A big deal was made this week, on both Monday Night Raw and SmackDown Live, of the latter's historic defeat of the longtime WWE flagship in the ratings.
In SmackDown's two hours, and Raw in three, each proved exactly why that makes complete sense.
While Monday night was all about overfamiliarity and starting a coast into the Royal Rumble, SmackDown Live kept it fresh with three different major moments that each set up ramifications that will likely reverberate not just until the end of January, but all the way to WrestleMania on April 2. While we'd typically focus in one big moment in particular, all three merit in-depth exploration -- and we'll start with the unexpected title change in the main event, and the budding rivalry that served as the framework for the entire episode.
Dean Ambrose defeats The Miz to win the Intercontinental championship
The biggest development of the three is debatable, but it makes sense to address the most immediate impact -- a big shift in the Intercontinental championship picture, with a title change for the second straight week.
Before addressing the start of Ambrose's second Intercontinental championship reign, let's go back to the beginning of the show and the groundwork laid over the past couple of weeks. What started with a No. 1 contender's match for the WWE world championship and continued with a big slap from commentator Renee Young last week reached another level in the opening minutes of Tuesday's SmackDown Live. Miz once again demanded an apology from Young, Ambrose came out to respond, and got the first of two slaps from Maryse on the night for his troubles.
Young's involvement in this storyline, which drips of future "Total Divas" fodder between two real-life couples, is interesting because it's been a long time since a commentator or interviewer was made an active contributor to a WWE storyline. It certainly makes for a richer and more diverse canvas to work on artistically when you have non-wrestlers become developed characters within the bigger story, but it's best when used sparingly.
The chemistry between Miz and Ambrose is undeniable, both in-ring and on the mic, and having the main event segment being the Intercontinental championship match, instead of the world title contract signing (which GM Daniel Bryan later pounded his chest over on "Talking Smack"), made the ever-rising title feel that much more important.
A strong in-ring match saw both guys step up, with Miz once again showing how much he has mastered the cowardly heel role. As Maryse offered a second slap to Ambrose (after also delivering one to Young backstage) in clear view of the referee nearly offered Miz another cheap way out, but yet again, a non-wrestling character -- the referee -- became more than a mechanical piece of the landscape. After listening to Ambrose's pleas, he was persuaded to simply eject Maryse instead of ending the match via DQ. Ambrose would soon earn a title victory.
This match served a number of purposes:
There's almost certain to be a rematch at the Royal Rumble that will give this feud more room to grow over the next three weeks
Ambrose has a chance to anchor the Intercontinental title scene
Miz is seemingly (and finally) free to pursue the WWE world championship unencumbered. The unraveling, conspiracy-minded Miz we saw to close out "Talking Smack" is another fun wrinkle to be explored as he continues to accuse those in power of conspiring against him.
In almost any other week (and almost certainly if it happened on Raw), the WWE world championship contract signing would have ended the show, and rightfully so. AJ Styles was every bit the layered heel, very much changed since his early interactions with Cena. The returning superstar was tepid early, but after Styles laid into him time and time again, crossing the line on numerous occasions, we got classic "big match John." In a matter of less than 10 minutes, anyone who may have forgotten about the brief but tremendous stretch that culminated in their SummerSlam match was immediately reminded of what each of these guys can do.
After complaining to Bryan, who was there for the early stages of this segment, and trying to appeal to their common wrestling background, Styles instantly turned on him when he didn't get what he wanted. Rather than just shrugging it off and saying, 'Well, it's Cena,' the perfectly rational explanation of the ratings war and a battle between SmackDown's two biggest draws belayed the protests.
Having the tables turned on Cena isn't an unfamiliar position, and neither is he unfamiliar with an opponent running him down for all of his imperfections. But with two one-liners, Styles ignited the flame that set Cena off and immediately got this rivalry burning like a wildfire
"You said The Rock was a phony, he lost his passion, and he left you guys high and dry," Styles said in regard to Cena backtracking on previous comments. "You told the truth about The Rock, and guess what -- it's the truth about you."
And he didn't stop there.
"When it comes to Hollywood, you'll never be as good as The Rock. When it comes to this, you'll never be as good as AJ Styles."
Cena tapped back into his early days of "ruthless aggression" and laid Styles bare -- only Styles got more and more into it along the way, seemingly wanting the most powerful version of Cena to prove himself against. In the end, Cena boiled down the very essence of his motivation with one line of his own.
"Anybody in my shoes would've already gone -- but I'm still here," Cena said. "You walk down that ramp because you have to. I walk down that ramp because I want to."
Dolph Ziggler takes a turn to the dark side
While Dolph Ziggler-Baron Corbin isn't a rivalry I'm too keen on revisiting, it provided the perfect backdrop for one of the more unexpected and well-timed heel turns in recent memory. Corbin showed flashes of last week's big step forward, but the match itself was secondary to everything that happened afterward. Corbin got the victory with "End of Days" and looked to employ a steel chair to do further damage until Kalisto came out for the save. After Corbin left (and he'd return later in the night to go face-to-face with Cena and declare his standing in the Royal Rumble match), Ziggler superkicked Kalisto and left him lying, claiming he didn't need the help.
While SmackDown is admittedly lacking in good guys, Ziggler hit a dead end after falling short in a number of high-profile ways of late and needed a fresh start. It wouldn't be surprising to see Ziggler tear through the guys who he ran into in the locker room in coming weeks, and I don't think the climb back toward the top will take very long. Most of Ziggler's best stretches (and both of his title reigns) came during his heel turns -- and WrestleMania season is the perfect time to catch lightning in a bottle.
Hits and misses
The saga of the unknown replacement "La Luchadora" continues. After a brief showdown with Becky Lynch, La Luchadora rolled under the ring and was replaced by a second masked woman, who was clearly identifiable as Alexa Bliss. She once again got caught in a Dis-arm-her for the quick victory, and unmasked, but the second La Luchadora attacked from behind and the pair of unitard-clad woman exited with a goal accomplished.
The pairing agonizingly called "CarmEllsworth" was a bit hard to follow at the beginning, but Carmella seeing James Ellsworth as the secret weapon ready to do anything and everything to help her is devious and perfect. That Ellsworth would cross that line, even slightly, and get involved with a women's match as he did Tuesday is an interesting wrinkle for the weeks to come as well.
SmackDown keeps on rolling into next week with the rematch for the SmackDown tag-team titles between American Alpha and The Wyatt Family. After an instant victory over Breezango, Jason Jordan and Chad Gable got a patented Wyatt family video message -- only this one featured a tease of their breakup was strong and subtle as Randy Orton stole Luke Harper's "run" line at the end.