WWE SmackDown
November 5, 2015

The dust has settled after the frantic apple-bobbing and pumpkin superkicking of last week’s Halloween SmackDown; the nights are drawing in, and there’s nothing to look forward to ’til Christmas. The bi-yearly tour of Europe kicked off this week (and has already tragically taken our champ as a casualty), which means SmackDown is left with a reduced roster and not much in the way of star power. Secretly, I quite relish these strange, quiet, twilight weeks; because sometimes they drag out dusty undercarders from Main Event or let fresher faces shine. Here’s no exception, with a first time ever main event matchup.

“Haters are not allowed in MexAmerica!”

Zeb Colter and Alberto Del Rio emerge to pre-taped boos to cut a heel promo about casting aside hate and instead preaching tolerance and acceptance–  and for not the first time even today, I find myself scratching my head and muttering “wrestling is weird”.

Zeb’s new character is becoming more and more bewildering: his segment on RAW saw previous comrade-in-racism Jack Swagger appealing to Zeb’s old xenophobic ways, and Zeb confirmed that he still thinks of Canadians as “simple minded”, yet believes enthusiastically in the best and brightest Mexico has to offer. What’s Occam’s razor here? Is it that Zeb is playing us all, and aligning himself with Berto for some long-game swerve? Or that Zeb has fallen hard for Del Rio’s swoony gaze, chiseled pecs, and sturdy thighs: and thus, the entire Mexican culture? Is this a MexAmerican romance? Is it that WWE writers had an idea they wrote on a post-it note with “add details later” pencilled on the bottom, and then just never did?

Alberto Del Rio vs Neville

There are a lot of things to love in this match. The way Neville has to steady Alberto’s pecs with his fingertips before he can drop a standing moonsault on him. The way Zeb looks incredulous when Neville tosses Del Rio wildly to the other side of the ring from a headscissors takedown. Sure, we saw this match-up recently, but it’s feisty and fast-paced: and Neville’s style and size make Alberto look like more a credible heavy-hitter in comparison. However: for someone who has demonstrably impressive abdominal strength, Neville doesn’t half get stuck in trees of woe more often than you’d expect. Alberto wins with the corner double stomp.

Del Rio snaps on his Cross Armbreaker after the bell, which summons Sad Homeless Jack Swagger, no longer the object of Zeb’s avuncular affection. What is this plotline?

The Usos vs The Ascension

After Jimmy Uso spent nine weeks of the long hot summer on SmackDown commentary, he’s now an honorary son of the blue brand and will always be welcome on Thursdays under my watch. Lawler attempts a conversational segue between an advert for Rolaids and introducing the Ascension here, stating “these guys will give you heartburn!”. What does that even mean?

The Usos are unequivocally all flash and no substance; true unthreatening Saturday Morning Slam wrestlers, but it’s hard to begrudge them having fun and pulling faces and jumping around, at least when absence has made the heart grow fonder. The Ascension are wrestling ditzier than usual to match them,  Konnor doing comical “suspended in mid air by own shock at being kicked”-style sells, and Viktor flailing around like he’s trying to propel himself across the ring with his arms alone. Jey Uso gets the pin with a splash.

Elimination Match
The Wyatt Family (Braun Strowman, Erick Rowan, Luke Harper, and Bray Wyatt) vs Lucha Dragons and Prime Time Players

Excitement has rapidly shifted focus from the traditional Survivor Series tag match coming up on the next special, to whispers and speculation about the tournament to decide the new WWE World Heavyweight champion instead. While the build of having Survivor Series-style matches over the next few weeks feels novel, nothing is more fascinating than the story of the Authority golden boy knackering his knee in Ireland so profoundly it’ll take 9 months to recover. Not even famed spookyman Bray stealing people’s souls.

