One day after Monday Night Raw went through a dramatic metamorphosis with 12 new stars joining what's traditionally been the flagship show, SmackDown was in need of some heavy hitters in return to shake off any feelings of its perpetual "younger sibling" vibe. With the likes of The Miz, Bray Wyatt, Alexa Bliss and Dean Ambrose among the losses, to say nothing of the sheer volume of superstars gone, the quality of returns would speak volumes toward what the future might hold.
From the opening moments, it became clear that SmackDown would get all that it needed and then some, as a freshly shaved, suit-donning Kevin Owens made his way to the ring, United States belt in tow. The scowl across his face was nearly as long as the bone he had to pick with the absorbed audience. He immediately established himself as a force in a way that Ambrose, as Intercontinental champion, had lacked in previous months.
While the move of the former Universal champ was somewhat suspected after Ambrose headed to Raw, it was another dramatic statement in giving everyone a clean start post-WrestleMania. Owens and Chris Jericho will battle in a few weeks with their final U.S. title match and wrap up that lengthy narrative, but the post-Jeri-KO world is already laying down some track.
- WWE (@WWE) April 12, 2017
Over the next two hours inside the TD Garden, SmackDown replenished itself in a big way by also adding the most impactful women's wrestler of the last two years in Charlotte Flair, along with The New Day, Rusev and a handful of others
In all, 13 performers moved to the blue brand, and while it'll be some time before we can actually gauge which show came out on top in this mass reskinning, early indications suggest it's advantage SmackDown Live, if ever so slightly.
That Owens and Zayn are seemingly destined to "fight forever" was a somewhat polarizing choice, but all three men were made to look like major players with the arrival of AJ Styles. Having been spared a move to Raw, SmackDown Live seems poised to be an even greater platform for Styles to do what he does best.
A triple threat No. 1 contender's match for the United States championship was immediately set as the main event, establishing Zayn, Owens, and the United States title as big deals. While it might have been the smart play to separate Owens and Zayn -- they have been battled in some capacity in 29 televised matches since an NXT Takeover pay-per view event in late 2015 -- they arguably have better chemistry together than any other two performers on either roster.
While Flair and Bliss are both tremendous heels, when it comes to actual in-ring execution, it's a no-brainer win for SmackDown in that exchange. Owens, assuming he does defeat Jericho and officially locks in his switch of brands, is also right there in the argument for being the top name to move in this current shakeup. He has all of the tools and the accolades to back them up, between his championship pedigree, high-quality ring performances and, certainly, his polished trash-talking, stirring-the-pot promos.
SmackDown may have also gotten the biggest sleeper in this draft in Rusev. For whatever reason, the one-time invincible brute has been buried within the Raw matrix, whether through poor storytelling or injury. Rusev will give SmackDown another legit traditional top heel, a need that, outside of Corbin, was one of the show's biggest gaps.
The New Day, who will be without Kofi Kingston for some time because of a right ankle injury, has an opportunity for all kinds of new matchups. Big E and Xavier Woods should immediately shoot back to the top as title contenders, benefitting from a chance to mix it up with The Usos and American Alpha.
A familiar face steals the show
Styles' name was the one that popped up the most when the star shakeup rhetoric hit full volume. Since debuting at the Royal Rumble last January, Styles has been the top performer in the WWE, and whether he's been a face or heel, he's respected as much as any star in the business.
But since losing his WWE championship, which he held for 140 days, Styles has been a floater of sorts in the title scene, playing the role of obstacle in the Wyatt-Randy Orton fiasco and the foil for whomever could use him the most during any given week.
From the time Styles' music hit, and all doubt of his destination was removed, it spoke volumes about his perceived value to SmackDown.
In one match, with just one new member of the roster in Zayn, fans were treated to a preview of just how strong the potential post-shakeup match-ups will be. Corbin dominated early with tenacity, at one point striking a huge clothesline on Styles that sent him over the top rope, and Corbin once again showed what he can do when placed in the spotlight with supremely talented in-ring performers.
Zayn was very much in his element throughout, hitting a springboard moonsault with his thighs bouncing off the top rope onto Corbin and Styles as they stood outside the ring.
