This week, he has a new opponent that could affect "Survivor Series."
Last week on Smackdown Live, Jinder Mahal and the Singh Brothers beat down A.J. Styles. Afterwards, Shane McMahon announced not that Styles would face not Mahal for his WWE Smackdown Championship but Rusev for a spot on the Survivor Series team this week. Days later, the WWE changed its mind and announced that Styles would face Mahal this Tuesday for his championship belt. If Styles wins, he would represent Smackdown Live and face Brock Lesnar at the Survivor Series pay-per-view.
The change could reflect one of a few possible motivations. Maybe they simply want to build Smackdown’s sagging ratings, or maybe the WWE took a mulligan, realizing that such a match would be a non sequitur, particularly after Smackdown has built the Styles/Mahal feud by having Styles fight his way first through the Singh Brothers in a couple of squash matches. It could also be that Mahal is injured and the WWE needs to get the belt off of him. The company may have also noticed that the Mahal/Lesnar match has generated little excitement for the Survivor Series card. Not even Lesnar’s advocate and mouthpiece Paul Heyman, who typically builds up Lesnar’s opponents when selling a match, could take Mahal seriously.
It doesn’t help that as it stands, the Survivor Series’ brand champion matches will all be heel vs. heel matches. As Blake Oestriecher wrote last week at Forbes.com, “It's likely, after all, that fans are going to have one of two responses to a heel vs. heel match: Either they will let WWE know they're uninterested by taking over the bout with loud chants, or they will sit in silence as if they're watching a tennis match.” Styles is the hottest performer on Smackdown Live and one of the best workers in the WWE, and if he were in that championship match, it would generate a lot more interest. It has been generally assumed that Mahal would hold the belt through December when the WWE puts on a series of house shows in India, and that his push was primarily an effort to develop its fan base there. The question is whether he needs to be a champion to help India connect to the WWE.
This change shouldn’t be seen as a one-off. The WWE writers have recently skittered from idea to idea like a rookie improv troupe, and haven’t felt bound by storylines or long-term planning. This year alone they’ve built and ignored heat between Alexa Bliss and Nia Jax, teased a few Roman Reigns heel turns, and a few weeks ago Raw GM Kurt Angle announced that if members of The Miztourage including Sheamus and Cesaro interfered in the steel cage match between Reigns and Braun Strowman, the team wouldn’t get the fifth member that The Miz wanted to add. They interfered anyway and when Strowman won, they added Kane as if Angle had never said a thing.
In this case, it’s hard to imagine that the WWE would change the booking to have Styles lose, but it’s also hard to understand why the company sent Finn Balor, projected to be a competitor for Lesnar in the new year, out to get crushed by Kane the last two weeks. If Styles goes to Survivor Series to face Brock Lesnar, the card would have a much better match, and since the WWE also has no qualms about tossing belts back and forth like hot potatoes, it’s entirely possible he could lose it back to Mahal in time for the India trip.
Then again, it may be that they’re simply paying off a mini-feud that’s not going anywhere, and that Styles/Mahal is simply a high profile Smackdown Live match that won’t affect the title picture or Survivor Series card at all.
Before Samoa Joe was injured, he was gaining anti-hero buzz. He wasn’t a nice guy, but his no bullshit relentlessness earned him growing love, particularly in matches with Lesnar, Reigns and Strowman. On Monday night, the crowd popped to see his return to the ring, and he could have easily gone with it and become yet another beloved bad boy. The WWE already has its share of tweeners, so it’s not like he would be unusual if he wrestled like a heel but got pop like a face. Instead though, Joe dismissed the audience and its love. He told them he not only didn’t care about their acclaim, but their cheers prompted him to rage harder and with greater anger. The moment was masterful, and he turned the crowd against him in moments.
Being a heel requires commitment. When Chris Jericho is a heel in the WWE, he doesn’t let them market T-shirts of him. The Miz is one of the WWE’s longest running heels, and he doesn’t have T-shirts on the WWE.com website either. That kind of commitment runs counter to the dominant aesthetic of the WWE these days. Everybody—face or heel—has a few signature moves that they have to get in during every match, and they usually have a few signature catch phrases that crowds pop for, regardless of which side of the WWE’s moral divide they stand on. Because of that, many heels get the same pops as faces, at least at first. Enzo Amore has been a heel for more than a month now, but he still does the patter that got him over as a face, and the first few minutes of each Enzo match start with him as a face until he does something cheap, mean, or underhanded. Heel is Samoa Joe’s natural mode, but it’s easy to imagine fans seeing him as Too Intense Guy and latching on. It was great to see him commit to being a heel and work on getting heat, which he then added to by demolishing Apollo Crews and his manager Titus O’Neil.
Since Alexa Bliss got a clean win over Mickie James, that sad spectacle ought to be over. The two have had little in-ring chemistry, and it’s has been uncomfortable to listen to announcers and Bliss talk about the 38-year-old James as if she’s old. Bobby Roode defeated Dolph Ziggler last week in a best two-of-three falls match, so hopefully that program should be done as well. Sadly, I expect we’ll get more of the improbable Sin Cara push against Baron Corbin, which is only making Corbin look weaker as a smaller luchadore who hadn’t been on WWE television in 2017 continues to frustrate him. On the bright side, Shinsuke Nakamura was far more fun and entertaining against Kevin Owens than he was throughout his program with Jinder Mahal, and I doubt they’re done. More with the combination of Nakamura, Randy Orson, Owens and Sami Zayn will brighten up Smackdown Live’s card.