It'd perhaps be an understatement to say that the build to Clash of Champions was less than ideal. In fact, if you look back on the last few weeks there's hardly a memorable segment, outside of Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens doing wonderful heel work and the Bludgeon Brothers powerbombing a jobber into internet fame. The problem has largely been that Clash of Champions necessitates title matches, and yet much of the storytelling hasn't warranted such a meaningful payoff. SmackDown Live really struggled to build intrigue for its title matches heading into this PPV, and when you consider the show's focus on telling the story of Zayn and Owens, it would seem that WWE knew where the intrigue was. Perhaps it's no accident then that Clash of Champions is a show that's representative of its build: wonky storytelling anchored by great wrestling.
The lack of storytelling is mostly the result of so much focus being on the feud between Owens, Zayn, and Shane McMahon. That lack isn't necessarily a bad thing. Considering how little time SmackDown Live spent actually engaging in character work these last few weeks, it's for the best that the PPV largely throws everything out the window and lets the matches speak for themselves. With the cumbersome (or nonexistent) storylines out of the way, all that's left is the wrestling, and SmackDown Live has plenty of talent to rely on in that area.
Corbin, Roode, and Ziggler deliver a surprise
The opening match of the night is indicative of the night. Leading into the PPV, there was precisely zero heat between United States Champion Baron Corbin and his opponents Bobby Roode and Dolph Ziggler. In the ring though, the three kick off the show with some much-needed energy. Surely they knew they'd have to win the crowd over, and the best way to do that is craft a match that you can't help but get wrapped up in.
The key to their match is the pacing. Where the Fatal Fourway Tag Team match suffers from a middle stretch where nobody seems to know what to do, Corbin, Ziggler, and Roode understand that you can't let up in a Triple Threat. Sure, you can pick off one guy and wrestle a one-on-one match for awhile, but there needs to be that urgency, that sense that there will only be so many opportunities to capitalize on. So each guy looks for that one spot that'll get them the win, a psychology that factors into the finish with the simultaneous finishers. I have one nitpick that I'll save for the Quick Hits below, but otherwise this is easily the best match on the card, which should tell you about some of the wonkiness present elsewhere.
Tag team chaos
Clash of Champions stacks its two best matches back-to-back, following up the Triple Threat, which ends on Dolph Ziggler's shocking win, with the Fatal Fourway for the SmackDown Live tag team titles. The match itself is pretty hit or miss—the format is rather confusing, even to the performers, who struggle to find the relevant psychology in order to build momentum—but it has enough great spots to be memorable. There's the fact that Rusev and Aiden English get the reception of kings, and rightfully so. There's a moment where it really looks like Rusev might pull out the win, locking in the Accolade, and the crowd is going nuts for it! It's beautiful to see that kind of reaction after the work they've put into their team and the angle.
On top of that there's Shelton Benjamin straight-up throwing an Uso off the top rope, Chad Gable looking like a monster with three straight roll-through suplexes, and the Usos eventually coming out on top. Again, it's not the slickest match by any means, but the frantic beginning and the well-constructed finish make up for the middle section that lacks definition. Unfortunately, that brings us to the night's two worst matches, both of which are a complete mess of convoluted storytelling.
The women's division remains stagnant
It's hard to tell if Charlotte defending her title against Natalya is a worse match than whatever Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens vs. Shinsuke Nakamura and Randy Orton is, but at least the latter has a finish that adds some intrigue to the ever-evolving story of SmackDown Live. The women's division on the other hand remains a formless, uninteresting section of the show. SmackDown doesn’t seem to have a clue what it's doing with anybody in the division. Charlotte and Nattie are barely allowed to wrestle, and the lumberjacks spend most of the match fighting each other because…of the Riott Squad I guess? The closest the match comes to being interesting is when Carmella teases a cash-in, but even that passes by with nary a mention. Seriously, this whole match plays out like nobody understands what they're supposed to be doing in any given moment, and ends with Natalya, a heel character, turning heel on the audience.
Battle of the Bosses
Honestly, the match with Zayn and Owens isn't much better; it's just as much a mess of storytelling. The dual referee gimmick is useless and confusing up until the finish, and the whole angle from commentary is that this match doesn't make sense and won't work out. Call me crazy, but if your storytelling idea is "this match should be confusing to the participants, and nobody really knows what's going on or really understands the rules," that's not exactly going to translate to a compelling match, even with all that talent in the ring.
At the very least the story of Zayn and Owens and their beef with Shane McMahon continues to move in the right direction. Now Daniel Bryan is involved in a concrete way, and that bodes well for whatever comes next. Hopefully, it's some sort of clarification about who the bad guys and good guys are, or some sort of cementing of Orton and Nakamura's role in all of this. I have no idea why they are fighting for Shane McMahon or "SmackDown loyalty" or any other reason the show has peddled in recent weeks.
AJ Styles lays claim to his house yet again
That brings us to the main event, which sees AJ Styles defend his WWE Championship against Jinder Mahal. I'm not going to get into Mahal's run and what it means to lose in India or where he goes from here. Rather, as usual, I want to look at the story as a whole. There hasn't been much heat between Mahal and Styles, but when it comes to the two matches they've had for the title, they make up a pretty compelling whole. Styles is perhaps the only guys who turns Mahal's offense of strength and power into the X factor it needs to be, and having someone so monstrous and hated as an opponent allows for Styles to explore the underdog aspects of his character and in-ring style. They're good dance partners, and sometimes that's enough. They've used two good matches to tell a solid story that puts AJ Styles firmly back on top of SmackDown. On a night largely defined by wonky storytelling, that's something to be thankful for.
- My one issue with the Triple Threat match is that Bobby Roode, who's super over with the crowd, gets his win stolen from him by Corbin, and yet Corbin doesn't even win the match. That feels like a strange choice, and a missed opportunity when it comes to investing in babyface Roode, but I'm certainly curious to see how this all plays out. Ziggler winning was a nice surprise.
- Mojo Rawley and Zack Ryder's preshow match played out exactly like it should. Now we see how Mojo runs with it.
- Aiden Enlgish asking if the crowd wants an encore and them emphatically cheering is just pure joy.
- Months and months of Breezango killing it on Fashion Files, only to get a squash spot. I get that they're still building the Bludgeon Brothers, but that was disappointing. You could have slotted any tag team in there.
- I love that Kevin Owens immediately goes after Shane's customized referee jersey: "You always have to be special!"
- If Daniel Bryan wrestles in early 2018, I will weep all the tears of joy.
Dolph Ziggler defeated Bobby Roode and Baron Corbin (c) (United States Championship match); The Usos (c) defeated New Day, Shelton Benjamin and Chad Gable, and Rusev and Aiden English (SmackDown Live Tag Team Championship match); Charlotte (c) defeated Natalya (Lumberjack match for the SmackDown Live Women's Championship); The Bludgeon Brothers defeated Breezango; Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn defeated Randy Orton and Shinsuke Nakamura; AJ Styles (c) defeated Jinder Mahal (WWE Championship match).