Roman Reigns’ opens WWE SmackDown with a petulant promo (nigh-on word for word a repeat of the one on RAW) and leaves me feeling that adapting his character into “the guy” alienates both the bright-eyed credulous Roman babyface fans who want to adore him as champion, AND those who crave a satisfying return to dark, brooding, badass Shield Reigns. So what are we left with? A champion who’s Kind of a Dick? There are enough people like that in real life.
“At WrestleMania, I took back my WWE Championship”
WrestleMania ended in almost the worst possible way: without a dramatic villainous victory, or a troubled hero standing tall: rather with a sense of crushing futility and ambiguity. Roman Reigns’ facial expressions after winning the title back after an interminable slog of a main event revealed a man wrenched between desperately wanting to enjoy his moment, and feeling hopelessly, bitterly betrayed. And on RAW, it felt like Roman’s real life vulnerability and confusion was hastily adapted into an even more haphazard onscreen character. So he’s not a good guy. He’s not a bad guy. And aren’t we all Roman Reigns, in that way? Just trying to muddle through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?
Unfortunately, pro wrestling is a poor place to tackle existentialism and the complicated troubles that arise when your movie star good looks and dishy chest-waist ratio suddenly get you thrust into a situation far out of your depth.
Styles interrupts and it’s briefly merciful until I remember what Styles’ voice is like. He’s in his ugliest leather vest jacket; a shapeless bag that drapes off his shoulders like a binbag. He looks like he’s been shipwrecked and had to assemble an outfit from skips after he washed ashore. The stare-down is excruciating because Roman talks like he’s patiently dictating spellings to a struggling dyslexic, and the pauses are punctuated by lingering close ups of Styles’ wavering weak jaw and weasely nose-twitching. “You had a heck of a WrestleMania” drawls Styles. “But I had a heck of a Monday Night RAW.”
The Vaudevillians defeat the Lucha Dragons
The success record for NXT call-ups debuting on SmackDown is, regretfully, not a glowing one.
This match is every bit as good as any that they had on NXT, with both teams busting out smooth tag-team combos, and Sin Cara even managing to miraculously continue his streak of successful topes from WrestleMania. Then suddenly, with little fanfare, English hits the Whirling Dervish on Kalisto and Gotch gets the pin. After a strong title defence at (the preshow of) WrestleMania it feels completely inexplicable to have Kalisto lose to a comedy tag-team merely two days later.
Eden’s in a silver, shimmery, drapey top tonight, and a black glittery high-waisted pencil skirt that makes it look like she has swirling galaxies around her thighs. A #BestDressed for subtle thematic marital wardrobe.
Natalya defeats Summer Rae
Charlotte strides proudly to take a seat at commentary with her new championship in tow. Semantic shifts are important, and the language we use shapes the world we live in– it’s impossible to overstate the significance of female WWE competitors being referred to as Superstars now, and finally never having to grit my teeth and write “Divas” in a review ever again. But WWE do not deserve a pat on the back for this, and sexism isn’t solved.
As if to remain a physical manifestation of the ugly spectre of misogyny that still haunts WWE even in this glorious post-feminist “Women’s Title” era, Ric Flair spends this match leering open-mouthed at Summer Rae, while Charlotte languidly leans back, quipping about Natalya.
Natalya’s “Isabelle from Animal Crossing” hairbun is adorable. This match is very smooth, and while brief, it’s immensely enjoyable. Natalya wrestles more like a SoulCalibur character than a real human sometimes, and here she scoops Rae’s spinning heel kick right out of the air and into a Sharpshooter for the win.
The Miz © defeats Zack Ryder (Intercontinental Title Match)
If there was one overwhelming feeling at the end of WrestleMania (other than tired), it was complete bewilderment. The hapless wildcard Zack Ryder winning a championship was at least a feel-good bit of absurdity amongst the strange anti-climactic finishes and onslaught of crowd favourites being beaten down by faded middle-aged men in jeans. Even then, it’s hard to hold dear the idea of consequences or feel optimistic for the future of a beloved everyman when everything is balanced on a knife edge ready to teeter back, and forth, and back….
