The world of WWE — much like any video game, or comic book universe — crucially depends on a delicate set of checks and balances. In order to keep everything making sense, everyone has to have a place in the hierarchy, shaped by strengths and weaknesses. So, for example, you can have a character who’s sort of small and weird looking, but has immense fighting spirit and the unconditional admiration of their fans, and they could be a credible champion. That’s a “balanced” character.

More complexly, you can have a character like Brock Lesnar, who is unfeasibly strong, but who has his own set of motivations that focus more on occasional bursts of anarchy rather than systematically dismantling the entire WWE roster. If Brock was a man with an organised mind, or any sort of political goal, then he would lose all of his impact. It would be too unbelievable that he didn’t just raze the whole company to the ground immediately.

You can have a monster who possesses an unholy elemental power over fire, but who also has a traumatic history which requires him to seek therapy. Or an undeserving champion with great technical prowess, but turning his back on his friends has made him insecure, needy, and vulnerable.

What you can’t have, is a character who has literal demon Hell powers, AND is allowed to make booking decisions. That dude needs some serious debuffs, pronto.

Kane opens the show:

“This was the precise time to come back… WWE is on FIRE!”

In a lot of ways, it’s like nothing’s changed. Weeks back, WWE SmackDown always opened with Kane booking weak tag matches, or irately interrupting promos to bully the speaker into a tenuous main event: and here he is doing the exact same. Booking matches only marginally better than the auto-match feature on WWE 2K Universe mode: mild, meaningless matches that don’t appear to relate to his personal goals. So maybe that’s Kane’s fatal flaw. He’s very powerful, but he lacks imagination. A man too boring to be dangerous.

Rollins interrupts Kane just as he’s right in the depths of micro-managing the midcard, and Kane bursts into sycophantic applause. Rollins is visibly shaken by this, and tries to bluster his way through a “cut the crap” routine, but isn’t fooling anyone. He’s a suspicious, paranoid man, and this dual-Kanes business might just push him over the edge. To his credit, Kane is playing this off marvelously: flicking effortlessly between light-hearted corporate weasel-words, and occasional scowling glimmers of the demon.

The upshot of all this is that Kane finally gets to deliver the pièce de résistance of his SmackDown plan in person: the main event will be Seth Rollins vs Dean Ambrose.

Roman Reigns vs Luke Harper

Roman’s especially good at two things: great, emphatic hot tags, where he clears the ring and flexes and howls and everyone goes wild; and selling offence like he’s a dazed, limp, fatigued baby. As much as Seth Rollins was the shining star in the two Shield/Evolution matches, they wouldn’t have been half of what they were without Roman’s half-lidded wincing, as he was accosted by Kendo sticks and protracted beatdowns. That almost kind of pain-reverie that Reigns dramatically sinks into in big matches (see also: WrestleMania 31) is powerful and compelling, but it retains its significance when it’s reserved for when it’s really needed.

It’s fair to say that a few Harper elbows to the side of the face really don’t warrant Roman to act like he’s nigh-on fading into unconsciousness, thirty seconds into this match. There’s such a thing as too much selling. Luckily, he makes a full recovery shortly afterward, and the remaining minute’s sprint is quite fun.

Booker T describes Luke Harper from all angles in this match: “He’s a big guy, but he’s three-dimensional!”.

Harper goes for a discus elbow so slow and elegant it’s like a ballet move, and ends up straight on the receiving end of a Superman Punch: undeterred, Harper goes for another (with equal verve), and gets Speared for the win.

The New Day vs Neville & Lucha Dragons

I’m not sure anyone makes me laugh quite so much as Xavier Woods lately. For a long period of his WWE career I just felt a sort of mild embarrassment for him, as he rolled around in his Dragon Ball Z tights, only pausing to dance with R-Truth. Now he’s hit such a groove with his character that there’s a point briefly before this match where he stares straight in the camera and gives a sort of smug, knowing smile, and I was SO tickled that I couldn’t stop laughing. Out loud. I wasn’t even sure exactly why. The New Day are a feel-good business, and no matter what sort of wild swerves occurred at Night Of Champions, they’re high on my list of WWE faves.

Despite actually being legally involved in this match, Xavier hops from the apron to play trombone intermittently anyway. I have this dark secret deep in my mental folder of outlandish fantasy booking, that maybe Woods isn’t the only WWE roster member who can form an embouchure. That one day, Woods’ trombone scales will be met with a replying voice: a cornet, a tuba maybe. A euphonium. Whichsoever man confidently wields that brass will be Xavier’s one true nemesis; an epic feud, elevating him to effortless five star matches.

This match is a thrilling romp, with lots of daring highspots paying off quite neatly, and Neville’s involvement definitely increasing the wrestling quality considerably. Unfortunately, the ending feels very unexpected and disjointed: with Xavier getting a flash pin on Sin Cara after faking an eye injury. The New Day proceed to sensually mount the announce table and Woods plays them a victory tune as Kofi and Big E sway rhythmically, so all is quickly forgiven.

