It'd be pretty foolish to try to determine whether Raw or SmackDown Live had more interesting stories to tell coming out of Sunday's Royal Rumble, but it'd also be hard to argue with anyone that said SmackDown Live had the most fruitful path to WrestleMania. With Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn seemingly eating a loss they technically didn't deserve—morally, they totally did—cracks beginning to show in their friendship, Dolph Ziggler returning for some reason, and Shinsuke Nakamura winning the rumble and declaring his intention to beat AJ Styles for the WWE Championship, the Blue brand left the PPV with an intriguing collection of storylines to follow through on. Raw immediately started building to February 25th's Elimination Chamber, but SmackDown Live doesn't have a PPV until Fastlane on March 11th. Could the Blue brand kick off that lengthy build in the right way?
In fact, SmackDown Live actually takes a similar approach to Raw when it comes to their first post-Rumble episode. There are some necessary stakes in the matches, a few storylines extending out of the PPV that need to be settled, and a single storyline acting as a throughline that anchors it all. The show isn't quite looking ahead to Fastlane just yet—though Daniel Bryan tells Owens and Zayn that they'll be wrestling each other next week in order to determine who will face Styles for the WWE Championship at the PPV, a decision Shane immediately says he'll "talk to Bryan about"—but it is putting pieces in place in interesting ways.
Cracks in the Owens-Zayn friendship
The single storyline that dominates the episode and gives it its structure is the continued saga of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, and their numerous interactions with AJ Styles and SmackDown's authority figures. They begin the show by interrupting Nakamura and letting him know they were screwed out of the title on a botched call from the ref. Then they beg Daniel Bryan to give them another opportunity at the title, which he does by pitting them against each other. Then the cracks start to show when they're put into a tag match with Nakamura and Styles. They can't keep their worries to themselves. They have a tag match ahead of them but all they can think about is their one-on-one match next week. They start to take jabs at one another. It's beautiful storytelling.
Well, it's mostly beautiful storytelling. The whole thing is still missing a ton of clarification about how we're supposed to feel about Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon. The tension still exists between them, but with no appearance from them at the Rumble, and no real follow-up this week, it's difficult to understand where they stand in relation to the whole story. At the very least though, KO and Sami are moving in a very interesting direction. Their slight jabs backstage leads to more confrontations during their tag match, which eventually leads to Sami walking out after Owens repeatedly talks down to him. Zayn and Owens are incredible storytellers, and they pack so much emotion and information into the main event.
A Rusev Day truly worth celebrating
Of course, SmackDown Live is more than just that story though, and this episode does a good job of setting up some new ideas. The most exciting one comes from a Fatal Fourway match to determine the #1 contender to Bobby Roode's United States Championship. The match itself is a lot of fun, the kind of chaotic, well-fought contest that's worthy of the stakes, but the best part is the potential of what's to come. Rusev is absolutely the right choice to be Roode's next challenger. He's been one of the most over superstars on SmackDown for some time now, and he deserves the spotlight. I don't want to go too far down a rabbit hole of fantasy booking, but this would be the perfect opportunity to finally lean into the popularity of Rusev Day by having him chase the championship, while also slowly turning Roode into the heel he desperately needs to be.
Making everything else matter
Much like Raw, all of this is to say that there seems to be a number of storylines kicking off the Road to WrestleMania, and most of them are encouraging in this very early stage. The Usos cut an incredible promo laying into every single tag team they've beaten or plan on beating, and then share a brief staredown with the Bludgeon Brothers. Breezango actually get time to wrestle a match for once, which is hopefully a sign that the show will continue to treat many of its teams in the division as important. I'm less sold on the Riott Squad just attacking Charlotte because there's still no real motivation there, but Ruby is good on the mic and Charlotte is, well, Charlotte, so there's hope that a program can give the division some much-needed sense of direction.
In other words, both Raw and SmackDown Live have taken the momentum provided by the Royal Rumble and capitalized on it. Both shows this week delivered meaningful stakes, exciting new feuds, and a lot of great moments.
- Great opening promo from Nakamura. "Knee. Face."
- Big E has so many pancakes.
- I love that when Sunil Singh grabbed Rusev, and Aiden English confronted him, Big E and Xavier Woods were delightedly shouting "HIT HIM!"
- After Gable and Benajmin call Tyler Breeze embarrassing: "About as embarrassing as losing to the Usos at the Rumble...twice?"
- What the hell are those new SmackDown Live graphics? I thought Raw's new look was good, but then SmackDown comes out and gives Nakamura a horrendous "ROCKSTAR" text crawl and The Usos a cheesy jail cell door timed to every time they say "locked down." It's terrible.
- I also don't need graphics during the cell phone selfie promos.
- "I'm still here, unlike your Money In The Bank contract."
- Real good tease from Carmella tonight. Nice to be reminded that the briefcase exists and that she could use it at any time, even if WWE hasn't been teasing it enough.
Rusev defeated Kofi Kingston, Jinder Mahal, and Zack Ryder (Fatal Fourway to determine the #1 contender to the United States Championship); The Bludgeon Brothers defeated Jobbers; Baron Corbin defeated Tye Dillinger; Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin defeated Breezango; Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles defeated Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn.
What did you enjoy most about tonight's SmackDown Live? Let us know in the comments below!