A recent discussion on Twitter exposed the weaknesses of the traditional Meltzer star-rating system; the limitations of the scale. I like to consider myself a bold innovator within the context of reviewing B-shows with waning popularity, so I’m trialling a more emotive way of ranking matches. Please update your spreadsheets accordingly.

It’s WWE SmackDown on the USA Network! A fresh beginning, a new start, a chance to make SmackDown mean something– especially aided by ridiculously enthusiastic Mauro Ranallo as a welcome addition to the commentary table. Is 2016 going to be one of those legendary years– like 2002– which goes down in the wrestling almanacs as an amazing, memorable, magical time for the blue brand? Looking forward: will SmackDown reap any of the benefits of the recent NJPW defectors? I’m optimistic!

“It’s a new year, right? Let’s have a fresh start!”

John Cena is here to metaphorically cut the ribbon on SmackDown’s new permanent home; yet he has so little claim to this rebrand, having appeared on SmackDown a grand total of once in the whole of 2015. It couldn’t be a more tone-deaf way to start the show, indicating that Cena is still the grand gatekeeper– the man who gives you permission to like things, and explains when you ought to be cheering (but rarely why). I’m being melodramatic here, but it sort of feels like if you were to move house, and then when you got your keys and unpacked your furniture, John Cena was waiting inside to welcome you to your new home. “But we’ve never met before, Mr Cena?” you stutter, already over-tired from maneuvering a sofa up several flights of stairs. Cena’s t-shirt glows orangely. “The time is now!” he enthuses. “Welcome home!”

Cena can’t do anything without being sarcastic or mean-spirited, so he claims to be welcoming USA Champion Alberto Del Rio to the ring in the spirit of New Year’s magnanimity, but does it accompanied by slow clapping and a mocking faux-trill impression of Ricardo Rodriguez’s announcing style. Del Rio’s accent is egregiously inconsistent tonight, but he has some convincing biting words about not letting Cena “weasel (his) way into another title opportunity,” which leaves Big Match John gaping gormlessly under the brim of his silly cap. Cena recovers and makes some jabs which get Del Rio all angry and veiny and raspy, and he ends up claiming that he will fight anyone, right here, right now: “just not you, John Cena.”

This is a heated interaction which feels far more meaningful than the average dithering of a SmackDown opening — and does feature Cena doing the “Lucha Lucha” dance if you like that kind of thing– but like always, it fails in backing anything up. It was a smart idea: ADR mimicking the success of the John Cena USA Championship Open Challenge! But it’s not for a title. It’s not for anything.

Kalisto vs Alberto Del Rio

The booking of petite masked-man Kalisto has been inconsistent at best, and since obtaining his championship, Berto has had the motivation of a wet paper bag buffeting around a car park in the breeze– so this doesn’t seem like an obvious MOTYC. Further things that compound the ineffectiveness of this match are the fact that we already know these two had an underwhelming encounter in the Survivor Series championship tournament, AND the prior segment on this show hyped us up for a title match vibe, only to make this match emphatically non-title.

Mauro Ranallo (lilac shirt, I’m extending a welcoming #bestdressed) introduces Kalisto here as “a diminutive dynamo” which is exactly the sort of stupid alliterative thing I would say, and I feel a sense of kinship building by the minute. Throughout the show, Ranallo quickly improvises to lend things more credibility; here, clarifying when Saxton yelps “it’s an official match!” that “it’s not an official title match…but an incredible opportunity for Kalisto to put himself in position for a title shot!” Touches like this, just covering for the often disappointing booking decisions, work wonders for helping the viewer to care a little about the consequences of what’s occurring in ring: a stark contrast to Lawler’s attempts to bury everything for the last few months with dismissive comments, implications that he barely pays attention to the show, and ex-wife jokes.

This match is a little depressing: Kalisto’s rampant over-exuberance matched in scale by Del Rio’s apathy and unwillingness to play along with anything. He responds to Kalisto’s usually impressive Spike Rana by just bobbing his head a couple of inches, rather than slamming his temple into the mat as you’d expect. Del Rio is wrestling like a long-suffering dad tired of his toddler’s antics. He throws a lariat from a slow walking pace, with zero momentum. All the while, Cena is clapping and whooping from ringside. Kalisto gets a pin with a hurricanrana, and is validated by numerous hugs from SmackDown Sentinel John Cena.

