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WWE SmackDown Live preview (Jan. 16, 2018): Final four

The blue brand heads to the streets of Laredo, but just as a means to get to Larado Energy Center for tonight’s show.

The Headliners

When Dolph Ziggler left the United States title in the ring after his surprising win at Clash of Champions, General Manager Daniel Bryan and commissioner Shane McMahon announced a tournament to determine his successor. It wasn’t just notable as a rare recent instance of SmackDown’s authority figures being on the same page, but also as part of a recent resurgence in the format on WWE’s main roster.

For the longest time, word was “Vince McMahon hates tournaments”... and the lack of them on WWE television seemed to support that. But in the Network Era, they’ve become the norm. It started with shows and projects Triple H oversees like NXT and the United Kingdom Championship, but it’s spread to main roster. A quick but entertaining tourney for the red, white and blue belt presents both of its semi-final matches on Jan. 16.

The first of our final four were determined quickly, when Bobby Roode defeated Baron Corbin (the other two men in the Triple Threat Ziggler won to earn the belt in the first place) and Jinder Mahal began to establish himself in a new title scene by beating Tye Dillinger. Their opponents were decided over the coming weeks, when Xavier Woods won his campaign against Aiden English, and Mojo Rawley continued to prove himself the more dangerous half of Hype Bros by beating former tag partner Zack Ryder.

Woods vs. Mahal continues the comedic build of X’s first match - and almost every New Day program aside from the second half of their brilliant 2017 series with The Usos. Jinder’s still trying to find his footing in the mid-card, and a win here honestly would mean a lot more for The Modern Day Maharajah. Though a lot of people will be pulling for one of the Princes of Positivity to finally get a singles push, a loss for Mahal could be a signal WWE really has given up on him as a major player.

Roode vs. Rawley is similarly probably more interesting from a behind-the-scenes perspective. The Glorious One’s main roster babyface gimmick remains mostly costuming and music, while Mojo has emerged from his tag team break-up as a streamlined heel. Both men came up through NXT, but whereas that was the last stop on a long journey for Roode, Rawley is a product of WWE Developmental. The former football player probably has more upside, but it may be now or never for the TNA-ex.

WWE probably doesn’t want two guys with the same alignment facing off in the final (whenever that is, there’s a report going around this morning it’s been bumped off the Royal Rumble card and will happen next week), so whoever wins the first match will give us clues about the second.

It’s a fitting end to a tournament kicked off by a ‘Reality’ Era move like Dolph’s walkout.

The Title Scene

As we head toward a handicap WWE championship match at the next pay-per-view (PPV) - Yep, that’s happening - AJ Styles picked up a win over his challengers Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn last Tuesday. And it was because both McMahon and Bryan intervened to make sure that happened! Will Shane and DB remain in sync, or will the signs of a heel turn for the GM continue when KO and Sami undoubtedly lobby for justice?

Lobbying management got Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin what they wanted - as pointing out the issues they’ve had winning the tag team titles from The Usos despite beating Jimmy and Jey twice earned them a two-out-of-three falls match against the champs at Royal Rumble.

Riott Squad leader Ruby Riott came up short in her singles match with Becky Lynch, but she thinks her odds are much better with Sarah Logan and Liv Morgan by her side. Trouble is, Lynch has some powerful friends too - like Women’s champ Charlotte Flair and former champ Naomi. We’ll get six-woman action between those teams tonight, in a match which will serve as a mini-preview for Jan. 28’s historic Rumble match for everyone but Flair.

Other stuff to keep an eye on:

- Outside the title scene, the tag division remains interesting. The Bludgeon Brothers continued their, well, bludgeoning with a win over The Ascension, while Konnor and Viktor’s buddies Breezango earned a shocking win over Rusev Day... on Rusev Day!

- Just a reminder... Carmella isn’t just hanging out with Big E eating pancakes. She also has a briefcase with a contract for a title shot.

Two weeks until Royal Rumble!

What will you be looking for on SmackDown Live tonight?

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