Best and Worst WWE SmackDown Storylines of 2018
2018 has been a banner year for SmackDown Live. The blue brand has been far more successful than WWE Raw, especially after the Superstar Shake-up that left much of the best talent on SmackDown.
AJ Styles became a household name and the face of the brand. Daniel Bryan made his return to the ring with almost no visible ring rust. Randy Orton regained his darker side and has looked better than he has in years. All these runs, though, may pale in comparison to the rise of Becky Lynch.
However, not everything has been perfect. For every Styles classic, there was a James Ellsworth-led failure. Shane McMahon continued to take up too much time with some of the brand's worst stories. Rusev almost broke out before his momentum was forever stamped out.
The stories this year have been great and terrible. Watching old stars find new life while new figures emerged was amazing to behold. Even if there were down moments, they hardly distracted from the successes.
These are the stories that defined the blue brand in its best and worst moments, making 2018 an unforgettable year of SmackDown Live.
Best: AJ Styles' 371-Day Reign of Dominance
Few men were more integral to defining SmackDown in 2018 than The Phenomenal One. His trilogies against Shinsuke Nakamura and Samoa Joe were not always perfect, but they each led to Match of the Year contenders and set him up to be the cover star for WWE 2K19.
While Brock Lesnar was on a similar run of dominance, Styles defended his title twice as often as The Beast Incarnate during the year, including winning against five other men at Fastlane just to make it to WrestleMania.
While it started out with a lackluster 'Mania match, Styles' feud with Nakamura was the true moment that his title reign took off, becoming one of the best WWE Championship runs in recent memory. He and The Artist went all out in their feud that built to a personal and ferocious Last Man Standing climax.
From SummerSlam on, the WWE champion put on show after show against one of his longest-lasting rivals, The Samoan Submission Specialist. These clashes were constantly brutal and physical, making it clear just how much the world title truly meant.
Even though Bryan ended his reign with a low blow just before Survivor Series, this will still be forever known as the year the blue brand truly became Styles' show.
Worst: The Return of James Ellsworth
The rise and fall of James Ellsworth will never truly be sought out in the history books of WWE, but he certainly made an impact in his unlikely rise to popularity. When he left in November 2017, it felt like there was nothing more he could do in WWE until he made an unfortunate return.
As Asuka closed in on her first SmackDown Women's Championship reign, Ellsworth appeared, dressed in The Empress of Tomorrow's entrance attire. The distraction was the first of many that would stop the formerly undefeated star from ever capturing gold.
While Carmella was building heat all on her own as champion, Ellsworth only seemed to tank her run. His frequent interference distracted from The Princess of Staten Island's clear improvement in the ring until her reign came to an abrupt end.
The Chinless Wonder more egregiously killed any remaining momentum Asuka had after Charlotte Flair defeated her at WrestleMania 34. The Japanese Superstar is still as talented as ever, but she's fallen into the background.
Most of that comes down to interactions with Ellsworth, most clearly showcased in her embarrassing loss to Carmella at Extreme Rules.
Luckily, the blue brand's women's division recovered, but that only came after Carmella's biggest fan was promptly released.
Best: Randy Orton's Crusade to Destroy All Heroes
Randy Orton has been an integral member of WWE for 16 years. However, he has not always been the best part of the product despite his heavy involvement. The 13-time world champion is one of the most inconsistent performers in the company's history, working some of the best and worst angles.
This year, though, The Viper emerged renewed and motivated in a way no one has seen in many years. Since turning heel at Extreme Rules, he has been on a violent and unstoppable tear, including some of the best work of his career.
His grotesque assaults of Jeff Hardy have been particularly memorable. While a little rushed, that feud's highest moments defined the brand, especially the Hell in a Cell climax to their rivalry.
Since that time, The Apex Predator has mostly been biding his time, waiting for a new target to emerge. His crusade has been focused on taking away all the heroes the WWE fans love, returning to some elements of the Legend Killer gimmick that made him famous.
While we have yet to see the full scope of Orton's rivalry with Rey Mysterio, it has started hot with a controversial attack on the luchador that left his mask ripped apart.
It is rare to see any heel this focused and violent, and The Viper has relished every second working his new persona.
Worst: The Inglorious Fall of Rusev Day
Rusev's 2018 has been filled with many highs and lows. In late 2017, he aligned with Aiden English to begin the most popular run of his career with chants of Rusev Day echoing throughout arenas. By 2018, it was clear that The Bulgarian Brute was one of SmackDown's hottest acts.
