Rarely, and without warning, WWE will take a break from being a jamboree of light-hearted dick jokes and casual racism, and suddenly descend rapidly into Jacobean revenge tragedy. The pieces have fallen into place. The old, mad King with his politically obsessed, duplicitous wife, unwilling to part with his empire to the spoilt, favoured son– carrying blood-stained rags around with a mixture of contempt and glee. All this play is missing is Stephanie McMahon stirring a cauldron on a tempestuous hillside. Like theatre-goers of the 1600s, we don’t want to see the uninspiring, vacuous hero rise triumphantly to victory, for an unsatisfying “happy ending”. We want him to fall, humiliating, from grace, and preferably also for everyone to die gruesomely on a moor in the middle of a storm.
“Please allow me to introduce myself…”
Triple H opens WWE SmackDown suited and booted; title in tow. Mesmerisingly, he intones the first few lines of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”. He smiles, smugly, with the unique confidence of a man with a corporation at his feet and gold around his waist. “Am I the devil?” he muses. “Maybe.”
Apart from the gaping plot-holes in the lead-up (like the Authority continuing to give Reigns chances at title shots when they could have just booked, for example, Fandango vs Adam Rose for the main event of Fastlane), I’m kinda into this. It’s captured my imagination in a way that no main event plotline in WWE has for over a year now. Roman’s been bumbling around inconsequentially making worried eyebrows and trading fists with implausible cackling coward Rollins for the best part of last year, and now he’s up against someone who actually beat him down. Who has publicly, violently broken him. Suddenly, this is compelling again.
Trips reaches into his inside breast pocket and pulls out the crunchy, blood-stained wrist bandages from RAW. Wrestling is fake and silly and real bloodstains don’t dry crimson, but just for a second it’s a really chilling gesture of violence. There’s a feeling like this has gone too far. The camera gets up claustrophobically close to HHH’s face, and you can almost feel his breath on your cheek. “I will tear your dreams out from underneath you, and I will get your tears, Roman.There’s nothing you can do about it, because I am the law.”
Basically, even though this opening scene is essentially just a balding middle-aged businessman quoting the Rolling Stones in a silly growly voice, it gets me good.
Sheamus, Rusev, Barrett, and Alberto Del Rio vs Neville, Dolph Ziggler, Sin Cara, and Kalisto
The Show-off Dragons that Gravity Forgot vs the League of Nations here: this is Barrett’s first match in over a month. The Nations deserve to be so much more threatening than they seem: a team of genuine heavy-hitters with combat prowess spanning two continents. At the very least, I enjoy their friendship much more than any babyfaces’ at the moment: they seem to appreciate each other’s skills and enjoy each other’s company.
Delightfully, this match starts by everyone just going flipping bonkers and all fighting each other all at once, to the exasperation of constantly-out-his-depth ref Dan Engler. For a brief moment it’s a wonderful tableau with too much going on: hurricanranas, fists flying, glorious topes and DDTs. After about thirty seconds of this definitely not legal mayhem, everyone starts throwing finishers, like this is WWE2K and they’ve been backstage taunting to gain momentum for half an hour and have them all stored up. This is a joy because Mauro has to talk faster than you imagine is feasible for a normal human and it’s just a solid few minutes of limbs flailing and booming monotone move calls.
Neville throws a 450 on to Barrett over the head of a running upright Sheamus (who is not a compact gentleman, in case you’ve forgotten), which is the most badass damn thing I’ve seen in ages, and then effortlessly mounts the turnbuckle for a Red Arrow. Everyone just seems to be having a riot of a time during this match, and it manages to avoid wasting even a second, which is far from the norm in a SmackDown multi-man. All the men look brilliant and play to their strengths; it’s like the spotfest sprint of a great NJPW Jr tag match but with bonus sturdy bases and uppercuts. Much recommended.
Sheamus gets the Brogue on Neville for the win before I’ve really had time to properly inhale all match, and all the Nations gather together for a big cosy bro-cuddle, which I am very in favour of. Even though Barrett ate 90% of the offence in this match, his comrades lift him high on their shoulders and Rusev pats his tummy reassuringly.
D-Von Dudley vs Jimmy Uso
The wrestling portion of this match is shorter than the length of the Usos’ full dance and chant entrance. Bubba Ray shrieks hoarsely for a while about how the Dudleys aren’t a nostalgia act or comedy wrestlers. I guess that raises the question: what’s left to like, then?
Bully Ray distracts Jimmy from the apron for a roll-up victory in under a minute.
A stellar first half hour of SmackDown loses its shine somewhat at this point.
Kevin Owens vs Big Show
The most tenuous of reasons for this face-off: Owens claims to adorably top-knotted Renee that he’s beaten everyone of note in WWE, so wants to magnanimously offer Ambrose another shot at the IC. Of course, Ambrose is AWOL presumably nursing a bruised everything. Show looms in and growls “you haven’t beat me.”
