SmackDown Live brings a major career crossroads for Dolph Ziggler

Dolph Ziggler is at another crossroads going into his career vs. title match against the Miz at No Mercy. Nick Laham for ESPN

Cleveland hosted yet another in a growing run of strong episodes of SmackDown Live on Tuesday:

  • The tension grew naturally around the WWE world championship and the three men vying for it, although it was largely confined to the match at hand in the main event.

  • Alexa Bliss further established herself as a serious contender for the SmackDown women's championship, and a women's tag-team match entirely separated from the title picture carried on a compelling story.

  • The Usos took another step toward becoming the dominant heel tag-team champions they're seemingly inevitably destined to be.

  • Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton brought Halloween to life a month early (OK, maybe scratch that last one, at least for the time being).

But when it came down a couple of hometown boys competing for the Intercontinental championship, Dolph Ziggler and The Miz pushed their rivalry to a dramatic new level and what should be a thrilling conclusion at No Mercy.

It started with The Miz enacting one of the many perks of his new contract -- a homecoming celebration at Quicken Loans Arena. Miz carried his momentum through Day 176 of his Never-ending Intercontinental Championship World Tour with a few choice words about the Cleveland Cavaliers and the crowd for allowing a "traitor like LeBron James" to come back and manufacture a title when he had been a champion long before that point. After pointing out his parents in the crowd -- the only two people in attendance he deemed worthy -- Miz singled out Ziggler's parents, who were also in attendance.

After proclaiming they produced a "world-class loser," Ziggler immediately came out to defend the honor of those Miz had besmirched. After Ziggler labeled Miz a cheater for his shortcuts in winning their title showdowns, The Miz snapped and basically pointed to the scoreboard -- saying that there won't be any asterisks, and that he'd done much more with his career.

"You almost [reached] that main event level, but now you're barely midlevel. You're the opening act. ... That gets everybody happy, but then just loses," Miz said. "Your career makes me absolutely sick, and I would be embarrassed if it was mine. Let me explain something to you, Ziggler -- you should be embarrassed. Your parents should be embarrassed, your friends should be embarrassed and your city should be embarrassed. Because you have done nothing of late.

"I actually feel sorry for you, but you know what, Dolph, I'm done here. I imagine you came out here to ask, 'One more match, Miz?' and the answer is no, Dolph. You have nothing that matters -- maybe this ring, maybe this crowd, but everything else is done for you. You have nothing."

As he's done several times in the past few months, Ziggler proved just how underrated a talent he can be on the microphone when given the right chance.

"Wait, Miz. Mike, wait," Ziggler called out. "You're right, man. This, this is all I have," he continued, pointing down at the ring. "These couple minutes a night, 300 nights a year, this is my everything. I don't think that's a surprise to anyone. They know that I live for this. This is what I love. But you know what? Sometimes the things you love don't always love you back. You can give, and you can give, and you can give ... and sometimes, you get nothing in return! Nothing! You have friends, and family, and fans coming up to you [asking] you, why do you still do it? Why are you still here? Why do you subject yourself to this every night?

"It's because I can't stop. I can't," Ziggler continued, red in the face and continuing to fight off tears. "It's a sickness, I can't stop. And maybe my career didn't always turn out the way I thought it would, you know? I thought it would've been better. I thought I earned something. I thought I'd be a bigger star. But you know what? I just can't stop myself. You put that title up one more time ... and I'll put up my entire career."

When Ziggler tearfully offered up his career in exchange for one final shot at the Miz's title, he suddenly and dramatically brought their rivalry to its crescendo. He also presented, clear as day within the storylines of the WWE, the kind of career crossroads that he faces in the real world.

In the careers of almost every WWE superstar who spends a significant amount of time in the company, there are a few specific turning points where a career could go in one of a number of drastically different directions. Whether it comes down to the wrestler him (or her)self, circumstances beyond anyone's control or the whim of someone in a position of power, entire careers become defined by these singular moments in time. Dolph Ziggler's career is no different, but unlike some of the biggest superstars of this era of the WWE -- the Orton, John Cena and Chris Jericho-level players -- Ziggler not only seemed to lose the lion's share of the matches, but lose in such a way, and in such volume, that his star turns were somewhat nullified.

Unlike The Miz suggested while he was running down his adversary's career as a failure, Ziggler can't be dismissed when his accomplishments in the ring are listed. There were Intercontinental championship reigns -- four of them, in fact, along with a United States championship reign and a tag-team title run very early on as part of the Spirit Squad. The two clearest moments of truth in the WWE career of Dolph Ziggler, though -- the moments that shine a light on how thin the line between the upper echelon and middle of the road in the wrestling world can be -- happened during his reigns as world heavyweight champion.

