Raw’s little brother lights up Thursday night in silver and blue, and I anxiously await a show with hopefully a tiny bit more in-ring action than was served up three days prior on Raw.
Upon his return to action at the end of 2014, Daniel Bryan was said to be having conversations with Triple H and the rest of creative on the subject of bringing up Smackdown and making it a more exciting program to watch. What I have seen in the last couple of months is proof that such efforts are being made to make the post-Hump Day, two hour time slot much more must-see than it’s lumbering predecessor.
Will the trend continue this week? Let’s find out…
Dude, Where’s My Belt?
Where’s Your Belt, Dude?
Dolph Ziggler opens the show. Awesome. This man needs more time on the mic.
He begins by glibly commenting on the Intercontinental Championship he wears around his waist, and then goes on to talk about grudges, terrible bosses, second chances, and then very genuinely gets over how important winning the IC belt was for him in 2014 and how much it means to him now. Then he sets the hook, and teases the challenge that he made on Twitter in the days after the Royal Rumble match. He implies a certain “movement leader” that deserves as much as anybody to insert himself into the multi-person ladder match at WrestleMania, and the crowd eats it up with a big spoon and begs for more.
That’s when Bad News Barrett walks out and shits in everyone’s cereal. My god, but he wears an angry scowl so well. It’s the beard that helps so much.
Bad News plugs Dolph’s career as a stand-up comedian and rightfully reminds everyone that he is the actual Intercontinental Champion. This was nice to see, because in all the comedic belt thefts and non-title losses, Barrett has been portrayed weak and a bit of a pushover. His physical grit and command of the microphone do him well in instances like this, and he comes across not as a bothersome whiner but as a formidable threat.
Then it hits the fan. Luke Harper blindsides Ziggler and he has a heated stand-off with Barrett over the dropped IC belt. Ziggler comes back in and the heels double team until Dean Ambrose rages in and evens the playing field. While everyone brawls around the ring, R-Truth slides in out of nowhere with the exaggerated pantomime of a ninja commando reminiscent of Ace Ventura’s Mission: Impossible sequence and makes off with the title.
A tag match between the four combatants in the ring is set for the main event.
Backstage, Rene Young interviews Truth, who I found frickin’ hilarious in his improv. His character is so funny in the oddest way, equal parts shrewd and clueless, wise and completely deluded. He acted surprised when Rene pointed out that the belt will be suspended from the ring at WrestleMania. “They’re still doing that? Oh, why? I gotta talk to somebody.” Genius. I hope we see more of Truth as this whole sordid affair progresses to the big event, and I sincerely hope he’s got some kind of daring stunt straight out of Get Smart up his sleeve for the ladder match.
CESARO & TYSON KIDD (with NATALYA) vs LOS MATADORES (with EL TORITO)
It’s a treat to see the tag champs in a match with anyone other than the Usos these days. I anticipate a match full of good old fashioned tag team fun and the four superstars in the ring, not to mention their assisting counterparts on the outside, do not disappoint.
The match begins with fast-paced tandem moves off the ropes and bits of flash from the matadors. Tyson gets bumped around for a bit until he tags in Cesaro, who slows the action down after hitting a tilt-a-whirl back-breaker and a big gut stomp. Then he cinches in a headlock.
A bit of chaos takes place and I lose track of who the legal man is, but the ref doesn’t seem to be conflicted so I trust in his ability to maintain order. On the tail-end of that thought, however, Cesaro puts his feet on the ropes in an under-handed attempt to gain leverage on a pin and would have succeeded had little Torito not hopped up on the apron and grabbed the ref’s attention.
Cesaro roughs the little fellow up a bit but only succeeds in riling him up. The mascot is just about to get right up the Swiss man’s business but then Natalya yanks Torito to the outside, taking him out and simultaneously distracting the referee while Cesaro and Kidd double team the active member of Los Matadores. Cesaro swings and Kidd connects with a low dropkick for a pin and the win.
