SmackDown Live hit Toledo, Ohio last night (Jan. 24, 2017), just five days before WWE’s Royal Rumble pay-per-view. Advertised were a bout between Wyatt Family “brothers” Randy Orton and Luke Harper, and an explanation from Mickie James for her actions last week. For full results and the live blog from the exceptional Reverend Kain, click here.
While characters evolve up and down the SmackDown Live roster, John Cena remains the same. He doesn’t need to hit new character beats—he’s been around this block before, again and again. In fact, he can even go all the way back and reference a 2005 track of his, “Bad Bad Man.”
He doesn’t need to switch anything up. He always comes out on top. Because he’s John Cena. That’s the way it has always been.
Unfortunately for “The Man,” he’s not just facing “a guy” at the Royal Rumble, but the WWE Champion AJ Styles. And Cena’s reluctance to adapt to the new era means that he won’t be walking out of San Antonio having tied Ric Flair’s record of 16 world championships.
John Cena will not win his 16th world championship until he earns it. And his arrogance and disdain for a man who has pinned him three times shows that he has not, in fact, earned it, as his new t-shirt so readily suggests.
This was a masterful segment, incorporating Styles’ being tucked way in the back on the Royal Rumble promotional poster and footage from Cena’s latest appearance on The Today Show in which his co-hosts repeatedly insulted Styles, calling him “This guy from Atlanta,” “This man we don’t know,” and “This guy we don’t know.” Styles is a nobody to the larger world, whereas Cena is the superstar.
Of course he’ll win Sunday.
But he won’t.
These two bits were a spectacular addition to the chip on Styles shoulder—”What do I have to do to get respect around here? ... I have fought for every inch here in the WWE. And at the Royal Rumble, I’m not settling for an inch. I’m taking a foot, and putting it in your ass.”
(Are we not doing phrasing anymore?)
This is Styles’ preeminent annoyance. He spent years and years in Japan or TNA or wherever else to prove he was the best in the world. And when he finally got his shot in WWE, he worked his way up, and did indeed prove he was the best in the world by conquering John Cena, again and again and again.
But it didn’t matter that he conquered The Face That Runs The Place and assumed that mantle. John Cena was, is, and forever will be, the John Cena. WWE doesn’t change, and Cena doesn’t change. And it drives Styles insane.
Cena fired back:
You are complaining because the world doesn’t know how phenomenal AJ Styles is. (Sarcastically) John Cena, they hand me everything, right? And it’s not your fault if you fail, because I buried you. Right? Dude, you’ve been hot for six months, I’ve been holding this place down for a decade. But a guy like you can stand in this ring and call me a sorry excuse for a wrestler.
Why, because I wasn’t part of the indie scene? Here’s a spoiler, I wasn’t built for the indie scene, I was built for WWE. I get more done in a day than you do in a career, and I never talk about how many critics I got, I just earn every day, and shut every mouth. You upset about a poster? Photoshop yourself over me. You’re not a guy from Atlanta. You’re just a guy. You’re just a guy holding onto that championship because I let you. And you so unoriginal. You’re just like every other guy before you, who hates me so very much, but who does everything they can to be me, Mr. Face That Runs The Place. And you also just the guy who on Sunday, is gonna find out what everybody already knows. There’s only one John Cena, and I’m still a bad, bad, man. And my time, is NOW. Recognize.
Styles was left standing in the ring as the 15-time world champion walked off.
But what everybody else knows, and what John Cena still does not, is that he cannot beat AJ Styles—until he evolves. He will learn this harsh lesson, again, Sunday.
Death of a Family
Lord, this Wyatt Family angle is special.
The brief recap aired prior to the match said so much, by saying so little. It was a bare bones treatment of the feud, certainly. But what’s important to note is that this feud began in August (!) of last year. It’s nearly February, and there’s no sign of it ending anytime soon. They’ve been working this feud every week, for over five months, and it remains fresh and interesting.
In fact, it keeps. getting. better. This is basically unheard of in modern WWE.
It’s no surprise that the match to get the tensions out between Randy Orton and Luke Harper failed to do anything resembling that stated goal. One suspects, though, given how dead-eyed, straight-ahead Bray Wyatt was “watching” the match early on, that he cared nothing about getting the tensions out—he only wanted to see who would emerge victorious.
Because the loser “brother” would become dead to him.
The match was worked with the appropriate intensity, and Harper and Orton displayed really good chemistry (though Harper has good chemistry with most, to be honest). Finally, after about 10 minutes, Harper’s attempted Discuss Lariat was countered into an RKO, and the new brother vanquished the old.
