In July's brand split draft, SmackDown Live didn't get any favors. Sure, they got some studs to build around in John Cena, Dean Ambrose, A.J. Styles and Bray Wyatt, along with some young stars with worlds of potential, but the middle rounds left a massive gulf between the top guys and the up-and-comers.
That gap was problematic at times in the first couple weeks, but Tuesday's episode revealed the counter-balance to that issue: all the opportunity in the world for people to step up. Many of those who shined Tuesday are far from finished products, but several potential stars of tomorrow are starting to make their cases after getting a chance in primetime.
For all the positive developments up and down the card, it certainly feels like Wyatt has been the breakout star in the early going.
From the time the Wyatt Family made its debut on Raw in 2014, he has proven time and again that when he's on and there's a microphone in his hand, he is one of the best the WWE has to offer. In being drafted to SmackDown Live, Wyatt got a desperately needed chance to start over and refresh his appeal, an opportunity to embrace being the top heel on a brand after a long-running series of tough losses in big feuds.
No matter how devastating he's been when confronting opponents in the lead-up to some of those memorable encounters, including showdowns with Cena and The Undertaker at Wrestlemania, he has far too often fallen when the action moved into the ring.
He was very much on his game to kick things off Tuesday, when he pulled off the task of revealing some uncomfortable truths about the No. 1 contender. Pointing to Dolph Ziggler's questionable tactics of throwing Wyatt into an unprotected turnbuckle in order to hold on to his SummerSlam title shot, despite Wyatt being the one who removed the cover, was a highly effective way to call into question Ziggler's motives and motivation as he does whatever it takes to win the WWE World Championship.
That angle serves a two-fold purpose. It gives Wyatt's words the weight of some truth and adds dimensions to Ziggler without the latter having to lift a finger. The best bad guys make everyone look good.
"What you have both failed to realize is that this is my show now," Wyatt said in regard to Ambrose and Ziggler. "We are not puppets in a corporate war. We are our own masters. There is no red. There is no blue. There is only me. This is Bray Wyatt against the whole damn world."
Cue the expected interruptions from Ambrose, a longtime foil for Wyatt, and Ziggler moments later.
Chaos in the ring ensued and led to Ziggler missing Wyatt and superkicking Ambrose instead. Ziggler then succeeded with a superkick to the last Family member, Erick Rowan, but fell victim to a Sister Abigail from Wyatt.
It all led to a somewhat predictable but well-executed advancement of the feud between Ambrose and Ziggler by the end of the night. After getting the pin on Rowan in the tag-team main event, Ziggler took a Dirty Deeds to even the score from the opening, which set the stage for a compelling go-home next week.
- WWE (@WWE) August 10, 2016
Tag teams, back again
After the initial showdown between Ambrose, Ziggler and the Wyatts, the first of several opportunities for young talents to step up provided something new in the era of SmackDown: a major focus on tag-team wrestling on the blue brand.
The initial thought that likely went through the minds of many upon seeing American Alpha's opponents (Mikey O'Shea and Mike Vega, if you're keeping track of the reinvigorated jobber crew) was concern, as it briefly seemed to make the The Vaudevillains, Jason Jordan and Chad Gable's debut opponents, look like mere cannon.
That thought was quickly cast aside as The Ascension made their SmackDown Live debuts, walking out to the ring to get a closer look, only to be followed closely by the aforementioned Vaudevillains and another debuting team, the The Hype Bros of Zack Ryder and Mojo Rawley. Each of these pairings has a history with at least one other team in the mix, with each having gotten its start in NXT. It's clear there's some definitive chemistry as the earliest stages of the division shake themselves out. That's a big plus for four teams trying to find their places in a new landscape on SmackDown Live and the WWE at large.
After Jordan and Gable dispatched their opponents, the other three teams stormed the ring, only for American Alpha to be left as the only team left standing. Notable in their absence in this showdown were the Usos, but that seems like quite an intriguing matchup for the future, as American Alpha starts to take their next step toward being the top dogs of the SmackDown Live tag team division.
In the women's division, there was a lot to like on Tuesday. What the WWE is doing with Eva Marie is what a lot of fans feel should have been done with Roman Reigns. No, I'm not talking about wardrobe malfunctions, though that chest protector has seemingly outstayed its welcome. It's about steering into the hate and animosity and embracing it for all the power it has. Every week that they come up with another excuse for Eva Marie to not wrestle, the fiery anger of the crowd will continue to grow, as personified in the ring by Becky Lynch.
Alexa Bliss came out to answer Becky's challenge in Eva's stead and was impressive in her debut, as she earned the win when Eva Marie came back out to provide the distraction. Later in the night, Carmella was impressive in picking up a victory over long-time veteran Natalya, a rare submission loss for the lone remaining Hart descendent on the active WWE roster.
With no immediate titles to compete for, the women's and tag team divisions both needed to create tension and intrigue between their talents in different and creative ways, and aside from the built-in conflict between Natalya and Becky, there weren't many established feuds to build upon coming out of the draft. The early developments have been, at the least, intriguing, and as long as things are timed properly, it should be interesting to see how long they wait to pull the trigger on new titles for SmackDown and how that will further shape things over the coming months.
Hits and misses
In the first few weeks, I was unsure how well the Renee Young interview segments during SmackDown were going to work, but it was quite the platform to show just how on the ball The Miz and Maryse have been of late. Miz's utter disregard and dismissal of Apollo Crews as the pair made eyes at one another was simple heel perfection and sets up a big fall from grace, be it against Crews or someone else along the line.
As good as things have been for Randy Orton, Tuesday's SmackDown Live highlighted the kind of nebulous and frustrating status that Alberto Del Rio currently resides in. As if to scream in frustration that transcends to real life, Del Rio got himself disqualified after a fairly competitive showdown with "The Viper." He helped to advance Orton's story with Brock Lesnar by attacking Orton's shoulder, but he was left with little to show for his efforts and little direction going forward. Given how hot he was coming into the company, which was further exaggerated by his return victory of Cena, Del Rio should be one of the top heels in the company or, at the very least, on SmackDown Live. The trouble is, a rough stretch against Kalisto and a disappointing run with the League of Nations have left Del Rio in his current state of purgatory. This is one of the areas where the lack of the right kind of good guy, such as a Cesaro or Sami Zayn, might serve to reinvigorate Del Rio. At this point, anything short of a revisiting of his showdown with Cena or something completely out of the box could leave Del Rio looking toward the door once more in WWE. That would be a waste on both sides of the equation.
Heath Slater just can't win, and I'm eager to see how many times he bounces between Raw and SmackDown in search of a job. He seems to be connecting with the crowd, but he just can't get out of his own way -- and it's the most entertaining Slater has been in a long time.
The video package for the Cena/Styles showdown was strong, but it was a bit disappointing to not see either in the flesh less than two weeks before SummerSlam. Brian Campbell said something similar regarding Finn Balor in the RAW recap, but it's worth noting why this was the case. The WWE is touring New Zealand with several Raw and SmackDown Live stars this week, and the lengthy travel necessary for that kind of trip is likely what kept the superstars from appearing on TV.