WWE SmackDown Live continued its hot streak last night (Sept. 20, 2016) in Birmingham, Alabama. For full results and the live blog click here. For even more coverage of SmackDown Live, check out Tonya Rodgers and myself discussing the episode on Live! After SmackDown Live.
Redemption, Thy Name Is
WWE is telling a redemption story with John Cena—and they're doing it really, really well.
Remember what Dean Ambrose told Cena last week—"You're a lazy part-timer" and "You can't go no more" in the ring. Cena has now lost clean to Styles at SummerSlam, and clean to Ambrose on SmackDown Live. And he sold last night's defeat in those initial few seconds after the match on the outside: Could Ambrose possibly be right? Did all Cena's media appearances, or simply the passage of time itself, mean that Cenation was past it? Is he a lazy part-timer?
I used the above cover image very deliberately: Ambrose had just attempted a rebound clothesline, but walked right into an AA. How many times have we seen Cena do this before? Counter his opponent's move, hit a flash AA (the second of the match, so it would clearly have been the winner), 1-2-3, job done.
But instead, Ambrose reversed the move, rolled into a sitout pin, and scored the victory.
Cena actually sold the shock of defeat, first holding up three fingers quizzically to the referee and then sitting outside the ring, completely bemused. John Cena doesn't lose, clean, on TV! And on Tuesday!
But he did just that last night.
Of course, his shock allowed WWE World Champion AJ Styles to come out of nowhere with a Phenomenal Forearm, and then work over Ambrose with a Pele Kick. Daniel Bryan came out to announce that Ambrose would get his one-on-one rematch for the title on next week's Smackdown Live, which AJ was none too pleased with. He was even less pleased when he walked into a Dirty Deeds, as Ambrose stood tall to close the show.
I really liked that they didn't have Styles on commentary for the match—the hackneyed stare down spots are so overplayed, and the confrontation is inevitable. Keeping him away from the match allowed us to be surprised, even if we were all aware that he would show up at some point.
Another special shout out to Ambrose, who I thought did well tonight. His initial backstage spot was him angrily taping his fists: he was all business. It was clear that Cena's words last week had gotten to him (imagine that, characters responding to dialogue in realistic ways!) and his chip on the shoulder had returned. He'll never be my favorite in the ring, and the match was decent, if not great. But Serious Dean is worlds better than goofy Dean. More like this, please.
I don't think it's that wild a suggestion to posit that this won't be Cena's last clean loss in the next few months. But come next year, he will regain his mojo and find his way back to the mountaintop at Wrestlemania, winning his 16th world championship in the process—from AJ Styles, in likely one of the most well-built feuds in recent Mania history.
And I can't wait to enjoy the ride.
"I Was Not Born to Be a Champion ... I Fought to Be a Champion"
Well this was the best women's main roster segment ... ever?
General Manager Daniel Bryan opened the show, announcing a contract signing for the Smackdown Live Women's Championship match at No Mercy between the champion, Becky Lynch, and challenger, Alexa Bliss.
Bliss hit many of the same notes from her feud October/November 2015 feud with Bayley in NXT (which makes sense, as Becky's main roster story has been somewhat similar to parts of Bayley's NXT journey):
I can’t even look at you holding that title. You don’t fit the role of a champion ... Your role in life is to be the woman that succeeds, and then fails miserably. (Boos.) You know it's true... And you'll go back to being what you do best, the lovable superstar who never quite gets it. You know it, I know it. You weren’t born to be a champion Becky, you were born to be a loser.
Becky responded with some trademark straight fire:
I was not born to be a champion. I was born to work a job I didn’t like and barely make ends meet... I was not born to be a champion. But I watched far too much TV, and listened when they told me I could be anything I wanted to be... I was not born to be champion, but I have poured my heart and soul into this so that I can raise this (the championship) above my head... I was not born to be a champion, but I want this, and I want this a whole lot more than you do. I was not born to be a champion. I fought to be a champion.
Exceptional. Alexa countered, sarcastically:
Oh my God, that was so inspirational! PUHLEASE BECKY. Here’s the difference: You’re always destined for second place. I was born to be a champion. I’m gonna take that title and expose you for what you really are: A ONE-HIT WONDER.
