I’ve been fighting an unpleasant bronchial cough and lingering fever all this week after a weekend packed with far too much excitement. Check out Rob Reid’s reviews of the NJPW/Rev Pro shows; Uprising and Global Wars UK, and learn why it’s such an exciting time to be a British wrestling fan! Regardless, while insanely good live wrestling may have pushed my fragile mortal body over its limits and into ill health, wild horses couldn’t keep me from my primary love: WWE SmackDown. Onwards and upwards!

It’s fascinating to contrast the openings of this week’s Raw and SmackDown. Raw begins with a lengthy, impassioned promo from one of the best orators in WWE, and an appearance from the most intimidating wrestler on the roster. SmackDown opens with the New Day, trombone in tow! While radically different in tone, both openings are gripping.

“We stood tall and dropped ‘em all!”

The New Day are thrilled and almost in disbelief at their own antics on Monday; ie, interfering in John Cena’s open challenge and inserting Big E into the main event instead of Dolph Ziggler, which eventually culminated in a chaotic melee. I’m endlessly tickled by the implications of the kayfabe timeline here, that presumably Xavier Woods has been excitedly recounting this incident from Monday night right through to Thursday, with zero diminishment in his enthusiasm. They probably spent a lot of that time rehearsing their list of tag teams that they list here as being inferior to them; which includes both the Shield and the nWo.

Every New Day interaction eventually turns into an opportunity for a brass-accompanied “New Day Rocks” dance eventually, and here is no exception; but it’s all-too-quickly interrupted by Dolph Ziggler.

“The authority have granted me a chance...”

“…a chance at retribution. Not just for the last ten years…” Ziggler says, “…but most importantly, for last Monday”. If this isn’t the most concise handwave of WWE canon, well, knock me down with a feather! It’s a statement that seems nonsensical if you don’t know how perfectly it describes WWE storytelling. Last Monday is always much, much more important than the ten years of history preceding it. The character of Dolph Ziggler, like everyone else, is a selective amnesiac who bears no grudges at anything that happened beyond a week ago. Which is why he can reference “my good friend John Cena,” with only the faintest glimmer of wry irony.

Unexpectedly, after this, Ziggler does drop a sideways reference to ancient history, by demanding a match against Big E, referencing “a man who stole my opportunity. A man I probably taught how to steal”. I feel frustrated by this, because it feels like every delicious callback to long-forgotten alliances and storylines is instantly undermined by all the ways that inconvenient history is swiftly and violently contradicted. There’s a simmering potential here. Big E went from being a stoic bodyguard, a second fiddle to Dolph Ziggler’s irrepressible charisma, a form of transport for AJ Lee; to now, suddenly, rivalling Ziggler’s star power.

Ziggler wants a “fair fight”, so he’s enlisted some backup. The Dudley Boyz emerge from a hailstorm of terrifying pyrotechnics.

Dolph Ziggler vs Big E

Xavier Woods and Kofi Kingston spend a lot of this match doing some sort of elaborate newscaster/commentator roleplay from ringside that I wish was mic’d up better, or maybe had its own dedicated in-screen camera. As probably anticipated, this match is far more about ringside shenanigans than in ring action, and it’s impossible to focus on Big E’s rest holds when Woods is literally playing Ziggler’s theme music on his trombone at one point. This is a hilariously fun mess, with the Dudleys being relatively subdued until the time comes for them to ineffectually lumber around trying to prevent the New Day’s interference. Big E gets the win anyway, with heavy handed leg-holding help from Kingston.

“I loved Kim and Kanye’s motif but..”

Summer Rae is backstage, leafing through wedding magazines while she gets spruced up. This scene is notable because one of Summer Rae’s makeup artists has extremely on-trend lilac pastel hair, with wine-coloured lipstick and a black fishnet accessories, who swoops down on the Best Dressed award like an aggressively stylish bird of prey. While Rusev’s proclamation that he would marry Summer Rae only when he had gold around his waist was sort of romantic, in a weird, male-ego kind of way; his pervasive abusive-boyfriend vibe permeates everything he does. A cute nickname doesn’t make this a lovable character, folks; or an aspirational relationship. Proactive bride-to-be Summer Rae has somehow managed to book Rusev into a match with Ryback later in the show; a victory will be sure to start the wheels of her engagement turning.

Team Bella vs Becky, Charlotte & Natalya

PCB minus P were allowed to choose a third for this match, being that tempers have been tempestuous in their initialism lately, and sassy catsuit-clad Natalya is the predictable choice. Jerry Lawler opens the match with a staunch insistence that “no woman has ever had a friend that she didn’t dislike”. In a universe where brothers and male team-mates are constantly betraying and backstabbing each other, Lawler has pinpointed duplicity as being a female trait.

