There have been certain years in which the "Road to WrestleMania" is left to rest its hype on history and one or two historic battles, with all of the paths to the biggest show of the year telegraphed from a mile away. It can be incredibly hard to nail the target when the stakes are so high, and they are especially so with less than 40 days remaining until WrestleMania 33, and an ability to pivot when presented with twists, both unexpected and self-made, can make all the difference in how things will play out in Orlando, Florida.
Both Raw and SmackDown returned to form this week, and while that meant tripping over familiar problems on Monday night, SmackDown Live once again proved innovative and quick on their feet throughout.
Now, I can already hear the virtual groans when it comes to the finish of Tuesday's main event battle royal, which featured an inconclusive finish and a draw in failing to find a clear No. 1 contender (and we'll get to that shortly), but one of the biggest elements to note among SmackDown's busy broadcast was just how big a part their thriving women's division played in getting things to that point.
Segments involving the women of SmackDown Live stretched to occupy more than one-third of the overall broadcast, a near unheard-of presence and yet another sign of just how deep and well-written the rivalries going on with the division have been. Between the opening segment, which saw Naomi tearfully relinquish the SmackDown women's championship to an equally wistful GM in Daniel Bryan, the impromptu title match between Alexa Bliss and Becky Lynch that saw the former become a two-time champion and the strong "falls count anywhere" blow-off between Natalya and Nikki Bella, none of it was filler, either.
As the weeks, months and years go on in the WWE, the long-term impact of the "women's revolution" will become clearer. For the moment, at least, the SmackDown women's division in particular continues to far eclipse expectations and prove that, with strong writing and a concerted effort from all involved, that women's wrestling can be a strong cornerstone for the show to be built upon.
Double-elimination forces audible in search for No. 1 contender
With Randy Orton seemingly forgoing the WWE championship opportunity he earned by winning the Royal Rumble, the method by which a new No. 1 contender to Bray Wyatt would be found seemed as straightforward and quick as can be: a 10-man over-the-top battle royal in Tuesday's main event. While everyone had their pet theories, ranging from Luke Harper winning to trigger a Wyatt Family triple threat, John Cena getting a chance at a record-breaking 17th title reign or a WrestleMania reward for AJ Styles, we simultaneously got the hope of some of that and none of it at all. With Styles and Harper the last two left standing, a series of confrontations on the ring apron led to what was judged as a simultaneous elimination (although, in reality, there were quite a few naysayers pointing out Styles seemingly losing out on instant replay, and the execution wasn't as clean as it could have been).
With no time left in the broadcast, the very old-school tactic of pushing the big payoff to the following week became the solution. As was confirmed on "Talking Smack", it'll be Styles vs. Harper next week to determine the true No. 1 contender to the WWE championship and I, for one, am excited. You couldn't have just launched directly into a Harper-Styles clash -- there had to be a reason.
A 10-man battle royal that stretched for 22-plus minutes provided the perfect canvas to get to that point, and along the way there was fuel added to two pre-existing fires (Dean Ambrose vs. Baron Corbin and the Kalisto-Dolph Ziggler-Apollo Crews triumvirate), as well as the re-ignition of a potentially exciting clash between The Miz and Cena that seemingly piggybacked on the conflict between their significant others earlier in the evening. It even gave Mojo Rawley a chance to hang with the main eventers in a way that can only be viewed as positive for him.
Giving each of the competitors a 30-second promo throughout the night was also a nice touch, as even the smallest touches of character, especially when it comes to the at-times-forgotten Crews and Kalisto, can do a world of good. Ditto for the Wyatt and Orton video segments both before and after the match. There are no guarantees, and we'll have to see how things play out next week and beyond, but in this particular situation the bait-and-switch seems justified in giving us next week's match.
Naomi relinquishes her Orlando WrestleMania dreams, and Ms. Bliss coldly takes advantage
Daniel Bryan came out to start the show and, as always, his tremendous energy and crowd reaction got Tuesday's show in Oakland, California, off to a raucous start.
Things would soon take an ominous turn. Just 40 days out from WrestleMania, current SmackDown women's champion Naomi came out to the ring without her customary dancing or entrance and sporting a knee brace outside of her tights. After some back-and-forth, Bryan revealed to the crowd that Naomi had an injury that would force her to relinquish the title.
As both Naomi and Bryan, who knows all too well what real injuries can do to a career, had tears welling up in their eyes, Naomi officially handed over the title to Bryan and slowly made her way to the back.
With Naomi was about to walk through the curtain, Bliss came out to rub it in.
"That was ... amazing," she said, breaking into a huge grin and garnering the kind of pure angry reaction that only a handful of superstars can accomplish. While it's an absolute bummer that Naomi cannot take the title into her WrestleMania moment in Orlando, it opened the door for Bliss to shine brightly.
After a brief exchange with Bryan, Bliss didn't get her wish of being held the title and instead had to face off with the other woman to hold the SmackDown women's championship, Lynch, in an impromptu title match. While it didn't last long, they told enough of a story to get to where they were trying to go. Bliss, despite her small stature, is good at making everything she does look like it hurts, especially when she stands on her opponent's and pulls their torso up, as she did against Lynch.
Lynch turned the tables with a Bex-ploder and a pair of flying fire-arms going into the break, but after a chaotic few moments, which saw Bliss repeatedly try to crawl out of the ring, Bliss used a referee distraction, a cheap shot to the throat and a handful of tights in a roll-up to secure her second SmackDown women's championship. With Mickie James charging the ring afterwards, it's clear that conflict is far from over as well. The women's title picture going into WrestleMania, especially without Naomi, seems unclear, but is full of potential.
Hits and misses
• There is no overstating just how all-out Natalya and Nikki Bella went in their falls count anywhere match. They brought a kendo stick into play, the action spilled out into the crowd, and the barricade was used time and time again for some great spots including a flying bicycle kick by Bella.
A failed powerbomb attempt from Natalya into the table led into an Alabama slam on Natalya that also didn't break the table and earned a two-count on top the table going into commercial. After coming back to see Natalya holding Bella in the sharpshooter in the middle of the ring, Bella dragged the action outside and got a snap suplex on the metal for her troubles. When things went backstage, Maryse, as she did in a previous scuffle that got her covered in powder, just so happened to get into the way of the action. That proved big in the end.
Nikki Bella smashed Natalya's face into a mirror, hits a spear, brought the action back to the ramp and locked in her "Fearless" lock. Maryse ran out with a metal pipe to exact her revenge and hand the victory to Natalya. The Miz came out to drag his wife away from the conflict, and rumors of a Miz/Maryse versus Cena/Bella confrontation got their first two serious pieces of evidence by the end of the night. It certainly looks like Maryse, whose last match was a No. 1 contender's battle royal in August 2011, will return to the ring for at least one more match.
We're guaranteed to get more of the same next week, with a Miz TV scheduled featuring special guest Cena.
• Ziggler randomly superkicking the green screen background and having it comedically fall to pieces is just the most wonderfully strange, 80s-esque moment you could imagine.
• I haven't noted it in some time, but "Talking Smack," when it's Renee Young and Daniel Bryan, is still incredibly fun. Between Lynch, The Usos and Styles, all of the guests interacted differently and each had insane chemistry with both Bryan and Young.
• Speaking of The Usos, they had a tremendous night on both Talking Smack and on SmackDown. After American Alpha put Breezango away in a hurry with a Steiner Brothers-esque Flying bulldog, The Usos cut one of their best promos in a long, long time. It took far too long, but it's good to finally begin to dig into this rivalry.