Sunday's Clash of Champions PPV was undoubtedly a mixed bag, but as a whole it felt like a perfectly fine placeholder PPV. With Raw already moving towards the Royal Rumble, SmackDown Live had some other pieces to move around before really getting into its own build to the January PPV. AJ Styles needed to finally close the door on Jinder Mahal and his run near the top. The tag team division had to go through the motions of reestablishing some threats after months of New Day and The Usos being the main players. Most importantly, the Blue brand had to tell an incredibly convoluted story in order to get us to the place where Daniel Bryan finally breaks with Shane McMahon and establishes his own brand of Anti-Authority. Like I said, nothing on Clash of Champions is going to be all that memorable in a few months, but most of it felt necessary when you consider the big picture.
Building on Clash of Champions
This week's SmackDown Live, the follow-up to Clash of Champions, is a strange episode in more ways than one. It doesn't contain any singles matches, the main event is a meaningless house show-style match, and the biggest pop of the night goes to Rusev Claus. Apparently WWE's creative team dipped into the eggnog a little early, but maybe that's not such a bad thing. Sure, there are some missteps throughout this week's episode, but it's largely a fun, engaging show that finds the right balance between pure comedy segments and ones that continue to push stories in the right direction.
The gift that is Rusev Day!
Surely this review needs more analysis than "this show was really fun!" but that really is the essence of this particular SmackDown Live. The centrepiece, and best part of the show, sees Rusev and Aiden English, dressed up as "Rusev Claus" and a snowman, challenge New Day, also dressed in Christmas costumes, to a match. Everything about the backstage segment and the match is delightful. It's holiday gimmickry done right. From Big E stuffing pancakes into the mouth of a WWE employee backstage, to Rusev once again getting pumped while the whole crowd chants "RUSEV DAY," it's pure pro wrestling magic.
The key, of course, is letting these guys do their thing. Each of them is a proven comedic force, and they get to show that again in this match. While the match itself is also closely contested, its success is obviously in the comedy. Aiden English taking a plate full of pancakes and whipped cream to the face is exactly the kind of goofiness the match needs. On top of that, English then does his best to recover and win one for the team, shouting "FOR RUSEV" as he storms the ring and gets pinned seconds later. It's perfect. There's really no other word for it.
Charlotte and the women's Royal Rumble
The key to the success of that match, which is letting the talent be themselves, is really the reason why so much of this week's episode succeeds. SmackDown Live is nowhere near as stilted as last night's Raw. Instead, it has a refreshing energy about it. When Charlotte comes out to talk about the announcement of a women's Royal Rumble match, it has every possibility to be a paint-by-numbers promo that we can easily tune out. While what we get isn't exactly an inspired promo, it feels real. Charlotte muses on the history of the moment, but more than that there's an excitement in her voice that's charming and relatable.
That kind of realness extends through the segment, as Naomi declares herself for the Rumble, and then the Riott Squad comes out for a tag match. As Naomi and Charlotte run down the newbies, there's a comfort to their mic work that's not often there. Seriously, this whole show feels like creative went home early and everyone in the ring was just allowed to be the best version of themselves. It translates into compelling matches and segments, something that Raw certainly can't say this week.
Anti-Authority Daniel Bryan is back
So, while the main event that sees Orton, Nakamura, and Styles take on Owens, Zayn, and Mahal serves no purpose whatsoever, the rest of the show finds interesting ways to get SmackDown Live back on track after a shoddy build to Clash of Champions. There's Dolph Ziggler cutting a messy promo that's too much like Natalya's strange one at Clash of Champions, but it's elevated by an intriguing moment where he mysteriously leaves his United States Championship in the ring while he walks to the back. There's Benjamin and Gable getting a win over the Usos, using the momentum from Clash of Champions to deepen the division with teams that feel like legit contenders.
On top of all that there's the return of another character that feels like himself again: Daniel Bryan. In this instance he's back in anti-Authority mode, and it's just so exciting. He has a tense segment with Shane McMahon to kick off the show, where he tries to tell Shane that he's getting out of control and losing sight of what makes SmackDown Live the superior brand: the fact that it gives everyone an opportunity. Bryan's character has always been a stand-in for socialist ideas of community, worker's rights, and freedom from corporate influence. Shane McMahon literally comes out to the calls of "here comes the money!" like the capitalist pig he (the character) is.
There is so much potential in this story, and a lot of it comes from the fact that Daniel Bryan will forever be the voice of the everyman. He's the purest expression of true goodness and equality, a man who understands that we all benefit from lifting our brothers and sisters up. I don't want to speculate on whether Daniel Bryan will wrestle for WWE in 2018. All I will say is that whether or not he does, SmackDown Live has set up an incredibly compelling story that pits the voice of the masses against the entitlement of the 1%, and that's something we should all be excited about.
- "Thank you Daniel!" chants rain down after Shane McMahon mentions his fast count to secure a win for Zayn and Owens at Clash of Champions. The alignments here are so wonky, but I do feel like WWE knows where it's going. If anything, the only trouble when it comes to alignments is the inclusion of Orton and Nakamura. Everything else is evolving as it should.
- Everybody at home and in the building thought Shane was going to lay out Daniel Bryan at the end of that segment. Beautiful crafting of tension and expectation.
- Commentary keeps telling me that the Riott Squad have made a huge impact on SmackDown Live, but as far as I can tell they've just lost tag matches, failed to be good lumberjacks, and told Danile Bryan that he's never tried true game meat.
- Ziggler's promo tonight is better than he's been in awhile, but the crowd is just so indifferent to anything he does right now. I'm not sure how to fix that.
Shelton Benjamin and Chad Gable defeated The Usos; Charlotte Flair and Naomi defeated Sarah Logan and Ruby Riott; New Day defeated Rusev and Aiden English; Shinsuke Nakamura, AJ Styles, and Randy Orton defeated Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, and Jinder Mahal.