More often than not, when WWE latches on to some sort of slogan it’s no more than just a piece of marketing, an empty boast that doesn’t involve much thought or follow through. Ever since the brand split, Smackdown! Live has labeled itself the “land of opportunity.” In essence, the Blue show is supposed to be the place where everyone gets their shot, where every single superstar, no matter their history, has a chance to make their way to the top of the card. It’s an understandable and smart way to separate the show from Raw, where complacency and unearned opportunities have plagued, in some fans’ minds, the “flagship” show for years. Ultimately, the slogan doesn’t mean much unless the product itself follows through.
To Smackdown! Live‘s credit, they’ve found a way to really make sure that product represents the slogan it peddles. Think back on the young history of the new Smackdown! Live and you’ll see a number of stories that involve superstars getting shots they maybe wouldn’t have under the always-shouting reign of Mick Foley and Stephanie McMahon. You have Dolph Ziggler putting on one career-defining performance after another in his best feud in years with The Miz—who’s also become an integral part of the main event—a redemption story for the Showoff that’s been a long time coming. Then you have Heath Slater gradually getting himself over while angling for a contract, eventually securing one and forming a misfit tag team with Rhyno, only to end up Smackdown! Live‘s inaugural Tag Team Champions. And of course there’s James Ellsworth, the man that was fed to Braun Strowman, only to then become a cog in the main event machine, snagging three wins over AJ Styles and earning himself a (yet to be scheduled) shot at the WWE Championship.
So, the follow through has been there all along, but this week’s episode really drives that point home. While a lot of this week’s Smackdown! Live is listless, and the first hour in particular doesn’t elevate itself beyond being fitfully engaging, there’s a throughline of earned opportunities that keeps things afloat until the stellar main event. Sometimes, that’s all you need on these shows. If Raw can deliver decent episodes by rolling out one or two good-to-great matches across three hours, certainly Smackdown! Live can deliver a solid episode largely built around its main event.
Let’s tackle that sluggish first hour first. Because this is Smackdown! Live, it’s not nearly as lethargic as its Red counterpart, but it does fall into the pattern of feeling rather repetitive. The opening Miz TV segment is really just an extension of nearly every Miz TV segment of the last few weeks, with AJ Styles and Dean Ambrose taking issue with one another, while Ambrose also continues to find new reasons to loathe The Miz. Things don’t really pick up until the Wyatt Family darkness hits and Luke Harper appears out of nowhere, laying out Dean Ambrose with a mean clothesline.
Similarly, a match between Natalya and Carmella continues one of the show’s least engaging storylines. There’s just no tension in the mystery of who attacked Nikki Bella at Survivor Series, and this week’s match isn’t nearly heated enough to get things moving in the right direction. The building blocks are there—Natalya “saving” Nikki from an attack is a nice wrinkle in the story—but it’s not adding up to much right now.
After Carmella gets a sneaky win over Natalya, it’s time for the Battle Royal to determine the new #1 Contenders to the Smackdown Tag Team Championships. Look, the match itself isn’t all that entertaining. It’s largely a mess, and not in that fun Battle Royal kind of way, and once American Alpha and Heath Slater are eliminated the crowd loses most of its interest. A large part of the match’s inability to connect with the audience is just inherent in the format; tag team Battle Royals are hardly ever as fun as their singles counterpart, as the uneasy alliances and sheer chaos don’t come across in the same way. Plus, the eliminations don’t mean as much when there’s another partner still in the match. You tend to get a lot more out of a Fatal Fourway. With that said, the stakes behind the match actually contribute to the idea that Smackdown! Live really is the land of opportunity. I mean, The Vaudevillains are granted a shot at being the #1 Contenders, and they’ve done nothing but lose ever since transitioning to the main roster from NXT. That may sound silly, but I think it makes a difference. When every team, on an admittedly small roster, is getting a shot, when every single team is treated like they have the potential to become the #1 Contenders, everybody benefits (except maybe Simon Gotch). That’s what opportunity is about.
The theme of opportunity extends to the main event, as Dolph Ziggler, Dean Ambrose, The Miz, and Luke Harper face off in Fatal Fourway elimination match to determine the #1 Contender to the WWE World Championship. Predictably, the match is great. Everybody gets their moment to shine—for The Miz, that means crawling around outside the ring waiting for his chance to steal a pin—and the genuine feeling that anybody could get the win keeps the excitement at the forefront. Breaking down the match reveals the theme of opportunity though, and that’s what’s important here. First, Luke Harper finally gets to show what he has a singles star, moving away from pointless losses to Kane to get in a ton of offense and look like a total force who just needs one moment to become the #1 Contender. His moment doesn’t come here, but the important part is that he looks like he could challenge AJ Styles for the strap. It goes hand-in-hand with Smackdown! Live rebuilding the Wyatt Family as a truly dangerous faction.
On top of that, the match allows for some deeper storytelling with Dolph Ziggler, who ends up getting the win here after a little interference from The Miz leaves Dean Ambrose open for a particularly jaw-shattering superkick. There are layers here that make this match, and the outcome, a great pit stop (or even a longer program) for Smackdown! Live‘s main event scene in the long build to the Royal Rumble. There’s the intrigue that comes with the Miz ostensibly, and most likely unintentionally, helping Ziggler, his sworn enemy, get the win. There’s intrigue in AJ Styles having a fresh matchup with Ziggler (I’m already giddy about what that match will look like). Plus, you continue the frustration developing between Ambrose and the Miz.
In the land of opportunity, everyone gets their shot. On any give night a superstar could make their mark and secure their spot, at least for a moment. That’s exciting, and a refreshing change of pace from the endless permutations that currently make up the Raw main event scene.
- Results: Carmella defeated Natalya; The Hype Bros won a Battle Royal to become the #1 Contenders for the Smackdown Tag Team Championships; Becky Lynch defeated Alexa Bliss (c) via countout (Smackdown Women’s Championship match); Dolph Ziggler defeated Dean Ambrose, The Miz, and Luke Harper to become the #1 Contender for the WWE World Championship.
- I don’t have a whole lot to say about the Becky Lynch vs. Alexa Bliss match, but I will say that Alexa cuts a stellar promo. I’m excited to see how she handles this title reign. So far, so good. I mean, she comes out to face a jobber, grabs the mic, and says, “I don’t do charity cases” before beating the hell out of her opponent before the match can start. A+, Alexa Bliss.
- I like the idea of the Hype Bros as a middling feud for the Wyatts on the way to something more substantial. Give the Hype Bros a bit of a shine while keeping the Wyatts’ mean streak intact. That’s assuming that the Wyatts will win, of course. (The Wyatts will win, of course).
- The John Cena return video package, with the audio from his first WWE match with Kurt Angle, was great. 2016 has been terrible, but at least it’s fun to enjoy John Cena again.
- Great sequence in the main event that sees Ambrose set Harper up for the Dirty Deeds, only to get hit with a superkick from Ziggler, followed by Harper hitting a clothesline on Dolph, only to then turn around and run into Ambrose’s rebound lariat clothesline.