WWE SmackDown
July 30, 2015
Tulsa, Oklahoma – BOK Center
Watch: SyFy

“The unfortunate victim of my rage: John Cena”

Our champ opens the show, seemingly undeterred by his embarrassing tap-out loss on RAW and prior nose-breaking antics, with his smuggest smile he reserves for the markiest of crowds. Seth starts confusingly; evoking ancient history when he implores the watcher to recall his threat back in December that prompted Cena to reinstate the temporarily disempowered Authority. I feel like that may be the last truly dramatic and menacing heel gesture that Seth has made, and it stood starkly out at the time as being calculating and malicious, rather than the scampering cowardice that he resorts to in most other situations. Bringing us back to the present day, he milks that “smashed up nose” heat to introduce the ensuing video recap.

In a feature I have no intention of making into a regular occurrence, I tweeted out a SMACKDOWN FLASHBACK (or FlashBackDown, if you prefer) after belatedly watching Monday’s RAW: a SmackDown very close to my heart, main-evented by a trifecta of Shield singles matches. See, Seth had a one-on-one with John Cena way back when in December 2013, when he was just a bright-eyed SWAT-vested puppy. If you’re some sort of SmackDown historian, or just interested in how the power dynamic between these two has shifted, I’d really recommend it. It’s a brief, spirited watch; and if you let yourself abandon cynicism, you might even find yourself gasping at a couple of those kick-outs.

Anyway, Seth gets a bit weird in the rest of this promo. He goes too far with the nose stuff, saying that it was “divine: a work of art, like Michelangelo…” and refers to himself as “an artiste” which was just begging for an unexpected Aiden English interruption. Instead, we get something even better than that: Cesaro. The King of Swing draws attention back to Seth’s unceremonious loss, and laboriously books himself to wrestle Rollins right now.

Cesaro vs. Seth Rollins

As last week’s readers, or anyone who managed to squeeze SmackDown into their wrestling-heavy week last Thursday, will know very well, Rollins and Cesaro are hot fire together. Cesaro starts off with two rapid-fire Dragon Screws, into a brief ankle lock, and then wham: he’s in position for the Sharpshooter. We’ve been spoilt for joyfully fluid, delicious, fast-paced opening stretches in the myriad MOTY-standard matches in the first two weeks of the NJPW G1 Climax, but it feels so much more satisfying somehow to see this calibre of wrestling in the first ten minutes of Thursday Night SmackDown.

After that teasingly tiny chain, it’s time for an uncharacteristically early interruption. I’m not too mad though, because it’s Kevin Owens, joining the commentary table. The match hurries on for a further few minutes before the compulsory DQ finish: with typical Cesaro displays of impressive strength, and some really dimwitted Rollins ideas like leaping romantically into Cesaro’s arms from the top rope. Maybe New Japan is just fresh in my mind, but it feels like there’s more than a coincidental amount of shout-outs in this match: the Dragon Screw being one, a very specific corner dropkick being another (to the back of the head rather than the front, though).

Kevin Owens is a lot of fun on commentary, although his PWG giggle-fits are sorely missing. Instead, he’s cooly relevant, bringing up the fact that he also broke his nose during a match and continued to win the fight, but people are talking about Cena very differently. This logical tying-together of real-life incidents is so refreshing, and goes so far in making us think about characterisation: which is probably why WWE try to avoid it whenever possible in favour of passive-aggressive toilet humour.

Kevin Owens intervenes to prevent a giant swing; and as the DQ is called, Owens and Rollins square up to each other in a brief display of recognition, before commencing a double beatdown on Cesaro.

Los Matadores & Lucha Dragons vs. The New Day & The Ascension

This is advertised as an eight-man match despite there clearly being five men on each side. Why are Torito and Xavier non-people? Why not just keep things simple and make it a ten-man? There’s ten wrestlers in the splash graphic!

