Coming off the thrill ride of an episode that was this week's Monday Night Raw, SmackDown Live had a lot to live up to in following that up. When the episode opened with the full promo from The Miz's appearance on last week's episode of "Talking Smack" -- an appearance that drew considerable buzz from the fans -- the tone was set for a strong reply to Raw's big statement of a finale.
It sadly couldn't live up to that hype, with the episode instead getting tied down by one problem in particular that caused many of the issues that plagued both of WWE's shows in the pre-draft era -- an unquenchable desire to take excitement and buzz that's organic and fan-driven and synthesize it into an asset that simply augments plans they already had.
Things didn't immediately go off the rails, however. Shane McMahon immediately demanded that Daniel Bryan needed to apologize to The Miz, and Bryan responded with a somewhat snarky reply that he'd try to be "a little less honest" next time around. Combined with Bryan's retort, in which he stated it was "a little ironic coming from the guy who has issues with Brock Lesnar," there were a lot of things going in the show's favor. There was genuine conflict for the first time between SmackDown's general manager and commissioner -- during which we were subtly reminded of the conflict between McMahon and Lesnar -- and there was a sense that we'd almost certainly get more from Bryan as the night rolled along.
After SmackDown's title sequence ended, the Miz came out to the loudest reaction he's gotten in years without a proper foil next to him to drive that kind of hatred. He quickly demanded his music be cut and the vibe got very serious. "Don't boo me," he said, further amping up the crowd. "One hundred and forty-eight days is what it took to get all of your attention?"
The Miz really started rolling with another strong promo in the middle of the ring, pointing over and over to the fact that he's the go-to guy for the WWE, for everything from interviews, to TV appearance, to movies to red carpets to commercials and beyond -- and most importantly, that his so-called "safe" and "cowardly" style has allowed him to do that over his entire career without interruption.
He turned it around by calling the crowd a bunch of cowards for supporting guys like Bryan just because the first 10 or 12 years of their careers happened in VFW halls. He had the crowd whipped into a frenzy when Dolph Ziggler's music hit.
What followed was five minutes that were the true personification of letting the air out of a balloon. Ziggler reiterated several of Bryan's points from last week, and even added a few of his own -- accusing Miz of simply wanting the title so that he could be famous, but he kept leaning on calling Miz a coward.
By no real fault of either Miz or Ziggler, the segment quickly lost its steam, despite some "coward" chants from the Dallas-faithful and a truly crazy look in Miz's eyes as Maryse backed him away from the confrontation.
This sequence sorely lacked because of Bryan's absence. By attempting to take the excitement that came together organically with the Miz-Bryan showdown and crafting it into an excuse for another in a fairly long line of Miz-Ziggler showdowns for the Intercontinental championship, they seem to have diluted the effect rather quickly.
That could change again in a heartbeat with the right decision, or by finding a way to involve Bryan more directly into the conflict without him being able to get into the ring. But considering the level of excitement that Miz's "Talking Smack" promo generated, and how directly they dealt with it in the opening of this episode of SmackDown, the direction they chose to go in within the first 10 minutes of this episode was a bit much to stomach.
Once "Talking Smack" rolled around, some light was shed on the decisions that WWE brass had made as it became clear that there might not be much, if any, future at all between The Miz and SmackDown's GM.
"He pressed all those buttons -- he knows how to press them," said Bryan of The Miz. "Which is why they're not letting us do anything on TV together anymore. They're like 'Bryan, Miz -- you guys are done.'"
- WWE (@WWE) August 31, 2016
In the meantime, we'll see if Bryan has anything else to say when he appears on SportsCenter on Wednesday with Jonathan Coachman during his "Off the Top Rope" segment.
A.J. Styles is getting better by the week. He was in his element acting like a goofball backstage, but proved he can snap back into seriousness in a heartbeat as well. Styles even helped Apollo Crews seem more relevant in less than 30 seconds than even a brief feud with The Miz over the Intercontinental Championship could make him.
Having Crews challenge Styles gives him a showcase to do some of his best work, and it makes Styles look sharp in the ring with another guy who makes a habit of making the guy he's working with look a whole lot better. Crews got in most of the offense during the match, with Styles pulling off a three-move combination leading up to a "Phenomenal" forearm in short succession to pick up the victory. This is a great example of putting meaning into a match that's put together the same night -- a quick, compelling backstage segment, a confrontation, then a good 10-minute match that helped both guys.