This was a bit of fluff nothing match that was nonetheless tight and well executed, thanks to the level of talent involved. It served two purposes and served both effectively: first, it helped to establish Tyson Kidd and Cesaro as dominant champions, devilish opportunists with arrogance to spare and the talent to back it up; and secondly, it further got over Natalya’s turn to full-blown heel. To be in a spat with Naomi is one thing, to cause Naomi’s husband a victory is another, but to beat up on El Torito is sending a clear message that all the black leather and spiked gauntlets can’t iterate loud enough.
RYBACK vs KANE
then RYBACK vs THE BIG SHOW
Backstage, Kane and Big Show bicker like pissy hens. The burn of the night belonged to Big Show: “Are you the Devil’s Favourite Demon, or a spokesman for Men’s Warehouse?” Take that, Red.
The topic of conversation throughout both of these matches kept dancing around the 2nd Annual Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. I find it interesting that Face Show’s angle last year was to honour the memory of the wrestler he revered more than any other, Andre himself, by winning the battle royal. This year, now that he’s heel, his goal is to win the trophy just to rip Andre’s statue off the top and replace it with his own, because fuck Andre. I also find it interesting that he would rename the battle royal The Big Show Memorial Battle Royal… meaning that he would be dead.
The trophy sits at ringside so all the wrestlers can take turns gazing at it longingly. The trophy, by the way, looks like it is made of the cheapest matte plastic imaginable. I wonder if it will get destroyed again this year after someone wins it?
Ryback and Kane have a match. It’s not a great match, but it’s a match. Kane dominates the first half with chops and knees. Then Ryback struggles through one of the worst neckbreakers I’ve ever seen, hits a splash off the dreaded second rope, a spine-buster, and sets up the meat-hook clothesline. Big Show distracts but it back-fires when Kane himself gets distracted, and Ryback wins with the meat-hook.
Kane grabs the mic and announces Ryback is facing Big Show right away.
Big Show pounds away with fists and Ryback covers up like a boxer. Show dominates for a bit, but then Ryback escapes a chokeslam attempt and hits a big spine-buster which gets a nice pop. Then same shtick happens again, Ryback sets up for the meat-hook clothesline, Kane distracts, Show hits a knock-out punch and gets the pin.
Ryback is protected even though he suffers a loss here, as once again it takes not only underhanded tactics but multiple people working together to defeat him. He has been experiencing a new lease on his career since returning to action last fall, and it would be a shame if the momentum gets stalled due to careless booking now. I may state this officially later, unless I change my mind, but Ryback is my pick for the Andre Battle Royal winner.
Big Show and Kane, what can I say? Maybe they should have a Loser Retires match and go to a double count out.
Next, we go to a flashback to Bray Wyatt’s coffin burning party on Raw, followed by a fresh promo, during which he unveils an urn. He teases something big to occur this coming Monday.
The new Shaemus video package rolls, full of fiddles and drums, and I feel like river-dancing.
We see highlights from The Daily Show segments of Raw. I’m glad that they chose to focus on Jon Stewart’s astute criticisms of Seth Rollins’ rise to be a top contender, those were the bits which really contributed to the storyline of his character.
AJ LEE (with Paige) vs BRIE BELLA (with Nikki)
Before AJ makes her entrance, Nikki and Brie both grab microphones and I search for something with which to cut myself. In heel fashion, they take credit for the #GiveDivasAChance movement, and shoot on AJ for taking time off to rest and relax while they’ve been working their asses off. Back and forth they go, hitting the mean girl button over and over and I wait eagerly for AJ’s music to hit and cut them off.
The match itself is good, and you can tell that WWE is trying to give the ladies a bit more room to work. This match did not feel rushed or cut short, in fact I found the pace a bit sluggish at times.
Lee spent the majority of the match taking punishment from the wicked Bella twin. Jerry Lawler and Michael Cole made comments about Lee not looking top form, that perhaps she was suffering ring rust from being out of action, and I am inclined to agree because there were a few awkward spots in the match. I know these two wrestlers have it in them to made music together, and this outing did not do them full justice.
Still, it was well constructed. In the early stages the two traded arm drags to test each other out, then AJ hits a nice baseball slide into a leg sweep, followed by a cross body from the top rope.
