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WWE SmackDown Live Recap & Reactions (Nov. 29, 2016): RIP James Ellsworth, 1984-2016

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WWE SmackDown Live set the stage for its TLC pay-per-view this Sunday with its go home show last night (Nov. 29, 2016) in Columbia, South Carolina. For full results and the live blog, click here.

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We Hardly Knew Ye

He's dead. James Ellsworth, The Man With Two Hands and a brand new SmackDown Live contract, is dead.

And his buddy Dean Ambrose is looking to bring his killer, WWE World Champion AJ Styles, to justice, at TLC this Sunday.

(He's not actually dead.)

Ambrose hosted a very special edition of "The Ambrose Asylum," featuring Ellsworth, the newest SmackDown Live superstar. Ellsworth proceeded to thank Dean, all the while his buddy gently ribbed him for having old boots and an unflattering physique.

JBL was again really great here:

  • As the crowd chanted Ellsworth: "This is beyond belief."
  • After Ellsworth lavished praise and thanks on Dean for helping him get this opportunity: "I'm gonna throw up."
  • When Styles' music finally hit to cut off the faces: "Thank goodness."

The champion, having made his way ringside, stood on the announce table and chastened Ellsworth, mockingly addressing him as "Mr. WWE Superstar" and claiming that Ellsworth was "nothing more than a prop to insult me" and a dummy. When Ambrose noted that said dummy had beaten Styles three times, the champ jumped off the announce table, incensed:

This guy never would have beat me if it wasn’t for you. I’m tired of you making me out to be a joke. I want my respect. In fact, I demand my respect. And if you don’t give it to me, this Sunday, I’m gonna beat it out of you. Yeah. I’m gonna bounce your head off every rung on the ladder, bend steel chairs around your back, put you through every table I can find... I’m gonna beat you to when you can’t stand anymore, and when I’m done doing that, I’ve got something special for the Superstar. I dare you, Ellsworth, to show up. Because if you think your face is disfigured now, just wait till I get a hold of tables, ladders, and chairs.

Ambrose countered perfectly, retroactively enshrining the coherency and consistency of the build to the match by noting, "AJ, I know these last few weeks are hard on you. Championships are won in one square foot of space, up here. (points to head) And the last few weeks prove, you’re too easy man." Nailed it.

The Phenomenal One had enough, shoving Ellsworth into Ambrose, then taking the challenger outside, throwing him into the ring steps, and finally put Ambrose down by hitting him with the steps.

(Just to prove how good he is as this whole professional wrestling thing, Styles immediately shut down a burgeoning "tables" chant by flipping the one in ring over, eliciting boos from the crowd.)

Styles, having wisely taken Ambrose out of the equation completely, proceeded to maul the helpless Ellsworth. (And in a great touch, Styles continued to look back over his shoulder, to make sure Ambrose hadn't sprung to life.) He hit Ellsworth with a massive chair shot as the Chinless Wonder hung over the ring apron, and then set up for a Styles Clash on the floor. But then a light bulb went off.

Styles dragged Ellsworth onto the steel stairs, set up for a Styles Clash, and delivered the move from the stairs onto the floor. Ellsworth lay absolutely motionless.

This was phenomenally violent, and incredibly awesome.

(Thank the lord, Ellsworth didn't tuck his head.)

At the very end of the show, WWE Tag Team Champions Heath Slater and Rhyno were in the process of being interviewed about facing the Wyatt Family on Sunday (more on that below). But The Champ Who Runs The Camp instead walked in, attempted to shoo the pair off by saying, "No one cares about the tag team champions anyway," and hijacked the interview.

What a jerk! But he would receive his comeuppance immediately:

THERE YOU ARE, YOU BASTARD!

Ambrose, last seen entering Ellsworth's ambulance on the way to the hospital (saying, "It's my fault man, we'll fix it"), had returned to the arena with a taste for revenge. He absolutely mauled Styles backstage, all the while being cheered on by Slater and Rhyno—a great touch, because why wouldn't they still be there and be cheering the beating on, given how much of a jerk he just was to them?

Let's recap: This show appeared to end with The Wyatts celebrating in the ring, which would have been a good close. It then cut to the tag champions backstage, who demonstrated resolve in the face of obvious fear (on Slater's part), which would have been a good close. Then Styles showed up, made himself a jerk to everyone, and attempted to gloat about his diabolical attack on Ellsworth earlier, which would have been a good close. Finally Ambrose came back and beat the crap out of Styles to actually close the show, fading to black with the beating still ongoing—the spectacular, actual close.

