Summer has become fall, and as WWE heads into Extreme Rules on Sunday (Peacock, 8 p.m. ET), there is change in abundance.
It starts with Big E, a couple weeks out from cashing in his Money in the Bank briefcase and becoming WWE champion. As of Friday morning, he's not scheduled to be on the Extreme Rules card (and we'll get deeper into that shortly), but he's in the midst of battling both the Universal champion, Roman Reigns, and the former WWE champion Bobby Lashley.
Reigns' dance card is even more crowded. He's set to defend his Universal championship against Finn Balor, who has resurrected his "Demon" persona for the first time in years, in an "Extreme Rules" match. But in recent weeks, Balor has largely been an afterthought, as Reigns and Brock Lesnar have bumped chests ahead of a presumed superfight, and Reigns' recent appearance on Monday Night Raw in which he won both the opening and closing matches of the night.
But the breaking down of barriers between Raw and SmackDown in recent weeks precedes the biggest overall shift of all in WWE, and we're not talking about the Technicolor reboot of NXT. No, it's because the 2021 WWE draft immediately follows Sunday's Extreme Rules, spanning two nights between SmackDown (Oct. 1) and Raw (Oct. 4).
If Extreme Rules feels a little formulaic and predictable, the draft and the personnel shifts that are guaranteed to follow make wrapping up stories and setting the stage for what's to come imminently important.
Despite all that hangs over it, Extreme Rules will be a night that's ripe for the women to steal the show. Becky Lynch makes her true televised in-ring return, defending the SmackDown women's championship against Bianca Belair. On the Raw side, the two most decorated Raw women's champions -- Charlotte Flair (most reigns, at 6) and Alexa Bliss (most total time as Raw women's champion) square off in a match that feels ready to overdeliver. Liv Morgan and Carmella are set to battle as well, pushing the total number of women's matches to occupy half of the announced card thus far.
Ahead of Sunday's show, here are five things to keep an eye on:
Is 'The Demon' being wasted?
Brock Lesnar's confrontation with Roman Reigns at SummerSlam cast a giant shadow, and their second showdown at Madison Square Garden only made it bigger. But in the midst of a long, slow build-up to a Universal championship match that seems destined for WWE's return to Saudi Arabia at Crown Jewel in October, Finn Balor has dropped into the title picture.
After a return to NXT brought a second title reign and a chance to catch his breath, Balor was thrust back into the spotlight immediately upon his debut on SmackDown. He was shuffled aside to make room for John Cena's return at SummerSlam, but returned for his title shot shortly thereafter. Reigns' attention has seemingly been anywhere but on Balor, despite Balor summoning the seemingly unbeatable persona of "The Demon."
Reigns is clicking on all cylinders and is carrying a lot of weight for WWE right now, but in terms of this match, the equation of Reigns + Balor + no rules is a recipe for something special. The only caveat is that it feels like Balor has zero chance of walking out of this match as champion.
Sure, Lesnar vs. Reigns with Paul Heyman in the middle is a match that's more than big enough to stand on its own without a title, and others could benefit more from the title over their shoulder in the meantime. Imagine the energy that could be infused into a moment in which Lesnar cost Reigns the title, ahead of their match.
But in recent years, WWE has been dead set on piling titles on top of the stories for the sake of making them appear bigger: see Goldberg, Bill, and Charlotte Flair's last-minute title victory ahead of WrestleMania 35's triple threat main event. And with that mindset at the forefront, a lot of the edge that could hang over a big match has dissipated.
WWE turning to "The Demon" to make it feel like Balor has a chance simply feels like window dressing. And while no one can tell the future, burning through a trump card in an unwinnable situation feels like it could speak to Balor's ceiling moving forward.
Will Big E be on the sidelines on first PPV since becoming WWE champion?
Since cashing in his Money in the Bank briefcase on Sept. 13, Big E has bounced between Raw and SmackDown. His status could well be clarified over the course of the WWE Draft, but for now it wouldn't be surprising to see him continue to appear on both shows.
Tensions spilling over from Monday night's main event between Big E, Bobby Lashley and Roman Reigns could certainly feed into the late addition of a Big E-Lashley rematch, which could be announced at any point between now and Sunday night. Extreme Rules will not be a six-match card, and if WWE is looking for one more clash that packs a punch, that would be it.
But even if he does not have a match, expect to see Big E on Sunday night. His triumph in becoming WWE champion after spending the better part of the last decade carrying the label of a potential future champion was everything Big E could have asked for. The moment shared with his New Day compatriots Xavier Woods and Kofi Kingston was extremely emotional.
Big E has shined brightly since becoming champion, and the coming weeks and months will tell us a lot about Big E as a singles star. Rushing a rematch with Lashley just to round out a card isn't a good enough reason to do it, and even one more week of buildup before a big blow-off match against Lashley on Raw's draft night feels right.
What can we expect from Charlotte Flair vs. Alexa Bliss?
There's an instinct among some WWE fans to push back against wrestlers who are perceived as company favorites. Both Charlotte Flair and Alexa Bliss have been painted with that brush at various points in their WWE careers, but their work in the leadup to this Raw women's title match at Extreme Rules has laid the groundwork for a match that could be a dark horse to really turn some heads on Sunday.
The quality of their last promo on Monday night in particular raised the stakes for this match. It was a moment that showcased the power of blurring the lines between script and reality, even slightly, and putting trust into two veteran performers who know what they're doing on the microphone. Both Bliss and Flair were in the pocket throughout.
This match will be a true test for Bliss, who has leaned heavily into her spooky post-Bray Wyatt character for most of 2021. In her first showcase match in that persona, we should learn a lot. On a night in which it feels like there could be a lot of chalk and successful title defenses, this is the one match that feels a little bit less than certain.
Who has more on the line, Becky Lynch or Bianca Belair?
Beyond the 26 seconds it took for her to defeat Bianca Belair at SummerSlam, Becky Lynch has yet to compete in a match on TV since her return in August.
A move to make her the villain immediately upon her return was a bold choice, and even though the way the first "match" between Lynch and Belair played out was universally panned, this match will tell us a lot about both women's trajectories.
Belair had a really good match against Sasha Banks at WrestleMania, and then a couple more against Bayley. It's a shame that an injury to Bayley derailed an "I Quit" match between Belair and Bayley, because it could've continued to build Belair's momentum. But now that Belair had her title reign cut short in jarring fashion, this match will be under the microscope and carry a lot of pressure for her to prove she belongs at the top tier of the women's division.
That goes for Lynch, too. After the birth of her daughter last December, Lynch hasn't been in action and will need to shake off the ring rust in a hurry. She's been wrestling Belair on some live events to get her back into the swing of things, but what happens when the lights are bright is another question entirely.
Is Extreme Rules feeling a little less extreme a good thing?
As of Friday morning, there's only one stipulation match on the Extreme Rules card -- the main event. That's likely to grow, especially considering how the last SmackDown tag team championship match between The Usos and The Street Profits ended when Roman Reigns interceded.
But in a world in which specialty match-based pay-per-view events have taken over a big chunk of the calendar, forgoing stipulations on matches simply for the sake of having them feels like a breath of fresh air after years of getting overdone, overbooked matches at events like TLC and Extreme Rules simply to fit the pay-per-view's name.
It's an argument for more pay-per-view events that aren't tied into a specific match format. Let the quality of the story dictate when stipulation-dependent matches are necessary, outside of the Royal Rumble, Money in the Bank and Survivor Series (and perhaps Elimination Chamber, too). There are plenty of event names in the archive or new ideas that can come together and get fans more invested without weighing shows down.
Other matches on the card: