July 2, 2015
GIANT Center – Hershey, Pennsylvania

Think Different

While the opening to Raw; in which Seth Rollins bestowed increasingly extravagant gifts upon his Authority subordinates; was rightly criticised for being long and tedious, it did establish an interesting character evolution for Seth. When Randy was the spoiled golden boy of the Authority, constantly manipulated and undermined by Stephanie and Triple H, and forced to prove his worth again and again, he didn’t have a place to go. He didn’t have room to manoeuvre, he didn’t have anything to do but get increasingly frustrated and needy. In contrast, now it’s happening to Seth, and his desperation is leading him to buy loyalty and devotion from his Authority-assigned comedy lackeys. He may have a crumbling sense of self-worth, but he does seem to have a stack of cash, and he’s utilising it where his charisma has failed. Status symbols are important to Seth, and as well as them being an effective human shield, having the allegiance of J and J comforts him. I grasp at any possible portrayal of nuance, but Seth seems like just as much of an interesting and (albeit slowly) developed character as Kevin Owens at the moment. Why is it always the heels who are relatable, flawed, compelling characters?

Seth & Co open the show. The Apple watches haven’t lost their novelty, and J&J still seem to be enamoured with them. I wonder if Seth genuinely believes that The Roman Empire and Suplex City are both real locations that exist in the WWE Universe, because he seems very intent on razing both to ashes. Maybe they’re adjacent to Slam City. Thankfully for those anxious about natural order and routine disintegrating, Kane’s left booking instructions before heading off to Tokyo by way of Hawaii, so we get some boring re-jumbles of Raw matches announced.

Dean Ambrose, who has consistently proven that he can’t beat Seth Rollins one-on-one, fancies his chance taking on the whole crew, so interrupts with a determined pout and a flailing kendo stick. This segues nicely into the first match of the night…

Dean Ambrose vs. Bray Wyatt

This matchup has been driven into the ground over months, and is obviously just a tangential filler, lateral to the real build between Roman and Bray. However, it is quite good.

I hope it doesn’t ruin the magic too much to tell you that I skim the live spoilers for SmackDown on a Wednesday to get a rough idea of what I’m coming into when it comes to review time. The accompanying blurbs for these spoilers are invariably full of hyperbole and glowing write-ups of the most mundane, mediocre, midcard matches. Live wrestling is always better than watching wrestling on TV, and it’s easy to over-exaggerate how good something is when you’re there, soaking up the atmosphere and seeing Bray Wyatt’s sweaty beard in person. I’m happy for the live audience getting their money’s worth and thinking that, for example, Kane vs Ryback was a noteworthy classic, but it often doesn’t translate to the cynical jaded audience at home; and for this reason, I usually take spoilers with a grain of salt. This time, all the sources I perused had this match down as being a spirited, energetic, fun opener, and I have to agree! There isn’t any particular crescendo of awesome, it just seems to have a vigor that is refreshing. However, like most things, it ends before it could really gain steam. Bray Wyatt wins with the Sister Abigail.

Adam Rose vs. R-Truth

Adam Rose is working hard to lose the empathy and rapport that the recent ESPN documentary earned him by growing creepier facial hair than ever.

I’m trying to find R-Truth’s tin foil crown and toilet plunger sceptre funny, but really, it’s just painfully sad. He’s a tragic figure of a man. He’s spray painted “KING WHAT’S UP” on to a white blanket which he thinks gives him genuine claim to some sort of throne, he has several crippling phobias, and regularly forgets which matches he’s participating in. He’s not in on the joke here. R-Truth is the smiling, unthreatening WWE face of mental illness, and I desperately want someone to befriend him and give him some support and guidance. Ryback, maybe. Someone uncomplicated.

The latest thing that’s fraying my nerves is the weird, patronisingly avuncular tone Jerry Lawler takes with Jimmy Uso. The current commentary lineup has the least chemistry imaginable: it’s worse than Matt Striker and Jim Ross at Wrestle Kingdom. Tom Phillips is calling Jimmy “uce”, and Jimmy is calling Tom “dawg”, and everything is terrible.

R-Truth gets the win with the Lie Detector.

“Maybe he got amnesia..”

Rich Brennan is here, looking like a tiny, squashed, terrified John Oliver, quizzing Mark Henry for his big-man opinions on the Ryback. I hate when backstage interviewers get cycled for obviously inferior ones, especially when it means I have less dresses to rank. This is a short and nonsensical promo, which I never mean as a criticism, because some of the best wrestling promos ever have made NO SENSE. This isn’t one of them, though. There’s some stuff about hairlines, which I’m not sure I understand, because neither Henry or Ryback have hair.

Ryback vs. Mark Henry

This match is at the intersection of the on-going big-man aggro between Big Show, Henry and Ryback, in which the Miz is somehow haplessly embroiled too. The drama here is that Ryback has promised to Shell Shock Henry, and no one believes he can do it: but he’s done it before, and you guys can’t just pretend he hasn’t, because it was on the grandest stage of them all.

The match mostly revolves around overly dramatic deadlifting, pained bear-hugs, and slow motion fist-throwing. There’s that spot they did in their Wrestlemania match (yes, I rewatched it, just for this) where Ryback tries to hoist Mark Henry up, but loses all body strength halfway through, dropping Henry into a casual pinning position. So in a way, we’re getting a Wrestlemania quality match right here!

Ryback hits the Shell Shocked for the pin. What an upset!

