John Cena (left), AJ Styles
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SmackDown Live may not have been a “thing” at the beginning of 2016, but post-brand split, it really couldn’t hurt for the show to make a statement to end the year. The beauty of there being no mind-numbing Slammy Awards this year is that it gives WWE the opportunity to actually fill its typical end of the year slots with substance to end the year. SmackDown took this opportunity to heart with last week’s non-gimmicky Christmas episode; and it does the same with its final episode of 2016, the much mentioned (in the past seven days) but never truly explained “Wild Card Finals.” There really aren’t a lot of bells and whistles this way, but this SmackDown was sold as something special beforehand and it ends up being presented as something special, a simple concept that WWE usually can’t execute. As far as the last WWE show of the year goes, “Wild Card Finals” is quite the high note for either brand.

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Funnily enough, the very concept of “Wild Card Finals” still remains a mystery after all of this, with barely anyone even uttering the words this week. Unlike last week’s episode, there’s barely a mention of name. Instead, WWE does the very atypical thing of realizing that the viewers and live audience have already been sold on the framing device. No one needs to be sold again, they just need the follow-through. And that’s exactly what this show is. There are three matches on this week’s card, and every single one of them is made to count.

Even with the big time feel, the “Wild Card Finals” show isn’t exactly structured like a pay-per-view; the first quarter of the show is dedicated to a returning John Cena hyping the show, his very existence, and the Royal Rumble pay-per-view, and there are of course the standard weekly commercials. But it’s still important to note it is a big show. The return of John Cena is a big deal, and thankfully for SmackDown’s tight two hour structure with no overrun, that’s the start of the show. Come on, the RAW version of this would easily drag out a Cena return until the very last segment of the show, once all the will to go on has left the arena.

The first thing Cena does? He hypes up the show like it’s an upcoming pay-per-view then puts over all three men in the WWE Championship main event match… while still making clear who he wants to win, for his own reasons.

Cena’s return promo quickly ends up as the perfect spotlight on why he has become far less divisive these past couple of years: At this stage in his career, Cena comes with the refreshing acceptance and self-awareness of who he really is. The real Cena is not some underdog who has to overcome the odds. He’s unequivocal top guy who simply gets opportunities because he’s the top guy. No more smoke and mirrors. And before the audience can even question why his return from Hollywood gives him the right to just proclaim himself #1 Contender, he doesn’t just pussyfoot around the truth or try to talk about his philanthropy and love for this business. It’s, simply put: “Because I’m John Cena.” That’s currency. While years of Cena being treated as “above” the title or champion have plagued his run on top, the combination of that superior treatment with a characterization based on overcoming the odds is the real offense. John Cena isn’t an underdog, after all—he’s the face of the company. But a little honesty, like we get in this return promo, goes a long way, whether you want to call it selfish or hypocritical or heel-like. It can be all of those things while also still finally being real, which is hard to come by with a wrestler as truly corporate as Cena.

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Plus, it really helps this time around that Cena jumping the line for contendership isn’t actually a result of him being treated as better than the champion. In fact, with this storyline, Cena’s very much trying to prove that he can even beat AJ Styles, even going as far as to say Styles didn’t face him at his best. On Talking Smack, Cena legitimately calls himself an “underdog” when it comes to his Royal Rumble match against Styles, which may sound like more of the same. But that isn’t reframing Cena as an Ellsworthian type character as much as it’s using the past truths of AJ having his number and pointing out that, in the traditional sense, Cena finally is the underdog. People love AJ Styles, no matter how much of a dick he is. The New Era is ushering out the Ruthless Aggression Era wrestlers. The walls are closing in on Cena, even if he doesn’t quite want to admit it.

But he’s still John fricken Cena, and he acknowledges that. Just like Styles acknowledges the very real possibility that Cena is “big leaguing” him by showing up for the (shirtless) handshake at the end of SmackDown. Because he knows, just like we all know, exactly who John Cena is—the man may be all about hustle, loyalty, and respect, but none of that has ever really translated into being “good guy” for the character. At least this current version of Cena is better about acknowledging that.

A little self-awareness can go a long way in any type of entertainment, but when it comes to main roster WWE especially, a lack of self-awareness can do great job when it comes to killing what could otherwise be entertaining angles and character dynamics. John Cena returns a bit more hypocritical, entitled, and excuse-making than usual… And for even just this moment, WWE isn’t asking us to pretend he’s not. “Recognize.”

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While Old Man Cena continues his crusade against the New Era, that doesn’t mean it’s actually going away—a statement that’s made even clearer by American Alpha winning the tag team championships from The Wyatt Family in the first match of the night. And they don’t just win; they do so by pinning Randy Orton, one of the last remaining figures of Cena’s era. SmackDown understands that having American Alpha win their first main roster title means more if they pin one of the handful of WWE wrestlers who won’t lose anything by taking the loss in a match. As a matter of fact, American Alpha only has everything to gain in this victory. There would still be something for American Alpha to gain in Luke Harper taking the pin, simply because of how powerful The Wyatt Family are now, but it wouldn’t be the same. WWE obviously knows star power matters, but it’s rare that it actually uses that star power to build new stars. That’s not the case here.

