Let me start with a deeply controversial statement: John Cena is better than Baron Corbin. I know, I know, I’m out of my damn mind, but hear me out. After all, John Cena is nearing the 15-year anniversary of his debut with Kurt Angle, whereas it was less than a year ago that Baron Corbin was the surprise winner of the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. Even if we can feel pretty confident that Baron Corbin at his absolute peak will never match Cena—and, yeah, that seems a safe enough bet—he definitely has no chance as he’s still putting things together when compared to a living legend. But the thing is that SmackDown Live doesn’t need Corbin to match Cena. The latter has reached a point where he can cut the most old-school of promos, taking a single question from Renee Young and uncork an electric monologue on how maybe, just maybe, he is a has-been, but that just means the entire locker room should be scared of a Cena with something to prove. It’s honestly no knock on the rest of the WWE to say the most exciting thing on either brand is just John Cena talking, because he’s that damn good. The roar of approval from the initially divided crowd at the end there confirms it.

So sure, Baron Corbin can’t match that all on his own, but SmackDown doesn’t ask him to. When the announcers mention Corbin had a prerecorded message for Cena, I steeled myself for one of those random in-screen cutaways, where a wrestler cuts an invariably awkward promo to nobody in particular. But no, instead Corbin had a slickly edited video package to extol his fearsome reputation and dangerous intentions, and that put the lone wolf in a position where he only needed to cut a solid pre-match promo to be where he needed, and Corbin’s laconic anger is always at least solid. The match itself is a good proving ground for Corbin, as he and Cena tell a clear story in the ring: Given Corbin’s physical advantages, it’s entirely plausible that he has what it takes to overpower and defeat Cena. But Corbin doesn’t yet have the single-minded focus needed to pull that off. He’s too busy chawing with A.J. Styles and making a big show of his dominance instead of just going ahead and beating the 15-time champion. Corbin is a fascinating character, both driven and undone by that chip on his shoulder, yet so brutish and arrogant that he elicits no sympathy. It’s hard to ask more from the loser of a 10-minute main event match on a random SmackDown.

Just about everyone else tonight is given a clearly defined role that allows them to do good work, with every choice a logical progression of the story up to this point. Let’s consider the two women’s feuds given time tonight. Nikki Bella and Natalya are—and I’m being generous here—weak on the mic, so the editing team comes to the rescue here, encapsulating their entire feud and selling all the animosity that the pair’s delivery can only convey in fits and starts. What the two can do is beat the ever-living crap out of each other, with their match not happening in favor of a brutal brawl that earns audience chants of “let them fight!” when the refs come in to break them up. Like Corbin, both of these women are relatively tricky pieces that need to be used in just the right way. Nikki Bella can’t do everything you might want a top wrestler to be able to do, but there are a few things she excels at: She carries herself with a star presence that amplifies her years of dominant booking, she throws a hell of a forearm, and the whole Total Divas thing can, when used carefully, add fire to feuds without veering into catfight territory. Fellow E! programming veteran Natalya is a good partner in all this, brawling just as viciously before locking in a deep sharpshooter on the ramp.

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Becky Lynch and Alexa Bliss are more versatile, as you would expect from the two women in the title feud. Their joint segment on official (and essential) SmackDown companion show Talking Smack gets across the fundamental point that justifies this story’s continuation: Alexa, for all her boasting, is still yet to pin Becky clean, and the former champ isn’t going to let her get away until one of them wins decisively. With the mysterious La Luchadora hovering on the edges, Daniel Bryan sets a steel cage match for the title next week. Much as it’s old hat to point this out, the straightforward logic of this story compares favorably with its most obvious recent Raw equivalent, Sasha Banks and Charlotte’s Hell in a Cell match, which explicitly happened because it would make history for two women to have a Hell in a Cell match. While Bryan does acknowledge the groundbreaking nature of a women’s steel cage match—Lita and Victoria had one on Raw back in 2003 for no reason beyond that’s what Eric Bischoff’s giant wheel landed on, but I think the history-making thing here is that it’s a women’s title match in a steel cage—that’s beside the point of why it’s happening, which is that outside interference ruined their last title match and won’t be allowed to ruin this one. It’s also the perfect progression for Alexa’s heelish unfounded claims of superiority for her to retain by escaping the cage instead of properly defeating Becky, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

