SmackDown Live continued WWE’s January swing through the south last night (Jan. 10, 2017) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. American Alpha were tasked with defending their newly won tag team championships against the Wyatts, and Big Banter Baron Corbin faced off against John Cena. For full results and the live blog from the exceptional Reverend Kain, click here.
Three weeks before the Royal Rumble, SmackDown Live ran an episode focused on ticking feuds and angles along. In one particular case, though, the blue brand demonstrated the effectiveness of its approach of delaying major conflict until it simply explodes.
The tension that has built since Survivor Series between Natalya and Nikki Bella finally boiled over last night. The scheduled match between the pair never got off the ground—hell, it didn’t even reach the ring, as Natalya ambushed Nikki backstage, throwing her into a steel door and telling her she’d see her “out there.”
Nikki obviously was none too pleased with this, and abandoned her usual introduction routine, instead purposefully walking to the ring and immediately spearing Nattie into the ground. The two exchanged hands in and outside of the ring (with Nikki hitting yet another spear on the outside) with a visceral intensity too rarely seen in WWE these days.
Referees finally attempted to break up the pair, and the crowd began to chant, louder and louder: “LET THEM FIGHT! LET THEM FIGHT! LET THEM FIGHT!”
Maybe it wasn’t as effective as it could have been because commentary didn’t announce that “this is the first time women have received a ‘let them fight’ chant in x many years!” but the crowd sure seemed to be massively invested in the angle.
Natalya got the upperhand when she managed to slip free from the referees and hit Nikki with a massive chopblock—and then followed it up with a tight sharpshooter on the outside. This feud is far, far from over.
Nikki Bella’s story, both in kayfabe and real life, is just about the quintessential tale of the progress WWE has made with its women’s division. Only a few years ago, a heel saying the sorts of lines (talent isn’t sexually transmitted, and all that) that both Carmella and now Natalya have used against her would be cheered. But now those sorts of remarks are roundly booed—and it’s clear we are meant to boo them.
That’s not insignificant.
Her real life arc has been nothing short of remarkable, too. Nikki’s journey from being widely perceived (rightly or wrongly) as the poster child of the Total Divas template to becoming one of the hardest workers, and most inspirational stories, in the division, has been a huge win not just for women’s wrestling but wrestling as a whole.
She’s living proof that there’s not one “right” path to be a woman in wrestling—an important lesson to remember. The world needs more Bellahammers—many more.
And Natalya will surely be eating more in the near future.
The dysfunctional family
The Wyatt Family failed to reclaim the SmackDown Live Tag Team Championships from American Alpha—due, once again, to a mixup between Luke Harper and Randy Orton, allowing Chad Gable to pin Orton with an O’Connor Roll.
Alpha, for their part, looked great in this match. They’re so talented, but it just hasn’t quite clicked yet with a huge swathe of the crowd. They really badly need a purely heel tag team opposite them, because fans are not going to boo Bray Wyatt or Orton, and especially not while they’re together.
Harper, who we should remember hasn’t trusted Randy from day one, went to hit a superkick on Orton after the match but instead only managed to connect with his leader. Wyatt had words for both of his devotees, and then walked off—clearly frustrated that the latest incarnation of his project seemed to be faltering, just as it always has in the past.
It seems fairly obvious that Bray will side with Orton, at least initially—he’s never had success with Harper before, and suddenly Randy joins up and he becomes a tag champion. And Harper’s the guy who keeps screwing up!
But in the end, this seems like an ideal vessel for a Wyatt face turn, as Harper is clearly the loyal soldier here. The Viper may be sincere in his desire to be a member of the family, but he’s still Randy Orton—a snake in the grass.
The narrative commitment to this storyline has been impressive—this story has been brewing for many months already, and still has plenty more string left to play out. While it started as something that just seemed to inevitably end with another big Wyatt loss, it has organically grown over several months to be a legitimately compelling wrestling angle.
Baby steps for Big Banter
John Cena is still John Cena.
