With one brand specific pay-per-view on the books and another on the horizon, things are looking good for SmackDown! Live. In fact, it’s looking like the blue brand has a clear and present plan, which might sound like a very obvious thing for it to both have and follow through on, but the past few years of main roster WWE (and main roster WWE injuries) have especially made something as basic as that sound like a foreign concept.

So after the very strong wrestling showing at Backlash, SmackDown! Live is justified in its slight reliance on promo segments over ring work this week. The show has earned these segments, especially as it’s proven itself to have a working knowledge of the tools it needs to build to its own successful pay-per-view. This was evident even on the joint SummerSlam, in the fantastic build-up to Dean Ambrose versus Dolph Ziggler (even if the match didn’t live up to that), as well as John Cena versus AJ Styles. Backlash did a solid job telling stories with the in-ring work it brought to the table, and this week’s SmackDown! Live follows up those moments with the stories it continues to tell through promos and backstage segments (and, of course, Talking Smack). That’s the beauty of sports entertainment, after all—it’s not necessarily one or the other, especially when done well or at the right time.

Though it’s not as though this edition of SmackDown! Live doesn’t tell a story with its in-ring work too. The main event tag team match is full of ring veterans who could probably do that in their sleep, to be completely honest.

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Which brings us to the main event for the next SmackDown! solo pay-per-view, the returning No Mercy: AJ Styles versus John Cena versus Dean Ambrose for the WWE World Championship. It sells itself on paper, but the set-up in SmackDown! Live’s opening segment is the type of thing that will somehow look even more impressive come pay-per-view video package time.

As I mentioned in my review of this week’s Monday Night RAW and previous reviews, a WWE crowd can make or break the atmosphere of the show, whether the Superstars’ work is technically good or not. And here, it makes this already golden segment that much better. This episode probably won’t be put into the history of greatest SmackDown! episodes past or future, but the Philadelphia crowd is right for the post-Backlash show. There was no doubt how they were going to react to AJ Styles’ introduction (with complete love and appreciation, naturally), but then the Philly crowd who does the typical “JOHN CENA SUCKS” sing-song chant also busts out the first unanimous “CENA!” chant in ages—and as a result of Cena verbally assaulting Dean Ambrose, of all people. It’s the perfect crowd for this opening segment, as AJ Styles goes full Kenny Powers, Cena brings back his goal of tying Ric Flair’s record, and Dean Ambrose shows just how ready he is to kick the ass of anyone who stands in his way, especially a “lazy part-timer…Hollywood wannabe.”

Plus, Philadelphia is a place where it’s actually acceptable for an earnest “ECW!” chant to break out.

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You can also almost feel the sense of dread from the Philadelphia audience when The Ascension show up as the first challengers to Heath Slater and Rhyno’s SmackDown! Tag Team Championships. Because while it’s easy to say, “ha, they’re The Ascension” and not take them as a threat, building up supposed lost causes and giving chances to Superstars who have been left behind is SmackDown! Live’s mission statement—the fact that Heath fricken Slater and Rhyno are the blue brand’s inaugural tag champs is evidence of this. And since WWE is not afraid to steal someone’s thunder after they’ve achieved their dream (see: Zack Ryder after winning the Intercontinental Championship), it appears even more possible that WWE would do the same thing here. But as the show subverts expectations by actually having Heath Slater sign his SmackDown! Live contract without interruption, it does the same by having Slater and Rhyno retain their titles in their first defense. It’s the same template as their other matches, with Rhyno doing all the work, but it’s a dynamic that works for now. SmackDown! Live realizes that.

It’s kismet as “Becky Balboa” makes her first SmackDown! Live appearance in Philly

Also maintaining the momentum of Backlash, SmackDown! Live gives Becky Lynch her “straight fire” new champion speech before going straight into deciding the new #1 Contender for her SmackDown! Women’s Championship. The Fatal 5-Way doesn’t have the time the Elimination 6-Pack Challenge had at Backlash, and there are still some problems with timing issues (I’ll address in the Stray Observations); but the Philly crowd is totally hot for this entire match, and Carmella and Alexa Bliss (who are subtly building a nice rivalry) especially continue to show an in-ring fire and intensity here that their fellow contenders don’t quite have.

