AJ Styles

Anything can happen in WWE. SmackDown is the land of opportunity. Those could so easily just be constantly repeated phrases that mean nothing in the long run, but part of what has made SmackDown work so well in this brand split and in the closing weeks of 2016 is that it actually put in the work to make sure those weren’t empty buzzwords. It didn’t just say anything could happen: It allowed anything to happen. It didn’t just say it was the land of opportunity: It was the land of opportunity. Now that we’re in the first week of 2017, WWE has to turn its focus to the Road To WrestleMania and bringing in the “casual” audience, but if this week’s show is any indication, there’s no sign of SmackDown messing with what brought it to the dance. After all, that’s arguably what brought last week’s episode to higher ratings than Monday Night RAW.

So, in keeping with the spirit of the blue brand these past few months, the forward momentum and fresh ideas are all over the first SmackDown of the year. There’s a heel turn from a character who greatly needed a change, thus creating new match opportunities for the year; there’s a passion-fueled segment from the show’s biggest stars, one that takes a common WWE trope and throws an interesting variable into the equation, while also promoting the almighty Royal Rumble match; and there’s a title change in the show’s main event that keeps the audience both happy and on their toes. This show also continues the SmackDown’s much appreciated portrayal of the blue brand as a place of employment with larger than life employees who have to co-exist—one of the most important storytelling tools WWE (not just professional wrestling, in general) has at its disposal that sadly isn’t addressed enough.

This is the time of the WWE year where things have to be happening, but when it comes to SmackDown, things actually happening aren’t a seasonal occurrence, it’s simply the norm. And even when certain segments don’t land (which is still a regular part of the show, as it’s not perfect), there’s a sense of optimism that at least something will be learned or ultimately gained from those failures. Well, either that or they’ll provide plenty of fodder for WWE fan humor for years to come. When I first started writing about WWE for The A.V. Club, this type of optimism was understandably nonexistent. That’s not even a RAW versus SmackDown point, because even at its current weakest, main roster WWE has seriously stepped things up since early 2015.

The final SmackDown of 2016 was treated as a big deal and presented as such, and while the first show of 2017 isn’t given the same treatment and presentation, the blue brand still makes sure to start of the year right. Live every week like it’s “Wild Card Finals,” you know know? A “normal” episode of any main roster show in WWE is always a massive undertaking; SmackDown just regularly approaches things with the acknowledgment of that hard work and effort.

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Even when it’s not putting on the “Wild Card Finals,” that feeling that anything can happen on SmackDown exists. And this week, it does so in the form of putting an actual title change in the main event. While a mid-card title is essentially being held hostage (despite the semi-regular outs to rectify that situation) on RAW, the Intercontinental Championship has been treated with reverence since the brand split. Last week, I mentioned how show structure matters, as I pointed out how Cena’s return was the first thing on the show instead of a delayed, non-active main event. The WWE Championship match was understandably the main event, because it was the biggest match on the card, end of discussion. This week, like last week, the biggest match on this show’s card is the main event, instead of the talking segment with the show’s biggest stars. Keep in mind, there was a Last Man Standing match on this week’s RAW—one of the last gimmick matches left that hasn’t been overexposed—and it got buried in the middle of three hours. RAW and SmackDown have always been separated by being two different shows (one more about “entertainment” and the other more about the “sports”), but when the latter is obviously working better than the former on even something as fundamental as structure, that’s something to latch onto.

Unsurprisingly, The Miz versus Dean Ambrose delivers, even when there’s no initial belief that a title will change hands on a random episode of SmackDown. I must admit, despite not being the central focus of the show, The Miz and Maryse bring a unique brand of terror whenever they’re around, and it doesn’t show any signs of getting old any time soon. And because of the importance The Miz has brought to the mid-card and the Intercontinental Championship, Dean Ambrose winning the belt doesn’t feel like he’s being “downgraded” into a mid-card. It feels kickass, and it feels like there’s something interesting around the corner for both sides of this “feud.” Because honestly, I’m still not even sure I’d say The Miz is in a feud with Dean Ambrose. Ambrose is obviously feuding with Miz, but The Miz is looking so far past him that it makes for an interesting dynamic.

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Well, that and this:

The Miz is on a whole other level at this point.