However, the payoff for that popularity was rocky at best. Rusev did get to have great matches with Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles, but he continued to lose until WWE just decided to drop the whole angle prematurely for cheap heat.
After being pushed out by Lana, English lost it and turned on Rusev. What followed was clearly some of the brand's worst storytelling. The Artiste chose to target The Ravishing Russian in order to bring Rusev Day back together.
He insinuated that he and Lana had a one-night stand in Milwaukee that clearly was never going to end up true. Despite this, the angle was prolonged for weeks on end until Rusev quickly squashed English and moved on.
The Super Athlete has barely been seen on TV, while The Drama King has disappeared entirely. No one benefited from the breakup, except perhaps WWE officials who were annoyed that Rusev got over on his own.
Best: The Return of Daniel Bryan
In 2016, Bryan shocked the world by announcing he was retiring from professional wrestling at the age of 34 because of repeated concussions he had suffered during his career. At that time, it felt like the premature end of one of the greatest wrestling legacies of all time.
However, 2018 brought new life. After being cleared by three external independent doctors as well as medical director of WWE Joseph Maroon, The American Dragon was reborn, returning to the ring at WrestleMania 34 in a match with Shane McMahon in which they defeated Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens.
Since that time, Bryan has shown he still can do everything that made him a household name. His run has been impressive, to say the least, including great matches with Lesnar and Styles. However, it was his feud with The Miz that truly showcased his importance to WWE.
The "Yes!" Man and The A-Lister went all out in a personal war that ended with victories for both sides. Along the way, despite putting on great performances, The Beard began to lose steam. His popularity waned, and it led to a new chapter that will go far beyond 2018.
Explained in eccentric clarity by Bryan after Survivor Series, the man who stole every fan's heart with his run to the top at WrestleMania XXX took the ultimate shortcut to return there, using a low blow to take the WWE Championship.
Bryan still could be better about protecting himself. He still has a higher ceiling he can reach, but few stories this year were more vital to SmackDown's success in 2018 than the return of The "Yes!" Man.
Worst: Shane McMahon's Personal Vendetta Against Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn
While Shane McMahon's 2018 will be most remembered for his ridiculous victory at Crown Jewel to be named the best in the world, it was the first storyline that he was involved with in the year that most defined his lackluster 2018 on SmackDown.
The commissioner repeatedly went out of his way to embarrass and humiliate newly formed best friends Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, who had found a common ground after Zayn helped KO defeat McMahon inside Hell in a Cell.
In 2018, the personal bias of McMahon was on full display as he tried repeatedly to make sure Zayn and Owens could not find success. In an odd turn, though, then-general manager Bryan supported the heels, even forcing Styles to defend against them in a handicap match at Royal Rumble.
The whole angle was a waste of valuable talent. Zayn and Owens came out looking like stooges. McMahon came off like a spoiled child. Bryan's return to the ring barely gave the story a happy ending. It even got close to derailing the title reign of Styles.
Without a few lucky breaks, this feud could have ruined most of the best moments for the blue brand this year. Zayn and Owens went over to Raw and continued to participate in lackluster stories, but luckily they left room on SmackDown for far better stories to be told.
Best: Becky Lynch Goes into Business for Herself and Becomes a Star
When the women's evolution began, the division was barely getting airtime. The Superstars were getting five-minute matches on three-hour shows. The hope was simply for the women to get more of a chance to succeed. No one could have expected just how much would change by 2018.
Lynch has always been popular, even at her lowest points on the roster, and she has always been talented. However, she was never as popular or as clearly talented as she has been this year since that fateful night at SummerSlam when she turned on her best friend, Charlotte Flair.
Going into business for herself, The Irish Lass Kicker's heel turn was decidedly undercut by enormous fan support. She wasn't just popular anymore: She was the biggest star in the company, and her stock only rose with each performance.
Her feud with Charlotte was SmackDown's top story all the way to WWE Evolution, and she went right on to create the hottest program going into Survivor Series with Ronda Rousey. Unfortunately, she was injured by Nia Jax just days before her match, and that money clash has been delayed.
Still, fans are vociferous in their chants for The Man. Lynch was still the most popular star at Survivor Series without ever appearing. She's changed the game, and it has made the whole business feel new again. Hopefully, once she returns from her concussion, she'll only continue to rise to the occasion.