Kalisto (left), Dolph Ziggler, Apollo Crews

Are you ready for the Elimination Chamber pay-per-view? If not, this week’s SmackDown (just like last week’s SmackDown) does all it can to make sure you are, even if the stories and characters aren’t quite there. Because as far as WWE choices go, the company’s decision when it comes to its never-ending pay-per-view schedule isn’t likely to change anytime soon. So SmackDown must make the most it possibly can with what it has, again—a quality that has essentially become the blue brand’s superpower. Unfortunately, as this week’s SmackDown proves, it can’t always pull a rabbit out of its hat when it comes to these short-notice builds for big shows. And even if the go-home show is solid, like this one is, that can easily end up meaning nothing when it’s a solid build for far less structurally sound stories.

Last week’s Elimination Chamber-building SmackDown came with the uphill battle of having to work with a historically flat WWE crowd in order to start the two weeks of pay-per-view build—and succeeded in actually having the audience get invested and make some noise. This week’s show, the actual go-home show, has it much easier when it comes to the crowd (a very hot Seattle crowd), and again, it doesn’t squander that opportunity. In fact, the audience is so hot all night that it even bleeds into its reactions to (a pretty good, mind you) episode of 205 Live. In an obvious but smart decision, this week’s SmackDown opens with “home town” hero and SmackDown General Manager Daniel Bryan, who’s already the most over guy on the roster in pretty much any WWE situation but is especially over here. In his own backyard, he’s near god level, and the show immediately starts off on the right note by playing into that. Obviously, Bryan doesn’t need to get over any more than he already is—mostly because he’s the GM, not the talent—but his presence in the opening segment is useful when it comes to putting over and/or getting heat for the Elimination Chamber match participants who join the segment.

Except for AJ Styles, that is. In fact, despite attempts to get the crowd to boo him, AJ is the second most over person in the segment and on the entire show. The opening segment is effective in somehow getting The Miz even more heat than usual (because if Seattle loves Bryan, they loathe Miz), allowing Baron Corbin to be intimidating in spite of his 13-year-old boy mustache, and having Dean Ambrose exist. (Sadly, Ambrose merely “exists” until the match set up by this segment actually happens.) But when it comes to getting Styles hated, that doesn’t happen here; and given the result of the subsequent Fatal Four-Way match, it’s hard to see how “getting AJ Styles hated” could possibly be a long-term plan for SmackDown. After last week’s depressed Styles, getting pinned by Corbin this week can only make things worse for the character, which could make for quite the interesting dynamic.

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That’s not to say that losing to Corbin is the low point of Styles’ career. In fact, Corbin winning this week’s Fatal Four-Way and standing tall at the end of last week’s SmackDown are necessary building blocks for the Elimination Chamber match on Sunday. As we’ve been reminded, while John Cena and The Miz have been in the Chamber before, Ambrose, Styles, Corbin, and Bray Wyatt have not. At the same time, Ambrose, Styles, and even Wyatt (despite a lack of title reigns) are all main-event talent—Corbin is not, even though SmackDown has worked hard to help build him up since the brand split.

The chance of Corbin winning the Elimination Chamber match and taking on Randy Orton at WrestleMania? Slim to none. The harm in at least making it seem like he belongs in the same conversation as the rest of the match participants? Less than zero. Corbin has been given these various opportunities and proven his worth (as well as his greenness on certain occasions) during them, but he’s not being given a premature championship reign or even made to look as though he’s actually above the established stars. Whenever he puts himself above main-event Superstars, authority figures, interviewers, or other Superstars are quick to tell him that he’s in over his head. And it ends up that he is. So if he pins the most important guy in a Fatal Four-Way match, that sends a message that he can run with the big dogs, even if he’s not actually at that level. Sounds like building a new star to me, as well as a natural progression in Corbin’s story that wasn’t present pre-brand split. That’s not even necessarily the beauty of SmackDown—it’s specifically the beauty of the brand split, though it’s on both brands to build their talent up.

The same praise can’t really be put on the current Dolph Ziggler/Apollo Crews/Kalisto storyline, which leads to a Two-On-One Handicap match at Elimination Chamber. Yes, it leads to a weak gimmick match typically reserved for television builds to pay-per-view matches, though there are exceptions.