As the Intercontinental Championship match and the WWE Championship contract signing were already promoted in the week leading up to this show, having the first match of the show be Baron Corbin versus Dolph Ziggler is understandably a “why this again?” moment. Corbin and Ziggler have in-ring chemistry, and after the finish of last week’s main event, they have a legitimate reason to face each other again. But that chemistry doesn’t necessarily erase one of the worst, most repetitive feuds of WWE’s 2016. However, the match ends up being one of the top highlights of this week’s episode even before the post-match moments, as that “brass ring” that WWE so often brings up—sadly, often patronizingly—always feels like it’s an invisible part of nearly every segment of SmackDown. RAW versus SmackDown may really just be WWE versus WWE, and Vince McMahon is getting rich regardless; but while RAW will pay lip service to there being some sort of competition between it and SmackDown, SmackDown always feels like its existence comes with its Superstars having that much-needed chip on their shoulders. Even John Cena, who doesn’t need to have it but… is John Cena.

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To throw a bone to RAW here, that feeling was very present to me during the Cesaro/Karl Anderson this week’s match.

So yes, the Ziggler/Corbin match is good, and it also looks like last week’s Triple Threat match eliminated some of the stink that comes with the match-up. The match itself plays off their past encounters too, with little things like Ziggler cutting off Corbin’s slide-in spot with a drop kick and Corbin’s increased tantrums (which are simply a nice character touch), as he has to try harder and harder to beat this guy he always beats. The post-match interactions are of course the part to focus on, as WWE intentionally takes that “why this again?” feeling with the combination of Corbin deciding to attack Ziggler and Kalisto coming to get in Corbin’s business and flipping it on its head with an understandably frustrated Ziggler heel turn. Because, let’s be honest: Being saved by Kalisto is pretty much rock bottom.

As for the turn itself, the Jacksonville crowd voices just how welcome it is. Ziggler has been stale for too long, even with his flashes of brilliance in things like his SummerSlam feud with Dean Ambrose and the recent matches he’s had with The Miz. He’s needed this turn for a while, but those flashes of brilliance allowed him to buy some time; for every deflation of the crowd as Ziggler entered for a match (and Cena even addressed this briefly in his return promo), his in-ring ability would just as quickly hook the crowd again. On a show with as pitch perfect of a heel as The Miz, there’s often the question of how effective a heel turn can be if the crowd is cheering for it. It’s similar to Neville’s current heel characterization on RAW and in the Cruiserweight division—WWE is frustratingly presenting these characters the audience likes or wants to like, so the changes to that presentation are welcome by the audience and sometimes hoped for by them.

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How can the crowd boo a guy who points out he should have been an integral part of a division that they all agree he should have been in? How can the crowd boo a guy who easily destroys the guy who best represents how weak the division has been? In the case of Ziggler, how can the crowd boo a guy who’s no longer going for the forced joke in a promo or a content “I lost but I tried really hard, mom.” The crowd is cheering finally being entertained by the wrestlers they like or want to like, which is truly the goal (at least at this point). Especially in these initial, brief moments of newness, of Ziggler finally, truly saying “no more” to being the chump, the loser punchline. He’s nipping the expected in the bud, and then he’s tearing backstage up and headbutting a New Era guy who could easily replace him in the Best Of 100 Series with Baron Corbin. He can get booed when it’s necessary, but when the crowd cheers “YES!” it’s the catharsis they and Ziggler need.

And speaking of Apollo Crews, simply giving Crews motivation as a character has been something SmackDown has discussed but not really gotten a consistent chance to do so far. Even Mike Mizanin finds the lack of focus on what makes Crews tick to be a weak point of the show. So what do we get here? Kalisto is his friend, and he doesn’t like Ziggler taking out his midlife crisis on his friend. That’s so simple, and it provides fuel for a Ziggler/Crews feud, which is new and different and bound to at least be very “athletic.” This turn for Dolph Ziggler opens up more New Era matches for him, and it’s also a very different dynamic than Cena’s “anti”-New Era motivations. There’s an argument to be made that SmackDown needs more solid babyfaces, but at the same time, there’s an entire system down in Orlando that can help with that. Plus, there are people like Kalisto and Apollo Crews, who now have a new year on SmackDown to prove their worth. Also, there’s John Cena, who could possibly, convincingly feud with and put over SmackDown’s entire heel roster, if the blue brand really wanted him to.

After all, next week’s SmackDown will see Cena face off one-on-one with Baron Corbin, so why not just fill his dance card with anyone who wants to try to make a name off Cena’s on the way to the Royal Rumble? This week, Cena continues to acknowledge that anyone who wants to do just that is welcome to try, but they’re going to have a hell of a time doing that.

