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WWE SmackDown Live Recap & Reactions (Aug. 2, 2016): Ups and Downs

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WWE SmackDown Live was in Nashville, Tennessee last night (August 2, 2016). After Raw made it two good shows out of two last night in the #NewEra, how would the Blues follow up on the road to Summerslam? For full results and the live blog, click here.

And for even more coverage of Smackdown Live, check out Tonya Rodgers and myself discuss tonight's episode on Live! After Smackdown Live.

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Stealing the Show

Coming into tonight, the biggest question was whether they could make Dolph Ziggler versus Dean Ambrose seem a legitimate title feud.

Mission Accomplished.

The opening promo between champion and challenger shaded both characters, and gave both an edge—Dolph, admitting that he was basically a failure for years, seeing an unexpected opportunity flash before his eyes, was fired up for what seemed the first time in ages.

The champion, for his part, was almost mocking Ziggler—hitting a tweener note just, just right. Ambrose as the champion has gotten a cocky edge about him, and it rounds out his character so much better than being "a lunatic." When he says the problem with Ziggler is that "you're just not as good as you think you are," it's a line that resonates both in shoot and kayfabe. When he says that "you're all show, and I'm all go" and that he had scratched his way to the top, you understand why Ambrose is reticent to allow people to compare themselves to him—he went through hell (or CZW, take your pick) to get where he is now, and not anybody gets to claim they're his equal.

Ziggler, referencing his Spirit Squad beginnings, claims that he started from the bottom—whereas Ambrose, as part of The Shield, has been a focal part of WWE programming literally since his debut. He's not wrong.

It's great that both guys get in digs on the other, and it's all accurate and plays on the larger perception of how we feel about these characters.

Last week I couldn't have cared less about this title match at Summerslam. I care (somewhat!) now.

This was good.

But after Ambrose left, Ziggler was laid waste by Bray Wyatt, who immediately grabbed a mic and challenged Ziggler to put his number one contendership on the line. (The crowd responded with "YES! YES! YES!" chants, which isn't exactly a great sign for your number one contender.) Ziggler, being a dumb babyface, demanded the match be made when he ran into Commissioner Shane McMahon and General Manager Daniel Bryan backstage. (Loved Bryan suggesting that he knew where Ziggler was coming from, but that "you have nothing to win here.") The Show Off was displaying a massive chip on his shoulder—and he would recklessly put it all on the line to prove his point.

Luckily for Ziggler, he emerged victorious over Wyatt. Ziggler came out fired up and strong, getting a quick near-fall off a Famouser. Ambrose, on commentary, advanced Ziggler's character work—and thus his own feud—by noting that "Sometimes you gotta do things your own way, and I appreciate that."

The match was slightly broken up, as Wyatt seemed to legitimately injure his ankle, but the Eater of Worlds nonetheless impressively powered through. He controlled much of the match—Dolph's runs on offense are still much too quick, and much too ineffectual-looking—but lost steam when he attempted to undo the top turnbuckle pad—for reasons entirely unknown. (Ambrose suggested it was because he just likes hurting people, but even that was a stretch. It was bewildering.) After making a small comeback, Ziggler finishes ripping the padding off off the turnbuckle. Wyatt again regains the upper hand, but when Ziggler catches him with a big uppercut in the corner, he takes advantage of the exposed steel, slamming Wyatt's head into it, and then immediately following with a Superkick for the victory.

Babyfaces are frequently dumb, yes, but when they still manage to overcome anyway, they look the better for it. There's zero need for Ziggler to put his title opportunity on the line, but it fits with his new gimmick of "playing with house money"—he's got nothing to lose, as nobody ever expected him to be in this spot in the first place.

One hopes that this recklessness will come into play, and likely cost him at Summerslam, possibly precipitating a heel turn. He's doing good work right now, and seems rejuvenated.

And I'm so down with snarky Ambrose ("You done feeling sorry for yourself?). Looking forward to where they go next.

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For Love of the Game

It's not a real surprise that AJ Styles and John Cena can easily create magic together. This promo—hailed as Styles wanting to "send a message" to Cena brought the best out of both men. Styles began speaking, and was immediately cut off by Cena's music, who wanted to hear—and respond—in person to The Phenomenal One.

Styles demanded to know why Cena "was still here," in the WWE, despite his apparent success in larger pop culture. He ran down the kids in the audience, and the parents too—claiming that they wanted their kids to get trophies simply for participation, which prompted, apparently, a "Soccer Mother" chant. (Seriously, Nashville? Just chant "Soccer Mom.")

Cena didn't take kindly to this, defending the kids and the parents, noting that he was here "out of love":

I'm about to make you look ridiculous. You, just asked me, why am I still here? Oh that's an easy answer, because it ain't changed in a decade and a half. I'm here out of love. And we don't say love a lot in the WWE, I don't give a damn I'm a grown ass man, I'm here out of love. You see that kid right here? I love the look on that kids face...

Of course, Styles had baited Cena into this very tactic. Cena continued on, mocking a hypothetical person asking him "Why are you still in the WWE?" despite all his mainstream success. (It's legitimately interesting that they used the word mainstream to describe culture outside of wrestling—acknowledging the industry as a niche product would go a very long way to readjusting the company's attitudes toward its biggest fans.)

Cena continued:

You, the only reason you're here, is to be a really good wrestler. And you've already proven if it doesn't work out for you, you'll pick up shop and move somewhere else. There is no place else for me. The words honor, loyalty, and respect, are my heartbeat. I am here out of love, what the hell are you doing here?

Now that Styles had played into Cena's "love of the company," he challenged Cena to another match at Summerslam. He knew that Cena couldn't say no, right after he had professed his love and promised to defend the integrity of the WWE Universe.

