There's nothing quite as gratifying as an overconfident bad guy getting his comeuppance in the most embarrassing way possible -- and this week's edition of SmackDown Live delivered as AJ Styles lost to the unlikeliest of foes.
Styles' celebration of his championship quickly descended into insults and mockery as he used every trick in the book to get the San Jose crowd to turn against him. He could barely contain his glee as he repeated several tropes that good guys tend to rattle off, but Styles failed to mention his use of a chair to get the retain the WWE world championship at No Mercy.
"I am a winner, and winners find a way to win," Styles started, before repeating "I beat Dean Ambrose and John Cena at the same time," over and over again. Rather than just walking away on that point, Styles tried to appear magnanimous in taking a match just two nights after retaining his title. The moment Ambrose came out it was clear that he wasn't the opponent Styles had in mind, but his appearance provided just enough misdirection to add to the moment that was about to unfold.
Cue James Ellsworth's music, or the lack thereof -- he of the early, memorable showdown against Braun Strowman, and the temporary tag-team partner for Styles almost a month back before The Miz so rudely interrupted. As Ellsworth sheepishly made his way to the ring, Ambrose showed that his sometimes corny, sometimes laser-sharp wit was on point with a few one-liners that foreshadowed how much he'd add to the proceedings.
As Styles so graciously put his arm around Ellsworth and went on about how SmackDown Live is the land of opportunity, Daniel Bryan made his lone entrance into the arena for the night and announced that Ambrose would be the guest referee -- but rather than retrieve a referee's shirt, he simply took it directly off the official already in the ring and sent him off on his way.
Ambrose was in his glory as the special guest referee, running with the opportunity. He put on the referee's shirt and started tucking it into his jeans, in which he'd somehow managed to wedge about a dozen different items that a confused Styles held for him before coming to his senses and dumped on the outside of the ring.
He did everything he could to stretch his influence as referee to the limit, doing a full pat down of Styles to see if he had any foreign objects on him that took an uncomfortable amount of time. Once the in-ring action finally started, Ambrose continued to abuse his privileges. As Styles locked in the calf crusher, Ambrose turned his back and answered a phone call as Ellsworth tapped out, he tripped a running Styles and even held back his arm enforcing a rarely observed law, stopping Styles from using a closed fist only for Ellsworth to do the same thing moments later. There were autographs signed in the crowd, popcorn was eaten and beverages were consumed, all to avoid counting pinfalls and giving Styles the cheap victory he so craved.
A scary moment came toward the tail end of the match, as Ellsworth was nearly seriously injured as he took a Styles Clash. The unnatural positioning in the move, which requires the wrestler taking the move to lean their head back rather than the instinctual decision to tuck their head, had previously caused serious neck injuries for guys like Yoshi Tatsu and Roderick Strong outside of the WWE, but Styles thankfully realized what was happening and landed so as not to leave Ellsworth the same fate.
Ambrose completely refused to finish the count at this point and hit Styles with a Dirty Deeds, taking some time before draping Ellsworth on top of a prone Styles for a close two-count. It seemed like a temporary embarrassment for the champion, who would certainly find a way to squeeze out a victory as he tends to do -- only Ambrose did it again to cement the unlikeliest of victories for Ellsworth over the WWE world champion.
SmackDown Live is clicking along on all cylinders to such an extent that the show was able to pay off a seemingly low-stakes story with a long-term payoff. Ellsworth was destroyed by Strowman, made a surprise appearance on SmackDown and, months later, not only got a shot at the world champion, but got a pinfall victory over him in the middle of the ring. It helps advance the heat and hatred between Ambrose and Styles, though it's unclear if and how John Cena will play a part.
For now, we have the perfect start to a long pay-per-view layoff for the SmackDown roster. With six weeks of shows to fill before Survivor Series, SmackDown took an unlikely protagonist and thrust him into the spotlight while still advancing the primary story they wanted to tell. Next week will further pay off this story as Bryan, who admitted, "I am a huge James Ellsworth fan" on "Talking Smack," has lined up a championship match for the 14-year independent veteran.
For Ellsworth, an independent wrestling promoter in Maryland whose previous high-water mark in terms of notoriety was his appearance in mid-to-upper-tier independent company CZW, it's the opportunity of a lifetime. For fans, it's another chance to watch something fresh and entertaining on Tuesdays.
With rumors of his demise greatly exaggerated, Doph Ziggler opened SmackDown as a conquering champion, thanking fans for their support and admitting he'd even doubted himself at times on his way to victory at No Mercy. He wasn't given long to gloat about his Intercontinental title win, though.
The Miz and Maryse walked out dressed in all black, another fitting touch to a story that continues to surprise in its versatility and creativity. The pair stood silently and bowed their heads in silence -- mourning the death of the Intercontinental championship.
