The promise of the Road to WrestleMania is that everything in WWE is more grandiose than normal for this stretch of time.
Every match is supposed to be more important than ever in establishing momentum. The best talent should theoretically be featured to build the most hype possible. Each passing show should get more and more intense. So on and so forth.
When it comes to the annual WWE Fastlane event, though, everything comes to a screeching halt and much of that philosophy seems to go out the window.
This year's show will be the fifth incarnation of the pay-per-view, and it's sad to say there has yet to be a single one that has knocked it out of the park.
While it's a cynical way to view things, let's face it: Instead of being a pivotal piece of the puzzle, Fastlane may be WWE's most pointless event of the year.
Timing is Everything
Fundamentally, what kills Fastlane is the time of year when it's placed, which gives it a slim margin for success.
When WWE only had the Big Four events, there were two solid months between Royal Rumble and WrestleMania to build hype. Feuds were able to gestate and reach a more natural climax.
Over the past few years, however, WWE has crammed in Elimination Chamber and Fastlane over the course of February and March, cannibalizing the schedule.
This year, there were only three weeks apiece between Royal Rumble, Elimination Chamber and Fastlane. Essentially, that is one week to do the fallout from the previous show, one week to establish new matches for the next event and one final go-home episode to round out the promotion.
That leaves no time to properly plan out decent storylines from start to finish, as everything ends up rushed, leaving the cards with lackluster lineups.
Elimination Chamber Steals Fastlane's Thunder
Once Royal Rumble takes place, two of the top WrestleMania matches are already pretty much set in stone, meaning the remaining time has to be used to set up the rest of the card for The Grandest Stage of Them All.
Elimination Chamber at least has a gimmick match that steals the show and has been utilized to establish the other two No. 1 contenders for the remaining world title and women's championship that don't have challengers.
Usually, that event is used to wrap up loose ends still lingering from the end of the previous year and Royal Rumble. However, Fastlane gets stuck between a rock and a hard place; after Elimination Chamber, there isn't much left to do but stall the inevitable.
WWE can't book anything too important to take place at Fastlane—that needs to happen a few weeks later at WrestleMania—but there still needs to be some sort of card for the PPV purely because it exists.
More often than not, WWE's main crutch is to be lazy and make Fastlane a series of rematches. In particular, if a new champion was crowned, rest assured the previous titleholder will attempt to win it back.
This has already been exemplified for this year's event as The Miz and Shane McMahon will be getting their rematch for the SmackDown Tag Team Championship against The Usos.
That's easy and requires no effort to build, as the setup is already there. However, it's also not particularly interesting and won't wow the WWE Universe.
Rematches are fine when the fans are salivating to see it again, but in any other scenario, it's just going to be underwhelming. By its definition, it's already been done and unless there is some new twist involved, there's no hook.
Distractions and Detours
The second WWE crutch is to book detours on the Road to WrestleMania to keep people busy so they aren't interacting too much with their desired opponents for April.
For example, as much as there is major support for Kofi Kingston right now, he's not going to be Daniel Bryan's opponent for the WWE Championship on April 7.
WWE is effectively doubling down with this one, because not only is it a side quest for Bryan that doesn't involve his future WrestleMania opponent, but it's also a rematch from Elimination Chamber, making it easy to write for.
After that is over and done with, the SmackDown after Fastlane is when a new challenger will emerge and that person will be the real focal point for The Show of Shows with four weeks for the feud from start to finish, rather than seven.
Fastlane is just a pit stop to give Bryan another win before moving on to someone else.
If WWE can't figure out a way to keep someone in a rematch loop or give them a diversion feud, that Superstar is just left out of the mix.
Right now, that's happening with Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, Seth Rollins and Brock Lesnar.
Obviously, WWE doesn't want to have Ronda Rousey interacting with Lynch and Flair too much, as that would kill the buzz for WrestleMania, so The Irish Lass Kicker has been written off with an injury and a suspension. Meanwhile, The Queen hasn't done anything but cut promos.
Lesnar is so perpetually missing in action that it's easier to count the days he's there, rather than the ones he isn't, so that's no surprise. But with Rollins, he's basically taking two events off to heal and to let time pass so his story—which has little substance to it—isn't drained by mid-February.
This all hurts Fastlane because WWE makes it a point to illustrate from Royal Rumble onward how these are the most important people to be paying attention to, but none of them are going to be on this pay-per-view. Instead, we're getting the backup players who can fill in the blanks.
Everything is Lose-Lose
As if all those problematic ingredients weren't already ruining the recipe for Fastlane, once the card has been established, it becomes obvious every year WWE set itself up for failure from square one.
This is because there are only two things that can happen at Fastlane, and both create issues. Either changes are made to the landscape, such as new champions being crowned, or those ideas are pitched as possibly happening but don't, making the event feel lackluster.
In the first scenario, everything comes off as chaotic. There isn't time to establish a new champion and simultaneously build a challenger other than through a rematch, and no WrestleMania segment should just be a lame repeat of what happened at Fastlane.
WWE played hot potato with the United States Championship last year at Fastlane when Randy Orton defeated Bobby Roode, only to drop it to Jinder Mahal at WrestleMania, who lost it two weeks later to Jeff Hardy.
That frenzy reeks of panic and desperation. It's as if WWE realized way too late in the game that plans needed to be changed for The Show of Shows and scrambled to make adjustments.
Also, if a match at Fastlane has stakes that aren't followed through, the bouts feel pointless.
Why bother watching Bryan defend the WWE Championship when we know he won't drop the belt to Kingston?
There's no way Rollins would lose a No. 1 Contender's match right now or Rousey would drop the Raw Women's Championship. Too much has been invested in their feuds.
If Lynch has to win a match against Flair to turn the Rousey match into a Triple Threat, Fastlane's outcome for that scenario is predictable, as it's obviously going to happen.
Basically, with Fastlane being so close to WrestleMania, every match either has an outcome we can see from a mile away or it's a filler match that doesn't matter at all and has no bearing on WWE's biggest event of the year.
So, Why Bother?
Fastlane serves no purpose. Every single thing can be accomplished through Elimination Chamber and the weeks of Raw and SmackDown leading up to WrestleMania.
WWE would be better served having Elimination Chamber take place four or five weeks after Royal Rumble, using that as the true roadblock to finish previous storylines and set up new ones, establish No. 1 contenders, and so on.
The remaining five or six weeks could then be spent furthering feuds for WrestleMania with no distractions.
All Fastlane does is get in the way and force WWE to waste time for three weeks and then rush to the finish line once it is over and done with.
It's time for Fastlane to either fix all these problems and be worth something or speed off into the sunset and free up the Road to WrestleMania.
Anthony Mango is the owner of the wrestling website Smark Out Moment and the host of the podcast show Smack Talk on YouTube, iTunes and Stitcher. You can follow him on Facebook and elsewhere for more.