With just two weeks to build from Survivor Series to their next brand-exclusive pay-per-view event, SmackDown Live got the card for TLC in order in a hurry, to varying levels of success.
Going into Tuesday night, there was a grand total of one match announced for SmackDown Live's TLC pay-per-view: the main event TLC match between AJ Styles and Dean Ambrose. As for the rest of the card, they did what they could in their two hours on Tuesday.
These made a lot of sense and had plenty of momentum behind them:
After costing Kalisto the cruiserweight championship at Survivor Series, and everything else that's happened since the draft, a big match between the "lucha dragon" and Baron Corbin makes all the sense the world, even if it had to be shoehorned into a chairs match.
But then there's the tag-team division. There was a whole lot of momentum there, but there was no clear path for a true No. 1 contender until they implemented the gauntlet match. American Alpha earned the victory, which should have put them right in line for a long-deserved SmackDown tag-team title shot, but Bray Wyatt's trademark spooky entrance hit just as they began to celebrate.
Now, if Wyatt, Randy Orton and Luke Harper claimed that their reward for saving Team SmackDown from a clean sweep in the traditional Survivor Series matches was somehow tied to an opportunity to vie for the tag team titles, it would've made sense. If they had immediately come out and decimated American Alpha to earn a shot at Heath Slater & Rhyno, it could've set up for a big dichotomy going into that match with an extra week to build towards how lopsided a matchup it'd be.
Instead, without referencing a reward of any kind from Daniel Bryan or Shane McMahon, or boasting that their victory had helped to give them more power of some kind, Wyatt and Orton simply reiterated how well they were functioning as more than a team -- a family.
Sadly, figuring out what to do with Wyatt has been one of SmackDown's greatest challenges since the brand separation. What should have been a triumphant night, in which they were loudly applauded (and not just offhandedly mentioned a few times) and visibly rewarded for saving everyone else's skin, instead turned into a fairly generic Wyatt Family promo and more delayed gratification.
If they don't figure it out, SmackDown's Wyatt problem is going to start weighing down the rest of the show.
Ellsworth goes to 3-0 against AJ Styles
The other biggest moment of the night centered around SmackDown's unlikeliest superstar, James Ellsworth. Shane McMahon kicked off the show with many of the scars he incurred by putting his body through hell at Survivor Series being plainly evident. Even the tone of his voice sounded somewhat off from its normal, energetic pitch, and he struggled, at times, to get to his points.
"I personally feel like I've been in a car accident," McMahon said, with the crowd responding with a lengthy, "You've still got it" chant, in appreciation of the two monumentally dangerous spots he participated in on Sunday night.
Just as he was getting to his point, Ambrose walked down to the ring and, before McMahon could make another point, Ambrose invited his sidekick Ellsworth to join him. Ellsworth, also bearing the scars of going through a table from the top of the entrance ramp courtesy of Braun Strowman, slowly ambled down to the ring in a neck brace to great applause.
Ambrose quickly proceeded to spoil McMahon's surprise of Ellsworth's SmackDown Live contract, and McMahon had finally had enough; with that last indignity, on top of potentially scuttling Team SmackDown's chances at Survivor Series by pairing up with Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins for a triple-powerbomb on Styles and a number of previous issues, Ambrose was given the night off.
As McMahon confirmed Ellsworth's new status, and insisted Ambrose make his exit promptly, he and Styles walked down the ramp and shared a tense exchange of looks. Styles immediately (and predictably) ran down Ellsworth at every turn, challenging him to earn his contract in a ladder match against the champion. Even in his beat up state, Ellsworth agreed on the condition he'd also be granted a future world title chance if he somehow pulled it off -- and Styles greedily agreed.
Ellsworth twisted the knife a bit before insisting McMahon made the match, pointing out that he had already beaten Styles twice. As Styles ambled off, Ambrose returned from out of nowhere and patted both McMahon and Ellsworth on the shoulder, to McMahon's great dismay. It would become the running theme of the night.
Ambrose showed up again backstage, and after McMahon pushed him out the door he later returned with a pizza in hand. He was kicked out for a third time, only to return for a fourth go dressed up as The Mountie; this time, McMahon was pushed over the edge and left as Ambrose delivered The Mountie's memorable catchphrase -- "The Mountie always gets his man" -- in reference to Styles, while fighting off a smile with every fiber of his being.
One more return for Ambrose was inevitable, and when the main event match started with only 10 minutes left in the show, the conclusion was inevitably going to come quickly. The fact that Styles didn't take Ambrose's potential involvement into account after everything that happened on this episode, to say nothing of everything that happened over the last few months, is a strain on suspension of disbelief in the highest degree.
The match followed a familiar, if entertaining path. Styles nearly grabbed the contract down two or three times, but each time there was something that got him down. Ellsworth hung on to the end of the ladder and got dragged into the ring apron against his will; then Ellsworth rolled back into the ring and, rather than simply grabbing the contract, Styles ripped Ellsworth's shirt to reveal a back brace of sorts (or, perhaps a girdle, if JBL was to be believed) and kicked him in the ribs a few times. There was also a slap to the face as he trapped Ellsworth beneath the bottom rung of the ladder.
Ambrose made that all-too-predictable final appearance dressed up in an Ottawa Senators sweater and a goalie mask to predictably save Ellsworth and push him up the ladder. But just when it seemed like the Cinderella story would take place and Ellsworth would get to 3-0 without a hitch, Styles hit a Phenomenal Forearm and seemingly neutralized Ellsworth's secret weapon -- and left him all on his own.
But with Styles on top of the ladder, Ellsworth summoned all of his remaining strength and knocked over the ladder as Styles took a terrifying-looking crash and burn to the apron and then the floor. Still, Ellsworth couldn't summon the strength to move fast enough up the ladder fast enough-- but after he hit "No Chin" music, which led Styles to get his foot twisted up between the bottom and middle ropes, the world champion had to watch on as Ellsworth sealed his status as a member of the SmackDown roster, moved his record to 3-0 against Styles, and earned one of the most improbable world title matches of all time.
Hits and misses
It's high time for The Miz and Ziggler to settle things once and for all. It's been a far more enjoyable ride than anyone would have predicted at the start, and a ladder match is the right way to go about things. Before he could get there, however, The Miz had one final title defense to get through -- a showdown with Kalisto. The match served its purpose. Kalisto got another title shot, only for Corbin to ruin it again, and Kalisto got his revenge later against Corbin during his match with Kane. As Miz celebrated another narrow escape, Ziggler had a surprise in store as he hit a superkick to lay out the unsuspecting champion.
Bliss getting on Bryan's nerves for trying to get a rightfully earned shot at SmackDown's women's championship is happily over, as Lynch herself proclaimed the match would take place at TLC. Ambrose's presence allowed for a welcomed pizza pun from Lynch, while Natalya's inserting herself into the conflict set up a match between herself and the champion. Bliss acting as the voice of the audience to reply incredulously to Nattie's ongoing song-stealing gimmick (this week featured a message stolen from Titanic's "My Heart Will Go On") is working, and if WWE isn't careful they're going to create a babyface by accident -- Bliss' facial reactions are worth the price of admission.The match itself was solid, with Lynch earning the submission victory with the Disarmer, and then Bliss hit a DDT to lay out Lynch to send a predictable message two weeks from their title rematch.
I touched upon the lack of a Wyatt/Orton appearance in the tag-team gauntlet, but in real life, there's a pretty good reason:
About 30 hours from now I'll have a brand new baby girl. I'm blessed.
- Randy Orton (@RandyOrton) November 21, 2016