Without John Cena to plug into the headliner role, WWE SmackDown has been forced to get creative, reaching deep into its toolbox for the most unexpected of implements.
Bolstered by first-rate storytelling, the blue brand has thrived without its biggest household name. A tale WWE may not have ever crafted with Cena in tow has taken center stage.
Dean Ambrose has looked to claim the WWE World Championship from AJ Styles by needling and flustering the champ. Meek, chinless weakling James Ellsworth has been key to that quest as a pawn and proxy.
With this surprising, odd narrative at the forefront, SmackDown has outpaced Raw each week.
Cena, meanwhile, has been a ghost. He hasn’t appeared on the blue brand since the No Mercy pay-per-view on Oct. 9.
The megastar and 15-time world champ has evolved into a part-timer as he has taken on more opportunities outside the ring. His latest endeavor is hosting the second season of the reality show American Grit, which should keep him from SmackDown for much of the year.
We’re back for Season 2!! Excited to announce the return of @AmericanGritFox. Get ready, it’s time to #ShowYourGrit. pic.twitter.com/jfHDeFBh8W
— John Cena (@JohnCena) July 29, 2016
Figure Four Online’s Dave Meltzer wrote of Cena, "He’s right now off every show except possibly Survivor Series in Toronto between now and Christmas."
Being minus Cena has pushed SmackDown into experimenting. It has inspired the show to take chances, to think well outside the box.
Before Cena stepped aside for his latest hiatus, he was seeking to seize the gold from Styles. Ambrose was in his way. The Lunatic Fringe, Cena and Styles engaged in an intense, high-stakes, three-way rivalry.
Had Cena stuck around, perhaps WWE would have simply continued that feud until it had no energy left. Maybe officials would have decided to crown Cena, slide Styles down the card and make the New Era of SmackDown feel a lot like previous ones.
Instead, WWE has enthralled by leaning on Ellsworth, of all people.
The lovable loser first appeared as one of Braun Strowman’s no-name victims back in July. He has since become the blue brand’s resident underdog.
Styles tried to nab an easy win by taking on Ellsworth on Oct. 11. Thanks to Ambrose’s biased refereeing that night, Ellsworth scored an upset for the ages.
That earned him a title shot on the following SmackDown. Styles punished his long-shot foe while Ambrose was busy distracting the champ. Like the week before, SmackDown’s main event was a wild, nutty ride where comedy merged with drama to create something magical.
And on Tuesday’s SmackDown, Ellsworth played cheerleader as Ambrose sought to earn the No. 1 contender’s spot by taking down The Phenomenal One.
Styles dropped Ellsworth to the floor at one point during the bout, leaving the lanky grappler enraged. Ellsworth lost sight of the situation and nailed Styles with a superkick. Ambrose’s championship hopes disintegrated in that moment; Ellsworth was wracked with regret.
The ongoing saga has been tremendous.
Styles/Ambrose/Ellsworth dynamic & story is probably best & most consistent thing #WWE is doing right now. I look forward to it. #SDLive
— Justin LaBar (@JustinLaBar) October 26, 2016
Alasdair Wilkins (warning: NSFW language) wrote for the A.V. Club, "For the third straight week, SmackDown has had the same three guys in the main event, including their top heel and top face, and all three look as strong as or even stronger than they did when this all started."
Ambrose has been at his best during this stretch.
He has found the ideal balance between his goofiness and ferocity. As a man on the hunt for the championship, he has been more compelling than he has since his 2014 rivalry with Seth Rollins.
As for Styles, he’s added layers to the "I’m the guy who beat Cena" character he played after SummerSlam.
The Phenomenal One has grown more indignant, more self-assured, more of a bully. The Ellsworth angle has taken his title reign down a fun, resonant path.
Cena’s absence opened the door for that story. It has given Styles and Ambrose more space to work with. It forced SmackDown’s writing team to work harder.
Raw, on the other hand, didn’t need to stretch its brain. Or so it thought.
WWE’s premier show simply trotted out Brock Lesnar to promote his Survivor Series match with Goldberg on Monday night. The segment wasn’t creative in the least. It had no real narrative or point. WWE relied on Lesnar’s name instead.
Not surprisingly, it bombed.
SmackDown doesn’t have a megastar of Lesnar’s caliber now that Cena is out of the picture for the moment. It will instead have to showcase emerging stars like Ambrose or find inventive ways to utilize lesser names like Ellsworth.
The ratings without Cena have been strong when the show isn’t going against the Chicago Cubs’ first World Series appearance in 71 years.
As Sean Rueter of Cageside Seats noted, SmackDown viewership went up from 2.448 million on Oct. 11 from 2.316 million the week prior. With Ellsworth vs. Styles in the main event the next Tuesday, the number only dipped slightly.
It wasn’t until the Cubs took on the Cleveland Indians and the NBA season kicked off this week that SmackDown’s viewership sunk to 2.127 million.
Cena couldn’t have saved the show with that kind of competition. WWE should instead look at the larger trend that indicates that the audience is engaged with the world title picture, Ellsworth and all.
To keep its momentum going, the blue brand must maintain its level of imaginative booking.
As tremendous as Styles and Ambrose are as performers, they don’t have the name power that Cena does. But if those two are involved in more narrative thrill rides, fans will continue to tune in.
A Cena-less stretch is SmackDown’s chance to keep showcasing Styles and deepen Ambrose’s character. This is the time to call more trick plays, to be more unconventional and keep showing Raw how storytelling is done.