“You’ve seen the footage: that’s what happens when you run your mouth.”

Roman opens the show with a brief but impassioned promo declaring his intent to hound Trips until WrestleMania 32. While uncharacteristically punchy for a Reigns speech, with a minimum of lingering eyebrow raises at the camera and misguided potato-product references, Roman still seems to struggle committing to being a 100% asskicker character when presented with a microphone. “I’m gonna be back there eating catering on your dime!” he spits unthreateningly. Is that the best you can do, Rome? On Monday, you left your boss bleeding so profusely he needed his head stapled together, because of the strength of your resentment and sense of injustice. On the scale of things, having an expenses-paid lunch (while admirably frugal) isn’t quite on that level of revenge.

Triple H isn’t here, and Roman doesn’t have a match, so the extent of his role on the blue brand this week is presumably just to stalk the corridors munching a free sandwich.

“You can cheer for whoever you want in the WWE…right?”

Saccharine babyface AJ Styles continues to irk me, and here he tries to explain to Renee (sporting a unseasonally dark-toned floral frock, #bestdressed) that Jericho is just a big jealous meanie who’s sad because Styles gets more chants. I can’t help but feel there is something a little on the nose about Styles touting WWE as a paragon of democracy where everyone is allowed to cheer their favourites, while here on the infamously heavily-edited Thursday night show — but everyone manages to keep a straight face.

Owens interrupts: another lost soul of SmackDown who just lurks around backstage with his belt over his shoulder and tries to disrupt Renee’s life — which used to be Ambrose’s job. He growls at AJ: “You and Sami should get a show on the WWE Network where you just hold each other and cry!” and I briefly imagine that it couldn’t possibly be worse than the Edge and Christian Show.

While a flippant comparison on the part of Owens, the difference, of course, is that Sami Zayn is just as charismatic as Kevin, and matches his sincerity step-for-step. AJ Styles outside of the ring is an empty vessel of a human, all frivolous hair and hand gestures. Being a babyface isn’t about just being nice. It’s about being convincing.

Dolph Ziggler defeats the Miz

This is a strangely paced match for the beginning of SmackDown, especially when placed in contrast to the week before last’s 60 second sprint. The show’s in their home state of Ohio, though, so these two get a relatively lengthy exhibition with a lot of nearfalls.

The match starts methodically and doesn’t really particularly pick up the dynamism later. While Mauro is correct in identifying that the Miz has had a “new, aggressive attitude,” it’s not immediately evident here, where he seems back to his old ways of lacklustre neckbreakers and awkward Figure Fours. Regardless, this match is fine, and even a cantankerous old bag like me is finding it hard to dislike much about the exchange.

Dolph hits a superkick while the Miz is distracted (it could have been anything: a butterfly; a particularly interesting leaflet; a passing feeling of wistful regret) for the win.

“Every time I got a brick thrown at my head for being on the wrong block, I learned a valuable lesson”

Throughout the night we’re shown vignettes from one of Dean Ambrose’s jollies: if you’ll recall, he went on a similar bender in New Orleans with the WWE WHC after the ambiguous ending to his ladder match with Seth Rollins last year. This time he’s spending more time pensively looking over the horizon and less time posing with pink flamingos, but the jist is the same. Ambrose has always looked more at home on the street than in the ring, anyway.

I love Dean, and when he mutters about all the hard life experiences that growing up in Cincinnati thrust upon him, and then ends, drawling, on the wham line: “In my experience, nothing hurts like an education,” I want to be on his side. I want to believe in him. But he’s been nothing but hopelessly myopic and behaving like a petulant child for months now, spitting impotently “I’d rather be delusional than whatever you are” at dad figure Triple H, and now making empty threats against Brock Lesnar, the empirical, unbeatable, terrifying real-life monster of WWE.

This is an ironic video, because Dean never, ever learns from his mistakes.

Bubba Ray Dudley defeats Goldust

One thing SmackDown does increasingly well is a solid midcard tag match—sometimes even two—and the omission of any tag action is stark on this episode of inconsequential singles matches. By this point in the show we’ve usually had eight minutes of charming tumbling from the Lucha Dragons, or a dramatic Kofi Kingston springboard accompanied by motivational trombone.

Ranallo enthusiastically describes this as a first-time ever match-up, which would be an exciting statistic but isn’t at all true: the two faced off in a WWF Hardcore Title match on RAW in 2002. That epic ran just short of four minutes: the pair don’t get such a generous showcase here.

Ray devotes more energy to trash talk than wrestling—which is limited: boring punches and stomps and laborious throwing of Goldust into turnbuckles. Instead, he grumbles “Ya painted up freak! Gonna get ya like the Usos! What’s all that on ya face?” If the Dudleyz’ umbrage is with facepaint, perhaps their next target ought to be Frank the Clown?

Goldust gets a brief rebuttal of offence with a bulldog, but Bubba escapes to ringside, leading Goldust into D-Von’s waiting hijack. Bubba Ray gets the pin. Street clothes R-Truth (baby blue button-down, close contender for the #bestdressed) attempts to make the save for a post-match beatdown.

“Are we really going to litter our road to WrestleMania with bickering and nonsense?”

The women’s “face to face to face” pre-Mania verbal confrontation.

Deep into the gooey centre of Ambrose/Trips at Roadblock, the men were tangled in a Figure Four, and Ambrose threw his body up desperately to flail fruitless slaps on the face of the COO. I always like spots like this. Frenzied, futile gestures; last ditch attempts to gain an advantage by any method possible. Conjuring the fighting spirit to humiliate your opponent against all odds.

There was a similar spot in Charlotte/ Natalya, but it left me cold.