There’ll be charges that SmackDown is undercutting Baron Corbin’s momentum, but those seem misplaced. He had a credible main event match with John Cena—that’s a lot more important than a one-off result on TV.
And let’s remember the end goal here—a WWE Championship match between Cena and AJ Styles (who was on commentary tonight) at Royal Rumble. Heating Cena up a bit for that is natural, and any additional “protection” for Corbin would have seemed out of place with the main event story that the blue brand is telling.
The pacing for the match was a bit weird, though, with the finish happening rather abruptly because they were simply about to run out of airtime. But Corbin more than acquitted himself in this spot. Simply shrugging off Cena’s initial shoulder tackle, and then grabbing the 15-time champ and hitting him with a World’s Strongest Slam when he tried it again, was a really well thought out note.
Crawl, walk—then run.
What makes this episode of SmackDown really impressive is that Styles—their MVP and the top WWE superstar over the last calendar year—was barely featured whatsoever. Yet somehow, not once did the show feel like it was merely drifting along.
That’s the sign of a well-built program. Both Styles and Miz were minimally featured on this episode, and it still was a good show.
Becky Lynch and Alexa Bliss will face off next week for the SmackDown Live Women’s Championship—inside a steel cage! The bombshell stipulation was announced by General Manager Daniel Bryan as a result of Bliss tapping to the Disarmer last week.
Admittedly, this is clearly unfair to the champion, who as she pointed out was obviously just going undercover last week so she could identify the real La Luchadora. A noble and worthy goal, and not at all an obvious lie.
It’s kinda refreshing to see a match stipulation come about because of natural storyline advancement, right?
*Unless there are escape rules, but please, can we get a cage match requiring a decision in the ring for once? Please? No one wants to watch a bunch of climbing. It’d probably take Alexa an hour to climb out of the cage!
Oh, poor Miz. He should have expected that his “Participation Award” gimmick would come back on him, though. And to make matters worse, he ate a slap from Maryse that was intended for the new Intercontinental Champion, Dean Ambrose.
This wasn’t a major segment on the show, despite opening the program, and it wasn’t designed to be another knockout Miz promo like last week’s eruption on Talking Smack. What it did accomplish, though, was give a neat little bit of characterization to Ambrose. He can stray into whacky sometimes, but this was the perfect touch: cheekiness with a razor blade. Wily yet cutting.
Ambrose is low key another roster member who has absolutely flourished since the brand split, with meaningful feuds and consistency in presentation. SmackDown has made it hard to remember that he was wrongly punked out by Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania, and then put on one of the worst matches of 2016 with Chris Jericho.
First time for everything
Poor Jimmy Dream (aka James Ellsworth), 32 years young and still waiting on that first kiss. How sad is this leering, man:
Credit to Carmella, though, because she’s milking this for what it’s worth. That’s two matches now (though the less said about last night’s match, the better) that she’s won due in part to Ellsworth. She’s playing her role in a way that makes it easily identifiable for the viewer, which is a skill not all performers readily demonstrate.
SmackDown really needs to do some bits next week off site with the two shopping and, especially, glamming up Jimmy No Chin.
Here to show the world ... something
Dolph Ziggler lost to Kalisto, and then hit the little guy with a chair a bunch. Then he hit Apollo Crews with the chair a bunch.
Admittedly, it’s only one week in, but it’s not a great start when his offense was more or less the same (with slightly more emphasis on technical wrestling, but even then, that’s not exactly heelish) and his promo on Talking Smack … well, that’s just not really his best platform, is it?
To be fair, the absence of Daniel Bryan was really felt during Dolph’s segment on the post-show. Bryan is really, really good at challenging heels and allowing them to properly express themselves in a way that makes them both sound impressive and like complete jerks. That is very much not how Shane McMahon played the role of co-host.
This was an above average, if not spectacular, show. But laying lots of groundwork is necessary when you’re building up so many various feuds—and SmackDown Live certainly accomplished that goal last night.