Well, it was probably unreasonable to expect three straight classic shows from WWE. After Sunday’s Battleground PPV surpassed any and all expectations to be the frontrunner for main roster Show of the Year, Monday’s Raw was a fantastic reminder of how well this company can do the whole “flagship show” when it abandons 50-50 booking, long promos saying nothing, and genuinely surprising twists. Which is why it’s a bit disappointing that SmackDown Live last night had…50-50 booking, long promos saying nothing, and…well, it did have one genuinely surprising twist, but more on that in a bit.
It seems that the current formula for the two shows is to take away everything people didn’t really like on Raw and throw it into SmackDown Live: just last night, we got a battle royal, a Miz TV episode, a rehashed PPV rematch not two days after Battleground, and a ref bump influencing the main event. That’s not to say SmackDown Live’s inaugural episode as its own brand was bad; it actually was a pretty enjoyable way to spend two hours watching wrestling. The problem is that we were promised a “New Era,” and instead we got a reminder that SmackDown Live truly is the B-Show right now.
5. No Quantity OR Quality
We’ve seen NXT battle royals with more participants than last night’s show opening rumble for a spot in the #1 contender’s Six-Pack Challenge main event. Not only is the roster tiny in comparison to Raw’s, but it also lacks something that the flagship show has in spades: prospects. The top of the card isn’t bad for the Blue Brand: John Cena, AJ Styles, Bray Wyatt, Dean Ambrose, Randy Orton, Dolph Ziggler. The problem comes one rung below that, where you’ve got a hodgepodge of unproven talent (Apollo Crews might be the only true blue-chip prospect in the bunch, and his character is “Smiling Black Guy”), washed up vets and tag teams, and also Kane. And speaking of vets, the two reinforcements already confirmed for the show? Shelton by god Benjamin and Rhyno. Not looking great for the future (well, except for American Alpha, since Jason Jordan should be the star of the entire company with Chad Gable right next to him).
4. Commentary Is Going To Be a Problem
If you thought Raw commentary had been bad for the last however-many years, you haven’t heard anything yet. SmackDown Live’s trio might be the worst commentary combination of the 2010s, in any major wrestling promotion. Mauro Ranallo can be great in the right settings, but paired with an overmatched David Otunga and an overbearing JBL, the play-by-play maestro gives into his worst instincts, turning everything into either an overextended metaphor or a pop culture reference every other minute. And please, for the love of all that is holy in professional wrestling, can JBL just retire from commentary? I’d rather see 49-year-old John Bradshaw Layfield step back into the ring than hear him every Tuesday for the rest of time.
3. Apollo Crews Might Live Up to His Potential After All
Ok, on to the good: Apollo Crews looked more relevant last night than he had in almost a year of NXT and main roster shows. Back when the former Uhaa Nation debuted, everyone drooled at how well he moved for a guy who looked like a brick house, and his smile and charisma was infectious to all watching. Fast forward to the present, and his character had stagnated, no matter how many “Next Big Thing” commentary soundbites we were force fed as he squashed jobbers and lost to more important people on their way to do… anything else. But on the first post-draft SmackDown Live, Crews showed that maybe all he needed was a real shot. First off, he outlasted and outsmarted the rest of the roster on his way to saving us from a Kane main event in 2016 (also, watch how he spun out of the chokeslam on his way to victory and try not to cheer), then he held his own with the main eventers in the Six-Pack Challenge. A feud with Baron Corbin is probably next, given their interactions in the main event, and if it’s as good as their NXT program (which birthed the hilarious “GO BACK TO RING OF HONOR” meme), we might be on the right track, finally, with Apollo Crews.
2. I’m With Her…For Now
Ignore the fact that Becky Lynch vs. Natalya was a PPV rematch that no one needed to see. Ignore that Natalya has somehow forgotten how to wrestle over the last two days. Please never ignore the fact that Eva Marie now has old-timey, Powerpuff Girls narration to her entrance. And ignore the fact that, as of now, SmackDown Live doesn’t have a women’s title. Last night’s parade of women on the roster coming out only to get interrupted after a 5-second promo may have been a mess, but it was a really fun mess. There are pieces here for a fun division once the dust clears: Becky Lynch as, somehow, the fiery veteran. Alexa Bliss as the up-and-coming heel with the best facial expressions in the business. Carmella as a wacky babyface Enzo proxy. And Eva Marie, continuing to be the most hated person in the company even when, I must emphasize, her entrance comes with narration now. I’m still laughing about that.
1. Two Curveballs In Two Nights
Of all the crazy, unpredictable things that have happened in WWE over the last few years (Brock beating Undertaker, Daniel Bryan retiring, Shane McMahon coming back), we might have stumbled into the craziest of all. Seriously, go back to the day before the brand split was announced and say “Seth Rollins vs. Finn Balor and Dean Ambrose vs. Dolph Ziggler are the co-main events for SummerSlam.” You’d be laughed out of the room as an Internet loony, and not even a good one (after all, Ziggler has never been more unpopular with that community). And yet, here we are, one brand split and some (alleged) Adderall use later. Of the six men in the main event battle royal, I would have put the most money on it NOT being Ziggler advancing to SummerSlam, but The Show Off has graduated from his endless feud against Big Banter Corbin into a honest-to-goodness main event at the second biggest show of the year. And as recently as Survivor Series 2014, we all wanted this for him, so let’s not be too pessimistic just yet. After two nights, the brand split is doing exactly what we all wanted it to: it’s giving new talent new opportunities at the top.