On Monday, Raw laid down the gauntlet with a go-home edition that really felt like it mattered, highlighted by a Sami Zayn-Seth Rollins match that changed things dramatically and a three-way showdown between Goldberg, Brock Lesnar and The Undertaker.
On Tuesday, SmackDown didn't blink, producing a powerful final message of its own heading into the Royal Rumble by using nearly the entire roster to build the hype for Sunday.
Each and every part of the show -- yes, even the cringe-worthy James Ellsworth fashion segment -- fit together like a puzzle, both within the previously constructed SmackDown universe and this specific two hour block. The two hours breezed by in a fashion that Monday Night Raw could only dream of and, most importantly, left the audience wanting more heading into Sunday.
Several moments in particular merit deeper exploration, so let's dig in.
Cena drops the mic as Styles stands speechless
After weeks of physicality, John Cena and AJ Styles were only left with words on SmackDown Live -- and unlike the been-there, done-that nature of the static backstage interviews that Charlotte Flair and Bayley were put in on Monday, words were all these two needed to raise the hype levels surrounding their WWE championship match.
As one of the most universally popular heels in the WWE in some time, Styles let the moment soak in upon his entrance -- allowing the crowd to have their voice. Before inviting Cena to come out to confront him, Styles pointed out the indignity of him being basically being built into the background of the poster advertising the Royal Rumble poster as an afterthought while actively reigning as WWE champion.
He then dealt with Cena and Al Roker being disrespectful to him on the "Today" show as they all referred to him simply as "a guy from Atlanta" instead of actually naming him. Styles kept piling up the perceived and actual slights, but eventually caught himself as he called Cena out to address some of their issues face-to-face.
After Styles repeated a few of those same points, Cena unleashed an absolute tirade on Styles. He ran Styles down with every insult in the book, claiming Styles was just another guy who claimed to hate him but secretly wanted to be him. Cena then went out of his way to hit a nerve for a segment of fans that tends to be incredibly pro-Styles.
"I wasn't built for the indie scene -- I was built for the WWE," said Cena, who only spent a brief stretch in a California independent organization at the start of his career before signing with the WWE. Cena continued to hurl haymaker after haymaker. "You're not a 'Guy From Atlanta' -- you're just a GUY, and you're holding onto that Championship because I let you!"
Cena dropped the mic and walked out of the ring to his theme music, leaving a stunned Styles to stand there by himself. The line between ego and confidence is a thin one indeed, and Cena pushed his promo to the borderline of heelishness with hit after hit on Styles. There are certainly many examples of Cena talking all sorts of trash and backing it up by winning when it counts, but at a certain point, raining that much fire down upon someone without giving them a chance to respond is seemingly deserving of some repercussions (see Cena's WrestleMania embarrassment against The Rock as a prime example). Cena is likely going to get world title reign No. 16 (as well as No. 17) somewhere down the line, but this segment certainly did its job in both selling the pay-per-view and throwing the result into a more uncertain state.
Dean Ambrose retains Intercontinental championship amidst Rumble-esque chaos
No matter how surprising some of the results in TV matches have been over the last few months, you'd be forgiven if you didn't think there'd be any chance of an Intercontinental championship title change in the final moments of SmackDown before the Royal Rumble. That goes double after the announcement of a Lumberjack match stipulation.
SmackDown Live opened with a rant by The Miz about the conditions in Toledo and ended with Daniel Bryan offering up a lumberjack Intercontinental title rematch. It was never going to have the cleanest of endings, given the stipulation, but in the end, we got everything that needed to come out of the match: a final tease of Royal Rumble chaos, more anti-Bryan conspiracy fodder for The Miz and a potentially clean break for Ambrose to move on post-Rumble, if they should so choose.
Wyatt Family Feud
SmackDown got right into the action as the Wyatt Family made its way to the ring together as a trio. But when the lights kicked back on, Luke Harper and Randy Orton were facing down with one another and ready for battle. They went all out, throwing each other all around the ring, both inside and out of it. It was a great match from two solid competitors, ending with a discus clothesline attempt falling right into an RKO. After appearing to offer condolences to Harper, Bray Wyatt hit a Sister Abigail on him and left his long-time compatriot lying in the ring as he and Orton walked out together.
Mickie James keeps it simple, continues stifling Becky Lynch
Mickie James made her first SmackDown entrance since her reveal as La Luchadora and proceeded to cut a promo that instantly and to near-perfection explained why she came back, and why she partnered with Alexa Bliss. Calling the women's revolution a net positive, yet self-righteous movement that forgot about her contributions to women's wrestling, James returned to remind everyone of why she's a five-time WWE women's champion. Similarly, with Bliss being the lone woman to stand up to the women of the "revolution" (and conveniently recognizing all of what James had accomplished), their egos aligned to a common cause and led them to become a cohesive unit.
Becky Lynch tried to gain some measure of revenge but ultimately ended up getting laid out yet again by the team of Bliss and James.
After the Nikki Bella beatdown of Natalya led to Naomi's match not happening, her open challenge drew out Bliss later in the evening, though there'd end up being no confrontation. It ultimately led to a six-woman tag team match at the Royal Rumble.
Hits and misses
• Dolph Ziggler came back with a vengeance this week, destroying Kalisto in less than a minute. He then went to grab a chair and once again destroy Kalisto but, with a brief tease of JBL involvement tied to last week's Jerry Lawler segment as a distraction, Apollo Crews blindsided Ziggler and caused him to scurry off. While I didn't feel Ziggler had earned the level of heelishness he displayed last week, if he quickly turns the corner and starts piling up wins in devastating fashion, I'm all for it.
• I'm a big fan of lower mid-carders fighting for their spots in the Royal Rumble match, because simply qualifying is a big deal in a field as stacked as this year's. It'll be a good shot for Mojo Rawley, who defeated the bulk of SmackDown's tag team division and Curt Hawkins to get the nod.
• Speaking of which, where is American Alpha? Since dispatching The Wyatt Family two weeks ago and getting another big win under their belts, they've been off of TV for two weeks. It looks like The Usos are all healed up, if their appearance as lumberjacks in the main event is any indication, and three weeks of build heading into Elimination Chamber could have been better than two, even if it was just a brief scuffle outside of the ring during that same match.
• There were enough chuckles surrounding Ellsworth's makeover to make it at least bearable, like Carmella shutting down his "Godfather" impression, but I'm unsure of the shelf life of what's going on here.