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Kalisto and El Torito stood directly next to each other before, but now I definitely have, I can confirm there’s literally only a few inches in it. PTP are on commentary, so that makes the entirety of the tag division featured in this one segment. I’m not complaining: the more the merrier with these dudes, who seem to be greater than the sum of their parts when they’re thrown into fun jumbly spot-fests. No one is aching for a Viktor vs Diego singles match.

The New Day are loving their incredibly hammy roles and it shows: this time taking an unfeasible amount of time to introduce themselves on their way to the ring. Don’t skip this unless you hate fun. The eventual climax is Xavier’s new self-proclaimed moniker as the “Doctor of Defenestration”. I’m hoping that we get some sort of hardcore match that involves the pay-off for that nickname.

The match itself is unexceptional but enjoyable. At one point Viktor appears to execute a Rear View: has this been in his arsenal for long? There’s the requisite Torito/Xavier interactions, a double dive from the Matadores, and it’s all quite watchable.

There’s an startlingly sad moment where Jimmy Uso comments on bespectacled Darren Young’s clipboard note-taking on the match: “You’ve got a luxury being out here and scouting these other teams, uce”. As ceaselessly positive as Jimmy seems to remain through the direst of SmackDowns, it must be disheartening to be watching a tag team division moving on without you.

Kalisto gets a roll-up win on Viktor.

“You’ll be sorry. But not as sorry as Cesaro’s partner”

Rich Brennan, with his worst haircut to date,  lazily jogging along at the extent of his full height instead of having the decency to slouch or stride squat-legged, catches up to Kevin Owens backstage and breaks the news that he’s going to be involved in the main event alongside Seth Rollins. Owens understandably demands to know who on earth booked this, and Brennan confusedly shrugs and says “The Authority just made it official, I thought you knew”. What? The plot thickens with the “Who’s Booking SmackDown” mystery. Surely Trips and Steph aren’t somehow live-streaming the arena on a Tuesday eve, gleefully texting Rich Brennan their booking plans on the fly. Is Kane hanging around in catering deciding this? WHY SUCH A USELESS COP-OUT ANSWER? We wouldn’t get this nonsense from Renee. And she takes her shoes off to make wrestlers look more threatening.

Rusev vs. Jack Swagger

I managed to miss the “cold fish” incident on RAW, but they graciously recap it here and it’s one of the more horrible chapters of this whole unsavory plotline. The fact that the writers are parading around the hashtag “DivasRevolution” in one breath and then making misogynistic “frigid” jokes in the next displays a contemptible duplicity. When we talk about wanting respect for female wrestlers, it doesn’t just extend to longer match times and better card spots: non-wrestling female characters not being undermined, stereotyped, or insulted is an important part as well. Apart from the sheer crass unpleasantness of bringing in a prop dead fish for a misogynistic joke, when Rusev makes “frigid” jabs, it’s showing contempt for all the female audience. We’re not laughing along at this marvellous heel move.

Sean had to take a sandwich break halfway through RAW, and I had to take an ice-cream break right here to calm down and be able to give you a decent review rather than just furious flailing.

Rusev’s got some choice words about Lana’s “unprofessional” behaviour, but I’m not listening. Instead let’s focus on this blast from the past that no one asked for: ol’ SwigSwag is back for a sad reenactment of his last interesting feud. He lost it, remember? He loses this match too. He looks like he’s been sleeping in his car.

“Everything I achieved, I achieved through hard work and sacrifice”

Dimple-chinned man-child Rich Brennan cosplaying as an unconvincing Josh Matthews is back again, this time to quiz Cesaro on who he’s going to find to fill the Alex Riley shaped silhouette in his tag team splash graphic for the main event. Cesaro is unspecific, but sincere. Babyface, non-sarcastic Cesaro still feels like a massive novelty. He also does an admirable job ignoring Brennan apparently gently stroking his naked back.

