One week after the “Superstar Shake-Up,” SmackDown Live hit Louisville, Kentucky last night (April 18, 2017) to determine a new number one contender for the WWE Championship. For full results and the live blog from the exceptional Reverend Kain, click here.
A long time ago, a SmackDown Live reviewer who shall rename nameless said this about the show’s first episode after the brand split:
The good thing about Smackdown Live is that it has a distinct identity—you absolutely know what you're going to get.
Unfortunately, what you're going to get is the very worst of soul-crushing WWE programming.
Needless to say, that didn’t turn out to be the case. Hindsight proved that opinion, if not wrong (because that episode was truly poor), very premature.
So with that very special caveat ... this show was bemusing, to say the least.
Don’t hinder the Jinder
Jinder Mahal pinned Sami Zayn following interference from The Bollywood Boyz in a Six-Pack Challenge to determine the number one contender for Randy Orton’s WWE Championship.
At least the match was good?
Set aside the questions about his physique and that he possibly injured Finn Balor last week on Raw—though Finn working last night would seem to dispel that notion. After the match, amid a loud chorus of boos, Mahal cut a promo noting that Americans are bad at accepting diversity.
Having the loathed heel argue in favor of diversity while being heavily booed is really poor. It’s made even worse given the rising number of hate crimes around the country, including the murder of an Indian man in Kansas not two months ago—who was deliberately targeted for being foreign (the killer had thought he was Iranian).
This is incredibly messy and simply terrible optics. Do better, WWE. Do way, way better.
Aside from all that, Jinder is actually a pretty decent talker, is a fair worker (though this apparent push is a bit odd after he cold cocked Balor last week), this is only a transitional feud, and boy did he get booed.
Yet one can’t get past the idea of Jinder Mahal fighting for the WWE Championship in 2017. The man was a jobber as of like two weeks ago.
Yes, the top title was already immensely damaged by the disastrous end (wait, it’s still going on? Wyatt appeared on this show to talk more nonsense? Whatever) to the Orton-Bray Wyatt feud.
But Jinder Mahal?
All ... right?
(You’ve got Luke Harper right there!)
WWE Champion Randy Orton came out to confront his new number one contender, said he was going to RKO him in due time, and then talked about his feud with Bray Wyatt—while Jinder was still standing in the ring! Bray popped up on the tron and yada yada’ed.
Mojo Rawley has a great finisher, by the way.
Zayn also demonstrated his greatness in a terrific fallout video.
The Queen is here
Oh boy is she ever.
Charlotte opened the show and in a perfect encapsulation of her character immediately demanded to know why she hadn’t already been given a title shot. That entitlement complex can be utilized in a lot of different ways, and she’s very good at presenting it in a wonderfully antagonizing way.
SmackDown Women’s Champion Naomi came out to defend the division and put the newcomer in her place. Naomi accepted Charlotte’s challenge for a title match as the pair squared off verbally, which quickly resulted in fisticuffs when Naomi tired of Charlotte’s act. But instead of the championship bout, Commissioner Shane McMahon came out to make a non-title match for later in the show. If Charlotte were to win, she would earn a title match for next week.
The problem with making it that plain—literally all you have to do for a title match is ask—is that now every other Superstar looks like an idiot for not asking for a title match each and every week. There’s got to be better justification than that, even if it’s merely from the “Because I’m John Cena” school of reasoning. Spell. It. Out.
The match was pretty decent and got an impressive amount of time. There’s no doubt that Charlotte’s presence is going to be a huge benefit for the SmackDown’s women’s matches.
Charlotte won clean following Natural Selection.
Stunned, aren’t you.
Surely Charlotte won’t win the title next week, as the trio of legacies is certain to get involved in some way. It would also geek out Naomi in a big way right when she’s starting to find her groove and take off as a babyface. Thankfully, there’s no recent precedent of any booking decisions like that. None whatsoever. Can’t think of any examples.
