Preview: While SmackDown can’t match the heavyweight star power of RAW this week, there’s a killer main event you won’t want to miss; as Cesaro continues his streak of doing cool important things on Thursdays.

PPV week fatigue is real. This time it’s hit harder than ever, as the New Japan Pro Wrestling G1 Climax is now in full swing, and many are watching with anxious expressions while clutching their trusty VOW Pick ‘Ems. If SmackDown slips off your viewing list this week I wouldn’t be offended; but you can still catch all the goss from your stalwart SmackDown analyst right here!

Unusually, I thought at least the first hour or so of RAW was quite fun on Monday. There’s two things I really love: one is backstage brawls (or general en-masse tussling in inappropriate settings), and the second is a show having a thread running through it; a plot point that weaves in and out of the segments and, ideally, reaches a climax in the main event. This happens shockingly rarely, considering how obvious it appears to be in any other form of entertainment that you want things in your show to have a connection to each other. This week, RAW felt important and had all the great fun campy tropes I want from American wrestling. Does SmackDown hit the ground running with any of that momentum?

Well…not really! RAW got that heart-stopping gong to open their show, followed by a gravelly and terse declaration by the Deadman, but he must’ve got everything off his chest already, because he’s not here tonight. Refreshingly, though, we do ostensibly open up with a match: which is always favourable to twenty minutes of exposition.

Dean Ambrose vs. Sheamus

Someone’s given Sheamus a microphone anyway, despite him having nothing interesting to say, and his point of contention while ambling to the ring today is that Dean wrestling Big Show through the announce table last week on SmackDown was a “pure act of cowardice”. This is a real head-scratcher, not least because it’s rare for anyone to acknowledge a historical episode of SmackDown. RAWs and PPVs are made gratuitous reference to via video packages and lengthy recaps, but every episode of SmackDown could well be the very first in existence for all the mention it gets. In retaliation, Dean Ambrose, that golden-tongued master of the promo, hits the zinger “..it’s true what they say: you really do look stupid”.

This match feels like it’s happening in slow-motion: or both participants are just recovering from a marathon or something. Neither man looks particularly impressive or savvy, as Dean reverses himself out of a submission only to powerbomb himself. Ambrose’s chaotic charisma rapidly becomes unlovable in by-the-numbers matches like this, where it doesn’t feel like he’s very committed to his gimmick, and he just acts like a bad cartoon drawing of himself. Turns out, he may just be a canary in a coal mine for unsatisfying finishes.

Darkness hits, because Wyatt got a memo to interrupt about 12 minutes into the show regardless of what was happening, and he insists on doing his whole lantern entrance. Wouldn’t it be great if one of these times the wrestlers in the ring just ignored him and carried on doing their thing? I feel like Bray Wyatt only matters if you pay attention to him, like a playground bully or a controversial parliamentary candidate. When the lights go up, handicrafts expert Luke Harper is aloft the announce table, doing a spooky arm gesture. This puts Ambrose into critically low health and facilitates an opportunistic Brogue from Sheamus (who has +10 immunity against spooky arms). Sheamus gets the win.

“Stardust is intent on referring to me as some sort of… superhero”

Quoth Neville, the man standing unironically in spandex and a cape. The Jumping Geordie is backstage towering over diminutive Jojo and despite being embroiled in this literal cartoon feud, he still manages to be the second most down to earth person on the WWE roster. Neville says some stuff about gravity not being able to contain him, which conjures up hilarious images of him just zooming off to the ceiling of the arena like an errant helium balloon. Marvellous WWE fan artists, please indulge me?

Just as we’re getting our requisite five seconds of Jojo staring fondly into space, the monitor behind her splutters into action and oh my god Stardust has hacked the TV in order to laugh sinisterly and hiss, and his transformation into deranged comic book villain is complete.

Adam Rose vs. Neville

Adam Rose has the most fascinating stained-glass turquoise wave-pattern mermaid trousers here, I’m completely transfixed. This match is actually pretty great for what it is, and just as I’m thinking it would be over on NXT, a small but spirited “NXT” chant erupts, because heaven forbid someone have a thought that remains inside their brain. Neville gets the win with the Red Arrow.

In the aftermath, Stardust, clad in party accoutrements, intercepts the tron from his secret Stardust promo room, and says “even the sharpest arrow, no matter what colour, comes crashing down”. This is excellent stuff, really fun and compelling, and Neville as the unwilling de facto hero is unexpectedly nuanced as well. I like wrestling plots that are just unapologetically zany and out there, without relying on cheap humour or punching down.

“The entire world is now on notice”

King Barrett emerges for a brief promo that wasn’t important enough for RAW.  He warns that this King’s crowning moment is still to come, which I want to believe isn’t an idle threat, but I have such little faith in his character that I wouldn’t’ve been surprised if he’d tripped on his robe during his exit.

Rusev vs. Kevin Owens

Tom Phillips introduces KO here as “the prize fighter, Kevin Owens”, so I guess that’s his WWE mandated three-word descriptive moniker. It’s a bit jarring, because although it sounds silly to say so, when he got up in Sami Zayn’s face all those months ago and stated sharply “I fight for a prize. And you are not the prize,” it felt real, and emotional, and genuine. Now it’s a #brand, it’s a commercial descriptor to sell action figures and market his personality in a neat bundled collection of words. WWE is quick to suck real human feeling out of things, real raw emotions. “The prize fighter” doesn’t neatly encapsulate Kevin Owens, and that very fact is exciting and interesting. Let’s have it stay that way.