With that, Bliss pretended to sign the contract, but instead hit Becky with the binder in the face, signed the paper, flipped over the announce table onto Becky for good measure, and stormed off. Wow. I've been clamoring for mic time for weeks for Alexa, and man, she knocked it out of the park here.
Both women wonderfully sold the impact of their opponent's lines, with Becky displaying fear that Alexa might just be right—she might be a one-hit wonder—and Alexa increasingly unnerved from Becky's aggressiveness, with a wonderful "Am I in over my head?" expression written all over her face.
Of course, Alexa underestimated Becky's fire, as the champion got out from under the table, chased down Bliss, and attacked her before Ms. Five Feet of Fury fled to the back.
This was simply a marvelous segment.
I don't know how anyone can watch this segment and not see, as Daniel Bryan pointedly said on Talking Smack, that "We're doing the women's revolution" on SmackDown Live—a stark contrast from Monday's show.
Women on SmackDown Live get more over the longer the show goes; women on Monday Night Raw get less over as time passes. (Actually, not just the women—that's true of basically everyone on both respective shows.)
Listen, Bayles. Sash. It ain't you. Hell, it ain't me neither. But you're both on a show that isn't going to develop your characters, whether by malice, ignorance, or incompetence—or some combination of all three. I can't deal with that anymore. I would prefer my entertainment to not be endlessly aggravating.
Rebecca Quin sure lucked out on being drafted to the blue brand.
The build to this title match is going to be really, really damn good.
The Miz is absolutely killing it right now.
He was forced to defend the Intercontinental Championship tonight against Dolph Ziggler, because he apparently hadn't read the fine print in his contract well enough—as his nemesis, GM Daniel Bryan, told him. He was none too happy that his renegotiated contract allowed Bryan the option of ripping up his contract—and stripping the title—away were he not to defend his championship.
The match had no right to be this good—much like their bout at Backlash. When did The Miz start being able to regularly churn our near four star matches like they were nothing? His adoption of the "YES!" chant and much of Bryan's moveset is perfect heeling.
When Maryse attempted to interfere with mace again, as she had at Backlash, she was caught by the referee and ejected from ringside. She dropped the can of mace, however, which would come into play later. Ziggler was taking The Miz to town after the champion had attempted to flee with his belt. Ziggler threw The Miz into the ringside steps, and the champion sneakily grabbed the discarded can of mace. When he was rolled back into the ring, he threw the championship belt away, ensuring the referee would turn his back to go retrieve it and put it away, and maced Ziggler before hitting him with a Skull Crushing Finale to retain. Spectacularly clever heeling.
Ziggler is also really selling his desperation well—it could be the start of a long babyface redemption, or the impetus for a heel turn. They've got multiple directions they can take his storyline, and I feel confident that Ziggler could deliver both.
The Miz once again outfoxed Bryan. It'll be interesting to see who the GM is able to find next to take the belt off his old "mentor." I did appreciate that on Talking Smack that Bryan did avowedly state that The Miz is raising the prestige of the Intercontinental Championship—as he undeniably is, in both shoot and kayfabe. He just doesn't like the guy.
Comrades in Arms
The Usos defeated American Alpha in an excellent, heavily story-driven tag team match.
Jimmy and Jey continued working over Chad Gable's injured knee (tying him up and bending his bad leg up against the ropes, and then immediately stomping on the bad knee), keeping him away from making a big tag to Jason Jordan for minutes on end. Finally Gable reached the corner, and several suplexes brought Alpha back into the match. But the numbers were catching up to him, and Gable asked to be tagged in, despite his knee visibly giving way on the apron.
Jordan refusing to tag in Gable, knowing his partner was too hurt to continue and didn't want Gable to risk his career, was perfect storytelling. He wasn't arrogant and thought he could do it all on his own—he just knew that putting Gable more in harm's way was a disastrous idea. If they didn't win the number one contendership tonight, they would have more chances. But he refused to gamble with Gable's health.
