If this were late January, we could have been forgiven for thinking Tuesday night's episode of SmackDown Live was actually the Royal Rumble.
One by one in the opening segment, the show's stars strutted down to the ring. First, Randy Orton, Jinder Mahal and the Singh Brothers. Then Kevin Owens and AJ Styles, before Baron Corbin and Sami Zayn made a brief appearance.
Head spinning yet?
Ultimately, this tangled web of talk would set up the night's main event, but it sure seemed like a lot of effort to get us there.
To make matters more confusing, while we saw some storyline development between feuding enemies this past week, there were some inconspicuous character iterations that can't be ignored.
Styles took the next step in dropping his villain persona by joining forces with Orton and the show's most visceral face, Zayn. On the women's side, Charlotte Flair teamed up with a babyface faction, while Breezango appears to now be a fan favorite. We'll get to the latter two later.
For Styles, the turn makes sense. Whatever his "official" status is, he is the anti-Roman Reigns. The former international superstar is cheered madly day in, day out, no matter what city or country he's in. Despite that, for nearly a year, he has stuck to his heel tendencies, regardless of the positive reaction he receives. Until now.
Sure, he's not being portrayed as a selfless hero who's willing to take a punch for his teammates, but Styles, hubris and all, has dropped his insults toward his adoring crowd. As it stands, SmackDown Live does not have a single A-lister face outside of Orton (and even that is questionable) and Shinsuke Nakamura, who has yet to wrestle a single match on the show.
- WWE (@WWE) May 10, 2017
But what's too bad is that the WWE creative didn't come up with a single moment for an epic about-face for Styles. The glacial turn is more organic, yes, but as fans we want moments, indelible ones, like when Styles himself turned on John Cena last May.
As for the six-man tag team match, all the verbal chaos to kick off the show ended with a terrific battle that further built the anticipation for the upcoming Backlash pay-per-view on May 21.
While Zayn got his clock cleaned for most of the encounter, all the other participants looked strong at various points. Orton and Mahal, who will face each other for the championship at Backlash, had an intense scuffle toward the end of the match. Orton power-slammed the No. 1 contender twice, before Owens interfered to break up the momentum.
The Singh brothers made their obligatory showing, setting up a sequence of events that ended with Mahal converting a cobra-clutch Slam on Orton for the win.
The payoff was worth the wait Tuesday, but it was like merging three lanes of traffic into one for no apparent reason. The show's opening promo was frustrating and unsettling, and in this case, unnecessary, especially when each storyline would have advanced more seamlessly with its own segment.
There is no 'I' in Charlotte
It couldn't have been easy for Charlotte to subjugate herself as anything but a self-centered solo star, but the decision to be a teammate worked in the respect that by inserting herself into this feud, it augments the collective star power, including The Committee, which is composed of career mid-carders.
Natalya, Carmella and Tamina have been trying to make themselves a top-level team for a few weeks, and while it seemed like a stretch at first, the unit is building credibility, even if the in-ring performance Tuesday night failed to live up to the build between all the parties involved.
The match lasted just a few minutes and was ultimately decided by commotion outside the ring, which helped Natalya to victory. It's too bad, because the women's current era has been just as much about showcasing their talent and athleticism, not just the histrionics. We've seen little evidence of that in the past few weeks.
Later, in a backstage interview, Charlotte and women's champion Naomi began blaming each other for Becky's loss. The Irishwoman emerged only to play the role of peacemaker and sensibility-maker. "We don't stand a chance if we don't work together," she said.
Charlotte finally acquiesced, and the trio put their hands together in a show of unison. So does this mean a U-turn in Charlotte's character?
Unlike Styles, Charlotte isn't universally beloved, but she does work well no matter what role she is thrust into. But there is a downside: By seeing the more amenable side of Charlotte, her threat as a contender to Naomi's title, which is the self-proclaimed queen's only goal, will have to wait -- as will any brouhaha with Becky.
It appears the short-term objective is to boost the standing of the "Welcome Committee." The question becomes whether Charlotte's part in all of this will hurt her momentum.
Hits and misses
Big disappointment between former Wyatt family members Luke Harper and Erick Rowan. They just don't work well in the ring together. Their encounter was slow and without much of the hostility you'd expect from two performers who once shared a deep bond. On the flip side, it is encouraging to see the creative team try to make something out of Rowan, Tuesday's winner. He'd be better off, though, engaged in a more energetic feud (Sin Cara?), where the fans aren't half asleep.
Like the "Total Bellas" spoof, the "Fashion Files" are quickly becoming a thing. The latest edition, dubbed "Special London Unit" showed Tyler Breeze holding a picture of the British Bulldog with a post-it note saying "Fashion Faux Paw" pointing to his bulldog. From there, Fandango discovered red paint with lead in it that must have been left by ... The Usos. Finally after hearing a loud, indistinguishable noise, the investigative duo discovered The Ascension spewing nonsensical babbling at each other, leading to a tag-team match. Breezeango won in a quick, but entertaining bout. It didn't go unnoticed that the fans at the O2 Arena were cheering favorably for the heel team.
Dolph Ziggler might be relegated to stepping-stone status in the Shinsuke Nakamura fiasco, but "The Showoff" continues to shine on the mic. He berated the audience for being hypocrites; after eight long years "that seem like 12," fans don't appreciate him and treat him like a contagious disease. Nakamura eventually made his way to the ring and beat down Ziggler. It's been a slow build to Nakamura's in-ring debut, but there's little question he and Ziggler will put on an energetic performance at Backlash, even if we're almost certain of the outcome.
Where have you been, Mojo Rawley? The Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal winner was shown backstage giving a tour to a group of kids and preaching about the hazards of bullying. A worthwhile lesson, which shouldn't be overlooked, but it's disappointing not to see Rawley in the ring after his WrestleMania triumph. Perhaps if Rob Gronkowski can escape for a Tuesday night, we'll get an extended look at Rawley.
Finally, we have a return date for Rusev. The new-look Bulgarian Brute will make his SmackDown debut next week in Newark, New Jersey. He's been calling out Shane McMahon for two weeks, so there's a chance the commissioner will also show up. However, there's still no indication as to when The New Day will re-emerge and make their own SmackDown debut.
Move of the night
Zayn was beat down for most of the match Tuesday, but he did take out his three opponents at once with this sweet flip over the top rope:
- WWE (@WWE) May 10, 2017
Stat of the night
Between the show's first two segments featuring a whopping 15 performers, it was 29 minutes until SmackDown had an actual match.