By Jake Barnett, Prowrestling.net Senior Staffer (@barnettjake)
WWE Smackdown Live on USA Network
Live from Nashville, Tennessee at Bridgestone Arena
Daniel Bryan opened the show and headed to the ring. Bryan got a warm reception from the crowd with Yes chants as well as a Daniel Bryan chant. He welcomed the crowd to Smackdown Live, and then brought out Shane McMahon. Shane danced a bit, and then grabbed his abdomen to quasi sell his injuries. There was a Shane chant, and he immediately congratulated Bryan on fighting for the last 3 years for something he believes in, and becoming medically cleared to do what everyone loves to watch him do. He said he couldn’t be more excited to be his partner.
He then talked about how he spent the last three weeks in the hospital with an umbilical hernia and diverticulitis. He said he was also cleared to compete, and they would both give it everything they had at WrestleMania. Bryan then went out of his way to apologize for his behavior over the last six months, and said he let his 15 year friendship lead him down a path that he shouldn’t have. Shane also apologized, but seemed to have forgotten a line, as there was an awkward pause after Shane acknowledge he was stubborn, and Bryan needled him a bit.
Eventually, Bryan said there was only one thing that Tag Team Partners do to work out their differences. Shane apologized again and offered to shake his hand. Bryan said he just shook his hand two minutes ago, and insisted they hug it out. Shane was hesitant initially, but eventually they got it done. Shane said that worked, and Bryan said they were on the same page for real now.
Bryan pumped up the crowd and said they would get their revenge at WrestleMania for what they did to both Bryan and Shane, and everything in between. Shane thanked Bryan for reinstating them, so they could get their revenge and make sure they never see them again in a Smackdown ring after WrestleMania. There was a yes chant, but it was interrupted by Charlotte’s ring entrance. She was followed by Natalya. [c]
My Take: This was a feel good promo. It wasn’t intense and it didn’t really raise the temperature on the feud, but it got the ugly business of sorting out the last 6 months of garbage television that saw these two in a feud to nowhere. If Smackdown resets after WrestleMania with Bryan moving out of management, and some solid roster moves and NXT call ups, there may be some hope for this show yet.
1. Natalya vs. Charlotte: They worked on the mat early on, with Nattie controlling the action for the most part. There was a pause for some trash talk, with Nattie talking about the Harts vs. Flair feud that literally no one cares about. Charlotte caught Nattie in a rollup for a near fall, and then grabbed a waistlock, and then transitioned to a front facelock before she tossed Nattie into the corner and threw some kicks.
Charlotte grabbed a triangle headlock with her legs, and then flipped Natalya over multiple times. Nattie sold embarrassment and rolled out of the ring. Charlotte followed out to the floor and hit some chops, but Nattie send her into the ringpost and taunted the crowd. [c]
Nattie controlled the action during the break, and worked down Charlotte’s back and neck with various holds. Charlotte attempted to rally, but was shut down by a clothesline. There was an awkward and confused spot where it seemed like they lost their place on an irish whip, but they covered well. The action spilled out to the floor again, where Nattie tossed Charlotte into the ringside barricade. In the ring, Natalya applied an abdominal stretch, but Charlotte turned it around.
Charlotte hit a slam and climbed to the top, but Natalya met her there and tossed her back into the ring. Ric would be proud of that one. Natalya the applied a surfboard, but Charlotte used her impressive balance to make an escape. Charlotte then hit a neckbreaker, and a boot to the back. She then covered for a near fall. Nattie caught Charlotte with a boot coming into the corner and then applied a sleeper hold. Charlotte turned it into a backpack chinbuster. She then climbed up to the top rope and went for a moonsault, but Nattie got the knees up.
Carmella then made a run in and looked to try and cash in again, but Charlotte quickly kicked the briefcase aside and hit a big boot to Carmella. Natalya tried to capitalize with a schoolboy pin, but Charlotte kicked out. She then quickly applied the Figure Eight for the win.
Charlotte defeated Natalya at 14:32.
After the match, Asuka made her way to the ring for a confrontation. She grabbed a microphone and told Charlotte that come WrestleMania, the Queen with bow down to the Empress. Because no one is ready…..Charlotte grabbed the mic. She said she’s ready, but the question is, are you ready? They both glanced at the WrestleMania sign (barf), and then stared each other down. The announce team of Corey Graves, Tom Phillips and Byron Saxton said it was the biggest match of all time.
