La Luchadora

WWE loves to put very little effort into its holiday episodes. Come Christmas time, a stage with trees, candy canes, presents are the bare minimum; just throw in a Miracle on 34th Street Fight and maybe an attack on Santa Claus (who, given his leadership on Monday Night RAW, kind of deserves it) to round it all out. It’s not necessarily a bad thing—WWE can do bad episodes any week, with or without a holiday theme—as there’s usually at least some bit of fun during these shows. But the thing about something as innocuous as Alberto Del Rio hitting Santa with his car and John Cena promising vengeance is that it happened the week after Del Rio’s face turn in front of a Philadelphia crowd. A throwaway episode ended up throwing out character development, which is something WWE does far too often for being so high on “storytelling.”

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However, last week’s Tribute To The Troops special changed things up by allowing a bit of continuity usually absent from the feel-good special into this week’s SmackDown! That’s what leads to tonight’s Intercontinental Championship match, and while it’s a small thing, it’s a small thing WWE doesn’t do very often. In fact, leave it to a post-draft SmackDown! to take its Christmas episode and buck the typical lazy WWE approach, perhaps keeping with its knowledge that it doesn’t have three hours to just mess around. Instead, this week’s blue show ends up being one of the more engaging episodes of SmackDown! Live’s brief history. If you want “Christmas joy” on SmackDown!, that can be found in its own warped way on Talking Smack, the supplemental show. That way, the holiday aspect of the episode is still actively part of things without taking away from the current storylines or the show as a whole. No one tunes into or attends a WWE show around the holidays hoping it will be all about the holidays—they’re generally hoping for a good show with their favorite Superstars, and that’s what this week’s show is all about. In fact, that’s the clear mission for the blue brand on a weekly basis, regardless of holiday or ratings competition.

Sure, at no point does the episode explain what next week’s “Wild Card Finals” is, but I’m not exactly saying this is a perfect episode of SmackDown!, even if it does hold up extremely well as “a buffet of fun.” Based on context clues, “Wild Card Finals” is an episode of SmackDown! that’s being treated like a pay-per-view, complete with promotional material in the form of a dramatic horn version of “My Time Is Now” in anticipation of one-time Saturday Night Live host John Cena’s return. WWE.com calls it a “special event,” which says even less. And like clockwork, Daniel Bryan (on Talking Smack) asks when the supposed “Wild Card Preliminaries” were, before putting the blame on Shane for the title; because when it doubt, always blame the person who barely works for WWE. It’s the last show of the year, which sort of explains the “Finals” aspect, but really… It’s just so dumb, even though the show itself is set up to be a big deal.

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This week’s SmackDown! works as a set-up for that oddly-titled special and as a really good episode of the show, from top to bottom. It gets rolling by finally pulling the trigger on the James Ellsworth/AJ Styles WWE Championship match and by also reminding the audience (and Ellsworth) what this story actually is. For every argument over how ridiculous it is that Ellsworth is 3-0 against AJ Styles, in the story, it’s always been clear to everyone but Ellsworth that he’s only achieved these feats by being an unwitting pawn in Dean Ambrose’s feud with Styles. “They’re making AJ/the title a joke,” is often the argument, putting all blame on Ellsworth, instead of Dean, who was intentionally turning a serious feud into a joke… and lost said feud because of that. Dean was getting in AJ’s head, using Ellsworth, not the other way around.

So fast-forward to this week’s Detroit show, and the crowd is completely behind Styles, even as an overly confident Ellsworth reminds Styles he’s 3-0 against him. Then Styles hits Ellsworth with a flurry of strikes, and it’s all over, in “near record time.” Because this is finally a “real,” one-on-one match, and of course Ellsworth (and this entire story) is brought back to reality. There’s another argument to be made about this environment where the crowd cheers for the heel champion, but the key to this is that Ellsworth’s own delusions and actions as a result of that have made him the villain of this story. Styles is still a bad guy, but Ellsworth’s own admitted intense optimism has become his greatest downfall. Styles beats the crap out of Ellsworth, in full “BEAT UP JOHN CENA” mode, because he’s done playing around. He proves that just being any man with two hands doesn’t necessarily mean you can go one-on-one with someone who can legitimately call himself the best wrestler in the world.

It’s probably rude to transition from talking about a character who’s not a joke to talking about Dolph Ziggler, but that’s the same transition that’s made within this week’s show. Styles is already looking past 2016 and forward to 2017, overlooking Ziggler, who he plainly calls a “loser.”