Cesaro vs Bo Dallas

Dallas kicks this one off by offering condolences and sympathy to Cesaro, reminding him that he knows the pain of fearsome opponents, and has indeed even survived Suplex City. “You can’t even get yourself off Big Show Boulevard!” Dallas chuckles.

This is a fascinating matchup, because one of the few real genuine truths that I believe about the universe is that Cesaro is incapable of having a truly bad match: whereas Dallas has been dropping dud after dud on the blue brand and the C-shows for months now. Really unwatchable dross. Which way does this go? Who wins the struggle?

Cesaro opens the match with five consecutive feinting kip-ups, into a dramatic arm drag, and a triumphant leap to his feet. Bo Dallas could have been a bag of water balloons here, for all he contributes: but it barely matters, because Cesaro is a rare gift. This feels like a Saturday Morning Slam match: a jokey, enjoyable, showcase match, with the face having lots of fun at the expense of the heel. Cesaro gets the win with a roll-up after four minutes.

“The future has never been brighter for the Divas’ Revolution!”

  • Jerry Lawler: Where do you think Paige is right now?
  • Rich Brennan: Who knows, she could be anywhere.

This sort of quality discourse isn’t really helping keep the viewer interested or engaged by Paige’s motivations; or the desires and emotions of any of the female wrestlers in general. To commentary, women are an unknowable, an “other”. Mercurial, unpredictable, but at least they’re always, always sexy.

Charlotte is here, with a few florid words regarding her newly attained Divas’ Championship, before getting interrupted by Paige, who wasn’t hiding at some mysterious location after all. Sassy heel Paige lacks gravitas or wickedness, and her annoying “you need to shut up, sweetheart” line and forced throat-clearing feels amateurish.

Women’s Division Designated Mom Natalya comes out next, and tries to calm everyone down by saying how proud she is of everybody and all the great, empowering work all the women are doing. She calls Sasha “a feisty chihuahua”. How are we supposed to demand respect for women when this is how they’re portrayed interacting with each other onscreen?

I really don’t LIKE having nothing nice to say about the women’s segments week after week: I want to be absolutely championing female excellence. Here we are, though, with another “bitchy jealousy” plotline, because that’s the only narrative that WWE knows how to give women. It’s insulting.

Also, Becky is in this segment, looking like she’s fresh off the airship from Ul’dah (#bestdressed), but she says about three syllables in total.

Rusev & Kevin Owens vs Dolph Ziggler & Ryback

The ol’ mash-up tag, where we see two coinciding disparate feuds come together in a four-man match. Kane booked this one, of course, the total madman.Rusev is furious in this match: screaming into Ziggler’s face, gasping and hysterical. This is perfectly juxtaposed against Owens’ gum-chewing nonchalance, actively tagging himself out, looking very uninterested in the match.

An inexplicable “We want Ryback/Feed me more” chant breaks out as the match drags on. When Ryback finally does get in, he wrestles in the manner of someone jostling through a packed crowd: nudging everyone shoulder first, tentatively at first, but then more forcefully as he picks up steam.

Owens gets bored of this match pretty much at the same time that I do, wandering off with his belt, allowing Ryback to get the pin on Rusev.

Seth Rollins vs Dean Ambrose

The magic just isn’t the same any more between these boys, but there’s a lot to enjoy regardless. Ambrose is as “over it” as he’s ever going to be about Rollins, and Seth’s got bigger fish to fry too. It’s just a tiny bit sad to see ⅔ of the Shield (who we saw fight tooth and claw in Iron Man matches in FCW, right through to being family, to worst enemies again) reduced to being just a time-filler, a subplot, a back-up match to stick on a Thursday…

This is still great, deliciously frantic, and extremely enjoyable. Even if it’s wildly unrealistic, I will never not love the way Ambrose sells Rollins’ top rope knee like a slap to the face, his head jerking sideways and staying momentarily suspended before falling to the ground. They trade superplexes, countering everything, reversal after reversal, until fatigue finally hits and they’re reduced to throwing exhausted chops and punches.

At one point, Seth grips Dean’s cheeks hard in a gloved hand, gets up close to his face and grunts “You like that, Deano? You like how that feels? Huh?”. Ambrose grins rapaciously. Maybe the magic’s not ENTIRELY gone.

I’m sorry, reader, I don’t know how to break this to you, but there’s no clean finish to be found here. Instead, in the throes of battle, pyro erupts and the lights lower to a dim red glow. In the confusion, Dean hits an atmospherically-lit roll-up, and pins the champ. The camera cuts to Kane, backstage, watching television sideways, smiling.

Final Thoughts: The most fun Kane’s been in ages. A pleasantly solid show, with an excellent main event. Will there ever be a non-disappointing women’s segment?