I guess…I guess this is the season premiere of WWE SmackDown, too? We never get included in fun gimmicks like that.

The champ’s here, and I’m trying not to be too forlorn that this might be the penultimate time that we get to enjoy that two-belt swagger. I mean, just aesthetically, the WWE World Heavyweight title matches his clothes and everything.

“Not every man would be okay with this…”

Rollins hypes the main event here, and draws out the syllables in “former brothers” when he mentions Reigns and Ambrose, and I feel a sudden tightening in my chest. One of the things that’s always felt least credible about Seth’s turn is the fact that he never, ever looked back. Never had a moment when he admitted he missed them, never faltered, never had any wistful indications of regret. Things that would have felt real and human, and validated our fanatic faithfulness to the Shield during their peak (which in case you’ve forgotten, was the entire time they were together). There’s no way Rollins is as cold and calculated as the dismissiveness with which he utters these words suggests: he’s already proven himself to be insecure, and vulnerable, and approval-seeking. All I want is ONE backstage segment where his gaze lingers on an old PPV poster with the Shield together on it. It wouldn’t undermine anything. There’s no such thing as ex-brothers. Only brothers who you love, or brothers you don’t love…any more.

Rollins also lampshades the most glaring weirdness about the main event: the uneasiness of the Heavyweight champ partnering with Mr. Money in the Bank. He hand waves it with some “keep your enemies closer” stuff, before the man himself interrupts.

“Trust me, you don’t want me to be your enemy”

Sheamus does the most Randy Orton thing ever here and dissects the whole “friends close/enemies closer” adage ad nauseam, picking apart different parts of it and musing out loud both sides of the argument very literally. By the end of this segment I’ve got semantic satiation for the words “friend” AND “enemy” and I just want Sheamus to go away. “Respect the ‘hawk” has its own three letter initialism now, so expect a tshirt with that on soon.

Sasha Banks and Naomi vs Becky Lynch and Paige

Before this, PCB are shown backstage, walking quite normally, in their ring gear– and Lawler loudly leches “OH BABY!”.

The announce team — now Jimmy Uso has left us to get choked out by big scary forest men, and Tom Phillips has moved on to greener pastures — is Rich Brennan, Booker T, and Jerry Lawler. This is Bad News for the select few who watch SmackDown, and the even rarer elite who watch it unmuted, because Lawler and Booker are both prone to fits of fanciful, often vaguely offensive nonsense, and Brennan doesn’t have the sort of presence to be able to shut them down or gently deflect them on to different topics. It’s a bit of a shambles, with little to redeem it.

For a five minute flurry, ending in a small package, this was fine. There were no random second officials called in to break up the fray; no one’s hair extensions came out. It felt stilted, and unremarkable, but fine. I have no idea why the quality of these women’s wrestling seems to nosedive on the main roster, but it really does.

Kofi Kingston vs D-Von Dudley

New Day as activists for oddball causes could have been belittling, or patronising, or just uncomfortable, but instead the gimmick continues to be relentlessly charming and good-spirited. “Yes, boyz are exactly what they are,”  Xavier spits scathingly, regarding their opponents at Night of Champions. The New Day are on fine form as always, this time expanding on their Table Rights issues by singing the praises of various trees that sacrifice themselves for the cause.  “Douglas firs, have you seen them? Beautiful!”, Kofi gushes. They then produce a petition, pinned to a clipboard which they describe as “basically a mini table,” and start a rousing “save the tables” chant, before the Dudleys’ pyro hits. That pyro gives me a heart attack, it comes so unexpectedly, from the CEILING. I have a very nervous disposition, I nearly fall out of my chair in shock every time.

Kofi thrusts the Table Rights petition upon D-Von immediately, who derisively snaps the clipboard over his knee in response: which prompts Xavier to make a distressed wail as if he had just witnessed a terrible murder. The actual wrestling portion of this match goes for under one minute, and ends with Kofi rolling D-Von up.

Bellabration

That’s a really unpleasant portmanteau, isn’t it? It’s up there with “webinar”, and “jeggings”. Throughout the night we’re treated to backstage segments of Team Bella making lavish arrangements for Nikki’s longest reign party, including 298 bottles of champagne so they can all go adequately “Brie Mode”. In the end, nobody turns up for Nikki’s party, which is AMAZINGLY FAMILIAR, it’s almost like it’s impossible to be a successful woman in WWE without being so toxic you have no friends.