He nearly scored the victory himself, but ate a double superkick and a Samoan splash. Gable desperately tried to crawl his way to make the save, but was simply unable to do so in time. The Usos will face Heath Slater and Rhyno for the SmackDown Live tag team championships at No Mercy.
Gable and Jordan had one of the best short matches under the WWE umbrella last year when they faced Baron Corbin and Rhyno at TakeOver: Respect in October 2015. This bout tonight with The Usos might be the equivalent of that match.
The Usos then barged into Rhyno and Slater's locker room backstage, where they had been watching the match and snacking on Cheez Whiz and crackers. The heels complained about having to wrestle twice in one night at Backlash, and then threatened to knock the plate of crackers out of Rhyno's hand. This incensed the Man Beast, who said "Don't you DARE touch my crackers!"
The Usos demanded that the odd couple hand over the tag team belts or they would take their knees out right then and there, telling Slater that they would send him and his "26 raggedy ass kids back to the Mud hole you came from." This enraged Rhyno, who crumpled his beloved crackers in his hand and stood face-to-face with the challengers, causing The Usos to walk out.
With these three teams, Breezango, and The Hype Bros, the SmackDown Live tag team division is in a really good place right now.
All the rest
Nikki Bella and Naomi defeated Carmella and Natalya by disqualification. Naomi even got to cut a promo backstage explaining what her new tagline, "Feel the glow," meant—and it was pretty good! Furthering that point, Naomi was the only one of the four women to get a full entrance, which again furthered the point of the gimmick. Nikki, for her part, gave a classical babyface promo by advancing her "returning from injury" narrative.
A short segment, but it got meaningful characterization for three of the four women. There's nothing to complain about here, other than that the result of the match wasn't announced on TV.
In particular, I think Carmella showed something tonight, both in her complete disregard for the match—Natalya had Nikki in the sharpshooter, but Carmella refused to leave the ring within a five-count and was DQ'ed, before throwing Nikki into the ring barricade multiple times—and as a complete sociopath in her Talking Smack appearance. She shot on Daniel Bryan's relationship with his sister-in-law Nikki ("You can't be that close," considering that Bryan hadn't moved a few weeks prior when Carmella assaulted Nikki on Talking Smack), and refused to leave the set when Renee Young suggested the interview was over. Instead, she demanded to be asked another question, and when Young obliged, finally said "THIS INTERVIEW IS OVER" before slamming her headset down and storming off. She has completely lost it over the fact that Nikki was cheered at SummerSlam while no one cared about her.
Baron Corbin defeated Apollo Crews, with Jack Swagger on commentary. Corbin's hitting a groove right now, and his ring work tonight was especially vicious and innovative. They could have something with him with a little bit more tweaking. His line to Swagger, after he demolished Crews, that he "Should have stayed on Raw," was perfectly in character. Meanwhile, Crews is on a clear losing streak. I think SmackDown Live creative recognizes that he was going nowhere fast on his current path, so I'm curious to see how they move forward with him. But for now, I think they've made the clearly right decision by placing Corbin above him in the hierarchy.
Randy Orton defeated Erick Rowan in a short match, before Bray Wyatt cut a customary promo on The Viper from his secluded hovel backstage. If there's one person SmackDown Live hasn't revitalized yet, it's Bray Wyatt. His promos are still all largely the same, and he still loses all the time. I'm not sure what they can do with him, though I'll be curious to see what happens with The Eater of Worlds once Orton goes over him to prepare for his coming feud with AJ Styles.
Curt Hawkins is a weird dude.
Another terrific show.
I thought long and hard over my grade tonight. Compared to Raw, basically every SmackDown Live episode is an A+ at this point. But that's not a good curve. There were huge swathes of this show that were utterly sensational, others that were very good, and small bits that were just OK.
Even still, that's me trying to deliberately talk myself out of a third straight A+. Like, grade inflation is a real problem. If everything is an A+, then nothing is an A+.
Wait. I just watched the contract signing again. Never mind everything I just wrote in the last few paragraphs.
The best wrestling show on the planet today—and it's not close.