WWE
Matt Wilansky, ESPN.com 31d

Charlotte Flair returns to SmackDown Live and becomes No. 1 contender

WWE

For quite a while Tuesday night, it looked as if the star of SmackDown Live was going to be none other than ... Aiden English?

Yes, the operatic misfit was having himself quite a night, taking it to 13-time champ Randy Orton for most of their bout before a stunning RKO ruined his momentum. A few minutes later, English tallied a key assist in Rusev's hasty win over Orton, who had just agreed to a second match.

But let's get real here: The fact that English's name is written this high up in the article speaks to the slow-paced, prosaic show that SmackDown was for most of the night.

Ultimately, English's performance was overshadowed by Charlotte Flair, who returned to the ring for the first time since Aug. 8. She had taken extended time off to be with her father, Ric Flair, who was hospitalized last month.

Charlotte has been the standard-bearer in the women's division for much of her reign in the WWE, but in recent months -- notably since the "Superstar Shakeup" moved her to SmackDown -- she had not stood out from a pack of performers trying to climb out of longtime mid-card status.

On Tuesday night, Charlotte addressed the crowd, thanking everyone for their thoughts and prayers as her father continues to recover. She then made it clear that moving forward, she was going to leverage every moment she has left in the WWE -- meaning, she is looking to wrap the belt around her waist again as soon as possible. But her message was interrupted by SmackDown champ Natalya, who came to the ring to pat herself on the back and, wouldn't you know, unveil a portrait of herself in a WWE first-ever celebration of women.

Becky, Naomi and Tamina eventually made their way inside the ring to declare their worthiness for the women's title, before Daniel Bryan emerged from backstage to announce a fatal 4-way match later Tuesday. The winner would earn a shot at Natalya's title at Hell in a Cell on Oct. 8.

While the match, the main event Tuesday night, was a high-energy affair, it often felt rushed and a repeat of the women's dynamic on SmackDown in recent months with every viable contender being thrown into the ring at once.

In the end, Charlotte landed a sweet moonsault on both Naomi and Tamina, then moments later super-kicked the latter for the three-count.

The question now, of course, is whether Charlotte will leave the upcoming pay-per-view as a first-time SmackDown women's champ to go along with the record four titles she won on Raw.

In this current landscape, with high-end stars about to compete in WrestleMania-esque matchups and owner Vince McMahon making a rare television appearance, the WWE creative has made a staunch effort to maximize its top personalities and rivalries, even in this slower period between SummerSlam and Survivor Series. Glacial builds for a payoff at some point down the road isn't really the MO at the moment.

Natalya is a good story, and she earned her long-awaited title, but she's no Charlotte.

For the record, neither is Aiden English.

Hits & misses

  • Rhetoric ruled the night on SmackDown, as both Shane McMahon and Kevin Owens addressed last week's beating of Vince McMahon. If you didn't know any better, you'd think the hostility toward one another was genuine. Shane eschewed his usual samba to the ring, and in a very Undertaker-like way, condemned Owens to a "ruthless beatdown from these hands." He went on, "I promise you this: When someone disparages anyone in my family, I will strike back with massive vengeance."

    Owens was equally as authentic in an out-of-ring interview, apologizing for the barbarous pummeling he gave Vince, whom he has always respected, but noting Shane "made me want to obliterate your father." Somehow, in his emotional, enraged state of mind, "[Your father] became you." If their actual match is half as good as the threats, Hell in a Cell will be one heck of an event.

  • On the flip side, and in an unfortunate repeat performance of last week, Jinder Mahal spewed more insults at Shinsuke Nakamura, prompting the fans to chant that the champ had taken it too far. There's simply no place for the xenophobia direction of these promos. You're better than this, Jinder. Or are you?

  • Not sure what to make of Tye Dillinger's interference in a match that ultimately never started between AJ Styles and Baron Corbin. Is the WWE angling for a triple-threat match for the United States title at Hell in a Cell? And is that really a better option than watching Styles and Corbin go one-on-one? Dillinger has a lot of upside, but to date, he has been little more than a staple in mid-card booking. The only conclusion I can make is that somehow Corbin will walk away as the new champ by pinning Dillinger, thus allowing the feud between The Lone Wolf and Styles to continue.

  • As noted above, Aiden English showed us more than the inane character he had become with a stellar performance against Randy Orton. The former Vaudevillian member took it to Orton, highlighted by a huge drop kick and a two-count. While in the end he was the third wheel in the Orton-Rusev saga, English just might have a future in the ring, if, you know, the Sydney Opera House doesn't work out.

  • OK, give it a rest, Dolph Ziggler. You denounce so passionately the superficial superstars who would be nothing if not for a grand entrance -- but your act mimicking them has grown tired. How much longer until you're in the ring? And at this point, do we care anymore? On this topic, hey Bobby Roode -- where are you?

  • Zach Ryder and Mojo Rawley took the next step in splitting up, losing yet again. In a backstage interview after falling to The New Day, Rawley said a drastic change needs to be made. So unless Rob Gronkowski inserts himself into this storyline, it seems as though Ryder and Rawley could be heading toward a Kickoff Show one-on-one battle at Hell in a Hell.

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