When WWE's brand split was announced last May, the big concern was whether SmackDown, as the perennial B-show, would have the roster strength to carry a weekly live broadcast on its own. This was despite having luminaries like Randy Orton and John Cena, two men on the downward slope of their careers but with more drawing power, historically, than most of the rest of WWE's roster can claim.
Somewhat surprisingly, SmackDown hasn't just held its own against Raw—it has thrived. While Raw's quality tends to roller-coaster up and down week to week, SmackDown has held at a steady level of "quite good" almost since the summer transition to a live show.
The two-hour format has helped, as has the move of former NXT writer Ryan Ward to lead the SmackDown writing team. Right up there, as well, is the feud between A.J. Styles and Dean Ambrose, which has been maybe the best feud in wrestling this year. It definitely has brought out the best in both men, and it reached a crescendo at Sunday's Tables, Ladders, and Chairs pay-per-view in a wild match for the WWE World Championship.
Ambrose has been in a strange place ever since the breakup of the Shield, that trio of him, Seth Rollins, and Roman Reigns. He's undoubtedly popular—2015 saw him get the biggest pops in the company on most nights—but WWE's current style hasn't really meshed thus far with his best talents.
Ambrose made a name for himself as Jon Moxley on the hardcore wrestling circuit, especially Combat Zone Wrestling, a Philadelphia-based successor to ECW with twice the violence and half the storytelling touch. What CZW does best—what any good hardcore wrestling does best, really—is allow for a talented hand in the art of violence to skirt the realm of the truly profane until the audience is not quite sure what's real and what's not. All pro wrestling trades in that gray zone, but never more so than when your empathy, as a viewer, falls under the shadow of contrived bloodlust: yes, that wrestler is bleeding, gushing, even, from a head wound and no, you cannot fake actual pain, but are the screams for show? Is the slight look of enjoyment on the part of the perpetrator real, even somewhat?
That genre of pro wrestling is something Ambrose, as Moxley, thrived on. Some hardcore wrestlers become famous because they can take absurd amounts of pain, à la Mick Foley. Others, like Ambrose, get famous because they dish it out so realistically, so joyously, that you can't look away. He'd stick a fork in someone's head and you couldn't look away because he seemed lost, real or not, in some blood-soaked reverie. He also became famous for his extemporaneous promos—natural, effortless wordcraft dropped on a dime for whoever would listen. His promos all connected to a story about how he just couldn't help himself, that pro wrestling was the only place where it was socially acceptable for this violent misfit with poor impulse control to be himself. There was also a question for us: What does it mean that we enjoy this screaming, violent man?
Given Ambrose's background, the fact that he ranks so highly in the WWE's stable of wrestlers is something of an oddity. There's nothing in the current no-blood, no-cursing era that would have pointed to him succeeding—and when he did succeed, he has looked so listless that he seems popular almost despite himself, a man chafing at the scripted promos and risk-averse style he's been forced into.
Enter A.J. Styles.
Styles is the best pro wrestler in the world during a time when there are a lot of extremely good pro wrestlers. His sometimes rival, Shinsuke Nakamura, isn't the best. Kevin Owens, Seth Rollins, Jay Lethal, Sami Zayn, Sasha Banks, Kazuchika Okada, Chris Hero—none of them are the best. A.J. Styles is, and that is as objective a statement about the current state of pro wrestling as it was slow to become commonly accepted, as everyone hedged to committing to his singular greatness in the face of so much good wrestling.
Styles essentially was TNA while he was there. He came in when the company opened, in 2002, and didn't leave until the raw economics of his situation forced him out in late 2013. He was good then, very good, but anyone who says they foresaw a man in his late 30s becoming the greatest in the world at what seemed like a career low point isn't telling the truth.
After TNA, Styles went to Ring of Honor and, somehow, upped the intensity of his wrestling and tied his gifted athleticism ever more tightly to the American indie of big spots and wordless storytelling. Then he went to New Japan Pro Wrestling, took over the famed Bullet Club stable, and kicked into yet another gear. He picked up Japanese strong-style flourishes and cemented his hold on the "best in the world" moniker with scintillating feuds with Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi. It's not too much to say that without Styles working NJPW for that brief two-year period, the transition of the promotion into a global wrestling power might not have happened, at least not when it did.
He went to WWE and seemed to be destined for the midcard, as tends to happen to the wrestlers the McMahons don't have a hand in creating. But a funny thing happened: he was so popular and his matches were so good that they rocketed him up the card. Styles put on match-of-the-year candidates nearly every single time he went into the ring. He helped elevate Roman Reigns to two such matches. He's had one of the best three years and counting in the history of pro wrestling, with all-time great matches and more championships than can easily be counted. It's been so good that we need to start putting him into the pantheon of the greatest in history.
That he meshed with Ambrose isn't a surprise—Styles meshes with everyone—but Ambrose has seemed liberated in a way we've not seen before. Styles' limber, seemingly indestructible body allows Ambrose to indulge in that high-spot he craves, where he can just do something stupid and not hurt the other guy too badly. He's taken to talking shit off the cuff and mocking Styles when they're in the ring together. And, in turn, Styles has found a partner who doesn't mind taking a big bump or pushing the limits of what WWE's current style will endure; we're not at the blood-match level quite yet, but you can squint and see Vince McMahon yielding for one night only if they sweet talk him.
The feud is going to continue. A little interference from James Ellsworth on Sunday to seal Styles' win saw to that. That's a good thing. Ambrose vs. Styles has never felt even a little stale, and it's even managed to make everything else on SmackDown more important, a mark of what a top-quality feud can do for an entire show. If it's teased out just a little more so these two can make magic, we all win.
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