During the match, as Chad Gable was getting decimated, I thought to myself: “It’ll be so satisfying when American Alpha eventually comes up with a strategy to take down The Wyatt Family.” Even with the new gold gear, it wasn’t until I saw Randy destroy Gable in front of his (and Jason Jordan’s) own families that I thought they could even squeak out a win. They don’t come up with a master strategy, and they do more than squeak out the win, but there’s still a question of how they will be able to pull things off in their next encounter. American Alpha wins this match mostly because of The Wyatt Family’s hubris and lack of cohesion, though you can’t quite count out the duo’s resilience and obvious wrestling ability. Their win is not a fluke, but it’s certainly more of an underdog victory than a decisive win. That’s okay though, especially since it instantly validates “Wild Card Finals” as something that’s just as important as promised, and it also sets up the “wild card” vibe for the rest of the night, even with no other title changes. As for the other teams in the match, The Usos continue their rivalry with American Alpha as well as the little heel things that have worked for them (like trying to quiet the crowd as they’re clapping for Alpha), and Heath Slater’s head of steam before his jumping nothing into elimination is the type of work that makes it even more ridiculous Slater had essentially been a comedy heel jobber since the dissolution of the Nexus/Corre.

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The Wyatt Family is of course in an interesting spot though. All signs point to a longer game with this version of the family, yet they’ve just lost their titles on “Wild Card Finals.” Just the fact that Orton and Harper spend a good portion of the match at ringside plotting with Bray is something different, and even with the dissension between the two after the match, there’s still an open-ended nature to all of this. We know Randy Orton doesn’t play well with others, and as much as everything about his character being a psychopath makes his connection with The Wyatt Family work, his loner snake man mentality will most likely be the fatal flaw in this team-up. So where does The Wyatt Family story go from here?

Also, where does La Luchadora story go from here? Since last week’s Mr. America/Los Conquistadors moment for Becky Lynch has now somehow become her undoing this week, that’s a big question too. Based on the interference during the Women’s Championship match, La Luchadora Dark is apparently not that interested in the title—at least not in the sense of wanting to take out a champion Becky, because she specifically just wants to take out Becky. I feel ridiculous just writing about it, honestly, because no one expects Becky Lynch’s alter ego to screw Becky Lynch out of a title.

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No one also expects Alexa Bliss to bust out some scary double jointed shenanigans during a match, so “Wild Card Finals” really is full of surprises.

The actual match between Alexa Bliss and Becky Lynch is competently wrestled here, which isn’t a bad thing but really does hit on the problem that lies in Bliss being the champion: She’s still pretty green in the ring. I’ve mentioned before that, as great as she is in terms of character and how impressive she’s gotten in the ring in such a short amount of time, her championship reign will be an uphill battle as she ends up having to constantly wrestle workers who must control the flow of the match. Becky very clearly guides Alexa through this entire match, which also faces the problem of being a match that doesn’t quite track with the storyline as it’s been presented so far. They’re not wrestling as though Alexa wants no part of it and Becky wants to rip her head off. There’s a technical grace to a lot of it but also a real lack of urgency, the type of thing that ultimately falls on the behind-the-scenes heroes, road agents. It really is a solid match that unfortunately doesn’t quite fit with the story that’s been told (except for having the referee catch Alexa’s foot on the rope this time) and exposes a talent’s weaknesses, somewhat because of that.

But it’s certainly not a failure, as failure is not an option when it comes to the “Wild Card Finals.”

Every “bonus” segment is also made to count in this episode, whether it’s a post-match interview or a backstage interview with Superstars who aren’t part of tonight’s festivities but still have things going on. Because even when certain storylines aren’t the focus of SmackDown, that doesn’t stop them from existing. For example, I still have no idea what’s going on between Carmella and James Ellsworth, but I know that I’m ridiculously curious about it. It’s a lower stakes mystery than who attacked Nikki Bella at Survivor Series, and that’s perfectly fine here. “Wild Card Finals” isn’t just important match and segment followed by important match and segment, because the whole point of any of this (WWE, in general) is supposed to be variety.

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In terms of variety, Nikki Bella’s scripted promo comes across like a scripted promo, but it’s one that’s at least on the right track when it comes to talking about her resilience and that she was able to come back from a career-threatening neck injury. Those statements track because they’re real things that—as much as they’re part of her character—don’t need any hoop-jumping in order to make the audience or Nikki feel. Then she goes on about being proud she stars in two reality shows (which she does), but there’s nothing real about that, and there’s certainly nothing relatable about that. And while she just may be with the man of her dreams, her saying that lacks a fraction of the passion Cena shows just by being a cranky old man at the beginning of the show. That’s a problem, especially when the other side of this feud also regularly suffers from the same delivery problems (yet somehow found her way out, for just a moment, last week).