Regardless of its hype-building potential, elimination tags can be really telling and intriguing microcosms of kayfabe hierarchy, and an opportunity to see fresh interactions with new potential. Despite a victory in Tag Team Terror last week, there’s little effort to make the Lucha Dragons look like plausible winners here, as the big stompy beardy fellas casually swat them out of the air, and shrug off their offense. This match has an agonizingly inevitable pace, as the Wyatts firstly pick off Darren Young by count-out, as he lies ringside comatose. A single clothesline incapacitates Sin Cara. Kalisto falls foul to a full nelson slam. Titus holds his own for a few valiant minutes– even executing a Clash of the Titus on Harper– but Strowman gets him with his chokehold, and a Sister Abigail seals the deal. The Wyatts win without losing a single man.

Of all the things WWE did right with the Shield; giving them consistent personalities; putting them in important plotlines; and distributing their roles in the team smartly, one of the key things that made them matter was that they won matches. It’s perhaps too little too late with this current incarnation of the Wyatt Family; but this outcome certainly sends a message. Unlike the Shield, though, this match just isn’t very cool. There’s no suave bad-boy attitude to the Wyatts, they’re lumbering swamp-oafs and they don’t make you want to draw fanart or squee excitedly when Braun Strowman gets the hot tag.

Ryback vs King Barrett

This is the very definition of a nothing match. Moves that mean nothing, commentary that means nothing. Some wrestling happens and then there’s a Shellshocked.

Natalya vs Tamina Snuka

To further enhance the ongoing mystery “who’s booking SmackDown”, Tamina appears to personally decide on the (super)fly that she is going to be in this match repping Team BAD. “The great thing about Team Beautiful and Dangerous,” Booker T labours, “is that there’s no leader! They’re all equals!”, as the camera lingers on Sasha strutting around at ringside and gesticulating charismatically.

This is a nothing match too, and once Natalya has her one little spot of technical wrestling that she does at the start of every sub-three minute singles match, there’s nothing of note til Tamina leaps horizontally for what was never intended to be a splash and lands her face right into Natalya’s boot.

Natalya wins with a rollup and makes a rapid exit from a BAD beatdown.

Kevin Owens vs Dean Ambrose

On paper this means something. These two men have never crossed paths before in singles competition. Two wrestlers who were beloved across disparate USA indy promotions for years before WWE, men who are masters of characterisation, with real human, nuanced personalities. Who can make you believe in them; empathise with them; and hate them all within minutes.

This is a good match, but haunted by a spectre that it ought to be something better. Ambrose and Owens are both so fun to watch and fill every movement with charisma, and it’s appealing to see the personalities clash. They ought to be bigger personalities, though. I’d love to have seen motivated, mercenary, unhinged, insecure Shield-era Ambrose vs current Owens, for example. Still, Owens reversing a headlock with a triumphant “my headlock’s better!” and later bouncing unnecessarily violently after Ambrose’s running bulldog is exceptional entertainment.

A solid three pumpkins, if we were still on last week’s seasonal markscheme.

Ambrose ostensibly earned this match by scoring a fluke undeserved pin over KO in the tag-team main event on Monday; which makes the vacuous ending to this match all the more appropriate. Owens feigns a phantom low-blow from a gut kick, leading to a DQ for Ambrose.

I’m not saying that every match needs to begin with two atmospherically-lit men staring resolutely at the ceiling while the Japanese National Anthem plays , but I feel like in a main event, there ought to be a moment– before or during– when you think “…maybe”. Maybe this is important. Significant. That wasn’t tonight.

The Future

With Seth out and Roman probably imminently the champ, that just leaves poor Dean Ambrose to main event SmackDown for the foreseeable– if the previous 29 weeks of booking decisions are any indication. Where does this leave SmackDown, if not in more of a limbo than ever? If you’d indulge me in some rare fantasy booking: I’d put Ambrose in outlandish, easy-on-the-body gimmick matches til Christmas, just for my own personal amusement. Then in the New Year, have a series of multi-man main events to determine spots in the Rumble. After the USA network move: a long, sprawling, engaging points-based tournament with consequences for WrestleMania. Raw for exhibition matches and plot. SmackDown can be good again. The pressure’s on for a fresh start more than ever.