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The exception to that rule is of course AJ Styles, as Styles points out he’s done everything Cena wanted him to do, and all Cena can do is show his true colors as a “has been” that SmackDown can thrive without. Styles won’t let Cena go on the usual rant about respect, and he won’t even let Cena get out a “fine speech” retort, because he knows Cena’s game and he’s done with Cena’s entitlement. It’s all about Styles’ entitlement now, because he has nothing to prove to Cena and he hasn’t had anything to prove to Cena since his first win, really. Cena is the only one who has to prove anything here, prove that he can beat Styles and isn’t just a “ghost” of a part-timer, and while Cena’s got a lot of veteran, “I’m John Cena” confidence in this run, there’s still a high chance it’s all for nothing.

It’s easy to say that Cena’s response to Styles is the old “you haven’t really beat John Cena until you’ve beat John Cena” talking point, especially when he goes on about his lack of respect for Styles and the dreaded concept of being a man. But that ignores what sets up Cena’s speech in the first place. That would be the fact that AJ Styles just can’t help himself—he has to push everything further. In the ring, in a promo. And he gets his ass handed to him for it, in the ring and in a promo, even when he comes out on top. He gets back just as good as he gives. He doesn’t half-ass being the best or being a blowhard, and as a result, his opponents (in this case, John Cena, who doesn’t know how to give anything less than 100%) feel obligated to give the same back. Cena had respect for Styles, and he’s willing to give up that Styles is superior to him. But then Styles just can’t accept any of it and essentially wakes a sleeping beast with his prodding. It makes for a hell of a segment and matches, and that’s what you want in your top guys. That’s what you want in your wrestling brand. “Recognize.”

And besides being a good back-to-back promo segment—which is something SmackDown has really done a good job of in most of its feuds—the segment also includes a nice touch from General Manager Daniel Bryan, who leaves the contract signing after he’s said all he needs to say… because we all know how these things go down. Though, to be fair, the contract signing actually goes pretty well, even with Styles pushing Cena’s buttons. It’s only when Baron Corbin joins the segment that the violence begins. Slight twists on the old WWE tropes are always welcome.

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None of this praise excuses the squash match between American Alpha and Breezango, which is the most egregious of this week’s three short matches. Remember that.

Stray observations

  • RESULTS: Baron Corbin defeated Dolph Ziggler; Becky Lynch defeated La Luchadora; Carmella defeated NXT’s Aliyah; American Alpha defeated Breezango; Dean Ambrose defeated The Miz (Intercontinental Championship)
  • “I’m more phenomenal then AJ.” Not with that sign, you’re not.
  • The Miz’s info banner now says he’s the “biggest, most successful movie star in WWE.” And he’s not even a part-timer, Cena.
  • JBL: “Baron Corbin almost Anne Boleyn’d Dolph Ziggler!”
  • Kalisto is a good wrestler, and he deserves more than the “he’s a mosquito!” booking he’s gotten… but 2016 was not a good year for him, whether it was his “good lucha thing,” his inconsistent performances post-injury, or just being the less interesting half of his feud with Corbin. Ziggler considering Kalisto stepping in to save him to be the last straw makes a lot of sense.
  • There’s not too much to say about it yet, but based on the match, Carmella has latched onto James Ellsworth because of how dumbly loyal he is and how that can help her win matches. Carmella is brilliant, and I support this new characterization.
  • At one point during Carmella versus Aliyah (right before Ellsworth gets involved), a classic representative of Florida shouts “GRAB HER BY THE PUSSY.” I can’t say I’ve ever missed Florida, but main roster WWE shows in Florida always give me a reason to really not miss it. Also, as much as Jacksonville is clearly into this week’s show, they have a hard time coordinating chants, especially during the contract signing. Do better.
  • Does La Luchadora Dos even need to end up being Mickie James (because, again, this version is obviously not her… and especially not Naomi, to anyone who still somehow thinks that) if she’s just a sidekick/hired gun for Alexa?
  • The Natalya/Nikki Bella face-off segment is easily the weakest segment of the show. It’s also an oddly-produced segment from beginning to end; from the assumption that both these women would just come to the center of the ring to hash this out instead of doing this backstage or in one of those one-on-one pre-recorded interviews with Renee Young, to the insistence that the audience has been or would be as fired up about this one tweet as Natalya is. It’s a tweet that certainly isn’t fire enough to solely be referred to as “the tweet.” And while it’s admirable and somewhat fascinating to see WWE attempt to make the best of each woman’s weaknesses as performers—hitting more on the idea that Nikki can’t even grow a sense of anger or frustration with Natalya (unlike in her feud with Carmella) because she pretty much pities her (and may be in a secret love affair with Bret Hart)—there’s really not much to add to this plot outside of the acknowledgment that Total Divas is the driving force.

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