As appears to be the case more often than not, it’s been a weird week for pro wrestling. The livestream of the Hulk Hogan trial has ended up being a far more fascinating affair than I think many people predicted– while on the surface a banal tale about an old man’s sex tape and cantankerous racial tirade, it’s evolved into an epic involving the once-revered pop culture icon confessing his very real vulnerabilities, and the courtroom musing on wrestling terms like “a work” and “kayfabe”. This unusually intense critical eye on wrestling’s stranger elements has unspun over days of increasingly surreal testimony. While it might be funny to hear Hulk Hogan discussing the concept of kayfabe penis size as his voice wavers uncertainly, the opaque theme of how much of a character is a person– and vice versa– is one that’s been on my mind lately. How real is wrestling? As real as it’s convenient to be, often, but sometimes the lines are blurred quite unexpectedly.

“Kev, you’re not the victim…at least not yet.”

Here is a marvelous example: the best and most engaging feuds are based closely on reality, or things which could be true… and now one of the most compelling long-term rivalries in recent wrestling history is spilling its guts right here on SmackDown. Sami Zayn gets a chance to explain his actions from RAW, heavily hurried by the Miz, and manages somehow to condense 13 years worth of friendship and conflict into about 60 seconds.

The best thing about Zayn and Owens is that they’ve managed to avoid getting simplified to black and white, even thus far on the main roster, which is infinitely prone to Flanderisation. Instead, Sami is complex, insisting on how much he respects his former best friend, but there’s a genuine simmering resentment too: Kevin ostensibly contributed to him being out for 7 months just as he was gaining momentum, he took his championship, and what’s more, he succeeded in WWE while Zayn was out. When Kevin says “You came to NXT two years before I did, I still debuted on RAW a year earlier than you,” it’s true, and you can see on Zayn’s worried brow that it hurts. Zayn’s realising that Owens’ cutthroat pragmatist approach works. Owens isn’t a through-and-through villain either– rather an opportunist who wanted better chances for his family; a fighter who’s become comfortable with a higher standard of living.

Miz TV has become a frustrating framework to hang these nuanced conversations on: the Miz is just a spare part roped into whatever umbrage that is relevant that week– a heel for hire. I feel like this segment could easily have been improved without his smug jeering face present just off frame. The memorable Shield Summit that occurred on SmackDown, to get their grievances out in the open after Rollins had disrupted a match between the once-unbreakable brothers, wouldn’t’ve had the same level of sizzling drama if it had been superfluously hosted by the Miz.

Zayn and Owens are angry at each other, certainly, and Owens is full of righteous outrage at the interruption to his powerbomb on Monday, but there’s multiple levels here too. A wistful sadness, and regret, at a friendship lost. And a newfound sense of urgency, as it becomes clear that the Intercontinental title is the next crux of their animosity. “I’m going to take the Intercontinental Championship from you, Kev…at Wrestlemania!” Zayn breathlessly spits, a phrase which leaves my heart beating a little faster just for a moment.

Then the Miz interjects, with another home truth that hits like a steel chair to the small of the back. “I’m a five-time Intercontinental Champion, and I was main-eventing WrestleMania while you were main-eventing bingo halls”. And he’s right.

Neville interrupts.

Neville and Sami Zayn defeat Kevin Owens and The Miz

I know why the Miz is here. I’m not stupid. They want to set up a scramble at Mania with all the mid-card ne’er do wells. But wouldn’t a match with history and real emotion to draw on be infinitely preferable? The video package writes itself. These men have been embroiled since KO’s NXT debut in December 2014, and all three had parts to play in Sami Zayn’s cathartic, rollercoaster ride match of his NXT Championship win. The invisible market forces guiding WrestleMania booking remain mysterious, though, and here we are with this, instead.

It’s very unusual that a SmackDown opener– or any SmackDown match, really– involves such a level of psychology and tension. There are thousands of stories happening under the surface here, which makes this fun tag opener even more enjoyable. Owens does a magnificent job of selling Zayn as a credible, threatening opponent he doesn’t want to mess with, which is essential when someone has had such an eternal scrappy underdog story as Zayn.

While Owens, Zayn, and Neville’s bare-faced honesty and “realness” seem jarring when placed beside cartoon-character Miz, he doesn’t detract from this match as much as he could do; instead mostly just serving as a target for Neville and Zayn’s new rather outlandish tag-team offence. At one point, Zayn gets down on all fours, allowing Neville to mount him and execute a corkscrew moonsault off his back on to the Miz. It’s a little bit silly, but I’m willing to suspend disbelief for this combination of wrestlers: particularly when Mauro is describing the move as if it were a devastating act of genius.

Zayn gets a great opportunity to impress: a showcase of his more dazzling rope-walking and flips, without spoiling any of his big-match spots. Late in the match, he drops a flurry of offence on the Miz, and beckons cockily to Owens on the apron. Owens’ expression is hard to read through a thicket of beard: a mixture of tiredness and worry and frustration, perhaps. He hops off the apron, grabs his title and plods off toward the tron, not looking back. The distraction allows Zayn to hit the Helluva Kick on the Miz for the win.

Brie Bella defeats Summer Rae

An exact rematch from RAW always makes me sigh. This match repeats the offensive screeching and shrieking but omits the fun of the face-planting crossbody.

