The decision to stack Tuesday's edition with meaningful moments and major story line implications was an easy one to follow. With fans, at least in the United States, preoccupied with Fourth of July festivities, there had to be a big reason to turn in, and they had a few options that catered to fans of many different tastes.
They brought out the big guns with the return of John Cena, and ran a star-studded main event No. 1 contender's battle royal, giving them two major stories to tell on Tuesday's edition of SmackDown Live.
Cena's return opened the show, and he asked a simple question.
"So, did you miss me?"
His return was hyped for several weeks, with the notable caveat that he was a free agent, rather than a SmackDown superstar. If anyone is big enough of a name to float between shows it's Cena, and it's likely he'll appear on whichever show provides him with the right rivalry for the moment.
What started as a Fourth of July, super patriotic promo, which is right in Cena's wheelhouse, quickly turned to Cena addressing critics who had put him down for being a part-timer who had gone Hollywood and perhaps lost his edge.
Cena teased a multitude of matches with a variety of wrestlers from both brands that could quickly tear down that myth; names like AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Kevin Owens, Randy Orton, Jinder Mahal, Seth Rollins, Samoa Joe, Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns were the names that happened to spill out of his mouth.
But his first feud back will be without someone he didn't name, and whose return was more shocking. As Cena started to get wound up, it would be a returning Rusev who stepped up to challenge his former rival. He came back looking slightly trimmed down, with a clean new 'do and a full beard.
- WWE (@WWE) July 5, 2017
Rusev claimed disrespect, wondering where his return promos were when Cena had had so many. Since being picked up by SmackDown in the Superstar Shakeup, only a few feeble attempts have been made to put something behind his return, and with a great number of fans forgetting about him, Rusev's shock return felt like it had something behind it.
For WWE as a whole, Cena's return was huge. For SmackDown specifically, it may well be that Rusev's return will turn out being the bigger move; he'll be a week-to-week addition to the show, and was proving to be one of the highlights of Monday Night Raw week in and week out as "Handsome Rusev" before his injury. Hopefully "The Land of Opportunity" can let Rusev flex his personality to go with his in-ring skills.
Rusev turned back to an old stand by, with anti-American rhetoric on the Fourth of July seemingly as apt as it will ever be. We've seen similar plays from Mahal of late, but getting him that kind of instant heat might've been necessary to keep the crowd from getting behind him over the returning Cena.
When all was said and done, they made a flag match between the two for Battleground, a fitting return to the spotlight for both men.
Styles reclaims No. 1 contender spot
When the Fourth of July battle royal to determine the No. 1 contender for Owens' U.S. title was announced last week, the way it had played out to that point screamed that the shot was Styles' to be claimed.
But that gave SmackDown something to play around with, and the first seed of doubt was planted as Styles was forced to earn a shot in the battle royal against Chad Gable, with each of them already having had a one-on-one shot for the title against Owens.
Gable once again took advantage of a chance to shine, and although his matches against Owens and Styles each ended with losses, he's clearly shown how good he could be as a singles competitor. Some of that was Styles, who could put on a good match with the guy selling popcorn, but Gable's technical ability, suplex selection and selling ability make him a hot prospect to watch.
The Styles win in the ensuing battle royal was far from shocking, but some other key takeaways from that match include:
- A Hype Bros split was teased, with Mojo Rawley eliminating Zack Ryder. With several teams having split in the past two weeks, tag team depth is at a dearth, so hopefully it's either a red herring or more tag teams are on the way.
- Sami Zayn is being kept right on the verge of title shots, and SmackDown is doing a good job of keeping him relevant despite him not earning said title shots.
- Tye Dillinger hadn't been seen much recently after his quick push following promotion from NXT, but the crowd seemed behind him as he made it to the final three with Styles and Zayn.
New Day and Usos let it get personal in rap battle
WWE rap battles can range from the cringe-worthy (do yourself a favor and DON'T search for Michael Cole vs. Jim Ross), to the pleasant surprise (I'm looking at you, Bo-Rida.)
- WWE Universe (@WWEUniverse) July 5, 2017
Luckily, The Usos and The New Day were allowed to shine with the restraints taken off in their rap battle and hip hop star Wale brought in to officiate. It wasn't always smooth, but the barbs were sharp and added fuel to this feud. The New Day "won" by DQ after things got physical, but that's secondary to what actually happened.
Among the highlights:
- References to Xavier Woods, ahem, getting "R-rated"
- Questioning the Usos' physiques and pointing out they're wrestling in shirts
- Wondering why Kofi Kingston isn't Jamaican anymore
- A slam for popularity gained from Total Divas appearances
- Finally, a hit on The Usos for "carrying Roman's bags"
Hits and misses
- While his partner Gable was given a chance to shine, Jason Jordan, who has been impressive since being placed in a tag team with Gable, was relegated to a battle royal appearance and an "in-commercial" elimination. With an increasingly shallow tag team division on both shows, hopefully a singles push for Gable doesn't also spell the end of American Alpha.
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- Breezango's moment of gold this week, as Tyler Breeze went deep undercover as "Tennee Young" and Fandango, a maintenance worker. Fandango, despite being referenced by name, asked "Tennee" if Dillinger knew it was them? Breeze: "Are you kidding? I didn't even know it was us!"
- I didn't get the point of Naomi and Lana. The sort of controversial finish from last week led to match in which Naomi earned a tap-out victory over Lana that lasted less than 10 seconds. Lana will have to battle back from this moment in order to stay relevant in the division, but Naomi's new title lights up, though. So there's that.
- Aiden English technically earned his first televised win in more than a year, but he might as well have taken a loss in every way but the record books. All in all, though, it was a net gain for him on the week as he got some offense in against Orton. Time for the Mozart of Melody to flex his pipes.
- With Daniel Bryan banishing James Ellsworth for 30 days, will he find creative ways to try to make his way back? Or will he be out of sight, out of mind until he becomes useful again?