Fifteen down and one to go. Clash of Champions will be the final WWE pay-per-view of the year, and with it, we could see some title changes.
Baron Corbin has to fend off two foes in Bobby Roode and Dolph Ziggler if he wants to hang on to his United States championship, while Charlotte Flair will try to defend her SmackDown women's title against a confident, resolute Natalya. Both competitors will also have to deal with the rest of the women's roster, who will be surrounding the ring in a lumberjack match. Needless to say, we're expecting some anarchy in that one.
Lastly, The Usos will have to contend with three other teams all vying for tag-team gold.
But the most intriguing match of all has no title ramifications, but it does have two -- yes, two! -- high-profile referees in Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan as Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn face Randy Orton and Shinsuke Nakamura.
How will this event play out Sunday night? Let's get to it.
Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn versus Shinsuke Nakamura and Randy Orton (with Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan as special guest referees)
Wilansky: When SmackDown left us Tuesday night, we were left wondering, "What the H-E-double-hockey sticks was Daniel Bryan thinking when he jumped into the ring as a ref and made the three-count on Shinsuke Nakamura, giving Kevin Owens the win?" Now listen, after a couple of days to digest this, I really don't think there is anything nefarious going on with Bryan; this was little more than a ploy to garner a few more eyeballs come Sunday. But still, it worked.
The question becomes: What is Bryan's play here? The most popular guy in the WWE land isn't going to turn heel, so, crazy as it might be, is it even remotely possible he is setting himself up for a return to the ring against KO, or is that mere wishful thinking?
Fiorvanti: Wow, that is a bridge I have not yet crossed, and as much as I would be as excited as anyone on the planet for Bryan to return to the ring in the WWE, I'm of the opinion that him putting on the referee's shirt is the closest he'll get while he's still under WWE contract.
Unless they're going to blow us completely out of the water at Clash of Champions with some massive conspiracy, I think Tuesday's SmackDown made a direct collusion between Bryan, Zayn and Owens highly unlikely unless they're trying to telegraph it. I see two likely scenarios -- either Shane McMahon directly breaks the rules and tries to cheat Zayn and Owens, but Bryan stops it and that conflict grows, or Zayn and Owens lose because McMahon gets incapacitated and Bryan calls it down the middle.
Wilansky: A more logical scenario for sure. But I think we can agree that this showdown is all about the two referees and the likely swerves involving them. Needless to say, this was a smart stipulation in an otherwise decent but probably unremarkable match.
But take out McMahon, Bryan and Owens, you're not left with a lot, which is bad news for Nakamura in particular. It seems like his time to take the next step in the SmackDown matrix should be now, but making him an ancillary storyline doesn't give him much momentum heading into the Royal Rumble.
Still, I expect to see a good showing from him that might not be the main talking point when all is done, but one good enough where he put himself into a more streamlined path toward the WWE championship.
Fiorvanti: I agree that Nakamura is entering a fairly critical window if he's to go on to big things in 2018, and I think being on the opposite side of the ring from two guys as good as Zayn and Owens can only help that. I anticipate that although there will be some tension between McMahon and Bryan, the in-ring action will be king until the critical point at which something goes haywire.
I'd love to see Bryan suddenly reveal his true colors and lead a SmackDown rebellion that includes guys like Owens, Zayn, Dolph Ziggler and a few others, but I simply don't think that's how the WWE sees him at this point in his career.
Wilansky prediction: Nakamura and Owens win, thanks to Bryan who will align with the good guys.
Fiorvanti prediction: I think Bryan does his job, counts a pinfall for Zayn and Owens, and McMahon blows his lid for keeping him from firing Zayn and Owens yet again.
AJ Styles (c) versus Jinder Mahal for WWE championship
Fiorvanti: As much as I enjoy platitudes from "Uncle Al," I can't wait for something a little more serious to come across AJ Styles' path. There have been highs and lows against Jinder Mahal, and cool moments like Styles squishing both Singh brothers with a middle rope Styles Clash, but Sunday must absolutely be the end of Mahal in the world title picture.
Wilansky: Yeah, I agree. But what's more troubling is that the Styles-Brock Lesnar match at Survivor Series is an impossible act to follow. There's no chance Mahal can replace Lesnar -- not even close. And if you want to go back even further, how can Mahal-Styles even compete with Finn Balor-Styles, which we saw at TLC? It's really a no-win situation for Mahal.
Fiorvanti: I might need a spoiler alert tag on this, but in our upcoming "Best of 2017" columns, I did a lot of research into Styles' year, and it's safe to say that this will have a tough time living up to the standard of any of Styles' previous pay-per-view matches. I don't think anyone can realistically be expecting that, but I'm hoping Mahal pulls out a strong match here before taking a step back.
I have absolutely no reason to doubt Styles will end 2017 as he did 2016 -- as the WWE champion -- but that kind of blind confidence always makes me just a little bit nervous that the story could take an abrupt turn.
Wilansky: No question these ostensible no-brainers can take a twist, but heading into the Royal Rumble, the idea that Styles would not be champ is baffling. Look, in a conversation I had with Mahal earlier in the year, I was incredibly impressed with how he articulated his drive and dedication, and he deserved his run as champ.
I just hope he can find a compelling narrative outside the championship picture to keep him relevant and interesting.
Fiorvanti prediction: Styles.
Wilansky prediction: Styles wins a 3.5-star match to hang on to his title.
Charlotte Flair (c) vs. Natalya lumberjack match for the women's championship
Wilansky: There are a lot of moving parts here, Tim, with the actual Charlotte-Natalya match taking a backseat to hoopla outside the ring.
First off, it looks like the rest of the women's roster will be surrounding the ring, including the Riott Squad, which will no doubt create some semblance of chaos. Could they cost Charlotte her title? Will they brawl outside the ring with Naomi, Becky Lynch and the rest to further establish themselves as the fearless renegades?
