A rare clean finish at the climax of WWE SmackDown: but is love bigger than ego?

Roman Reigns vs Rusev

What this match-up offers in terms of alliterative names, it fails to deliver in terms of conclusive finishes. The premise here is still simmering residual rumble resentment, which I can entirely believe Rusev has maintained without losing any steam; he gives the impression of a man admirably able to bear a grudge. For Reigns though, the League of Nations are merely flies to swat on the path to the main event of Wrestlemania; barely worth buckling up his vest for. It’s always refreshing to kick off SmackDown with wrestling, but past torment has indicated that this usually means a bumper recap and in-ring ramble later down the hour, so it’s a bittersweet sort of feeling.

Rusev’s undying sincerity and complete commitment to just wanting to beat people up and scowl at everyone is thrown harshly into contrast with Reigns’ increasing tendency to self-consciously wink at the crowd, tease reactions by acting like he’s only just noticed his own fist, and generally behave in a manner that he hasn’t quite grown into yet. It’s like he’s channeling the Rock through a ouija board; not comfortable with these mannerisms that are haunting his body, jerking his features into unfamiliar eyebrow-raising and smirks.

Less than two minutes into this match—as soon as Reigns is about to start throwing Superman Punches– Barrett and Del Rio accost Roman at ringside and cause the DQ. Ambrose tears down the ramp to save Reigns, which causes Ranallo to yell “Dean to his brother dog’s rescue!” which I replayed several times just to check, and seems like a marvellously bizarre thing to say. Maybe that’s what a list of WWE-mandated nomenclature does to you. It makes you a bit crazy. It makes you think “brother dog” is a valid term of endearment.

Kalisto vs Kevin Owens

Here’s another match that could have happened at PWG and never did (like last week’s Neville vs Kalisto)—and it makes me ponder how different it would have been. Would it have been improved by cannonball dives on to swathes of Reseda unwashed, tipsily brandishing pitchers? Would it have been improved by Excalibur exclaiming, staccato: “this is serious!” when Kevin scooped up Del Sol for the package piledriver? Would it have been improved by improvised rants from Steen, barely audible over PWG DVD audio quality, swearily insulting the front row? Almost certainly. With Nakamura deigning to join WWE stateside, it’s brought up a wistful longing regarding the important essence of what we lose under the bright lights and the polished identical arenas; the barricades and Byron Saxton. While on paper we’re happy to have our indie darlings suited and booted earning a salary in front of thousands every night, there are intangibles lost in translation. Kalisto particularly, never seems to have kicked into the charming organic explosion of offence that dazzled fans prior to the advent of the Lucha Dragons.

Kalisto’s in teal and camo, which is a fashion faux pas worth saying out loud incredulously to yourself as you’re reading this. Lawler yelps: “Have you guys been vaccinated? Because that Mexican Mosquito is here!” The world’s first malaria vaccine was approved for use in African countries only in the summer of last year, and I don’t think that the World Health Organisation’s priorities are weird, xenophobic, hooting old misogynists.

It’s unreasonable to expect every Kevin Owens match to be a spitting whirlwind of furious physicality like his Last Man Standing match at the Royal Rumble, but Kalisto is a gentle dainty wrestler in comparison to Dean Ambrose, and this encounter feels more like a tentative dance than a satisfying match for the early part. It improves in the parts where Owens get to ragdoll Kalisto around; suplexing him; throwing him into a gutbuster; but it still feels somewhat like he is wrestling a vase of flowers or a favourite plush rabbit. Harsh camera cuts forgive the moments of glancing skin-on-skin, reframing them as brutal acts of violence occurring just out of eyeshot. Despite all this, this is a good SmackDown match, with dramatic kickouts and an excellent sequence late in the match where Owens scoops Kalisto into a fireman’s carry at ringside and screams “MOVE!” at the cameraman, so he can throw Kalisto in his preferred direction.

Dolph Ziggler is on commentary for this match, which mostly works fine—he commends Owens’ ability to “get the job done” even though he doesn’t agree with him ideologically, which is the crux of being an effective babyface — but then he goes off on a tangent with Lawler, giggling about “bees in bonnets”. They lose me entirely at this point, because a lifetime of watching Carry On films has left me fairly good at picking up double entendres and this one seems like a stretch.

Ziggler ends up rising from commentary and distracting Owens, leading to a flukey roll-up from Kalisto. After the bell, Owens beats Kalisto down, flush with perceived injustice. So Kalisto wins the match — but Owens stands tall.

In wrestling, as a whole: strong booking decisions make decisive actions regarding strengths and weaknesses of characters; their futures; triumphs and downfalls. They let us leave having learnt more about a story than when we started. That’s why we watch, isn’t it? To feel like we’re part of something that matters, that leaves the internal universe different from when it became.

WWE booking—particularly on SmackDown—is more like a metronome, swinging back and forth on a pivot equally in both directions and ultimately inconsequentially. When the metronome returns back to the vertex, nothing has been lost or gained from its previous oscillations.

Ryback vs Erick Rowan

An uninspiring match, as one might imagine. I would recommend to fans of loud grunting, slow ambling, and pained faces. That description makes it sound much better than it is.

The key upset of this is Ryback unapologetically sporting a new dapper pair of trunks, which feels almost intolerably salacious after having his abs comfortably covered up for years now. To be frank, reader, the sole reason this review is a little later than usual is because this reviewer was still been processing this complicated new development.

