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WWE celebrated Independence Day with an electrifying episode of SmackDown Live that set in motion the events, rivalries and Superstars who will help make Battleground on July 23 one of its most significant pay-per-view events to date.
Adding credibility to the broadcast was John Cena, who returned to WWE for the first time since WrestleMania and was instantly confronted by a familiar foe who will now oppose him in Philadelphia at the pay-per-view extravaganza, The Bulgarian Brute, Rusev.
Speaking of the upcoming WWE Network presentation, the No. 1 contender to Kevin Owens’ United States Championship was determined in an enormous Independence Day Battle Royal. Would top rival AJ Styles emerge victoriously, or would there be another top contender to concern himself with?
Naomi defended her SmackDown Women’s Championship against Lana one last time, and rapper Wale hosted a rap-off between The New Day and The Usos to round out what was another strong effort from the blue brand.
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The WWE Universe in Phoenix erupted as John Cena exploded through the curtain, returning to WWE television for the first time since WrestleMania 33.
Cena declared immediately that he is not a full-timer or a part-timer. He is, instead, an all-timer, and if he is going to wind down his career in WWE, he is going to do so by taking on the best Raw and SmackDown Live have to offer.
He rattled off a few names, including Roman Reigns, before Rusev interrupted the proceedings.
The Bulgarian Brute took exception to the pomp and circumstance that accompanied Cena’s return while he put in the same hard work and effort and received no sort of hype.
The ordeal descended into insults over American vs. Bulgarian supremacy before Cena issued a challenge for a flag match on Tuesday night’s broadcast.
Rusev refused, telling Cena they will fight on his time. The WWE Universe and its franchise star chanted “U-S-A” at the former United States champion on his way out.
This may have felt fairly one-dimensional, but it was much more newsworthy than that.
Cena essentially acknowledged that his WWE career is winding down, and as such, he has limited time to work with the stars from Raw and SmackDown he wants to. The mention of Reigns and the pause for reaction was telling in that it basically confirms the leader of the Cenation will ultimately square off with The Big Dog at some point before he walks away from the squared circle.
The interaction with Rusev was corny American babyface vs. foreign heel, but it works on July 4. Whether there is much heat to be had past Tuesday remains to be seen.
Update: Daniel Bryan made the match between Cena and Rusev for Battleground on Twitter.
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Prior to the match between AJ Styles and Chad Gable, Daniel Bryan made it abundantly clear that Kevin Owens did not want either of them in the Independence Day Battle Royal since he beat them to successfully retain his United States Championship.
To appease him, Bryan announced this Win and You’re In match between two of the more celebrated in-ring workers on the SmackDown Live roster.
Through the match, Gable worked over the left arm of Styles, surprisingly keeping control of the bout from his veteran opponent.
Back from the break and the Superstars countered everything thrown their way.
Styles eventual delivered a nasty suplex into the corner, slowing Gable’s momentum. He set him up for the Styles Clash, but Gable countered into an ankle lock.
The Phenomenal One survived and delivered Styles Clash successfully to pick up the victory.
AJ Styles defeated Chad Gable
The athleticism was there, the mat wrestling was fun and the counter-wrestling was fantastic.
It felt entirely too short given the talent of the Superstars involved. Give them a few more minutes, minus the obnoxious commercial break, and let them tear the house down.
The sign of respect from Styles to Gable afterward will do more to elevate the stock of the former Olympic wrestler than any close loss. What that means for Jason Jordan, though, is a question that bears asking.
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One week after winning Money in the Bank for the second time in as many attempts, Carmella and home boy James Ellsworth hit the ring to celebrate the victory.
Ellsworth threatened to cancel Independence Day in favor of the Carmellabration before introducing the WWE Universe to the “first, second and only Miss Money in the Bank.”
Before Carmella could gloat too much, Naomi interrupted to a big pop.
She said she is not scared or shook because she will continue to glow. She introduced general manager Daniel Bryan, who proceeded to bar Ellsworth from the building, fine him $10,000 and suspend him for 30 days.
Carmella looked panicked as the news came down. Even more so when Bryan vowed to strip her of the briefcase if Ellsworth broke any of his orders or defied his decisions.
And with that, Carmella’s safety net is gone.
The general manager, unable to outright take the briefcase from the arrogant heel, found a way to punish her for winning the Money in the Bank briefcase as she did last week by taking her backup Ellsworth away from her.
A simple, effective segment that introduced the potential for a Naomi-Carmella feud over the SmackDown Women’s Championship.
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Naomi eased any and all controversy Tuesday night.
The SmackDown women’s champion delivered a sunset flip into her headscissors crucifix choke for the tapout in near-record time.
After the match, Tamina hit the ring and stared down Naomi before ordering Lana to follow her to the back. The embarrassed former No. 1 contender did as she was told.
