For the first time in several years, there are two world champions who could be challenged by the winner of the Royal Rumble. WWE has yet to specify whether the winner will be given the option to choose which title, but it can be implied that most likely, whichever brand that superstar is on, that’s the championship they earn a title shot for.
With that being said, instead of doing one 3-Count of the top three most likely candidates to be victorious, I figured I would separate things into the Raw and SmackDown rosters for a little more clarity.
The following is my ranked list of which wrestlers on the SmackDown brand I feel have the best chance to challenge for the WWE Championship come WrestleMania and just how things might turn out.
Honorable Mention: The Miz
We can’t talk about top stars on SmackDown without mentioning how great The Miz has been these past few months. Clearly, WWE has noticed. How couldn’t they? And when it comes to noticing improvements, WWE rarely ever looks at someone stepping up the ladder and punishes them rather than rewarding them.
In the past, WWE has struck while the iron was hot and since The Miz has already won a world title in the past and headlined WrestleMania, their trust in him should be higher than an unproven entity. He’s a media machine who would help promote the show extremely well and it certainly doesn’t hurt his chances now that he has Maryse by his side, as that story can bleed over into another season of Total Divas.
And yet, what’s more likely to happen isn’t a Royal Rumble victory, but a different important match at WrestleMania. I’m confident The Miz will be facing Shane McMahon as a surrogate for the Daniel Bryan feud since the latter can’t be trusted to get in the ring again. The program between Bryan and The Miz will reach a fever pitch and Shane will be forced to step in, getting his hands dirty. Since there’s no way Shane will be obtaining the WWE Championship any time soon, that by proxy rules The Miz out of the running for the Royal Rumble victory. He still stands a better chance than most other people, though, out of purely being one of the most entertaining men on the roster right now. He’ll get his time to shine in front of the big crowd—it will just be in a different way.
- Dolph Ziggler
In a way, this is an oddball situation for Ziggler. What is the plan with this new heel turn? Is this just a means to change things up, refresh his character and keep the ball rolling or is there something else afoot?
To understand what may be going on with Ziggler, we actually need to examine Dean Ambrose, who isn’t on this list. Sure, The Lunatic Fringe is a bigger name right now in comparison, but he has the Intercontinental Championship and that is usually a death knell for people when it comes to the Royal Rumble. No midcard champion ever wins as WWE purposefully puts a different title on them heading into WrestleMania so they can defend that title instead.
In contrast, what is Ziggler up to? Gun to my head, I think he’ll be one of the many names involved in a multi-man Intercontinental Championship feud (which may also include Baron Corbin and either Kalisto or Apollo Crews) but what if that’s not the case and WWE has ushered a change in character in order to build him up to something better?
This is mostly a two-person race with the next two candidates being the only ones I think are legitimate contenders on SmackDown, but if I had to pick a third outsider choice, Ziggler stands out to me as an unknown, and when an unknown element exists on the table, you have to keep it in mind.
- Samoa Joe
Hold your horses, I know he isn’t a SmackDown roster member! However, I do have heavy suspicions Samoa Joe will be on the SmackDown roster for The Road to WrestleMania and it will all start at the Royal Rumble.
My #1 pick below and my #2 pick Samoa Joe are in relation to each other as two halves of a 4-person mashup that I think will be happening at WrestleMania and the Royal Rumble victory depends greatly on who WWE wants to be the champion going forward. AJ Styles and John Cena will fight for the WWE Championship and as we grow closer to this event, I become more and more convinced that Samoa Joe will insert himself into that feud.
In one scenario, John Cena is victorious in winning his 16th world title from Styles earlier in the night before Joe makes his main roster debut in the Royal Rumble, wins the match and challenges Cena at WrestleMania. Of course, this match could still happen with a Raw superstar winning the Royal Rumble and Samoa Joe winning a title shot instead or even going into the event as champion (which is highly unlikely), but it effectively brings us to the same point where Joe is challenging John Cena.
Rumor has it the match between Cena and The Undertaker has been nixed in favor of an alternative option and I think this all boils down to Joe. There’s nothing left for him to do in NXT and there’s no better person to kickstart his main roster career with than Cena. Those two have expressed interest in feuding with each other for years when they weren’t even in the same company, so it’s doubtful they’ll let this opportunity slip through their fingers now that they’re under the same roof and the stars are aligning.
BUT…and this is a huge but…there’s still another scenario that I think has a much better chance of playing out…
- The Undertaker
Above, the idea was that Cena would win the title, Joe would win the Royal Rumble and those two would face off at WrestleMania. This would in turn leave AJ Styles without an opponent at the biggest show of the year, where The Undertaker would step in.
I’m extremely confident those will be our two biggest matches from the SmackDown side of things, but what if the championship switched hands? WWE might not want Cena as champion defending against Joe, but would feel more comfortable with Styles as champion defending against The Undertaker.
In order for that to happen, Styles would need to retain his belt in the match against Cena, which is where Samoa Joe can step in to interfere on behalf of his former fellow TNA brethren. They have a history together and they’re both heels, so it’s not too much of a leap for them to work together in this capacity. This leaves Styles as the champion to end the show, but with The Undertaker winning in Texas—his home state, mind you—and fulfilling his promise to bury 29 other souls.