Cena got to deliver a legitimate babyface promo, and Styles got to be the clever heel walking him into trap that he laid. Both delivered strong here, and both look good in kayfabe.

This match should be absolutely incredible in the Barclays Center.

(Also particularly enjoyed Styles getting in a TNA dig, running down his former company by saying, "Nashville is the weakest of minds, trust me, I know.")

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Redhanded

Oh, Eva Marie.

When the graphic popped up that after a commercial break, we'd see a match between Becky Lynch and Eva, a collective groan was heard throughout the universe. The expectation, of course, after Eva was clearly made to look the most important player in the Smackdown Live Women's Division last week, was that Becky would do the job here.

Much gnashing of teeth was prepared.

Well, whoever booked this segment was plenty aware of how to utilize Eva's identity. After All Red Everything climbed into the ring and blew kisses at the crowd, she appeared to "injure" her leg coming down from the second rope. This, of course, was clearly faked, and Becky sold her exasperation well—this was clearly not a legitimate injury. Regardless, the match was called off, as Eva "hobbled" to the back while a perplexed Becky stood in the ring, and received a growing "BECKY BECKY BECKY" chant. Apparently the crowd feels bad for her, too.

The women got to open Raw and the division got nearly 45 minutes of screen time in total Monday night. Tonight, Becky just stood in the ring as Eva received her glorious entrance (at one point her personal announcer calling her "eternally beguiling," which for some reason is a phrase I love), and then was left idling in the center of the ring when All Red immediately walked out on their planned match.

(But at least Becky didn't job!)

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An F5 Not Quite Out of Nowhere

After successfully invading Raw to drop Brock Lesnar with an RKO #OuttaNowhere, it's no surprise that Randy Orton was dealt payback last night. Shane McMahon started the show by (lightly) chastising Orton before noting that they'd hired extra security. Of course, when The Beast Incarnate did show up (Brock working Tuesdays, this really is a New Era!), the hired hands—which according to Twitter included Dalton Castle's Boys—proved of absolutely zero help.

Orton dispatched Fandango with an RKO when he attempted to take advantage of Lesnar's distraction, but that opening allowed the Beast to rush the ring, grab Orton and deliver an F5. I don't have gripes about the two working on both shows, as the interpromotional match was made before the brand split went into effect (and lord, these interactions are a lot better than listening to Paul Heyman give the same promo he's been giving for two years).

It's not a program I'm particularly invested in, but Orton does seem to have an extra spring in his step since returning. Is it possible that he could go over The Beast in Brooklyn?

... Nah.

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First Impressions

American Alpha strongly debuted, picking up a win over The Vaudevillains. You could already tell the crowd starting to get behind the electric pairing of Chad Gable and Jason Jordan—a short bit of neat matwork from Gable and JJ's hot tag both really seemed to get the crowd to realize, "These guys are the real deal."

These guys are gonna get really over, really fast. You could do a lot worse than building a tag division around these two. Tonight, they only teased a small portion of what they're capable of, but a crowd that seemed unaware of them when their music initially hit was buying into them by the end of the segment.

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All the rest

Heath Slater is the hottest free agent in sports entertainment, and why won't people acknowledge that fact?! To be honest, as my Live! After Smackdown Live! co-host Tonya Rodgers noted, Heath Slater might be one of the smartest men in wrestling. In the brand split era, the people to appear on both shows are Brock Lesnar, Randy Orton ... and Heath Slater. Clever boy.

Could absolutely do without warm bodies like Rhyno, though, who Gored Slater out of nowhere in GM Daniel Bryan's office. Slater has a match against The Man Beast next week, and if he wins, he receives a Smackdown Live contract. (I hope he loses just so he can keep appearing on both shows.)

Baron Corbin, Apollo Crews (who Bryan called Apollo Creed in the show's open), and Kalisto fought a triple threat match to determine the number one contender for The Miz's Intercontinental Championship. Crews emerged the victor ... after rolling up Kalisto. If we're going to push Crews, can we at least make him look strong?

Seeing this triple threat match is a stark reminder of the vast disparity between the upper midcards on Raw and Smackdown Live.

Carmella and Natalya set up a feud when Nattie interrupted a Renee Young broadcast interview with The Princess of Staten Island. I've not got much love for Natalya usually, but she was really good here while deliberately, obnoxiously, name dropping "her uncle Bret Hart" several times within the span of, like, eight seconds. She promised to teach Carmella a lesson after Carmella had told her, in essence, to get lost. When Carmella was coming out for the match later on, Nattie ambushed her from behind before putting her in the Sharpshooter on the outside.

No actual women's wrestling tonight—two weeks in and Alexa Bliss has gotten like six seconds of screen time. They need to use her more.

There were several backstage interviews on set with Renee Young throughout the course of the night, that advanced angles and helped break up the show into more manageable segments. That, and the new custom side graphics detailing key stats or facts about wrestlers as they walk to the ring, are really nice additions.

Commentary, however, remains a problem. David Otunga is simply there, Mauro Ranallo is too lost making his pop culture references to really get the stories over, and JBL is, well, JBL.

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An enormously better show than last week. Would like to see more shine for Bliss, as she's one of the few legitimate impact, potential superstar talents on the roster. Hopefully we get to see that next week.

I was absolutely dreading tonight, as Smackdown Live last week represented many of the things that most aggravate me about the current WWE product. While there are still a few things—despite how good the work was tonight, I can't for the life of me buy Ziggler and Ambrose as the top feud over Cena and Styles, and lord, can we book Apollo Crews a little bit stronger?—to nitpick. But compared to last week, this was really, really good, and judging on that curve, pushes the grade a bit higher than it would have been as a standalone episode.

Grade: A-