Naomi defeated Lana
It is safe to say Lana is officially out of championship contention after that one.
More than anything, this segment introduced the WWE Universe to an intriguing new pairing of Tamina and Lana. Perhaps the second-generation daughter of WWE Hall of Famer “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka will seek to teach Lana the ways of the ring, better preparing her for championship opportunities in the future.
Maybe she will serve as somewhat of a bodyguard.
The unknown creates interest, and considering neither woman has anything else better to do, that is more than welcome.
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Grammy-nominated rapper Wale introduced the rap-off between The New Day and The Usos.
Big E landed the first blow, saying before New Day all Usos had were pre-shows and dark matches.
The Usos hit harder, referencing Xavier Woods’ controversial appearances in leaked, private, adult-themed videos.
Kofi Kingston hit back with a “weenie-do” reference that drew a chant from the audience.
Xavier Woods responded to another strong rap by The Usos by claiming Jimmy was nothing before his wife put him on Total Divas. He put an exclamation point on it by telling Jimmy and Jey to get back to doing what they do best, “carrying bags for Roman.”
A brawl erupted, and Wale disqualified The Usos, who left as New Day celebrated.
The New Day defeated The Usos by disqualification
Whether you liked the segment or not, it was effective in adding a personal edge to the rivalry while simultaneously serving as an alternative to the tired old promo segment.
The “Rated R” comment about Woods was a surprise considering how much WWE would seemingly want to distance itself from that controversy. The “Roman” line in reference to The Usos’ relationship with Roman Reigns was an equally devastating line that popped the Phoenix crowd.
Good stuff, but not something worth replicating too often.
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After eating an RKO from Randy Orton last week, Aiden English sought revenge in singles competition.
Things did not go his way early as The Viper’s theme song cut off his latest tune. The former Vaudevillain attacked him before the bell and sent Orton shoulder-first into the ring steps.
It gave him the advantage he needed to control the majority of the match.
When the action spilled outside, Orton seized control, sending English flying back-first into the guardrail. From there, he used the stairs against English, drawing a disqualification. Unfazed by the decision, he dropped his opponent with an RKO.
WWE champion Jinder Mahal appeared and admitted that he wished he could beat tolerance into the WWE Universe. He vowed to win at Battleground inside the Punjabi Prison.
Orton told Mahal to shut the hell up and said that no one likes him and never will because he is a jackass. Orton fired up the audience to close out the segment.
Aiden English defeated Randy Orton via disqualification
It is not every day that WWE Creative remembers a segment as seemingly forgettable as last week’s RKO to English and, in turn, spins it forward to create an entirely new segment from it. That was a nice touch that allowed Orton to get some televised ring time without overexposing Mahal or The Singh Bothers.
English, to his credit, was brilliant as the seething villain dismayed by the lack of respect shown to him by his opponent. And when the time came, he bumped around the ringside area for Orton and made the third-generation star look like a complete badass ahead of his Punjabi Prison match with Mahal on July 23.
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AJ Styles and Sami Zayn both drew enormous pops as they took to the ring, joined by other Superstars such as Erick Rowan, Luke Harper, Dolph Ziggler, Tye Dillinger and Zack Ryder, for the night’s Independence Day Battle Royal.
The winner would receive a shot at the WWE United States Championship.
The Showoff was the first Superstar eliminated, surprisingly enough, as the show went to the final break of the night.
Breezango were tossed next by Rowan. Mojo Rawley eliminated both Konnor of The Ascension and Luke Harper before coming face-to-face with partner Zack Ryder. The Hype Bos teamed up to eliminate Rowan before Rawley dumped Ryder, to the disdain of US champion Kevin Owens on commentary.
Dillinger unloaded on both Zayn and Styles, the fans behind him as he fired off his Tye Breaker finisher. He attempted to eliminate both competitors at the same time but a back body drop by The Underdog from the Underground sent him to the showers.
Zayn and Styles were the last two Superstars remaining, providing fans with a taste of what a match between the two would look like.
Styles ultimately eliminated Zayn with a Pele Kick. Owens hit the ring and talked trash but Styles caught him with a big kick and tried for a Styles Clash.
The New Face of America bailed out of the ring, leaving his title. Styles raised it high overhead to close out the show, much to the disdain of Owens, who continued to run his mouth to close the show.
AJ Styles won the Battle Royal to become No. 1 contender
There were a few bright spots here that may have tipped SmackDown’s hat as to which rivalries fans can expect to see next.
The most noteworthy was the exchange involving The Hype Bros.
It was strongly hinted at earlier in the show that there dissension in the ranks. When Rawley threw Ryder out of the ring, impending explosion of tag team partners was all but confirmed. Owens going insane following the betrayal and denouncing Rawley for such a heinous act was brilliant.
Styles winning was a foregone conclusion but sets up a final showdown between him and Owens for Battleground so it was absolutely the right outcome.