Ryder is furious. Eyes legitimately bloodshot, forehead dented and pocked with scrapes and bruises, it’s easier than ever to believe his sincerity when he said his Mania victory was the happiest moment of his life. Maryse emerges to introduce the Miz, sporting a massive and complicated silver necklace that wouldn’t look out of place round the neck of Kazuchika Okada. The Miz, meanwhile, is still looking much like Gregor Samsa did when he woke from uneasy dreams to find himself enveloped in shiny scale plates and metallic sunglasses. My wish here is that Ryder, at his very lowest ebb, had called upon Mojo for moral support. Mojo would know what to do. At least he’d be a cheerful distraction at ringside.
This transpires to be an excellent match. The Miz’s rougher, aggressive attitude combined with Ryder’s desperation produces a fight that just keeps on impressing, in a quiet, middle-of-SmackDown kind of way. The Miz’s wrestling feels less by-the-numbers than it has for his whole career lately, and he’s doing things like following his running knee with a careless swipe of his shin against Ryder’s chest to pull him back between the ropes, into the ring.
Ryder is impressive too, dropkicking the Miz out of the ring with passionate fury then Broski Booting him against the barrier. An El-Bro drop looks like it might do it (although that move does look rather like Zack just pounces to the mat then gently strokes his elbow against the Miz’s chest as an afterthought), but the Miz kicks out.
A distraction from Maryse allows the Miz to hit the Skull Crushing Finale and retain the Intercontinental Championship.
Apollo Crews defeats Curtis Axel
Fresh faces on SmackDown means I have to bust out some new similes. Apollo Crews is like… a bank manager? A lifeguard? Your strangely athletic estranged cousin? I haven’t quite decided yet.
There is a low-key furthering of the C-show plotline that Curtis Axel’s mental state is deteriorating, as he tries to win a Rock Paper Scissors game here with “The Axe”. Also he’s not even in wrestling gear anymore, just in cargo shorts, and incongruous kneepads. What’s up with this guy?
The Outcasts frolick around a little. Crews drops a sit-out powerbomb for the win.
Dean Ambrose defeats Tyler Breeze
If you had recruited the support and patronage of various tough legends from history you admired, and then proceeded to eat thirteen suplexes in front of hundreds of thousands of people regardless, what would make you feel better? A flurry of haphazard offence and a squash victory against a fluffy-booted supermodel? Ambrose wins in under a minute with Dirty Deeds.
Cesaro and AJ Styles defeat Kevin Owens and Jericho
What an absolute gift it is to have Cesaro back! And with tearaway trousers too! That’s a masterclass in how to make someone exciting: how much would it enhance Roman Reigns’ act to have tearaway clothes?
Cesaro and Styles are a very neat tag team, and this match only gets better and better, til the drama escalates to the same exciting frantic pace of the RAW main event (which I enjoyed more than anything from Mania). There’s too many cool and original little sequences here to mention, highlighting exactly how fresh and satisfying it is to have Cesaro back, and bouncing off of someone new. Cesaro throws his cruel double foot-stomp on a briefly incapacitated Jericho, leaving a space for Styles to get his knee drop on to his face too– a combination that leaves Jericho sulking and throwing furniture around at ringside. Owens’ sarcastic impressions of Styles are also a joy to witness.
The match devolves into a sprint, with Styles throwing a Ushigoroshi on Jericho and a facebuster on Owens in rapid succession, then Cesaro hitting an uppercut on Jericho with a run-up so dramatic it throws him into the timekeeper’s area. Just as things are building to a climax, a furious Sami Zayn storms down to the ring, clutching a bandaged elbow tight to his chest, and surrounded by irate referees and various miscellaneous road agents (including the more hilariously-accented half of JJ Security) trying to drag him back. This distraction allows Styles to get the pin on Owens, but after the bell rings Owens is entirely fixated on Sami; the two brawl uncontrollably at ringside until they’re broken up by backstage personnel.
The narrative of Sami being too hurt to fight is one they employed in NXT a long time ago, back when he had a brief feud with Corey Graves pre-network era– wisely, they’re not doing the “Sami’s too concussed to function” angle this time, but have acknowledged that Sami’s at his best when he’s suffering. Desperate, chasing, yearning Sami is a thousand times more compelling than Sami standing tall– a sad fact that leaves his tastes of victory so brief; so delicious, but so short-lived. When Sami earnestly told Jojo on RAW: “I need to win to prove that I belong here,” it summed him up. Always striving.