In need of a hail mary in the final segment to save what was a depressingly vanilla episode of SmackDown Live this close to WrestleMania 34, WWE came through with a big one on Tuesday. Top heels Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn rejoined forces to close the show, teasing that they may have been playing blue-brand commissioner Shane McMahon all along. But what happened next was the exact element the show had been missing for most of the two hours: unpredictable, raw and violent energy.
The vicious attack of McMahon created a lot more questions than we have answers at this point, which is far from an unwelcomed advancement as we draw closer to WrestleMania 34 on April 8 in New Orleans. But the cupboard was largely bear around this development, in a show overrun with tired dialogue, neutral booking and the treading of water for most major storylines.
McMahon announces leave before brutal attack
Two nights after McMahon cost Owens and Zayn potential WWE championship victories at Fastlane, Zayn cut a backstage promo calling KO a “self-absorbed egomaniac” whose obsession with McMahon cost him. Later, Owens countered by blaming the “delusional” Zayn for not seeing that it’s Shane’s fault. “He’s just like the other McMahons who can’t stand not having the spotlight on him so he has to steal it from me,” Owens said, before adding he has no problem teaching Zayn a lesson to open his eyes to the truth.
This led to a supposed “major WrestleMania announcement” from McMahon to close the show. It started by him defending his actions as retaliation for what Owens began by attacking his father last year. After promising that recently absent SmackDown general manager Daniel Bryan would return next week, McMahon announced he was taking an indefinite leave of absence as commissioner. Before stepping down, his final act was booking a WrestleMania match between Owens and Zayn. Out came Owens and Zayn separately to complain (with KO brilliantly reciting the “wish you the best of luck in future endeavors” line that WWE typically accompanies in press releases announcing firings). With McMahon openly baffled by their protest of a WrestleMania match, Zayn attacked him from behind before Owens joined in. A brief rally from McMahon was instantly stuffed by a Helluva Kick from Zayn and Pop-Up Powerbomb by Owens.
That’s when things turned intensely brutal. A pack of referees ran in to break things up, but after Zayn and Owens fought them off with kicks to the face, the heel duo tossed McMahon outside and pinned his head in a chair before violently throwing him into the ring post. Owens proceeded to drag McMahon’s body up the ramp and backstage. After taunting him, Owens and Zayn combined on a double power bomb on top of a folded steel riser. McMahon let out a never-ending chorus of believable moans and shrieks while being attended to as the show went off the air.
This was awesome. Say what you will about how meandering way this story has been told but after a turn this visceral and raw, it’s impossible not to be pulled back in. This segment is what WrestleMania season is all about, giving you a reason to care this deeply about what happens next and what kind of punishment and comeuppance will be delivered. Not only is Owens at his best when he’s booked as a psychopath, McMahon’s next-level sell job was the backbone (no pun intended) of what made this so good.
As far as what happens next, the absence of Bryan, who has long supported the heels during this angle, adds some very interesting potential. There’s enough intrigue, in fact, to make it feel like it’s far from a slam dunk that Bryan will end up teaming with McMahon in some form of a tag team match against Owens and Zayn at WrestleMania. The fact that we don’t know WWE’s end game at this point is the best part and it’s enough to make one forget just how unoffensively pedestrian the rest of Tuesday’s show actual was this close to April 8.
What else happened on SmackDown Live?
- AJ Styles faced off with Shinsuke Nakamura: After delivering a babyface promo about the odds he overcame, both defending his WWE championship at Fastlane and just making it to WWE in general, Styles corrected the crowd’s chant of “You deserve it” by saying “I earned it.” Out came Nakamura, who shared the respect and affection he holds for his former rival. But he followed by saying, “At WrestleMania, dreams come true. My dream is knee to face and I become champion.” Rusev’s music interrupted their exchange, leading to an awkward commercial break.
- AJ Styles def. Rusev via disqualification: The match began after commercial with no explanation as to why it was booked. (Rusev wasn’t even given the chance to talk trash on camera.) With Nakamura watching from ringside, Styles and Rusev put forth a solid match until Aiden English ran in to break Styles’ calf crusher attempt, forcing the DQ. As the heels continued to work over Styles, Nakamura slowly rose from his chair to rescue him, hitting a wheel kick on English and a Kinshasa on Rusev to lay them out. Later backstage, Styles told Nakamura he didn’t need his help. “WWE’s Rock Star” countered that he’s prepared to protect Styles until WrestleMania so he can beat him.
- The Bludgeon Brothers def. Jimmy Uso & Big E via pinfall: With their teammates still injured from the violent ending to Sunday’s Fastlane match, Uso and Big E decided backstage to put their rivalry on pause and team up. The duo attacked Harper and Rowan outside the ring before the match even started before all four brandished weapons. But the actual match was as brief as it was decisive with the Bludgeons earning the pin after hitting The Reckoning on Uso. A brutal post-match attack on Big E followed, leaving him laid out on the floor outside the ring.
- Charlotte Flair, Asuka hype up WrestleMania match: There was an astonishing lack of meat to this interaction as Flair walked out excited to face her April 8 opponent “woman to woman” (despite just doing so on Sunday night). After both took turns explaining why they preferred to be facing each other all along, Flair warned to “be careful what you wish for because I’m going to end your streak and cement my legacy.” Asuka, who closed by saying she bows to no one, couldn’t help but come across as much more comically exaggerated (if not creepy) compared with how cool her character was preserved in NXT.
- Jinder Mahal def. Bobby Roode via pinfall: After a vanilla promo from Randy Orton produced generic run-in’s from Mahal and Roode, the new United States champion watched the inevitable spinoff match from ringside. Sunil Singh’s distraction on the apron was enough to help Mahal gain a victory via the Khallas. Orton interrupted Mahal’s celebration with a predictable RKO that was the antithesis of “outta nowhere.” If you’ve noticed a pattern between this trio of the same exact stuff every single week, you’re not alone.
- Carmella def. Naomi via pinfall: The women’s Money in the Bank winner delivered a cringeworthy selfie promo before the match in which she referred to herself as “the modern-day Moolah” and a “trailblazer,” previewing her involvement in the inaugural women’s battle royal at WrestleMania. The match which followed was short and non-descript with Carmella kicking the ropes to stuff Naomi’s springboard attempt and rolling her up for the 1-2-3.