I spent some time trying to unpick why this was. Is it internalised misogyny that just means that I can’t enjoy WWE women’s matches? What’s going on here? I would have loved the spot in another match; in a joshi match; somewhere else.  Finally, it clicked: we’ve been given a precedent for the way that female wrestlers behave in WWE- a certain archetype of wrestling, a set of tropes: catty, jealous, bitchy, malicious. So when women slap each other, it doesn’t seem like an important tone shift in the match — it just feels like “here we go again.” Even though women’s wrestling is demonstrably different in WWE than it was ten years ago—even two years ago—and now women are using powerbombs and hitting hard elbows, but shaking off the damaging residue of years of regressive portrayals of women’s “catfight” style wrestling isn’t going to happen overnight. So when I see Charlotte and Nattie slapping each other, I cringe. And that isn’t their fault. That isn’t fair.  

Equally, the years of unhelpful portrayals of disagreements between women hang like a spectre in the air over this debate segment, leaving me hypervigilant; tense.  

Ric Flair is here, face fixed in a predatory grin, which doesn’t help anything. Truth is, though, this segment is inoffensive; fairly boring. It invokes callbacks to NXT, Charlotte transparently setting up badly paced swerves (“I’m sorry…. FOR EVER THINKING YOU WERE WORTHY!”), and Becky being hesitantly—but diligently—sincere, with just a tiny bit too much gesticulation. I sigh when Sasha busts out a “you’re wrong, sweetheart,” because diminutive feminine nicknames for your enemies is the lowest form of wit.

Becky pours her heart out—rightly highlighting that Charlotte’s only champ because her dad cheats for her; that Sasha is all ego and bling and no substance. This leads to a tussle, in which Becky throws Charlotte in an ambitious suplex, and Sasha and Lynch are left in the ring while the champ staggers up the ramp, tail between her legs.

Kofi Kingston defeats King Barrett

My enjoyment of the New Day’s promos has decreased in direct correlation to the number of ass references in their promos. Perhaps I’m being preemptively cynical but I feel like another stable has fallen victim to WWE’s wringer of stretching all the marketable traits out of a character and spreading them very, very thin. Here they throw bags of rubbish out of the ring with triumphant exaltations of “booty” after christening them with the names of the League of Nations members, and I’m grateful when the international brawlers interrupt and put us all out of our misery.

This match is predictably much more interesting for the antics of the respective friends at ringside than the actual in-ring action. A singles match to build excitement for a tag match on a bigger stage is a strange dynamic, because invariably everything descends into chaos anyway, with legs pulled off aprons and men tossed into barricades.

Kofi gets a roll-up victory. A nothing match.

“I heard a rumour… the rumour is Brock Lesnar is gonna be on SmackDown next week!”

All of Ambrose’s previous reflective persona and mild gravitas that he had cultivated from rambling expository vignettes throughout the show instantly dissolves when he bombards into the arena to interrupt the Social Outcasts discussing which of them are going to win the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal.  A whole Thursday’s worth of contemplation has left Dean pugnacious and inexplicably armed with a kendo stick. He runs in and starts laying a brutal, unprovoked beatdown on Axel, Dallas, Rose, and Slater.

It appears that the key character traits we’re learning about Ambrose in the days running up to WrestleMania are that he’s not just stupid and short-sighted, but also a violent, unhinged maniac, who we’re supposed to cheer for.

The ensuing promo is good in style if not in substance. Ambrose has an infinitely compelling cadence and way of structuring his words that is impossible to find boring, even if he’s talking utter nonsense. Even the way he carries himself is mesmerising: he always hunches, disguising his formidable height, and wraps his large hands round the microphone cupping it inward to himself. He challenges Brock to face him in-ring next Thursday. And then he sticks his tongue out a lot, and makes faces, because he’s crazy.

Kevin Owens defeats  AJ Styles

Ostensibly the reason for this fight is that Styles’ sappy “friends-forever” attitude pisses Owens off: and worse, reminds him of Sami Zayn. Despite Reigns insisting in the opening promo that “Triple H isn’t here, but he’ll be watching,” no one seems to demand any particularly rigorous paperwork to set up a SmackDown main event. Personally, I think the fact that AJ Styles wears a hood indoors is enough of a reason to want to powerbomb him.

This is unsurprisingly a joy of a match. There’s a lot to love, including Styles lifting his knees in such an aggressively erect position that it’s genuinely surprising they don’t tear through Owens’ spine as he lands a senton. An early match Ushigoroshi on to Owens impresses because of the sheer relative body mass of the man, but what’s more delicious is Lawler bumblingly asking “what’s that?” and Ranallo explaining eagerly that Styles learnt the move from Hirooki Goto in Japan.

“Who named it an OOSHI GO WHATEVER?” says Lawler, quite racistly. “DO THE OKEY DOKEY ARTICHOKEY.”

This match is a sprint of fun spots and heart-stoppingly cool moments, chained together in what feels like no particular order. At one point Owens cradles up Styles tight in Package Piledriver position but it’s a tease, as he just tosses the man aside instead of following through. Both men are having magnificent fun, trading crowd-pleasing spots; a well-deserved “this is awesome” chant breaks out after a particularly impressive lariat from Owens.

However, commentary are talking about Jericho too much, and the match doesn’t seem to be building to a climax, and all the tell-tale signs are there of the ghost of SmackDowns past. The bad days. Pre-Mauro. Pre-USA Network. Jericho’s pyro hits, and he prances out, in waistcoat and scarf, which is enough of a distraction for Sad Puppy Styles that Owens can hit a boot and a Pop Up Powerbomb for the win.


Final Thoughts

A really watchable SmackDown with a stellar main event. While the lack of SmackDown’s secret strength– fast-paced tag matches– leaves the start of the show spread too thin, there’s still enough of interest to whole-heartedly recommend this week’s offering. My only wish is some sort of private SmackDown feed that has Lawler’s mic muted.