Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

SmackDown Live is the AJ Styles show, now and forever

Illustration for article titled SmackDown Live is the AJ Styles show, now and forever

Because The A.V. Club knows that TV shows keep going even if we’re not writing at length about them, we’re experimenting with discussion posts. For certain shows, one of our TV writers will publish some brief thoughts about the latest episode, and open the comments for readers to share theirs.

  • Results: AJ Styles (c) vs. John Cena in the inaugural AJ Styles U.S. Open Challenge Match thrown out after massive interference; Jinder Mahal defeats Tye Dillinger; Xavier Woods defeats Jey Uso; Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Baron Corbin thrown out after a brawl broke out; Natalya and Tamina defeat Becky Lynch and Charlotte; AJ Styles and John Cena defeat Kevin Owens and Rusev
  • For those just joining us, AJ Styles defeated Kevin Owens for the United States Championship this past weekend at a live show at Madison Square Garden. It’s a bit of an odd decision from a storytelling perspective, as the whole point of last week’s show was Styles—who was very much the focus of the episode—fighting his way through long odds to regain the number one contendership heading into Battleground. The recap video does what it can to elide that change in plans, and the clips in general suggest a major motivation for the title switch is for WWE to prove that anything really can happen at a house show. Nothing is made official here, but Tom Phillips’ line at the end implies Styles and Owens will rematch for the title at the pay-per-view… assuming Styles doesn’t lose the title next week to John Cena. Or to Owens at a house show in the interim. See, anything is possible now!
  • Hopefully, though, the plan is for Styles to hold onto the title long enough to see through his plan to revive the U.S. Open Challenge. Styles’ post-WrestleMania face turn has generally been very good, with the only real critique that he hasn’t always felt like he’s the star of SmackDown Live, which may not be an especially fair criticism—I mean, a wrestling show is at its best when there’s variety, and it’s good to rotate which guys are getting the absolute most shine. (You can certainly argue whether it made sense to deemphasize Styles in favor of the ultimately failed Wyatt-Orton feud, and that goes quintuple for the bold outsider art that is the Mahal-Orton feud, but the logic is sound.) But the thing is that Styles’ face turn was rooted in him emphatically—defiantly even, given all the rumors he was headed to Raw—embracing his role as the heart and soul of SmackDown Live, as the man who built the blue brand into must-watch television. So Styles is his truest self in this incarnation when he is able to represent SmackDown week-in, week-out, and bringing back the U.S. Open Challenge is the perfect way to accomplish that. It’s also the ideal use for the best in-ring talent in the company, letting him put on great matches regularly while also showing hard-earned respect to underdog faces and playing the fiery hero against heels.
  • There’s a long list of guys who are in a position to benefit from taking on Styles in the Open Challenge: Tye Dillinger, Luke Harper, and Zack Ryder are some I’d love to see off the top of my head, and after his great showing in last week’s battle royal I thought there was a serious possibility the Perfect 10 could be the man to answer the call. But having it be John Cena is even better. Kevin Owens gets genuine heat for stopping the match and claiming nobody wants to see it again. John Cena gets to pass the torch from one open challenge era to another, assuming Styles prevails. The interactions between the two tonight help further define Styles’ character, with him making it clear he will never forget losing the title to Cena at the Royal Rumble and how determined he is to hang onto his new championship. We’ve already seen from his match last week with Chad Gable that Styles is capable of recognizing worthy competitors, so there’s more nuance to be gained from having him play off the man with whom he has traded his highest-profile victory and defeat.
  • As for Dillinger, he’s the latest guy to try to pull a compelling match out of Jinder Mahal. There are moments where it looks like Dillinger’s overmatched underdog could be the ideal match for Mahal’s methodical powerhouse, but the match doesn’t go long enough for Tye to tell much of a story. Based on commentary, the real purpose of the match is to prove that Mahal can get it done without outside help against at least one person on the roster, and a solid midcarder like Tye is as good a choice as any for that. All I’ll really say is listen to how the crowd pops when Dillinger gets in any offense. SmackDown hasn’t done much with him on TV since his callup—I’m assuming he’s at least getting more time at house shows—but the dude is crazy over relative to his prominence on the show, and hopefully WWE will do something with that. Seriously, a Styles-Dillinger open challenge match will be fire.
  • The women’s Money in the Bank is something that I’m willing to bet will be a lot better in future iterations than it is in this one. The upcoming Mae Young Classic figures to bring a massive infusion of female talent to WWE, with the SmackDown, Raw, and NXT women’s divisions all expanding. Once that happens, it’s going to be less weird to have a tiny division where Carmella is effectively sidelined from the title picture until she elects to cash in. SmackDown isn’t helping itself here by insisting on big multi-woman matches, which simultaneously spotlights a lot of women in the division and remind you how thin the division is. Maybe I’m impossible to please, as I’ve also criticized Raw for consolidating too much around three competitors at the expense of everyone else (translation: I’m an aggrieved Emma mark), but SmackDown would do well to at least establish a bit more of a hierarchy in the division beyond Lana obviously being at the bottom. And when she’s still gifted a spot in the number one contender’s match at Battleground, it’s hard to call her even that. Picking one woman to focus on—Naomi, Becky, or Charlotte, with Carmella lurking with the briefcase—would be a good start.
  • Shinsuke Nakamura and Baron Corbin are set for a match at Battleground. I’m curious to see whether Corbin proves a better dance partner for Nakamura and strong style than Dolph Ziggler did. If this match works, it’s easy to see WWE reviving this feud down the road as the vehicle for the cash-in. Nothing would earn the Lone Wolf nuclear heat quite like cashing in on Nakamura moments after he wins his first WWE championship. Whether either is strong enough on the mic to carry that off is the major question, but at least tonight’s brawl had plenty of fire.
  • Sami Zayn and Mike Kanellis—who I called Mike Bennett last week like a total smark, sorry about that—also looks like it’s happening at Battleground. This is mostly playing as a comedy feud so far, which has proved effective for bringing out Sami’s overeager weirdo character, but Zayn made a damn good point tonight when he asked if Mike even plans on wrestling at some point. I feel like we’ll have a better sense of what to do with this, and the Kanellises in general, once we see Mike and Maria in action.
  • The Fashion Police’s investigation feels like it’s flagging a bit, but the segments themselves remain funny enough that this is only a problem from a plotting perspective. Besides, Breezango’s antics are a great way to further other storylines, with Zack Ryder and Mojo Rawley getting into it a little bit after the latter eliminated his parter in the battle royal this week. Even just seeing how Mojo responded so curtly to the Fashion Police felt like a bit of character development.
Illustration for article titled SmackDown Live is the AJ Styles show, now and forever
  • It remains hilarious how much the U.S. Championship is the real main event belt of SmackDown these days. There were a couple weeks there around Money In The Bank where it maybe felt like the WWE Championship was the main prize, but, nah, look at who opens and closes the show, and look which belt all the real main eventers congregate around. Jinder Mahal would likely look weak next to most prospective U.S. title holders. Against the Phenomenal AJ Styles?
  • In all likelihood, this is my time writing about wrestling for The A.V. Club, as I’m off to a new gig at Inverse. It was damn nice of WWE to account for this by spotlighting my beloved AJ Styles and Tye Dillinger so much over the past two weeks. And thanks to you all for making me welcome here, even if I am very obviously the Spike Dudley to LaToya and Kyle’s Bubba Ray and D-Von.