I rate this match the feeling of greeting a neighbourhood cat by quietly crouching with an outstretched hand, only for them to snub your petting by turning the opposite direction.

Miz TV: “On Monday night, Mr McMahon shocked the world…”

John Cena is apparently too important to hype the big and relevant news of the hour– ie, the Rumble being one massive Make Roman Strong-themed 30-man Championship match– so it falls to the Miz. He doesn’t even get to reminiscing about Vince’s disturbingly swollen exposed biceps before the New Day interrupt. Big E emerges up the ramp immediately insisting “gifs” is pronounced soft-g “gifs” rather than hard-g “gifs”, which may be the first heel tactic of 2016 to get me genuinely rankled.

You know how these things go, and Kofi is just explaining how astrologically 2016 ought to be the year of the unicorn, when Ziggler rudely cuts the exposition short, who in turn gets followed by Goldust, and then Neville… and then R-Truth, all of whom only get a couple of words out on their journey down the ramp, and none of whom will win the Rumble. R-Truth’s gimmick as “confused and possibly mentally unwell” continues as he asserts his intentions to respond to Alberto Del Rio’s open challenge, before The Miz sets him straight that we’ve moved on from that now. Even Ranallo doesn’t have much to say to that.

Dolph Ziggler, Goldust, R-Truth and Neville vs The New Day and The Miz

Miz TV devolves into a brawl which straddles the commercial break, and climaxes in the men dividing themselves alignment-wise and deciding to settle things the good old fashioned way, in an 8-man tag. I guess that in the absence of any visible General Manager, the wrestlers of SmackDown have now been trusted to put themselves into matches when they see fit. It’s very socialist, I like it.

Another match that just has a very weird flow to it; R-Truth decides to spend an awkwardly long period of time organising Kofi Kingston’s arms into various submission holds, but can’t settle on one, so just looks like he’s giving a complicated massage. There’s a lot of time-killing and showboating here, which is pleasant enough: Neville doing impressive flips, the Miz doing terrible dancing with the New Day, Goldust being Goldust. The best ten second stretch of this match is probably when Ziggler and the Miz get in together, but that’s the only distinct sequence of straight wrestling in the entire match.

Lawler can barely reliably identify the New Day from each other; Ranallo knows that Xavier Woods’ trombone is called Francesca.

Ziggler gets the pin with a superkick on the Miz, and then starts superkicking his own team and dumping them to the outside. “Just like the Rumble! No offence, brother!” he explains. You’ve got a couple weeks yet, Ziggles, let’s not lose all your friends in the meantime?

I rate this match the sinking feeling you get when a stranger starts talking to you when you’re in a public toilet cubicle.

Becky Lynch vs Charlotte (Divas’ Championship Match)

The first championship reign that truly came under the spectrum of the “Divas’ Revolution” has now rapidly become about Ric Flair. Jerry Lawler shrieks “Becky Lynch is gonna get a lesson from a real champion….. the Flairs!”, which while grammatically incorrect, sums up the fact that Charlotte is now a daddy-daughter parcel and no one seems to recognise the irony of having a “revolutionary” female champion — even a heel one– having to rely on support from a man.

There’s a really frustrating exchange on commentary early in this match, where Lawler references Lynch being in the “early days of her career” and Ranallo, with polite enthusiasm, responds “it’s not exactly the early days, King! I had the pleasure of calling Becky Lynch’s matches when she was only 18: she exhibited so much potential then, and now she’s only one match away from achieving the biggest prize in….” Lawler cuts him off with a contemptuous “Ok, ok, ok. This is the WWE. None of that matters.”