Brie gets control and hits a missile dropkick from the second rope. She stays on top with hard clotheslines and a crucifix-like submission no doubt taught to her by Daniel Bryan. Brie goes through the heel motions again: rough stuff, taunting, rest-hold. One, two, three. AJ tries a number of times to rally but over and again is knocked back down by Brie, and the announcers further get over the ring rust.
The match turns tide when Brie misses a big missile dropkick and bumps hard, allowing AJ time to come back. She hits a Thesz press, clothesline in the corner and a neck-breaker (watching, Ryback?), and a dropkick of her own which lands Brie on the outside, where her sister and Paige are looking on.
AJ throws Brie back in the ring, from there performing a very laboured Black Widow submission which earns her the tap-out victory after Paige prevents Nikki from interfering.
A nice match, even if AJ did not appear to be in top form. And hey, no “Brie mode,” so I’m happy. Hopefully a sign of trends to continue, now that the world is judging WWE and their treatment of female stars more than ever.
I like the pairing of Paige and AJ, and I had a thought: they should really try to be the D-Generation X of the Divas division. To push this whole anti-Diva gimmick to an extreme degree could be very entertaining. I could picture the two of them raising hell in the locker room with practical jokes, stunts, gags.
What follows is an interview with Daniel Bryan, where they do not address the match his wife just lost at all. Instead, they talk about the Intercontinental Championship and how the ladder match could very well steal the show at WrestleMania 31.
The announcers remind us that Alundra Blayze is also being inducted in the Hall of Fame, and I put the kettle on to boil.
NEW DAY vs THE MIZ & DAMIEN MIZDOW
New Day is getting all three of their fans in the audience into the spirit of things while the rest of the people go to get beer and popcorn.
Mizdow is still getting pops, which is good to see.
We are treated to a replay from Monday Night Raw’s “Niagara” commercial bit, and the heated aftermath involving Miz slapping Mizdow. We will no doubt see something similar play out here on Smackdown.
The usual formula rolls on once again, and it’s proving to be a good one. Mizdow is prevented from posturing to the crowd while Miz and Kofi have a bit of a match. Mizdow tags himself in and goes on a bit of a flashy roll, before Miz tags himself back in and throws a tantrum. Mizdow turns his back on Miz after a bit of a staredown and Miz suffers a double team finisher from New Day to lose the match.
The story between the A-lister and his sidekick has progressed to the point where Mizdow now appears on the verge of snapping, and many are thinking the time for this whole thing to blow up is during the battle royal at WrestleMania. Then again, a lot of us thought it would blow up at the Rumble. So who knows.
What follows are highlights from Paul Heyman’s public address on Monday Night Raw, thankfully omitting the infuriating moments when his microphones were cutting out.
Afterwards there comes a Brock Lesnar video package, which sells him on being a selfish, cruel, callous beast bent on sadistic destruction and personal gain.
Roman Reigns is interviewed in the locker room by Byron Paxton. He comes off full of respect and humility, but also projects a fearless and determined attitude. Even though it does the job, it’s not enough. Roman’s style of talking severely lacks energy, especially when compared to someone like The Rock or John Cena, or even the normally demure and polite Daniel Bryan. Even Bryan shouts and yells, not because he’s mean and nasty but because he’s passionate. That’s what Roman is lacking in his promos: passion. He has conviction. He’s got that down pat. But I need to see passion and excitement.
If he can’t do it with talking, then I need to see Roman busting his ass in the gym, running obstacle courses, flipping monster truck tires, doing a thousand pushups, sparring with a heavy bag. I need training montages. Bret Hart vs Shawn Michaels, WM12 was riddled with them. The Rock vs John Cena WM28, long and detailed workout video vignettes full of veins and sweat bullets. Even Triple H had training segments filmed for his match with Daniel Bryan last year. If WWE wants us to think this is the biggest match of Roman Reigns’ life, they need to stop showing him looking calm, cool, collected, hanging out in the locker shooting the shit with Byron Paxton. We need to see him looking like he is training for the biggest match of his life.
JACK SWAGGER vs RUSEV (again)
Is the roster seriously so depleted of talent that Rusev cannot be put in a match with anyone he has not already fought so many times?
