This is the (WWE) show I really wanted to start writing about. SmackDown has been markedly better than Raw ever since the brand split and now it's even starting to translate in the ratings with SmackDown beating Raw in the ratings last week for the first time ever. It's also a lot more fun to watch and write about because they're not afraid to take risks and follow through on their stories and develop their characters. So...without further ado...the first SmackDown Live of 2017...
-I loved seeing The Miz open the show. It's a spot that tends to be reserved for main event talent and The Miz has most definitely proven over the last year or so that he is exactly that. At least in my book. He's been doing some of the best character work in WWE during that time and it's great to see him getting appreciation for it. He demands an apology from Renee, claims she "sacrificed her journalistic integrity for Dirty Deeds with Dean Ambrose" (savage), and rightly questions why Ambrose suddenly gets a shot at the Intercontinental Championship just for beating him up--and also rightfully connects it to being on Daniel Bryan's good side. Fantastic, fantastic work.
-Ambrose comes out to face him down and Miz backs off, hiding behind Maryse, who slaps Ambrose because symmetry! I love that. Of course Ambrose makes a vaguely sexist remark about how she "hits harder than you do" because he's a WWE babyface and that's just how they roll. I guess it wouldn't be wrestling without toxic masculinity. Even in 2017.
-Next up: Baron Corbin v. Dolph Ziggler. FINALLY, A FRESH MATCH-UP! But hey, at least they have amazing chemistry from all the 74 times they've fought each other. This is easily the best televised match they've had so far. Corbin has a great heel wrestling style--slow, methodical, and wildly disrespectful--and Ziggler makes it all look like a million bucks. I really love that thing Corbin does where he avoids getting thrown into the post, slides out of the ring and back in again for a clothesline--and here, he gets caught with a dropkick which is just beautiful. I love that they know each other so well and have each other so well-scouted.
-Maybe the most interesting thing on the whole show happened following the match. Corbin is about to assault Ziggler with a chair when Kalisto runs down to make the save. Just as your brain is thinking "oh good, another fresh match-up," BAM! Ziggler nails Kalisto with a superkick and screams "I DON'T NEED YOUR HELP" at him as he lies motionless on the mat. That is pitch perfect Dolph Ziggler. So full of pride and shame and a raging inferiority complex that he can't STAND the idea that he needs Kalisto to save him from an attack by Corbin. Beautiful, wonderful character development. And it only gets better when the cameras follow Ziggler to the locker room where he's stomping around angrily and gets called out by his friends Apollo Crews, Rhyno, and Mojo Rawley. Crews tells him what he did to Kalisto was not cool and he's not ok with it because Kalisto is a friend of his so Ziggler attacks him. This felt so much more real than any backstage segment I've seen in a really long time. Can't say enough about all of this. Just excellent.
-Are we seriously still trying to make James Ellsworth and Carmella a thing? (OK, not gonna lie, I'm definitely into both Chinella and Carmellsworth as their couple nicknames)
-Becky Lynch v. La Luchadora was...well, it was what it was. Whoever it was under the mask that started the match was green as HELL. She goes under the ring and another La Luchadora comes out the other side and oh, gee, who could THIS be? And, y'know, even this old ass wrestling trope feels fresh in a way just because it's not the same crap we see on Raw every damn week. What's old is new when what's new is tired as all hell.
-Next up: "Welcome to the Royal Rumble Pay-Per-View WWE Championship Match Contract Signing!" I swear to god that was literally a sentence that Daniel Bryan said on television. Clearly this is an important reminder because Cena and Styles haven't done a contract signing in, like, five months.
-AJ has been doing some of the best character/mic work of his career in the past year and this may have been his best promo yet. He acknowledges his history with Daniel Bryan in the independents and their shared passion for wrestling and says Cena is not like them. (Keep in mind, this is the same Daniel Bryan that stood in the middle of the ring three and a half years ago and told John Cena he didn't respect him because he's not in it for the wrestling; now he embodies the WWE corporate line of John Cena being the best at everything) Bryan leaves and AJ continues his tirade: he rightly points out that Cena has been gifted a title match by a guy who is basically his brother-in-law; he acknowledges the history between he and Cena, reminding him that the first time they met, Cena told AJ that he (AJ) needed a win to prove he belonged in WWE but now Cena is the one who needs a win to prove he belongs; to top it off, he points out that WWE has been getting along fine in the four months Cena has been gone. "Spoiler alert:" AJ says, "we can do it without you, John." Cena tries to come back with his "AJ, I respect the hell out of you" line but AJ knows better and nerfs him before he even gets it out. Then he goes for the jugular: he calls Cena out for his mea culpa to The Rock this week, saying that what Cena said about The Rock was true all along and now it's true of Cena himself, too. Orson-Welles-clapping-dot-gif to all of this.