It matters to me, Lawler! And it matters to the division, and the characterisation of Becky Lynch, as having a history and a past, and a legitimacy as an athlete! And it matters to the viewer that one of the announcers has genuine interesting anecdotes and relevant opinions on the wrestlers in the match, who he’s trying super hard to put over! It’s insulting to anyone with any interest in wrestling outside of WWE: and damaging when any attempt to give a woman a backstory other than “catty and jealous backstabbing bitch” is shut down, viciously, in front of our very ears.

This match has the looming sense of nothingness that gathers inevitably in clouds over SmackDown championship matches, and features a lot of armdrags and rest holds until it’s time for Ric Flair to interfere as a human shield for Charlotte, allowing her to hit a boot on the outside. Unconvincing headscissors push-up facebusters. A brief flurry of hopeful clotheslines from Lynch. Nothing here with real urgency, or anything approaching even a medium fight feel.

Lynch gets the Dis-Arm-Her locked in, but Ric puts Charlotte’s foot on the rope as she’s tapping. Charlotte gets a leverage roll-up pin.

I rank this match the gut-wrenching disappointment of a “revolution for women in sports” rapidly turning into the champion having to win matches with the help from her 66-year-old father. I rank this match the abstract concept of patriarchy. I rank this match half an hour stuck in an elevator with that one guy from your office who explains to you that he thinks women earn less in the workplace because their brains are more suited for caring professions and they’re ill-suited for corporate roles.

Kevin Owens vs Dean Ambrose (Intercontinental Title Match)

The initial excitement of a first-time indy dream match between these two happening for the first time on a SmackDown some weeks before Christmas has quickly dissolved into being yet another set of endless, meaningless rematches. The promos preceding this match are solid, though: Owens references Ambrose’s claim to being “a cockroach, that can survive anything”, and Ambrose challenges Owens’ claim as a prizefighter, and there seems to be some realistic thread of believable animosity here. Owens desperately needs his championship back for both his own sense of worth as a man, and to genuinely provide for his family like he believes he ought to be able to; he’s sensed that Ambrose’s physical resilience is formidable, but his mental fortitude perhaps more tenuous, so is trying to find chinks to lure Ambrose to make reckless mistakes. Dean is flawed, hurt, and hasn’t had anything to call his own since his brother stabbed him in the back. He’s going to cling on to this championship til the bitter end.

Ranallo introduces “the enigmatic and electrifying Intercontinental Champion, Dean Ambrose!” Noteworthy that he avoids Lunatic Fringe”.

We’ve seen the beginning of this match a lot of times: exchanging headlocks, an early Dirty Deeds attempt, a sulky stomp off by Owens. Ambrose goes for one of his annoyingly lackadaisical rebound lariats and Kevin just grabs his legs and dumps him through the ropes, which is immensely satisfying. It just feels like we know it all by heart now, and as awesome as Owens’ crushing cannonballs against the barricade are, the first half of this match lacks the dynamic excitement of the triple threat IC match on Super SmackDown before Christmas (which earned 3 ¾ mince pies from this reviewer).

In the last five minutes, a dive from Ambrose throws both men into the announce table, which elevates Ranallo’s enthusiasm and volume to previously unprecedented levels heard tonight. They spill over the barricade and into the crowd; Ambrose tight-rope walking to throw an axe-handle to Owens, and both men clumsily tripping over front-row dads with infants. Just as it’s starting to get interesting, the bell goes for a double count-out.

In conclusion, both advertised title matches end with the current champion retaining through an ambiguous/nefarious finish. I still rank this match the feeling of putting on pyjama bottoms that have been on the radiator. Although the pyjamas are slightly too short and uncomfortable.

Final Thoughts: It’s disappointing that SmackDown still has that house show vibe: where you can guarantee even if you’re given the illusion of consequences– like a championship match (or two)–nothing will affect the outside canon of WWE. A title change on SmackDown would be a punchy beginning to the New Year, to get people to sit up and pay attention, and re-define the parameters of what is allowed to happen on Thursdays. The show also suffered from a lack of Reigns, even in an auxiliary role. Regardless, this was a strong SmackDown by the standard of what we’ve come to expect, and was massively improved by Ranallo’s sensical commentary; calling moves; concisely explaining backstory; referencing past matches and victories.