Top notch.

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Straight. Fire.

Wow.

For the second time, a SmackDown Live Women's Championship contract signing between Becky Lynch and Alexa Bliss opened the show. And for the second time, it was utterly exceptional. The banter was heated and on point, both performers came across as remarkably authentic and in character (Bliss' complete disdain for the plebs surrounding her while she walked to the ring before the signing was just perfect), and we got a great brawl during the segment.

Becky using Alexa's shoot name of "Lexi" and saying she had some "good soundbites on Talking Smack," but that the notoriety received for those clips wasn't worthy of being called a champion, was terrific. Bliss countered that Becky lived in a fantasy world where everything was the result of her being so "nice," but Lynch promptly shot her down, instead saying she got where she was not because of being nice, but because she was relentless in pursuit of her goal of becoming a champion.

All of this was really, really well delivered.

After the not-so-niceties of the signing, the champion struck Bliss before the heel could launch another dastardly sneak attack, and gained the upperhand with a Bexplex. And this being a contract signing, the champion set up the table, and her opponent, for a super Bexplex from the top rope. But the canny Bliss instead raked the eyes and instead sent Lynch crashing through the table, and kicked dirt on the fallen champion to close the segment.

That was all great. Tremendous. But it was what came much later in the show that truly raised the bar.

Unsurprisingly, Lynch was informed that their match at TLC was turned into a tables match—at the behest of Bliss, claimed Renee Young backstage—which should be a hoot and a half. But it was Lynch's response that truly brought the thunder to this feud:

This is one of the most effective uses of an expletive in modern WWE history. Maybe the most effective. Unlike when it's commonly used to pop the crowd, it was actually shocking and completely unexpected from the usually cheery—or, at her most negative, merely resilient—champion. (And Young's open-mouthed reaction was perfect.) The words had real force behind them, and put over both Bliss as a tremendous heel—noble Becky, who was literally wearing a bright white shirt of clear purity, was driven to swear!—and the feud as incredibly heated.

Masterful.

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Fabulousness

In the other women's division feud, Carmella was set to face an unnamed competitor but instead used the opportunity to give a message to Nikki Bella ...'s boyfriend, John Cena. She went on to "apologize" for what she was going to do for Nikki during their No Disqualification match at TLC, saying:

This Sunday, in our No DQ match, I’m gonna pick up a chair and I’m gonna hit Nikki so hard in her chest, that her own Bella twins are gonna be popping out of her back. That’s a promise. And actually John, I’m gonna be doing you a favor. I’m gonna rearrange her face so bad that the last thing on her mind is going to be a wedding. I can see it now, Nikki Bella posting videos right to her new YouTube page right from her hospital bed.

Whoa there, Carmella! That seems excessive!

(Remember when she helped save Nikki from a beatdown two weeks ago? ... wait, that never happened.)

Instead of her opponent making her way to the ring, "You Can Look (But You Can't Touch)" hit. Nikki wasted no time preening for the camera, simply sprinting right to ringside, sliding into the ring, and in one fluid motion spearing Carmella through the mat. (Seriously, this was an exceptional spear.) The two brawled, with Nikki ending with the upper hand, Carmella just narrowly escaping by the skin of her teeth. They hate each other! It's great! They'll be at each other's throats on Sunday, and it should be awesome.

Credit to The Princess of Staten Island here, as well, as she extremely ably shut down the crowd when they began to chant, "How you doin?," countering with "I’ll be doin' a hell of a lot better once I get out of here, that’s for sure." Those familiar with her NXT work could never have guessed she'd so quickly be a very effective heel promo, but that's exactly what she has become only four months into her main roster run.

There will likely be complaints that Carmella's promo harkened a throwback to the old Divas era, when cheap, sexually degrading insults were the norm and the storylines were all about "crazy catty" women being crazy and catty.

But there are several key differences here:

  • Carmella is clearly a heel that we are meant to boo, and her words are used not as an "exciting" attack to stir controversy and pop the crowd but to clearly demonstrate that she is in the wrong and wholly bad. They are treated in storyline with the disdain they deserve, not as a cheap thrill. Moreover, the face is not countering with the same tact, instead rightly and justly condemning the heel, whether by words or force.
  • The other feuds in the division (counting Raw here as well) are freaking awesome and in no way about "crazy catty" women. Well, except Natalya, whose gimmick literally is "crazy cat woman who quotes song lyrics." But even that's great, so...