-Of course, this is WWE, so Cena gets the last word. He says being a man means admitting when you're wrong and apologizing but it also means when someone pushes you over the line, you push back. He gives the most stereotypical John Cena promo possible, justifying all of his bullshit and slinging 8th grade insults.
-The money line by Cena here is this: "You're no different than any person who has ever said 'Cena sucks' or tried to knock me off." Because here's the thing...AJ is different. That was the entire point of the story these two told at SummerSlam. AJ had an answer for everything Cena threw at him. AJ refused to stay down every time Cena knocked him down--even when Cena threw his biggest and most bulletproof instant critical move at him: the Super AA. If WWE has any intention of following through on the story they've been telling between these two, AJ absolutely cannot lose this match at the Royal Rumble. And if they don't, it will be a huge disappointment.
-Backstage, we see Maryse run into Renee...and she smacks her across the face. SAVAGE.
-Next up: Carmella (with James Ellsworth) v....ALIYAH?! Um...ok, sure. The match is fine, I guess. Carmella wins via chinterference. Hehehe...I kill me...
-American Alpha beats Breezango in less than a minute to set up a challenge from the Wyatts and all I can think is how much I wish Breezango were more of a thing. But yeah, Alpha v. Wyatts will be a lot of fun.
-Next up, WWE begs me to change the channel by featuring Natalya and Nikki Bella in a talking segment. It actually wasn't as bad as I expected, mostly because Natalya eviscerated Nikki, accusing her of using her sex appeal to get what she wants and then CRUSHING her with this gem: "Beauty fades. And when it does, John is going to leave you. And when he does, you are going to die alone." DAMN, NATALYA, SAVAGE AF. Also, gotta hand it to Nikki for responding with a forearm to the face. So yeah, this definitely could have been a lot worse than it was. But I mean, y'know, it was still Nikki Bella and Natalya talking.
-Our main event is The Miz v. Dean Ambrose for the Intercontinental title. These are another two guys who have fought each other quite a bit over the years but whose chemistry is excellent as a result. I really liked Dean Ambrose starting the match by just straight up unloading all of his pent up rage onto The Miz. It's a shame Ambrose devolves into such a joke so much of the time because he is one of the best at sheer unbridled rage. It's the thing that made him the "lunatic fringe" in the first place when he was still in the Shield. Somewhere along the line he became The Lunatic Fringe ® and that started translating into being a weird, jokey goofball.
-Anyway, like I said, the chemistry between these two is great. They really know what to do with one another's offense, whether they're taking and selling it or reversing it. They know exactly what position they need to be and how to control their own bodies and each other's and it makes everything look phenomenal--like Miz turning Ambrose's elbow drop into a Skullcrushing Finale and reversing the rebound clothesline the first time around but getting caught by it the second time when he's more wounded and winded. Miz also gets in some great leg work and continues to be one of the only people in wrestling who understands which leg the Figure Four is supposed to hurt (hint: NOT the one you wrap around your leg to lock it in).
-I really enjoyed the finish here, with Maryse slapping Ambrose to get Miz disqualified but just as the referee is about to call for the bell, Ambrose grabs his arm and begs him not to throw the match out and asks him to toss Maryse from ringside instead, which he does. This leads to the ref being distracted while Miz grabs the belt and hits Ambrose with it but Ambrose kicks out at 2.9 and does a BEAUTIFUL reversal of the Skullcrushing Finale to turn it into Dirty Deeds for the win.
-I really hope this means that The Miz will be moving into the WWE title picture soon because he really, truly deserves it. This guy may be the best pure heel they've got and if he gets shuffled back down into obscurity, it will be one of the biggest mistakes WWE has made in a while--and that's f*cking saying something...
*All photos courtesy of WWE.com