The opening segment of Tuesday's SmackDown Live, which featured instantly memorable appearances and promos by The Miz, John Cena, Maryse and Nikki Bella, could be classified in the words of Becky Lynch: straight fire.
The closing moments of the show could be described in the exact way, although what Randy Orton did was quite literally light both the Wyatt Family's compound and a pivotal portion of the presumptive Wrestlemania 33 card into a massive blaze.
With no pay-per-views for an extended window heading into WrestleMania, SmackDown put together another pay-per-view quality edition of weekly programming and set the stage for a tremendous last four weeks going into the biggest showcase of the year. Was it perfect? No, and the fallout from the final moments and the ensuing conflict on "Talking Smack" will certainly infuriate a significant percentage of fans, but as the unexpected conclusion of this show should teach us all, don't judge the overall puzzle until more pieces fall into place.
Orton finally springs his trap on Wyatt, and it's a doozy
From the moment Orton said, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" four months ago, there was a clear ticking clock for how long it would take for him to betray Bray Wyatt and the family. Some supposed it would be quick, or perhaps in preventing The Wyatt Family from gaining short-term success. But through it all, from Wyatt and Orton as sole survivors of the men's match at Survivor Series, to winning and losing the SmackDown tag team titles and ultimately the departure of Luke Harper, Orton stood firm in his support.
When Orton won the Royal Rumble and Wyatt won the WWE championship inside of the Elimination Chamber, that also looked like a clear moment for the relationship to fragment. But still, in the face of all logic and reason, Orton seemed poised to forgo his guaranteed title shot and main event at WrestleMania "as long as he was a servant to Wyatt." Speculation ran wild when Harper was seemingly set up to enter the picture, and it seemed as though the Orton betrayal wouldn't happen until at least WrestleMania.
Once fans and Wyatt alike (as our on-screen surrogate) let their guard down with Orton, the snake in the grass finally took his chance to strike at the very heart of what is the Wyatt character -- the supernatural strength he draws from his long-dead sister Abigail. In a wrestling world that, outside of Kane and The Undertaker, is firmly rooted in the reality of the real world, Wyatt's ability to appear and disappear at will means everything to him. In a few brief moments, Orton was able to reduce Wyatt from boastful devil into a weeping mess through conflagration.
As Wyatt's "invocation" to close out SmackDown Live got underway, many assumed he would simply address Styles' victory and potentially ask Orton to rejoin the WWE championship match at WrestleMania to ensure the family patriarch would continue his reign. Through claims of his being Beelzebub amongst a sea of mortality, Wyatt initially reacted to Orton's appearance on the titantron with a big smile and even a blown kiss.
Orton dropped the bomb on Wyatt and the crowd reacted in a big way -- "It was Bray's world, but it's not mine." As he stood in the cabin that was Sister Abigail's resting place, Orton revealed that his decision to decline the WWE championship match at WrestleMania was but a twisting of words, and that burning Abigail's soul would make Orton the master, and Wyatt the servant. As Wyatt cried out, Orton doused the cabin in gasoline, stepped outside, struck a giant match and then lit the cabin up in a fiery blaze as he struck his signature pose outside, arms outstretched.
This unexpected turn of events, when coupled with how the "No. 1 contender's match" earlier on in the evening played out, paints a picture of chaos for SmackDown Live's biggest match on the biggest show of the year. Whether it comes to be a triple threat, a final battle of wills between Orton and AJ Styles or just a way for Shane McMahon to outright screw over Styles, the tension built up by the time the show went dark Tuesday night should be plenty to keep the fires of several impending rivalries lit brightly for the final month's worth of building.
AJ Styles secures a spot in the WrestleMania main event ... or does he?
For as much of a jerk as Styles has been to almost everyone under the sun on SmackDown, he sure gets quite a babyface reaction and maintains a lot of good-guy elements to his approach. As my colleague Brian Campbell is so fond of pointing out, his moveset is almost purely babyface, and he's been set up to clear as many hurdles as the biggest of good guy underdogs in his pursuit of a main event match at WrestleMania.
Let's look at it this way: Since losing the title to Cena at the Royal Rumble, he was put into the Elimination Chamber match, a triple-threat match for the title, a No. 1 contender's battle royal and finally Tuesday's match against Harper to determine Wyatt's challenger once and for all. At no point did Styles receive his contractually guaranteed one-on-one rematch for the title, and despite having to pin Harper twice, he ultimately got the job done, or so it seemed.
The match itself between Styles and Harper lived up to expectations, with Harper showing just how dynamic a big man he can be with everything from high dropkicks to a tope suicida that sent Styles tumbling over the commentary desk. His biggest moment, however, was a picture-perfect chicken wing suplex midway through the match.
