It’s a magical time of the year for wrestling. It’s no secret I’m something of a connoisseur of the seasonal stipulation, and will travel far and wide just to gleefully clap at a wrestler in a Santa hat getting choked out with a candy cane. It’s one of my big fatal personality weaknesses, so much so that if I was in a ancient Greek myth, it would probably somehow indirectly be responsible for my death.
Hopes were high for Super SmackDown, and I worked myself into a festive frenzy with expectations, almost daring to dream for a show-long Christmas narrative a la that one magical year when Alberto Del Rio ran over Santa, hospitalising him, and John Cena had to wrestle to save Christmas. I guess on reflection it was to be expected that this wasn’t going to be an entirely outlandish holiday jamboree: this is a showcase spot, part of WWE Week on the USA network– which could possibly be some people’s first exposure to WWE– or at least SmackDown. They have to lay the foundation for their network move (Jan 7th!); provide an overview of the product which sets the tone for the spectrum of their show. So I can understand why they don’t want it chock-a-block full of mistletoe smooching stipulations and flaming yule log matches or whatever. It’s still hard not to feel personally insulted, though. I work hard all year and Super SmackDown is the one Tuesday I really get to let my hair down. I at least expected a Miracle on 34th Street Fight.
New Day vs Lucha Dragons (Tag Team Championship Match)
Kicking off with a Tag Team Championship match, which is the kind of punchy booking that I crave for SmackDown, but even happening just once a year isn’t enough to convince anyone that anything with consequences will happen here. WWE has a problem with giving us a chance to breathe. After that one Salida Del Sol at TLC, we needed to inhale and have some distance between the New Day and the Lucha Dragons. If you miss a shot, there should be a waiting period. There should be consequences. You can’t just get back on the horse the next week and have another title shot, where you end up defeated because of a similarly stupid reason.
Big E announces dramatically that the New Day deserved the Slammy for Best Tag Team more than any other tag team in history, and it’s hard to argue with that. This would be the sort of injustice the Shield should be chasing up and avenging, if they were still knocking around. The New Day are wearing Santa hats with holes in them for their unicorn horns, a touch which I appreciate. They’re determined not to let being robbed of their award ruin the season, though, so they rattle off a few re-worked Christmas tunes with New Day relevant edits, culminating in a bit of a sing-song which is marginally better than the travesty of Team BAD’s performance at TLC, but still a terrible terrible opening for a show you want people to watch. You know what’s a great opening for a Christmas show? Mexico’s greatest export driving over Santa. Yeah, that was real drama, you know?
The Lucha Dragons are introduced by Cole (why is Cole here? Ugh.) as “you’re looking at the Slammy award winning Kalisto!”, and then an awkward silence which should be captured and distilled and applied to paper and marketed as the Sin Cara official biography. Black, silver, and red is a good look on these guys; especially with pearlescent shimmer on the silver parts of the masks and tights. A touch of fur trim would really accentuate the whole look, though, so the #bestdressed award stays out of reach for the moment. The New Day are in their now signature hot pink and teal. It’s an excellent match for high quality ring-gear, for sure.
“I assumed the Lucha Dragons would come out and say “Feliz Navidad!”, is that right?!” Lawler guffaws. It’s funny because people from other countries are different and their languages are silly.
Big E is in for the early part of this match, and it strikes me how much his mannerisms and inring confidence have really come into their own in the last year. Being marketed as a monster didn’t suit him at all, and his weird IC title run seems distant and unmemorable compared to this hip-swaying, unicorn-horned Big E of today. He’s so much improved; the little things, the way he stumbles and looks sideways when Kalisto dashes into the ring in front of him, but regains his confidence to grab him on his shoulders when the smaller man attempts a crossbody.
The best thing in this match is Cole, completely deadpan, saying “the trombone was instrumental in the New Day keeping their tag titles at TLC!”
Kalisto gets a fiery tag late-match and hits a diving double knee-strike, HARASHIMA-style, and his springboard corkscrew crossbody, ricocheting off Kofi unstoppably until Xavier grabs at him through the ropes just enough to slow him down. Big E throws Kalisto over his shoulder to dispose of him, but when Kalisto hits the mat, he just rolls up into a ball like Sonic the Hedgehog and zooms towards Sin Cara for a tag. Sin Cara is competent with Big E as a solid base, but there’s always this awful breath-holding moment when you’re waiting for what disastrous misstep is going to descend on him. Here it comes soon after, when the Dragons go for a joint tope and Sin Cara faceplants about two feet in front of Kofi Kingston.
Kalisto gets the Salida Del Sol off on E, which we know finishes matches– but Kalisto wants to give Sin Cara a chance to redeem himself. to feel like a valuable part of the team, so tags him and encourages him up to the top rope to hit his Swanton Bomb. Cara gets caught directly into a Big Ending from E. 2.5 mistletoe branches
“Who better to share this moment with… than my old friend, Cobra?”
