It’s almost becoming a cliche to say this, but damn, the SmackDown Live creative team knows what they’re doing. Despite a minuscule two week build since Survivor Series, the blue brand managed to pull off one of the better WWE pay-per-views of the year with Sunday night’s TLC. And also despite having only six matches on the main show, the three-hour “demolition derby” (as WWE loves to brand this particular show) delivered on pretty much every front. Stories were advanced organically, new champions were crowned in the two minor divisions, and AJ Styles solidified himself as the best addition to a WWE roster since…well, it has been a while since a newcomer had this much of a positive impact, let’s say that.
More than any show since the brand split, TLC validated the choice to halve the roster into a Monday group and a Tuesday group. After all, would Alexa Bliss have gotten such a spotlight if she was stuck behind all Four Horsewomen? Would the Wyatts finally have capture gold, with the help of its newest Viper member, if they had to chase the New Day and their soon-to-be record run? Would AJ Styles be anywhere near gold again after his (excellent, of course) matches with Roman Reigns earlier this year? More than Raw, SmackDown Live has taken the brand split ball and run with it, highlighting wrestlers with oodles of talent that may have been buried beforehand. Throw in some competent writing that sticks to solid wrestling conventions, inject it with great personalities and a spice of Ellsworth, and you’ve got a wrestling feast for the eyes. All of those factors combined to make TLC an entertaining way to spend three hours avoiding Westworld spoilers. What else could you possibly want on a Sunday night?
5. Bray Wyatt Gets a Taste of Gold
Well, hot dang. After winning the Raw vs. SmackDown Live Survivor Series extravaganza, Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton went ahead and did the damn thing. Building both off their momentum and the fact that there is no way they should lose to Heath Slater and Rhyno, the new Wyatt Family conquered the blue brand tag team division in a fairly one-sided match, and it was just right. Wyatt, unbelievably, had never been a WWE champion of any kind before Sunday night, a fact made even more ridiculous when you consider he’s been either in main events or just below since his debut in late 2013. Hell, even Luke Harper won the Intercontinental title!
This is what the Wyatts needed, and they needed it now: legitimacy. For years, their M.O. was to do some “spooky” stuff and ultimately lose every high profile feud (the only one that stands out as a Wyatt win was Bray’s triumph over Dean Ambrose in a feud most of us would like to forget). With titles and a true superstar by the name of Randall Keith Orton in the mix, the Wyatts truly feel like the threats WWE wants us to believe they are. On top of having a variety of challengers in the fold (a rematch with Slater and Rhyno, the Hype Bros in the battle of the most mismatches gimmicks ever, and a barnburner in the works with American Alpha), the Wyatts winning gold means that the next time they interrupt something out of nowhere™, we’ll be paying attention. Not bad for a show opener.
4. Baron Corbin Cares Not About Your Cruiserweights
He may not be the best wrestler in the company, or the best talker, but Baron Corbin has somehow become must-see TV. That’s what happens when a 6’8″, 280 pound behemoth puts it together and begins to not just wrestle hoss matches, but wrestle precise matches as well. The chairs match with Kalisto was easily Corbin’s best match since moving up to the main roster (his bout with Samoa Joe at 2015’s NXT TakeOver Brooklyn still stands as the high mark overall), and it was, shockingly, not only due to Kalisto. Corbin was spry all match long, moving with a quickness and urgency that is often lacking in the big man’s affairs. His Deep Six is a guaranteed highlight of every match, and this one might have been the best one since the Chad Gable stunner from NXT. Corbin may not be a World Champion at any point soon, but you’re crazy if you don’t think he could pull off great matches with any of the main event talent on the blue brand. Hell, it might save us from running the James Ellsworth joke into the ground while we wait for both Cena and the Undertaker to return from the gray area that is “not on television” land.
