Fresh off of turning back Zelina Vega’s challenge at Backlash, SmackDown Women’s Champion Rhea Ripley learned who her first post-draft challenger could be. For some fans, though, hearing that familiar Hart guitar riff introduce Natalya probably wasn’t music to their ears.
After Ripley paved over Dana Brooke, the champion decided to inflict more damage on her adversary after the match. Repeating the same sequence that brought her the victory, Ripley drove Brooke to the mat with a Riptide and locked her in the Prism Trap before Natalya confronted Raw’s top draft pick.
The meeting didn’t escalate past the staredown, but WWE made its point: Natalya is coming for Ripley’s title.
Why is WWE positioning Natalya as Rhea Ripley’s next challenger?
As mentioned, Natalya isn’t the most exciting opponent for Ripley. Setting aside the Calgary native’s underwhelming oratory skills, WWE’s past mistakes with her character have inhibited her effectiveness as an upper midcard gatekeeper. Ripley and Natalya could have a match in the latter’s hometown on her birthday and fans would still struggle to buy into the possibility of a title change.
So, if Natalya doesn’t offer much hope as a contender, why would WWE put her in this spot? Well, not to sound grim, but the company doesn’t have an abundance of other options. Becky Lynch is occupied with Trish Stratus, and WWE would probably prefer to save a Lynch/Ripley match for a major pay-per-view.
The next babyfaces on the hierarchy, Liv Morgan and Raquel Rodriguez, are busy defending the WWE Women’s Tag Team Championship. Out-of-left-field choices like Candice LeRae or Nikki Cross could work, but WWE has shown little interest in pushing them. This left WWE with one place for recourse, and it swiftly smashed that “break glass in case there are no other strong opponents” container and dusted off its ever-dependable veteran for a quick title program.
Potential shortcomings aside, WWE could do worse than having Natalya in this role. Even as the rest of the division’s workrate has caught up with the third-generation star, she’s still one of the better women’s wrestlers in the company. She and Ripley — a great worker in her own right — could put together a fun title match. Plus, Ripley has cultivated so much momentum that Natalya wouldn’t need to do much to get cheered opposite the champ.
This won’t make many “Feud of the Year” lists, but it could give fans a few weeks of decent storytelling.
As long as WWE doesn’t rehash the Montreal Screwjob for the trillionth time.