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As this week’s SmackDown reminds us, Dolph Ziggler really likes hitting (the same two) people with chairs. That—his desire to inflict pain—has been the biggest bit of character development in his heel turn, and it’s something that was interesting at first, but the story has not moved past that in weeks. And it’s not as though it’s been building to a Chairs match. Plus, unfortunately, none of Ziggler’s chair shenanigans have changed the fact that he’s the still biggest loser on the roster. Nor do they change the fact that the WWE Universe isn’t reacting positively to the perceived losers (Crews and Kalisto) who keep beating him. See: the fact that these crowds regularly chant “one more time” as Ziggler beats them with chairs. People joke about certain wrestling fans wanting everyone to turn heel, and while Ziggler turning heel actually was the best decision for his character rut, his turn also begs the question that comes after turning heel: Now what? As it stands, he’s still a loser, he’s still a directionless character the audience has no reason to care about, and he’s in a feud with two Superstars even more directionless (and less popular or entertaining) than he is.

But when it comes to building up Sunday night’s Elimination Chamber pay-per-view, the problem with Ziggler/Crews/Kalisto isn’t exactly that it’s hard to build the match. This is the natural progression of the story so far, unfortunately, so this week’s SmackDown does well with what it has. The problem is with SmackDown as a whole, and that unfortunately trickles down to the pay-per-view build. This week’s SmackDown honestly does a great job as a go-home show for Elimination Chamber, but being a good go-home show doesn’t mean being a miracle worker. There’s nothing much in the Ziggler/Crews/Kalisto storyline as it is, and a fast-approaching pay-per-view and the entire Road To WrestleMania point that out. I want to say “for now,” but the truth is, when Ziggler ends up in these segments with Crews and Kalisto, it’s hard not to hope someone far more entertaining and interesting comes out to stop Ziggler and save the day. There’s no excitement that comes with either Crews or Kalisto, and while it may sound ungrateful, feeling this way after months (at the very least) of wanting WWE to do anything with either man, WWE has yet to make them captivating characters. Ziggler’s characterization is muddled in this new iteration, but he’s an easy fix. The clock is ticking to the big show, and there’s no easy fix in sight for Crews and Kalisto.

The fact that this is the Road To WrestleMania makes the weaknesses stick out even more, because now’s not the time to take things slow and easy.

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While it’s not a perfect division, motivation and characterization aren’t as big of problems in the women’s division. This week’s SmackDown somehow takes something as ridiculous-sounding as a “dual contract signing” and makes it interesting, even when it ends with the usual descent into chaos trope. Even the Natalya/Nikki Bella segment builds off their previous encounters by having them do a split-screen interview, since they can’t be in the same room together without trying to kill each other.

Unfortunately, the logical choice in segment forgets the biggest part of why their feud has been working: because all their talking quickly devolves into them trying to beat the crap out of each other. Just like with the Nikki/Carmella feud, which also worked to sell the disdain between the two. There’s a reason why neither Natalya nor Nikki have gotten extensive praise for their acting ability outside of the obvious segment and that time Nikki told Brie she wished she’d died in the womb. That’s because neither woman is particularly good at that part of all of this. As Nikki points out in this segment, the only thing Natalya’s really ever had going for her is wrestling—which makes little sense given the delivery of the line but does in the context of Nikki noting that Natalya won’t even have that anymore once she beats her at Elimination Chamber. Both Nikki’s performances and WWE’s scripts really haven’t helped this feud though, because while her fists may say she’s done with Natalya, her promos say she barely cares about the “crazy cat lady.” (Natalya’s dialogue at least maintains her delusional, pop-culture-quoting character, as her delivery has always screamed disingenuous.) Nikki’s not particularly great when it comes to saying “yes, and…” in her promos with Natalya, but that’s why the brawls work. “Yes, and here’s a spear through a merch table” is a universal language when it comes to professional wrestling.

At least Talking Smack has Natalya attempt to decapitate Nikki Bella.

The other women’s feuds, however, are more capable when it comes to the acting side of things, and they’re so much better for it. Becky Lynch versus Mickie James feels like a match that deserves the WrestleMania treatment, but since supposed WrestleMania main events are now getting the SmackDown treatment, doing it at Elimination Chamber isn’t necessarily a bad thing. No matter the pay-per-view stage, as I mentioned last week, something special could come out of the match, and bitter veteran James versus somehow-not-bitter-despite-having-perfectly-good-reasons baby-faced Lynch is an interesting story. As is the overconfident (though, not at peak cocky AJ Styles level yet) champ Alexa Bliss versus the often overlooked over challenger Naomi. The latter is a very simple story, too, which has been SmackDown’s bread and butter since the brand split. This week’s contract-signing segment works far better than it has any right to, especially as the concept of a “dual contract signing” is just asking to be mocked.