From there, it was a flurry of energetic sequences. A Deep Six from Corbin, a sweet 450 splash from Styles on Corbin and, eventually, a phenomenal forearm from Styles on Zayn that earned him the pinfall victory.
Owens-Styles is one heck of a way to set the pace on SmackDown post-shakeup, as it promises to be an overflow of top-level build and battles once Jericho is out of the picture. It'll be interesting to see whether this conflict between two ostensibly beloved "bad guys" in Owens and Styles turns the latter into more of a true face again. He did show signs last week with a playful, yet respectful, handshake with commissioner Shane McMahon after their high-flying WrestleMania encounter, and with his separation from Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson, there's little holding Styles back from that kind of transition.
- WWE (@WWE) April 12, 2017
Charlotte Flair brings gravitas to SmackDown
Easily the most masterful women's wrestler in the current WWE era, Flair's move to SmackDown puts the roster in an exciting place and brings back the kind of depth that was briefly lost with Bliss and James departing. A title clash with Naomi seems inevitable, but the most compelling matchup in the bunch is likely centered around rekindling previous bad blood with Becky Lynch.
The two were half of NXT's renowned "Four Horsewomen," and later, along with Paige, part and parcel to the "Women's Revolution." It was against Lynch's that Flair turned heel turn. It sent Flair down a path that eventually morphed into a split with her father, 16-time champion Ric Flair, and helped elevate the self-proclaimed queen to an elite level.
Since joining the WWE, Flair and Lynch have met nine times in singles competition, including NXT, but you can bet that number will increase, and quickly. Beyond Lynch, it'll be fascinating to see whether Flair can single-handedly elevate the status of a women's division that's shown depth and potential, but lacked serious star power.
Beyond Naomi, who's shown great athleticism and flashes of tremendous potential as she starts her second reign as SmackDown women's champion, there are more questions about the other women on the roster. Carmella, Natalya and the newly-acquired Tamina Snuka are all potential foes, but it's wait and see as to who will rise to the challenge.
Hits and misses
-- Looks like Erick Rowan won't be given the upgrade that former Wyatt member Luke Harper did, at least initially, upon his return. Rowan was used as little more than a prop to further the build to the upcoming Wyatt-Orton "House of Horrors" match. Orton got the win via DQ when Wyatt made an appearance on the titantron (again), allowing Rowan to "illegally" attack Orton with the steel ring steps.
-- Lost among the "Superstar Shakedown" chaos was Dolph Ziggler, who claimed that that all of the roster changes ("shiny new toys," as Ziggler said) will lose their appeal, leaving Tuesday nights with only Ziggler to rely on. In reality, he's been set up as a stepping stone for Shinsuke Nakamura to start fighting his way up the WWE ranks. Nakamura, who got another great reaction from the Boston crowd, made Ziggler the fool with all of his trademark gesticulations and by embarrassing Ziggler as he attempted a sneaky superkick. Like Apollo Crews, Ziggler could have benefited from a change of scenery, even if it wouldn't have ultimately built up his profile by much.
-- Glad to have The Hardy Boyz back in the WWE, beefing up the Raw tag team division, but give me some more Usos-American Alpha, please. It was great when they battled each other a couple of weeks before WrestleMania, and Tuesday's high-flying affair was equally entertaining with a gamut of aerial moves, including a moonsault, top-rope bulldog and superb match-ending sequence of an Usos superkick and frog splash to win the contest.
But if there was one questionable move Tuesday, it was the SmackDown debut of The Shining Stars, who attacked American Alpha immediately after their match. After such an energetic performance by the former champs, the onslaught by Primo and Epico felt flat and failed to deliver whatever statement they were hoping to make.
-- Impressive win by Rob Gronkowski, er Mojo Rawley, over Jinder Mahal. Of course, Rawley needed the assistance of the Patriots tight end again. I hope the "Hyper One" doesn't lose any of his steam once training camp takes Gronk away from his globetrotting WWE appearances.
-- Could there be a worse gimmick for Aiden English now that the Vaudevillains are no more? English announced his return to singles action by reviving the Artiste character he debuted as on NXT a few years ago and singing to the crowd. He was met by Tye Dillinger, and the "Perfect 10" flattened him a few minutes later.