Grading the first SmackDown Live episode of the WWE’s ‘New Era’

WWE’s SmackDown entered the the WWE’s New Era Tuesday night just 24 hours after an exceptional episode of Raw, but Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan are already struggling to keep pace. We’ve broken down the show segment-by-segment, and while SmackDown wasn’t necessarily bad, it failed to hit the heights that Raw achieved the night before. 

SmackDown Live opened with Shane and Daniel Bryan walking through the curtain and telling the audience that, going forward, the focus of the show will be about giving the superstars on the roster the opportunities they deserve – which would hold true for the following two hours and should be the theme that separates the flagship show (which is full of established stars) from SmackDown Live. 

Just like Raw, SmackDown also received a new theme song, which is called Take a Chance by CFO$. 

The entire SmackDown roster stood on the apron of the ring, and McMahon and Bryan announced that to find an opponent for WWE Champion Dean Ambrose, a "six-pack challenge" would take place that night to determine the number one contender. John Cena, Bray Wyatt, Dolph Ziggler, Baron Corbin and AJ Styles were all announced as participants, while the sixth spot would go to the winner of a Battle Royal, which happened immediately afterward.

Battle Royal specialist Kane, Zack Ryder, Kalisto and Apollo Crews were the final four stars remaining in the ring after more than a dozen had been eliminated. Kalisto managed to get in a few high-flying spots before being tossed from the ring one-handed by Kane.

Zack Ryder provided a hilarious botch from the top rope when he slipped and missed his move, but Apollo Crews would win by reversing a chokeslam, then pulling down the top rope while a charging Kane barreled to the outside.

We speculated before the show that SmackDown – which has a very small roster – might need to announce the return of an old star to generate some hype, and WWE delivered with a promo for the return of three-time Intercontinental Champion Shelton Benjamin (who is "coming soon). Benjamin could potentially get another run with the title, which currently resides on SmackDown with The Miz, and there are a number of stars on the roster who should match up well with him. An eventual AJ Styles vs. Shelton Benjamin match is going to be awesome. 

Following their match at Battleground, Becky Lynch and Natalya had a solid rematch which was won by Lynch with a brutal-looking Dis-arm-her. 

After the match finished, the rest of the women’s roster introduced themselves to the audience. NXT stars Alexa Bliss and Carmella both made debuts, along with Naomi and Eva Marie (who even had her own personal narrator). It was a good move to give all of the women screentime, and though the WWE Women’s title is on Raw, Bryan has the chance to be a bit more creative with the division on SmackDown given how evenly matched all the women are. They all have potential to grow together, which should be fun to watch (but less immediately satisfying as Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte matches).   

The Miz arrives for what is being billed as a Miz TV interview with a former world champion … which turns into The Miz interviewing himself. He gets a few questions in before Randy Orton interrupts, bringing us to the one-hour mark. 

SmackDown followed Raw’s general show structure by setting up matches to determine a SummerSlam opponent for its lead performer, but switched up the match types with a battle royal and a six-man free for all, both of which were a nice change of pace. Shelton Benjamin’s return was a great surprise, but it would have been even better if he was actually there for the show (and won the battle royal, perhaps).   

Orton, who seems to have been reborn as a jokester, starts cutting a similar Viperville promo to the one he delivered to Chris Jericho at Battleground, previewing his match against Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam. Orton then challenges The Miz to a friendly bout to "knock off the ring rust," and an insulted Maryse accepts on Miz’s behalf. 

In Orton’s first match since September, The Miz wisely tries to reinjure Orton’s surgically repaired shoulder. The Miz remains in control for the first half of what was a very slow-paced match, but Orton responds with two RKOs to take the win over the Intercontinental Champion.  

Last Tuesday at the WWE Draft, rising NXT tag team American Alpha got arguably the loudest pop of the night from fans when they were drafted to SmackDown, but after a short promo package showing footage of their matches was played, announcers revealed that American Alpha will be debuting next week. This was the biggest misfire of the night for Bryan and McMahon, as Alpha could have delivered the energy that the show desperately needed at this point. 

Instead, Heath Slater – who went undrafted and is a free agent – appears in the ring and begs Shane McMahon to sign him. As Slater was screaming his case, NXT’s Rhyno sneaks behind Slater and hits him with a gore. Whether or not Rhyno remains on the SmackDown roster remains to be seen.

The final match of the show is the six-pack challenge for the right to face Dean Ambrose at SummerSlam – and to SmackDown’s credit, the winner was a huge surprise. Both John Cena and AJ Styles entered the match as huge favorites, but Dolph Ziggler emerged victorious and now has the chance to become a world champion for the first time since June 2013. Fans have been asking WWE to push Ziggler for years, and it finally happened (though it’s hard to see him beating Dean Ambrose). 

It was a surprise to see Orton wrestling before SummerSlam, but his didn’t exactly cause fans to jump out of their seats. American Alpha’s absence was a huge disappointment.

There are certainly things to like about SmackDown Live. The presentation is unique from Raw and looks very slick, and the two-hour length is perfect for a weekly show (Raw, even in a great episode overall, had periods where the action dragged). SmackDown simply lacked an amazing match or a memorable moment in its debut show, and Raw delivered two or three the night before. The odds are admittedly stacked against SmackDown – it has fewer championship titles to feature and a smaller roster – but the show missed the mark on one of its most important nights.