On Sunday, the WWE will host its eighth Money in the Bank event, which made its debut at WrestleMania 21 before becoming a standalone show in 2010. This year, the WWE Network-exclusive affair is a "Smackdown Live"-branded one, a switch since last summer's brand split between "Smackdown" and "Monday Night Raw."
For those not familiar, this is a ladder match atop of which hangs a briefcase with a contract inside that allows the person holding it a WWE title match at any point over the next 12 months.
With six men taking part in their match, and five women (a first for the event), "Smackdown" has spent the weeks leading up to the event creating the necessary intrigue to allow any of the 11 participants to be believable winners of their respective matches. Here's a preview of the two ladder matches and an attempt to sort through the noise.
Men's match: A.J. Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Baron Corbin vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn
These six men have essentially made up the who's-who at the top of the men's "Smackdown" pecking order. Yes, Jinder Mahal is WWE Champion and will be taking on the challenge of Randy Orton on Sunday as well. (That's an important wrinkle in MitB events; whomever wins will be tired, beaten down and of course, ripe for being beaten by the briefcase-holder should he choose to immediately capitalize.) But it's these six men who have held the banner high for the Blue Brand in the past months and it only makes sense they'd be the ones thrown into the ladder match.
WWE has thus spent the last month or so deepening the dividing line between the good guys (Zayn, Nakamura and Styles) and the baddies (Corbin, Ziggler and Owens) by having the heels and the faces take each other on in various combinations based upon various motivations. Ziggler hates Nakamura because of jealousy. Owens hates Zayn because history. Corbin hates everyone because he's a "lone wolf" and proved it on Tuesday night after teaming up with Owens and Ziggler only to beat the two men down following the match. Ziggler and Styles have been taking each other on for at least three weeks now. And Owens, the United States Champion (the Canadian has proclaimed himself the "New Face of America") seems headed for a feud with Nakamura after Sunday's dust clears.
For better or for worse, the WWE regularly telegraphs its plans for an upcoming Network event (or, formerly, pay-per-view) via the closing imagery of that week's programming. In this case, it was a six-man tag match featuring the ladder competitors drawn between heel and face lines. Zayn pinned Corbin (again), Corbin beat everyone down and then Nakamura took care of Corbin, ascending a ladder to close the show. Therefore, Nakamura can be ruled out as Sunday's winner; look for the victor to be either Corbin or Zayn.
Don't expect either to try to cash in their contract the night-of, no matter whether Mahal or Orton walks out as WWE Champion.
John Cena is set to return on July 4, and though he's being billed as a "free agent," putting him immediately back in the WWE title picture seems both a good move, business-wise, and just plain inevitable. It's Cena, after all. The MitB contract-holder will likely keep that briefcase at least through the summer. The WWE has shown willingness, time and time again, to let the contract serve as a long-range storyline rather than something that must be addressed quickly.
Women's match: Becky Lynch vs. Carmella vs. Charlotte Flair vs. Natalya vs. Tamina Snuka
Like the men's ladder match, the women's MitB melee also is drawn down clear lines: Flair and Lynch on one side, Carmella, Tamina and self-established ringleader Natalya on the other. This division is the result of Charlotte being sent to "Smackdown" as part of April's "Superstar Shakeup," and immediately being placed in the women's title picture. Carmella, Tamina and Natalya didn't approve of being leapfrogged by the four-time "Raw" (and one-time Divas) champion, formed an alliance against Charlotte known as "the welcoming committee" and eventually Charlotte had to enlist the help of Lynch, a former Four Horsewoman in NXT as well as the current "Smackdown" women's champion, Naomi.
That the numbers game works in the favor of the Natalya-led squad shouldn't matter much once the ladder match itself gets underway. Their alliance is an uneasy one, born out of jealousy of Charlotte more than any true affinity for each other. That will likely influence how each woman in the trio fares on Sunday and could be their undoing. And, realistically, only Natalya seems an appropriate choice among the three to bring down the briefcase.
Signs certainly point to Charlotte getting the nod and continuing her chances to rack up titles much as her father, Ric, did over his decades-long career. And given her history of backstabbing, splintering the union with Lynch (and with Naomi) would be quick and easy to explain. But Lynch, too, is an interesting choice to win the title. She was the first "Smackdown" women's champion, is a proven hard worker and seems too conspicuously treated as an afterthought that an underdog victory could be hers on Sunday.
But what happens on Sunday night with the women's belt, which Naomi is defending against Lana -- who has spent just one televised week as an actual wrestler, after years of being manager/handler to Rusev (her last month or so has been spent in Florida honing her craft at the WWE's Performance Center and working NXT house shows) -- will determine just how quickly the MitB winner cashes in her prize.
Charlotte or Becky may not immediately act, should either become the contract holder and Naomi retains. Natalya, however, could easily try to capitalize on her position and take out Naomi immediately, especially if Lana hangs around the ring to make an assist (she has aligned herself with the Natalya-led crew). But even more likely would be a Lana win with an immediate cash-in from any woman with the contract. After all, Lana's relative "beginner" status, combined with Shane McMahon giving her an immediate title shot (albeit on Naomi's request), is an equation that could easily lead to resentment from the veterans who have put in years of work to reach their current positions.
No matter what happens in either ladder match, the Money in the Bank conceit allows for myriad possibilities for the future of the "Smackdown" title picture. New feuds will emerge and new motivations established for all 11 Superstars taking part in the two matches. With SummerSlam just two months away, and the contract-holders having a year to do anything with their golden tickets, this is one of the more open-ended of the WWE's story-building apparatus. And, it should be noted, that of the 17 Money in the Bank matches in WWE history, just twice were cash-ins for the title unsuccessful. So no matter who wins and when they take advantage of their championship opportunity, the odds are favorable that the script will close with a title change.