WWE is becoming a fire women's federation right before our eyes. Rag on the public relations spiels and history-making narratives, but the last two nights have felt legitimately, hugely, progressive, and it is flat out awesome.

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Currying Favor

In the main event, the Wyatt Family defeated American Alpha to become the number one contenders for Heath Slater and Rhyno's SmackDown Live Tag Team Championships, and will face Beauty and The Man Beast this Sunday at TLC.

Both teams got good promo segments earlier in the show (back-to-back, which was great), in which Alpha displayed some of their trademark goofy charm and the Wyatts presented their usual menacing front—with an added twist, however, of Randy Orton confronting Luke Harper to do his part for the family and beat Kane in a singles match during the show. Harper, who hasn't taken his eyes off Orton for one second since Orton joined the family, was clearly displeased, but Bray Wyatt seemed to side with Orton, saying only, "Harper, go send Kane back to hell."

Shortly before the main event, Kane in fact defeated Harper, after a fairly plodding match. Beef-on-beef is frequently great, but Kane's snail-like speed really sapped the pace of an otherwise red hot show, if for only a few minutes. The story is right, though, with Harper failing after being called out by Orton to step up to the plate...

... Making Luke's appearance to save the day for the team in the main event more meaningful, as he knew he had to prove his worth. The match itself was very good, with Orton's typical methodicalness really working well with the Wyatt Family's modus operandi, and Alpha's spirited fire only being snuffed out due to distraction. The ending sequence was particularly good: Harper appearing to distract Jordan, Bray grabbing Jason Jordan but unnecessarily gloating in the Sister Abigail position, allowing Chad Gable to hit a drop kick and set up for a Grand Amplitude, which Orton broke up by giving Gable an RKO. Jordan than hit Orton with a spear in the corner and attempted the same in the opposite corner to Wyatt, but Harper pulled his leader out of the way, allowing Bray to this time finally hit Sister Abigail for the win.

The Wyatt Family posed to celebrate their victory, with Bray in the center of the ring and Harper and Orton in opposite corners—Randy notably still doing his trademark pose. While Bray's enamored with his shiny new prize, Harper is the one truly selling this angle. The way he walked right past Orton to handshake Wyatt after the victory was telling, and purposeful.

He does not trust that snake one bit.

If there is one criticism to make of SmackDown Live since the brand split, it's that their clearly most prized tag team has not yet been presented as a major player, and their reactions have remained somewhat muted as a result. More talking time certainly helps, though, as the dynamic between Gable and Jordan is hugely endearing and got the pair over huge in NXT.

Of course, their relative low key beginning is because Heath Slater and Rhyno caught fire out of nowhere, and the show rightly went with the hot hands. Still though, Alpha are meant to be the eventual stars here, and they need to do a better job going forward of making sure that's the case.

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A SmackDown Special

Dolph Ziggler and Kalisto faced off against their Sunday opponents, The Miz and Baron Corbin, in a tag team contest.

There wasn't anything particularly special about the match, though it was well laid out with all competitors involved having some sort of interaction with their soon-to-be respective instruments of destruction:

  • Immediately after being tagged into the match, The Miz pulled a ladder out from under the ring and tried to throw Ziggler into it—only for The Show Off to stop short and instead hit Miz with a huge DDT on the outside. But later, with the referee's back turned, Maryse shoved the ladder into Ziggler before walking away, innocent as can be.
  • The Miz, however, was paying too much attention to Ziggler, and allowed Kalisto an opening to hit a Salina Del Sol. Unfortunately for the luchador, he was unable to secure the pinfall victory, as Corbin slid into the ring, steel chair in hand. He paused for a brief second before smacking his rival straight across the back, earning the faces a disqualification victory—though JBL rightly noted on commentary that, beat down as they were, "they don't look like victors."

Both feuds got some added juice for Sunday. Mission Accomplished.

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All the rest

There aren't actually any other segments on the show. Everything was set up for the angles that will be resolved in heated matches Sunday. No filler, no wasted time. All purposeful, and all sensational.

The night after an (really good!) episode of Raw that heavily featured GM Mick Foley, there were no authority figures on the show—rather tellingly.

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Well, this was just tremendous.

The wrestling. It is so good! And tonight's SmackDown Live was, once again, at the pinnacle of the art form. How is this show this good?

Grade: A+