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A landmark SmackDown! reminds all why it’s still “the land of opportunity”

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In a funny turn of events, SmackDown! Live’s super important 900th episode also happens to be a WWE go-home show. I’ve written a lot about WWE go-home shows and their usual misfirings, and Kyle Fowle had the opportunity to write about more of the same in this week’s Monday Night RAW review. And as big of a deal as 900 episodes is, familiarity with WWE usually means that this type of milestone will just be a parade of “people from the past” with little regard for the actual content.


Strangely enough, while there are certainly past WWE/SmackDown! people here this week, it’s not a parade of cameos, and they actually act in service to the current talent. That may not sound like a big deal, but in the world of main roster WWE, which constantly likes to remind the audience that the past was better, that is a really big deal. And as far as WWE go-home shows are concerned, this episode also does rather well with the hand that it’s dealt, and it doesn’t simply put everything on cruise control. This is a landmark episode of WWE main roster programming, as well as a go-home show—and it functions competently and enjoyably as both.

So the biggest hindrance for WWE when it comes to selling Survivor Series is the way it has attempted to tell the team stories the whole time, as opposed to how it “finishes” them up here. Well, “story,” as the question of if these teams can “co-exist” is literally the only question when it comes to this aspect of Survivor Series. However, while RAW’s go-home show continued the frustrating WWE main roster pattern of having team members of one RAW Survivor Series team face team members of another (and yes, singles wrestlers in thrown together tag teams are still better than actual tag teams), SmackDown! Live makes the smart decision to have the Survivor Series tag team division participants face the losers of the qualifying matches instead of each other. So yes, they work as a cohesive unit and win in a decisive and explosive fashion… but they also win against the “losers” of the brand. That’s a different beast from the teams on the RAW side of things, which adds the question of how things will really shake out there to the mix. A new question and a fascinating one, at that.

By the way, the answer to how teams can co-exist is actually very easy, apparently: King Booker.

Unfortunately, his very presence makes The Usos “forget” they’re heels (and not just because they’re on the verge of breaking the entire segment) for the rest of the show, which is the type of little thing in wrestling that can really break suspension of disbelief. As fun as it is to see The Usos get “Uso Crazy” and barely clear the top rope (for old time’s sake) in the frenzy at the end of the tag team match, it’s ultimately a hollow moment compared to the actual character interesting work they’ve been doing as heels lately. Wrestling is often about these so-called little things, and having The Usos flip on the full babyface mode (after some very light tension with American Alpha in the early part of the match), instead of playing the heels and denying their team and crowd those expected babyface moments, is the type of little thing that points out a bigger weakness in the way stories are told.


There’s also the Nikki Bella/Carmella one-on-one match that technically continues the same concept of teammates wrestling each other in order to sell the pay-per-view but finds a way to subvert those expectations with simple decision-making. First of all, there’s David Otunga’s commentary pointing out the logic behind this match in the first place: It’s been booked as a way for these two women to “get it out of their system” before Sunday’s pay-per-view. It’s sort of a smart decision, based on the competitive, violent nature of the world of WWE, but the flaw in that decision also reveals itself fairly early on. Because even though Carmella and Nikki wrestle like they’re trying to get everything out before the pay-per-view, Carmella also ends up wrestling like she wants to take Nikki out permanently. A cathartic fight to finally squash this beef makes sense, but as the match reminds the audience, it’s not just a small matter of disagreement—these two women hate each other and either would be fine with the other out of the picture.


Secondly, the point of the segment isn’t even to sell Survivor Series with the tension between Carmella and Nikki. The selling point comes when Charlotte makes her way to the front row to watch the match and continues as the RAW women assault Nikki and the SmackDown! Live women stand their ground.


The segment isn’t perfect though, because SmackDown! Live’s two-hour length can sometimes lead to rushing, like in the case of the “Is Carmella gonna go help Nikki?” moment. Timing is important in professional wrestling, and while it would be a good moment to have Carmella really struggle with whether or not to help her enemy, there’s barely any room to breathe and note the conflict before she has to hit her cue and stick up for the woman she was just trying to paralyze a minute ago.


