When Daniel Bryan debuted in WWE, no one knew quite what to think.
Bryan, who made a name for himself on the independent circuit as Bryan Danielson, epitomized the never-ending debate between "extremely talented technical wrestler" and "vanilla midget."
Paired with The Miz as his pro on the inaugural season of NXT, Bryan found himself in a peculiar and polarizing position. Critics continued to claim he lacked the personality and charisma to make it as a WWE superstar.
When he won the World Heavyweight Championship a few weeks ago, many thought Bryan's reign would be a transitional one. Instead, viewers have been treated to a slow-burn turn to the dark side, and through it all, Bryan has displayed not only his abilities in the ring but also a conniving and manipulative attitude few in the WWE Universe believed he possessed.
On tonight's edition of Smackdown, Bryan continued down the path of evil, as he prepares to defend his title in a triple-threat steel cage match against the Big Show and Mark Henry at the Royal Rumble.
Watching Bryan berate and slap the Big Show in the opening segment provided yet another refreshing look at a role-reversal scenario of the David-versus-Goliath stories typical told with superstars of Bryan's stature.
The crowd legitimately seemed behind Big Show, and even Henry got a mixed reaction with a tilt toward the positive. The crowd seems to be buying into Bryan's heel routine, desiring to see one of the veteran giants end his first title reign on Sunday.
Backstage, Bryan continued to exemplify his new character traits by playing Big Show and Henry off each other, using Kaitlyn as a pawn in his ploy, much like he did her best friend AJ. There have been conniving heels in the past, but none spring to mind that were as big of master manipulators as Bryan has been becoming.
With any hope, WWE won't lose faith in this angle or in Bryan as the company pushes toward WrestleMania. The thought of CM Punk and Bryan -- two former independent wrestling stars who WWE fans were hesitant to accept -- walking into the biggest show of all with championships around their waists is a dream come true for many fans, myself included.
** The editing of the main event was baffling. As the show went to commercial, Henry rolled to the outside, apparently suffering a legitimate injury. When the commercial ended, Big Show was being declared the winner by countout. The commercial obviously lasted more than 10 seconds.
After the match, Bryan assaulted Big Show with a chair. Big Show gained an advantage, and Bryan attempted to flee before using his quick thinking to take the giant down and lock in the LeBell Lock. Big Show would power out, though, hitting his signature chokeslam and sending Bryan packing. Many questions now remain heading into the triple threat cage match, but none is more pressing than Henry's ability to compete given his apparent injury.
** Randy Orton made his return from injury and immediately rekindled his feud with Wade Barrett. The two men brawled around the ring until a number of referees and superstars came out to pull the men apart. Each of the wrestlers, mostly undercard performers like Curt Hawkins and Tyler Reks, ate an RKO for his trouble. A match between Barrett and Orton had been promoted online by WWE and by Long during the show, so why they weren't allowed to actually fight remains a mystery. Many expect a strong performance from Orton in the Rumble, but I'd be willing to bet Barrett costs the Apex Predator his WrestleMania dreams.
** Intercontinental Champion Cody Rhodes defeated Justin Gabriel in a non-title rematch from last week. The bout was fairly quick, but Gabriel's acrobatic and aerial offense looked good. With Evan Bourne's future in jeopardy, WWE should really considering pushing Gabriel in that position.
** WWE Tag Team Champions Epico and Primo retained their titles against the random pairing Santino Marella and Yoshi Tatsu - called Yoshitino or Santoshi, depending who you ask. The match was rather quick and inoffensive. It's great, however, seeing a team like the Colons who look, wrestle and act like a team. Plus, it's always good to see Rosa Mendez. This young duo may be able to bring something to the tag team division that even Air Boom was lacking.
, I wrote about having the same two guys wrestle time and again on television. This week's iteration of that booking philosophy was Hunico versus Ted DiBiase. The match was kept short, like most others on tonight's show, and ended with Hunico assaulting DiBiase's already injured wrist. Hunico doesn't do much for me as a singles star; he'd be better suited in a stable with Primo, Epico and Mendez.** Poor Alex Riley. The young star was treated to a massive pop last year when he turned on The Miz, and he seemed poised for a significant push. Tonight, mere months later, he became the latest victim of the "Funkasaurus" Brodus Clay. I think Michael Cole said it best: "What the funk?"
** After losing to Santino Marella last week, Drew McIntyre pleaded with Teddy Long to keep his job. Long told McIntyre he's on thin ice, and tonight, he'd have another opportunity. McIntyre lost to Sheamus in a match that was more competitive than expected. I have no idea where they're taking the storyline for the former "Chosen One," but at least this week he fell victim to a credible threat rather than a comedy wrestler.
** A backstage segment with Long, Aksana and Natalya turned into a fart joke. No kidding; a literal fart joke. Unfortunately, the "match" between the two divas wasn't much better. Aksana, making her in-ring debut on Smackdown, rolled up Natalya for a three count without even hitting a single move. Natalya responded by locking Aksana in a Sharpshooter, but Tamina made the save. The Divas of Doom once seemed powerful, but now Natalya just looks like a (fart) joke.
** The Zack Ryder versus Kane match was too long the first time we saw it on Monday. Why did we need to replay 90 percent of the match again tonight?
Intercontinental Champion Cody Rhodes d. Justin Gabriel in a non-title match
Sheamus d. Drew McIntyre
Tag Team Champions Epico and Primo d. Santino Marella and Yoshi Tatsu
Randy Orton vs. Wade Barrett went to a no contest
Hunico d. Ted DiBiase
Brodus Clay d. Alex Riley
Aksana d. Natalya
Big Show d. Mark Henry by countout
In 2011, Smackdown was often the go-to show for quality wrestling. While there is plenty of promise -- Bryan, Primo and Epico as champs, for starters -- there was still much left to be desired on tonight's episode. Most of the matches were kept short and the time devoted to replaying the Kane-Ryder match could have been used to make these matches a little more meaningful. One has to feel especially bad for Natalya and Riley, who were done absolutely no favors by their booking tonight.
Facebook Comment of the Night
"I am confused on why every ref in the history of WWE came to break up a scheduled match before it happened. And also why every jobber ran up and said "Please RKO me," and after 5 other people took one, I think I would have took the hint and realized he was mad and left." - Tyler Hatton, Illinois