Photo from WWE.com
25 January 2017

When John Cena first went after AJ Styles over the WWE Championship, it seemed that the narrative was about Cena doubting his place at the top of the card in this new era. The SmackDown Live writers did away with that the moment he resoundingly defeated Baron Corbin and proved that Super Cena was still alive and well, much to the internet’s collective dismay. 

It’s unfortunate that Creative went this route because having Cena doubt himself as he prepares for a shot at a sixteenth world championship would have been a compelling babyface storyline for Jearn. Imagine the pressure he’d face as he attempts to tie Ric Flair’s record for most world title victories. Physically, he’s no underdog compared to AJ Styles, but with all that weighing him down mentally, he could make a convincing argument for himself.

We’ve seen Cena regain his bravado over the last few weeks, turning on his vintage rapper mode when he cuts his promos, putting both the new era and AJ Styles down in the process. This week’s segment between champion and challenger, however, was particularly striking. Cena went about belittling AJ Styles, saying that he was way better than the champ, that he was built for the WWE and not the indys, that Styles was just “a guy” who remained champion because Cena let him.

That makes Cena, who’s supposed to be the babyface here, look like a petty jerk. When you look at it with the context of the Cena/Styles feud from last year, you’ll realize Cena’s speaking from a place of frustration. He only says that so he can build himself up through his perceived advantages over AJ Styles. But in the ring, where it all (ideally) matters, AJ has proven to be the better man. Cena has never beaten Styles in a singles encounter, and the one time Cena did get a victory over AJ, he had Enzo Amore and Big Cass on his team. Cena knows he can’t beat AJ, at least not yet, and that’s why he had to resort to putting him down. The problem is that if Cena defeats AJ, then he would not have done himself any favors because he just defeated “a guy.” And if Cena loses to AJ, then he looks like a total jabroni for losing to someone who isn’t even on the level immediately below him.

It’s not like we’re getting a double turn come the Royal Rumble, however. The AJ Styles character is still being framed as the bigger d-bag here. After all, he’s the champion crying foul over him being placed at the back of the Royal Rumble poster. He’s the one complaining over Cena and the hosts of The Today Show mocking him on national television. And he’s the one being all self-righteous about carrying the company on his back when he knows that’s part of the responsibilities of being the champion. 

What we’re seeing is a human portrayal of a champion and challenger, which is way better than your traditional Cena/Reigns vs. heel feud over the championship. Even though neither Cena nor Styles is behaving in a way that’s completely consistent with their alignment, you can understand the shades of gray in which they operate. You understand what makes them tick and what their motivations are. And from there, it boils down to who you just really prefer as a fan over the other.

That’s the type of writing we’re actually getting now on SmackDown Live as a whole, which gave us another solid episode this week. We got a pretty funny segment featuring Carmella and James Ellsworth, who maximized the comedy skit they were given. Through Ellsworth’s various outfit changes, we see how the naive little puppy allows himself to be manipulated by Carmella, whose vanity ultimately trumps whatever feelings she may (or may not) have for “Jimmy.” Stories are actually being told well across the board from the Carmellsworth arc, all the way to the larger ones like that between Becky Lynch and Mickie James. 

Mickie came out this week to address her interference on Alexa Bliss’ behalf last week. She explained that Becky Lynch symbolized the Women’s Revolution of the current era, and how it completely ignored her efforts to revolutionize women’s wrestling when she was in the WWE in the mid-2000s. She talked about resenting the fact that people only gave credit to the current crop of female Superstars for elevating women’s wrestling, when she was doing it way before they were even in the game. What’s interesting is how it also lowkey addressed Mickie being out of place in that era—the rare true wrestler on a roster filled with models and dancers recruited to be Divas. 

In a weird way—and certainly in more ways than one—this version of Mickie James isn’t that different from the current incarnation of John Cena. Both are taking exception to the fact that there is a new generation on the rise. Both are motivated to prove that they still belong in this era and that they deserve to be (or remain) on top. And both are using their feelings of resentment to fuel them towards their goal of reaffirming their dominance.

This all goes back to SmackDown Live being able to do way more with less. They may have less Superstars on their roster and less airtime for the show, but the writing team deserves credit for maximizing its talent and booking stories well such that every episode ends up mattering. There aren’t a lot of segments that go to waste, and each one that does make the air is able to push any story forward. This week’s episode, which fulfilled its role well as the go-home show, served as another example of that. A-.

Quick Hitters

  • Mojo Rawley is officially the second out of the 22 confirmed Rumble match participants to qualify for his spot. Not a bad way to push his arc as a singles competitor. And they said this generation is full of self-entitled millennials who don’t value hard work. Sigh.
  • The Miz adding the Busaiku to his moveset is just brilliant character work. Somewhere, both Daniel Bryan and Hideo Itami are crying in a corner.
  • That mini-Rumble during the Lumberjack Match was the one thing missing during the buildup to the Royal Rumble, especially on RAW. What we got on SmackDown involved a lot of the peripheral guys, as opposed to RAW’s from a couple of weeks ago, which only had the top guys in it.
  • You have to love the way they incorporated Naomi into the SmackDown Women’s Championship picture. She was ready to fight, didn’t have an opponent, and put out an open challenge. Alexa Bliss can’t say Naomi doesn’t deserve to face her because she answered Naomi’s call in the first place. I’m open to seeing how this one plays out.
  • If Kalisto and Apollo Crews’ current arc with Dolph Ziggler results in them forming a tag team, I wouldn’t mind at all. Lucha Nation has a nice ring to it, too, especially if you add that extra “A” at the end of “Lucha,” if you know what I mean. 
  • It’s obvious at this point that all three members of the Wyatt Family will interact with one another during the Royal Rumble Match itself. It would be a mistake not to have them do that. I’m also calling for Randy Orton to curry more favor with Bray Wyatt by risking his own life in the match to save the latter from a Luke Harper elimination.
Photos from WWE