Stardust vs. R-Truth

More comic-book style recaps, intermittent illustration, and Stardust weirdness. Maybe it’s my gratuitous fast-forwarding of RAW that’s aiding this opinion, but this stuff hasn’t got old for me yet! A new segment into the SmackDown by-numbers routine is a welcome addition, and they’ve done a really good job capturing their desired aesthetic with this whole thing. Usually WWE manages to get pop-culture weirdly off-pitch, but this one they’ve nailed.

Of course, there’s no avoiding that this is a nothing match, only there to add some padding to the Neville/Stardust beef. Stardust gets the win, obviously. Neville leaps out surprisingly after Stardust’s enigmatic victory speech, and tries to land a Red Arrow, but Stardust escapes into the crowd.

The story of a delusional “villain” with an unwarranted sense of grandeur demanding a “hero” to be his rival, to keep him challenged and fulfilled; and the reluctant everyman thrust into a superhero role, is really quite compelling. It’s certainly no more stupid than most superhero comic book plots, and miles better than the current standard of WWE storytelling (see above, re: cold fish).

Cesaro & Dean Ambrose vs. Seth Rollins & Kevin Owens

This main event reeks of that claustrophobic “tiny-roster” feel that SmackDown has been cultivating recently: with ¾ of the men involved having already wrestled earlier on the show, in the same match. However, the silver lining is that it’s all the most beloved wrestlers: by which I mean, my most beloved wrestlers, and it’s really super fun watching this odd ragbag of indie darlings throwing fists in a WWE ring.

After literally years of slogging away in various phases of the midcard, Cesaro seems to have seamlessly slipped into the (admittedly, only SmackDown) main event picture, and that is extremely exciting for myself and other hardy folks who haven’t completely given up on WWE in this difficult year. However, it’s undeniable his wardrobe is a shambles, and a stylish man such as himself needs to correct this. He’s got the tribute head-towel (although who exactly this is a tribute to is still controversial), the custom varsity jacket, the Beats, the Tyson Kidd Memorial Armband, and the rolled down kneepads: it’s all very visually confusing.

Of course the mystery partner is Dean Ambrose: he literally sits backstage waiting for opportunities to flail his arms at Seth Rollins. Even resolute Rollins/Ambrose apologists such as myself (I still assert that their ladder match at MITB was a five star classic) are finding their constant SmackDown main events and meaningless clawing and biting at each other a bit tiresome lately, but the injection of newly demoted Kevin Owens and social climber Cesaro makes this a totally different, fresh, experience.

I know I’m devoting a lot of column inches to the Swiss Superman this week: but I want to emphasise that it’s deserved. Cesaro looks like he’s been waiting for an opportunity his entire life and is now damned if he’s going to waste a second of in-ring time. He’s pretty much flawless in terms of delivering bell-to-bell. He drops an earth-shattering Alpamare Waterslide on Owens in this match, and follows it up with an immediate crossface when met with a kick-out.

The main story here is one of potential: there’s the potential for a Kevin Owens/Seth Rollins uneasy friendship developing, which would inject some necessary interest into Rollins’ stale championship run. There’s potential for a burgeoning Cesaro/Owens feud, and more fuel for the Rollins/Cesaro match-ups. I’m sure Kevin Owens could find something punchable about Dean Ambrose to sustain a month-long program too. They also devote enough time to Dean and Seth grinding up against each other to let us know that those feelings haven’t gone anywhere either.

There’s one moment that’s a little disappointing: an understandably over-cautious top-rope knee which leaves about a foot of fresh air between Seth’s PVC trousers and Dean’s over-selling cheek. Even the more favourably-angled replay makes it look weak.

The final stretch is Cesaro vs The World, looking like the coolest man alive. He gets a beautiful pin on Owens, and leaps into an adoring crowd.

Final Thoughts: A really enjoyable SmackDown that felt like an easy watch. Cesaro’s involvement in anything makes it several factors better. You can skip the uninspiring Rusev match and the increasingly large segments devoted to recaps in the second hour, but the top and tail of this card are awesome. We’re on a streak of clean finishes!