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And Ziggler being a high profile loser is pretty much his shtick at this point: The Detroit crowd doesn’t lose it at his music hitting, the WWE cameras scramble to find one Ziggler fan who won’t sit when they notice no one else is cheering, and the crowd also boos him for pointing out the truth of it taking AJ four times for beat Ellsworth (who’s stretchered out over the course of this segment in a nice background touch). But it’s Baron Corbin who, despite the insufferable “WHAT” chants, makes the biggest, “shoot” proclamation of Ziggler’s problems as a Superstar and character right now: “Dolph, you don’t steal the show: You steal opportunities and lose them.”

After all, Ziggler only won the #1 Contendership after losing contendership for the Intercontinental Championship. Meanwhile, Corbin keeps winning and asking for bigger competition, only to basically be told he’s not at the level of a perpetual loser. Styles even says it’ll be a “cake walk” to take Ziggler in a title match next week, which is why he “roots” for Ziggler against Corbin in the main event. So while SummerSlam’s build-up was interesting because it somehow managed to create a genuine belief that Ziggler could win the big one again, the guy’s returned to that level where no one believes he’s going to win. And unless WWE actually intends a heel turn this time around, WWE pulling the trigger and Ziggler winning the championship from Styles (even if it’s just by pinning Corbin) most likely won’t be well-received.

This week’s main event somehow ends up being Ziggler versus Corbin, a match no one really wants to see ever again despite both men’s in-ring styles complementing each other and it actually being another competently wrestled match between them. (Corbin hits the most amazing Deep Six on Ziggler in this match, and it’s the type of move that almost makes their previous low blow-based feud worth it.) “ONE MORE TIME,” the crowd chants at Corbin giving Ziggler the End of Days in the opening segment. This isn’t SmackDown!’s fault, given the past feud, but it’s what the show has to deal with to try to rebuild anything from that bore’s ashes. Both Ziggler and Corbin should bring interesting dynamics in working with Styles though, and while either could eventually have a good one-on-one match with Styles, the decision to go with a Triple Threat is a smart one, given the little build-up for either opponent against “The Champ That Runs The Camp.”

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And even though the main event is a match that’s been overplayed, the Dean Ambrose versus Luke Harper match is one that technically has more of a stench to it than Ziggler/Corbin (which is just more recent). Ambrose and Harper were part of the Intercontinental Championship prop run on Monday Night RAW just a year ago, which was complete with constant thievery, R-Truth, and a plunger. When Miz talks about the prestige of the belt, he’s actively railing against this era. So consider this week’s match a reminder of how much WWE has changed for the better in just over a year.

Ambrose versus Harper isn’t just a good match; it’s an anticipated one when it’s announced, given The New Wyatt Family aspect of it all, and it feels fresh despite not quite being that. Plus, it’s not even a feud-based one-on-one match, even though it is a result of Ambrose and Harper settling the score after last week’s #1 Contender elimination Fatal-Four-Way. Ambrose is feuding with The Miz (who does attack him post-match), and Harper is presumably more concerned with the Family and their tag team plans right now. That doesn’t stop Harper from trying to kill Ambrose with a deadly sit-out powerbomb though, nor does it prevent Wyatt and Orton from going full pack mentality after the match, as retaliation for Dean taking them out earlier in the match. Neither side is even really in each other’s orbit right now, but that doesn’t mean they’re not in the same universe, now does it?

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Meanwhile, The Miz versus Apollo Crews also isn’t a new match-up for SmackDown! While it’s good, it’s not as good as most of Miz’s recent matches have been… but the aforementioned Tribute To The Troops set-up is still a nice touch, and the rare Maryse ejection from the match helps keep the hyped crowd surprisingly (as Crews still lacks a character) into this match. Of course, it’s the post-match interaction that’s the memorable segment, as Renee Young starts an interview intended as a reminder to the audience that Miz and Ambrose are actually the ones feuding (again, it’s very unlike WWE to not make that the focus of their segments this week), only to have Miz fire back with a comment about her “sleeping with” Dean Ambrose.

Then, Renee Young, who is used to Superstars (male and female) insulting everything about her on a weekly basis, slaps The Miz.

This is part of the “anything can happen,” “everybody’s ‘shooting’” aspect of this week’s show, which technically starts with Corbin calling out Ziggler, really heats up with the Miz here, and goes to a whole other level with the Natalya/Nikki Bella/Carmella segment. The Miz/Renee segment is unexpected though, because while WWE’s main roster shows have gone with plenty of hints on shows like Talking Smack, actual “confirmation” of the relationship between Renee and Dean is relegated to Total Divas and outside interviews. I’ll admit the segment is really good for an “oh no he didn’t” moment, plus, Renee slapping The Miz before Daniel Bryan can lay a hand on him is pretty amazing… especially since Talking Smack Miz/Mike has mostly been respectful toward Renee until now. However, after this week’s RAW (and writing this after this week’s 205 Live), this segment is also another instance of a woman in WWE simply being a prop in the men’s stories. Yes, I’ll kill everyone’s fun just to point that out.

