Written By: Mark Armstrong
With the Royal Rumble coming further into sight, it’s about time that the blue brand began to fully prepare for this supershow. AJ Styles earned a WWE Title opportunity for that event last week, and on this edition, we would find out the identity of Asuka’s opponent in a SD Women’s Championship clash.
The show opened not in the ring, but in the concessions area, as Daniel Bryan lectured us fans on the importance of eating healthily and, more so, the dangers of not eating healthily. Of note, he slapped away one fan’s hot dog and even poured a soda over another by-stander. One thing which keeps coming across in Bryan’s recent performances is just how talented he is; I will admit to questioning the decision to turn such a popular babyface heel, but he has been killing it so far in his new role, and this may have been his best performance yet.
Daniel Bryan vs. R-Truth
Bryan’s speech was halted at ringside by R-Truth, who Daniel attacked while he was dressed as Truthy Claus (Tom Phillips somehow didn’t laugh on commentary when reminding us of that) two weeks ago, ahead of their scheduled bout. Said match didn’t last very long; Truth got some offence in, but he had no realistic chance against the WWE Champion, and Bryan was victorious with a Running Knee. Afterwards, he was attacked at the aisleway by AJ Styles, who continues to show the aggression that Vince McMahon asked of him a fortnight ago. That being said, I still need to be convinced that Styles has a realistic chance of terminating Daniel’s WWE Title reign; as things stand, fans are spending more time debating whether AJ could jump to Raw than whether he’ll be SmackDown’s flag-bearer again.
Rey Mysterio & Mustafa Ali vs. Andrade “Cien” Almas & Samoa Joe
This tag match crept up on us, despite the obvious talent involved, and we were rewarded with a fantastic contest. All four gave everything they had, with Ali flying over and off the ropes onto his opponents, some brutal strikes by Joe, and – in an early contender for the move of the year – Mysterio leaping onto Almas’ shoulders and somehow turning it into an awesome-looking Canadian Destroyer. Though he was the recipient of the move, Andrade picked up the win when he nailed Rey Rey with a Hammerlock DDT. A Rey/Almas programme for Mania could be interesting, though fans will just be happy for now that Andrade is receiving attention from the creative bods. One side-note: what happened to Joe’s feud with Jeff Hardy (who wasn’t on this show at all)?
Backstage, The Miz quizzed Shane McMahon on why The Usos would earn a SmackDown Tag Team Title opportunity if they were to defeat The Bar, and why as a McMahon, he couldn’t just let him and Miz jump ahead in the queue. Shane explained that he didn’t want their new combo to earn opportunities that way, and brushed off Miz when he tried to once again discuss their possible in-ring attires. More on this shortly.
Rusev/Shinsuke Nakamura Segment
Rusev came out to address the incident from last week, where he hit Nakamura with a Machka Kick while Lana was on his back, causing her to strike the mat hard. Lana was absent here, and Ru Ru wasn’t happy, calling out Shinsuke. But Nak was in the TV truck, convincing a worker to keep playing the footage of said spot. This only angered the Mayor Of Rusev Day, who came backstage looking for Shin, only to be attacked with an equipment case and receive a Kinshasa. Best bet for these two: a Kick-Off Show match prior to the Rumble.
The Bar vs. The Usos
Because The Usos have dominated SmackDown’s doubles division for so long, to some this match felt like a re-run, but the two sides have only faced off a couple of times. Either way, this was another great tag match, the second spot-on doubles clash of the night, and the fact that it covered three segments is interesting when you think of how often we hear that Vince isn’t interested in tag team wrestling. The Usos were primed to pick up the win, only for Mandy Rose to come out with a towel and ask Jimmy Uso if he remembered where her top and shorts were from a hotel room. The distraction worked, and The Bar used the confusion to pick up the win and rule The Usos out as challengers. Miz then came out (while The Usos were still returning backstage) and requested a title opportunity for he and Shane at the Rumble. One Brogue Kick later, The Bar accepted.
Backstage, Mandy revealed to Sonya Deville that she was wearing said garments, proving (as if we didn’t know) that she had lied to Jimmy in order to get Naomi’s skin. Speaking of which, Naomi ran into the picture to attack both former Absolution members, but a hard kick to the ribs by Deville slowed the Glow. In addition, we heard from Daniel Bryan again, who cut one hell of a promo in response to the earlier attack by AJ. The implication was that, if we think Bryan has been nasty and wicked so far since his turn, things are going to ramp up further. Right now, he is the highlight of SmackDown for me, and it’s interesting to consider just how might be his eventual babyface conqueror (since, as noted earlier, I can’t see it being AJ).
Also, Miz and Shane had a consultation, where they eventually agreed that they can indeed become champions against The Bar. I’m predicting a title win for Miz and Shane, a controversial title loss a few weeks later, and a full-on attack of McMahon by Miz to set up what I think will be an inevitable showdown at WrestleMania.
#1 Contender’s Match
Carmella vs. Charlotte Flair vs. Becky Lynch
This SummerSlam rematch was preceded by sit-down comments from all three, noting why they were going to win this match. And, in the main event slot, it delivered, with some fine back-and-forth action and cool spots from all three. Carmella had her strongest showing since, well, the last time this trio did battle in the summer. With a title opportunity against Asuka at Royal Rumble on the line, they battled hell for leather, but in the end it was The Man, Becky, who claimed victory by submission after trapping Carmella in the Dis-Arm-Her. Asuka confronted Lynch briefly to take the show off the air.
Some have complained (hey, it’s wrestling, of course they would!) that Lynch is getting a title opportunity at the Rumble rather than entering, and winning, the 30-woman contest to end up in a Mania clash against Ronda Rousey. Of course, Becky could lose to Asuka due to shenanigans and end up in the Rumble anyway, but that’s beside the point. This mindset tells me that fans are more interested in Becky facing Ronda than they are in Becky as a whole, because why knock the idea of her being a champion again? It’s cool for WWE to take an alternative approach (and I’m confident Becky and Ronda will share the Mania ring, likely with Charlotte, no matter what happens at Rumble), but this is an early sign that once Mania is in the rear-view mirror three months from now, certain fans who are massively backing Lynch at present are going to divert their attention elsewhere. And if that happens, well we can agree with Daniel Bryan that they are “fickle”.
Overall, this was an excellent episode of SD, the best in a while. It has been good rather than great in recent months, but this was definitely the most enjoyable edition for some time. Both tag matches were awesome, the main event was more than adequate, and Bryan’s promo work was outstanding in both of his verbal segments. Harking back to an earlier point, the one thing we are missing right now is a clear path for the WWE Champion, or at least potential opponents for him, beyond Royal Rumble and towards WrestleMania. Assuming the AJ feud is wrapped up there, the most likely babyface challengers are veterans in Rey and Hardy, a very fresh face in Ali (who has received a mini-push lately, but I would be very surprised if he earned a Mania title shot at this point), and … well, Shane (who I am convinced will oppose Miz). The second option is that a Raw superstar jumps ship, presumably after a Rumble win, with Seth Rollins and Finn Balor being the most likely candidates. Of course, the alternative is that the free agent himself John Cena claims his third Rumble win and challenges Bryan for his 17th World Championship in MetLife Stadium. It’s nice when there are plenty of possible pathways, and it makes things less predictable, but there is no obvious storyline linking any of those names to Daniel right now, which could reduce the significance of whatever his title match ends up being.
Nevertheless, judging purely on the here and now, this was a tremendous edition of SmackDown. As we edge closer to the Rumble and to WrestleMania Season, the excitement will only keep building, but this was a reminder that storylines and angles aside, you can always rely on the blue brand to deliver fantastic wrestling action.