Ryback gets the win with the Meathook Clothesline, but after the bell, Braun Strowman looms in threateningly and initiates a beatdown on our nearly-nude hero. Ranallo booms “Ryback with the win but it’s the Wyatts standing tall!” Refer to my previous point. Metronome. Tick, tock. Tick, tock.

AJ Styles vs The Miz

Unexpectedly, this is immensely enjoyable. I’ve been weighing it up and I feel that this match is significantly better than Styles’ worst quadrant of G1 Climax matches—you know the ones I mean—maybe even edging up to just short of average for an AJ performance. Styles is brutal, leaping into springboard elbows that conk Miz with the pointy part and not just the gentle crook of his elbow, a la Dean Ambrose.

Styles gets the win with Calf Crusher (Killer), with a less than smooth set-up execution, but a pleasure to see nonetheless, just for its freshness — and the way the Miz seemed to instantly turn purple from exertion. Later it transpired that a spinning back fist early in the match knocked out a couple of tooth fragments. Styles is really out for blood here. He takes his fair share of careening, reckless damage too, though — making the Miz’s usually less than stellar offence look incredible as Styles smashes his own face into the apron; lets himself be tossed carelessly into the barricade.

I’m interested that they’re doing the “Miz and the Rookie” storyline from 2010 all over again, with an even MORE aged and battle-weary indie darling who this time no one is buying as a rookie, because Ranallo keeps yelling Styles’ achievements over Lawler’s attempts to bury him.

The New Day vs The Social Outcasts

I’m unconvinced that the chemistry between these teams is effective: two teams who are full of big characters trying to out-character each other, and a confusing alignment dynamic at best. This is an unnotable match apart from a confusing point where Kofi and Axel go for what I assume in their heads was intended to be a complicated set of extended reversals and dodges— in practice it looks more like when two people are playing 2k16 who don’t really know the controls, and they keep grasping each other and letting go; stretching their arms out to grapple but grabbing nothing.

Axel tries to go for a leverage pin with his feet on the ropes, but Xavier kicks out. Seconds later, Kofi gets the pin on Axel with an identical sneaky pin. What is the moral of this finish? That cheating is for bad guys, but some bad guys are better at it than others? Because they wear more colourful clothes and have better brass instrument skills? Perhaps Vince McMahon would say there is no moral, that it’s just entertainment. Just lights and colours. Unrelated sequences of random occurrences.

Charlotte vs Alicia Fox

“Ric Flair is wooing to indicate he agrees with the action thus far,” Ranallo intonates, and that’s the only thing related to Ric Flair that has made me smile for a long time.

Alicia throws some forearms here that make me miss Nikki Bella: a complicated cocktail of emotions that I hadn’t budgeted for in this week’s SmackDown Feelings Spreadsheet. Fox’s forearms are like a desperate commuter trying to navigate down a packed tube carriage looking for somewhere to perch til Paddington. Everyone’s limbs are off in this match. Charlotte looks like she’s walking with someone else’s legs, and throws clotheslines with the awkwardness of a child who’s been told they can’t lick their own elbow. Listen. I’ve got endless similes here. Charlotte bridges like a model made of pipe-cleaners. She gets the win with the Figure Eight. The win makes me feel like a bag of pebbles.

Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns vs Rusev and Alberto Del Rio

A main event based around the messy melange from the opener. There’s little I love more than uneasy frenemy tension — the sort they teased heavy-handedly prior to the fourway at last year’s Payback. Roman is bad at emoting though, so his moody stares in the direction of Dean’s jawline look more like a sort of deep erotic longing than the nuanced suspicion that they’re trying to cultivate. I just wish that it was possible to have more than one plotline going on at once, like the sprawling multi-man matches you get in NJPW where every man has a purpose and a motive and they’re all wrapped up in their own perfect, interlocking feuds and desires. Instead, because Dean accidentally bofted Reigns on a dive in the opening segment, the whole match is a vehicle for “tension between the Shield Boys”, and the League of Nations are just a prop. Like a Kendo stick, or a ring post.

They don’t even really try to make this match good, not at first. Rusev is doing silly things like stumbling backwards into the enemy corner, and everyone’s wrestling a little like how they wrestle during the Rumble when they know the camera’s on the countdown on the tron. Haphazard, lazy wafts of the arms. Rest holds. It’s all just time-killing wrestling, where particularly Reigns is refusing to put any effort in whatsoever until a previously determined point. As much as commentary tries to insist that Reigns and Ambrose are a hair-trigger away from just losing it entirely and beating each other into a pulp, there’s no evidence of this for 90% of the match.

Instead, the tense moment we were expecting comes less like a chair to the back and more like a kiss to the forehead. Dean goes for the same dive he did an hour previous, Rusev dodges in the same way, and once again he lands in Roman’s arms. Watch this segment for the lingering way Ambrose and Reigns hold each other after Deano’s dive misses its target. Sizzling. They stare into each other’s eyes. It’s always been okay when they’ve caught each other before. That’s what brothers do. Why does it suddenly not feel okay? Roman removes the brunette’s large hands from his shoulders, brushes him away. Dean looks confused, rejected. “What are you doing?” says Roman. Dean’s about to answer, to spit the hurt and vulnerability back at him, but Rusev has snuck up behind the pair and Reigns needs to truncate the conversation with a pre-loaded Superman Punch.

Paradoxically, a Shield divided seems to somehow be a more effective unit, as this match ends in a rare clean finish when Roman hits the spear on Rusev.