WWE SmackDown 12/15/2023: 3 Things We Hated And 3 Things We Loved

Welcome to Wrestling Inc.'s weekly review of "WWE SmackDown," the show where we occasionally get the chance to acknowledge our Tribal Chief! Those occasions seem to get fewer and farther between as time goes on, but we did get Roman Reigns back for this week's episode of the blue brand, and he wasn't the only big return. Yes, we definitely need to talk about AJ Styles coming back with an apparently morally grey alignment, and we will talk about, along with Carmelo Hayes' "SmackDown" debut, WWE's latest attempt at making Karrion Kross a thing, and more!

Will we be able to cover everything? No, not quite. But that's what our live coverage/results page is for. This space is for the WINC writing and editorial team to express our opinions, to comment on the stuff that got us all up in our feelings Friday night. These are three things we hated and three things we loved about the 12/15/23 episode of "WWE SmackDown."

Loved: Randy's rollin'

Though his return at Survivor Series may have been slightly overshadowed by another one later that evening, Randy Orton has come back to WWE and wasted absolutely zero time in re-establishing himself as a top tier superstar. He shined in the WarGames match, hitting a wild RKO on JD McDonagh, dubbed himself "Daddy" in an interaction with "Mami" on "Raw" two days later, RKOd "SmackDown" GM Nick Aldis later that week after signing with the blue brand, and has now thrown himself right into the path of the 1,000+ day reign of Roman Reigns.

No beats missed. No slow reacclimation. Just epic Orton doing epic Orton things, including this week, in a moment that I have taken upon myself to not allow to be underappreciated! While dressing down Reigns and stating his championship intentions, "The Viper" did what "The Viper" does, going for an RKO out of nowhere on the WWE Universal Champion. A wise Reigns was able to slip out of the move and gather himself, but he wasn't the only one composed. Orton simply set his feet, never so much as dropping the microphone, and continued on with his promo, letting Reigns know that the voices in his head told him they think "The Tribal Chief" may have crapped his pants (and also throwing in a "Daddy's back" to get everyone all tingly).

On top of the roll he's on, to these eyes, Orton looks like he's having a good time out there these days — and who wouldn't be? This product is piping hot with no cool down in sight. Well, unless you're Karrion Kross, that is, but I'll get to that later.

Written by Jon Jordan

Hated: Reigns doesn't acknowledge Orton's challenge

I'll preface this by saying I've been a huge Randy Orton fan since I was in middle school, and here I sit still watching and loving him at 30 years old. While he was out, I was genuinely concerned we'd seen the last of him with how serious his back injury was, and how we kept hearing that his doctors told him never to wrestle again. I would have been upset if the last we saw of Orton was the RK-Bro iteration of "The Viper" alongside Matt Riddle, of all people. So I was a very happy fan to see Orton back in the ring (and seemingly healthy) at Survivor Series and now, back on my screen weekly on "SmackDown." And for some reason, I feel like we all assumed it would be Orton challenging Reigns at the Royal Rumble for the WWE Undisputed Universal Championship.

Orton and Reigns had a great promo battle in the middle of the ring this week, and Orton issued the challenge for the Rumble. However ... Reigns just brushed him off. He mentioned that Orton had been at home for the last 18 months and he had given him no thought, and that Orton didn't deserve a title shot. And I'm confused by that. Who's next in line for a title shot, then? Reigns isn't exactly around on weekly television to set up feuds, so it's often random challengers to call him out. I like LA Knight, but he already had his shot at Reigns at Crown Jewel and lost; he should be focusing on entering the Rumble itself. AJ Styles came back at the end of the show, but if he's after a title shot, he's done about as much as Orton the last year to be deserving of one.

So why NOT Orton? It's not like there's anyone else, no No.1 contender who won some kind of tournament waiting in the wings. The simple fact Orton is a legend and he fought like hell to even get back in the ring and stare Reigns in the face is enough for me to give him a title shot. Orton isn't believable to win the Royal Rumble itself in a world of Cody Rhodes, CM Punk, and Knight, so getting him on the premium live event in a prominent position is something I really want to see. If it didn't happen this week, here's hoping Reigns accepts the challenge either on next week's taped show, or the first "SmackDown" of 2024.

Written by Daisy Ruth

Loved: Melo don't miss

You know what they say: Melo Don't Miss. And he certainly didn't during his "SmackDown" debut.

Carmelo Hayes went head-to-head with Grayson Waller in a first round match for the United States Championship Tournament, marking his first-ever appearance on the blue brand. While I may be a little biased in saying this given that Hayes is one of my favorite talents on the roster, having HIM (see what I did there) emerge victorious was the absolute right call. Keeping Hayes strong at this point is crucial, as he's currently in a high-profile "NXT" storyline with Trick Williams. Beyond that, having him go up against someone who he's familiar with in "NXT" was beneficial given that they know each other's in-ring styles.