“All the divas hate each other!” cackles Booker T, which is greeted by hearty chuckles from the rest of the commentary table.

The men in WWE genuinely don’t think female wrestlers — and by extension, women — are people. They don’t think we have real emotions, or feelings, or are capable of love or commitment in any real way. They don’t think we have the capacity to have a friendship based on mutual respect. Where male wrestlers have plotlines about honour and pride, women have jealousy. Jealousy, manipulation, and a vacuous nothing. This “othering” of women isn’t just humiliating and insulting; it’s dangerous. If you tell men and boys often enough that women behave in a certain way, they’ll start treating them like that.

Words Lawler uses to degrade female wrestlers in this match: “spoiled”; “immature”; “diva”. Yes, he actually says “she’s acting like the biggest diva of them all!” as an insult. And that’s what you’ve chosen to name your women’s division. An insult. A gendered insult.

This is a good match. Natalya has great technical sequences that always impress in gifs when she busts them out, but forgets not to smile the entire way through, which adds an element of unconvincingness to their impact. Charlotte and Nikki trading brutal elbows and chops is fun and dramatic. The finish is undermined, because as Nikki reverses the Figure Four — a significant gesture — the camera is looking elsewhere, at Natalya pulling Alicia Fox off the apron and general other outside tomfoolery. A kick from Becky allows Charlotte to regain control and lock in the Figure Eight for the victory.

Rusev vs Ryback

Kevin Owens on commentary immediately improves this match tenfold. His cool, effortlessly smug and dismissive tone brings a level of credibility to a match which Lawler’s squawks and Brennan’s nervous chatter don’t achieve. Owens good-naturedly explains the champion’s advantage and justifies his walking hobby, makes some sly sarcastic digs at Lawler and Brennan, and draws attention back to the match whenever some noteworthy action is occurring. It’s very skilful, and Owens is a natural.

Rusev works Ryback’s hand here, which is greeted by many appreciative noises from Owens. He methodically slams it on everything he can find; all around the perimeter of the ring apron; on the ropes; on the canvas. This doesn’t make for a particularly dynamic or gripping match in the first instance; until we get to the phase of the match where Ryback’s hand regenerates health and he starts throwing power moves. Ryback gets in the Shellshocked for the win. Summer Rae looks forlornly at her empty ring finger.

King Barrett vs Neville

Barrett is still on the throne, who knew? He has a shirt which proclaims “King of Bad News”, in front of a faded union flag, which sums up his three main personality traits. While Neville has been off having (granted, low-key) misadventures with dragons and space-villains, Barrett has been frozen in time for months now, and here he re-lives his last significant encounter. This is a competent showing, a brief sprint of back-and-forth, with an underwhelming Bull Hammer finish.

Randy Orton and Roman Reigns vs Bray Wyatt and Braun Strowman

The embedded video promo from Reigns announces: “In two weeks, I’ll be taking you straight to hell. As far as tonight’s concerned, we’ll just call it… purgatory”. Reviewing SmackDown does sometimes feel like being in purgatory, so big shout out to Roman for close-to-the-bone descriptions aimed directly at me.

The omission of SmackDown main-event mainstays Rollins and Ambrose feels particularly jarring here: with all the emphasis on the deep brotherhood and connection between Ambrose and Reigns, it feels uncomfortable that Reigns would so casually tag with another. They even go for cute tag-team manoeuvres; most of which are thwarted by the powerful skill of Strowman’s to stand still and not fall over.

This match allows heavy breathing space for the tension between the two big men; with heated staredowns and sizzling reversals. The blows exchanged between Reigns and Strowman are unexpectedly delightful, with artful camera work to (almost) veil the fact that Braun does things like step down from the apron after a Superman Punch, rather than fall down. Roman’s energy and intensity makes him seem like a driven man, especially when he takes to tossing Bray around, bouncing him off the scenery.

Wyatt hits Reigns with a chair for the DQ. In the ensuing scramble, Strowman scoops Orton into his chokehold finisher, but Orton is promptly rescued by a heroic Reigns. Reigns and Orton pile finishers into the Wyatts and stand tall to the heavy bass of Roman’s theme.

Final Thoughts: The commentary team are a dark cloud that serve to drastically unravel any work that WWE is putting towards even token gestures of equality for women; but aside from that, this was a solid, albeit inconsequential show.