The ever-changing nature of wrestling has led to a litany of loose ends and questions that will never be answered and conclusions that will never happen. Who was behind GTV? Was Hornswaggle really the Anonymous Raw General Manager all along?
Other stories aren't forgotten entirely, destined instead to be put on the back burner for an extended and indeterminate stretch. This was the case when it came to John Cena's pursuit of Ric Flair's record of 16 world championship reigns, with barely a mention made on TV over the last year until Cena made his dramatic return to SmackDown Live Tuesday night.
A.J. Styles opened the show, as you'd expect from the new WWE world champion, and he executed all of the things that make those who love him, love him -- and those who hate him, hate him -- to near-perfection. The smug grin on Styles' face and almost everything he did on his walk to the ring was exactly what one would expect, and from the moment he got on the microphone, he made salient points. He listed off a number of occurrences he had correctly predicted en route to becoming champion, culminating in an increasingly ridiculous "If I told you" scenarios that peaked with Styles claiming that if he said the sky was green, it wasn't even worth looking because he was truly infallible.
As with some of his other extended solo segments on the microphone, the tail end of his statements started to lose some steam. It actually got a bit ugly toward the very end for Styles as he turned his (and Cena's) catchphrase from the "Face who runs the place" to the "Champ that runs the camp" -- a rather cringe-worthy turn, in fact. Styles then repeated it several times, and whether it was his given mission to make the new phrase stick in the minds of fans or a merely as a tool to get the crowd to turn against him, it fell incredibly flat.
Thankfully for Styles, Cena made his entrance at that moment and hit his stride in record time. He wasted no time and pulled no punches in stating his intentions for the WWE world championship, despite Styles' efforts to deflect by returning Cena's headband when faced with Cena's demand that, "You have something that belongs to me."
It might be hard to believe, especially considering several particularly dominant stretches during his decade in the WWE, but Cena hasn't held a WWE world title in more than two years. His last reign with the WWE world championship came to an end in August 2014 in a match where he was utterly destroyed by Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam. Cena has only sniffed the championship a few times since that point. There was a big push at the 2015 SummerSlam, as Cena embraced his proximity to Flair's record with a wave of "15x" shirts and gear. But with Jon Stewart's interference, Cena lost, and he hasn't received a televised world championship match since.
It would be unfair to dismiss that time frame completely, though. In that stretch, Cena made the United States championship and himself more relevant by challenging nearly every promising young guy and stepping up his in-ring game immensely. There was also a six-month stretch where Cena was out with an injury, but upon his return, he immediately got involved with Styles in a rivalry that's produced several career-defining matches for each of them.
The fire on display from Cena as he went after Styles clearly showed just how important a milestone that Flair's record is for Cena, no matter how long it's been since he's held the title. "I have one goal left -- one goal in the WWE -- and it's to proudly announce that the 16-time champ ... is ... here."
On cue, Dean Ambrose came storming out to claim what was rightfully his, immediately blowing by Cena and getting in Styles' face too. Ambrose has subtly grown out his beard over the last few weeks, and it served as a nice touch in portraying just how unhinged he's become after losing his championship like he did. Both the announcers and Ambrose put over how good the match was before Styles took the easy way out, and it's a strong-running storyline that could continue to build for a time to come. Styles has the ability to win a straight up fight, like he did against Cena at SummerSlam, but when he sees an opening to take a shortcut, he won't hesitate to do so.
"You made the biggest mistake of your life on Sunday, boy... I'm not just going to take my title back -- I'm going to take it back with interest," Ambrose said.
Cena brought things back into focus and, because it's 2016, warranted a reaction from the crowd for calling out Ambrose, agreeing with slights from Stone Cold Steve Austin that he dished out on Austin's podcast. Cena even pointed out that Styles merely returned the favor for an injury Ambrose himself inflicted on Styles, and then turned up the heat with some seemingly childish humor that got him one of the loudest, most unilaterally positive reactions he's received in years as he laid into the "Lunatic fringe."
"I'm actually surprised that low blow even hurt you... all you've been showing the WWE Universe is that you've got no b----," said Cena as he got just a few inches out from Ambrose's face, with the crowd breaking out into uproarious "Cena" chants.
Ambrose returned fire as he called Cena a "lazy part-timer" that "can't get it done in the ring anymore" and is better-suited to being on morning talk shows. Enter Shane McMahon, who with a snap of the fingers, set up a triple-threat match for the WWE world championship at October's PPV, No Mercy. Ambrose, Cena and Styles each felt like a big deal with a bone to pick with the other two, and the main event did a whole lot of good for each of them -- and a fourth person, as Styles was ultimately tasked with finding a tag team partner for Tuesday's main event.
A two-hour show with only four actual matches might have typically infuriated some wrestling fans, but most of what happened on SmackDown Live really worked despite the lack of in-ring competition. The Miz predictably strolled out to the ring with Maryse, gloating about his victory via nefarious means of his own. He celebrated Day 162 of his "Never-ending intercontinental championship world tour" by pointing out he'd already surpassed the reigns of 132 former Intercontinental champions, including Triple H and his Backlash opponent, Dolph Ziggler.
He boiled it down to one big point -- one he'd harp on, and prove later in the evening. "I am a main eventer. It's the truth."
Maryse proved how valuable she is on her own, garnering genuine anger from the crowd just long enough for Daniel Bryan. It's been impressive to watch the subtlety with which they've handled The Miz and Bryan working together since taking a full week off post-Talking Smack showdown. Everything they're doing plays well thanks to their natural ability to play off of one another.
