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An Independence Day Battle Royal lets SmackDown Live remember all its stars

Illustration for article titled An Independence Day Battle Royal lets iSmackDown Live /iremember all its stars
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Because The A.V. Club knows that TV shows keep going even if we’re not writing at length about them, we’re experimenting with discussion posts. For certain shows, one of our TV writers will publish some brief thoughts about the latest episode, and open the comments for readers to share theirs.

  • Results: AJ Styles defeats Chad Gable; Naomi defeats Lana to retain the SmackDown Women’s Championship; the New Day defeat the Usos in a rap battle via disqualification; Aiden English defeats Randy Orton by disqualification; AJ Styles wins the Independence Day Battle Royal to become number one contender to the United States Championship
  • A two-hour running time appears to only be long enough for SmackDown to pay attention to three of the four components at any given: the main event, the midcard, the women’s division, and the tag teams. With Money in the Bank defining the six competitors as the de facto main event (plus Randy Orton and Jinder Mahal, I guess) and the pay-per-view putting such focus on the women’s division—along with the tag division being so resurgent—the other singles competitors have been largely invisible. That changes in a big way tonight, with the battle royal giving some largely absent competitors a chance to sign. Luke Harper and Erick Rowan at least do enough to qualify as “somewhat respectable competitors.” Mojo Rawley doesn’t exactly turn on Zack Ryder, but he places some serious strain on their tag team when he eliminates his little Hype Bro. A full-on heel turn for Rawley would probably feel too much like a pale imitation of the red-hot feud between Enzo and Cass, but the battle royal allows for a more nuanced option, with Mojo wanting to prioritize his own professional future at the expense of his partnership with Ryder. Whatever happens from here, SmackDown appears to know that Ryder still has plenty of potential as a sympathetic underdog, and this pushes him into that frame.
  • But the major midcard star of the battle royal is Tye Dillinger, who sure sounded like he had the crowd pulling for him ahead of Sami Zayn and AJ Styles, which suggests his lengthy absence hasn’t hampered his ability to connect with fans. The psychology of the Tye-centric part of the match made sense: Dillinger is fiery as hell and knows he has to pull out big moves to stand a chance against the likes of Zayn and Styles, but he made the mistake of trying to do too much at once. The trouble is I’m not sure who Dillinger could pair off with in a program: Mike Kanellis and Rusev are recent arrivals who both could have made sense as guys who ultimately prevail against a beloved face, but one looks set for Sami Zayn and the other is in a flag match with John Cena. Beyond that… Erick Rowan, maybe? Oh, that wouldn’t end well for the Perfect Ten, would it?
  • Breezango remain as funny as ever in their little pre-match skit, with Dillinger proving an admirable straight man for Breeze’s Tenee Young. Again, there’s a nice logic to their characters: Breezango are basically good guys, but they’re not above going what they think is undercover to get some intel on their opponents. I still think they could use a touch more credibility than the booking is allowing them. It was a decent gag to have Rowan immediately throw Breeze out again after Fandango’s save attempt, but it made them look pretty dumb. And yeah, that’s their character and all, but I’d say Breezango has worked best when their general idiocy matches with some surprising in-ring smarts.
  • Daniel Bryan’s decision to suspend James Ellsworth for a month is a curious one, given how great a heat magnet Ellsworth has been. On the one hand, a problem with Ellsworth is that his two most natural rivals at the moment are Bryan, who can’t wrestle, and Becky Lynch, who almost certainly can’t wrestle him without WWE risking the ire of corporate sponsors. While last week’s Money in the Bank rematch did an admirable job of transferring Ellsworth’s heat to Carmella, it does make some sense to take Ellsworth out of the picture for a bit and give Carmella a chance to establish herself as a top heel. If Ellsworth does return, though, it’s hard to see how that doesn’t end with him and Carmella ending partnership, assuming any such return would strip her of the briefcase. Since neither Ellsworth nor Carmella feels in line for a face turn, maybe Ellsworth really is going to be gone for a month.
  • With the extremely necessary caveat that I am not at all qualified to judge the quality of rap battles: Boy, that was a damn good rap battle between the Usos and the New Day. The line about the R-rated Xavier Woods is the obvious highlight—and if you didn’t get that, basically, there was a sex tape scandal recently involving Woods—but that wasn’t the only good burn there, as the teams referenced Rikishi, Kofi Kingston’s fake Jamaican period, the Usos wearing shirts to hide that they’re low-key fat, the specter of Roman Reigns, and the fact Jimmy Uso only got where he is because Naomi is on Total Divas. SmackDown Live might only be a three-team tag division at the moment—four, if you feel compelled to count American Alpha, and also I do actually think the Colons are essentially fine for what they’re needed to be—but the combined personality of New Day, the Usos, and Breezango is off the charts.
  • Chad Gable and AJ Styles had a seriously terrific match, with all the kind of technical goodness and submission chains that one would hope for from an Olympian and the Phenomenal One. This is the kind of match WWE would do well to find more space for: Matches between competitors on different tiers of the card that can give both men an opportunity to shine. The Miz and Heath Slater’s Intercontinental titl match on last night’s Raw falls into a similar category, as does I suppose most of the matches as part of John Cena’s US Championship open challenge.
  • The jingoism WWE traffics in during every patriotic holiday is never going to be my thing. I guess the Rusev-John Cena stuff worked marginally better than the Jinder Mahal-Randy Orton stuff, as Rusev is a way more compelling heel promo than Cena, whereas Jinder is a person of color who is calling out Americans for not being tolerant… and is the bad guy. I know Orton went back to his old line about Jinder being a jackass, but, yeah, none of these nationalistic tropes are things I enjoy. That’s about the most generous thing I can say about it.
  • I’m unsure what the plan is with Lana, but at least Naomi looks seriously strong at this point, and Tamina feels more important than she did before. I’m not ever going to argue Tamina is a super-valuable piece, but the women’s division remains so thin—especially if Maria Kanellis is sticking to a manager role for husband Mike—that SmackDown might as well try to get whatever value it can out of all its superstars, and at least Naomi and Tamina have a bit of history together from Team BAD.
  • As JBL acknowledged, Styles really didn’t have much of a story in the battle royal, largely surviving until it got to the final three competitors. The purpose of tonight’s episode between the Gable match, the battle royal, and the post-match business between Styles and Owens felt like it was ultimately to reestablish Styles as the guy on SmackDown. Recent weeks have seen Styles slip a little bit—he’s part of the cavalcade of top-tier guys who have tried to drag a good match out of Jinder, for instance—and that’s a valid use of a guy who is as over and has as much credibility as Styles. But a night like tonight, where he puts on a terrific match and then guts it out against most of the locker room to win the battle royal, reaffirms that Styles is a cut above almost everyone else on SmackDown, including Sami Zayn and possibly Kevin Owens. I’m not sure Styles is headed for a U.S. title win, but it feels conceivable at this stage.

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