Brie Bella vs. Naomi

There’s been a streak of really terrible women’s matches on SmackDown for a while now, and everyone knows how WWE loves a streak.

Alicia Fox playing ersatz Nikki Bella isn’t fair to either party involved, and seems like lazy, thoughtless characterisation. “Team Bella” isn’t something you can just decide to join, it’s not a faction: it’s based in blood and sisterhood, that’s the whole point. Putting on a baseball cap doesn’t make you a Bella.

Brie is okay here, but Naomi is kind of clumsy, and the match manages to be boring even in the brief amount of minutes it gets. Alicia trips Naomi to facilitate the Bella Buster.

The Ascension vs. Prime Time Players

Like every PTP match (until it wears thin, which it hasn’t yet), the highlight is waiting for Titus to tag in and start flattening fools. This is probably the driest match you could come up with out of the current tag team roster, and a SmackDown without The New Day is like a day without sunshine. Regardless, this match is harmless and Jimmy Uso’s enjoying it so much that it’s sort of infectious. PTP knock off the Ascension with Clash of the Titus.

“I never needed that blonde-headed witch!”

I’ll try to keep this brief because this plotline is absolutely ghastly. To catch you up, as if the ongoing abusive ex thing wasn’t quite misogynistic enough, WWE has written in a catfight element to the Lana/Rusev breakup. Rusev doesn’t let Summer Rae hold her own microphone while she’s talking. Ugh. She’s reciting a presumably Rusev-scripted apology for brawling on Raw, reminiscent of the one he made Lana say as penance for falling under the spell of Fandangoing. I suppose fighting is…unladylike? On a wrestling show, where all disputes are settled by fighting. Rusev reiterates the whole “a real woman should know her place” crap, and aww, Summer, you’re so much better than this. Why are you doing this, girl? There’s not a man in this building who is worth your time.

It’s such a shame, because the fundamental thing here, the very real pain of someone not loving you any more, is a universal and authentic story which could have been written in such a less insulting way. Check out what Rusev says next:

“Dolph Ziggler, you went public on Raw. I go public now. When I see you, I will crush your skull. I will eat your heart. I will pull out your intestines and hang them to dry in my backyard.”

Isn’t that amazing? Who hasn’t had a relationship breakup that made them feel that way? Who hasn’t been ravaged by love, been damaged by trusting? This plotline could have been so much more punchy and less weird and tasteless, and avoided creep photography and stalking entirely. Rusev is a singular character with real potential, but this thing is damaging him irreversibly. The women, too, of course: but no one cares about them.

Seth Rollins vs. Roman Reigns

WWE weekly TV suffers from a deficit of surprises and tension, which is made more stark by the insulting way that the commentary team is forced to feign shock over every common, likely, occurrence. Like earlier, with the Shell Shocked thing. Jerry Lawler is sat there pretending like he hasn’t seen Ryback dropping Shell Shocked on everyone and everything successfully for years, getting all high pitched and incredulous at the possibility that he might be able to execute it on Mark Henry. What if they subverted expectations? What if Ryback couldn’t pull it off? Even a champion comes up short some days. It’s what gives them hurdles to overcome.

The same thing happens here. The whole show long the commentary team discuss in stage whispers the fact that Roman hasn’t been spotted backstage, Jimmy drops these weird hints about Roman being spooked by Bray’s scary business, Lawler suggests heavy-handedly that maybe he won’t be at the arena at all for his main event. What was the Plan B here? Imagine an alternate reality where Roman was too freaked out to turn up for SmackDown, so someone made an executive decision to replace him with Fandango. Or to scratch the main event entirely, and stick Layla vs Alicia Fox in there instead. Or pull out Ziggler to tell some jokes.

Instead, Rollins makes J&J do a theatrical count to ten utilising their Apple watches: which is weird, because they count slowly and inconsistently, like WWE referees, and surely there’s not an app that helps you do that. They get to about seven before Roman’s music hits. Tom Phillips yells the most exaggerated “NO WAY!” you’ve ever heard, like he was witnessing Roman Reigns literally rising from the dead to emerge for a SmackDown main event.

It’s damning that this actually feels lively and engaging after watching Seth fall into the crook of Dean’s elbow over and over for weeks now. Roman is amazing at injecting an impressive burst of energy, and this match starts like a bullet, with rousing action and an early Buckle Bomb. While Roman is crouched over, Seth busts out a top rope double-foot stomp to his upper back, which looks brutal. We’re used to Rollins being a scrappy, flippy opportunist, but his feats of effortless strength against the much larger man here are splendid. Jamie Noble is at ringside, clutching his ribs sympathetically at every blow. Eventually, Roman gains some ground and manages to hit a powerbomb, but as he charges up for the Superman Punch, bold little Jamie grabs his foot for a DQ.

Reigns gets brutalized for a while in a three-on-one beatdown, until Dean decides to turn up with his beloved kendo stick from the start of the show. Ambrose and Reigns manage to beat off the onslaught and stand tall to end the show.

Final Thoughts: After an exceptionally poorly-received Raw, SmackDown doesn’t deign to break the mould and give us something fresh this Thursday; which is particularly unfulfilling in contrast to the fresh and intriguing card announced for The Beast in The East Japan event on Saturday.

  • High Points: I mean, at least Jimmy Uso seems happy to be there. And there’s relatively few dirty finishes! The main event is fun, before, well, you know.
  • Low Points: The Summer Rae/Rusev segment. R-Truth’s descent into mental unwellness. A total lack of unpredictability.