The 900th episode of WWE SmackDown Live was its Survivor Series go home show, held last night (Nov. 15, 2016) in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. For full results and the live blog, click here.
An Ominous Message
A special edition of Cutting Edge with The Rated-R Superstar exposed the divisions in SmackDown Live's men's Survivor Series team, the problem with AJ Styles' ego—and put a looming spectre hanging over the result this Sunday.
Tony Chimel introduced Edge, who received a huge ovation. (It's a terrible shame injuries cut his career short, because there's little doubt he would still be absolutely killing it as a performer.)
Edge called out the team—Styles, Dean Ambrose (with James Ellsworth), Randy Orton, Bray Wyatt, and commissioner Shane McMahon—and proceeded to put over SmackDown Live as the land of opportunity, noting that one man in particular had made the most of his chance, and that he wanted to shake his hand. Though Styles (of course) reached out his hand, Edge instead shook the hand of Ellsworth, prompting a tirade from Styles when the Chinless Wonder suggested a five second pose:
No, no, no! No! (Boos) It was stupid then, it’s stupid now. Five second pose. Hey, I’m The Face That Runs This Place, so you listen to me, Edge. No one cares about Ellsworth, huh? And no one cares about you either, so why don’t you do your job and ask a question to someone who actually matters on this team?
To Styles chagrin, Edge then addressed his former tag team partner in Rated-RKO, wondering what had happened to him that made him join The Wyatt Family. Bray intervened, noting that "come this Sunday, the entire world will see a far more dangerous Viper than ever before."
Edge then turned to Shane, saying that he had "his work cut out for him" in holding the squad together. He attempted to give a pep talk, and noted that since Styles loved cliches so much, after Sunday the world champion might be competing on "Shane O'MacDown."
Styles deadpanned, "That sounds stupid," which prompted both the crowd and Shane to laugh. But Styles continued, noting that the team would only stick together because he was the bigger man, deciding to "co-exist with this hothead, Dean Ambrose."
Ambrose and Styles made clear they were only putting aside their differences temporarily, and stepped to each other. They increasingly ratcheted up the tension, and seemed destined to come to blows, threatening to cripple the unity of Team SmackDown Live only days before Survivor Series.
This brought out The Undertaker, who immediately stepped to Shane upon entering the ring (at least they remembered that they had a match at WrestleMania?), and had a message to send to the quarreling blue boys:
Now I’m here tonight for two reasons. One, WrestleMania will no longer define who I am. I’m back, taking souls, and digging holes! ... Survivor Series was where The Undertaker was born. And SmackDown has always been my home. Now, that brings me to the second reason I’m out here. (Loud Undertaker chant) At this year’s Survivor Series, there’s no reason to fear failure. But if you fail, IF YOU FAIL, you will have reason to fear The Deadman. Team Raw … better … Rest. In. Peace.
If The Undertaker is indeed returning on at least a part-time basis, there are a lot of interesting angles the blue brand could run: Taker vs. Styles, Taker vs. Cena, Taker vs. Ambrose, Taker vs. Orton, Taker vs. Wyatt ... there are a lot of storytelling avenues it would open up. His warning that the blues better win, or else, is a pretty simple narrative arc—if they let him down, there will be hell to pay. (And the whole, "I have SmackDown pride" ish works a whole lot better with longstanding veterans like Undertaker and Edge than people like Styles or Ambrose, who've been on the brand for four months.)
But at 51, is he capable of holding up to a more regular schedule? Having a "big star" flit in and out can work in a story, but it also can easily devolve into just bringing back a veteran to pop the crowd—at the expense of the narrative.
That said, his warning provided retroactive justification for why Team SmackDown Live is so hyped to defend the blue brand. But there's still a problem: it's retroactive.
Show Your Work
This was a great segment.
It also made no sense.
Nikki Bella and Carmella were working a really good match, with Carmella viciously targeting the neck and Nikki's babyface comebacks continuously cut short. Carmella was relishing in hurting "Little Ms. Fearless."
Then Charlotte appeared, the action eventually spilt to the outside, the Raw Women's Champion ate a violent Bellahammer (after taunting Nikki with Brie's old classic line of, "COME ON NIKKI!"), and all hell broke loose.
There's no doubt: this was an awesome brawl. The match Sunday will probably (hopefully) be hot fire.
But this unexplained intra-brand battle is nonsensical. It's particularly egregious when Sasha Banks was only last night telling Charlotte nobody liked her and didn't want to follow her orders. And when the Raw team came out last night with Charlotte, Banks was first to back up "The Queen" ... why?
There's lots of good stuff you could do with all the infighting in the respective teams. But you're telling me that Carmella—who literally is psychotically obsessed with attacking Nikki Bella and has been for months on end—would jump in to defend Nikki because of brand pride? That Bayley of all people would join in a 5-on-1 beatdown?
No, they wouldn't.
Yes, this was a hoot of a segment. The crowd was so hyped for it from the moment Nikki gave Charlotte the huge Bellahammer. And unlike the brawl last night, the crowd was actively behind the blue team, which helped put the atmosphere over in a big way. It had so many great things, including Sasha and Alexa Bliss basically shooting on each other, Nikki narrowly saving SmackDown Live Women's Champion Becky Lynch from being speared through the barricade by Nia Jax, and Naomi's big crossbody spot to wipe out the Raw team. Awesome segment.
It was also painfully dumb and made zero sense for a whole host of characters. And it didn't have to be—they could have told stories over the last three weeks that would have justified the respective character actions during the brawl and match on Sunday. An easy justification would be that any of the survivors on the SmackDown Live women's team would receive a title shot (leaving the Raw team nonsense aside for now, which is a whole other can of worms). It would take 30 seconds to get that across and everything falls into place. SmackDown Live uncharacteristically didn't show their work.
