It was a busy first Smackdown of 2019, full of in-ring action and the crowning of a challenger for Daniel Bryan and the WWE Championship at the Royal Rumble.
A.J. Styles defeated four other WWE superstars on SmackDown Live to earn the right to face Daniel Bryan for the WWE Title at the Royal Rumble on Tuesday night. It was a fitting way to start of the new year as this kind of feud is one WWE has been hoping to cash in on for some time.
Styles pinned Randy Orton in a five-way match to determine who would face the current WWE Champion. While Mustafa Alu, Rey Mysterio, and Samoa Joe could not get the job done, WWE is moving forward with a darker, more aggressive Styles on the road toward WrestleMania in April.
Personally, I like the idea of changing Styles’ character a bit while still billing him as the blue brand’s top babyface. WWE did the right thing in allowing Daniel Bryan to shock the world before the end of the year with his heel turn to claim the promotion’s biggest prize. Now, the creative team must create a compelling feud that sets the tone for the next 12 months.
Styles is every bit this generation’s Shawn Michaels in that he is the brand’s best performer. He may not be the juggernaut on the microphone like The Miz or the sadistic tempered Orton, there is plenty to build from his character to ratchet his aggression a but without him losing his status with wrestling fans as their conquering hero.
A Styles-Bryan match should be one of the highlights of the night on Jan. 27. WWE needs another strong showing to continue their promise of change. Raw’s main event picture has been damaged because of the loss of Roman Reigns to the roster. SmackDown’s women’s division is the best thing going today. Braun Strowman and Brock Lesner will once again lock it up for the Universal Title. And then there is the Women’s and Men’s Royal Rumble matches.
If WWE wants to get over with its fan base, then have the Styles-Bryan feud continue off and on throughout the year, much the company has done in the past with John Cena and CM Punk or Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes in the NWA. Fans will always accept this kind of cash-in, as the story inside the ring sells itself.
When Bryan was at the height of the “Yes! Movement” it was easy to pick matches for the superstar because of his ability in the ring. Styles, Michaels, Bret Hart, Kurt Angle. They all fit the “What If” scenario of a potential comeback for the four-time WWE champion as he dealt with injuries that forced him to retire from the ring. His return guaranteed another run with the belt in hand, but it did not promise a change in character or attitude.
Styles’ attack on Vince McMahon last week showed even the most popular stars have to find ways to reinvent themselves as performers. The feud with Samo Joe took Styles to the brink, but it did not do the one thing I had hoped it would do – give the company strap to Joe. It would have then forced Styles to readjust his character. Maybe this is what the McMahons had in mind all along.
In a little over three weeks, fans will get the title match they want with two of the best performers in the world. We can all hope it lives up to the hype. If the superstars can perform as well outside the ring with promos as they do inside the squared-circle, this could be a “Match of the Year contender” out of the gate.
That’s something myself as a fan hopes will happen