Until the last few minutes of SmackDown Live on Tuesday, everything that's made the show as great as it's been over the past six months was on full display. There was cohesive and dynamic storytelling that felt fresh, yet familiar, an acute attention to detail, and continuity and opportunities for previously unheralded or underutilized superstars to make their case for bigger opportunities.
From moment one, the opening video package was skillfully cut to distill the biggest moments of the last few weeks of conflict between The Miz and Dean Ambrose into a seamless narrative. Ambrose, the new Intercontinental champion, added fuel to the fire by inviting the Miz on the "Ambrose Asylum" and promptly handing him back the "Miz Participation Award" he'd been given at the very start to this rivalry. The Miz snapped and attacked Ambrose, but when Maryse tried to hit yet another in a growing series of slaps across the face, she mistimed it and hit Miz instead (to which Ambrose once again offered the participation award).
There was another strong title match between American Alpha and The Wyatt Family, a logical big step in the ongoing title feud between Alexa Bliss and Becky Lynch, and a further fall from grace in Dolph Ziggler's turn to the dark side. Truth be told, each and every match or interaction had multiple layers and built upon the previous foundation laid in the weeks and months that preceded it. It was all chugging along towards another stellar top-to-bottom show until the ghost of John Cena past reared its ugly head and ended things on a sour note.
This is not an indictment of Cena winning decisively, or the likelihood of him winning his record-tying 16th WWE world championship at the Royal Rumble. Between all of the good he did during his United States championship open challenges, the incredible SummerSlam match against AJ Styles and the more than 2½-year stretch he's gone without a world championship, Cena has waited on the sideline for his turn and a chance at history for long enough.
No, it's in paying attention to those very same details that have made SmackDown as great as it's been since Cena took his post-SummerSlam leave that the biggest problem becomes clear. After weeks of making Baron Corbin look like the kind of monster the WWE has hoped he'd be since his debut at WrestleMania 32, through in-ring action and on commentary, Corbin looked very human in Tuesday's main event against Cena, and took a clear back seat to the "true" main event players, Cena and Styles.
While it makes all the sense in the world to give Cena a strong buildup to the potentially historic Royal Rumble pay-per-view world title match, having Corbin fall victim to Cena's infamous "five moves of doom" without a shred of resistance to earn the latter the victory flies in the face of everything that SmackDown has been.
Maybe it's a case of bad timing, and the match had to end a little more swiftly than expected. Perhaps expectations of Cena helping Corbin put on the same kind of technically impressive matches that Styles and Ziggler have had with Corbin is unrealistic at this stage of Cena's career. But one thing's for certain -- as much as Cena's name value and surprisingly solid in-ring performances of the last year-plus can be a huge asset to SmackDown and the WWE in general, especially if he becomes a 16-time world champion, the last thing in the world the show needs is anything resembling Cena's title reigns of a decade ago.
When it comes down to the third act of Cena's active in-ring career, the devil will be in the details.
Hits and misses
• The tag-team title rematch, with the exception of one over-telegraphed spot late in the match, fulfilled every goal it set out to achieve. Jason Jordan and Chad Gable each had their opportunity to look every bit the athletic machines they are by taking turns against a surprisingly vulnerable Bray Wyatt early in the match. Gable in particular successfully pulled out all of his high-risk spots on both Wyatt and Randy Orton, the team selected to represent the Wyatt Family in this return match.
Orton took control during his short spell in the ring, and looked as sharp as ever. Gable took his turn absorbing damage, Jordan eventually came in like a house on fire, but Luke Harper turned the tide midmatch with a distraction and then Jordan took his licks. Harper helped a couple of times over the course of the match, in fact, but a reaction to getting hit as collateral damage caused Harper to get involved one too many times, and led to Gable rolling up Orton for a win. Overall it was a great match, but judging by crowd reaction, getting away from the very popular Wyatts as quickly as possible is vital for Gable and Jordan not losing some support from the fans. They can build quickly, and a solid rivalry against The Usos seems like a great next step.
As for The Wyatt Family, Harper's second consecutive screw-up caused far more visible tension between the trio. It boiled over this time around, as Harper attempted to superkick Orton, but instead nailed Wyatt, who had tried to separate the warring factions. With all three seemingly destined for the Royal Rumble match, the next two weeks could go a long way in determining what the "Road to WrestleMania" will look like for these three.
• Ziggler's heel turn either took a detour or crystalized his evil intentions, depending on your perspective. After conducting a completely silent backstage interview with Dasha Fuentes, Ziggler had a very competitive and entertaining match with Kalisto and ultimately picked up a fairly surprising loss. That was immediately countered by Ziggler laying out both Kalisto and Apollo Crews with multiple chair shots after the latter came out to try to save his friend.
Giving Ziggler a loss, even a fluky one, this early in his heel turn is a dangerous move. Laying out two guys somewhat mitigates it, but the writing is risking the heat and excitement over Ziggler dissipating in a hurry. On the other hand, another loss likely takes Ziggler's character to a darker place.
• The SmackDown women's division takes another big step up next week with a steel cage match between Lynch and Bliss set to take place. While it may not have quite the same buildup as the Charlotte Flair - Sasha Banks rivalry, the second stipulation match for the SmackDown women's championship between Lynch and Bliss certainly feels like it was earned more organically. With the uncertainty of the "La Luchadora" reveal hanging over these two, next week's SmackDown Live might not be the end of their story by a long-shot.
• Speaking of attention to detail and continuity, the backstage attack between Natalya and Nikki Bella was well done. Similarly to Bella's previous rivalry with Carmella, there's been a solid build to this eventual match -- and let's hope it doesn't take as long for the big payoff to come.
• After everything she's said in the last couple of weeks and the intimate attention she's provided James Ellsworth, it was nice to see Carmella give Ellsworth a brush-off when he tried to kiss her. Poor Ellsworth, who said he'd been waiting a long time for that moment, and despite interfering with another of Carmella's matches on her behalf, he may be experiencing a whole lot more of that in the future.
• During their opening standoff, both Ambrose and The Miz declared their inclusion in the Royal Rumble match. In the closing moments of "Talking Smack," Ziggler also threw his hat in the ring. This brings the confirmed list of participants to 13.