What's more, there's a Survivor Series intra-brand narrative that writes itself—the SmackDown Live Women's Division has been relentlessly overlooked (despite being consistently excellent) while the "narrative" / public relations exercise exists on Raw. Charlotte has been positioned as way above anyone else on the entire main roster, and no one on SmackDown Live is even remotely comparable. Making SmackDown Live the underdog and having the faces (and Coach Natalya) give a rah rah, inspirational, "we have our differences but this is above that" speech would at least provide some narrative glue.
Becky Lynch even provided what could have been a great rallying cry for the blue brand's women—"We're junkyard dogs ... We're rough and we're tough, and we've had enough!" on Talking Smack.
But they simply haven't built a coherent reason for why these things are happening, relying on the (very correct) assumption that the brawl would get over huge simply because it was taking place. It's a poster child segment for the difference between "moment booking" and "plot booking."
On the other hand, sometimes moments get over really huge and are a lot of fun and get fans excited for a match which is kind of the whole point of professional wrestling.
(If you want plenty more discussion of the women's Survivor Series match, be sure to tune into Wednesday Night Shooters with the incomparable Tonya Rodgers and myself tomorrow night.)
And New ... For a Short While
All Hail The Miz, once again the rightful Intercontinental Champion.
For, uh, five days, at least.
What a way to start the show this was, with The Miz and Dolph Ziggler putting on an easy four-star TV match. The chemistry the two have developed is really special, and they brought it in a big way again last night. At one point The Miz hit Ziggler with the "YES" kicks (with Maryse doing the gesture on the outside), missed the finale roundhouse kick, was rolled up for two by Ziggler, and then hit The Show Off with a running high knee. He immediately followed with a Skullcrushing Finale, and was certain to get the victory ... until Ziggler kicked out at just about literally the last possible moment.
Later, Ziggler hit an actually devastating Zig Zag, but The Miz just managed to sneak his foot onto the rope to keep the match alive. The match turned when the Spirit Squad made their way to the ring to interfere. Though both ate superkicks for their trouble, The Miz followed up by hammering Ziggler's leg from behind and immediately putting him into the Figure Four, with Ziggler just barely managing to reach the ropes.
Seriously, this was superb.
The Miz immediately tried to reapply the hold, but was caught in a small package by Ziggler. Unbeknowst to referee Mike Chioda, however, Maryse shoved The Miz back onto Ziggler, giving him enough leverage to secure the pinfall victory and regain the Intercontinental Championship.
A great finish to a great match.
It seems pretty straightforward that Sami Zayn will win the Intercontinental Championship, bringing it to Raw, while Kalisto will win the Cruiserweight Championship, bringing it and the division to SmackDown Live. This could obviously be wrong, but it seems rather clear, doesn't it?
And a special shout out to The Miz for crashing Talking Smack and prompting a crisis of conscience in General Manager Daniel Bryan, noting that Bryan should want The A-Lister to win and retain the title for the blue brand: "Whose corner are you gonna be in? Who you gonna root for? You gonna root for the guy, with the title you love, the guy on your brand?"
It would be a great moment for Sami Zayn to win the Intercontinental Championship in Canada. But SmackDown Live has rehabilitated the Intercontinental Championship, and with it the careers of The Miz and Dolph Ziggler, by telling an exceptional story—the feud of the year. There's been no build for what could be an amazing program between Zayn and The Miz, despite the latter's immediate attempts to get the match over on Twitter.
Does Raw have a story planned for the Intercontinental Championship—and Sami Zayn—going forward? Or will the title once again slip into irrelevancy?
(Also, the match on Sunday could be a darkhorse Match of the Year candidate. Mark it down.)
All the rest
The SmackDown Live Survivor Series tag team squad—minus champions Heath Slater and Rhyno, who were ringside—tuned up for their match Sunday by facing a hodgepodge of heel teams. It was fine for what it was, and mostly noticeable for again demonstrating how over Slater and Rhyno are, as both received very loud "We Want Slater/Rhyno" chants during the contest. American Alpha scored the victory, with Chad Gable pinning Thrasher of The Headbangers following Grand Amplitude.
Not a whole lot of story built for the tag team match Sunday, but there was a fun backstage segment with Slater and Rhyno bringing King Booker T into the locker room to give the boys a motivational pep talk. Breezango continued to nail their gimmick by walking in with their fake cop uniforms, audibly making police sirens, and ticketing everyone in the room for fashion faux pas.
It's kinda hard to boo them (actually, are they even heels anymore?) when they're this much fun.
A very special shout out to Natalya, who ever since dropping the "YAAAAY" nonsense has been just a pure delight. Quoting Chumbawamba to Alexa Bliss—which elicited a classic, Blissful expression (honestly just watch her expressions through the whole video)—and once again putting over her cat 2pawz's Instagram’s account on Talking Smack is just such a right fit. Bliss can't even with this.
Kalisto defeated Oney Lorcan in a short match. A surprise debut for Lorcan, who hasn't been seen much on NXT of late. But he really impressed here, coming out of the gate hot with strong offense and then exceptionally covering for Kalisto's bad botch of slipping on the rope. Honestly, he looked a lot better than the man challenging for the Cruiserweight Championship—and the division with it—on Sunday.
There are nitpicks to make here, but this was an exceptionally fun professional wrestling television program. And hopefully after Sunday, SmackDown Live will do away with the intra-brand moments and get back to doing what it does best: telling stories.