It’s a strange power balance seeing Owens poised as the scrappy smaller man, trying to duck the movement patterns of Show’s paws. Most of this match involves a convoluted and painful set up for a superplex position, with both men grasping and clambering to mount the top rope; sliding back down; grasping each other fruitlessly. Eventually, Owens trips Show, causing him to land heavily crotch first on the top rope, and roll out of the ring in pain and humiliation. Owens scoops up a count-out victory.
Natalya vs Becky Lynch
Jerry Lawler’s thinly veiled hatred for women is slipping through the cracks more than ever when faced with Ranallo, who is steadfastly determined to discuss female wrestlers like they’re people. Another match that barely makes 90 seconds, before a pile-in from Naomi and Tamina attacking Natalya causes the DQ.
Banks and Lynch scare the intruders off, but then Charlotte sashays out to inform everyone of the Number One Contenders match happening between the two erstwhile Team Bae members on RAW on Monday– this will determine who faces Charlotte at WrestleMania.
R-Truth vs Heath Slater
This is a story about the uneasy or unwilling potential tag partners of Golden Truth. If WWE would just abandon the Truth/Goldust videos and plotline now, I would be more than happy to draw a line under it, turn a blind eye and pretend it never happened. As it is, it becomes more and more uncomfortable to watch.
A nothing match here, where the key point is that Truth is able to get a backslide pin on Slater due to an opportunistic slap from Goldust on the apron. Truth is ecstatic at the win, Goldust throws him an exaggerated wink.
AJ Styles, Chris Jericho and Mark Henry vs The New Day
This match against the New Day was set up earlier with one of the most unconvincing backstage segments of all time, which featured Jericho standing around in tiny trunks asking AJ Styles for Funaki’s phone number, and then Henry waltzing in to intensely declare “we can teach those clowns the serious lesson”.
The World’s Strongest Y2AJ start off with some New Day-style sensual dancing, which is somehow fine and acceptable from Mark Henry but beyond cringeworthy from Jericho and Styles, who look like drunk rowdy dads at a wedding about to get inappropriate with the bride’s sister. Someone call them a cab now, please. Styles was kept threatening and credible in his New Japan run via a three-pronged approach: microphone time at an absolute minimum; protect the menace of the Styles Clash by having it always, always mean the three-count; and don’t let the already stupid-haired and gormless-expressioned man engage in any kind of comedy. WWE have managed to break the latter two rules within a month, and now Styles is a an awkward dancing babyface without the youth or looks to be charismatic.
Despite a plethora of glowing critical attention for the FastLane match between Styles and Jericho, that particular plodding, narcissistic matchup left me cold and wholly underwhelmed. With the PPV lights on them, Jericho desperately fawned for attention rather than bother to make Styles’ offence feel credible, and I found it hard to believe the match was anything but a vehicle for an aging ego. Jericho headed to Instagram after their match to even more unlovably claim via impact-font meme image that it was the match of the year. Mate, it wasn’t even AJ’s best match this year so far. It wasn’t even his best match in WWE.
This is much more enjoyable without any of the forced, egotistical hallmarks of the PPV match– and has the refreshing thrill of a genuinely new combination of personalities and styles. The timing feels good here, even little touches like Henry’s grumpy “That’s what I…” being cut off by Kofi’s enzuigiri is such a satisfying moment.
It’s sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly what WWE wrestlers don’t do, until you see someone suddenly doing those things, and it’s like a rejuvenating spark to the three wrestling styles that we see SmackDown after SmackDown. In this case, it’s AJ’s skill for utilising the ropes– weaponising the whole ring to his advantage– rather than just finding himself coincidentally in place for key moves quite by accident, as appears to be the MO for Del Rio and Neville. In the exhilarating late match stretch of action, Styles hits his springboard moonsault DDT on Xavier and it looks like it nearly takes his head off.
A frantic back and forth with some very smart and skillful tags from the New Day unfortunately climaxes in Xavier getting bundled up into the Calf Crusher, and tapping out within nanoseconds. Usually these sort of finishes are frustrating, as conventional wisdom tells us that a tag-team’s chemistry and experience should always trump a cobbled together ragtag band of misfits. This feels competitive though, with everyone getting a moment to shine, and it’s hard to resent AJ’s win.
Shakespeare and Webster knew what the common man wanted from his drama: backstabbing and sizzling homoeroticism; ghosts and lycanthropy; political struggle and murder. Apart from the temporarily triumphant amoral monarch, all the key players in the events from RAW are missing from this SmackDown, which leaves more time to explore the parallel midcard events unfolding. As inconsequential as they feel right now, this is a step in the right direction, and infinitely favourable to just tired rehashes from RAW. There’s an electricity in the air like taking a cautious walk after a summer storm. These are strange times for WWE stories.