By David Dodgson (@DodgeeWriter)
One final Smackdown Live episode for 2017 with a special festive twist – yes, this episode is live on Rusev Day! Last week was a bit of wheel spinner with only the confusion caused by Dolph Ziggler and a further teasing of tension between Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan creating any storyline interest. Will SD Live end the year on a high note or will we be forced to sit through two hours of ‘festive’ fights and seasonal segments?
Daniel Bryan Promo/Three Tag Teams Tagging
The GM kicks things off to a huge ovation and immediately addresses the US title situation. He says Dolph Ziggler has not been answering his phone and is not here tonight, which Bryan takes to mean he has voluntarily given up his belt (meanwhile, a loud ‘Rusev!’ chant fills the arena). He announces a tournament to find a new champion with the first match being Baron Corbin v. Bobby Roode tonight.
Before he can set up the second match, Gable and Benjamin interrupt to ask about the tag title situation (‘Rusev Day!’ is again the response from the crowd). They state their case for another title shot but get cut off by Aiden English and the man of the hour (or should that be ‘day?’) Rusev! Gable gets booed loudly for stating the day after Christmas is Boxing Day, and then the New Day come out (I feel a multi-team tag match coming on).
After tossing pancakes to the crowd and calling Shelton Benjamin ‘old Jason Jordan,’ they also make their case for a match with The Usos. Rusev cuts them off to ask Bryan if he can make up his mind without permission from ‘mummy’ McMahon. The GM calls for a ref to get the number one contender’s match started immediately.
Gable & Benjamin v. Rusev & English v. The New Day
This match works under similar rules to the four-way tag title match at Clash of Champions with one member of each team legal at all times and first pinfall or submission to get the win. The action immediately spills to the outside with Xavier Woods wiping out all four of his opponents with huge dive. Big E then tags in and powerbombs Woods onto English for a near fall. Gable then hits a huge double German Suplex on Big E and English for two more near falls (performing moves onto a prone opponent, and hitting a move on two opponents simultaneously seem to have been two trends for the latter part of 2017).
The pace slows down in the mid-portion of the match (where the ad break would usually go I assume). We then see each team lay the other out with hard-hitting moves to set up the inevitable hot tag to… Rusev! The crowd go nuts as the Bulgarian Brute bowls everyone over. Another series of big moves and near falls keep us guessing as to who will emerge victorious. The Usos (on commentary) voice their appreciation as do the crowd with a ‘this is awesome!’ chant.
Aiden English provides an amusing moment as he prevents a German Suplex from Chad Gable by grabbing hold of Xavier Woods’ braids. Rusev then saves his partner from a top rope superplex by hitting the obligatory Tower of Doom spot onto Gable and Benjamin. English nets a near fall after a Frog Splash with the crowd going nuts for Rusev’s team to win. Another double opponent manoeuvre as Rusev puts both Woods and Gable in the Accolade. Benjamin breaks it up to huge boos. He and Gable then land their finisher on Big E to earn their title shot. Winners: Gable and Benjamin
No Rusev Day celebrations unfortunately, but you have to think WWE cannot ignore how over he is for long. Can they? Could they? Sadly, they probably could. Still, it was a great match. All teams brought it and credit to WWE for making the tag division so hot when we were wondering a few weeks ago who could challenge The Usos after their series with The New Day ended.
We see a taught conversation between Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon backstage. Shane O’Mac disagrees with the decision to hold a tournament for the US Title, suggesting instead a one-off match between Corbin and Roode would have been more appropriate. He also questions the logic behind setting AJ Styles v. Kevin Owens as tonight’s main event. Bryan rolls out the usual ‘land of opportunity’ line for the tournament and justifies the main event as one last chance to revisit one of 2017’s hottest rivalries. Shane simply says ‘OK.’
This is a slow simmering, build – unusual for WWE in the age of monthly PPVs – and is all the better for it. It is also good to see some tension between the authority figures on SD Live after them always being best buddies since the brand split 18 months ago.
Breezango v. The Bludgeon Brothers
A rematch from Clash of Champions that goes only slightly longer than the original bout. That is only because Rowan releases Breeze from the pinfall after hitting the double powerbomb to prolong to pain. They beat up Fandango and Breeze some more until The Ascension make the save. Winners: The Bludgeon Brothers
Wow – the Ascension back in the ring for the first time in forever! This makes sense after all the Fashion Files shenanigans between the two teams. In a backstage interview, The Ascension announce that The Bludgeon Brothers crossed a line and as a result, Breezango will face them again next week – a nice touch of comedy to offset the darkness of Harper and Rowan.