The match of the night (and week) doesn’t necessarily have Survivor Series team implications, but it still means something to the pay-per-view as a whole and possibly the mid-card landscape of the WWE moving forward. It might sound hokey, but just when you think The Miz and Dolph Ziggler can’t possibly outdo themselves, they go ahead and do it in their latest Intercontinental Championship match. This week, The Miz and Dolph Ziggler continue to prove themselves on SmackDown! Live with some really, really smart wrestling. WWE is also smart to open the show with it, because honestly, these two men have the crowd eating out of the palm of their hands the whole time, from the opening sequence through every single near-fall.

So often, with all these repetitive WWE matches, there’s a lot of telling instead of showing when it comes to proving that two Superstars “know each other so well.” Miz/Ziggler’s opening moments are the beginning of the rare modern televised WWE match that acknowledges just how well they know each other in both their actions and the commentary, and the match itself never lets up on that on both sides. Neither man can gain an advantage to begin, countering everything, and the lack of advantage only escalates as the match goes longer. The beginning is also excellent at reminding audiences that Miz has no problem keeping up when it comes to wrestling. Because wrestling—especially good wrestling—is fucking hard, and both Miz and Ziggler are absolutely graceful and almost effortless in this match. They both look like they’re giving all their offense everything they have, targeting limbs, and absolutely bumping like mad men, but it still somehow looks effortless coming from two true professionals like Miz and Ziggler.


Also, Miz can do Bryan’s running knee better than anyone could have possibly imagined.

I’ll say it right now: As both a fan and critic of WWE, I don’t want The Miz to move to RAW. Daniel Bryan and Edge both hit on it this week, but since the brand split, SmackDown! Live has raised the stock of a lot of wrestlers, and The Miz is most definitely at the top of that list. Until RAW can figure out how to use its three hours to do the same (and I honestly hope that it does), it really shouldn’t reap the benefits of SmackDown! Live only to subsequently squander them. That is 100% my personal opinion on the matter, but it’s also based on the simple day and night differences between basic exposure when it comes to both the red and blue brands. I’m sure the next time I guest review RAW, I’ll be able to elaborate more on it between discussions about how the main mid-card title is somehow more important the the main event title in general, but until then, I needed to get this off my chest. Of course I could also go further into the implications of what certain Superstars winning or losing certain belts at Survivor Series means or could mean, but that’s not what these reviews are about.


Despite any of their flaws, matches like these—including the short, somewhat unfortunate Kalisto match against an soft debuting but impressive Oney Lorcan from NXT—drive home the things Bryan regularly says about SmackDown! Live. They drive home what Edge says about it during The Cutting Edge. On Talking Smack, Edge refers to the blue brand as “a beacon of light” and the oft-mentioned “land of opportunity” in WWE. He speaks with such an honest, humble passion about what it means to be one of the faces of SmackDown!, like he was or Batista was or The Undertaker. That’s a sense of pride that doesn’t just come and go with Survivor Series and some bragging rights. It’s truly a type of pride that has never really existed with flagship show RAW, all things considered.

So when SmackDown! Live shows its past moments in this episode, there are certainly some memorable ones, but it’s the Kurt Angle/John Cena/Undertaker one that’s most representative of that sense of blue brand pride. (Remember, Triple H’s SmackDown! legacy basically amounts to constantly avoiding going to SmackDown! and working Tuesdays.) Undertaker helped make Cena and not just because the show of respect after Cena’s debut match against Angle; one of “Doctor of Thuganomics” era John Cena’s defining feuds was against Undertaker. On SmackDown! And Cena didn’t even win. So now Undertaker is back on SmackDown! Live, “taking souls and digging holes?” That’s quite possibly the best news to come out of the 900th episode of SmackDown! Live. 900 episodes of SmackDown!, and WWE specifically chooses to go with important figures from its past who have more than their share of knowledge and relevance when it comes to how this brand should and can function. That makes the next 900 episodes something to get excited over, especially when it comes to who the next faces of this brand will be.