Santino is back after a long absence, which is a baffling gimmick to explain to a new watcher. Various backstage antics ensue throughout the episode with assorted misplaced under-carders, like only the really rubbish wrestlers are concerned with Christmas, and the proper ones are too serious and busy with actually wrestling. This is a woeful travesty, in my opinion, and Christmas-protecting ought to be assigned to the top of the hierarchy, preferably the WWE Champion. There are a lot of good outfits going on here, but an especially honourable mention to Tyler Breeze, who hasn’t dressed up in anything special, but one of this everyday faux-fur waistcoats made of hot pink and black peacock feathers.
The Ascension seem to have found a slot recently being integral to backstage comedy sections and to spoil festive fun on seasonal shows. Here, Stardust thieves Santino’s lovingly placed tree-topping star from atop the Christmas tree, and the Ascension show up as the muscle to defend his honour. “You do not mess with another man’s decorations!” insists Neville, whose very presence in this segment gives me a kind of sinking feeling, which is made worse by his comedy elf-ears hat. I feel like this statement might be some sort of cloaked metaphor for testicles or something, but maybe WWE-speak has just ruined me. The Ascension reference being able to take on “any elf army”, which I think indicates less their commitment to the season, and more that they genuinely think they might be in Lord of The Rings.
“My jaw’s still clicking from Dolph Ziggler kicking me in the face”
Renee’s in a hooded white furry dress, with pom-poms and an embroidered belt (#bestdressed). She’s got a rose-gold tone to her platinum hair, too. Dean is in a horrible mood, and snaps at her needlessly when she prompts him for the right word for “cookie cutter”. It’s fair that Dean might not know the word, he doesn’t strike as the type who grew up spending Christmases with flour dusting his nose while his Mum bustled around in an apron showing him how to roll gingerbread; but he has never snapped at Renee before. He’s a champion now. He should be in a better mood than usual. We’ve seen him at his lowest ebb, when he tramped through the snow in Connecticut to turn up for a show that never happened. We’ve seen historically that even in tough times, the Shield have always had an amicable, nigh-on affectionate relationship with Renee. When Dean snarls “easy, Gordon Ramsay,” flecking spit across Renee’s cheek, he doesn’t seem unhinged or dangerous, he just seems like another dick guy who is mean for no reason. There are enough of those in real life.
Also, Dean doesn’t understand the difference between a simile and a metaphor.
Wyatt Family vs The Dudleyz, Kane, and Ryback
Cole being here on SmackDown again and trying to give a semblance of explanation for characters’ motivations and direction is a bit weird. He explains, with the confidence of a man who has just decided it in his head, that Bray Wyatt gives the others in his team something to believe in; he makes them feel like they belong. “That’s just how I understand it,” he adds. Even Cole doesn’t attempt to explain the impromptu friendship on the other side, though.
Following closely on the heels of another long-for-SmackDown bout, this match feels very very long. It goes 11 minutes but feels about 90. When Ryback is the most dynamic and athletic person in an eight-man match, there’s a problem: but the refreshingly not-fake crowd are behind him regardless, even though his alignment makes no sense.
The highlight of this match is where Braun demands to be tagged in opposite Kane, by merit of… they’re both large gentlemen? Answers on a postcard, please. What’s brewing between the Devil’s favourite Demon and the Black Sheep? 1 ½ candy (k)anes
The Usos vs Alberto Del Rio and Rusev
Handsome glistening Alberto Del Rio has his rematch with John Cena for the US Championship on Monday, so his time-killing stint with the League of Nations seems to be running on borrowed time. With the New Day as well, it’s getting a bit tired to have heel factions out-numbering their babyface enemies, meaning that any victory from the bad guys can be put down to the “numbers game”, and everyone’s achievements ending up diluted. It’s another one of those weird ways that WWE half-commits to things: they want someone to look strong, but not too strong; they want a finish, but not a clean finish.
This has some fun sort of bouncy energy to it, but Rusev and Del Rio feel far too good together to be falling for the Usos’ very silly tricks: they seem like they could be actual ass-kickers, a real legitimate threat with their fighting skills combined.
A highlight here is a slightly less contrived set-up for Jey Uso to get trapped in the tree of woe: a will-he/won’t-he as he tries to grasp Del Rio down from the top rope, and Del Rio hitting the double stomp at a realistic moment as Jey is flustered, trying to leverage himself upright. It’s really hard to set up that move to look natural, but this is one of the few times that managed it.