His first stretch with the "big, gold belt" lasted less than a night and served as little more than another notch in the belt of an 11-time world champion in Edge. It was largely forgotten moment that's notable in Ziggler's career only because he'd win again, and stands as the first failed attempt to get him recognized as a top-level star. By the second time he captured the world heavyweight championship, when he cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase the night after WrestleMania 29, he was one of the most popular superstars in the company.

A concussion issue hampered Ziggler's run at the top after just two months, and despite numerous other world title matches and a few additional Intercontinental championship reigns, the bloom was somehow off the rose. He got one more moment as the focal point of the entire company when, at the 2014 Survivor Series, he was the sole survivor in a match that temporarily dispatched the hated Authority. Despite a win over Seth Rollins, The Authority soon returned and Ziggler soon floundered again.

Ziggler did draw a certain level of interest during his world title feud with Dean Ambrose, and during this most recent run against Miz. With this final opportunity against The Miz, which should lead to either a long-awaited big win for Ziggler or some kind of complication (a loss seems unlikely, given the finality of how the "career" stipulation was laid out), Ziggler has another opportunity in the spotlight.

If he's unable to do something with this chance, there may not be another one waiting down the line.

Hits and misses

  • Other than some brief backstage interviews, the WWE world championship main event and the three men competing it were largely confined to the final 30 minutes. It worked well in keeping the focus on the match, which was another solid effort from Ambrose and A.J. Styles, but it also allowed Cena to clearly present the kind of value he brings to this three-way rivalry. Both during his commentary on this match and afterward on the "Talking Smack" post-show, he showed he's one of the best in the business at interweaving reality and storyline and blurring the line in just the right way. After Ambrose ran him down both in the ring and on the microphone in the past few weeks, Cena spent the last five minutes of "Talking Smack" picking Ambrose apart piece by piece -- and it all rang true.

    As you might expect with a title match less than two weeks away, Styles held on to the title in a manner that fit all of the stories the trio has told since this match was announced. It was similar in execution to their showdown at Backlash, with a nice callback to a pre-confrontation showdown between the pair as Styles was suspended straddling the top rope in an uncomfortable position. Rather than bouncing Styles up and down on that rope, he hit a top-rope lariat that was well-executed on all accounts.

    In the end, both Styles and Ambrose took swings at Cena, he got involved, and Styles got a roll-up by holding Ambrose's tights (well, jeans) thanks to the distraction. Ambrose got his comeuppance for two weeks of laying Cena out, and Styles got an Attitude Adjustment of his own for his troubles. There's a nice balance going on between these three, and it should make for a great showdown at No Mercy.

  • There was a significant attempt to breathe life into the feud between Wyatt and Orton by having it kick off the show. The series of backstage vignettes were, at times, cheesy, but served a similar purpose to previous weeks -- only with Orton allowed to strike out at Wyatt. Erick Rowan once again served as little more than window dressing (and the longer we wait for the return of Luke Harper, the more questions regarding Rowan's value will pop up). The most interesting part of the series, in which Orton wandered around dimly lit areas of the backstage area at Quicken Loans Arena, were the frames that started to skip -- showing that the seemingly victorious Orton had disappeared. That portion of the video was largely glossed over on commentary, but if this rivalry is to gain an edge or level of excitement in the next two weeks, let's hope that becomes something noteworthy going forward.

  • I'm already missing The Usos' old "new" looks and muted version of their entrance theme. I thought both were simple and to the point and showed just how low-frills, no-nonsense they're becoming. I'll reserve judgment for now, but the changes to both seem like change for change's sake at the outset. It came as little surprise that they earned the pinfalls in their eight-man tag-team match, but the most interesting elements to this showdown were Chad Gable, who looked especially sharp, and Heath Slater, who got the hot tag and cleaned house -- a stark reminder of how far he's come in the past few months.

  • As Becky Lynch came out for a match with ... well, we never found out who it was supposed to be with, Bliss attacked her from behind and laid Lynch out. The champion sold every bit of the attack and showed why she's uniquely suited to help bring some of the younger female superstars up as SmackDown Live evolves. The tag team match involving Carmella, Nikki Bella, Natalya and Naomi was a solid 10-minute encounter as well -- a far cry from the 33 seconds of chaos from one week ago.