Meanwhile, the storyline between The Miz and Dean Ambrose is also only in the form of backstage and Talking Smack segments, and it makes the time count. As Renee Young does remain a part of the story as a reminder that actions have consequences, SmackDown doesn’t double down on trying to transition Renee to a role she doesn’t actually “belong” in. There’s gold in Miz’s beefed up security after Renee slapped him last week, as well as his demand that only she interview him (only for her to interview him with zero emotion), playing to the characters’ strengths without doing too much. SmackDown, specifically, has earned the benefit of the doubt with its storytelling, because while it’s not perfect, it’s doing things that ultimately make sense.

The most sense, however, comes in the form of the main event, which exceeds already high expectations and proves how this show understands the need to build stars (and follow through on that). I still believe Baron Corbin got screwed out of a star-making performance by being taken out of the tradition Survivor Series match, but JBL is absolutely right when he calls Corbin’s work in this particular match “career-defining.” Late pin break-up attempt aside, Corbin is on fire this match, putting the perfect end to his own pretty impressive 2016 and proving he can hang with the figurative big dogs while contributing his own particular sets of skills to a match. He’s a big guy who can gain early control of a match, but he’s also an agile one who can keep up with ring generals. He’s not Braun Strowman, but he’s also not Luke Harper. He’s Baron Corbin.

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Of course, it’s not just a one man effort, and AJ and Ziggler also deserve all the credit in the world for bumping like mad men for Corbin’s offense. In fact, I can’t imagine two better wrestlers for such a job. The main event works very well to make it look like the “Wild Card Finals” might just crown another new champion to close out the year, and it does so in a way that honestly makes it okay if does. You see, the Zig Zag Days spot officially makes it so everything is fine, regardless of the result.

It can’t be said enough, but it’s not “normal” for WWE to take its last show of the year and actually make it special. The final RAW of 2015 was the infamous “Vince McMahon has been arrested” episode, which Kyle Fowle called worse than the previous week’s Slammy Awards show. The SmackDown from that same week had… Tyler Breeze and Summer Rae’s conscious uncoupling. That was all just a year ago. What a difference a year makes. “Wild Card Finals” is the perfect ending for a post-brand split SmackDown in 2016, because it continues to work with what has been the key to SmackDown Live’s success: simple, consistent storytelling that works. It breeds excitement for the New Year and it puts a nice little cap on the year of the “New Era.” Bravo, blue brand.

Stray observations

  • RESULTS: American Alpha defeated The Wyatt Family (Randy Orton & Luke Harper), The Usos, and Heath Slater & Rhyno (SmackDown Tag Team Championship); Alexa Bliss defeated Becky Lynch (SmackDown Women’s Championship); AJ Styles defeated Dolph Ziggler and Baron Corbin (WWE Championship)
  • After last week’s constant “Wild Card Finals” repetition, the only person who even tries to run with the concept is Dolph Ziggler. He calls himself a wild card. He still loses, but now he’s a wild card.
  • So, is Deonna Purrazzo really taking the whole “Jane Ellsworth” thing to heart in her “betrayal” of Becky? Or is it safe to assume this week’s La Luchadora is a body double (based on hair and skin tone, I believe it has to be Purrazzo) until they reveal the “real” La Luchadora?
  • There’s no authority figure on this week’s SmackDown, which I guess means all you need to do to get some semblance of order in the blue brand’s wild west world is book a bunch of important matches in advance but also make sure to give the show a super important sounding name in order to prevent funny business. As the women’s match prove, it’s not fool-proof, but as the show as a whole proves, it’s honestly the best course of action.
  • But really: Technically, who’s in charge when neither Daniel Bryan nor Shane McMahon is around? Is it Renee? Is it possibly JBL? As “host” of SmackDown Live, is it Tom Phillips? It should probably be Tom Phillips under these rules. No, it’s not AJ Styles, even if he is “the face that runs the place.”
  • WWE isn’t doing Dasha Fuentes any favors by having her first question for Ellsworth be about his feelings on being bullied before actually asking about his physical well-being. The order of the questions make even less sense when Carmella’s interjection comes post-injury talk instead of post-bullying talk. She also doesn’t ask about his relationship with Carmella, despite having been the one to interview him last week when it all began. Is WWE actively framing Dasha as bad at her job now? Because that’s how you get Mike Adamle 2.0.
  • Every year, I get ridiculously excited for some “Royal Rumble: By The Numbers” action. Except this year, since they’re promoting the match as “The Royal Rumble starring Brock Lesnar and Goldberg… featuring some other losers.”

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