Just a few days ago, SmackDown Live delivered a pretty stellar PPV. Not everything about Hell in a Cell was good—are we done with the babyface Bobby Roode experiment yet?—but the biggest moments felt like they mattered. You had the Usos and New Day not only cementing themselves as the top tag teams on the main roster, but also bringing their months-long, multi-PPV into the conversation as one of the best tag team feuds of all time. You had Tye Dillinger making his mark in a big PPV spot, and Baron Corbin starting to find his legs again after losing his Money in the Bank opportunity. Then, you had a destructive, heated match between Shane McMahon and Kevin Owens end on a note of moral conflict.
Previewing Zayn and Owens
When Sami Zayn pulled Kevin Owens off of the announce table, saving his former best friend from a brutal, possibly career-ending collision with McMahon's falling body, it wasn't a moment of triumph, or one where Zayn was clearly proud of himself. Instead, as he staggered around the outside of the cell, reluctantly dragging Owens toward Shane for the pin, Zayn looked distraught. He looked like a man who knows he's done something wrong, but also didn't see another option. He looked like a man unsure of who he is and what he stands for. Thus, heading into this week's SmackDown Live, all eyes and ears were on Sami Zayn, and how his story would unfold in the aftermath of Hell in a Cell.
I think SmackDown Live makes the right choice by delaying dealing with Owens and Zayn and instead starting the show by lighting a fire under the rest of the tag team division. Normally a 20-minute promo to open the show is a recipe for a sluggish disaster, but it works here for two reasons: 1. New Day and The Usos needed a final moment of closure after their war on Sunday, and 2. the division as a whole needs a reset.
Nothing but respect for New Day and The Usos
The first 30+ minutes of the show accomplishes exactly that. The Usos and New Day get their moment of mutual respect in the ring—Kofi and Woods call a temporary "Uce truce"—and then every single team on the show is brought out for a Fatal 4-Way Tag Team Match to determine the #1 contender for the titles. The match is relatively brief, but it does its job, telling the continued story of conflict within the Hype Bros, allowing Breezeango (the team most over with the crowd, by the way) and The Ascension more time to assert their bond, and cementing Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin as the next opponents for The Usos. While I'm still desperately waiting for Breezeango to get their shot—just imagine the delightful promo battles they'd have with The Usos or New Day—giving Gable and Benjamin a run at the titles could serve as a way to deepen their characterization and give us a reason to care about them, something SmackDown Live hasn't managed to do since pairing them up.
While "a bunch of tag teams come to the ring and then get a chance to prove themselves for a #1 contender spot" isn't the most inventive storytelling, it's solid, and solid is exactly what SmackDown Live needs right now when you consider what's going on everywhere else, especially when it comes to the women's division and whatever the hell is happening with Shinsuke Nakamura.
The struggles of the women's division and Shinsuke Nakamura
What's baffling is that SmackDown Live has Charlotte and Becky to anchor the women's division, Carmella doing good work with the Money in the Bank Briefcase, and Naomi and Natalya there as very useful pieces—yes, I consider this particular champ an interesting storytelling piece but not much else—and yet still can't find a way to build some meaningful momentum. There's just no story to their interactions. Here, Charlotte beats up Natalya after she makes an offhand comment about her father, and we're all left wondering how many times WWE can go back to that well. There's no sense that these two are fighting over a championship or how important it is to them, and there's no real character progression or movement elsewhere within the division. It's not necessarily bad, but it is stagnant, and it's showing from week to week.
Shinsuke Nakamura is in the same boat. I'll admit, I'm not sure what the proper spot is for Shinsuke, but I can tell you it's not being forced into cutting cheesy promos and then losing multiple WWE Championship matches to Jinder Mahal, and it's certainly not being paired with Randy Orton in a random tag team match against a couple of heels. SmackDown Live has struggled to give Orton a sense of purpose after losing the WWE Championship, Rusev is one of the least threatening dudes on the roster, and Nakamura is supposedly, according to the commentary and the way he's treated like a big deal, still one of the greatest wrestlers in the whole world, and yet he doesn't come through when it counts. Nakamura looks good when he gets the hot tag tonight, but it's well past time to start giving him meaningful wins and a sense of direction.
Best friends once again
That brings us to the night's most compelling, fascinating, strange segment, and that's Sami Zayn coming out in full support of Kevin Owens. Gone is the man from Hell in a Cell who looked conflicted about his actions, and in his place is someone who's clear-eyed about his path forward. After Owens comes out and calls Sami his guardian angel, thanks Zayn for saving him, and talks about how he saw "the white light" and got aggravated by having to stand in line to get into heaven—never change, KO—Zayn comes to the ring and lays into WWE, the McMahons, and the empty sloganeering of SmackDown Live.
He criticizes Shane McMahon for talking a big game about this show being the "land of opportunity" and then ignoring Sami once he was on the roster. "That's the only meeting I had with Shane!" he shouts before saying that while Owens and him have been through a lot, he'll always be his brother. In Owens, Zayn sees someone who is reliable, focused, and a constant presence in his life. He sees a man who knows how to succeed, and after more than two years toiling away on the main roster, and watching Owens win multiple championships, Zayn is ready to change his tune.
Perhaps that isn't the most nuanced explanation of Zayn's actions; it's certainly a variation on a line of thinking that many heels have peddled before. But, it undeniably opens up a ton of storytelling opportunities for both Zayn and Owens, and when it comes to the former, he could certainly use the change of pace. The bottom line is this: it will take weeks to truly see how this plays out, and until then any thoughts about alignments, storylines, and WWE's storytelling is mere speculation. But from where I'm sitting, you have two of the best pro wrestlers in the world, who have worked together and been real life best friends since they were teenagers, suddenly working together again. I don't always have faith in WWE to get their stories right, but I have faith in Owens and Zayn giving this angle everything they have, and that alone has me excited to see where these two go from here.
- I don't have any in-depth thoughts on the US Title rematch between Baron Corbin and AJ Styles. It's a good match, but it mostly feels like a transitional moment, as the clean win moves Styles away from the title and gives Corbin a chance to match up with some other opponents.
- I love that Woods stops The Usos from running down Breezeango. "No, they're cool."
- Another great touch: The Ascension carrying Tyler Breeze and Fandango to the back, because all they want is to be buddies.
- Kevin Owens, to the WWE universe, after he talks about sending Shane McMahon to hell: "You should count your blessings, because you almost lost me too."
- Looks like Erick Rowan and Luke Harper are back together, and they're going by a name that, unfortunately, made me chuckle: Bludgeon Brothers.
- Everything about Bobby Roode and Dolph Ziggler needs to end. Nothing about their feud is working.
- Apparently Jinder Mahal is still WWE Champion, but you wouldn't have been able to tell because he was nowhere to be found on SmackDown Live.
Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin defeated The Ascension, Breezeango, and the Hype Bros; Becky Lynch defeated Carmella; Shinsuke Nakamura and Randy Orton defeated Aiden English and Rusev; Baron Corbin (c) defeated AJ Styles (United States Championship match).
What do you think about Sami Zayn's sudden change of heart? Let us know in the comments below!