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But ultimately, we should all see this for what it really is: 100% an upcoming Total Divas storyline.

The same goes for the truest “anything can happen” moment of the episode, courtesy of the Natalya/Nikki feud.

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For all the discussion of whether or not WWE knows what it’s doing at times, the fact that it goes to a commercial right after making it clear Natalya has a live mic acknowledges some kind of self-awareness. Say what you will about her character work or in-ring prowess, but it’s nearly impossible to argue that mic skills are Natalya’s greatest strength as a professional wrestler. Even with her recent delusional, ‘90s song quoting, cat-obsessed character, the awkwardness of Natalya’s delivery still exists, just in a more acceptable form. So there’s nothing good to anticipate with the sight of her having a microphone and even less to get excited about when it specifically introduces that concept right before a commercial break.

Talking Smack’s looser form kind of exposes her on the mic again, as she ends up almost reaching her guest commentary levels of repeating the same buzzwords (she’s a Hart, she’s wrestling royalty, etc.), but for one segment in this week’s SmackDown!, time almost stands still as Natalya cuts the promo of her life and the best moment of her career since this. Natalya’s “pipe bomb,” if you will, on Nikki Bella features a lot of the usual anti-Bella talking points, this time without going the full Cena route that Carmella went. Instead, she touches on the Diva beauty standards which put Nikki (and Brie) at the forefront of the division, instead of her, the daughter of Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart. Yes, she specifically mentions her father, not uncle Bret, in this promo. And while Natalya and Nikki most likely are rather close in real life, there’s a sense of comfort and ease in Natalya’s delivery that has never existed before, not even in her Total Divas talking heads—the type of delivery that feels like a hint of truth (in terms of belief) not even she would want to acknowledge. Natalya’s way too comfortable cutting this promo, even more comfortable than when she promotes her cat’s Instagram, and for once Natalya is compelling without coming across as forced.

I’ll be honest though, the segment is actually brought down a bit by Nikki’s own acting ability here (all while Natalya is going on about how Nikki has no charisma, which is unfortunate), as she can’t seem to properly convey that she is truly losing one of her oldest friends to an intense amount of bitterness and resentment. Sure, we see her mouth “I thought you were my friend,” and she looks like she’s trying to look sad, but it’s not really there. It would be one thing—a bad thing—if we were supposed to believe she didn’t care, but that’s not what’s happening here. Especially since Natalya attacked her and took her out of a major match at Survivor Series.

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Luckily, what matters most now are Nikki’s actions after the combo of this revelation and Natalya just straight up calling her a “bitch” (as it’s getting close to “edgy” Road to WrestleMania time). The story WWE is telling right now has Nikki too upset and stunned to even attack Natalya, so it’s already a different feel from Nikki versus Carmella, where both of them hated each other too much to not constantly throw hands. And definitely far better than the segment where an out of breath Natalya tried to tell Nikki she didn’t attack her at Survivor Series.

And speaking of Carmella, while she still hates Nikki Bella—because character traits and basic continuity shouldn’t just be forgotten when a feud ends—she’s moving on to James Ellsworth. Why? I have absolutely no idea, but I sure as hell want to know what that’s all about. And it’s something that’s not in the main event picture, effectively moving Ellsworth to his rightful spot on the roster as WWE heads to the Royal Rumble and on the Road to WrestleMania.

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This week’s RAW worked in its simple ability to remember that the WWE Superstars are also co-workers who work very closely with each other, and as such, have opinions (both positive and negative) about other Superstars, whether they’re in the same division or not. Talking Smack is an outlet for the SmackDown! Superstars to elaborate on that if they want to, but things like Carmella suddenly cozying up to James Ellsworth or even Alexa Bliss’ continued “Jane Ellsworth” moniker for “local talent” Deonna Purrazzo shows an acknowledgment of the rest of the show that goes a long way. The same technically goes for The Miz’s comments toward Renee Young, warts and all. The talent watch the product, even if other USA Network stars don’t.

As for the Ruthless Aggression invocation to set up this review, outside of me just wanting to one-up Kyle Fowle, the Women’s Division also sees a play out of a past era of WWE in the form of the Alexa Bliss match: La Luchadora is this main roster generation’s Mr. America, with only the good that entails and 100% more puns to accompany it. Alexa Bliss spent her entire title chase going on about her championship looks and determination, how she was bred for the role, only to spend her current run poorly faking an injury and ducking out of having to defend her title against Becky in a rematch. Bliss even avoids wrestling enhancement talent like Purrazzo, despite her not actually being competition, just so she can claim to be a fighting champion without actually being a fighting champion. That’s the type of thing that screams comeuppance, and that’s what happens here with Becky Lynch as La Luchadora.

