Rusev shocks Daniel Bryan to qualify for Money in the Bank; Miz, Charlotte Flair also qualify on SmackDown

Rusev defeated Daniel Bryan in the main event of SmackDown to qualify for the Money in the Bank ladder match. Courtesy of WWE

Forget Sunday's disappointing Backlash pay-per-view, and don't harp on the mediocre Monday Night Raw a day later. And while you're at it, if you had any issues with either WrestleMania or The Greatest Royal Rumble, just let it all go.

Why? Because the latest edition of SmackDown Live was a stark reminder that as frustrating as the broken narratives and dubious creative decisions of WWE can be, there is always some silver lining waiting just around the bend with one or two bold decisions.

That's exactly what we got on Tuesday night. The show accentuated the three most important words in wrestling today: action, opportunity -- and Rusev. It was that kind of night. Unlike a week ago, when the majority of SmackDown was wasted by gratuitous chatter and filler material, this episode focused on in-ring theatrics and cohesive storytelling.

From The Miz's performance in the first bout of the night -- one that was as solid as the rhetoric that rolls from his mouth -- to the work of art from Rusev, who also earned a place in the Money in the Bank match as the curtains closed, this was the finest two hours of WWE action we've had in quite some time.

As the show opened, Paige stood in the ring, succinctly reminding us that Backlash and its surrounding storylines had (mercifully) come to an end -- and the Money in the Bank chapter was commencing. It was more or less a Cliffs Notes version of the past few weeks, but also an indirect way of acknowledging it was time to move on from a string of underwhelming events.

Have we mentioned Rusev yet? After months of feeling like the creative team was neglecting our pleas for a Rusev push, the Bulgarian phenomenon got his biggest win since moving to SmackDown more than a year ago -- and perhaps one of the most crucial victories of his career.

It came against one of most beloved performers on either brand, Daniel Bryan. The moment the match was announced, there seemed to be no doubt that Bryan would end the show by squashing Rusev's day and punching his own ticket into the Money in the Bank ladder match. There was seemingly no way SmackDown would conclude with anything other than a roar of "Yes!" chants in unison.

But a funny thing happened along the way: Fairly and squarely (well, perhaps with a small assist from Aiden English), Rusev took out Bryan with a devastating "Machka" superkick to earn a spot in one of the most prestigious matches of the year and a possible free shot at the title-holder if he can prevail.

Against anyone other than Bryan, this would have been the kind of result fans went berserk over, though the truth is Rusev still had an enthusiastic crowd on his side as he stood victorious in the ramp back to the locker room. Watching Bryan stare forlornly at the Money in the Bank briefcase dangling high over the ring at the Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore, Maryland -- the place where he successfully cashed in the 2011 MITB briefcase he'd secured five months early to win the WWE championship -- was a refreshing change of pace.

Since coming back from a three-year in-ring absence, Bryan understandably leaped to the forefront of the narrative on SmackDown. But his overall success on a weekly basis was detracting from the David vs. Goliath element that made him so popular. In order to beat the odds, you have to take some licks. Bryan was incredibly strong in a record-setting performance at the Greatest Royal Rumble, which makes sense, but his bafflingly abrupt victory against Big Cass two days earlier at Backlash was head-spinning.

Bryan needed a loss to earn some sympathy. This isn't Brock Lesnar or Braun Strowman we're talking about. A string of setbacks won't hurt his character or foil any momentum he had.

And Rusev needed a win. Now he'll be starring in a major pay-per-view in just under six weeks. Win or lose, giving him a prominent spot in a prominent event is going to, at a minimum, give us some confirmation that he won't be overlooked anymore.

If you weren't buying into Rusev Day before, you should be now.

Not to be outdone ... The Miz

How good has The Miz been lately? This shouldn't come as a surprise, but between his verbal tirade on Miz TV last week and his last two in-ring performances, he has simply been undeniable.

Against the United States champion Jeff Hardy in a Money in the Bank qualifying match -- one that lasted nearly 30 minutes to open SmackDown -- The Miz took his share of bumps. Here is one particular sequence of Hardy's offensive attack The Miz managed to absorb:

  • Twist of fate

  • Russian leg sweep

  • Whisper in the wind

  • 360 flip over the ring, landing on The Miz

  • Sunset flip from the top rope

  • Twist of fate No. 2

  • Swanton bomb

All that so The Miz could roll up Hardy for the win in the unlikeliest of moments. True, The Miz was on the defensive most of the match, but he sold it well, got in a few good licks of his own and emerged looking every bit the master strategizer.

Taking him out of the mid-card-belt picture for a while is a welcome change as well. He should at least have a shot for the WWE championship. At a minimum, we should hear him boast about how he is going to win the briefcase for a few weeks. The truth is that he likely won't prevail at Money in the Bank -- not with AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura and Samoa Joe the mainstays for that title at the moment.

Still, given how well The Miz has performed, he is only going to make the ladder match that much better.

Hits & misses

  • Despite surprise outcomes in the other two qualifiers Tuesday night, Charlotte Flair walked out of SmackDown having qualified for the Money in the Bank match after taking care of business with a solid win against Peyton Royce. Now the question becomes whether poetic revenge is in the offing. It's not out of the question that Flair could win the briefcase and cash it in against Carmella to earn back the SmackDown championship after Carmella did the exact same thing to her.

  • That Shinsuke Nakamura, he's a funny dude with all that low-blow innuendo. "AJ Styles is nuts, but so am I. We are not finished," he said in a backstage interview, pausing just long enough to make sure everyone understood his most salient point. After three WWE championship matches in a month, it was actually kind of a relief that neither Styles nor Nakamura had much airtime Tuesday. All three of their matches, while not terrible, were largely underwhelming given the abrupt, unsatisfying endings -- especially in the case of their past two meetings. Here's hoping they can figure out a way to move this rivalry along and ultimately end on a high note -- and by high note, I don't mean the kind that comes from taking a punch to the groin.

  • Two thumbs up for the performance Xavier Woods and Cesaro put on. For the second straight week, The New Day's trombone specialist took on one half of The Bar -- but this time, Woods came up short after Cesaro caught him with a knockout European upper cut as Woods leaped off the top rope. Nonetheless, Woods has some serious singles chops. Next week, the two teams battle with one member of the winning team punching their ticket to the Money in the Bank match. No one deserves it more than Woods. No one.

  • Neither Asuka nor Shelton Benjamin was in action, but both delivered a selfie promo declaring their interest in joining the respective MITB matches. All indications suggest both could indeed be part of that action. Asuka is an obvious choice, but it seems as though the creative team wants to give Benjamin a chance to showcase what he can do without a tag-team partner as well. Given his history in this match, let's hope they do.

  • In case you'd forgotten, The Bludgeon Brothers are the SmackDown tag-team champs. They were not around during Backlash, nor were they anywhere to be seen Tuesday night, except for a cheese-ball promo in which they were trying even more than usual to harken back to their creepy Wyatt Family days. Melted action figures and torn-up Uso hats aside, just let these guys be Harper and Rowan, two hard-working behemoths. The Wyatt Family is no more.

  • Calling all EMTs. Corey Graves can't help but fawn over Mandy Rose, and we're not sure his heart can take it much longer. Yes, we get it, but more importantly, Rose showed she could have a bright future as a solo star. Not that a win against the struggling Becky Lynch is a true indication, but by focusing on her outside of the now-abandoned Absolution is a smart play.