Naomi v. Ruby Riot
Before the match, Ruby Riot announces her entry to the Royal Rumble and says that tonight ‘the glow has got to go’ – yes, please! This match is shorter than Breezango v. The Bludgeon Brothers as Liv Morgan and Sarah Logan provide distractions and Riot hits The Riot Kick for the win. A post-match beatdown is interrupted by Charlotte, who briefly gains the upper hand before the numbers advantage wins out. Natalya then comes out with Carmella, Tamina, and Lana in tow. The Riot squad bail to end the segment. Winner: Ruby Riot
Naomi is possibly the blandest babyface on the roster, someone who almost makes Dolph Ziggler’s complaints seen justified, so I was happy to see Ruby Riot go over in quick fashion. The post-match set up came off like an over-stuffed turkey though with every woman on the roster (except for Becky Lynch) crammed in. Still not sure why the heels are fighting the heels as well.
US Title Tournament First Round Match: Bobby Roode v. Baron Corbin
These two never really got their rivalry going before Dolph Ziggler so rudely butted in so this should be a good match. Should. Corbin dominates the opening exchanges beating up Roode on the inside and the outside. At one point, the Lone Wolf rolls in and out of the ring. ‘Wisely breaking the count,’ comments Tom Phillips. What? This is a knockout tournament – a count out win will see him advance!
Roode eventually comes back and, as is traditional in Royal Rumble season, we see spots from both men sending each other over the top rope. After a spinebuster, Roode elicits a ‘Glorious!’ chant before going for his DDT finisher but the delay costs him as Corbin counters with a Deep Six for a near fall.
Roode mounts another comeback and eventually gets the win after countering a Corbin power move into a roll up. Winner: Bobby Roode
I do like tournaments so no complaints about this not being a one-off match, but why have Corbin-Roode in the first round? Both men deserved to further (though I am glad they did not go with a predictable final). Also, with Gable & Benjamin interrupting the announcement at the top of the show, we do not yet know how many rounds there will be – is this an 8-man tournament? 16? 4? A futile exercise just to set up a future programme for Ziggler? We will find out eventually (I hope).
US Title Tournament First Round Match: Jinder Mahal v. Tye Dillinger
Wow! The Ascension and Tye Dillinger in the ring on the same night – it must be Rusev Day! The Perfect Ten starts off strong and even sets up for the Tye Breaker early on but Jinder counters. The former WWE champ uses his power to stay on top until Tye hits him with a huge DDT for a near fall. It will not be Dillinger’s night though as he gets knocked off the turnbuckle and then finished off with the Khalas.
Dillinger reveals through a pre-taped promo that this is indeed an eight-man tournament – thanks Tye! A shame you couldn’t stick around. It looks like Jinder is following the AJ Styles route – lose the WWE title, pick up the US title, and then get another shot at the main belt after dropping the mid-card title.
AJ Styles v. Kevin Owens
A suitably big match to close out the main roster’s year, even if the title is not up for grabs. The crowd is clearly hot for Styles (though he does not get anywhere near Rusev levels of adulation) as he starts the match with a massive dropkick right on the money. A Calf Crusher attempt ends in a rope break, and a second one ends with Styles shoved out of the ring.
KO then takes control while Sami Zayn pulls of his now usual annoying heel antics on the outside to perfection. Owens gets a couple of near falls off hard-hitting moves. Styles eventually hits back with a backbreaker but that only serves to lay both men out. They start to trade blows after staggering back to their feet with Styles eventually coming out on top. He is, however, unable to capitalise as he suffers the effects of the beating he took earlier on.
KO then counters a Styles Clash into a gutbuster and then lands a Vader Bomb style elbow drop for a near fall. Interference from Sami Zayn allows Owens to hit a superkick for a near fall. Shane O’Mac comes out to get Zayn ejected from ringside. However, while he keeps the ref busy, Styles has KO rolled up for a clear three-count. As the champ remonstrates with the ref, Owens performs a roll-up of his own to get the win. After the match, KO and Zayn celebrate wildly in the ring while AJ Styles and Shane McMahon share a tense stare on the ramp. Winner: Kevin Owens
I was genuinely caught by surprise there as I expected a feel-good win to wrap up the year. Instead, we got an intriguing result. Revisiting an old rivalry between two of Smackdown’s top talents also led to revisiting the rivalry between Styles and McMahon, adding another wrinkle to an already enticing storyline. How all the moving parts in this situation are managed will be key to Smackdown’s early momentum in 2018.
A much better show this week, helped in no small part by the purpose provided by the US Title tournament and the build to the women’s Royal Rumble (smart too that apart from a brief backstage segment in which Randy Orton and Shinsuke Nakamura announced their entries, the focus was on the women’s event and not the men’s). The plot thickens between Daniel Bryan, Shane McMahon, and Owens/Zayn with AJ Styles now potentially in the mix. And Naomi lost in under two minutes. All in all, a fine show. Happy Rusev Day!