"I was the one who brought the prestige back to that title," said Miz who, for the last 188 days at least, was right. "If you think this is the end of this story, you are delusional. This is just Act Two -- this is the part of the movie where the hero is in peril and has to overcome unbeatable odds. I am that hero. It's the 'Empire Strikes Back.'
"All great stories have the same ending -- the hero gets the gold and the girl."
Like most great evil geniuses, The Miz doesn't view himself as the villain in his story -- he's the protagonist and the conquering hero. Miz showed just how on point his timing is when, after Ziggler showed a video clip of the end of their No Mercy match where Miz appeared to cry, he allowed the moment to breathe as the crowd chanted "you were crying."
He'd had enough and called out the Spirit Squad, who have made the unlikeliest of returns to regular action in the past few weeks, playing a big part in this rivalry. As action seemingly went to commercial break, we got another in a growing line of SmackDown Live innovations -- action during the commercial break.
Perhaps inspired by soccer-style advertisements designed to allow action to continue, a small window in the corner of the screen showed the broadcast as if it was continuing (without commentary) as the normal commercial window played alongside it. At several other points in the broadcast this innovation was brought back to give the full experience of the match that fans at home otherwise wouldn't have seen.
It could have simply been an experiment, or it could be a new approach, but unlike the many ways the "second screen" experience the WWE tried to use a few years ago failed, this idea keeps fans from fast forwarding while giving them something of value -- and keeps eyes on advertisers, to boot.
There was just enough offense from the Spirit Squad to make them believable, but Ziggler eventually "Killed Kenny" with a superkick, as Mauro Ranallo so eloquently described it. Miz wasted little time sliding into the ring to beat down Ziggler and hit a Skull-crushing Finale. Just as it seemed like the three-on-one beatdown was getting legs, Heath Slater and Rhyno got a massive reaction for running out to save Ziggler (and somewhere Teddy Long cried out "straight up tag team match"), seemingly setting up a six-man match for next week.
"Everything's going to get worse until I get it back," Miz shouted ominously as he exited with his posse. While everything was going great in the previous month by giving each story the time to breathe within its own enclosed environment, the WWE picked a great time to start intertwining its stories and breathed new life into certain elements.
It's hard to overstate the value that Luke Harper has, both in his own right and when it comes to Bray Wyatt. Frankly, he talks better and works better than Rowan. Involving Kane again and putting the tag team match between the Wyatts and Kane and Randy Orton in the main event slot seemed to be negatives at the outset, but those decisions paid off as the rebuilding and rehabilitation of the supernatural mythos of Wyatt continues, step by step.
By having him make Kane disappear, memories of the aborted storyline involving the Undertaker and The Wyatts quickly come to mind -- reinforcing that Wyatt is a true force to be reckoned with, rather than a punching bag who pulls off an occasional magic trick.
It was another victory in the ring for Wyatt, and there was another big step on "Talking Smack." As Bryan walked off with Ellsworth, the conquering hero, and Young started her signoff, she was quickly interrupted by the Wyatts' signature entrance. Young quickly fled after Wyatt and Harper appeared, leaving Wyatt to do what he does best -- spin a tale. It's incredible to see the difference in the punch his words pack when, rather than trying to balance out another tough loss with words, Wyatt can carry on on the strength of a pair of big wins at No Mercy and on SmackDown.
"My brother is back, and we are whole again," said Wyatt. "We've both come to the realization that SmackDown is for the taking, and I think the people that have seen this this week, they understand that they are not safe... The Wyatts are back, and this is our home now."
Hits and misses
Bryan and Shane McMahon made a brief backstage appearance in which they laid down the gauntlet -- they want three traditional Survivor Series matches between Raw and SmackDown on the upcoming co-branded pay-per-view. That's a five-on-five men's match, a five-on-five women's match and a five tag-team-on-five-tag-team match.
I love going back to tradition, but there are some obvious questions that have to be answered before I feel completely comfortable with it. What's the format for the tag team survivor match? How strong are the competitors in each match going to be? Are there going to be long-term consequences from the results? Regardless, it's good to see they won't be just throwing a token match on there to carry the traditional show on in name only.
Carmella blindsided Nikki Bella yet again. You'd think she'd take a hint one of these days and watch her back. Nikki Bella provided the distraction and Carmella got rolled up. As seen on "Talking Smack," this pair is head for a No DQ match somewhere in the near-future. Meanwhile, Naomi got her second big win in three nights, and set herself up for another match with Alexa Bliss, the No. 1 contender, next week.
Jimmy Uso and Chad Gable showed the other half of the singles matchup between Jey Uso and Jason Jordan that happened just before No Mercy. It looks like, for the time being, this feud is going to go on separately from the SmackDown tag-team championships, and that might end up being a pretty good path to follow. Jey helping his brother to cheat and pick up the victory was a nice balance in the early stages of this rivalry.
Where was Curt Hawkins for his promised debut match? He was thinking up more ways to rip off Chuck Norris, apparently.