Unless you live under a rock that completely blocks out the occasionally hopeful light of sports entertainment, you know this Sunday is the coolest WWE pay-per-view tradition to come along in years: Money in the Bank!
It's easily the most stacked card since WrestleMania XXIX, and I'd argue a pinch more intriguing when you consider Money in the Bank is named after one of the most exhilarating gimmick matches in WWE's bag of goodies.
WrestleMania will always be fun, but the breathtaking antics of the Money in the Bank ladder match have been sorely missed on "The Grandest Stage of Them All" over the last three years.
That won't be a problem on Sunday, as we've got two ladder-assisted spot-taculars on the card.
Both will be firsts, as an entirely babyface cast of "All-Stars" will compete for the WWE Championship contract, and the World Heavyweight Championship contract is available to a roster of up-and-coming heels.
Or in the case of Jack Swagger, an up-and-down-and-up-and-down-and-maybe-but-probably-not-up-and-coming heel.
Both matches are tricky to predict—particularly the World Championship version—because every participant has big potential that WWE will eventually want to tap into.
OK, so in Swagger's case, maybe it's more apt to say some semblance of potential.
There's also a lot of buzz about Mark Henry possibly wig-splitting his way to the WWE Championship.
Dolph Ziggler looks for redemption against the World Heavyweight Champion, Alberto Del Rio. Or maybe Ziggler will flounder through another mid-match promo...only during his own match this time!
Chris Jericho may not even need the Walls of Jericho to make his opponent quit if Ryback's recent bout with Miz is any indication.
Speaking of Miz...
He's fighting for the Intercontinental Championship yet again, and through some baffling Miz-take, it's not on the Pre-Show!
That distinction instead goes to The Shield, who will attempt to fend off Rikishi's face-painted children.
Oh, and AJ Lee defends the Divas Championship against the only real contender in the division—Kaitlyn.
Some pretty important matches, and some pretty...yeah, some that don't matter whatsoever.
It's time to power rank each match on the card based on build-up, storyline significance, perceived predictability and potential match quality.
What's that, Shane McMahon? Here comes the money?
That's true, Shane, as I will also provide my prediction for each contest.
Don't get me wrong.
If Miz is going to be in a championship match, he might as well be putting over rising star and Intercontinental Champion, Curtis Axel.
It certainly beats Miz taking up a valuable spot in one of the Money in the Bank ladder matches.
Miz and Axel's feud hasn't been offensively bad (thanks in large part to Heyman's involvement), but you couldn't describe it as blood-tingling, either.
I'll tolerate the match mainly because it's always somewhat satisfying to watch the least-deserving wrestler (Mr. T and Lawrence Taylor don't count) to ever main event WrestleMania lose to a mid-carder.
I'm happy Axel is being brought along slowly but surely.
While his brief promo on the latest episode of Raw was an improvement over that time he refused to stop repeating his own terrible ring name, Axel's prodding delivery suggested he's still a nervous mess on the stick.
At 33, he'll need to work fast to develop some verbal skills if he wants to move up the card. Even if he's unable to do so, I don't see why he can't have a couple of dominant reigns as Intercontinental Champion and serve as a tough (but ultimately conquerable) obstacle for WWE's top babyfaces.
His father, Mr. Perfect, played a similar role once upon a time, and made guys like Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior look incredible.
Axel vs. Miz will be a decent but utterly unremarkable match, and the outcome is obvious.
Curtis is a Paul Heyman Guy with recent (albeit mostly cheap) wins over Triple H and John Cena, and he only won the Intercontinental Championship last month. There's no way he will lose this match.
That is, unless Miz rediscovers the magic he used to win the Intercontinental belt at WrestleMania XXIV, only to lose it all again (the magic, the belt, and hopefully one of his abominable catchphrases) the following night on Raw.
Prediction: Curtis Axel pins The Miz with the Perfect-Plex after a momentary distraction from Paul Heyman.
Part of me would love to rank this match higher.
Not since Lita cashed in on real-life heat to become Edge's raunchy heel girlfriend has a female performer in WWE generated as much public interest as AJ Lee.