They threw to an interview where AJ Styles was asked if Nakamura was in his head. Styles talked about wearing his emotions on his sleeve, and he said they aren’t his weakness, they are his strength. He said he thinks Shinsuke Nakamura takes him too lightly. He said he’s the WWE Champion, and they are far from the Tokyo Dome. He said it’s a dream match, but the reality is he’s going to beat Shinsuke Nakamura at WrestleMania. They teased a video package recapping the Bryan/Shane and Zayn/Owens feud. Nakamura and Styles will face Shelton Benjamin and Chad Gable later. [c]
My Take: Another somewhat mediocre encounter from Charlotte and Natalya, and it felt eerily similar to their match from two weeks ago, absent the finish. I’m sure that was the point from a booking perspective, but it felt a bit like deja vu watching it. Carmella is definitely in play for Sunday, and I hope I’m wrong about them protecting Charlotte and Asuka by having Carmella take the L. I’d much prefer the match have a straightforward conclusion one way or another. AJ Styles backstage promo was written well, but there was something off about the delivery. There was just a lack of seriousness to it. Hopefully they are able to cap off the build with some excitement later on.
There was a lengthy video package that covered the drama revolving around Daniel Bryan’s journey back to the ring, the conflict between he and Shane over Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens, and how their WrestleMania match came to be. After the video, Bobby Roode made his entrance. He will join on commentary for Rusev vs. Jinder Mahal next. [c]
My Take: That was an interesting video package for the Shane and Bryan tag match, as it only glossed over the 6 months of bad television we all had to suffer through while they were trying to figure out if this match was going to happen.
Sunil Singh came out sang horribly to introduce Jinder Mahal to mock Aiden English. We then got some actual harmony when English made a Rusev Day introduction. Rusev entered to Rusev Day chants from the crowd.
2. Rusev vs. Jinder Mahal: I believe Rusev lives in Nashville, so this match is in his adopted hometown. Rusev went for the accolade early on, but Jinder escaped out to the floor.[c]
Jinder hit a high knee and covered for a two count. He followed up with a neckbreaker and a knee drop for another two count. Jinder drove a knee into Rusev’s back and applied a half nelson, but Rusev fought out as a Rusev Day chant started. They went back to a hold as a picture in picture promo for WrestleMania aired.
Rusev fought his way out and they traded punches, and Rusev hit a big kick to start his comeback. He then hit the ropes for a wheel kick and covered for two. He stomped on Mahal’s back and went for the Accolade again, but Mahal escaped and sent him out to the floor. Rusev was quickly back in, but ate a side kick. Mahal went for the Khallas, but Rusev escaped and hit a big kick. He then stomped and set up for the Accolade, but Sunil Singh jumped up on the apron. He then kicked Sing, and hit the Machka Kick on Singh for the win.
Rusev defeated Jinder Mahal at 12:44.
After the match, Rusev was quickly hit with an RKO from Orton, who flew in from the crowd. English tried to extract a measure of revenge, but he got shoved into an RKO by Bobby Roode. Roode then entered the ring and he and Orton started kissing each other passionately. I’m kidding, they just stared at that fucking sign.
A pre-taped interview with Shinsuke Nakamura aired. He said he has been playing mind games, but he takes this game very seriously. He said he’s been training all his life to improve himself, and make his way to America for one reason, and that’s WrestleMania. He said he doesn’t take AJ Styles lightly, he just knows him very well. He claims AJ Styles in an emotional person, and when he gets emotional he makes mistakes. If he makes a mistake at WrestleMania, he becomes WWE Champion with a knee to face. [c]
My Take: Rusev got a nice reaction for his win, but the match wasn’t particularly special. This whole feud was improved by adding Rusev to it, but the other three elements still feel pretty cold. I’m hoping they just put the Title on Rusev and makes some character changes, especially for Bobby Roode.
Backstage, New Day were talking about things being free, and spoke about the WWE Network being free for WrestleMania. Big E and Kofi pulled tablets and Computers out of their clothes. The Usos walked up and said it costs nothing to watch the, defend their Smackdown Tag Team Championships. They said the Usos and Bludgeon Brothers got something coming to them, welcome to the Uso Penitentiary. The Bludgeon Brothers then walked up and smashed stuff with hammers. In the arena, Baron Corbin was making his entrance for an 8-Man tag.
3. Zack Ryder, Breezango, and Tye Dillinger, vs. Dolph Ziggler, Primo Colon, Mojo Rawley and Baron Corbin: They quickly went to a commercial break after a minute of action after Zack Ryder and Mojo brawled and everybody entered the ring for a face off. [c]
Baron Corbin tagged in and and worked over Tye Dillinger for a bit before he tagged in Mojo. Tye avoided a charge into the corner and made a tag to Fandango. Primo also entered, and Fandango caught him in a Falcon arrow, and the action broke down as Baron Corbin broke up the pin. They approximated the battle royal by tossing each other to the floor, with Corbin tossing Tyler Breeze clear over the ropes and onto the crowd at ringside. Fandango tried to roll up Corbin to steal a win, but he kicked out and hit him with End of Days for the win.
