That’s right: Another week of concise, compelling storytelling on SmackDown! Live means another week of praising WWE for doing the very basic thing it sets out to do on a daily basis. This week’s Monday Night RAW also fit the bill of fulfilling the basic concepts of storytelling that WWE often claims it does, but as usual, that came with the added baggage of RAW’s role as the “flagship” program; even with the New Era and post-draft changes, RAW is still stuck with certain WWE bad habits that SmackDown! Live has the leniency to avoid. SmackDown! Live has stuck with its in-story mission statement of being a “meritocracy” and giving every wrestler an equal chance and playing field, and that continues to yield mighty fine results for the blue brand.
The most obvious examples of this comes in the form of the show opening with a replay of last week’s definitive Talking Smack clip, followed by The Miz’s far more refined in-ring promo on the matter. One of the biggest talking points about that Miz/Bryan argument was how The Miz was speaking absolute truth, especially when it came to the irony of Bryan criticizing The Miz for wrestling a “safe” style. This week’s SmackDown! Live opening is tasked with making sure everyone is well-aware that The Miz is still the bad guy though—the story now takes the “coward” point of the argument and moves it away from the actual wrestling aspect of The Miz to making it about him as a character. Because The Miz’s character absolutely is a coward. He’s a shit-stirring coward, and now there’s some heavy stirring in the mix.
Dolph Ziggler showing up all full of piss and vinegar to confront The Miz obviously leads to the inevitable Backlash PPV match, but it also keeps Ziggler afloat after his recent high-profile losses by simply allowing Ziggler to maintain a focus in the aftermath of those losses. You see, as good as Ziggler’s “scratch and claw” promos were, after a while, variety was needed. At the very least, this is that variety. Yes, just the basic idea of momentum for characters does a lot to make SmackDown! Live go by fast and without there needing to be a question of “why.”
Plus, it’s a story with a simple (the magic word) concept that makes sense. The hero (Ziggler) who wants the villain (Miz) to put his money where his mouth is, the villain who delays the inevitable, and audience who so badly wants to see the villain get his ass handed to him. As Miz gloats about how he’s too smart and too good of a wrestler to get hit, the very basic instinct the audience should feel wanting him to get hit. Why? Because the basic job of a professional wrestler is “get hit.” Someone should want to teach Miz that lesson, and here, it’s understandably Ziggler, who lives and breathes this job. This all show’s the clear difference between a babyface just attacking a heel—unprovoked—and a babyface going after a heel who’s intentionally priding himself in taking the “coward’s” way out of doing the “get hit” job properly. (One’s a good example of a babyface, and the former is Roman Reigns.) With just a bit of tweaking, an admirable argument based very much on truth from The Miz’s perspective actually becomes a character trait worth resenting.
Keep in mind, this is a story from the same company that can’t seem to figure out that “they’re foreign and in love” isn’t actually enough fuel to make certain characters the villains.
Even something as outwardly goofy as AJ Styles’ new “The Face That Runs The Place” gimmick works as a result of simple understanding of storytelling. The entire point of the John Cena/AJ Styles SummerSlam program was that Styles winning would officially mean “the future” has gone through Cena and more or less taken his spot. Now that Styles has done that, it does technically make him the new “Face That Runs The Place.”However, as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility, and Styles obviously uses his newfound power for nefarious purposes. That’s the type of thing that gets him headbutt by Dolph Ziggler during a “pep talk” or causes him to actively “coach” Baron Corbin during the main event and have even that backfire on him. The AJ Styles character is clearly inserting himself into the role Cena should technically have, but he’s doing it in the most intentionally annoying way possible.
Look at it this way: If AJ Styles were to befriend Zack Ryder just to complete the cycle, don’t be surprised if that somehow ends up even worse than the Cena/Ryder friendship did.
So now that Styles is in this position, like it or not, as such, the future has to go through him. And that’s what Apollo “What’s Your Name, Man?” Crews is tasked with in this episode. Daniel Bryan misspeaking and calling Crews “Apollo Creed” is slowly becoming the best thing to happen to Crews since stepping onto the main roster: A character who makes sure his opponents won’t forget his name, simply by taking them to the limit in the ring and physically reminding them who the hell he is, is already more of a character than Apollo Crews had before Bryan said “Creed.” So while a match against AJ Styles is already a big deal, a match against AJ Styles with actual character motivation and possible direction? That’s that whole storytelling thing at work.
Meanwhile, the combination of the on-location piece at Heath Slater’s “home,” the bizarre (and bloody) tag team match against The Headbangers, and the especially earnest answers from Rhyno about his and Heath’s team on Talking Smack all officially confirm what’s becomes pretty obvious during every “WE WANT SLATER” chant these past few weeks: 2016 is the year of Heath Slater, baybay. SmackDown! Live’s decisions to do something different don’t just refer to the space station Renee Young operates from; they allow for things like Rhyno spraying a Cheez Whiz sad face on a cracker before eating it, all while Renee Young Jim Halpert faces her way through what could honestly be called the true WWE-based spiritual successor to The Final Deletion.
