The United States Championship has been vacated more times than you'd think throughout its illustrious 43-year history; over 20 times actually. In each of those instances, a door was opened for another superstar to rise up and make a name for himself.
That pursuit became the central focus of Tuesday's edition of SmackDown Live, as the final two rounds of the U.S. title tournament were condensed into a single night and Bobby Roode walked away with his first main roster championship.
So how did we get to this point, with Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan showing a rare bit of solidarity in raising Roode's hands as SmackDown went off the air? It started two days after Clash of Champions in December, when Dolph Ziggler laid his newly won U.S. championship in the ring and walked away. The day after Christmas, on the following week's SmackDown, Bryan recognized Ziggler's relinquishing of the title and a tournament was created.
Before the championship victory, Ziggler's future had been debated and questioned among fans due to the lack of any serious upward strides since the compelling rivalry he and The Miz had in 2016. The fact that he vacated the title and walked away without explanation further fueled that speculation, but he is still very much a part of the WWE roster and could return to throw things further into chaos at any point
Anyway, back to the tournament. Over three weeks of action, Roode, Jinder Mahal, Mojo Rawley and Xavier Woods won first round matches to reach the semifinals. With a new United States champion guaranteed, Mahal and Woods opened SmackDown, and Roode battled Rawley shortly thereafter. Woods hung around for nearly 20 minutes against the former WWE champion for a while, but Mahal picked up a decisive victory to advance to the finals. Rawley pushed Roode even further, injuring his ribs in the process.
Despite playing a defensive role in the match, Roode was able to secure the victory and, let's be honest, Roode needed this win. His graduation to the main roster following a brilliant run in NXT hasn't been as glorious as some may have hoped. Roode was immediately attacked by the Singh Brothers, and as they retreated Mahal came out to congratulate his cronies on a job well done. A furious Roode grabbed a microphone and challenged Mahal to have the finals on the spot, and though Mahal tried to deny him, Bryan came out and declared the finals would be the night's main event.
After the finals scheduled for the Royal Rumble were bumped up a week once before, jamming two rounds into one night actually made a lot of sense. On a night where the WWE championship was completely absent with the exception of an AJ Styles interview and a video package, this was the type of excitement the show needed. It also shined the light squarely on the United States championship, a title that has fluctuated in its perceived importance over the years, and set the winner up with serious bragging rights going forward.
The focus of the championship match was on the ribs that Roode injured in his semifinal match with Rawley. As such, the match took on a slow and meticulous pace as Mahal picked apart the former NXT champion. It allowed them to slowly gain momentum and built up to an ending that felt far more chaotic by comparison as both combatants traded a series of near falls. It all eventually fed into a Glorious DDT by Roode that came out of nowhere, and with that, Roode was the champion.
- WWE (@WWE) January 17, 2018
After making an immediate impact in NXT and controlling that landscape throughout his entire run, this is the first time Roode has felt like a legitimate player in his five months on the main roster. A lot of that can be traced to him coming in as something of a confused babyface, after running roughshod over NXT as a bad guy, but this win solidifies his ability to achieve success regardless of his role.
Is this where Ziggler comes back into the picture? The last time Ziggler and Roode shared a ring together, it was Ziggler who walked out as United States champion, and they had been squabbling for some time before that. For now, let's just enjoy the glorious beginning of the 153rd United States championship reign in the title's history.
Hits and misses
As we approach the first ever Women's Royal Rumble match in less than two weeks, Tuesday's show offered a preview of sorts as The Riott Squad faced off with the trio of Becky Lynch, Naomi and the superstar they'd likely face should any of them win the rumble match, SmackDown Live Women's champion Charlotte Flair. The match was decent and allowed the Riott Squad to gain retribution after Ruby Riotts loss to Lynch last week, as Liv Morgan nailed her codebreaker-esque finisher onto Naomi for the win.
Speaking of the Royal Rumble match, quick clips featuring promos from the various SmackDown Live superstars who have declared for the Rumble match were aired sporadically throughout the night. It was an effective way to get some of the top names on the show on a night dedicated almost entirely to the conclusion of the United States championship tournament.
Outside of a video package hyping the WWE championship handicap match between Styles versus Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, the only other reference to the match was a backstage interview with Styles. The night belonged to Roode, and the work to get to the handicap match at the Royal Rumble is essentially done. What I did have a problem with was Styles' attempt at humor by combining the Kevin and Sami's names into "Kami." Not good. Not good at all. This feels like trying too hard.
This year's Royal Rumble, perhaps more than any other year because there are two Rumble matches, is sure to deliver on the excitement and surprises. But is there a doubt in anyone's mind that The Usos and the pairing of Shelton Benjamin and Chad Gable will stake their claim for match of the night, even with those two matches and two world title contests?
Based on their encounters over the past few weeks, the teams have clear chemistry and The Usos are no strangers to stealing shows. The feud was escalated further on Tuesday night when Benjamin and Gable blindsided the champs during a backstage interview. Despite the strong card, this is my sleeper pick for show-stealer.
In a backstage segment, it was announced that Rusev and Aiden English will take on Breezango's buddies, The Ascension, on next week's go-home show. Rusev and English are looking for retribution following their loss to Fandango and Tyler Breeze last week. It was a little bit of turnabout, after The Ascension volunteered them for some matches, and this could be the opportunity to reignite the fire of Rusev Day.