The first WWE SmackDown LIVE of 2019 was an eventful one for the blue brand, with the return of John Cena, a Fatal 5-Way to determine the next #1 Contender for the WWE Championship, and the beginning of Royal Rumble season.
The New Year in WWE appropriately kicks off with The New Day opening the show. They announce that they will all compete in the upcoming Royal Rumble match and Big E, dressed as a New Year’s baby, tries to calculate their odds with Steiner Math. They announce their 2019 resolution—prompted by doctor’s orders—to no longer eat pancakes. But Big E can’t stop from snacking on some under his hat and disgustingly, in his diaper.
The former tag team champions also introduce the first match of the episode, Samoa Joe vs. Jeff Hardy for the last spot in the Fatal 5-Way to determine the next challenger for the WWE Championship.
The previous chapter in the Joe vs. Hardy rivalry saw the aerial daredevil get so worked up by mind games that he got himself disqualified, and he brings the same energy to this match. However, Joe is at his brutal best tonight and definitively defeats Hardy. This gives him valuable momentum going into the 5-Way, but being the only person in that match who had to wrestle earlier the same night should put him at a disadvantage.
The main event is now set as AJ Styles vs. Rey Mysterio vs. Randy Orton vs. Mustafa Ali vs. Samoa Joe, and we see backstage that Vince McMahon’s money is on Styles. Styles walks in on a conversation between Vince and Shane. He refuses to apologize for punching his boss last week and threatens to do it again. He and Shane have a tense standoff, but Styles leaves before violence breaks out. The younger McMahon, recalling his own in-ring history with Styles, tells his father to be careful what he wished for.
Later in the episode, it looks like Shane has issues with a different former WWE Champion. The Miz shows him costume ideas for the “Best in the World” tag team McMahon committed to last week. Shane is busy, clearly hates them (they’re basically Miz gear), and ultimately distracts Miz and ditches him backstage. Their partnership is not off to a great start.
But before we find out who will get the next shot at the WWE Champion, our beloved new United States Champion, the “Bulgarian Brute,” has his new reign/New Year’s resolutions to make. Rusev, with Lana at his side, declares that his reign will be way different from Nakamura’s: “long and luscious, like my beard.” He vows to take on any opponent using his “strength and honor and animal magnetism” and shows his dedication to his new title by getting the crowd chanting “Rusev Day USA.”
The patriotic/celebratory spirit of the chant is violently broken up, though, by an attack from Shinsuke Nakamura outta nowhere. Lana jumps on Nakamura’s back to protect her husband, but she ultimately ends up eating a Machka Kick. She looks hurt and Rusev is distracted, giving Nakamura time to kick and then Kinshasa the Bulgarian “Super Athlete.” Nakamura holds the title he lost on Christmas night and exits confidently as Rusev checks on Lana again.
Naomi seems to believe she has a match with Rose and is ready to jump her when she gets in the ring and reveals she’s wearing a modified Usos shirt. Naomi has to be held back by the ref, and she then finds out the match is actually between her and Sonya Deville. She holds her own but is repeatedly distracted by Rose outside the ring. But Rose changes the game when she gets a microphone, says she started thinking about Naomi’s husband Jimmy Uso while she was in the shower, and sent him a picture of herself clad in only a towel. The distraction of this picture on the big screen allows Deville to roll up Naomi and win her match.
A much more prominent moment of the episode is the return of John Cena. He has a new catchphrase and t-shirt (“You can’t stop me”) and cuts an oddly manic promo reminiscent of his no-spot-at-WrestleMania crisis last year. He recaps his eventful 2018 (said WrestleMania, very public breakup with Nikki Bella, children’s book, questionable current haircut) and promotes both his new movie and return to the ring at the same time.
Cena calls for someone’s music to be played to give him a reason to be here, and he looks both shocked and happy to hear the theme song of Becky Lynch. Lynch calls out Cena, saying he must have expected a man, but not “The Man.” She says that he represents what the company was, while she’s what it is, and if he has a problem like that she’ll drop him like Nikki Bella did.
Before Cena can respond, he and Lynch are interrupted by Zelina Vega and Andrade “Cien” Almas. Vega calls both of them old news, while Almas is the future of SmackDown LIVE and “2019 will be the year of tranquilo.” This prompts Cena to challenge Vega and Almas to a mixed tag match against he and Lynch. (Ed. note: It’s a
After a commercial break, we return to a match in progress, with Lynch in the ring against Vega. When Vega tags in Almas, Lynch looks totally fine with fighting up him, but she reluctantly tags in Cena with a chop to the chest. Cena and Almas struggle against each other, but soon it looks like Cena will take the match home after a Five Knuckle Shuffle.
The possible next step in “The Man”’s career is teased backstage later in the show. Triple H, now one of SmackDown’s four managers, asks SmackDown Women’s Champion Asuka backstage who she wants to fight next, and she’s ready for anyone. Charlotte Flair shows up and says she wants the first shot, but so does Carmella, and so does Lynch. Triple H says he’ll “take it under advisement,” and the future of the championship
The immediate future of the WWE Championship, though, is much clearer after the episode’s main event. Mysterio, Ali, Styles, Orton, and Joe all take advantage of the No DQ aspect of the Fatal 5-Way match stipulation and hit extra hard extra early. Styles and Orton brutalize Ali in and out of the ring and we see a brief rematch between Mysterio and Orton. After Styles briefly wrecks shop on everybody, Joe and Orton team up to put him through a table, and Joe continues his return to form by advancing on Orton. Ali and Mysterio take both big men down with high-flying moves outside the ring, then face off back inside. After a sequence sure to make fans salivate for a true one-on-one match between them, and Ali nearly gets the
It really looks like anyone’s match, with everyone involved driven and skilled. But ultimately AJ Styles, reaching that new level of competition unlocked by Mr. Mahon backstage last week, emerges on top after he hits Orton with an impressive springboard 450 splash. Styles gestures for the belt confidently while his four opponents look far from giving up, or in “The Viper”’s case, straight-up vengeful.