Then again, the SmackDown! Live commissioner has taken a Survivor Series spot that could go to a willing and hungry active competitor, so maybe all of this is just smoke and mirrors.

Stray observations

  • RESULTS: The Miz (with Maryse) defeated Dolph Ziggler (Intercontinental Championship); Kalisto defeated Oney Lorcan; Carmella versus Nikki Bella went to a No Contest; American Alpha, The Usos, The Hype Bros, & Breezango (with Heath Slater & Rhyno) defeated The Spirit Squad, The Headbangers, The Ascension, & The Vaudevillains
  • Mauro Ranallo: “It’s gonna be L-I-T.” Mauro’s commentary hasn’t been too distracting lately, especially in comparison to the aggressively babyface (and possibly brain-damaged—in character) David Otunga, but that is an especially terrible opening line. From anyone’s mouth.
  • JBL: “That’s the only reason you’re here, David. We’re hoping [Jennifer Hudson] shows up.” This is JBL’s response to Otunga ranting about Miz only getting places in his career because of Maryse. JBL wins commentary for the night.
  • As last week’s review didn’t get a chance to see the light of day, I’d like to say congratulations to Tom Phillips for getting onto the blue team’s commentary booth. I’d also like to say this entire four-man, “host of SmackDown! Live” approach to that is absent-minded, at best.
  • Natalya’s whistle works this week. Thank god. Also, it took years, but Natalya has finally found a gimmick that works for her (assuming we’re not counting this segment as a perfect gimmick). That includes her continuing to lean into the delusion that she and Becky are still friends.
  • Alexa Bliss screaming “CHUMBAWAMBA” is my new text message notification.
  • This is more RAW booking seeping into SmackDown! Live, but: Is the audience really supposed to believe that “brand loyalty” means Bayley willingly jumping another wrestler, especially one she confirmed (on RAW) she’s never really interacted with? The fact that incentives or punishments for winning or losing in Survivor Series team matches haven’t really been addressed (outside of The Undertaker’s promise to kill whoever loses?) is one of the biggest problems with this year’s Survivor Series booking, no matter how exciting it is that WWE is actually filling the pay-per-view with traditional elimination matches again.
  • Edge tries to reason with Randy Orton because he doesn’t like to see his old Rated RKO buddy involved in a cult. Edge, he learned it from watching you. By the way, “Uncle Edge” also used to lead a cult, and WWE remembers. They can keep bringing Edge back as a wise nice guy veteran, but we all know the truth.
  • If you want a little bit of insight into the inner workings of my wrestling mind, the three things that made me light up the most during this episode were King Booker, Tony Chimel returning as Edge’s personal ring announcer, and Nikki Bella forearming Charlotte for yelling “COME ON, NIKKI.” A crowd of wrestlers chanting “ALL HAIL KING BOOKER” with their pinkies up is basically my version of the Goldberg/Lesnar “dream” match. I’ve made it pretty clear that I’ve always been Team Blue, and guys like Edge (one of my favorites of all-time) and Booker T (especially King Booker) were often a really big part of that.
  • Is WWE going to continue with the lingering crowd shots after this week, or will they go the way of the turnbuckle cameras and Tout?
  • This week’s SmackDown! Live reminds everyone that Dean and AJ can’t lay a finger on each other until after Survivor Series. My question is: Would RAW even be able to function with that type of clause in place? Just last week, the men from their five-on-five traditional match were in a Fatal Five-Way. Against each other.
  • It honestly feels kind of wrong for John Cena—even more than The Rock—to be absent on the 900th episode of SmackDown!, especially when his debut against Kurt Angle is shown. He may have become the franchise RAW guy, but SmackDown! made him, and his absence (not even a tweet!) is a kick in the gut. AJ Styles really is “the face that runs the place” now.

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