SmackDown also proves adept at adapting on the fly. The implosion of the new-look Wyatt family feels inevitable, yet I realized while watching Mojo Rawley cut a character-redefining promo on Talking Smack that probably none of this was supposed to happen… yet. Zack Ryder’s injury in the same match the Hype Bros won the battle royal to become number one contenders likely scrambled the entire plan for the tag team division, leaving American Alpha the only fresh and credible face team to go after the Wyatts. (Presumably because the cowards at SmackDown aren’t prepared to let Breezango, literally the prettiest faces in all WWE, embrace their inner heroes and win the belts.) And if the long-term plan was always for American Alpha to defeat the Wyatts and thus trigger this latest turmoil, then good on SmackDown for just going ahead and telling that story instead of slowly draining American Alpha’s momentum while waiting for a sufficiently big pay-per-view to come along for their coronation. The seeming end of the Wyatts is coming sooner than I might have hoped, but the fact that Luke Harper appears to be the problem far more than Randy Orton is an intriguing direction to go in.

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With the possible exception of Randy Orton—who really is of all-time great caliber when he’s as motivated as he is these days—none of the wrestlers in action tonight are on John Cena’s level. But SmackDown works on two basic principles. One, a wrestler’s value is contextual, and it’s always possible to put characters in the right spots and give them the right support to bring out their best. Two, nobody else is being asked to be on John Cena’s level, with the obvious exception of the champ who still very much runs the camp, and that guy just happens to be the best wrestler on the planet. And maybe that’s part of why SmackDown just so fundamentally works: When the man holding the company’s biggest belt (yeah, you heard me, universal title) is so eminently logical, even undeniable a choice, it’s that much easier for everything else below the main event to slot together and make sense. Unlike its older brother, SmackDown isn’t fighting its own most obvious stories, and so it’s no great challenge to do right by its entire cast of characters.

Stray observations

  • Results: Kalisto defeated Dolph Ziggler; American Alpha defeated the Wyatt Family to retain the SmackDown Tag Team Championship; Carmella defeated CJ Lunde; John Cena defeated Baron Corbin.
  • Based on Dolph Ziggler’s appearance on Talking Smack, he’s not going full heel, much as you might expect that to be the case after he busted out a grounded, heelish move-set against Kalisto and walloped both him and Apollo Crews with a steel chair. His revised character is still the same guy fighting for respect and glory, but he’s done believing all he needs to do is be super passionate and give it his all out there. Rather, he has to tap into an inner fire he said he hasn’t felt since he cashed in on Alberto Del Rio to become champ. I’m intrigued, in part because Ziggler is probably second only to Cena in knowing how to acknowledge crowd reactions and incorporate them into his character, so I’m curious to see where he takes this.
  • Speaking of Talking Smack promos, Mojo Rawley debuted his new, toned-down self, with Shane McMahon doing the best work of his guest co-host spot as he helped bring out Mojo’s life story. Mojo offered clear logic for his new approach, saying his perpetually hyped persona was a product of his odd couple pairing with Zack Ryder, but now he’s ready to get serious and chase singles glory. I won’t pretend I quite know where Mojo goes from here, but SmackDown has earned my trust on this.
  • The only real sour note tonight came with Carmella and James Ellsworth. On paper, I love the idea of moving Ellsworth out of the main event into a weird little story with Carmella, but I’m not sure anyone on SmackDown yet knows what that story is, and I’m definitely sure nobody has told JBL what said story is. I don’t inherently object to a heel commentator saying heel things, but JBL just sounded confused and tired as he ripped on the local talent’s appearance, suggesting the announcers didn’t have a clear sense of what they were meant to be getting across with Carmellsworth’s latest appearance. They’re also overdoing the comedy of the pathetic with Ellsworth thinking he was about to get a kiss—I suppose I might feel differently if the bit was actually funny, but as is it just takes a silly but fundamentally sound character and turns him into outright caricature, which limits some of his effectiveness.
  • All tonight’s goodness and I somehow didn’t mention Dean and the Miz? That whole segment was every bit as good as you would except a talking segment between those two would be, with some nice continuity as Dean gave the Miz his participation award back. Just a good, solid way to keep their story on a simmer for the week.
  • Mauro Ranallo making a not especially sly reference to golden showers during A.J. Styles’ into was nice. Becky Lynch busting out a “see you next Tuesday” on Talking Smack? Bravissimo, Becky, bravissimo.

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