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Bliss getting the #1 Contender spot is not only one of those new, shiny SmackDown! Live things, it makes sense—her clear determination as a complete opportunist in these types of matches had to pay off eventually. Plus, both she and Becky bring their own very specific brands of intensity and charisma to the table, which should make for an interesting feud. The follow-up of Alexa Bliss appearing on Talking Smack also cements that it’s the correct decision, if for no other reason than the fact that Bliss’ acting ability and simple character understanding is light years ahead of every one of her competitors in the match.

Meanwhile, The Miz manages to keep this “coward” story going even after wrestling what is arguably the match of his career at Backlash (and pulling off those Daniel Bryan moves like he’d been doing them for years, by the way). The story, however, is somewhat in a tricky position, because while Miz is doing a great job and previous SmackDown! Live episodes have done well to maintain his scumbag nature in a storyline where he’s technically in the right, the Daniel Bryan character has quickly entered complete hypocrite territory in his antagonizing of The Miz. Bryan is basically giving The Miz imaginary brass rings to reach for and moving them as he sees fit. This began after The Miz beat Apollo Crews clean, like—as Miz pointed out—Bryan likes. Then Miz beats Ziggler in a match where he changes up his wrestling style, and while he doesn’t win it clean, there’s already precedent of Maryse cheating for Miz during this reign without Miz being aware until after the fact (which is possible here). But still, he beats Ziggler… yet Bryan makes him face Ziggler for a title defense again. Bryan goes on both SmackDown! Live and Talking Smack and openly trashes Miz, who is his employee, and even going as far as to say he wishes Miz had lost at Backlash.

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Does that sound like it’s best for business?

Daniel Bryan is pretty much a less self-aware version of The Authority right now, and that includes his decision to make AJ Styles’ tag team partner James Ellsworth, the original Braun Strowman squash match jobber. So while Bryan has basically become what he hates—whether that’s intentional on WWE Creative’s part or not, which is kind of the interesting part—The Miz remains adamant that he’s not a coward, that he beats people up, and that he’s the main event. By jumping James Ellsworth on the guy’s way to the ring (after AJ’s amazingly mopey entrance because of the original team-up) he proves that’s he’s right, love him or hate him. And his addressing Bryan through the camera (“I’m the main event, Daniel!”) proves it too, making the fact that he takes the pin from Cena in the main event hurt a lot less than it usually would and has in the past. Especially since the other three guys in the match are the actual main event players at this moment, as good as Miz’s current work is.

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I don’t want this to sound like SmackDown! Live is perfect. Because like any WWE program, it’s really not. (Yes, even the Cruiserweight Classic has flaws.) But the biggest missteps of the show are specifically from wrestlers who are pretty inconsequential in the grand scheme of WWE and the blue brand as a whole. I’m not talking about a guy like Dolph Ziggler, who can at least scrape together relevance and fan support no matter how much he keeps losing. I’m talking about a guy like Curt Hawkins, who now has a pre-taped Curt facts segment, which, ignoring the Chuck Norris/Tyson Kidd/Matt Hardy of it all, come across like those very bad Superstar vignettes WWE ECW had.

In Curt Hawkins’ original WWE run, he was the kind of underrated WWE Superstar I’ve written about before: the kind who came up at a time when WWE wasn’t quite giving the young workhorses a chance, yet now compared to the “indy darlings” and even Performance Center stars that make up the roster, he’s really nothing special. When he got released, he didn’t tear it up on the indies; in fact, he got a typically respectful crowd to chant “PLEASE DON’T COME BACK” at him after having an awful match with AJ Styles, the current WWE World Champion. So now he’s back in WWE with a gimmick that’s played out at best and just a rip-off at worst.

Then there’s Jack Swagger, who just disappointed America on this week’s RAW.

Jack Swagger and his chain wallet may have been funny when he was trying to keep the peace between Roman Reigns and Triple H, but when he shows up in his street clothes on this SmackDown! Live, he looks… sad. He just looks sad and not like a Superstar. He doesn’t look like he just jumped brands—he looks like he thought he was showing up at the Impact Zone, ready to shoot on how WWE didn’t use him to his potential. He honestly looks like the former Damien Sandow’s (who did just make his TNA debut) stunt double here, except without the advantage of being comfortable on the mic.

