I’ve had a busy week here on Voices of Wrestling. On Sunday I posited some ways in which Lucha Underground is reinforcing sexist plotlines. Yesterday I wrestled with some of the tough feelings that all of our community are feeling right now, and expressed them the only way I know how: a loving tribute to Daniel Bryan’s best moments in SmackDown. Writing that piece was an interesting exercise in how reviewing SmackDown is infinitely improved if you can just pick your favourite clips from YouTube, rather than having to review what actually happens on SmackDown, all the way through.

It’s Thursday, 90% of the roster are hiding in Germany, and I have a nagging worry in my heart that AJ Styles is becoming the Face of SmackDown….

“After AJ Styles punched me in the face, I realised that I respect AJ Styles,”

There’s a weird sense of dragging inevitability to this episode of SmackDown, with a total of three attempts at the advertised Jericho vs AJ Styles match. Perhaps they intended it to build suspense, to aim for an ultimately Bigger Fight Feel— but in practice, it just gives the impression of a weird slapstick sitcom where people keep on wandering in and interrupting in comical fashions to delay a dramatic plot-point.

The understated, charming likability of Daniel Bryan opening SmackDown this time last year couldn’t feel more harshly contrasted by Jericho’s brash arrogance and penchant for listing his years-old accolades at length with a particularly unlovable cadence manufactured to prevent “what” chants. Wisely, Styles interrupts without a verbal rebuttal, but merely to hasten the start of the match.

Before you can mutter “feeling out process”, the Social Outcasts march out to stop the match and take umbrage to Styles’ adjective. A lot of irritating bad guys are fixating on this “phenomenal” thing to criticise Styles (rather than the more low hanging fruit of his rampant homophobia or his terrible hair), but at its most basic level, a phenomenon is just a thing that happens. Just a thing, a situation which is observed. A phenomenon. So in this way, Styles is sort of the perfect face of SmackDown, a place where nothing matters and it’s just a continuous string of unrelated incidents one after another.

Rose perplexingly introduces “the crimson werewolf Heath Slater” and the “social housecats” with accompanying dramatic meow. Axel argues that “We’re called Axel Rose” but Adam just keeps meowing. Not for the first time in my SmackDown reviewing career I genuinely worry that I’m having a neurological episode. We always settle minor annoyances and interruptions through violence here in the WWE Universe, so Styles and Jericho start throwing fists at the intruders.

AJ Styles and Chris Jericho vs Curtis Axel and Adam Rose

High on the list of potential fantasy match-ups for AJ Styles when the internet was rumbling about his migration, was, I assume, this one. This is a masturbatory, self-indulgent match where Jericho and Styles use the Housecats/Outcasts as a vehicle for showboating and lingeringly seeking approval in their tag partner’s eyes after every offensive gesture. To his credit, Styles doesn’t seem above selling Rose’s whips and Axel’s lacklustre clotheslines, and instead his dodges are due to skill, speed, and self-awareness, rather than just powering out of or ignoring the blows of the enemy team. Jericho throws a lionsault on Rose, but then inevitably backs into Styles on the apron, who steals a tag, throws a springboard elbow on to Rose, then folds him in half into a satisfying pin.

After the bell, Jericho drops a Codebreaker on Styles, leaving him writhing on the mat.

“Dudleyville has become a table-free zone!”

I guess it makes sense that someone should get heel heat over Daniel Bryan’s retirement, but it seems like a waste to use it on the Dudleys, who have the least amount of momentum of perhaps anyone on the roster and haven’t had an original thought since 2001. Street-clothes Bubba Ray is sick of all this Bryan talk, because the Dudleys are more important! It’s a tenuous link at best. Bubba Ray eventually threatens that this is going to be the last time we’ll ever see tables again, which seems like a bold claim. If the Dudleys have the power to abolish all four-legged desk-type furniture in the whole world, I am massively impressed by this sphere of influence, and would argue maybe he ought to channel his political powers into something more productive. They fold up a final table, as their theme echoes through the arena.

“Shockingly, Dudleyville has become a table free zone!” booms Ranallo, and I don’t envy his job of trying to maintain enthusiasm for even the most mundane occurrences.

Sasha Banks vs Naomi

Team BAD have finally imploded. I wish women’s stables didn’t feel so disposible: a whole “revolution” based around stables disintegrated within seconds on the main roster, with complicated paths of backstabbing that even the most dedicated soap opera fan would find it hard to keep up with. The New Day are still friends. Can’t we have a female New Day? Heelish, endearing pranksters?