When Bryan demanded that Miz face Ziggler in a rematch, The Miz correctly pointed out that Ziggler hadn't really earned his No. 1 contender status to begin with and reintroduced the possibility of a contract renegotiation. Rather than just dealing with the edicts of authority figures, this move from The Miz tends to lend itself to some interesting directions for the future as he wields his leverage.
"I'm calling my own shots, Daniel, and there's nothing you can do about it," Miz said. "You don't get what you want, until I get what I want." With a drop of the microphone, The Miz made good on his threats as he exited through the crowd with Maryse.
The Miz's switcheroo as Styles' last-minute tag team partner further accentuated three things: How much value he's built with the crowd in the last few weeks, how he's clearly the No. 2 "heel" on the SmackDown Live roster and just how willing his character is to disrupt everything Bryan wants to do. With Styles previously failing to find a partner, and Bryan saddling him with James Ellsworth, one of the independent wrestlers that was used as cannon fodder for Braun Strowman on Raw a few weeks back, The Miz had the perfect opportunity to interject.
"I'm the main event," repeated The Miz, and he certainly felt like he belonged in this match as the bell rang. The tag team chemistry between him and Styles was strong throughout, and until the end of the match, none of the four competitors felt particularly stronger than the other three.
Strangely enough, it somehow felt wrong that it was the Intercontinental champion, and not the vulnerable WWE champion, to ultimately take the fall. Having Cena make The Miz seem like a chump with a quick-hit "Attitude Adjustment" and no real prior offense felt like a silly thing to do, and ultimately a blow to the work that he's been doing. There were a dozen other ways this could have ended, most of which could have involved an "anything you can do, I can do better" sequence between Cena and Ambrose that could have led into a "Dirty Deeds" straight into an "Attitude Adjustment" (or vice versa) and made to feel like either Styles or Miz required a lot to be taken down. It also would have made Ambrose's strike on Cena to close the show feel like more of a culmination than a random happenstance.
The Miz deserved better.
Hits and misses
It would have been hard for the five-way match on SmackDown Live to live up to the Six-Pack Elimination Challenge at Backlash, but the No. 1 contender status battle for the SmackDown women's championship was still a very fun match, giving each woman a chance to look like she could be the winner. They even had the kind of near-falls stemming from moves that would normally end matches -- and if you're one who looks for symbols of the women reaching an even playing field with the men, this was a big milestone.
Naomi is very much a feast-or-famine entity, but she's doing a lot of exciting and experimental things in the ring that few others are willing to risk. Nikki Bella is moving as well as she has at any point in her career, and she's seemingly been reinvigorated with all of the fresh opponents ahead of her -- and it speaks well for the future of this division.
There was a certain lingering feeling that the winner here would be a wild card, with Bella and Carmella already embroiled in a rivalry outside of the scope of the SmackDown women's championship. There were certain arguments to be made for Naomi and Natalya, the other veterans in the ring, but Alexa Bliss was something of an inspired choice -- someone who could greatly benefit from a high-profile feud at the top of the women's division, and someone with previous history against Becky Lynch.
There's nothing quite as fun as Heath Slater putting his foot in his mouth, and it seems like one of these days Rhyno will either going to get fed up with the "One Man Band" talking for him or he's not going to be able to cover Slater's rear end when he's needed most. For now, everything's clicking. I'm far from the biggest Ascension supporter, as it's seemingly been a competition between them and fellow former NXT tag team champions The Vaudevillains in a contest to see who's least relevant in the division, but this was the right kind of opening challenge for a team like Slater & Rhyno to build up a victory while still giving Konnor and Viktor a chance to prove themselves.
I like the thought of there being at least an occasional title match on SmackDown Live and Raw, and the SmackDown tag team championships certainly fit the bill in terms of where they currently sit in the pecking order. There was sadly some sloppiness from The Ascension during an opportunity to make themselves and Slater & Rhyno look good, so it could be a while yet before they get another shot like this going forward.
There's not much to say about the other tag-team match on this show; neither team even got an entrance in a rematch between The Usos and The Hype Bros. Jimmy and Jey made quick work of Zack Ryder and Mojo Rawley, with Ryder continuing to sell a knee injury. For a team that got quite a buzz a week ago with a full-blown sudden heel turn, The Usos didn't get to show all that much in this brief showdown, but it's clear they're ready to circle back around for another go at the titles.
Things clearly aren't over between Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton, but there wasn't much that was new or fresh to their confrontation Tuesday. Having Erick Rowan attack Orton smells like a bit of desperation; he's gone from good to bad (and Wyatt friend to foe) as many times as the Big Show has over the last couple of years.
Time to face the facts: Curt Hawkins' debut this week was a continuation of his previous skits, only with him reciting these lines in person. It was utter cheesiness -- a mix of '80s over-the-top wrestling character and modern day meta-awareness.
Baron Corbin and Apollo Crews squared off at the very tail end of their respective NXT runs -- each of them performing quite well, with promise but rough around the edges. This match never happened, as Corbin took out Crews on the outside, but one of the most interesting developments of the evening was Jack Swagger's spontaneous appearance in confronting Corbin.
There was a brief mention on Raw of Swagger's contract coming up, and in leaving Raw for SmackDown as a "free agent," we have our first taste of a talent going from one roster to another. It shows that such a movement is possible, and opens up a world full of possibilities, including future drafts with many different potential formats, trades and other forms of free agency. It was also another in a growing series of subtle interactions between the two shows without much direct conflict.