Del Rio holds his title aloft after the bell, and the whole League start a beat down on the Usos. Just as Sheamus is about to hit a theatrical Brogue on Jey, Roman teleports into vision and starts distracting and picking off the Nations, one by one. Cole introduces him excitedly as “this is the Usos’ cousin!” which doesn’t strike me as the most important thing to explain about Roman Reigns to a new viewer. Roman drops Superman Punches on everyone and Cole shrieks “Roman is a NATION SLAYER!”
Not massively keen on the WWE World Heavyweight Champion’s main job this week being interfering in other people’s matches, but old habits die hard, and the Shield was good, wasn’t it? 2 snowmen out of 5
The Ascension vs Neville and Titus O Neil
This match is half-heartedly introduced as being “to save Christmas”; while I understand there was Christmas-related beef backstage with the whole “stealing the star” thing, I’m not sure how that affects the festivities internationality, and no formal kind of stipulation (like 2013’s Good Santa vs Bad Santa match) was ever indicated. It’s almost like this was something of an afterthought.
It’s hard not to feel a little forlorn for Darren Young, who’s been demoted out of this important moment. Titus and Neville have a great dynamic though, rocking the “big, strong, impressive man with smaller, flippy, gymnastic man” tag team look that makes everyone look good, and particularly hides the weaknesses of the larger man (see: the Tag Team Championship run of Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns).
Viktor, particularly, makes this match a lot more enjoyable, selling the most of gentle of Titus boots with the kitchen sink “roll into a ball and careen off wildly” response, which is a lot of fun. Neville gets the win with the Red Arrow, and Christmas-jumper clad Santino clambers in the ring to celebrate. 2 1/4 presents out of 5
Charlotte vs Brie Bella
Charlotte’s in a little fur-trimmed crop-top and skirt here: which is okay, because Brie’s in normal gear, so it doesn’t feel like it was some sort of fascistic dress code enforced on all the women, lest they spend a second of the year not being sexualised. It’s valuable to recognise that there has been progress from women being treated like sexy accessories for male-gaze wish fulfillment at every possible opportunity; it is slowly becoming less and less fashionable to objectify female wrestlers on WWE TV, day by day.
I’m sorry, dear reader, but this is the SmackDown Special: two minutes of nothing followed by an interruption. The rude walk-in does come in the form of adorably clad Team BAD: Sasha in a snowman onesie; Tamina in a festive cardigan; Naomi in a reindeer costume. I’m charmed by these outfit choices, which look like something real people would choose to wear to a Christmas party, and not from the very back rail of Ann Summers. They dump Solo cups of eggnog over Becky, who was being quite reasonable, minding her own business on commentary, talking about the value of friendship in quiet, sincere tones. It’s not really Christmas unless at least one woman gets humiliated, I guess.
The distraction allows Charlotte to lock in the Figure 8. 1 1/4 Christmas tree
WWE Intercontinental Championship
Dolph Ziggler vs Kevin Owens vs Dean Ambrose (c)
Faux-snow rains down on the combatants in this match as they enter, which is a nice touch, but not the most magical Christmas moment in wrestling this week.
Dean has a weird belligerent attitude since winning the title. He’s scowling, open-mouthed chewing, twitchy and confrontational. Is it because he’s effectively lost the one man who’s been by his side for the last, tough year? Roman’s the guy now, and he seems far more concerned with his blood family all of a sudden.
Triple threats are really hard to get right, especially when there’s animosity between everyone and no chance for even brief alliances. This match has the sort of fast-paced violence that is entirely necessary, though, and builds on the excellent main event from last week’s SmackDown: with the welcome benefit of no DQ. It’s not long before the men climb the ramp, and start tussling amongst wrapped gifts, Christmas trees, and other festive paraphernalia. I’m always stunned by how Owens retains all of his menace and threat even when in the most ridiculous of scenarios.
Despite the brief moments of frivolity, this match has a nastiness and urgency befitting a championship main event: the biggest wince-worthy moment being when Owens suplexes Ambrose directly on his head. The movement’s controlled at every moment, he maneuvers him through the air exactly how he wants him: and the replay shows Ambrose’s stapled temple hit the mat first, bounce, and shudder to a standstill as the rest of his body hits the mat.
There are a lot of other awesome spots in this match, inventively combining all the men’s talents in creative ways: like when Dean has Owens in position for the Dirty Deeds, but Ziggler dashes in to somehow Zig Zag all of them, the entire pile of men, including himself.
Dean gets Dirty Deeds off on Ziggler for the finish, in a sprint of energy that spits out of Ambrose like he’s clawing for his life. 3 ¾ mince pies
Final Thoughts: A pleasant, easy watch, with denser quantities of wrestling than we’re used to: and a killer main event. Live SmackDown always has a better vibe, with real crowd reactions and everyone working a tiny bit harder. Just don’t expect a visit from Santa!