This match has a very high standard of hair colours, with Naomi sporting mermaid-like purple, green, and aqua extensions, and Sasha with her typical fuschia barnet. Also, it’s probably worth nothing, this match has a fairly high standard of wrestling—and is the women’s match I’ve enjoyed most on SmackDown for a very long time. Perhaps it’s the absence of robotic, flailing Charlotte and her escorting spectre of Sexual Assaults Past, but there’s a vibe to this match that just feels better.

Poor, wavery, uncertain Becky Lynch is on commentary, entirely out of her depth at having to improvise and comment on the match, but when Tamina gets up in her face unprovoked, the crowd are uproariously on Lynch’s side. Then Sasha makes the dramatic, violent save, throwing Tamina out of the way—and there’s a real feeling of heat and tension that goes beyond the normal bitchy cat-fight feeling. It’s hard to say what’s different, but it’s a satisfying brawl that occurs around the commentary table, rather than the dainty, titillating open-hand slaps that are normally reserved for umbrage between women. I’m reserving judgement on the idea of a baby-face Sasha, but having more diverse personality types, motivations, and moods within the women’s division can only be a positive thing.

Naomi’s offence never feels particularly natural, and her transitional moves leave a lot to be desired, but Sasha pulls a good match out of her here. Naomi goes for a roll-up after the Lynch distraction is temporarily resolved, but Sasha reverses it in into a brutal Crossface for the win—a gratifying finish that bucks expectations and happens exactly as it ought to.

“In the end, the Titans were conquered by Zeus…”

If you thought the Dudleys promo made little sense, this one’s even worse. The build to Bray wrestling the Undertaker last year, filled with misguided half-biblical references and strange anecdotes, was interminable and tedious and unconvincing—and somehow this is even worse. Bray needs to say definitively “This is why we have a chance this time. We have Strowman, and he’s big and scary and he chokes dudes out.” Instead Braun intones: “The earth will shake, oceans will boil, darkness will consume all,” and i feel that’s not a helpful comment. Pre-empting the apocalypse is big talk and it’s going to make you look silly if it transpires that a 50 year old sunburnt man is still tougher than your cult.

Neville, Sin Cara, and Kalisto vs Stardust & The Ascension

I’m naming the former team “The Dragons Gravity Forgot”: update records accordingly.

It might be significant to note that Neville has transitioned out of burgundy into crimson,  but Kalisto is sporting a burgundy-accented mask and tights (#bestdressed, I’m a sucker for burgundy). Is having the WWE Gods view you as the next Daniel Bryan a blessing, or a curse?

This is a rambunctious dash of a showcase for the flippy team’s skills, with Konnor eating the brunt of almost everything. The climax involves the whole of the Gravity Dragons dropping their finishes on poor, stalwart, lumbering Konnor, consecutively. Salida Del Sol; Swanton Bomb; and then Neville gets the final pin with the Red Arrow.

Chris Jericho vs AJ Styles (for real this time)

This reminds me of Cena vs Owens throughout the summer of last year. It’s not enough that “you beat Cena”, it’s “can you beat Cena again? And again? If not, everything is invalid.” Things only matter when we’re told that they matter. Thus, it wasn’t enough that Styles got a victory over Jericho on his RAW debut. Jericho needs to get his win back; just like he did with Fandango; and just like Cena did with Owens. To prove, what, exactly?

Thankfully, despite the frustrating result, this delivers well: better than their previous match on RAW; perhaps not quite as good as AJ’s encounter with the Miz.

Ranallo is in his element here, able to accentuate key moments and explain why the wrestlers would make certain decisions in the ring, as well as call the more unusual moves with confidence—this is a very stark juxtaposition with Lawler’s yelping “welcome to the WWE, kid!” every five seconds. Instead, Ranallo reacts to something which is actually happening in real life: mentioning “the WWE Universe showing respect to both men with duelling chants!”

A Codebreaker, much like the sneak attack executed earlier in the show, is what puts Styles away.

Final Thoughts: This SmackDown is heavy on time-filling promos, but we actually get a decent women’s match for a change—the sort they normally tuck on Main Event—and an enjoyable main, too. The Jericho/Styles sandwich betrays a painfully depleted roster and the lurking ghost of “wins and losses don’t matter”: but these things are a lot easier to forgive when the wrestling is actually good.