We’re only on week two of the network change—and SmackDown Saviour Mauro Ranallo—and everything’s already gone a bit topsy-turvy….
Ranallo’s lovably stentorian tones boom out “A TRIPLE MAIN EVENT HERE TONIGHT” and I’m almost nodding in agreement before I catch the ridiculousness of that statement. There are only five matches on the show! We can’t have a triple main event, that’s silly. In fact it’s hard to argue that SmackDown has even a semblance of one main event, sometimes. He really believes it though. I feel like he thinks he has the most important job in the world—and I’m happy for him.
“Something’s missing…something doesn’t feel right…”
Dean seems the unhappiest he’s been in a long time. Even after Rollins stabbed him in the back and destroyed the friendship he built his identity on, at least hating him gave him a purpose. Even when he briefly won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship only to have it snatched back on a technicality, he went on a wild bender around New Orleans and seemed relatively cheerful about the whole thing. Now he’s really in a foul mood. He’s snapping at Renee. It’s almost like the weight of the responsibility of a championship belt is a bit overwhelming for someone who’s used to having nothing. After a lot of preamble, Ambrose declares he wants to defend his Intercontinental Title at the Rumble against Kevin Owens… in a Last Man Standing match.
This statement entices Sheamus out to snark Irishly at Ambrose, and tie together the two parallel plotlines that are running here revolving around the IC and the WWE titles. But most importantly: Sheamus started a fight on Monday that left him with stitches, and he’s been frustrated at not having brawl-closure ever since. He’s unfulfilled. Unsatisfied. If you’re getting a weird unreciprocated sexual favours resentment vibe from this segment, so am I—it’s wildly bizarre.
Ambrose doesn’t seem to be a man who likes to leave a partner dissatisfied, so happily rasps: “I’ll beat on you til you cry! Come on hombre!”
This brings out Owens, of course, who doesn’t want to see this filth. He accepts the challenge for the Rumble, and a brawl breaks out. “He’s nuts!” screeches Lawler, of Ambrose: “he’s fighting because he’s craaaazy!” When other wrestlers on the roster take on foolhardy challenges, they’re brave, or “overcoming the odds”. Ambrose is just mental, because that’s what’s been decided.
Dudley Boyz vs Luke Harper and Erick Rowan in a Tables Match
It’s the first tables match on SmackDown in four years, and I don’t mean to be cantankerous—but I was happy maintaining that relatively furniture-safe streak. I’ve never shared the inexplicable raucous glee that wrestling fans seem to experience when presented with an opportunity to destroy a table. I’d love it if someone could explain it to me. I want to get it, I really do. But Bubba Ray Dudley is the least charismatic man on earth and his directionless assault on testicles and tables leaves me cold.
Ranallo is utterly charmed and mystified by the Wyatts’ hobby of appearing out of nowhere when the lights raise, and I wonder how long he can maintain being impressed by everything. I hope forever. It makes things a lot more fun.
This match is no more inspiring than any of the other lumbering interactions these two teams have had over the past few months; all four men wrestling at a snail’s pace. Erick Rowan seems to get animation-locked into setting up a table in the most long-winded way possible, so Harper has to sort of gently hold D-Von in place in the corner til he’s finished. There are a lot of body slams, each somehow more plodding than the last, like a gif that’s got stuck in slow motion while your internet is being shoddy.
A very convoluted turnbuckle sequence leads to Bubba Ray anti-climatically pushing Harper of the ring steps and through a table. Lawler shrieks and screeches that he’s not sure that counts (why??!); Ranallo tries to reassure him that it does, and that the Dudley Boyz have indeed won. Our first of three main events, apparently.
Heath Slater, Adam Rose, Curtis Axel and Bo Dallas vs Goldust, Jack Swagger, Zack Ryder, and Damien Sandow
It’s incredible how long it’s taken to ram all the popular but directionless nobodies into a stable together, being that it can’t have taken very much effort and the ragtag band are already apparently adored ironically and unironically alike. Sandow’s back in pink trunks for the first time in forever, and it feels good. There’s a particularly enjoyably silly vibe to a match assembled mostly of people who excel at making others look good, so they dizzily oversell each others’ moves like a perpetual motion machine made of jobbers.
This is full of fun chaotic horseplay, and is a sort of self-awarely messy match. Despite introducing a new finisher into his repertoire over on Main Event, Dallas gets the pin with the good old fashioned Bo’ Dog. Ranallo posits that this victory could “break the internet”.
Alberto Del Rio vs Kalisto (USA Championship match)
This match is preceded by a heart-breaking backstage interview where Kalisto tremulously explains that he had “almost lost hope that a little guy like (him) could be a champion in the land of giants.”
The brawl here has an element of urgency that’s appealing, but Del Rio going straight for the mask feels a little cheap, a little insincere. There hasn’t been time to develop that level of hatred and disrespect between them. Regardless, both men are wrestling mean, that grows into a real burgeoning big fight feel: and there’s a better chemistry between them than we’ve seen thus far. Berto thrusts Kalisto round by the scruff of his mask like an unruly puppy, and Kalisto looks scrappy and desperate: aiming opportunistic strikes where he can; dodging when he can’t.