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In my RAW review, I pointed out how Jack Swagger is a Superstar with a legitimate amateur wrestling background, which makes the fact that he’s an absolutely average professional wrestler his biggest downfall. He’s not exceptional, nor is he great or even really good compared to who WWE highlights or has highlighted with a similar background. So now he has a “You don’t know Jack” catchphrase. And he tells the crowd (who doesn’t care, despite their caring for pretty much everything else on the show) to forget everything they ever knew about him… only to end his segment with a stale (yet still over) “WE THE PEOPLE” battle cry. So on a larger level, chock this one up to another SmackDown! Live authority figure blunder, as the man who lost to Jinder Mahal the previous night on the other brand is a proven “perpetual failure,” as The Miz would call him. SmackDown! Live’s role as the land of opportunity obviously makes sense in a lot of situations, especially when it comes to the New Era wrestlers, but here, it just comes across like Daniel Bryan/Shane McMahon picking up RAW’s scraps because they’re from RAW.

And that’s disappointing, because we should all be celebrating Heath Slater’s new life as a contracted WWE Superstar (again).

Stray observations

  • RESULTS: The Usos defeated The Hype Bros; Baron Corbin versus Apollo Crews went to a No Contest; Alexa Bliss defeated Nikki Bella, Carmella, Natalya, and Naomi (Fatal 5-Way for #1 Contendership to SmackDown! Women’s Championship); Heath Slater & Rhyno defeated The Ascension (SmackDown! Tag Team Championship); John Cena & Dean Ambrose defeated AJ Styles & The Miz
  • On the pre-show, Booker T flat-out calls Dolph Ziggler “old news.” Ouch.
  • By the way, the ironic best of all the pre-shows is how obviously Jerry Lawler doesn’t quite follow the WWE product, even when his colleagues mention things he himself called on commentary. A legitimate worst from that is that Lawler misunderstands the Philadelphia crowd (you know, because it’s typically one of those WWE “bizarro worlds”) so much that he thinks they would, even for a second, boo Heath Slater.
  • One last pre-show note: It’s not essential viewing like Talking Smack, but there usually is some pretty good stuff on it. This week, it plants the seeds of AJ’s difficulty to find a partner and that he would ever need to find a partner in the first place, as one of backstage interviewer Charly Caruso’s “scoops” is all about how Styles has completely alienated the locker room at this point. And Erick Rowan being back with Bray Wyatt is also something Lita kind of “spoiled” as a pre-show “theory.”
  • Note to everyone: The way to tell the Usos apart now with their new gear is as simple as remembering Jimmy is the one who wears the shirt. He’s always been the one with a little more pudge, you see. Speaking of The Usos, their match against The Hype Bros here is very much a standard “get your shit in” quick match, but their work at Backlash was a pretty good showing for them. The Usos are finally interesting again—they did it!
  • Does JBL not know what a “bro” is? He really thinks they’re called “The Hype Brothers,” doesn’t he?
  • Stepping outside of the story for a moment, the Jack Swagger thing means that WWE essentially believes that Jack Swagger is a suitable roster replacement for the now departed Alberto Del Rio, right?
  • I believe Heath Slater actually starts saying the names of his two actual daughters when he’s listing the name of his “children,” before he goes back to naming the fake ones. Aww.
  • It’s really things you can blink and miss, but Naomi and Natalya both have their own awkward “check to make sure what part of the match we’re in match” moments here. Natalya’s is earlier and smaller, but Naomi honestly looks back to make sure Natalya is about to run on top of her. This coming after their terrible skin the cat spot from Backlash. I’ve said all I need to say about Natayla, so let me zero in on Naomi for a second. As I’ve also said before, for all of her athleticism, Naomi couldn’t really tell a story to save her life with her in-ring work. She can hit her spots, most of the time. That’s fine and entertaining. But it’s clearly all she’s got, so when those burst of athleticism fail, it’s a whole mess.
  • And this is me possibly just being a curmudgeon but, as fun and high energy as Naomi’s new dancing gimmick is… Isn’t it kind of a regression in terms of her character? Doesn’t it look like she puts more effort into the dance routine in her intro than the actual matches?
  • And now for the biggest question I have from this week’s Talking Smack: Why exactly does Daniel Bryan want his entire roster to beat him up? I’ll give him credit for his explanation of WWE’s booking of the same match again and again to Baron Corbin (it’s the best way to see how consistent a Superstar is), but literally every other thing he said made him deserving of Corbin and Bliss’ ire. I loved it and hated it at the same time. That’s Talking Smack, basically.

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