I mean, if the goal is to make Rusev look dominant and unstoppable, we can really throw in anybody in there and he’ll squash them. Why throw in somebody we know he’s already beaten (repeatedly)?
That being said, Swagger makes it a bit more interesting than a squash match. There’s even a nice sequence of moves where Rusev plants his feet up to counter a Swagger-bomb, but Jack lands on his own feet and grabs up Rusev’s leg for a Patriot lock. Not bad, however he have seen it before.
Accolade, tap out, Rusev wins of course.
Curtis Axel provides the highlight after the match is over, appearing on the Titantron. He delivers a full on, old school Hulk Hogan promo, complete with “brothers” and a shirt tear. Absolutely stellar. Axel challenges Rusev to a title match on Monday night, and I can only figure that John Cena will involve himself in some capacity with the goal of infuriating Rusev to the point he grants a rematch at WrestleMania.
Main Event Tag Match:
DEAN AMBROSE & DOLPH ZIGGLER vs LUKE HARPER & BAD NEWS BARRETT
R-Truth sits in on commentary (awesome!) with the IC belt in his possession.
Luke Harper starts it off with Ziggler, strangling him in a front face lock. Dolph hits a dropkick but gets powered out of a DDT attempt. Harper gives Bad News a glare that chills the bone before tagging him in.
Ambrose and Barrett go at it next with reckless abandon. Dean hits some chops, a running bulldog and a top rope clothesline/elbow drop. A misstep causes some friction between the face team, but they laugh it off.
After the commercial break, Barrett is in control of Ambrose. He squashes a rally out of a headlock then tags in Harper who locks in his own rest-holds. Dean rallies again but again is squashed and then double-teamed in the corner.
Dean finally creates space with a tornado DDT, and the crowd wakes up. Hot tag to Ziggler who hits a corner splash, neckbreaker and elbow drop for a near fall. After a big DDT and another near fall, there’s a bit of a shmoz. In the confusion, Harper winds up for a discus clothesline, but Ziggler hits a superkick instead and follows up with a ZigZag and gets the pin.
Dolph is only able to celebrate briefly before Barrett knocks him out with a bull-hammer. He does the same to Ambrose, and then approaches R-Truth. Truth plays up his comedic cowardice, seeming only too happy to hand the belt over, but then Ambrose comes back and hits Barrett with a suicide dive. Truth saunters off with the belt, but bumps into Harper. Again, Truth seems to give up the belt, but cheapshots Harper and scampers off again.
Before reaching the top of the entrance ramp, Daniel Bryan stops Truth’s progress. After a brief smile-fest, Truth happily hands over the belt to Bryan and dances off with his “Yes” fingers in the air. Daniel Bryan celebrates with the crowd, until (gasp!) Stardust attacks from out of nowhere. The painted heel hisses and takes possession of the championship belt in Golem-like fashion as the show fades to black.
I liked this match’s outcome for a few reasons. One, someone other than Barrett got pinned in the match. In fact, he actually looked very strong in his attacks after the bell, despite once again coming up short. Two, it finally officially puts Daniel Bryan in the ladder match. Three, Stardust!
The addition of the artist formerly known as Cody Rhodes into the Intercontinental Ladder Match is welcome in it’s unexpected nature. After Fastlane, I and no doubt many other observers believed that what would naturally follow for Stardust would be a continuation of the blood feud with Goldust. This last minute swerve shows Stardust as not only a man with a personal grudge but as an ambitious opportunist, who has aspirations far exceeding family grudges. The amount of star power present in this ladder match is getting bigger by the week.
Smackdown continues to outdo Raw in almost every way.
The show opened with Ziggler and Barrett who kept the talking segment fresh and didn’t allow it to drag on. The quality of the action in each match was on the whole better quality, more polished and crisp than the matches in NXT. That being said, some matches fell flat because we’d seen them already played to death (Kane vs Ryback, Rusev vs Swagger), while others held the promise of being more entertaining but ended too short (Los Matadores vs Kidd & Cesaro).
Still with too many recaps and replays from Raw for my liking, Smackdown continues to set the trend as far as main roster programming goes.