3. The Miz vs. Daniel Bryan Needs to Happen
Raise your hand if you’re glad that The Miz beat Dolph Ziggler, cleanly (ish), therefore ending the feud. That’s not to say that the A-lister and the Show Off did not put on some great matches in their time together; they’ve all been great (tonight included), and the storytelling has been even better. But Miz is on another level from Ziggler right now, and to have him bogged down in the same feud for months feels like a waste of some hot lightning in a Hollywood bottle.
Which brings us to the sticky question of Daniel Bryan; despite all reports stating that Bryan is done wrestling, isn’t it starting to feel like we’re destined for Bryan vs. Miz at WrestleMania? Between their confrontation before the match on Sunday, to Miz’s post-match promo, and everything culminating with their heated argument on Talking Smack, these two are in a perfect feud right now, one that has grown since the brand draft in July. It would be a shame if all this heat was wasted, so let’s hope that Bryan can wrestle one more match to give us a true WrestleMania moment for the ages. And if he can’t? Well, there is a certain Japanese rock star down in NXT that could serve as a great surrogate, knee strikes and all. In the meantime, let’s enjoy the Miz’s Never-Ending Intercontinental Reunion World Tour, because right now, no one else is playing the heel card better than the most must-see superstar in WWE history.
2. Feel the Bliss, Alexa
The biggest shock of TLC came at the hands, and more accurately the powerbomb, of the smallest performer of the night. Yes, after a feud where she constantly made Becky Lynch look like a fool, Alexa Bliss capped it off with a beautiful bomb through a table to become the second SmackDown Live Women’s Champion. The result itself is enough of a shock, and the fact that Becky carried the match simply adds to that surprise, but it made sense within the storyline that the show was telling (a trait that most SmackDown Live stories tell): Becky was clearly the better performer, but Alexa got in her head. You saw it at the contract signing, with Becky attacking first (a babyface no-no), only to be put through a table due to her over-aggressiveness.
Here, the same thing happened; Becky was in control for so long that she almost seemed to throttle down, getting a bit too close to the edge without finishing off the Blissful one. The beauty of a tables match is that finishes can come from out of nowhere, as did this one, but it doesn’t feel like Becky was outmatched, which leaves open interesting options for the rematch. With people like Nikki Bella, Natalya, Carmella and a hopefully returning soon Eva Marie, there are multitudes of ways for the division to go over the next few months, as we embark on the road to WrestleMania. Despite Raw having the star power of 75 percent of the Four Horsewomen of NXT, the SmackDown Live women’s division will be the one to watch in the near future.
1. AJ Styles Is, Simply, the Best in the World
Let’s get this out of the way: AJ Styles is the best wrestler in the world today, and it might not be all that close. Last year, the Phenomenal One wowed the world all over with his work on New Japan Pro Wrestling, Ring of Honor, and various independent promotions; it wouldn’t have been too shocking if his move to WWE was followed by complacency and a spot on the midcard. And yet, by virtue of some of the best WWE booking in recent memory and a drive to show he can be even better than he was, Styles has finished 2016 better than his highlight-filled year of 2015. He didn’t just adapt to the WWE style well; he took it and made it his own, a feat accomplished by few others in such a rapid manner.
Sunday’s TLC main event was a perfect example of what makes Styles incredible; he wrestled a very WWE-style main event with Dean Ambrose and still managed to blow people’s minds. Nevermind that he did it all with a giant meme-worthy tear in the ass part of his tights; Wrestling Twitter will be having fun with that one for a while. Styles’s sell of Ambrose’s Orange Crush on the chairs would have been a classic highlight if not for the Phenomenal One topping himself with a springboard 450 splash through a table on the outside. That’s some Hall of Fame-level shit right there, and if WWE knows what’s what, that spot will be replayed for years to come in video packages and hype promos. Right now, Styles isn’t just head and shoulders above every other wrestler in the company; he’s scratching at the elite level of all-time WWE performers, with Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels and Macho Man Randy Savage in his sights. Despite all of the James Ellsworth shenanigans that culminated the PPV, no one can take away the fact that, at TLC 2016, AJ Styles showed the world that he is the face that runs the place, and he is the most phenomenal wrestler in this green planet of Earth.