I also have to give WWE a bonus little shout-out for keeping Austin Theory from interfering in Waller's match tonight and vice versa during Theory's match against Kevin Owens. They could've taken the easy way out, but chose not to, and did something different in an era where outside interference seems to play a part in every match.

Written by Olivia Quinlan

Hated: Kross Is lost

Let's get something straight right from the jump here: I appreciate Karrion Kross (and Scarlett gets flowers from me as well). But to say that his return to WWE has been anything less than a major miss would simply be a lie. Was/am I glad he's back? Yeah, definitely. Have I held out faith that something compelling will take hold here at some point? Absolutely. But it just hasn't happened. And now, though I appreciate the effort of what appears to be another attempt at rebooting the former "NXT" Champion (what with a slick video package featuring he and Scarlett and all) I have to think we're on our last legs.

Kross should be positioned as a killer, but a killer can't get killed all the time, and this guy hasn't had a singles win on TV since July (against Karl Anderson — another talent wasting away) and before that, he hadn't had a singles win on TV since February (over Rey Mysterio). Two wins in 10 months? Someone with that record isn't killing a damn thing.

Where Kross would be best-utilized, especially in this era of consistent cross-show promotion, is "NXT," serving as the big bad to all those bright-eyed babyfaces. I could even foresee another run as "NXT" Champion, and a seemingly unbeatable one at that, before too long. And what comes of that? That's right, kids, an up-and-coming, bright-eyed babyface doing the impossible and punching a major notch in his belt at the same time. From there, after a solid run, we can try the Kross-and-Scarlett-on-the-main-roster thing one more time

Right now though, the momentum's shot, the hope is nigh, and I'm afraid we're about to witness another 2-400 record for the dude they used to call "Killer." And then? He's dead.

Written by Jon Jordan

Loved: Bayley regains CTRL

The dissension within Damage CTRL was starting to get a little old to me very quickly, especially since it was Bayley who started the stable in the first place, bringing back Dakota Kai alongside IYO SKY and cementing herself as its leader. With this week's vignette, it seems like she once again has a hold on the group, despite being made to seem like an outcast for weeks after the additions of Kairi Sane and Asuka to the group. I know this stems from a very unfortunate incident, with Charlotte Flair now being out up to nine months with a knee injury she sustained during her match with Asuka last Friday on "SmackDown." Thanks to Bayley's quick thinking and interfering, even though she wasn't supposed to be anywhere near the ring in the storyline, she saved the match as best she could, and now we know she's saved Damage CTRL as a whole. Bayley and Dakota Kai both interfered in the Kabuki Warriors' match against Zelina Vega and Michin tonight, and there were no problems in the group to be seen.

Bayley even took things into her own hands and declared herself for the Women's Royal Rumble. With as sad and kind of pathetic as she's seemed over the past few weeks, I think she really needed to do this to still seem dominant in the division. She may be the leader of Damage CTRL, but with so many members now, she does still needs to stand out a little more than just a leader who jumps in and helps with everyone else's matches. She needs to be her own wrestler, and this certainly helps.

Overall, I think this 180 (for now) for Damage CTRL is best leading into Royal Rumble season. There's always time for dissension — and the Rumble itself is a great place for that. If the big breakup is delayed even by just a month or so to get to the Rumble, I'm okay with that. But for now, the way Bayley turned things around with her quick thinking last week that turned the entire storyline in a new direction is pretty cool to me, and I think she deserves all the credit for it.

Written by Daisy Ruth

Hated: How am I supposed to feel about AJ Styles?

AJ Styles came back on "SmackDown," and I hated it, if for no other reason than I don't know how else to feel about it.

Like, there are silver linings here. If you're gonna bring Styles back, bringing him back in a different context than "boring babyface leader of The OC" is a good move. I just feel like there's too much ambiguity. Was that a Styles heel turn? I don't really know. He attacked Reigns and the Bloodline, which makes sense since they're the ones who put him on the shelf in kayfabe. But then he attacked LA Knight. But then he didn't attack Orton? Is he just mad at Knight for taking his spot in the tag match with Cena at Fastlane? That seems weak. And after jumping the Bloodline, he ended the show by just walking past them. Sure, I guess.

I'm starting to wonder if current wrestling, especially WWE, is a little too addicted to the question of whose side a given wrestler is on, or where their loyalties truly lie. It worked with the Bloodline for so long because the Bloodline is full of interesting characters with fascinating interpersonal dynamics — we cared about the characters, so we tuned into "SmackDown" every week to see how the soap opera would play out. I can't really get there with Styles, though. It's been a while since he was interesting, and there doesn't seem to be a place for him in the current WWE landscape. At this point I would rather see him go to AEW.

I'm glad it's not the same old Styles, but I wish this segment had made more of a definitive statement, instead of being deliberately confused in the hope that people will come back to hear the explanation for Styles' actions. Speaking personally, I don't really care.

Written by Miles Schneiderman