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It helps that Bliss somehow channels the (still living) spirit of heel Trish Stratus during her contract signing promo, right down to her forgetfulness about Naomi’s very presence. The unfortunate thing is just how easy it is to forget Naomi, especially in this segment. James has been using this deliberate and effective soap opera villain delivery in her lines, Lynch has pure baby face (straight) fire on her side, Bliss has Trish Stratus’ essence inside of her, and Naomi… Well, Naomi proves in this segment that she can hit the verbal cues in the script well enough to pop the crowd at the right times. And sometimes, that’s all you need. If Naomi wins the title at Elimination Chamber and then gets to at least defend it in her hometown at WrestleMania, then good for her; she deserves a WrestleMania moment like that and others have gotten much more for doing much less. But she’s also easily the weakest part of this segment and of these intertwining feuds, even after she gets the upper hand on a physical level.

The Ascension making the pin in the 12-man tag team match is truly the most surprising moment of the night though, especially since it really keeps things up in the air when it comes to how Elimination Chamber’s Tag Team Turmoil match will shake out. SmackDown obviously has talent that has fallen on hard times but could easily be taken seriously if they needed to be—see: Ziggler—but there has never been a time on the main roster when The Ascension wasn’t a joke. It was called up to the main roster and immediately set up to fail. And when it comes to other NXT tag team call-ups (and Tyler Breeze) who fell from glory right into main roster obscurity, despite The Ascension’s longest reigning NXT Tag Team Champions distinction, those 364 days rarely came with a consensus that The Ascension was actually “good” or “entertaining.” Mostly, it was just a sign of how dire NXT’s tag team division was at the time. So now The Ascension pins Rhyno in a 12-man tag team match, which feels like a big deal because The Ascension wins a match, but it honestly gives no further insight into the actual match at Elimination Chamber.

And you know what? Good. Even if there’s a strong belief that American Alpha will retain the Tag Team Championship, it’s nice for there to be some element of “anything can happen” surrounding Elimination Chamber. It’s the only match on the card that appears to have something resembling that feeling.

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Also, it goes without saying, but the 12-man tag team match is fun, and it confirms my theory that Breezango is truly made up of baby faces who just want everyone to dress better. Honestly, every match on this week’s SmackDown (except for the Ziggler/Crews “match”) is fun, which is certainly something to hope for when it comes to a go-home show. A sense of urgency and surprise may be missing from this SmackDown and heading into Elimination Chamber and beyond, but it’s hard to deny the fun.

John Cena versus Randy Orton in the SmackDown main event is also fun, especially as the abridged version of the singles match they’re definitely not going to have again at WrestleMania: the mentioning of the two men’s parallel career paths, the camera person catching a particularly long and loud segment of Cena spot-calling outside the ring, the finisher kick-outs, the ref bump. It’s a good television main event and fun to see because it’s so obviously not going to happen at WrestleMania. As I drove myself crazy discussing last week, the booking of this match at all is basically WWE’s way of saying you’d have to be stupid to actually believe the match is going to happen at WrestleMania. And I’d still argue that’s both a refreshing and ridiculous way to tell a story, especially since the Royal Rumble winner doesn’t get to be the star of the show until the actual title match is decided at Elimination Chamber.

As David Otunga points out in order to try to discredit Miz this week, John Cena hasn’t just been in the Elimination Chamber match, he’s been in the most Elimination Chamber matches of anyone else in this upcoming match. What Otunga doesn’t address, however, is that Cena’s track record when it comes to Elimination Chamber matches is absolutely awful: In all but one instance, he either lost the match or lost his championship mere moments after the match. The exception to this rule was Elimination Chamber 2011, where winning that match got him into the main event of WrestleMania with then WWE Champion The Miz. A match that Cena also lost. Elimination Chambers are Super Cena’s Kryptonite.

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Yet that’s somehow not a talking point in this build, as it would tip the WWE’s hand even more given that Cena is losing the title on Sunday. Well, even more than setting up Cena/Orton as the WrestleMania main event and not attempting to build it immediately.

