SmackDown Live returns to form with shocking Jericho return, Styles title win

AJ Styles won the United States championship for the second time in a few weeks, and just two nights after losing the title to Kevin Owens at Battleground, in a previously unannounced triple threat main event that also featured a returning Chris Jericho. Provided by WWE (@WWE)

When Chris Jericho's music hit just moments into a heated exchange between Kevin Owens and AJ Styles on SmackDown Live, it was clear we were in for something special Tuesday.

There were no signs, no reason to think Jericho would be making his return to the WWE anytime soon. But here he was, standing in front of a deliriously thrilled crowd in Richmond, Virginia, explaining how his long, arduous recovery, which included CrossFit, healthy eating and, of course, guzzling beer, was worth the effort so he could come back and reclaim the United States championship.

As Owens, Jericho and Styles continued to throw figurative jabs at each other, with the latter two making their case as the more deserving No. 1 contender for the U.S. title, Owens tried to slip out, only for commissioner Shane McMahon to emerge from backstage to announce a triple-threat match between them ... later that night.

What a shocking revelation. The past chronicles between these three needs little explanation. Each of the competitors has a deep-rooted rivalry, both with and against each other.

Pretty stunning, right? Yes, but here's the problem: This was a match very much worthy of main-eventing SummerSlam. The combination of personality, popularity and in-ring execution by all three needs little explanation. And while we fully appreciate the importance of making an immediate splash, you could make the argument the SmackDown brand is in danger of peaking too soon in the lead-up to one of the biggest pay-per-view events of the year.

How is the show going to produce anything more riveting than it did Tuesday night? And how are they going to top John Cena versus Shinsuke Nakamura next week (which we'll get to later) at SummerSlam?

Perhaps it's more important from a business standpoint to give SmackDown a boost, with the ratings rhetoric invariably part of the weekly conversation. And yes, an event like SummerSlam is going to fare just fine, no matter what the final card is.

Still, what's the plan now, especially after Styles won the U.S. title for the second time in 18 days? How do you exceed that performance and theater in the coming weeks leading up to SummerSlam? Tuesday's match was nothing short of spectacular. The action was relentless; Owens, Jericho and Styles each shined, and not just for a fleeting moment.

An enraged Owens asked to invoke his rematch clause next week against Styles. All well and good. But sans Jericho, that one-on-one matchup seems anticlimactic by comparison, especially since Owens and Styles have been going at it in some capacity for the past three months. It seems as though SummerSlam, which is still more than a month away, should have been the payoff for these three to duke it out, but instead it happened on a Tuesday night.

McMahon said it himself Tuesday -- that the decisions he makes are about the audience. Hard to disagree with him, but it's also hard to imagine anything that happens at SummerSlam, at least from the SmackDown perspective, will top the surprise element and fantastic main event that just went down.

'Super' Cena doesn't get another free ride from brother-in-law-to-be

Two days after dismissing Randy Orton (again), Jinder Mahal demanded a different challenge at SummerSlam for his coveted WWE championship belt. Out came Cena, to gladly accept the offer.

With both standing in the ring, Cena glibly put Mahal in his place: "I respect you're in the best shape of life, and you'll do whatever you have to do to keep it, but it ain't going to be enough -- you're going to face Super Cena."

But general manager Daniel Bryan surfaced from the backstage and said not so fast, John -- he could have Mahal, but only if he got past Nakamura -- who earlier in the night took care of Baron Corbin -- next week.

Cena-Nakamura?! For the first time ever, mind you. This is WrestleMania-worthy, never mind SummerSlam. This is serious star power, and again, we have no issues showcasing the battle on SmackDown Live down the road, but a match of this magnitude for the first time deserves a greater stage.

No matter who wins next week, the idea of either Cena or Nakamura facing Mahal at SummerSlam has less overall intrigue than the two hopeful contenders -- established veterans in their own right on different continents -- squaring off against each other in a dream match few could have imagined coming to fruition.

While Mahal serves a very important global endeavor, his in-ring performances have been less than masterpieces. By all accounts, the Punjabi Prison match at Battleground on Sunday was largely a disappointment, even with the surprise appearance by the Great Khali. (And to be fair, Cena's match against Rusev wasn't much better, but that was also a byproduct of the outdated flag-match stipulation.)

Sure, it's plausible the vision is to have Cena head into SummerSlam and win title No. 17, which would be an all-time record. And sure, it's possible that Corbin could cash in and ruin the moment for Cena. And yes, that would be great drama.

Still, Cena taking on Namakura is special, and it's fresh. The chemistry between the two will likely be on par, if not exceed, similar high-profile feuds Cena had against crowd favorites Styles, Owens, Seth Rollins and CM Punk (among others), most of which culminated in a pay-per-view event.

Like the Owens-Styles-Jericho triple-threat clash, it seems Cena and Nakamura squaring off should be the result of a longer, more meticulous build that also comes to a head on a grander stage, like SummerSlam.

Hits and misses

  • What a physical battle between Corbin and Nakamura on Tuesday night, in a rematch of the anticlimactic performance they had two nights earlier at Battleground. Corbin dominated most of the bout, but a devastating Kinshasa from Nakamura ended the match. With the Money in the Bank briefcase in tow, Corbin can afford a few losses without getting completely derailed, and it was the kind of match Nakamura desperately needed to remind the world of what he does best.

  • Not sure what's going on with the Tamina-Lana narrative. It's an odd tension convention, especially after another poor decision from Lana cost them a tag-team match against Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch. But what's the payoff here? Tamina and Lana ultimately feuding isn't going to add any appeal to the SmackDown women's division, which is already struggling to find consistent, resonant storytelling. Now if Flair and Lynch had similar dissonance like they had a couple of years ago, then we'd be on to something worth paying attention to.

  • Out with American Alpha and in with Sami Zayn and Tye Dillinger, eh? Not a bad duo, as both Zayn and Dillinger have seen only sporadic singles spotlight on SmackDown. They took out Aiden English and Mike Kanellis in a fairly entertaining match Tuesday. Will Zayn and Dillinger stick together? Outside of The Usos and new tag-team champions The New Day (and potentially Breezango), SmackDown could use another high-profile team now that Jason Jordan and Chad Gable have gone their separate ways.

  • No signs of Rusev on Tuesday. You'd think he'd be a big part of SmackDown's future, even if he did lose at Battleground. Based on the current narratives developing, it doesn't seem as though he'll be a part of a title mix anytime soon. Perhaps a beef with Jericho is in the offing?

    Quote of the night

    "You may only know my voice from pistachios commercials." -- John Cena, when confronting Jinder Mahal and suggesting the current WWE champion has never heard of the all-time legend.