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WWE SmackDown Live Recap & Reactions (Feb. 28, 2017): Burn in his light

AJ Styles is crowned the new number one contender on the same night that Randy Orton makes his long-awaited move.

SmackDown Live continued its build to WrestleMania last night (Feb. 28, 2017) in St. Paul, Minnesota. AJ Styles and Luke Harper squared off for the number one contendership for Bray Wyatt’s WWE Championship. For full results and the live blog from the exceptional Reverend Kain, click here.

Trust the process

So, uh, things happened last night.

First, the (relatively) straightforward: AJ Styles beat Luke Harper to “become” the number one contender for Bray Wyatt’s WWE Championship, thereby booking his place in the “main event” of WrestleMania. Styles in fact pinned Harper twice—the first time with Harper’s foot on the rope, which was not caught by the referee but was by SmackDown Commissioner Shane McMahon, who ordered the match restarted.

Then AJ promptly pinned Harper again after a 450 Splash. Uh ... what? Of all the possible results heading into the match, a clean Styles victory definitely did not appear in the cards. But here we are.

Complicating matters, however, was Randy Orton’s big reveal that he had been playing Wyatt all along. Now that The Eater of Worlds had given Orton the “keys to the kingdom,” The Viper was ready to strike. And strike he did, burning down the Wyatt Family Compound—and with it the burial place of Sister Abigail.

Bray, watching on the Titantron, was understandably apoplectic. He had trusted Orton, foolishly so, and been burned for his folly.

Orton calling back to his promo way back when last fall, when he used the phrase “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” was a wonderful piece of storytelling. For fans invested in the product it’s a nice little reward for paying attention—in fact, this is true of virtually all angles on SmackDown. The more you pay attention and engage with the product, the more you get out of it. The show doesn’t encourage lazy watching, but instead devoted passion. For a company that seems focused on getting more money per head this seems the ideal path to follow.

The Royal Rumble winner demanded that he receive his justified title shot at WrestleMania. He noted that he had very specifically said he refused to challenge Wyatt “as long as you are the master, and I am the servant,” but now that he had become the master, he was coming for what Bray earlier called WWE’s “Holy Grail.”

While this reveal from Orton seemed slightly “out of nowhere” it does makes sense in story. Bray has now separated from his former Family, and Orton was placed in a position to do the greatest damage possible. So he struck at the opportune time: not a moment too soon, and not a moment too late.

As he said he would in the above video—from all the way back to Sept. 6 of last year.

On Talking Smack, Styles interrupted Shane to note that he went through “all the hoops” he had placed in front of him, and that no matter what Randy Orton does, The Phenomenal One belongs in the main event of WrestleMania. And given that he won the match—twice—last night he has every reason in the world to make that claim.

WWE are seemingly playing with fire here. With elements of the fanbase already irked that Styles is “only” (and allegedly) getting Shane McMahon at WrestleMania, appearing to actually put him in the championship match only to then take it from him risks backlash not at SmackDown’s kayfabe management, but real-life WWE creative.

But if there’s one thing truly disappointing about this angle last night, it’s that it seems apparent WWE made the call not to include Luke Harper in the WWE Championship match at WrestleMania. Having him pinned, clean, twice (and yes, the first time with his foot on the rope) in one night suggests that they don’t view him as integral to the main event storyline, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Harper’s in fact the one who carried the angle for months, because his obvious distrust of Orton was utterly compelling week-in, week-out.

Honestly, it really feels like the wrong call. Of all the people placed against AJ Styles, only John Cena has gotten a more vocal backing from the crowd—and Harper’s never even really gotten a substantial singles push. But adding little things like the comedic chops shown in his “Thank you” to Bryan and Shane to his super impressive ring work and surprising emotional resonance as a babyface shows that WWE has more in him than they apparently think.

These gripes however do not take away from the truth: this story has delivered in a way that literally no one predicted back when it first started. For all the rehabilitations it has undertaken, SmackDown’s rejuvenation of Bray Wyatt into a legitimate main eventer might be its most impressive.

It is another reason why the blue brand has such rope with fans—it has earned their trust. When something at first appears confusing on a given Tuesday night, usually it’ll make sense within a week or two. And if an angle doesn’t quite work out, the knowledge is there that at least there’s consistent, clear-headed effort to produce engaging stories.

The greatest wrestling segment of all time

So, yeah. This opening segment.

This is WrestleMania, baby. This feud, right here. Pure, unadulterated, pro wrestling at its best.

Words can’t really do it justice, so you might as well just go watch the whole thing again. Here’s a brief synopsis: The Miz is The GOAT, Maryse is The GOAT, John Cena is The GOAT, Nikki Bella is The GOAT. Everyone in this program is amazing and wonderful and frankly this match should actually main event WrestleMania.

The way this segment simultaneously kept kayfabe and destroyed the Fourth Wall was completely fascinating. The Miz referenced Cena’s pull with “the bosses.” The crowd chanted “You sold out” at John Cena. The Miz referenced 50/50 cheers and SuperCena (nowadays he’s just “Decent Cena”). Cena told Miz he was “a dude dressed up as a dude playing another dude” and “You’re a dude named Mike who shortened his last name on The Real World to try to bootleg The Rock’s electricity to get put on the WWE.”