The main event match between Dean Ambrose and Baron Corbin, on the other hand, seemed to do the exact opposite. Taking a guy like Corbin, who's barely been in the ring over the last couple of months and only appearing in brief backstage segments, and making him look stronger than your top champion for most of a match seems counter-productive just over a week out from Backlash, SmackDown Live's first brand-specific pay-per-view.
If you're saying there's very little difference between the two aforementioned matches, there's at least some merit to the argument, at least on the surface. But Crews has been in the ring and fighting for championships and simply lacking the right circumstance to become more relevant, while Corbin has largely floundered since both he and Crews were part of a four-way match to determine the No. 1 contender for the Intercontinental championship. Finally, Corbin is still a ways away from being a main event competitor within the ropes despite some strong showings in both WWE and NXT; Crews' issues lie in finding his character and connection with the fans, whereas he's entertaining and polished in the ring.
The showdown between Ambrose and Styles, who was ringside for the main event, predictably boiled over at the tail end of the match, which actually used Corbin well. The show ending with Styles stuck uncomfortably straddling the ropes for way too long diminished the rebound of interest between Styles and Ambrose a bit, but with the path both guys have been on since SummerSlam and the uncertainty of the result, I'm confident the go-home episode of SmackDown Live will deliver, as far as these two go.
Hits and misses
If the Headbangers coming in is the next in an ongoing line of "emeritus" tag teams being brought in for stretches to help younger talent, you can sign me up. Tag team wrestling provides the right kind of environment for nostalgia without taking away too much from the in-ring project -- and being in there with the right new or up-and-coming teams can be beneficial to the long-term health of the tag team division. All that being said, the crowd didn't have much to offer as far as a reaction to the one-time tag champs took on Heath Slater and Rhyno. The gore to pick up the victory for his team was unsurprising, but the "Heath's Kids" section in the crowd lifting up their signs at the conclusion of the match was a nice touch and a nod to just how much the fans have gotten behind Slater in recent weeks.
I've enjoyed the continued effort to spotlight Slater myself, but Renee Young's visit to his trailer seemed like a bit of a misstep. With the way that Slater's segments had gone previously, it felt like the creative choice would be for Slater to hire an actress to portray his wife in order to cover up the ever-growing list of lies he was telling to try to drum up sympathy in his pursuit of a contract. I could still be surprised, but with the way things played out, it didn't quite feel right, as genuine sympathy is not really what has driven the support for Slater; it's more about his mouth getting him into trouble over and over again and Slater not being able to get out of his own way. The crowd is certainly getting behind him either way, and his story and where it's going is a big reason to keep tuning in.
The exchange between Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton was effective and compelling. Just as Styles seems to bring the best out of people inside the ring, Wyatt's gift is his ability to elevate the psychological build to matches outside of it. Orton has done a lot of speaking with his actions, to great effect, but to hear him talk about his scars, external and internal alike, felt real and on-point. Wyatt was his usual masterful self in helping to create a narrative for a match, but each of these guys seems as if they could really use a big win. It remains to be seen how this rivalry might carry on effectively past Backlash, but for now, I'm in.
JBL took a definitive step backward this week. I was and still am hopeful that SmackDown's announcing team can pull it together, but he stepped on a couple of moments that didn't really require his interjection; most specifically, the end of Wyatt's entrance. Mauro Ranallo was doing great work before the shift in announcer assignments, but I fear having his momentum or trains of thought stepped on one too many times by JBL could continue to highlight the SmackDown Live team's issues with getting on the same page. On the plus side, there was a concerted effort from David Otunga stepping up and making his presence known -- and I think that could help bridge the gap between where the announcers are and where they could be going forward if it's done right.
The women's tag team match was a little bit longer than it had to be if the ultimate goal was to end the match with a distraction in the end. It was another good step in making Carmella a contemptible figure, but these attacks eventually have to lead to something more than just having Nikki Bella laid out for a few minutes.
It was a good, if brief, showing from The Hype Bros in their victory in the tag team title tournament, but my goodness, how far have The Vaudevillians fallen since their main roster debuts? They've gone from challenging for the top tag titles shortly after WrestleMania to, just a few months later, being mere fodder for the rest of SmackDown Live's tag team division.
I don't even know where to begin to discuss Gary "The Milkman" Millman, so I'm just going to say that bringing Kane back could and should have been a bigger deal.