If I had told you on the day that Daniel Bryan announced his return to the ring that, within a year, he would go on to win the WWE championship, how would you have pictured it? A big Wrestlemania moment with Bryan dethroning a major heel, going full circle from Wrestlemania 30? Maybe Bryan beating another top face in a classic match, with a show of respect after?
I don't think it crossed anyone's mind that within eight months of his triumphant and emotional return, Bryan would end Styles' long reign as champion by low-blowing him and cheating to win the title, with the fans raining down boos.
Yes, that is how SmackDown Live ended on Tuesday night in St. Louis: Bryan low-blowing Styles before getting a maniacal look on his face in the corner. He hit the running knee for the victory before choosing not to celebrate the win, but destroying Styles even more after the match. He finally knelt on the mat with the title as the boos from the crowd came.
The turn was shocking for several reasons. There had been, to this point, very little hint of a heel turn coming. Sure, maybe we can go back and find segments here and there that you can put into a storyline. However, I think it's clear that this was fairly unplanned and a reaction to the losses on both the RAW and SmackDown rosters over the past few weeks.
It also derails what could have been the most obvious redemption story in the history of wrestling as Bryan continues his comeback from what were thought to be career-ending injuries. Not to mention the simple fact that this match hadn't been booked going into the show. It was a suddenly-announced match on the go-home show to Survivor Series, similar to how Styles won the belt last year, though even that setup had a little more time between the win and the match against Brock Lesnar.
The timing is also strange. On the one hand, we get the Bryan-Lesnar match that we've been hoping would happen for years. On the other hand, Bryan just turned heel and is put in a position to wrestle as a face against Lesnar. It’s not a great start if he's going to be a true heel champion, as he will certainly be cheered over the much-hated Lesnar.
That being said, Bryan can be a fantastic heel. We saw elements of it in 2012, when he had his first World Heavyweight Title run. However, based on this turn, it seems to have more elements of his time as a heel in Ring of Honor, a ruthless competitor who doesn't care about what he needs to do to stay on top. It was a good opportunity on SmackDown to pull that off. Obviously it worked against Styles. It also works against the other top faces right now: Jeff Hardy and Rey Mysterio. You can navigate the tough road of making a smaller wrestler a heel champion by positioning him against the right opponents.
It was an ending to a tumultuous SmackDown, and a wild 24 hours for WWE as a whole. In the final segment of RAW, Becky Lynch was injured on an errant blow by Nia Jax. SmackDown opened with the announcement explaining that she had a “broken face” and wouldn't be able to compete at Survivor Series. Lynch vs. Ronda Rousey, which just the night before had been labeled as the match that led to the battle of brand supremacy, was off. So what does WWE decide to do?
Every woman on the roster came out, and Lynch got to pick her replacement. After cutting what amounted to a passionate face promo, she went up and down the line before picking her rival, Charlotte, to take her place. Then the two hugged.
It was another complete reversal of what we had seen over the past few months from these characters. All the women in the ring showed complete respect for Lynch, who, in return, showed respect to all of them, and to Charlotte in particular. Not only that, but it had been assumed for months that we would see Charlotte and Rousey meet in the ring at Wrestlemania, and there had been talk that they could even position that as the main event in New York. Instead, we get that match after no build-up at Survivor Series.
It doesn't mean that they can't meet again in April, but it certainly feels less likely now. With options like Asuka available, it's a little surprising that they would pull the trigger on Charlotte vs. Rousey, even if they felt that they needed to have the singles match. Putting Rousey into the women's Survivor Series match would have made just as much sense.
It's been said that WWE can do its best work when backed into a corner. Some view 2000 as the best creative year that WWF/E ever had, which only came after Stone Cold Steve Austin was forced to step away for a year. This is no different. Yes, Roman Reigns is out for a while. Yes, Becky Lynch, who is the most popular act in the company right now, is out at least for a little bit. But WWE has made big moves to make up for it. If the WWE has long-term plans, things could turn out great. We'll have to wait and see, but, whatever happens, we'll look back on this 24-hour stretch as one of the most important for the company in quite some time.