Now this is more like it. After last week’s semi-disappointing start to the brand split, SmackDown Live took back the best show crown from Raw (for the week, at least) with a brisk, two-hour exhibition on storytelling and exciting potential. There wasn’t a so-called great match on the show, and there are still problems (mostly with the women’s division), but stories were advanced in sensible ways, new stars got introduced and pushed appropriately, and we even had part two of the most exciting feud in the company right now (who thought we’d be saying THAT about Brock Lesnar vs. Randy Orton?). Hell, we even got a Gore #OuttaNowhere on poor Heath Slater, whose very appearance guarantees at least one moment of genuine laughter on every show.
As we motor on the road to SummerSlam, not only is SmackDown Live holding up its end of the bargain, but it’s also the stronger of the two current main event feuds; Dean Ambrose vs. Dolph Ziggler is wiping the floor with Finn Balor vs. Seth Rollins in terms of storytelling, mic work, and passion. If last night’s show is to be believed, maybe SmackDown Live will be the appointment television that WWE wants it to be.
#5 False Starts in the Women’s Division
Let’s get the bad out of the way early: what in the world are they doing with the women’s division on SmackDown Live? With news coming out before the show that the blue brand will in fact be adding a women’s title (and a tag team title, but more on that in a bit), last night would have been the perfect time to show off the skill and creativity of the overshadowed, yet extremely intriguing, division. Instead, we got two non-matches that were called off due to a fake injury and a pre-match attack. While the storytelling is getting there, that makes one match in two weeks, with some awkward promos thrown in. Let’s hope that they’re just treading water until a new women’s belt gets created, otherwise this is going to be a huge problem, and fast.
#4 How About These Young Dudes?
It’s a New Era, yes it is. Last night featured two brief-yet-entertaining matches that put the spotlight directly on the hottest prospects currently plying their trade on the blue brand. First off, Apollo Crews defeated Kalisto and Big Banter Corbin (who really had HIS moment on Twitter after the show) for the right to face The Miz at SummerSlam for the Intercontinental Championship. All three guys looked fantastic, with Kalisto being the standout, as he usually is when he’s not trying to “do a good lucha thing.” Crews winning was also the right call, as he was at his best in NXT when he was chasing Finn Balor’s title down there; add a little momentum, some character work, and a feud with a proven mic god in the Miz, and baby…you got a stew going.
In the other match, American Alpha made their long-awaited debut on the main roster with a by-the-book Greatest Hits compilation. These guys are capable of so much in the ring that it made sense to not throw anything out there in the debut; instead, they let Chad Gable do his whirling dervish amateur wrestling before Jason Jordan roared into the ring for the best hot tag in the company. Is there a better moment in wrestling than when JJ drops the straps? Probably not. With the (semi-official) announcement that a tag title is coming to SmackDown Live soon, I wouldn’t bet against American Alpha getting one of the first cracks at it. Of course, in an ideal world, they would just be joint world champions until the end of time.
#3 John Cena, Company Man
While no one likes John Cena dressing down heels less than me, last night’s promo was a shining example of the best of Cena as he currently stands. The grizzled veteran and true blue company man may have given this same speech in a variety of ways (hell, he gave it to The Rock FOUR years ago), this time it just felt…right. Maybe it’s because AJ Styles is the farthest thing from a WWE Guy on the roster right now, or maybe it’s because Cena has finally put in the work to be as good in the ring as he is on the Today Show, but when the Face That Runs the Place started yelling about loving the brand and going on Colbert, you couldn’t help but cheer for him. Styles, for his part, plays a good foil to Cena, egging him on and hilariously insulting a little kid in the front row that was wearing both a Cena hat and the Styles gloves. Their supposed “no distractions, no Club” 1-on-1 match at SummerSlam has the potential to not only steal the show, but also give us that first true AJ Styles Classic in a WWE ring.
#2 The Beast Strikes Back
I never thought I would be incredibly hyped for Brock Lesnar vs. Randy Orton in 2016, but here we are. After Monday’s Orton “invasion” really hit start on this feud, Lesnar returned the favor by popping up on SmackDown Live, jumping the barricade to deliver a particularly emphatic F-5 to The Viper. First off, Brock Lesnar appearing on two shows in back-to-back nights is surprising enough as it is, but what really worked about this segment is that it felt simple and real. There were no constraints due to brands being split, there was no pull apart brawl; it was just one large man getting his retribution at the hands of an even larger man. That’s the aura that Brock Lesnar has projected ever since he beat the Undertaker at WrestleMania, and the threat of real combat has turned the hype for this feud up to 11.
#1 Ziggler’s Redemption
Dolph Ziggler, the character, might be the dumbest person in WWE today, but damn if it didn’t make for an exciting main event this week. After Dean Ambrose verbally dressed him down in the opener (although Ziggler held his ground admirably), and after Bray Wyatt sneak attacked him shortly after, the Show Off put his title shot on the line against the Eater of Worlds because… he got called some names? Sure, why not. Either way, the de facto #1 contender’s match between Ziggler and Wyatt played to both men’s strengths phenomenally: Wyatt got to throw Ziggler around like a rag doll, looking stronger in the ring than he had in years, while Ziggler got to do the fired up babyface comebacks that make him look like a furious ball of energy on a mission.
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The ending was interesting too, with Ziggler finishing what Bray started by ripping off the turnbuckle pad, then slamming Bray into it on the way to a superkick win. It’s a heelish move by the current babyface in the main event (Dean is more Chaotic Neutral than anything), but it showed desperation to keep a spot he’s fought so hard for. The post-match brawl between Wyatt, Erick Rowan, Ziggler, and Ambrose guarantees us an Uneasy Truce between the SummerSlam participants next week, which is great for advancing the story without letting them really put their hands on each other. Overall, the main event mirrored the show as a whole last night: a fun ride, albeit with minor bumps, on the way to something possibly great.