Aggressive, physical and intense, this week’s SmackDown Live featured just the 2nd ever televised Asuka – Charlotte Flair singles match. Though it was easy to be engrossed in the action, it was equally impossible to not at least briefly experience a flashback of sorts. A recollection of that somewhat faint memory that incredibly, took place only 8 months ago. I’m of course referencing this past year’s WrestleMania, and the rather polarizing Charlotte – Asuka encounter that took place there. It wasn't the action itself that split people though, with the controversy surrounding the match’s outcome instead.
Right or wrong, many onlookers criticized the result, as Asuka’s undefeated streak came to a sudden halt at the hands of Flair. Whether it was the streak ender herself or the fashion of which it happened, the perception was that Asuka’s run of dominance had been squandered, a wasteful end to a memorable time. That debate will likely live on forever in the industry’s chronicles but in the grand scheme of things, it remains just that: a debate. The aftermath was different though, an undeniable opportunity at growth regardless of the decision had led us there.
Including her famed NXT run, Asuka had played the unbeatable grappling genius for over two years but on paper at least, that had finally changed. With a unique layer of vulnerability now apparent, Asuka’s character could take a fresh direction, one different enough to immediately refresh her after that WrestleMania loss. It should be noted of course that while her streak had gone, Asuka’s performance opposite Charlotte was a spectacular one and frankly, left her positioned rather well regardless of initial alignment or presentation.
However, all of those potential creative directions would in the end, go untraveled. Instead, Asuka’s character had no real reaction to the loss, basically remaining the same but now just with a minimized stature among her peers. She moved the same and for the most part, acted the same but none of it really felt the same, yet another example of how presentation can so easily impact perception. Nonetheless, Asuka would soon come back to the title picture, becoming one of the first threats to Carmella’s SmackDown Women’s Title reign.
The programme represented a swift return to the spotlight for Asuka though in truth, it ended up being to her detriment. Unremarkable matches led to unsatisfying finishes and after two months, the result was only more damaging to Asuka’s now distant aura. Asuka wouldn't leave the feud as champion and if it wasn't before, some creative rehabilitation certainly felt required now. In reality, Asuka would join Naomi to create a tandem that had undeniable potential, even if not yet exactly within the current WWE landscape.
Whenever the inevitable Women’s Tag Titles become a reality, that team will be a tremendous asset but for now, it was limited to serving as a preliminary act underneath the title scene. Opposite The IIconics, their matches didn't exactly revive Asuka’s importance either yet eventually, another opportunity would emerge. As the Becky Lynch – Charlotte Flair rivalry reached its later stages, a new component was required and after an organic increase in crowd reaction, Asuka was a perfect fit. Though her handling wasn't exactly optimal, Asuka hadn't been overexposed and slowly but surely, the audience naturally rooted for her return to relevance.
Damaged? Certainly but as the last few weeks have shown, Asuka was never even close to being beyond fixing. With one battle royal win, Asuka was back in title contention and due to her famed in-ring style, an intrigue always surrounds that possibility, especially when she’s paired with elite talent. In Flair and Lynch, Asuka certainly has that here and on Sunday at TLC: Tables, Ladders and Chairs, their triple threat TLC match feels like an obvious choice for show closer. Considering the line-up, that’s a solid compliment, which brings us back to where we started.
This past Tuesday on SmackDown Live, Asuka opposite Charlotte, all in the show’s closing segment too. That main event wouldn't reach a true climax but with a kendo-filled post-match segment, the intrigue for Sunday had only multiplied, with a feeling that we are maybe just days away from one of the most exciting matches of WWE’s year. Asuka is a big part of that anticipation, a seamless addition to this lengthy programme and moreover, one that adds a whole new layer of potential in-ring thrills.
This Sunday is quite obviously a pivotal moment in Asuka’s WWE career. In truth, it’s a crossroads of sorts. Now over a year removed from NXT, Asuka is yet to hold gold on the main roster and though at TLC at least, that isn’t a necessity for her immediate future, a good showing here does feel key for what comes next. Asuka’s performance isn’t really a concern though, her real focus here is about more than that. A title win feels far from impossible but even if that isn’t the case, Asuka needs to remain a factor regardless.
If after Sunday, Asuka returns to the role she occupied this past summer, I think it’s fair to say that all things considered, her WWE career has already reached its peak. Now in fairness, that doesn't make this a bad run but with WrestleMania season just around the corner, a quick glance at the landscape suggests that after a few slim months, Asuka could once again be a key part of the women’s division. Either way, TLC comes first and with a potential title win fast approaching, it’s fair to say that for now at least, rumors of Asuka’s demise were greatly exaggerated.