Oh, and amid all the mayhem, remind me again, doesn't someone have a briefcase she's held on to for what seems like far too long?
Fiorvanti: The briefcase theory is an interesting one, especially because of how they've largely de-emphasized the Money in the Bank briefcase in the weeks since James Ellsworth departed Carmella's side. While I don't see a second straight women's championship match ending without a finish, there's sure to be chaos anywhere the Riott Squad shows up. There's been a show of unity among the rest of the SmackDown women's division, but a long-term peace between Charlotte Flair and Carmella is impossible.
I have to imagine that an all-out brawl will break out at some point during the match, and if that leads to a quick finish and the action spilling back into the ring, it's conceivable that Flair gets swallowed up, opening the door for Carmella. Personally, I feel like Carmella could hold onto it well into 2018 while Flair re-establishes herself as a dominant champion.
Wilansky: All these potential permutations, but the one person we've failed to mention is Natalya, who won the women's championship at SummerSlam. I fully realize she doesn't carry the same visibility as Charlotte -- or even Carmella and the Riott Squad for that matter -- but Natalya proved to be a solid heel and excellent champion. Is there any chance she pulls off the upset, maybe after some interference from the Riotts, creating a long-term feud between the recently promoted threesome and the Queen.
Fiorvanti: I really and truly don't think so. It took far too long for Flair to be elevated to the top of SmackDown as she floundered without a cause. Like her father, she's at her peak when she's holding gold, and I don't think that's going to change any time soon.
Wilansky prediction: Flair wins via pinfall, but after postmatch shenanigans, Carmella cashes in to take home the title.
Fiorvanti prediction: Flair keeps her title, fends off any chaos and walks into 2018 with the belt still in hand.
The Usos (c) versus the New Day versus Shelton Benjamin and Chad Gable versus Rusev and Aiden English for tag-team titles
Fiorvanti: If there was an encyclopedia entry for "filler match," the Fatal 4-Way SmackDown tag team championship match would be the accompanying photo. The Usos have been the standouts of the division and New Day continues to do great work, but why are they back in the ring together after what seemed like a conclusive break?
Could Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin pin Rusev and Aiden English to take the titles in a cheap way? Sure. But it would be more meaningful if they could do it against established standouts like The Usos. And while the recent bump for Rusev and English is fun, the only reason they won a pair of big matches over the past two weeks is so they could take the fall against whoever ultimately wins this match.
Wilansky: Seems logical enough, but there's something about the rise of Rusev and English that is becoming more intriguing by the week. I am not convinced they were put on the card just to roll over, but I also don't think they're ready to leave 2017 as the tag-team champions.
I only wish that this were a match between two teams -- those teams being The Usos and Benjamin-Gable. Both are so immensely talented. But like you, the one team that has dominated like no other -- and that goes for SmackDown and Raw -- is still the heavy favorite to retain the titles.
Fiorvanti prediction: The Usos make it a clean sweep for the champions at Clash of Champions, and they can build on whatever they have against Gable and Benjamin from there.
Wilansky prediction: The Usos in an entertaining match that will exceed expectations.
Baron Corbin (c) versus Bobby Roode versus Dolph Ziggler for the United States championship
Wilansky: The first question I had a little more than a week ago was, "Why is Dolph Ziggler a part of this match, when clearly the build toward a one-on-one Baron Corbin-Bobby Roode had been brewing?" That's the match people want to see. Was Ziggler put on the card so he can take the fall and ensure the other two don't lose momentum? Sure.
But I have another theory: Ziggler has made it clear his time in the WWE might be up. In a recent conversation I had with him, his exact words, when asked what his time frame was to make a decision whether he is going to walk away from the WWE, were: "I am not going to tell you, but it will be very soon. You'll see pretty soon."
To me, it seems pretty obvious he is going to leave. For a guy who has done as much for the WWE business as he has, I am wondering whether this will be a happy swan song for The Showoff.
Fiorvanti: Between your story and Ziggler's appearance on the E&C Pod of Awesomeness, I'm inclined to agree with your prediction of Ziggler leaving in the very near future. But after a career where he's lost far more often than he's won, even to the point of ridiculousness, I believe he's far more likely to go out on his back.
I also tend to think it's not goodbye, it's just so long for now. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and if Ziggler is able to go away for as long as a year or two, he might be able to build his reputation back up. I'll give Corbin the 60/40 edge as to who will pin Ziggler in his match, because it seems likely that Roode will eventually take the U.S. championship at some point, but I think it's more likely to happen somewhere down the line.
Wilansky prediction: Ziggler pins Corbin to win the title, and two days later on SmackDown relinquishes the belt and bids adieu.
Fiorvanti prediction: Corbin pins Ziggler to retain.
Bludgeon Brothers versus Breezango
Fiorvanti: I tend to think this match will last about as long as a typical edition of The Fashion Files, but isn't it wild they're paying off a months-long storyline on that ridiculous program with a pay-per-view match? If the Fashion Files is truly banished from TV as a WWE.com exclusive, it's truly a sad day, but as far as this match goes, it wouldn't matter if Breezango had The Ascension and Tully on their team, they don't stand a chance. And can the Bludgeon Brothers please find any shade other than maroon?
Wilansky: I truly don't know what else to say, except that I am so disappointed Breezango never materialized into anything as a team. They had so much momentum when Fashion Files first began, and fans went crazy for them. And, perhaps most importantly, Fandango and Tyler Breeze are both talented in-ring performers. What a waste.
Fiorvanti prediction: Day one is here, and the Bludgeon Brothers win.
Wilansky prediction: Bludgeon Brothers in a lopsided win.