It's about time the promotion built the Divas division around the one Diva who actually matters to wrestling fans.
Kaitlyn has been passable playing the good girl in this feud, but her lack of charisma is difficult to ignore. Luckily, AJ Lee has enough personality to carry this feud to the finish line without it becoming an embarrassment like most Diva-related programs in recent years.
The pair's match at Payback was solid, but nothing worth writing to the TNA Knockouts about.
I feel their rematch will have a few more twists and turns, but ultimately we know AJ Lee must retain the championship she just won.
I doubt the bout will receive the airtime necessary to reach surprisingly good territory, but even with 10 minutes these ladies could very well outshine one or two of the matches I ranked higher.
This is a step in the right direction for women's wrestling in WWE, but it's hurt by the fact that Kaitlyn is the most credible challenger for AJ's title, and even she feels like a placeholder.
What becomes of this storyline after Money in the Bank? Who's next in line for a title shot once Kaitlyn has been thoroughly thumped?
These are scary questions because I have a sinking feeling WWE Creative has no idea how to answer them.
Prediction: AJ Lee uses the ring ropes for leverage, pinning Kaitlyn and extending the feud for yet another month (purely because there are no other logical challengers for the Divas Championship).
It hurts my feelings to rank a Chris Jericho match this low.
Then again, I can only get so excited to see the first Undisputed Champion in WWE history get steamrolled by a clunky musclehead like Ryback.
I wonder if Rob Van Dam's first storyline back will see him punish Ryback for blatant airbrushed singlet infringement.
You know the drill. Chris Jericho is about to step away from the ring so he can resume his singing duties with Fozzy, a mediocre heavy metal band only professional wrestling fans know exists.
That almost definitely means Ryback is going to march around Philadelphia like a buffoon with Jericho on his shoulders before dropping the veteran on his faux-hawk and picking up the victory.
But WWE has quietly added a couple wrinkles to this seemingly straightforward storyline.
The once-invincible Ryback recently "quit" during a match against The Miz, mercifully saving him the trouble of attempting to apply the Figure Four Leg Lock.
It was Ryback of all people who consoled Vickie Guerrero after she was fired on Monday's Raw.
What does it all mean?
For one, it means Vince McMahon sincerely believes that the crowd response Vickie Guerrero receives is good heat, not owww-my-poor-ears heat.
It also means Ryback is about to get another serious push, only this time he'll have a heat magnet manager to help him out.
Prediction: Jericho gets nailed with Shell-Shocked, putting Ryback Ry-ight back in the winner's circle. Vickie will make her way to ringside and distract Jericho with her signature shrieks. What a joy.
There is no doubt that Mark Henry's well-executed phony retirement speech has generated far more anticipation than one would normally expect for a Mark Henry vs. John Cena match.
Kudos to Mark Henry for that, and for the well above-average promos he's cut on Cena since then.
But it's still just Mark Henry vs. John Cena.
We've seen it before, and it's a less than dazzling match-up.
Neither man is known for putting on a memorable match without having a technically proficient dance partner, which leaves them both more or less stranded at Money in the Bank.
In the words of Jim Ross, this battle of brawlers will be "physically intense," but that's better suited for free TV than a marquee match on pay-per-view.
I'm hoping WWE wisely puts this one on before the "All-Stars" Money in the Bank match as the latter is a surefire way to send the ravenous Philadelphia crowd home happy.
Fully expect the "smart" fans in Philly to cheer Henry over Cena, and don't be surprised if the arena fills with "Boring" chants when Henry and Cena fail to pick up the pace and showcase some new tricks.
I fear this feud is just warming up and that Cena won't get a clean victory over the super-heavyweight monster until SummerSlam.
Let's hope that fear is unfounded.
Prediction: John Cena wins by disqualification when Mark Henry "snaps" and viciously attacks the champion with a steel chair.
What excuse is there for relegating the white-hot Tag Team Champions to the Kickoff pre-show?
The only one that comes to mind is that Rollins and Reigns are basically guaranteed to retain the belts, but that's true of other matches on the card that feature lesser performers than the four involved here.