Del Rio rams Kalisto’s elbow into the ring steps, over and over, with a clattering thud. Each time Kalisto grabs his arm to nurse it and draw it close to his body, Del Rio’s there to slam him again. Ranallo adores this, because it’s sensible limb work heading towards an MMA-style finisher, so it’s right up his alley, but I had forgotten how refreshing it is when someone on commentary actually makes links between things that happen in the ring; explains why things are important, or why wrestlers make the decisions that they do.
Del Rio ultimately succeeds here because he has a strategy. Everything he does targets the only body part that matters to the finish. Kalisto’s style—while full of fun and impressive maneuvers like awesome flying headscissors and shocking crossbodies—is “dash around and confuse his opponent until he can hit the Salida Del Sol”. It’s Sonic the Hedgehog offence. It doesn’t stand a chance against the brutal bad temper of Del Rio on a good day.
This is the best match on SmackDown for ages (***1/2 territory, although clearly heavily aided by artful camera angles), so it’s soured by the baffling booking decision. Del Rio regains his US Championship with a Cross Armbreaker.
Let’s imagine that Kalisto fell down a flight of stairs between Monday bedtime and Tuesday afternoon, rendering him an unfit long-term champion—rather than that Vince is a fickle control-freak with a God complex intent on toying with the lives of anyone shorter than him. Injury levels are off the charts in WWE at the moment, exposing that even second and third choices for stars are being exhausted as their limbs crumble. The obvious idea of an off-season for pro-wrestlers to rest and recuperate from their very physical schedule has been vetoed time and time again, so I’ve brainstormed a few other potential solutions for the safety of the roster.
- A championship to be introduced for debating skills.
- Instead of house show tours being split into, eg , Cena and Reigns, they will be split up into “wrestling” and “non-wrestling”.
- Masked wrestlers to be portrayed by rotating local indy talent of similar stature.
- (Many more masked wrestlers to be introduced, both to pump up merchandise sales and to compete with Lucha Underground)
- Rebrand SmackDown as “the wrestling show” and have RAW feature a variety of other entertainment: stand-up comedy; circus skills; karaoke etc.
This championship win has ruffled a lot of feathers and there are probably many words to be written about the ins and outs of how frustrating a decision it was; how it missed the point of fans’ yearning for SmackDown to feel significant; how it undermined all the characters involved. The key thing I think that’s bothering me, though, is the idea of having a championship rematch a night after losing a belt (or, if we’re sticking with weird SmackDown kayfabe, three nights after). What has a competitor learnt after merely a day’s recuperation? What makes them better placed to be the stronger man all of a sudden—whether in terms of physical skill, psychological advantage, or pure fighting spirit? Rematches with such a quick turnaround reinforce the ideas that wins and losses are random and based on nothing more than a dice-roll in the office of a millionaire.
Becky Lynch vs Brie Bella
It’s heartening to see at least an attempt at building a consistent, likable, genuine female babyface on main roster WWE, as Becky Lynch continues to be humble and endearing and have apparently no friends because all other women are relentless bitches. This match is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it affair; a sprint to the finish. Lynch gets the win with the Dis-Arm-Her.
Dean Ambrose and Neville vs Kevin Owens and Sheamus
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: it’s unacceptable to have a championship match on SmackDown that isn’t the main event. After all, what’s this? It’s another random tag match with little direction or meaning; a tenuous relationship to the next PPV. If your fictional universe has a prize—like a championship belt—then you always have an inbuilt prop to hang your plot on: it’s imperative to the legitimacy of your stories and your world that you maintain the importance of the prize, at least cursorily. If you erode the importance of your championship belts, then you shake the faith of your audience—in a medium where suspension of disbelief is more important than most.
The third of our three main events! The only variable to make this more interesting than every other main event of the last forty or so weeks is the addition of Neville, who never wrestles lazy, and makes everyone in a radius around him look better. Neville, being the least related to any of the feuds in the ring, seems to just be here for the craic, and to set himself mini-goals throughout the match to keep things exciting for himself. The first obvious one is that he’s desperate to deadlift suplex Owens. He’s done it before! This hubristic enthusiasm leads him into multiple dangerous situations where Owens tosses him around casually, sending Neville recoiling through the air, only returning to the mat reluctantly.
The rest of the match is the same old routine: teased Pop-Up Powerbomb, back and forth brawling, spill to the outside, bit of roughhousing: ring the bell because everyone’s having too much fun.
Instead of finishing the show on a shock title change, the SmackDown Gods opt for a(nother) no contest brawl to finish the show. The roster look like emotionally unstable wrecks incapable of composing themselves, you undermine any sense of passion or danger that is needed to be kept in reserve for plotlines that matter, and everyone’s made a fool of. Not least myself, reader. Not least myself.