After the final Raw of 2017 reinforced its reputation with flashy and shocking moments surrounding one or two big matches, the last SmackDown of the year similarly lived up to its own reputation.
Taking full advantage of a commercial-free first hour, SmackDown squeezed in six different matches and pushed forward all of their major storylines through the in-ring action and in brief moments in between. It started with another in a growing line of tremendous matches from the SmackDown tag team division, and on the other bookend, a 20-minute AJ Styles vs. Kevin Owens closed out the year for SmackDown -- all of it proving why Tuesday nights should continue to excite through the next four weeks and into the Royal Rumble.
A WWE title contender emerges as Shane McMahon unwittingly helps Owens beat Styles
At its best, Styles vs. Owens was a great series of pay-per-view matches that raised the prestige of the United States championship; at its worst, there were botched finishes and title changes to fix. On the whole, the rivalry was one of the highlights of the year for SmackDown -- giving general manager Daniel Bryan every storyline reason to revisit it with one final match in 2017 that fittingly closed out the year.
It hasn't always been perfect, but at this moment in time the many layers of stories between Bryan, Owens, Styles, Sami Zayn and Shane McMahon have all come together to form a complex and compelling tapestry of interconnectedness. Bryan keeps making moves that can be equally judged as preferential to Zayn and Owens or entirely justified by what's come before, and either way it's driving McMahon up a wall.
- WWE (@WWE) December 27, 2017
The slow burn between SmackDown's two authority figures continued to simmer with a tense backstage confrontation, but in the result of the main event it moved a few more notches towards boiling over. Owens and Styles put on what may have been their best televised match to date, with all of the powerbombs and springboard combinations you might expect and then some. Styles found new approaches and setups for his power moves, as he tends to do consistently, but the biggest innovation came from Owens, who landed what started as a Vader bomb and ended as a flying elbow.
Zayn stayed satisfyingly out of the way until the very end, when Styles hit a flying forearm to the outside that leveled him. As Zayn shook off the strike and climbed to the ring apron to protest, McMahon came out to throw out his adversary, only to set off a chain of events that allowed Owens to pick up a pinfall victory over the WWE champion.
It sets the stage for Bryan to rightfully position Owens for a shot at the title, further pushing McMahon over the edge, and the spiral of madness will continue to circle until everything reaches its breaking point. Whether it happens around the Royal Rumble, or later, the anticipation should help drive everyone involved forward in 2018.
Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin spoil Rusev Day, become new No. 1 contenders
The Allstate Arena crowd was far more subdued on Tuesday than they were for Raw, but they certainly got out of their seats to celebrate Rusev Day. Bryan opened the show with his focus on the United States championship, but he was quickly interrupted by Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin. They made their case for a shot at The Usos and the SmackDown tag team championships but Rusev & Aiden English, and then New Day, came out with equally compelling arguments.
As tends to be the case in these sorts of situations, the issue was sorted out in the ring with a triple-threat match to determine the new No. 1 contenders. The Usos were at ringside for this one instead of being involved, but this version of the match still carried the same kind of energy as the Clash of Champions Fatal 4-Way. It proved to be a tremendous showcase for both Gable and Rusev, two guys who have both struggled for the better part of four months since a surprisingly good match against one another back in early August.
Gable hit a double German suplex that included Big E, while Rusev powerbombed two men, one with each arm. All six men hand their moments to shine, and grabbed it, and barely slowed down over the course of their uninterrupted (commercially) 13-plus minute match. Each team seemed to have the match thoroughly wrapped up at different points in the match, and the crowd made it known who they were pulling for, but Benjamin and Gable were ultimately the pair that pulled it out. They'll get their shot at The Usos at the tag team titles next week, and the fun merry-go-round between all four of these teams should continue to run until it's deemed that the Bludgeon Brothers are ready.
Dolph Ziggler disappears, U.S. championship tournament begins
We're still not fully sure what's going on in the world of Dolph Ziggler, and whether his comments to ESPN and the E&C Pod of Awesomeness were genuine indications of his impending departure or just frustrations he was feeling in the moment. In any case, Bryan opened up this week's edition of SmackDown to state that Ziggler laying down the title in the ring and ensuing radio silence were enough for the United States championship he won at Clash of Champions to officially become vacated.
- WWE (@WWE) December 27, 2017
An eight-man tournament to crown the next champion immediately got underway on Tuesday, with the most recent champion and No. 1 contender not named Ziggler squaring off to kick it all off. After some disjointed collisions over the last few weeks, Baron Corbin and Bobby Roode had far and away their best effort against one another, in a match that was crisp and smooth throughout. Neither was able to hit their finishing maneuver, but Roode managed a deep, leveraged roll-up to pick up the victory over Corbin and advance.
The second first-round matchup featured former WWE champion Jinder Mahal taking on Tye Dillinger. It ended as you might imagine a match between a guy still held in very high regard and a guy who hasn't appeared in a televised match in over two months would go. Mahal held the edge through most of the match, and ultimately snatched Dillinger off the middle rope to hit the Khallas to pick up the victory.
We've yet to see the other half of the bracket, though one could imagine it including some combination of Mojo Rawley, Zack Ryder, Sami Zayn, Rusev and some tag team competitors, because the SmackDown roster is a bit too shallow to consider many other candidates.
Hits and misses
- Ruby Riott picked up a shockingly quick victory over Naomi, after Liv Morgan and Sarah Logan offered enough distractions to allow for a Riott kick and a pinfall. The trio beat up Naomi post-match, and then did the same to SmackDown women's champion Charlotte Flair when she tried to intercede. Expect the momentum to shift the moment Becky Lynch comes back, which could happen at any time at this point. The women's Royal Rumble match could prove to be a decisive moment in this clash, which has become something of a three-headed monster that also includes the Welcoming Committee, especially with Riott and Natalya officially entering the field on Tuesday.
- Konnor and Viktor are terrible best friends for Breezango, but after the way they've been treated on the Fashion Files, you can't really blame them. Though The Ascension did stop Breezango's second beating at the hands of The Bludgeon Brothers, they also volunteered Fandango and Tyler Breeze for a third helping.
- Randy Orton will officially look to defend his Royal Rumble crown from 2017, and his tag team partner of late, Shinsuke Nakamura, is also officially in the mix for the men's Royal Rumble. Both could play key roles in that match.