On paper, SmackDown Live has a lot more going for it than Raw right now. The Red brand has its fair share of stars—Braun Strowman, Finn Balor, and Seth Rollins stand out immediately—but SmackDown has the more compelling stories. Or, at the very least, it has the semblance of compelling stories. All the cogs aren't moving together just yet, but there's a ton of promise in what SmackDown Live is delivering heading into Money in the Bank. There's Styles and Nakamura continuing their feud, slowly escalating the intensity and magnetism of their matches with each new bout. There's the story of Daniel Bryan trying to find his way back to the main event after coming out of retirement, while both a vindictive 7-footer and his Hollywood archenemy circle around him, looking to make their name off of him. Plus, there's an entitled, lucky, sneaky women's champion trying to stay ahead of the threat of the two deadliest women in all of WWE.
All of that should signal that SmackDown Live is at least setting up its stories in a way that makes a lot of sense. Daniel Bryan could just be slotted in the main event scene, but the appeal of his character is the triumph after setbacks. Carmella should just lose to Asuka or Charlotte, but it's more interesting to see how long she can evade them while also growing in confidence. Add in a number of Money in the Bank qualifying matches that have built-in stakes, and you've got the blueprint for a solid two-hour show that shouldn't come with any filler. Who knows how the Fox deal will impact the show—it'll reportedly move to Friday nights in October 2019, but will the brands stay split?—but for now, the show has a lot of potential.
SmackDown Live finds its groove
This week's show works largely because it keeps things simple, and sticks to the compelling stories outlined above without indulging in too much of that patented WWE wonkiness. There's three qualifying matches for Money in the Bank, a Miz TV segment with New Day, which is every bit as perfect as you would imagine, and a few other fun segments filling out the show. This is a lean two hours, which is a relief considering that last night's Raw dragged on in a way that's become all too familiar since WrestleMania.
Miz TV is always must-see
The show kicks off with the surefire combination of New Day and The Miz. Miz brags about how he's set to drop two big exclusives. The first is a great troll job, announcing the premiere of his new reality show. The next is that New Day will be announcing which member of their team will compete in the Money in the Bank ladder match. It's a perfect segment built on character, as the Miz is incredibly invested in getting his "scoop," and New Day just want to clown on him. They exchange "whos" and Miz does his best to create some division between the three of them, but all it does is strengthen New Day's bond.
It all leads to a match between Miz and Big E—with the great production touch of Miz running away from the challenge, only to encounter Paige backstage, who sends him right back out. There's even a good use of the distraction finish, as Cesaro and Sheamus end up costing Big E the match. This is a perfect example of how to build feuds between superstars that rarely cross paths while heading into the Money in the Bank ladder match.
Not very tranquilo
It's hard to have much to say about Andrade Cien Almas right now because he's just getting started on SmackDown Live, but it's clear so far that he's being built properly. Do I wish he was making a bigger splash against a bigger name? Absolutely. For now though, he's showing a nastiness and a drive that will pay off down the road. I'd wager that Almas is a lot more unfamiliar to WWE audiences than a lot of recent NXT call-ups, and short, brutal matches like this week's against a jobber—sorry, Kevin Bennett, your work in Smash Wrestling is still great—do a lot for the main roster character.
New #1 contenders
How great is it to see Gallows and Anderson getting a shot at the tag team titles? It's an obvious point, but they're a team that's never really been given much to do, even as Raw tag team champions. Getting a win over the Usos is huge for their credibility—if WWE chooses to follow through with a good story, of course—and also represents a welcome change in the tag team division.
MITB qualifiers, and the first ever Lana Day
Most of the night is dominated by Money in the Bank qualifying matches, as the PPV's card gets closer to its final form. The first of the night is far from an exciting match—it's barely a match at all—but it's, once again, a character building segment. Lana faces off against Billie Kay for the chance to enter the ladder match, but there's no real in-ring wrestling. Instead, this is all about reintroducing Lana to the roster, and to active competition.
How do you do that successfully? It's easy: you include her in the runaway train that is Rusev Day. While Rusev is absent this week, Aiden English steps in to be the bearer of shine for Lana. He raps his song, gets the crowd pumped for Lana, and then pulls out a sign at the beginning of the match that simply says "Lana Day." The crowd eats it all up, mostly because Rusev Day can do no wrong right now, but also because Lana actaully shows some personality. She dances on the ramp, smiles without looking stiff, and genuinely looks to be having a good time. Being loose is the key. Who knows how that transfers to her in-ring skills, which were abysmal upon her debut, but for now it's okay to let the character work to do the heavy lifting.
Sonya Deville and Naomi have a much more traditional match, and while it doesn't amount to much, it contributes to the theme of the show: stakes. The fact that a spot in the ladder match is on the line is enough to make Deville vs. Naomi more interesting than it would normally be, and the fact that Mandy Rose doesn't factor into the finish is a nice surprise.
Closing with charisma
At this point we all know that this feud with AJ Styles has unlocked a new level for Shinsuke Nakamura. The dude is simply operating on a different plane right now, finding that wonderful balance between being annoyingly cocky and brutally violent. It's been a treat to watch.
Perhaps overlooked then is the charisma displayed by Daniel Bryan. I say "overlooked" because we're just so familiar with it. We've been aching for his return for so long, and had presumed it wouldn't happen. Now he's back, and I think we're underestimating just how quickly he's found his groove again. It's not just YES chants and the matches, but also the fire and intensity of his promos. His promos in the past could feel shaky, but now they're ripe with confidence. He's got the entire WWE universe in the palm of his hand yet again, and he's still got a chance to make it to Money in the Bank. He has one hell of a match with Jeff Hardy, is being booked like a submission machine that can tap you out a number of ways, and has a clash with Samoa Joe looming next week. What could be better?
If SmackDown Live can keep producing shows like this week's, we're in for a long stretch of lean, mean shows.
- Kofi jumping off of Cesaro to attack Sheamus. That is all.
- Is Samoa Joe easily the scariest dude who can terrify you just by sitting there?
- I am forever here for the shame pancakes.
- It's not easy choosing a New Day member for the Money in the Bank ladder match. On the one hand, I'd love to see Kofi get that briefcase and the WWE Championship. On the other hand, it feels like Big E's time.
The Miz defeated Big E; Lana defeated Billie Kay (Money in the Bank qualifier); Andrade Cien Almas defeated "local competitor."; Gallows and Anderson defeated The Usos (#1 Contenders match); Naomi defeated Sonya Deville (Money in the Bank qualifier); Daniel Bryan defeated Jeff Hardy (Money in the Bank qualifier).