As for the the tag team title tournament as a whole, this week’s matches “fail” slightly by not being as competitive as last week’s… which isn’t too difficult to accept, given the fact that teams like The Hype Bros and The Headbangers (yes, from the ‘90s) are participants in these matches. It’s an interesting choice for WWE to have The Hype Bros go over The Vaudevillains this week, especially as the latter are actually given a bit of character development in their promo right before the match, but it’s a no-brainer to have Heath and Rhyno beat The Headbangers, even if they have to lose some blood from it, for some reason.
Also: Why is Baron Corbin main-eventing SmackDown! Live with Dean Ambrose? Well, as he is single-handedly (at least, in front of the camera) carrying the Corbin/Kalisto feud on his back, he makes more sense in a match anywhere near a singles championship belt than Big Cass (and that’s nothing against Cass, but come on). Much like the AJ Styles match is good doing something—anything—to get the crowd invested in Crews, the Ambrose/Corbin match highlights Corbin’s more banter-based skills and his stealth never-say-die attitude. Near the end of the match, both Ambrose and Corbin look like they may need to kill each other to actually end things, which is always a good sign. The finish is the result of AJ bastardizing his “Face That Runs The Place” designation yet again, and not only does that work, but it ends in a top rope crotching that has the perfect amount of goofy WWE humor (without being too much) for these characters. Especially as AJ continues to sell it on Talking Smack with his good buddy Daniel Bryan.
With the rocky start of SmackDown! Live post-draft, I brought up how RAW’s third hour makes it so there would always be an opportunity to give more characters time and opportunities that SmackDown! Live would just lack in the two-hour frame. Then all of a sudden, the blue brand came with the Talking Smack and the actual follow through on being the brand that gives everyone a chance… and now simple time management is becoming one of the show’s unsung qualities. Bravo, blue.
- RESULTS: The Hype Bros defeated The Vaudevillains (Tag Team Title Tournament); AJ Styles defeated Apollo Crews; Alexa Bliss & Natalya defeated Becky Lynch & Naomi; Beauty and The Man Beast (Rhyno & Heath Slater) defeated The Headbangers (Tag Team Title Tournament); Baron Corbin defeated Dean Ambrose (via disqualification)
- I mentioned it on Twitter, but my computer had one of its fun fits last night while I was working on my RAW review. So nothing to see this week on that front, but I can say the show gave me relatively positive feelings. Except for when it came to Titus O’Neil. Never Titus O’Neil. I’ve mentioned before that I was in attendance and crying for Kevin Owens’ last PWG show, so you can probably guess how I reacted to his Universal Championship win.
- Shane McMahon makes sure to let Daniel Bryan know that he actually agrees with his criticisms of Miz, but he shouldn’t get into spats with the talent. Then Bryan makes a joke about how Shane is picking a fight with Brock Lesnar, so I’m just going to put all things McMahon/Brock under the category of “not for me” right now and let that be the end of it (for me).
- I’ve said before that The Miz should be the easiest guy in the world to turn babyface because of how his story from The Real World—as the college frat boy who loved nu-metal and wrestling but didn’t know who Rosa Parks was—to his ascension to the top of WWE in the face of the then-toxic locker-room mentality is honestly the truest underdog story in the company. Of course, WWE’s attempt at a Miz face turn overthought that by making him the stereotypical, “snarky” WWE babyface. And by having Ric Flair give him the Figure Four Leg Lock, for some reason…
- First of all, I’m always a sucker for a good on-location/out-of-arena bit, especially in contemporary WWE. Part of the reason I loved the Edge/Cena feud so much (besides it being fueled both by pure hate and “he’s right behind me, isn’t he?” moments) is how it did this kind of stuff, like with classic Edge and Lita trip to Cena’s childhood home. “Down goes Cena! Down goes Cena!” Heath Slater’s whole thing right now is about his family and three to 12 kids, so why wouldn’t they show his home? Second of all, if you were to tell me Jamie Noble was creatively responsible for the entire trip to Heath Slater’s home, I would 100% believe you, no questions asked.
- There’s a lot of good in this SmackDown! Live, so I almost forgot to mention the Bray Wyatt/Randy Orton segment. If WWE plays its cards right, it can have a really great feud on its hands with these two. It’s not a typical Bray Wyatt feud, as Wyatt acknowledges that Orton is just as “damaged” or fucked up you could be (because he is snake, of course), and he actually likes that about him. He wants the Viper as his trophy, because what else would he want to do with him? He can’t break him down mentally. Randy Orton is canonically a psychopath. And now he’s going against a man who is the devil incarnate. That’s fun!
- When Becky Lynch comes out for her entrance, Alexa Bliss has her ears covered the whole time. However, the camera also catches Natalya realizing what Bliss is doing and copycatting something she should have been able to come up with on her own. Natalya may be the “veteran” of the division, but even little moments like that can show the difference between having “it” and being Natalya.
- Speaking of having “it,” Carmella shows off her heel work by jumping Nikki Bella from behind again, then adding insult to injury by stepping on Nikki to get onto the barricade. That’s just good work, plain and simple.
- Heath calls Renee Young “Miss Renee,” and my heart grows three sizes.
- Meanwhile, Mauro Ranallo makes terrible Kane/Cain and Abel and Beyonce/VMA references, and my heart withers and dies again. David Otunga wins the commentary for his barb about The Headbangers being “Marilyn Manson’s last two fans.” That’s how bad Mauro’s references are. (He said “turned up!”)
- Where is Kalisto, by the way? They’ve really kind of just let Corbin step all over him, haven’t they?