It’s impossible not to feel real sympathy for Harper in this angle. Yes, the crowd chants, “RKO, RKO.” It’s very, very hard to get any boos (let alone sustained) for such a long-term legend. But you just knew—you knew!—that when Wyatt pulled Harper to his feet and grabbed him in a half embrace, what was coming next.
The reformed Wyatt pairing walked off, Harper coming to only to look up the ramp at his former leader and the snake who has twisted him against Luke—his true, loyal, comrade-in-arms.
It was heartbreaking.
Will Harper fight a guerrilla war against his old brother? Will Erick Rowan return to help combat the corrupted Wyatt and the devious Orton? Who knows.
The only thing certain about this feud is that it is on absolute fire.
- Fact: There were no women’s matches on this show.
- Fact: It was an exceptional show for women’s wrestling.
These are not incongruous statements.
Since the brand split, SmackDown Live has long held to a philosophy of delaying matches between primary rivals, using various forms of talking segments or backstage fights to stretch out feuds, enhance characters—and get everyone and everything that more over so that when the matches do happen, they feel like a big deal.
Whether the blue brand’s women’s division has delivered in those big match spots to this point is another topic. Since the brand split began—and with the exception of feuds including Sasha Banks—the women’s division on either roster doesn’t have the chops (or chemistry) to get entire angles over solely off in-ring work. But what can’t be debated is that all of the women’s feuds on SmackDown Live have serious juice.
Because they don’t run matches for reasons.
If the choice is between Nikki Bella and Natalya brawling all over the damn arena, or the two merely having a match, crowds have pretty well declared which option they prefer. Which makes sense! Weekly TV should be to set up the big matches on pay-per-views, not to run those matches into the ground before they can occur.
SmackDown has a pay-per-view only two weeks after Royal Rumble, and there are three separate women’s feuds going. So running the six-woman tag Sunday is an expedient decision, and allows the brand to continue building its feuds for spots where they can receive greater shine.
Mickie James explained to Renee Young just why she had helped Alexa Bliss retain her SmackDown Women’s Championship last week against Becky Lynch. While some wondered why she interfered last week, it was always the smart decision to give the blues time to elaborate.
And elaborate they did, in probably the best possible way they could take. You see, James is a 5 time Women’s Champion, and former Divas Champion. But yet all anyone talks about now is this new “Women’s Revolution,” which, in her mind, has downplayed everything that came before them—including herself. Becky Lynch and the rest of the “Revolution” think they’re already the best female competitors in WWE history and have no regard for their predecessors.
It is not hard to understand that when James uses the term “Women’s Revolution,” it’s an overt shot at the frequently hailed Four Horsewomen.
But Alexa Bliss was different! Alexa Bliss remembered Mickie James, and Alexa Bliss is the only non-Horsewoman to hold a Women’s Championship since the title was brought back. Bliss, to James, is a bastion of hope, “fighting the self-righteousness of the Revolution since Day One.” Alexa was the only one who was trying to stop the Horsewomen from winning all the titles forever and writing the history books to reflect themselves as the greatest—and only—ever.
This is a perfect tact to take, and the literal perfect character to work it in James.
As she noted that it was no longer “about the Revolution, but the reinvention of Mickie James,” Lynch’s music hit, and the two brawled. James fled into the crowd, but when Lynch attempted to follow, was blindsided by a shot from the SmackDown Women’s Champion. The pair proceeded to wail on Lynch in the ring, with both hitting their finishers, before Mickie told The Lasskicker, “Becky, poor Becky, you should have learned this lesson a long time ago from Alexa. Always be one step ahead.”
One segment in, and this feud is lit. Bringing James back was such, such, such, such, such a good call.
The war between Nikki Bella and Natalya is a confirmed shoot.
A week after brawling all over a Memphis merchandise stand, Natalya declined to ambush Nikki from behind as she arrived at the arena. Instead, she confronted her head on and goaded the Emerald Queen before ducking a Bellahammer—and tossed Nikki right into the production truck. (And not into just any random spot of the truck, but directly under her own likeness!)
They weren’t yet done, though. Natalya was scheduled to face Naomi during the show, but took a suspiciously long time to enter upon her music hitting. The cameras cut backstage to show just why—Nikki had gotten the drop on the Queen of Harts, and was repeatedly smashing her into a steel door.
Natalya’s tussle backstage ruled her out of any such bout. Her Glowness, just returning after a long injury layoff, wanted competition, and called out for anyone in the back to step up.