- WWE Universe (@WWEUniverse) March 1, 2017
The screwy first ending to this match saw Styles hit a phenomenal forearm and get the three count with the referee missing Harper's foot on the ropes. Commissioner Shane McMahon came out and restarted the match and, amid rumors of a WrestleMania match between Styles and McMahon, the collective groan from wrestling fans wanting something more for Styles at the show of shows after the year he's had was quite audible on social media. Styles got in McMahon's face multiple times, further fueling the rumors, but just as it seemed Harper would win the match and potentially trigger a Wyatt triple threat, Styles ducked a kick that ultimately hit McMahon in the jaw.
With a springboard 450 splash, Styles ultimately secured a clean victory and, beyond any shadow of rational doubt earned his spot in a WrestleMania event. He pointed that out again to both an incredulous Bryan and McMahon at the tail end of "Talking Smack" and he makes a great point: he jumped through all the hoops, got the job done, and should not be hurt by Orton's unclear intentions. Unless this is a heel turn with McMahon returning to his family roots, putting Styles to be the top good guy on SmackDown post-WrestleMania, you can continue to consider me among the skeptics as far as whether or not Styles-McMahon is a worthy outcome for the former WWE champion.
Within the WWE hierarchy, if this match happens, it will do so because of the company's support of Styles. But while Shane has been able to produce some signature massive spots in his WrestleMania and Survivor Series appearances, the rest of his matches have left much to be desired. Here's to hoping that, whatever the result, the journey and the destination will be rewarding.
Cena channels his inner Remy Ma as Miz, Maryse and Nikki Bella also shine
It's unusual that such a fiery segment would take so long to mention, but when so many things that affect the world title picture are squeezed into a single show, it happens. The Miz set the tone early with Cena, cutting off his mic so that he could make his entire case before Cena could interject.
As he stared down a rival that hasn't been his primary focus for nearly a decade, he let nearly 10 years' worth of frustrations off of his chest.
"You're a parody of your former self, and your former self was a joke," The Miz boasted. "You're not super Cena -- you're barely decent Cena!"
After claiming that his ill-gotten elimination of Cena from last week's battle royal was just a taste of what Cena had done to him, and pointing out that Ric Flair, and not Cena would be the greatest of all time, he let Cena have his retort.
What followed could only be described as a direct channeling of last week's audio evisceration of Nicki Minaj by Remy Ma. As he channeled his inner "thuganomics" (even letting some of that accent slip in) and laid out his own version of 'SHEther' (as pointed out by Mauro Ranallo), Cena got intensely personal and colored way outside the lines in running down The Miz.
Cena reduced The Miz's name to a Rock rip-off, and blasted him for stealing elements of Chris Jericho, Flair, Bryan and even Styles in trying to tear his adversary down to the very core. After stating that if he really was the master manipulator Miz and everyone else claimed him to be, he'd be face-to-face with The Undertaker, and not "some guy named Mike."
"Next time we talk, don't bring a knife to a gun fight," Cena finished. "You're not the Undertaker, but you press me again, you're a dead man."
It was at this point that Maryse, covering for her husband's wounded ego, made a somewhat ill-advised comment about Cena's ego and manhood, and with a slap, Maryse brought the thunder down upon herself as Nikki Bella ran to the ring to get her licks in. As Miz and Maryse retreated into the crowd, Bella laid out a declarative moment that all but set in stone a mixed tag team match for WrestleMania.
Hits and misses
• The women's two-out-of-three falls between Becky Lynch and Mickie James was good, and with Alexa Bliss failing to interfere on James' behalf, Lynch picked up the victory. The unexpected element of Natalya inserting herself into the title picture is something to watch in the weeks to come as well.
• The chairs match between Dolph Ziggler and Apollo Crews was surprisingly enjoyable. For the first time in months, seemingly, Crews did enough in the ring to draw some reactions out of the crowd. With as little character building as he's gotten, his move set can be so electric that it still perseveres. I truly hope that he gets some attention post-WrestleMania
• Dean Ambrose stomped out Curt Hawkins in the blink of an eye and laid down the gauntlet for Baron Corbin. An Intercontinental championship match at WrestleMania between these two seems likely.
• Cena and Bella get a warm-up match against Carmella and James Ellsworth next week.
• St. Paul was ultimately light years ahead of Green Bay in terms of crowd reaction, but to be fair, they had a far more compelling show to watch and a far bigger crowd to boot.
• The tag team division only featured on "Talking Smack" this week, and it's a bit unfortunate that Gable didn't get to have his at-home moment on live TV, in arena where he won his high school state title.