Cena’s claim that clearly he wasn’t the master manipulator that Miz (and others before) claimed he was, as if that were indeed the case then he wouldn’t be standing before The Miz—”Hell no, I’d be standing face-to-face with The Undertaker.”

Ending with Cena giving another “piece of advice” to Miz was especially glorious:

Next time we talk, don’t bring a knife to a gun fight. Because you’re not The Undertaker—but if you press me again, you a dead man.

Maryse did not take well to this, standing up for her husband, claiming Cena was not well endowed, and (inevitably) introducing Cena to Slapdown Live. John Boy was positively giddy at this, because it gave his better half the chance to rush the ring and tell Maryse that if she went after John again she would “break you, bitch.”

Then Nikki and Cena kissed in the ring. This was (I believe) the first time John Cena and Nikki Bella have directly interacted as an on-screen couple, and it was amazing. If Nikki’s run is indeed winding down it’s a damn shame, because these two paired together on camera is fire.

Simply can’t even with how great all of this was.

This is the FIRST WEEK of the shoots to come. The first week!

Imagine not being crazy excited for this WrestleMania program. IMAGINE.

Identity crisis

Becky Lynch defeated Mickie James in a 2-out-of-3 Falls match in an underwhelming contest. After Becky snuck a win at Elimination Chamber, Mickie used her veteran wiles (faking an injury) to record a cheap victory on the ensuing SmackDown. With neither able to produce a truly decisive victory, the stipulation was set—though it was simply announced on Twitter during Raw last night, rather than being built in a talking segment on the show. This lack of true build seemed to hurt the match as the finish left the stipulation feeling somewhat unearned.

James definitely showed some ring rust, but there’s a bigger question this match prompts: Who is Becky Lynch as a wrestler? For someone who displayed such dynamite, Suplex City-type offense in her classic with Sasha Banks at TakeOver: Unstoppable, her offense on the main roster remains overly timid and lacking, well, a certain straight fire.

She’s just missing something. Perhaps it is presentation, but she’s not standing out in a way like Bliss has done since the split, or even like Naomi was doing over the last month. It’s frustrating, because there are glimpses of her true talent level—and at her best, she’s as good as anyone in the world, male or female—but it doesn’t consistently come across.

The finish came about when SmackDown Women’s Champion Alexa Bliss attempted to make her presence felt by distracting Becky, and she did succeed in distracting the referee from Becky pinning James. But it backfired shortly thereafter, with Bliss instead being knocked off the apron by James when Lynch ducked out of the way. James then reversed an O’Connor Roll, but when Becky kicked out she seamlessly locked on the Disarmer and forced Mickie to tap out for the third fall.

Certainly the pair were done no favors with their placement in the show—having to immediately follow that opening segment is an impossible task, and since the opening segment went so long without interruption, Lynch and James were interrupted by several commercial breaks.

The match never really hit its stride. More disappointing is that the feud seems to be over, and we didn’t really get any follow up on this:

There were a lot of avenues to take this response in storyline—and none were taken.

Lynch’s comments in a fallout video that she “did it her way” without tricks or shortcuts is admirable ... but staid, and almost reflects a lack of growth in the character—especially given her reaction in the GIF above. Not even as part of a heel turn, or shading gray, but rather something that showed the character had taken past events into account and truly overcome an opponent due to learning from prior mistakes.

It very well may be too soon to make this judgment, as SmackDown Live has a history of confounding and then clearing everything up in a satisfying way. But as of now, this program has rather fizzled out.

All the rest

As a tune up for their mixed tag at WrestleMania, John Cena and Nikki Bella will square off with Carmellsworth, who they ran into backstage, next week. Ellsworth and his “friend that is a girl” repeatedly called the power couple “phonies,” which prompted Cena and Nikki to suggest next week’s match.

We are not worthy of this greatness.

Dolph Ziggler beat Apollo Crews in their chairs match. The problem here, aside from this program not being very good and not getting the crowd invested, is that SmackDown just ran one of the best chairs matches ever at TLC last December. Being so recent, the comparisons are inevitable, and this match, while certainly better than expected, was a far cry from from Corbin-Kalisto.

Alexa Bliss cut a typically delightful promo backstage in which she gave a faux-Oscars speech but was then rudely interrupted by Natalya, who to Alexa’s chagrin suggested that they were “both” championship-caliber Superstars—and then promised to take her title from her, before booping her nose:

Oh Nattie. That was a big mistake.

It remains to be seen whether this will be an interim program, or if it’s the start of a multi-woman WrestleMania build. This pairing is particularly interesting because it’s likely to prompt even greater face reactions for Bliss.

Intercontinental Champion Dean Ambrose called out Baron Corbin after unceremoniously giving Curt Hawkins a Dirty Deeds. This was a decent back-and-forth but was lost in the shuffle of the major angles on the show.

Not even sure how to properly comprehend or assess what we saw last night. The main takeaway is the reminder that the blue brand can get away with attempting audacious things that Raw would be lambasted for because it has the trust of the fans.

John Cena and Nikki Bella, on screen together. That’s too much, man.

There are still four more episodes of SmackDown Live before WrestleMania—and the main event picture is more muddied than ever before.

Grade: 70

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