Her validity as Divas’ champ aside, Nikki swoops up Best Dressed here, sporting a dramatic sock bun, glitzy necklace and perfect contour; complemented by a plunging sequinned LBD.

Cesaro vs Big Show

After a very underwhelming and brief main event on RAW, Big Show is now here seeking surly revenge for long-forgotten wrongdoing from RAWs previous. Adding further evidence to my theory that Cesaro can drag a good match out of any opponent, this is actually immensely enjoyable. Cesaro opens with two rapid dropkicks so fluid and graceful that he actually appears to float. If you try to view Big Show in an entirely contextless vacuum, he plays a credible, growling, beast of a man, beating Cesaro down. In contrast, Cesaro is dashing around the entire perimeter of the ring like a cruiserweight, pouncing from rope to rope, dropping a wholly unexpected rope-assisted armbar and then haphazardly gliding into the Big Show’s lumbering offence. This is a real delight. Sadly, Big Show wins with the KO punch.

“I have to do my job, tell me who it is!”

Oh no! Renee is interviewing backstage in a snazzy leather jacket. casual t-shirt, with gently tousled waves in her hair and we have a DRAW for Best Dressed! This has never happened before!

Renee quizzes the Shield boys about their mystery ally for Night of Champions, but Roman’s playing his cards “close to the vest” (which is good, because like it’s…vest imagery, because he wears a vest? Maybe Bray is right about him being a smart man) and refuses to elaborate beyond that he made a phone call and “it was the right phone call”.

Kevin Owens vs Dolph Ziggler

I love that Owens has such a character in his wrestling style. As Ziggler throws an initial leaping whirlwind of fists in Owens’ direction, he just holds up his forearms to deflect the brunt of them, and then throws Ziggler off him, across the ring. He refuses to be the one to waste energy. He uses others’ momentum against them instead. He wrestles in a way that makes sense, like a man who is actually trying to minimise getting hurt. Why dodge and roll away from dropkicks when you can just walk?

Booker T rambles about coccyges a lot during this match — after a heavy senton from Owens causes the commentary table to wince — presumably mostly just because he thinks the word sounds funny. Rarely, I have some personal experience I can lend to this discussion: I fractured my coccyx in several places falling off a bunk bed when I was 13, and can confirm it was brutal. I spent a week in hospital. I couldn’t walk for months. It’s not even a glamorous injury, it’s like basically you’ve broken your butt. Avoid that. Fracture something cooler, that will heal better. You can’t put a cast on your tailbone.

This is a well above average match, that makes me even more infuriated for the useless trash plotline that Ziggler’s in: because being repelled by this Lana business has almost made me forget he’s an awesomely fun performer. There’s real drama in this seemingly throwaway match, even with a teased count out. Unfortunately, this show isn’t really about wrestling, and just as Owens seems to have the nail in the coffin, Ryback makes a run-in for a DQ finish.

Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns vs Seth Rollins and Sheamus

The splash image for this match is brilliant. Rollins and Reigns photographed facing straight ahead, broad-shouldered, expressionless warriors. Dean pouting: the roguish, ne’er-do-well companion. Sheamus looking like an otherworldly forest sprite; peering puckishly over the edge of his gleaming briefcase. While Rollins carried MITB for months with a sort of smug assertiveness, Sheamus carries it like he’s filled it with cakes and he’s thrilled that they’re all for him.

Sheamus’ enduring hobby of grabbing the mic 30 seconds into any match and cutting a bland, repetitive promo about not looking stupid is at its most stale here. Like the antithesis of Kevin Owens, he seems entirely unable to adapt or improvise ways to get heat.

This match starts chaotic and directionless, and after two unexpectedly satisfying midcard matches, this feels disappointing. This is emphasised now the fire seems to have burnt out between Ambrose and Rollins and they’re just opponents, like any others. In fact, Rollins and Reigns have the best chemistry in this match; Rollins is always just perfect at exaggerating Reigns’ strength and size, and being the perfect partner for thrilling hot tag sequences.

In a stunning swerve which nobody could possibly have even dreamt of, Sheamus jumps off the apron at a crucial tag moment, looking immensely pleased with himself. Rollins is livid, and snatches the MITB briefcase from where it’s been left in the ring, teasing and luring Sheamus with it to force him to tag. Sheamus is so flustered by this he ends up running straight into a Superman Punch/Dirty Deeds combo, and that’s all she wrote.

Final Thoughts: An unusually strong go-home SmackDown, with two great midcard matches and a minimum of annoying rubbish!