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Even better, Lynch actually changes her fighting style as La Luchadora, which is never the case when it comes to WWE’s fake luchadors.

On this week’s Talking Smack featuring “Santa,” Becky makes a good point when she addresses the lack of integrity in all of SmackDown!’s current champions. As I’ve mentioned before, part of the reason SmackDown! currently has that chaotic, “anything can happen” feeling WWE prides itself on is because of these morally corrupt characters who are finding all the loopholes in this “land of opportunity” scenario they’re in. Heels currently dominate all of SmackDown! championship positions, but not only is every heel character different, at no point does SmackDown! feel like “the heel show.” The way AJ Styles’ challengers feel about him is different from the way The New Wyatt Family’s challengers feel about them, and the same can be said about Alexa Bliss and The Miz and their challengers. And while the latter two have a bit of “undeserving champion” feedback from their opponents, it’s not just the same version of those stories slightly rewritten for two different genders. So even when the match-ups get repetitive, stories aren’t the same across the show; and that “fun buffet” classification sticks out again.

So while next week’s stacked SmackDown! has the unfortunate and confusing subtitle of “Wild Card Finals” looming over it, it’s still something to look forward to. And keep in mind that this SmackDown! is currently building to that without even a mention of the Royal Rumble yet. On RAW, everything’s just treading water until the next pay-per-view, while SmackDown! does its best to make every weekly episode important too. This is technically just another week on the blue brand, but it goes to show that WWE can make anything seem special if it actually puts genuine effort into making it seem special. It might do so while giving that something a terrible name, but at least it’ll still be special.

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Stray observations

  • RESULTS: AJ Styles defeated James Ellsworth (WWE Championship match); The Miz defeated Apollo Crews (Intercontinental Championship match); Dean Ambrose defeated Luke Harper (with The New Wyatt Family, Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton); La Luchadora defeated Alexa Bliss; Mojo Rawley defeated Curt Hawkins, Dolph Ziggler versus Baron Corbin ended in a Count Out (#1 Contendership to WWE Championship)
  • Want more evidence that SmackDown! might actually be a magical land? The greatest moment of Mojo Rawley’s career so far happens in this episode of SmackDown!, as he is the bro who looks out for Ryan Phillippe and warns him that Randy Orton turned super Hollywood and joined a cult to achieve career success. Again, all of these people work together, so why wouldn’t they gossip about one of their top guys doing something more insane than usual? He then has a match where his offense is 100% shoulder block-based, so I can also say it’s the best he’s ever looked in the ring.
  • The greatest moment of Curt Hawkins’ second WWE career is also in this week’s show, in the form of him making a Cruel Intentions reference. That and the fact he and Rawley are apparently fighting over Zack Ryder this week. Here’s to a speedy recovery, Broski.
  • David Otunga (every time Corbin hits offense on Ziggler): “That could be you, AJ.”
  • Otunga is especially incompetent this week, but in his misguided, hyperbole prone approach to “commentary,” he says that Apollo Crews is “arguably the best athlete in the WWE.” Now, I’ll agree Apollo Crews is a very, very athletic man… but I wouldn’t even put him in the main roster’s top five in terms of athletes. Otunga says (in the same match), that “if you bring your wife to work,” you also need to “keep an eye on her” so other guys don’t take selfies of her (among other things, I suppose). This isn’t just nitpicking: David Otunga actively prevents storytelling on commentary, because everything he says stalls or completely halts the natural conversation flow of everything that’s going on. Luckily, NXT is tomorrow, so Percy Watson can take the crown back for worst WWE commentator of the week.
  • Reading into things, is it safe to assume Rhyno’s bad Santa on Talking Smack is a jab at Mick Foley? There’s no way he wouldn’t be offended by this. Also, perhaps because I don’t find “naughty Santas” or sexual harassment funny—or possibly because I appreciate the narrative work that Talking Smack regularly does—I found Rhyno Santa to be the worst thing to ever happen to the show.
  • I do appreciate Bryan’s moment during Talking Smack of agreeing that while the Bellas were hired a decade ago because of their looks, the same can be said about a lot of past Divas… and none of them are still around. It’s true, and while there are arguments to be made against Bryan’s, it’s a proper way to contextualize what makes the Bellas special. Plus, he also points out that while the Bellas were hired for their looks, Natalya was hired for her name. Both sides have a certain privilege behind their careers.

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