Dolph Ziggler, Primo, Mojo, and Corbin defeated Breezango, Tye Dillinger, and Zack Ryder at 6:44.
The announce team ran down the WrestleMania card after the match. Nakamura/Styles vs. Gable/Benjamin is up next. [c]
My Take: Lackluster final hype for the tag match, which was just a WWE Network promo that wasn’t particularly clever. The 8-man tag for some Dre hype was the kind of match you would have expected on Smackdown 6 years ago when there wasn’t any debate about whether it was the B-Show heading into WrestleMania.
Gable and Benjamin were shown in one of those pop up words promos. They said they don’t care what people want to see, they’re going to send Nakamura and Styles limping into WrestleMania. Owens and Zayn entered through the crowd and said that this was still the Kevin and Sami Show, and Sunday will be the Sami and Kevin Show. Zayn said they have some people to apologize too, but it’s not Bryan, it’s his wife and daughter. He apologized to Birdie for not leaving her with fond memories of her Daddy’s big return, and he apologized to Brie for sending home a broken man that her love and support won’t be able to put back together again. Shane and Bryan were shown backstage and they made plans to interrupt.
Owens said that Shane McMahon’s obsession with him will end on Sunday, and the lasting memory he’ll have of it will be the scar he left on his Dad’s forehead. Eventually their mics got cut off, and Bryan and Shane walked out on stage. Bryan told everyone to record Sami and Kevin on their cell phones, because this will be the last time they see them on Smackdown Live. Shane then led the crowd in a hey hey hey goodbye chant.
My Take: The crowd just wasn’t all that into Owens and Zayn as heels. Not as much of a reaction as I would have expected given the beating they gave Bryan and Shane. Maybe the fact that they were both treating the beatings as non-issues earlier in the show killed it a bit. The promos were entertaining, even if they did ramble a bit. The crowd was definitely excited to see them off Smackdown Live, and if I were Owens and Zayn I’d be pretty happy with that idea too. The last year hasn’t been their best work.
Gable and Benjamin made their entrance, followed by Nakamura and Styles.
4. AJ Styles & Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Shelton Benjamin & Chad Gable: Gable and Nakamura started the match. Nakamura nearly landed a big roundhouse kick early on. They battled to a bit of a stalemate as Nakamura and Styles got into an argument over a hard tag. Gable capitalized and dragged Styles to the heel corner and stomped him while Benjamin pulled Nakamura to the outside. [c]
Styles had been isolated during the break, and made a tag to Nakamura after hitting a kick to break free of Gable. Nakamura cleaned house on Gable and Benjamin at first, but missed a blind tag and ate a knee from Benjamin, followed by a Moonsault from Gable for a near fall. Gable grabbed a wrist lock as a picture in picture promo aired for Wrestlemania. Nakamura fought to his feet, but Gable hit a German Suplex bridge for a two count.
Benjamin tagged back in and applied another hold on Nakamura’s arm and shoulder, and later grabbed a headlock along with a leg vise around his waist. Nakamura was able to get free, but Benjamin hit a wheel kick. He lined up for a charge into the corner, but Nakamura flew out with a kick of his own. Nakamura made a desperation tag, and Styles came in to light up Chad Gable with strikes and a lariat. He then hit a pele kick to Benjamin. Gable tried to roll up Styles, but he escaped and hit an Ushigoroshi.
Styles took a long stare at Nakamura and jumped out on the apron. He then hit a Phenomenal Forearm on Gable and got the cover while staring daggers.
AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura defeated Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin at 10:31.
After the match, Styles grabbed his belt and looked to walk to the back. Benjamin attacked Nakamura from behind, but was quickly kneed out of the ring. Styles took the opportunity to jump right at Nakamura as he turned around, but didn’t connect with the phenomenal forearm. He then patted Nakamura on the head, in a mirror image from last week.
My Take: I enjoyed the conclusion of the match and the confrontation that followed, but they pretty much stuck on the same progression they were on rather than really ratcheting up the pressure for either guy. The WWE Championship is at stake and both men are profoundly talented, but this story never got personal enough for my tastes. There was a lot of history between these two, and a story to be told for Nakamura, and neither were explored as much as I hoped. I’m still thrilled this match is happening, I just wish the story was stronger.