The women's revolution in the WWE truly came into its own in 2016, but for large swaths of the year it was very much a two-woman show.
After showing the depth of their brand's division over the last few months, the SmackDown Live women made a definitive statement of their own in a steel cage main event Tuesday, and improved their long-term prospects in more ways than one.
SmackDown women's champion Alexa Bliss and No. 1 contender Becky Lynch put on a tremendous show on the biggest stage they've faced together, in a match that perfectly suited both their overall rivalry and the growing value of that title. Each and every big moment utilized the environment to great success, from a massive head smash into the turnbuckle to an Avalanche Bexploder from the top rope.
And in the closing moments, they pulled the trigger on an instant reveal as La Luchadora was unmasked as Mickie James -- a revelation that immediately gives the SmackDown women's division even more credibility going forward.
James, 37, is a six-time women's champion in WWE (with five reigns as WWE women's champion and one reign as Divas champion). This was her first appearance on WWE TV in nearly seven years, though she did return to the fold in November by challenging Asuka for the NXT women's championship. She gives Lynch multiple targets to hit in her pursuit of regaining the SmackDown women's championship, and while Lynch and James square off, Bliss gets to sit at the top of the division and enjoy this stretch of her reign virtually unencumbered.
With Nikki Bella and Natalya settling deeper into their growing rivalry, and Carmella building up her credibility by knocking off enhancement talent with James Ellsworth as her good luck charm, Naomi is currently the only one without a clear path to follow. The overall success of SmackDown Live has been a team effort since the brand split, and the women's division -- which already had a hand in the brand's prosperity -- seems poised to play an even bigger role in 2017.
Both Raw and SmackDown Live have one brand-exclusive pay-per-view between the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania, and the quick turnaround for SmackDown became very evident in the opening moments of Tuesday's broadcast.
With the Elimination Chamber looming just two weeks after the Royal Rumble, the strong possibility of that titular match serving as SmackDown's method of determining the No. 1 contender for the WWE world championship at WrestleMania threatened to severely cut down the possibilities of potential outcomes to the Rumble.
In the first two minutes of Shane McMahon's opening address, he shattered those expectations and guaranteed that the WWE championship will be defended inside the Elimination Chamber for the first time in three years in Phoenix.
As you might imagine, that announcement instantly drew out AJ Styles. He was red-hot and threatened to even leave for Japan with the title (an interesting parallel to Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson's recent mentions of Japan) for having to wade through two major title defenses in order to carry the WWE championship into WrestleMania.
John Cena came out to echo McMahon's sentiments that Styles shouldn't look past their title match at the Royal Rumble, but didn't have long to go before The Miz came out to ostensibly lock in half of the upcoming Elimination Chamber match a week-and-a-half before the Royal Rumble even takes place.
Miz all but guaranteed he'd enter WrestleMania as a dual champion, but Cena saw his opportunity to strike conflict into the hearts of the two men claiming conspiracy against them by playing the devil on each of their shoulders and essentially goading them into a match. In a repeat of Styles' very first post-debut match almost a year ago, which led to The Miz taking a vicious blow to the face and losing parts of two teeth, there was a nice dynamic between the pair. As Cena watched on, the match predictably ended with Cena getting dragged into the conflict and causing the DQ finish -- followed by an Attitude Adjustment for both Miz and Styles.
With only one more episode of SmackDown Live to go before the Royal Rumble, hopes are high and the result seems to be anything but certain.
Hits and misses
• I liked absolutely nothing about the Dolph Ziggler "King's Court" segment with Jerry Lawler. My immediate reaction to having the very real situation in which Lawler went into cardiac arrest and nearly died into play to build a story to be in incredibly poor taste and a step too far. Upon further reflection, while I'm still not a big fan of playing up a near-death experience that happened live on air, turning an event like that into an effective storytelling device is essentially a badge of honor for anyone involved.
That's where I hit my big sticking point in this. Inferring that Ziggler was on the brink of murdering Lawler in the ring just doesn't jive with the character he was then or the character he's been at any point until the last few weeks. Having him superkick Lawler in the chest to try to trigger a similar reaction simply doesn't feel like it's been earned at this point. In the last few weeks, there's been a logical progression to Ziggler's descent into madness, but it went from 0 to 10 in that time, and then to about 180 with this "revelation."
This massive jump to a conclusion that doesn't jive with much of anything Ziggler has done in the last four years was a rare misstep for a SmackDown writing team that's been cruising on all cylinders of late -- and there's some work yet to be done to bring Ziggler's promising turn to the dark side back on track.
• I had high hopes for a showdown between Randy Orton and Dean Ambrose, but when it came to the match itself, something just slightly off. The pace was OK, the story was OK, but it just felt as if Orton and Ambrose were just a hair out of time with each other throughout. It certainly served its purpose of driving a wedge deeper between the three members of The Wyatt Family, though, as Orton and Luke Harper came to blows and Bray Wyatt was eventually forced to make a match between the two of them. All three are also entered in the Royal Rumble match, but the seeds of doubt are most certainly planted and gestating.
• I have a tough time believing they're selling Bret Hart merchandise at Raw or SmackDown Live, but an A for effort to Bella and Natalya for really selling the animosity between them. Let's hope we're not going along the same path the Bella-Carmella rivalry took with weeks or months to go before they finally settle things in the ring.
• What happened to CarmEllsworth's shopping spree?
• Kurt Angle had some legendary moments on SmackDown, and it was nice to see an expanded version of the Hall of Fame announcement promo Tuesday night. It will be surreal to see Angle up on stage during WrestleMania weekend, accepting an honor he so richly deserves for all he accomplished in the WWE.