Clash of Champions, for all intents and purposes, was shaping up to be a holding pattern pay-per-view that would do just enough to nudge SmackDown forward heading into 2018 and the Royal Rumble. Then, in the closing moments of the Survivor Series main event, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn hit Shane McMahon where it hurt him (and seemingly only him, as SmackDown had little more than bragging rights on the line) by taking him out of the match and costing Team SmackDown the victory. Ever since, that one match has gobbled up the bulk of the spotlight and given Sunday a guaranteed meaningful moment.
McMahon, the SmackDown commissioner, went on the war path from then on, subjecting Owens and Zayn to a variety of tortures with a vendetta to fire a tag team that had been a thorn in his side ever since they joined forces at Hell in a Cell. But every time McMahon tried to rid of the two instigators, general manager Daniel Bryan stepped in and did just enough to push that moment of truth off.
That changed again when McMahon stacked the deck against Owens and Zayn by putting their jobs on the line in a tag team match that he'd be the special referee for -- but with Clash of Champions just five days out, Bryan added himself to the equation by making himself a second special referee for that match.
Therein lies the conflict that will inevitably have to come to a head on pay-per-view; either McMahon will get his way, Zayn and Owens will be fired, and we wait to see how they scheme their way back in, or Bryan will do something either accidentally or purposefully that will save those two men and drive a permanent wedge between SmackDown's two figures of power.
Can @FightOwensFight gain momentum, or will @ShinsukeN put him at an all-time low heading into the biggest match of his and @SamiZayn's careers at #WWEClash of Champions? #SDLive pic.twitter.com/zu1j5gex11
- WWE (@WWE) December 13, 2017
Tuesday's main event between Shinsuke Nakamura and Kevin Owens only served to further muddy that water. After spending the bulk of the show promising to "Occupy SmackDown", ala Bryan's famous moment that pushed him towards a WrestleMania XXX miracle world championship victory, and wearing modified Bryan T-shirts throughout the night that said "Yep" instead of "Yes", Zayn and Owens got their way once again. Shortly after Bryan made his proclamation that he would balance out the Clash of Champions match to remove any doubt about impartiality, Owens changed the course of a great match between himself and Nakamura when he swung a forearm, missed Nakamura and leveled the referee.
Bryan hesitated rolling into the ring just long enough that Owens was able to kick out of a pinfall attempt, and after Zayn caused just enough chaos and distraction ringside, all within Bryan's view, Owens hit a pop-up powerbomb and picked up the victory.
Byron Saxton hammered home the idea of Bryan's bias on commentary, but would they so heavy-handedly telegraph a willful turn for Bryan? Could it be accidental or simply viewed as defiant enough to send McMahon off the rails? Or is there some possibility that Clash of Champions will play out in some other, unforeseen way that could really energize Tuesday nights heading into 2018? Whichever question you answered "Yep" to, know that no matter how Sunday night plays out, Owens and Zayn will continue to serve as central characters no matter their employment status come Tuesday night.
(Most of) SmackDown's women's division fights back the Riott Squad
The parallel journeys of Raw's "Absolution" and SmackDown's "Riott Squad" continued this week, as the invading NXT forces faced push-back from the established stars of their respective women's divisions. The difference on the SmackDown side is that Ruby Riott, Liv Morgan and Sarah Logan put out a pair of superstars for several weeks, whereas Absolution's attacks have been far less physically intense thus far.
After a short, but entertaining match between Riott and Charlotte Flair, a dust-up on the outside led Flair to go berserk and attack not only the Riott Squad, but her women's championship opponent on Sunday, Natalya. Though an early flurry was successful, Natalya fought back and triggered a disqualification -- leading to another three-on-one mauling that nearly allowed the Riott Squad to take out the SmackDown women's champion.
That's when Naomi made her emphatic return, balancing out the numbers and laying out all three of her previous attackers. The Riott Squad's retreat was cut off by Lana, Tamina and Carmella, and the tension between the lumberjacks for said title match at Clash of Champions was palpable. The "invasion" has been far from perfect to this point, to be sure, but Tuesday proved that there is, at last, a storyline for the SmackDown women's division that reaches beyond the title or a singular pursuit that most or all of them have individually.
With so many combustible pieces in place for the SmackDown women's championship match, it's entirely conceivable there could be multiple women's storylines heading into the new year. If it reduces the frequency of four-, five- or six-way matches (and tag, six-woman and eight-woman tag team matches), all the better.
Hits and misses
- Though it carried across two different segments, we didn't gain much in the way of intrigue between WWE champion AJ Styles and Jinder Mahal on Tuesday night. The Singh Brothers' shtick and half-hearted attempts to convince Styles they were leaving Mahal and wanted to be by his side provided some comic relief while allowing Samir and Sunil as much mic time as they've had to date, but there was little intrigue as to where it was all headed.
Styles got the upper hand on the Singh brothers in the ring, while Mahal and the still-very-supportive Singh Brothers got the last word in with a backstage attack. At the peak of his powers, Mahal proved to be a far more valuable piece than was imaginable during his unlikely run to the WWE championship. He can still be valuable to SmackDown moving forward, but his conflict with Styles carrying forward past Clash of Champions would almost certainly be detrimental to all parties involved.
- Dolph Ziggler versus Baron Corbin barely got off the ground before Bobby Roode left his post at commentary and delivered Glorious DDTs to both of his opponents at Clash of Champions. If the purpose of the triple threat match at Clash of Champions is to extend Corbin versus Roode for a little while longer before a decisive match, so be it, but it's hard not to feel like all three of these guys are spinning their wheels at the moment. It's tough to imagine this match will end in any way but Corbin getting the win over Ziggler, unless the SmackDown creative team has had their fill of Corbin as a champion already and wants to see what they have in Roode as a champion. Until Roode is back to his arrogant, over-the-top-villain self that helped make him a force to be reckoned with in NXT, however, no result will push him much closer to realizing his full potential on SmackDown.
- The Bludgeon Brothers picked up their first opponents of note for Clash of Champions in the form of Breezango, in the culmination of months of "The Fashion Files" storylines. But they also had a quick match against a pair of enhancement talents that might've looked familiar to fans. Though it was a bearded, short-haired visage this time around, one-half of that tag team was none other than ECW's loveable punching bag, Colin Delaney, who brought CHIKARA Grand Champion Juan Francisco de Coronado along with him. Both men were physically dissected, as was to be expected, but de Coronado made an unlikely impact with a scream that became instantly internet famous.
- It was once again Rusev Day, as he and Aiden English followed up their victory over the New Day by beating the SmackDown tag team champions, The Usos. They are the most likely team to fall during Sunday's Fatal 4-Way tag team title match, but it's nice to see Rusev with something to do on Tuesday nights.