Wardrobe Transplant Lana is on commentary, and delightfully decides to perch on the table itself, legs folded daintily, rather than in a chair next to either of the undesirable options of Lawler or Saxton. Her leather-skirted derriere almost entirely blocks Ranallo’s view of the match, which he tries to deal with in as professional a manner as possible. A side note: Mauro picks up this week’s #bestdressed for having new glasses. Don’t think I didn’t notice, you cad, you. Looking sharp.

This match feels particularly hollow because it’s clear that Brie is treading water, having already implied that she’s not sticking around. She’s just here to diffuse the ghostly residue of Daniel Bryan across WWE programming in the form of her Yes Kicks; Yes Lock; Yes chants…..

Brie gets the win with the Yes Lock, which prompts Lana to toss aside her heels and clamber in the ring to drop a Bella Buster on the victorious twin. What the beef is here still isn’t entirely clear, but I’m sure that all the women involved will transpire to have valid and complex motivations for the enmity.

“I’ve never been hurt in seventeen years, yet you still chant for AJ Styles”

Tired, aging Chris Jericho emerges; his scarf worn loosely, bare-chested, like a noose at the gallows of his career. He has one of the unfeasibly ugly “Y2AJ” shirts slung over his shoulder on a coat hanger.

Chris is bitter at Styles’ success, incredulous that the WWE universe would prefer this upstart. He expresses his resentment: “You ruined me, Styles, and now I’m going to burn you; in effigy.” The arena darkens. Dramatically, he sets the shirt aflame. If I can just shed my professional veneer for a brief moment and reveal my true identity as being 12 years old– this is kinda badass.

This scene strikes me as a great meta-analysis of the nature of commercialism and capitalism, but more importantly, a massive kick in the teeth of anyone who thought this monstrosity of a T-shirt was cool enough to actually buy one, in the brief period they were a thing. WWE does this weird tactic sometimes where it seems to directly attack its most loyal, merchandise/ticket-buying audience. “You’re fools!” the plotline appears to say. “Fools, for loving something, and wanting to support it! Now we will laugh at you! Hahaha!”

The one thing I do like about this feud is that at the very least it has progressed, albeit in a back-and-forth flip-floppy sort of way. Jericho’s insecurity about being a stale has-been initially manifested as wanting to fight Styles, but then upon seeing their in-ring chemistry he grew the desire to amalgamate him; to leech off his success and popularity. As soon as he realised this wasn’t a guarantee for victories, he became frustrated, as his loyalty was already tenuous at best. Even if he hasn’t been a particularly lovable character since the Rumble, at least he’s been a consistent one. Jericho has evident thoughts and feelings, which is more than you can say for Styles– nearly two months on from his debut and his main personality traits are “has a fringe” and “wrestles quite well.”

King Barrett and Sheamus defeat Sin Cara and Kalisto

A good a time as any to express my deep, unconditional adoration for the League of Nations referring to each other as “the lads”. I love that they have a cool name for their wrestling stable, but also a fun name for their friendship group. It’s easy to speculate that it was Barrett who pitched the name from the home shores of Blighty, and Rusev just enthusiastically ran with it because he’s enthusiastic about everything, and now they’re the lads, and that’s that.

This match is somewhat marred by Jerry Lawler’s repeated fetishistic yelping “BIG BEATS LITTLE! LOOK AT THAT SIZE DIFFERENTIAL!” like it still hasn’t quite sunk in for him, after all these years, the fact that men naturally have different heights. Regardless, this is a solid encounter with the deeply satisfying juxtaposition of the Nations’ brutally strong power moves, and the Dragons’ evasive slipperiness and occasional feat of lucha flippiness.

Like every Dragons match, not every sequence is performed with utter seamless grace, but the match is fast-paced enough to compensate, and the key moments deliver: even Sin Cara’s tope hits its target upon Barrett’s shoulders, and leaves Cara neatly on his feet, stunningly. Barrett gets the Bull Hammer on Sin Cara, and he celebrates by doing an adorable forward roll while flanked by his comrades.

Dean Ambrose, the Usos, and Dolph Ziggler defeat the Wyatt Family

The Use-brose Show-offs. I hate myself.

After two very good multi-man matches previously, this lacks the emotional drama of the opener or the pure fast-paced mayhem of the Nations/Dragons encounter, but is still a very enjoyable match, with eight minutes used to their full advantage. SmackDown main events are often guilty of wasting unnecessary early-match time on an unconvincing feeling out process, or else having a finish that bears no relation to the rest of the match (I’m looking at you, last week’s Owens vs Ambrose). Here, we get a refreshing flurry of energy that continues the momentum of a very strong show, wrestling-wise.

Ranallo is bristling with breathless hysteria during this match, calling it in an intensifying octave which I’ve only heard him employ for exceptional NJPW matches before now. The frenzy is infectious, and when a splash misses its target, I’m equal parts feverish and concerned for Mauro’s health and lungs as he gasps “Harper with his knees up! The knees up!”

The match builds to an Ambrose hot tag, which while the obvious choice in this particular match, doesn’t quite have the excitement of when Dean flings his body around helplessly in anticipation of a Reigns hot tag (one of the things Reigns really, really excels at). Regardless, when Ambrose finally gets in, Ranallo impossibly increases his agitation, for a final sequence of marvelous drama between Rowan’s flailing feet and Dean’s skilful dodging. A Dirty Deeds ends the match, and Ambrose stands tall.

Final Thoughts:

Any show that opens with a confrontation between Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens is worth watching. A much recommended episode of SmackDown, with a genuine feeling of escalating importance as we hurtle toward WrestleMania.