But in the far more entertaining part of the main event story, Luke Harper is not pleased that Randy Orton “stole” his family, and he has good reason for that: Orton stole his damn family. The Harper/Orton singles match announced for Elimination Chamber is basically the opposite of the handicap match in terms of concept and storytelling, and really, the Wyatt Family storyline is the most complex on the entire SmackDown roster. (Again, simple is good and works for SmackDown, but while Alexa/Becky/Mickie is doing work right now, the Orton/The Wyatts story has the most going for it leading into WrestleMania.)

Plus, Harper’s face turn is working out pretty well so far for not even really being a face turn. He just hates Orton’s guts for ruining things, and he’s made that clear every single week. Really, if Harper goes back to Bray anytime during this story, it’s not like he didn’t tell everyone that’s exactly what he wanted to do. Harper doesn’t hit Sister Abigail on Bray Wyatt like WWE’s been teasing the past couple of weeks, but he gets his hands on him here, and he also has the opportunity to help Orton lose a match. The “now what?” question in the Ziggler storyline isn’t here in Harper’s turn, because even with continued questions about allegiances in this storyline, there’s been a natural character development and story progression throughout. The obvious answer is these matches at Elimination Chamber. Then WrestleMania. The “now what?” is really present in everything but the Orton/Wyatt situation at Elimination Chamber. The problem is SmackDown’s not really looking good for once in having these questions unanswered, not with WrestleMania around the corner.

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Like I said before, as a go-home show, this week’s SmackDown gets the job done of selling another pay-per-view on such short notice. Unfortunately, what it’s selling is characters and storylines that are wearing thin, and that’s part of a larger problem with the brand heading into WrestleMania. SmackDown has earned the benefit of the doubt with its ability to build good pay-per-views in a limited time frame, and Elimination Chamber could be another instance of that. But what if it’s not?

Stray observations

  • RESULTS: Baron Corbin defeated AJ Styles, The Miz, and Dean Ambrose; Apollo Crews defeated Dolph Ziggler; The Ascension, The Usos, and The Vaudevillains defeated Rhyno/Heath Slater, American Alpha, and Breezango; John Cena defeated Randy Orton.
  • This week’s SmackDown is missing the answer to another question: RAW just signed Samoa Joe. So why isn’t SmackDown trying to do something special as a form of “competition?” That right there is a missed opportunity that just may be answered after Elimination Chamber. But with RAW’s “hottest free agent” signing, it’s hard not to compare when its “rival” show has a “dual contract signing” (as well as the segment turns out) and books a handicap match on its pay-per-view. Those aren’t even close to as exciting as a debuting Superstar.
  • The opening video package about Cena and Orton mentions how Cena went from “an awestruck 8-year-old fan” to the champ. So now I’m confused. Why isn’t there a segment from Randy or Bray insulting Cena for having been a fan of WWE before joining WWE?
  • Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks: WWE knows (some) black people. Also, this is just a thought, but WWE can let non-black Superstars talk about Black History Month. It’s not just a month of black people talking about other black people, and it should be inclusive in terms of people having knowledge about black history.
  • Danilo Anfibio (a.k.a. “Eyebrows Ref” from NXT) made his main roster debut on tonight’s SmackDown, and that certainly deserves the acknowledgment. I’m still hoping for WWE to sell a version of Sasha Banks’ shirt with his face on it.
  • David Otunga: “Can you imagine if that happened in the Elimination Chamber, on steel?” No, David. I cannot imagine the Tower Of Doom spot happening on steel, because the wrestling ring in an Elimination Chamber match is not made of steel. It’s a wrestling ring.
  • Some Talking Smack notes: Baron Corbin’s T-shirt misspells “heroes,” so he should probably just stick to wolf T-shirts for now. He should also stick to shaving his “mustache,” because it doesn’t work as a heat generator so much as a reason for people to question his ability to intimidate. Even Cody Rhodes could grow a full beard, y’all. Then there’s Cena’s reaction to the Nikki/Natalya Talking Smack segment, which is one of the most amazingly robotic Cena moments ever to grace WWE television. And that’s counting all of Total Divas and Total Bellas. He reacted to it like a business transaction. “She is responsible for fighting her own battles.” Of course she is, but you can still show human emotion, man. At the end of the segment, he says he’s on his way to see her, but come on. He’s on his way to a tune-up. I love it.

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