Kevin has got his knickers in a twist about “Tap Owens Tap” chants, but his promo here is really not up to par, it’s just like it’s a collection of Kevin Owens hot-issue soundbites without any real conviction. He dismisses John Cena, he mentions providing for his family, he justifies walking out of his match on Monday as pragmatic.

Rusev stomps out to interrupt, and there’s some uninspiring minutes of slugging around and rest holds, while Jimmy Uso awkwardly empathises with Owens over commentary. He also says “these boys, well they don’t make ‘em like these big boys do”, which is such a strange non-statement. I guess someone has to compensate for Jerry Lawler being on holiday this week. Rusev starts to slowly scoop Owens into the Accolade, but Owens rolls away and walks off for a count-out loss.

“I wouldn’t change a thing, because I love this business”

I am so into babyface Cesaro. I can’t believe it’s taken this long. We got a tantalising hint that it might happen after he triumphantly won the inaugural Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royale, but it turned out to be another false alarm. Now he’s a full on good guy, teaming with John Cena, talking about his life and struggles, and I’m rubbing my eyes in disbelief but I’m SO HAPPY! It’s so easy and natural, him explaining to miniature person Rich Brennan that he’s worked hard for a shot at the American Dream and that it’s meant sacrifices, but damnit he believes in this business. I’m pretty sure I would believe anything Cesaro said, even if he is wearing a varsity jacket and Beats.

As if I wasn’t invested enough already, Kevin Owens stomps into frame, mocking Cesaro’s emotional confessions, then accusing him of abandoning his family by moving to America. Neatly, Cesaro turns it on his head and draws attention to Kev’s hobby of abandoning matches. The following little interaction is a real joy, and Cesaro’s irrepressible penchant for corny wordplay is at its most endearing.

Bella Twins vs. Sasha Banks & Naomi

Sasha has overridden Naomi’s unilateral decision last week that BAD stood for “best at dominating”, and now it’s “beautiful and dangerous”. I’m sort of irked that women in WWE aren’t allowed to have a personality that isn’t some variation of “beautiful and something”: like their prettiness is always the priority, the bare minimum baseline of the “Diva” template. Nowadays male wrestlers don’t even have to be tall, or muscular, let alone conventionally attractive, but this diversity hasn’t caught up with the women’s division. Imagine if Seth Rollins had to market himself as the “sexy future”. Imagine if Ryback was “the big hunk”. If Brock was “the seductive streak-breaker”. So forgive me if I’m not jumping in with both feet to this “Diva Revolution”.

Theoretically this should be super compelling stuff. The Divas’ Champion vs the NXT Women’s Champion (of course, she hasn’t brought her belt, but I digress). I feel like these two should be having heated stare-downs and throwing elbows at each other: that it should be a blood feud, not a passive aggressive cat fight. There’s an attitude problem here that undermines the wrestling. I’m not saying they need to be Makabe and Ishii, but just something that isn’t snide side-eyes and sassy wiggling would be refreshing.

Right, let’s cut through the negativity. This is good, wrestling-wise, and miles above the lacklustre women’s matches SmackDown has been delivering lately. A highlight is when Sasha stomps a middle-turnbuckle-draped Brie so hard she crumples into a paper bag of a person. Nikki’s hot tag flurry of gravity-defying flying forearms is also a lot of fun. The match descends into a clumsy ringside skirmish, and Nikki gets the win with the Rack Attack on Naomi.

Seth Rollins vs. Cesaro

Yes. YES. Cesaro in the main event spot is a thousand times yes. There was an excited moment where I thought this was getting thirty minutes, but then there was a massive Tough Enough section and an even massiver RAW recap, so that cut into it a lot. No matter though, this is still a main event to shout about.

If Seth Rollins is smarting from suffering a baker’s dozen of Germans that left him helpless as a kitten on Sunday, he’s not showing it, as both men are on excellent form here from bell to bell. The physical chemistry between the two men is incredible: they constantly seem to be one step ahead of each other, reversing reversals into reversals, constant whirlwinds of offence. I like that Cesaro chooses an emphatic, seemingly effortless German Suplex to land Rollins on his back at one point, which he follows up with an endless succession of turnbuckle uppercuts.

Cesaro maintains control for the majority of the match, and near the finish, he smoothly reverses a Pedigree attempt into a Tyson Kidd Tribute Sharpshooter, which you wouldn’t think would work so well just from the description, but looks amazing. Unfortunately he then falls prey to the temptation of trying to pull Seth straight while he’s gripping on to the top rope, allowing Seth to flip and land on his feet, and promptly enziguri Cesaro while he’s disorientated. You’ve seen that spot a million times (Randy Orton is particularly susceptible to it), but it seemed so dynamic and urgent here that it felt fresh.

Finally, and against all indications to the contrary, Rollins gets the win with the Pedigree.

This match is just AMAZING, and in a week already over-saturated with noteworthy wrestling, I don’t say that lightly. It’s under ten minutes, but they fit a lot in, so definitely check it out if you’re able to.

In the closing minutes of the show, Owens stamps his way to the ring to lay an additional beatdown on the defeated Cesaro, and drops one of the most impressive Pop Up Powerbombs to date.

Final Thoughts: There were a few highs on this week’s SmackDown: Jerry Lawler has the week off! No squealing or ex-wife jokes! Jimmy Uso is so relentlessly enthusiastic about everything that it’s quite infectious. Some above average wrestling and a rad main event! No offensive misogyny! And perhaps best of all, A CLEAN WIN IN THE MAIN EVENT OF SmackDown. There were also some lows: This episode is quite heavy on people explaining themselves, and a lot of promos about nothing. I’m not sure if I prefer it being spread so liberally across the entire show rather than bundled at the start in a neatly skippable introduction segment.