For once, WWE fans aren't coming out of a pay-per-view clamoring over what could have been.
Credit goes to WWE for fully pulling the trigger on an obvious-but-doubtful outcome Sunday night at TLC: Tables, Ladders and Chairs, where Asuka ripped the SmackDown women's title from Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch after a moment of interference from one Ronda Rousey.
As we wrote at the start of December when suggesting this outcome needed to happen, The Empress of Tomorrow taking the strap down while atop a ladder accomplishes two major points of progression for WrestleMania 35 and well beyond into 2019.
First, it gets Asuka back where she deserves to be—in the main event scene. She's one of the better characters and presences in WWE outright, not to mention inside the ring. But newer fans, or those with short-term memories, wouldn't know it based on the botched ending of her winning streak, which seemed to spoil her dominant momentum established in NXT. Don't forget her middling year overall.
That ended Sunday night. All is forgiven with the Japanese Superstar back atop SmackDown now. She predictably performed well in the role at TLC and now gets to move on and serve as a final boss of sorts for the blue brand while hitting on what is hopefully a lengthy title reign.
This sets up interesting feuds with deserving talents such as Naomi, not to mention it also gives WWE a chance to build up newer up-and-comers like Mandy Rose, Billie Kay and Peyton Royce.
And if anyone couldn't tell, Raw continues to have serious problems right now due to bad 50-50 booking in which nobody manages to stand out, leading to record-low viewership numbers. The red brand is an example of what not to do these days, but SmackDown can avoid this pitfall with Asuka.
Throwing The Empress atop the blue brand and letting her build a lengthy run through Mania solves many of these problems by way of a dominant streak and the eventual downfall at the hands of a worthy opponent.
Note this hasn't touched on Lynch and Flair much yet—because the second major outcome of Sunday's result revolves around their involvement in a Triple Threat at Mania.
WWE has seemingly been headed down this path for a while now, but the trick was dragging out the months before the biggest event of the year while keeping things interesting. This only became more difficult once Lynch went out with a serious injury at the hands of Nia Jax.
But Asuka winning has always looked like the proper blueprint for keeping everyone hot enough until Mania. Both Lynch and Flair were stunning in one of the year's best matches, and the interference from Rousey means neither looks weak while taking a loss.
And that interference sets the stage for the story set to pull us through to Mania.
The "how" doesn't matter as much as the "why." Flair used her recent pay-per-view matchup to beat the tar out of Rousey and fuel her latest character arc, which has been some of her best work in years. The hatred is there.
Lynch is back with a vengeance and while she will have a desire to get a rematch with Asuka, she also missed out on her Survivor Series clash with Rousey, which happened to be arguably the most anticipated bout of the year. Now she wants that match not only out of sheer competitiveness and for missing the originally scheduled bout, but also because the former UFC star cost her the title.
Don't forget the main event angle.
Now is the right time for WWE to pull off the first-ever women's Mania main event. Lynch is the hottest thing in the company right now and the execution Sunday only assures that continues. Flair has the pedigree and name recognition. Rousey is well beyond what most would have been comfortable predicting at this point and draws the casual crowd necessary to sit in the main event slot.
It helps that the men's roster is a mess right now. Brock Lesnar is never around and nobody has been able to fill the Roman Reigns-sized gap in the roster because WWE never intended for anyone to.
But even without the men's top-of-card issues right now, the trio of Lynch, Rousey and Flair have earned the top spot. Not the silly "Well, the last three matches are main events and so is the one with Undertaker" thing. No, the last spot on the card.
How WWE takes the story there isn't as important. This one should ebb and flow naturally with Asuka winning the title as the natural launching pad. That said, it is hard to imagine Vince McMahon strolls out on Raw Monday night and announces some trades, sending someone like Lynch to the red brand. SmackDown can't afford to lose The Irish Lass Kicker, and keeping her away accomplishes a key detail—she can win the Royal Rumble and issue the challenge.
As an aside, the main event of TLC is a good example of how quickly WWE can correct course—should it so desire.
Asuka was an afterthought in the middle of the SmackDown roster before winning some random Battle Royal and getting inserted into the match. Properly weaving in a Rousey grievance with two of her competitors resulted in a title changing hands while doing little damage to all involved. It almost recalls shades of WWE having to call an audible for Lynch herself given the fan reaction.
WWE doesn't pull off this correction often, but it can seem masterful when it does, no matter how obvious. Tugging at the right storyline strings now has an anticipated Mania Triple Threat looking likely and a deserving star pulled from purgatory to main-eventing a brand, perhaps for a long time.
Predictable or not, WWE made the right call and three of its best outright stars went out and executed in one of the best matches of the year, setting up a thrilling 2019.