Another possible knock on this match is that the Usos are still relatively unfamiliar to the majority of WWE fans.
Only in the last month or so have the athletic twins received regular exposure on Raw and SmackDown. Heck, neither Jimmy nor Jey even merited a spot in January's 30-man Royal Rumble!
They will need to continue winning high-quality matches against established opponents if they are to become a legitimate threat to the Shield. Hopefully that makes it onto WWE's list of priorities for the second half of 2013.
That said, all four men in this match have proven they can go. This is especially true of Rollins and Reigns, who electrify every single time they compete. Along with their Shield comrade Dean Ambrose, they have raised the bar in WWE for what is considered good in-ring storytelling.
This match may be predictable and stuck in the unenviable pre-show slot, but it will surpass expectations because that's what The Shield does every night out.
It's possible the Usos could pick up a disqualification victory to stretch this feud out, but my money is on The Shield winning decisively and moving onto bigger and better competition at SummerSlam.
Prediction: The Shield by pinfall following an Uso-crushing spear from Roman Reigns.
PS—I'd like to see Seth Rollins score the pin for his team far more often. Remember when Rollins got the 3-count on Ryback at Elimination Chamber? I popped like a teenager's face in front of a bathroom mirror.
I have to say it.
I've never supported the idea of Dolph Ziggler turning full-thrust babyface.
The reason a sizable portion of the WWE audience cheered him as a heel was because they recognized that he is excellent at two things: 1) wrestling and 2) playing a cocky bad guy.
It rings false for a self-described show-off to pander to the WWE Universe, and as a result his crowd responses have cooled considerably since Payback.
Mark my words: Ziggler's true star power can only be realized with him in the role of heel or tweener (and even in the latter case, more heel than face).
I say keep him affiliated with villains like AJ Lee and Big E Langston, and to hell with making him "likeable" to casual fans.
Ziggler can do some damage repair at Money in the Bank by putting on a barn-burner against Alberto Del Rio. The two have found flickers of brilliance together in the ring before, and my gut tells me this will be their most mesmerizing outing yet.
Each man wants to prove that he his ready to be a marketable, reliable and long-term World Heavyweight Champion.
Ziggler is clearly the better speaker and showman of the two, but I don't think he'll be rewarded for it at Money in the Bank.
The payoff of Ziggler regaining his belt will either be pushed back to the larger stage of SummerSlam, or dropped altogether in favor of Del Rio continuing to tread water as champion.
Never underestimate WWE Creative's deadly blend of shortsighted conservatism and infantile impatience.
Prediction: Alberto Del Rio wins by submission with the Cross Arm Breaker, which is probably set up by AJ Lee turning on Ziggler.
Wade Barrett vs. Cody Rhodes vs. Damien Sandow vs. Dean Ambrose vs. Fandango vs. Jack Swagger vs. Antonio Cesaro
Many internet commentators worry that the live fans won't know who to cheer for in this all-heel battle.
Philadelphia fans are notoriously opinionated and vocal, and I doubt they'll be shy during this or any other match on the card.
My favorite part of this match is that, with the exception of Jack Swagger, every possible winner gives the World Heavyweight Championship scene a fresh face in the not-so-distant future.
Dean Ambrose is already the United States Champion, but he's still front-runner to win here because he's the only one in the bunch currently enjoying a consistent push.
There has been dissension between off-and-on tag team partners Damien Sandow and Cody Rhodes in recent weeks, which means one could turn on the other in order to grab the Money in the Bank briefcase. Winning the match would be a huge boost for either one of these shamefully underrated workers, but their budding rivalry is more likely to be one of the ladder match's plot points than its climax.
Could this finally be Wade Barrett's ticket back to the top of the card? Sadly, I have seen nothing that would suggest so on WWE programming lately. He's much more likely to receive another entrance theme than he is a World title match.
Regardless of whether or not the DUI-inspired burial of Jack Swagger is over, he's lost too many World Championship-related matches lately to generate interest as Mr. Money in the Bank. His last briefcase cash-in and title run don't really have anyone screaming for an encore.
