ease.
Raw tag team championship: Viking Raiders (c) vs. Authors of Pain
By putting AOP by Rollins' side, it's only a matter of time before they claim the Raw tag team titles by force. In this scenario, it takes until WrestleMania, but it wouldn't be too shocking to see these titles flip much earlier in the year.
Men's battle royal Winner: Sheamus
Women's battle royal Winner: Ruby Riott
Make the battle royals about the triumph of returning stars. Sheamus has been out since April, but he'll return to SmackDown with a vengeance in early 2020. He could find a dance partner for WrestleMania 36 over the next few months, but if not, imposing his will on a battle royal isn't a bad consolation prize. Riott has similarly been out since May, but so long as she makes her return in early 2020 as expected, get Riott back on a roll and then get her into a title picture.