New era in full effect after SmackDown Live 'Wild Card Finals'

With deference to John Cena and his impassioned promo that opened the final edition of SmackDown Live for 2016, the "new era" isn't a temporary phenomenon experiencing its moment in the sun -- the new guys are running the show.

Excepting The Miz and his Intercontinental championship (which is a case study unto itself), all four other championships on the show are held by wrestlers who were not on the WWE main roster to start 2016 -- and none of them feel out of place.

SmackDown Live's "Wild Card Finals" lived up to the hype and then some, delivering two hours of pay-per-view quality content that showed the future of the show is so bright, shades might be required. The opening match Tuesday night provided one of the biggest surprises, as the oft-frustrated American Alpha finally got their shot at the SmackDown tag-team championship and cashed in -- derailing the momentum of the Wyatt Family just a few weeks into a run that felt like it might have legs. Alexa Bliss continued to show why she's been given the ball to run with as SmackDown women's champion by coming up big in her defense against Becky Lynch, which ended with some doppelganger shenanigans.

And to cap it all off, AJ Styles got one more chance to prove why he has become "the face that runs the place" in a 20-plus-minute masterpiece against Dolph Ziggler and Baron Corbin. As announcer Mauro Ranallo put it immediately after the WWE world championship match concluded, Styles got the "exclamation point for the greatest first year for any WWE superstar" with his victory -- along with a faceoff with Cena at the very end of the show that sets up the champ to start 2017 in the very same way.

Each of these moments deserves a closer look, so let's break it down.

Cena returns, immediately resumes chase for world title No. 16

After just a handful of appearances post-SummerSlam in August, Cena seems to have come back with a vengeance. He weathered a storm with a Chicago crowd -- that for whatever reason has concentrated a lot of its frustration for the departure of CM Punk on Cena -- with class and patience. Cena played hype man for the night ahead but, after building up a number of the "new era" stars, made a complete 180 and started laying out his case for jumping right back into his pursuit of a record-tying 16th world championship reign.

Casting aside calls from the crowd for a showdown with The Undertaker (which may still be in the cards if Cena and the fans are given what they want), Cena signaled the start of what he's calling the "My time is now" era by challenging the winner of the night's main event to a world title match at the Royal Rumble. In making his case, he showed an edge of darkness that was, quite frankly, refreshing, and Cena simply used the justification that he is who he is and deserves the shot simply for who he is and what he's done. The result of the main event sets the stage for a story that seems to have a few more chapters to be told -- and a Cena-Styles rematch is the perfect way to throw the longtime standard-bearer right back into the fire.

American Alpha earns stunning title victory; beginning of the end for the Wyatt Family?

Since joining the SmackDown Live roster in the WWE's brand separation draft in July, American Alpha has alternated between spurts of hot and cold moments. A lot of the downtime can be attributed to the unlikely title reign of Heath Slater & Rhyno and the uneven nature of their rivalry with The Usos, but that all turned around in a hurry with their victory in the first of three title matches at "Wild Card Finals."

Appropriately enough, Chad Gable and Jason Jordan were in the ring with both of those aforementioned teams, as well as the pairing of Randy Orton and Luke Harper representing the reigning champions, the Wyatt Family. The match itself was anything but a case of American Alpha sitting and biding their time until the very end and taking their opportunity -- rather, they were in the mix from the very beginning and carried the action for the bulk of the contest.

While Orton and Harper actively stayed out of the picture and -- of the action -- until only two teams remained in the 4-Way elimination match, we got the last gasps of life from inaugural SmackDown tag-team champions Slater & Rhyno, whose dissolution seemed to hit its final note with their early elimination in this contest. After slipping off the ropes and seeing his knee buckle, Slater was essentially clotheslined by a blistering superkick from Jey Uso that led to the first pinfall -- and the prognosis doesn't look good for Slater either.

After some good back-and-forth that showed off the better parts of the chemistry between The Usos and American Alpha, Gable eventually got a roll-up pinfall and both he and Jordan got a beatdown for their troubles. It seemed the perfect opportunity for the Wyatt Family to slide in and pick up an easy victory, but what followed instead was a competitive back-and-forth that did American Alpha all sorts of favors. Gable and Jordan got to put all of their various suplexes on display, including a most improbable dead-lift German suplex into a bridge from Gable on the 275-pound Harper. The match reached its shocking conclusion with a wire-crossing moment between Orton and Harper that left both men stunned -- and left American Alpha the perfect opportunity to hit Grand Amplitude on Orton and secure the victory.

The postmatch shoving contest between Orton and Harper brought back to focus that the "new" Wyatt Family is built on the most unstable of foundations, and that'll play out in the weeks to come. On this night, though, the story was all about Gable and Jordan -- and they'll certainly benefit in 2017 from holding the SmackDown tag-team titles.

Bliss shines, Lynch haunted by specter of 'La Luchadora'

The fourth SmackDown women's championship match between Bliss and Lynch played like a "greatest hits" album in all the right ways. They had great in-ring chemistry from the start, but you can see Bliss sharpening both her technical skills and in-ring charisma each time out with a rock like Lynch.

Lynch had the edge for the majority of the match, but she by no means wrestled circles around the champion. Despite her diminutive size, Bliss' offense is largely centered around blistering strikes and kicks -- and it works. The story of this match ultimately became the reintroduction of "La Luchadora," the masked character Lynch dressed up as last week to defeat and embarrass Bliss. Another thus-unknown wrestler ran out wearing the same generic luchador garb and provided enough distraction and interference to allow Bliss to retain her title with a DDT.

Whether Lynch's next step is a continuation with Bliss or a new path with this new debutant, the women of SmackDown Live continued to step up to the challenge of keeping the division fresh -- and there's a world of possibilities ahead in 2017.

Styles, Ziggler and Corbin send 2016 off with a bang

If you've watched even a little bit of SmackDown in 2016, you can probably guess how this one played out. By putting two of the best technical wrestlers in the business together in the ring with a young, hungry up-and-comer, the end result was an unmissable match that personified everything that SmackDown did well in 2016.

The match will ultimately be remembered for three spots in particular -- the reluctant double-team elbow/leg drop combination from Styles and Ziggler through Corbin on an announce table , a stunning combination Zig-Zag/End of Days involving all three men and a finish in which Corbin again hit End of Days only for Styles to steal the pinfall. Styles and Ziggler made Corbin look every bit the worthy world title contender, and with the exception of one mistimed breakup of a pin (that Styles patched over effortlessly, as he's wont to do), Corbin did everything he had to do as well.

The handshake between Styles and Cena to close out "Wild Card Finals" confirmed what was already fairly obvious -- we're getting a rematch of their absolute classic at SummerSlam with the WWE world title on the line, and you couldn't ask for a better showcase for either guy.

Hits and misses

  • Miz continued to try to embarrass Renee Young and got a Dean Ambrose beating for his troubles. The pair are set to kick off 2017 with an Intercontinental championship match, and if early returns are any indication, this pairing has enough chemistry to carry on far beyond that point, if the powers that be so desire.

  • On the opposite end of that spectrum, the still all-too-confusing pairing of Carmella and James Ellsworth continued to move forward, as Carmella called Ellsworth "uniquely attractive" during a backstage segment. Where this goes from here is anyone's guess.