Antonio Cesaro is a wrestling machine, but he could stand to pad his WWE resume a bit more before chasing the company's second most prestigious title.
Cesaro and Swagger should spend the rest of the year turning heads as a cutthroat tag team. They can use that momentum to relaunch their respective singles careers in early 2014.
Fandango is a slightly less annoying version of Santino Marella right now. I predict he'll get caught dancing atop the ladder at some point to the amusement of approximately six or seven easily amused viewers.
Prediction: Dean Ambrose takes home the briefcase after a thoughtfully choreographed car-wreck that showcases just how capable all seven participants are.
CM Punk vs. Daniel Bryan vs. Randy Orton vs. Sheamus vs. Christian vs. Rob Van Dam vs. TBA
This match captured my imagination.
It then exploded my imagination.
And finally, it has erected a spectacular amusement park where my imagination used to be.
Daniel Bryan is the odds-on favorite to win.
Think about that.
Even if WWE goes the predictable route in booking this match, the outcome will still be refreshingly different.
I would be thrilled to see Bryan win his second Money in the Bank match.
Bryan is unquestionably WWE's MVP so far in 2013. His incomparable in-ring efforts and strong connection with fans have earned him a place alongside CM Punk and John Cena in the WWE elite.
However, Bryan is already riding a tidal wave of success that could land him a WWE Championship match against John Cena at SummerSlam.
That, combined with the fact that the closing image of Raw this week was Bryan standing alone at the top of the ladder, tells me Bryan will not emerge victorious on Sunday.
I believe Bryan will be seconds away from claiming the briefcase, only to have one of his opponents snatch it away.
Who will play spoiler?
Well, definitely not Kane.
Whichever wrestler replaces Kane has a better chance of winning than the Big Red Machine would have had, but I still don't see them pulling it off.
Shall Bray Wyatt replace his victim in the match?
Doubtful. The character deserves to be the focus of his debut match in WWE, which can't reasonably happen here.
I predict Kane's absence will provide a sidelined household name with the opportunity to make his underwhelming return. It's vintage WWE.
Last year it was The Miz. This year it will be Big Show. In both cases, the silence is deafening.
Conversely, I am psyched for the return of Rob Van Dam.
The ovation he gets in Philadelphia will surely be a highlight of the night. I bet Van Dam will pull off one super-wicked ladder stunt just to stick it to those critical of his TNA performances.
Sheamus will never again be WWE or World Champion because his previous reigns were just that dreadful.
After losing to Randy Orton and Kane in recent weeks, Christian winning Money in the Bank would be a fun swerve. The briefcase has the power to instantly turn a mid-carder into a main-eventer, and Christian could use that more than anyone else in the match.
In reality, Christian will probably never receive (let alone win) that "one more match" he's been asking for. Well, unless he was referring to his SmackDown match with Drew McIntyre a couple weeks ago.
Never in Randy Orton's illustrious career has he won the Money in the Bank match. He won't win this one, either. There are simply too many appetizing alternatives to him inevitably feuding with John Cena again.
The consensus around CM Punk's fate in this match is that Brock Lesnar will show up and cost him the win.
Since his return to WWE last year, Brock Lesnar has not made a surprise appearance at a pay-per-view. When Lesnar does pay-per-view, it is hyped weeks in advance so WWE can make money off his celebrity status.
WWE does, however, love to throw Lesnar on Raw unannounced as to create a stir among fans. It helps sell the next pay-per-view event that will feature Brock Lesnar, you see.
This pattern will continue.
CM Punk will capture the WWE Championship contract on Sunday, and Brock Lesnar will strike him down violently the next night on Raw to start the hard-sell for their match at SummerSlam.
Perhaps Lesnar will refuse to face CM Punk at SummerSlam unless Punk puts his Money in the Bank contract on the line.
Think of the bragging rights Punk will have when he wins his third Money in the Bank match! Huge.
Regardless of who wins, this is your match of the night.
Prediction: CM Punk boots Daniel Bryan in the skull, knocking him off the ladder, and then grabs the briefcase for his record-extending third Money in the Bank win.