She didn’t get her match, but what she did get was a visit from the SmackDown Live Women’s Champion, Alexa Bliss. Little Miss Bliss cut a typically Blisscious promo:
Calm down, sweetie. I’m not here to answer a challenge from, uh, nobody. No. I mean, you haven’t even been on TV for what, three months? And, I’m sorry, but, uh, who are you again? Or, the better question, who do you think you are? ...
... You want a shot at this title? That’s what you want? (To the crowd) Yeah, boo me all you want, I’m still the champ, it doesn’t matter. You’re not worth my time. But hey, say hi to obscurity for me.
Naomi threatened to snatch her bald to the point of making her look like Mr. Clean, and Alexa teased getting into the ring, but was never planning on coming to blows. She just wanted to belittle Naomi—because she can.
She’s the champ, you see, and she can do whatever she wants. It’s a natural fit for a character that wields such wonderful disdain to mock whomever she wants, whenever she wants.
Expect Naomi to pin Alexa on Sunday to give her interim title challenge some legitimacy.
The odd couple pairing of Carmella and James Ellsworth continued, as The Princess of Staten Island took The Man With Two Hands on a badly needed shopping trip. After all, he hadn’t been in a store that nice since his last court date! It might not be for everyone, but it again demonstrated the strides Carmella has made in character work. And to give Ellsworth credit, his ridiculousness allows Carmella to effectively ham it up without coming across as overacting. Her interjection of, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO train,” when Ellsworth was dressed up as The Godfather was delightful.
This is a really good use of two fun characters who both face in ring limitations.
Miz’ing on up
The Miz, who has done so much over the last year to restore the prestige of the Intercontinental Championship, has lost his war for the title. In the opening segment, his rematch tonight against current holder Dean Ambrose was turned into a lumberjack match by General Manager Daniel Bryan after The A Lister requested a No Disqualification match. You see, The Miz had just explained to Bryan how he was the most important member of the SmackDown roster, that his star showings paid the salaries of all the scrubs—so Bryan hoisted him upon his own petard.
A clever example of using dialogue to logically get to a stipulation, which the blue brand regularly accomplishes. Knowing that you should be paying active attention to the show, and what is said, increases viewer investment in the product. While it still has yet to kick the “B show” designation, keeping its ratings well below Raw’s, the relative intensity of its fans and widespread critical acclaim speaks volumes.
In the main event, Ambrose successfully defended the title in one of the better lumberjack matches in recent history. So frequently they quickly devolve into the outside the ring nonsense, and it slows everything down, but this match remained hot throughout. Perhaps it was the close proximity of the Rumble? Regardless, this was very good—as were the repeated cuts post-match to a sullen Miz, slunked outside the ring, being consoled by Maryse. The era of his 5th and 6th Intercontinental Championship reigns has ended.
Don’t fret, Mike. You’ll be holding more important gold later this year.
Free Daniel Bryan
For the third straight week, SmackDown Commissioner Shane McMahon replaced Daniel Bryan on Talking Smack.
And for the third straight week, he actively harmed the product.
If the reason for Bryan’s absence is, as Shane noted last night, that Bryan has “baby on the brain,” it’s more than understandable. Admirable, even. But it’s clear three weeks into Shane’s replacement run that he’s simply not a fit for the show whatsoever. Renee’s holding up her end of the bargain, and the guests are doing their best. But his low energy and muted attitude is simply killing the beloved Talking Shoot.
Bring in JBL, or The Miz, or let Renee host it on her own, or with different guest hosts each week. Just, please—anything than more Shane.
All the rest
Mojo Rawley won a battle royal to claim a spot in Sunday’s Royal Rumble match. This seemed the obvious call, and Mojo’s energy could be a good lift for a Rumble, as there are times when the format can deaden for minutes on end. That’s simply not possible with Rawley in the ring.
Dolph Ziggler shot Kalisto right out of the sky with a superkick, squashing him in what couldn’t have been more than two minutes. When he once again went for a chair to up the ante, JBL—who had come to Jerry Lawler’s aid last week—of all people stood up to confront him. While Dolph was occupied, Apollo Crews attacked from behind, but Ziggler was able to scamper away. Lot of possible fun things being teased here.
This was a stellar, stellar show. Really good, decent-length TV matches; smart squashes; incredible promos; and hot angles. The blue brand lived up to its reputation for “shooting” last night, and then some.
Were it not for the continued lack of Daniel Bryan on Talking Smack, this would have earned a perfect grade. (He was even on SmackDown Live, tonight—though likely in a pre-taped segment.) Knowing that SmackDown Live can be made even better by its companion post-show—as Talking Smack did for the last five months—and not getting that is unendingly frustrating. Still, it’s hard to complain much about what the blue brand displayed last night.