With Monday Night Raw settling into its WrestleMania plans, it's SmackDown's turn to find its way. While the build to Elimination Chamber was a lot of fun, and the results a bit disappointing, SmackDown Live has the benefit of diminished expectations heading into Fastlane. After all, this show hasn't been good for quite some time—Jinder title reigns and messy authority figure storylines have a way of smothering anything good a show might be doing—so perhaps even the slightest spark of creativity could get the Blue brand going.
Big Match John is here
Coming out of Monday night, the big question was whether that spark could be provided by John Cena. Having lost at both the Royal Rumble and Elimination Chamber PPVs, his path to WrestleMania was suddenly unclear. The Undertaker is seemingly still retired—please, please let him stay retired—and with many of the other title matches already tentatively set, suddenly Cena's spot at WrestleMania was at risk (in kayfabe terms, of course). The uncertainty following Cena has been a boon for the character. He's not adjusting his shtick that much, but it reeks of desperation. Cena is seeing his spotlight fading, and he's worried. When he's given an opportunity to get into the WWE Championship match at Fastlane, it's an opportunity a younger Cena would have been fired up for. Now though, hearing he's going to have to beat AJ Styles, he's pensive and scared.
The same old problems with SmackDown Live
Before we get to that main event though, let's talk about the rest of the show. It's one that certainly has more energy than many episodes from the last few weeks, but it's also weirdly inconsequential. Outside of Cena's opening promo, the first hour is made up of matches that just don't matter, and one mildly entertaining USA TV show tie-in segment with the Fashion Police and New Day. Basically, Baron Corbin beats Sami Zayn, Ruby Riott beats Naomi, and nothing in either of those multi-person feuds has changed. The women's division is still spinning its wheels, though the Fastlane match between Charlotte and Ruby Riott should be interesting. Shane McMahon continues to treat Owens and Zayn like superstars he wants shipped off to Raw, and there's still a complete lack of clarification about who we're supposed to be cheering for in this mess.
The stuff with Owens, Zayn, Shane, and Daniel Bryan is getting more exhausting by the week. The lack of direction is becoming more pronounced, and there's seemingly no end in sight. Shane McMahon is clearly heeling it up, eating popcorn and delighting in the failure of others, and yet where's his comeuppance? Where's the sense that something is going to happen to him? This endless teasing isn't doing anything for anybody. The only progression in this storyline is a production choice: now, during the matches, the broadcast heads backstage so that we can see Bryan and Shane arguing in real time. Who decided that what this feud has really been missing is more ways to watch Shane and Bryan argue?
Rusev Day deserves so much more
Thankfully, the second hour is a big improvement. There's still a fair number of issues; namely, Rusev continues to be just another piece on SmackDown Live, and not one of its main stars. It's baffling to me that they continue to use him in this way: as a heel and a midcard guy that acts as a storytelling piece for the stories of other performers. Rusev is clearly the most over superstar on the show, outside of AJ Styles, and yet he's being used like he's Heath Slater. I mean, Baron Corbin and Dolph Ziggler have a shot at the WWE Championship in two weeks, and Rusev was nuked from the United States Championship scene for no reason. That's immensely frustrating, counterintuitive booking.
The Fastlane main event shifts yet again
But let's get to the main event, because despite the constant presence of Shane McMahon, and the unnecessary popping up of Baron Corbin and Dolph Ziggler, there's some interesting stuff going on here. I have no idea how this mess will sort itself out, but this week's show gave me more hope that something compelling will come out of all of this. Perhaps that's because John Cena is a game changer. His presence on the show immediately changes the atmosphere. After Shinsuke Nakamura wins his match against Aiden English, Cena's music instantly hits so that he can come out for his match. He has no time to waste, and that kind of urgency (and smugness) is something that's always been great about Cena.
That presence will apparently continue, as the aggressive, desperate Cena gets the win over AJ Styles. It's a clean win, though not without its shadier aspects. Most importantly, where Styles refuses to accept a countout win, Cena seems perfectly happy to have that be the way he gets his ticket to WrestleMania. Again, I don't know where SmackDown goes from here, but the unpredictability that Cena provides is much different than the lack of clarification when it comes to the motivations of Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan.
SmackDown Live certainly isn't fixed by one John Cena appearance and one great tag team promo from New Day and The Usos. But it's a good start, and hopefully the show can build on that in the two weeks leading into Fastlane.
- Sami Zayn on Shane McMahon: "It never ends with this guy!" We all feel the same way, buddy.
- How about that promo from The Usos and New Day? I was truly shocked when Big E fired back. That's not how these promos usually go. Last week I wasn't sure I wanted SmackDown to revisit this feud, but that promo alone has me itching for many more PPV matches between the two.
- The Bludgeon Brothers are still lurking.
- Enough with the text graphics during selfie promos!
- In a sea of confusing face-heel alignments, I think Dolph Ziggler remains the most baffling.
Baron Corbin defeated Sami Zayn; Ruby Riott defeated Naomi; Shinsuke Nakamura defeated Aiden English; John Cena defeated AJ Styles.
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