About those legacies: earlier in the night, Natalya, Carmellsworth, and Tamina all confronted Shane McMahon about him immediately giving Charlotte a title opportunity, and claimed he was demonstrating management favoritism. Natalya eventually shepherded the group out of the room, saying she had a plan. The plan for this week apparently involved staring at Charlotte backstage twice.
Becky Lynch was the only woman in the division not to appear on this show.
One final note: Charlotte’s appearance on Talking Smack was hindered by the lack of Daniel Bryan, who really gets the best out of the blue brand’s heels. Regardless, it was uneven at best. This should be her avenue to shine, to really flesh out and provide real depth to her character. Last night it very much wasn’t.
It’s really a shame that The Face of America and United States Champion Kevin Owens, AJ Styles, and Baron Corbin are slumming it in the midcard closing the show, isn’t it?
Kevin Owens hosted a Face of America open challenge, in which he beat some hapless Louisvillain in short order. He then went to the Canada well to score some very cheap heat from the crowd:
All you lazy citizens of you United States, put the hot dogs, shut up, and listen to me. As long as I am your United States Champion, I will remain The Face of America. Chris Jericho is not going to take that away from me, AJ Styles is not going to take that away from me. Nobody will take that away from me.
And now, I’m going to give some Canadian insight to the commentary table for this main event, because they sorely need it.
Then he spoke French to hammer the point home. He got booed, so that’s good, as lots of crowds are predisposed to cheer The Prizefighter. But man is the “foreign heel talks down to America” schtick wildly played out, and it’s made especially worse since Mahal touched on some of the same notes only an hour before.
There’s got to be a better way to get heat than this in 20-freaking-17.
Styles and Corbin then had a—surprise surprise—very entertaining TV match, which Styles eventually won by countout. (Corbin had crashed a Styles interview with Renee Young earlier in the show.) Late in the match, he was setting up for a Styles Clash on the outside, but Corbin instead back body dropped him right into Owens sitting on commentary. Corbin and Styles continued brawling, and in the end Styles hit a Phenomenal Forearm on the outside that drove Corbin into the seats. The Face That Runs The Place just barely beat the ten count to record the victory.
Styles’ face turn continues to literally be him defending the honor of the blue brand, which is a wonderfully effective modulation of his character. He retains basically everything that the fans grew to love about his heel persona, only now he just squares off opposite heels. His proclamations of SmackDown Live being “The House That AJ Styles Built” are an accepted premise by the audience—and really, he’s not wrong—and his attitude comes off more sincere than before. One gets the impression that he actually does care about defending the brand that gave him such a huge opportunity to advance his career.
Also! Owens’ entry graphic is perhaps the greatest thing in the world today, as it’s merely a giant picture of himself in a suit and tie, carrying the US title, with an American flag underneath. Delightful!
All the rest
Shinsuke Nakamura did not appear on this show, but did get a vignette. No #NakDownLive this week—and while keeping his appearances a special thing is the right call, boy could this episode have used a jolt of energy.
The Colons, Primo and Epico, defeated American Alpha in a brief tag team match. Both teams are fine workers, and it’s clear WWE has high hopes for Alpha, but running heatless matches for which the crowd could not possibly care less was not, is not, and never will be the way for Jason Jordan and Chad Gable to forge an organic connection with the crowd.
Fewer matches, more charming oddball antics backstage. Please. They’re dying a death out there every week.
There was another vignette for Lana’s new cabaret gimmick.
Tye Dillinger got a brief video package, which he himself introduced. Kind of goofy, but worked well enough.
The New Day also received another vignette saying they would be “coming soon.”
Commissioner Shane McMahon filled in for General Manager Daniel Bryan on Talking Smack. Once again his energy was entirely off for the show and actively detracted from the talent. This format is very much not his strong suit—so while Bryan being away on baby duty is well understandable, there’s no reason why Renee can’t simply host the show on her own. If not, put someone else in the spot. The Miz was great when he co-hosted with Renee. Who wouldn’t want to see Kevin Owens co-host Talking Smack?
This was an aggressively mediocre and thoroughly uninspiring show.