Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Smackdown: Debut Is What

Ziggler superkicked his way to a surprising win at the end of Smackdown
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Brand extension in WWE kicked off with a bang. The Draft, problems with the actual distribution of talent aside, drew more viewers than the RAW the night before, and this week's RAW was undoubtedly one of the best three hours of television WWE has produced in, like, ever. Smackdown had a tall order to fill. Would Brand Blue be up for the task in its maiden voyage under a new, split roster? Find out below!

It's All About the Talent, but Let Me Be the One to Tell You All About It - Honestly, WWE has done a good job over two shows letting the talent speak for itself, both verbally and physically. However, the fact that Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan were the ones to both intro the show by explicitly stating that it wouldn't be all about them and then closing the show by presiding over the showdown between WWE World Heavyweight Champion and new number one contender felt a bit like hollow posturing. Hopefully, their presence won't be as heavy week-to-week. One might say they were on the show a lot less than some other authority figures pre-draft, but what both brands need, Smackdown especially, is a Jack Tunneyesque authority figure. Basically, RAW and Smackdown could use a break from on-screen leaders on-screen every week and only having them show up once a month to make big announcements, kinda like how William Regal runs NXT.

Katie Vick Weeps - Of course, what would a WWE show featuring The Demon Kane™ be nowadays without the Big Red Machine being oddly protected at the expense of other wrestlers. It's one thing for him to take out the Ascension by himself in the show-opening battle royale for a spot in the main event six-pack challenge, because the Ascension may as well be Stan Stansky and Arthur Rosenberg at this point. But having him clean house at the end of the match or eliminate Kalisto feels like a waste. Then again, New Japan Pro Wrestling currently has Yuji Nagata leading his block in the G1 Climax. What's old is new again in 2016, the weirdest of all weird years in professional wrestling. Then again, Apollo Crews was set to win the battle royale, and the dude has been needing a jump start in heat since his NXT debut. I just wish WWE had a better option to put in the role of sacrificial monster than, y'know, Kane.

Anyway, the battle royale was notable for a few other things. One, it set the stage for Smackdown's announcing as several pegs below RAW. Corey Graves, Michael Cole, and Byron Saxton were for the most part excellent on Monday, give or take a few corny one-liners from Saxton. Cole and Graves complement each other. The former is a confident, narrative-driving play-by-play announcer, and Graves comes in with the snappy, Heenanesque zingers. Saxton plays a good straight man to bring it all home. But with Smackdown, both Mauro Ranallo and JBL (who called Kalisto "Sin Cara" at one point during the battle royale) are bombastic, assertive, and loud announcers who dabble in the same milieu of flashing their knowledge of trivia, both wrestling-related and not. It's too much of the same thing, basically putting a USDA Prime sirloin steak with a frozen one that someone might buy at the dollar store. Add in David Otunga, who has promise but still has yet to find his footing, and of course the announcing is going to take a step back.

The others are all quick hitter observations. Simon Gotch was the first one out because of course he was. You can't be "responsible" for Enzo Amore's injury and then lose a backstage fight, even if it is to the Latino Haku himself, Sin Cara. No wonder WWE tried pairing Camacho with him when he was cholo-era Hunico. Speaking of former Lucha Dragons, Kalisto, who is normally excellent, really should start closing the window on his hurricanrana. His form was awful on the one he gave Alberto del Rio midmatch. Zack Ryder should totally blame his slip-and-fall on the top rope elbow drop on those DAMN LUCHA ROPES.

Time to Come Home, Guys - Smackdown saw the return of Rhyno, who gored a begging-to-be-signed Heath Slater for a cheap pop, and the announcement of Shelton Benjamin's return to WWE. Many people expected WWE to bring back older wrestlers in order to supplement the dueling rosters without completely ransacking NXT, and both Benjamin and Rhyno bring back popular guys with gas in the tank to help fill out some of these Smackdown-only events on the Network (starting with Backlash on Sept. 11!). So far, Curt Hawkins, Jinder Mahal, and Cruiserweight Classic competitor Yoshihiro Tajiri have apparently signed deals to come back. MVP is another heavily rumored to have signed, and Tommy Dreamer, Stevie Richards, and Carlito are allegedly on the radar. Not all of them are sexy names, obviously, but most of them are decent hands who can help fill out feuds on the roster.

Lifestyles of the Red and the Famous - Nattie Neidhart and Becky Lynch had a neat little match that surpassed their confusing contest at Battleground, and then the parade of Smackdown women came out to show that they also wanted them a piece of the Lass Kicker (and presumably Neidhart too, but she was noticeably absent for the post-match happenings). Four of them came out, but the one who said the most was the only one who didn't have a microphone with her. Eva Marie continues to be the platonic ideal of a professional wrestler for everything except wrestling and speaking. IF you thought her entrance was dollars in NXT, well, the production crew added a Robin Leach-soundalike doing a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous voiceover as an introduction for her. I really hope that one day, Ms. All Red Everything (whose placement on the Blue Brand is brilliant trolling) puts it all together and matches her ability with her aesthetic, because when she does, she'll make Nikki Bella look like that dude Braun Strowman demolished on Monday night.

Mizturbation - Honestly, I don't care if Chris Jericho had interviewed himself earlier in the summer on his Highlight Reel talk show. While Y2J has done an admirable job being a heat magnet since his return, everything he does or could do is surpassed by The Miz, who started out interviewing himself on Miz TV. Of course, it didn't last too long, because WWE's idea of throwing out rematches from the pay-per-view also extends to interview segments. I mean, I get it. WWE really wants to put Randy Orton over as a new and fresh matchup for Brock Lesnar, but having him do mostly the same spiel he did at Battleground with a tad less enthusiasm and a smidge more kink-shaming (I mean, wouldn't you want to have Maryse peg you?) And it's not like it set up anything interesting. Miz spent a minute working over Orton's "bad" shoulder before eating a RKO OUT OF NOWHERE. Orton spent more time brooding and posturing between RKOs than he did selling his beating before the first one. The whole thing would have played better if Miz was allowed to verbally jerk himself off for the whole segment and allow Maryse to be his hype man at appropriate times.

what. - Dolph Ziggler is the number one contender to the WWE World Heavyweight Championship after he stole a pin on AJ Styles following an Attitude Adjustment. For those keeping score, the next pay-per-view is SummerSlam, not Night of Champions or Backlash or Wrestling Match: The Event™. Putting Ziggler in the title match at Royal Rumble 2015 would have made sense coming off his star turn putting away the Authority, no matter how short a time they were really on the shelf. Right now, he's colder than a polar bear's ass in December. He came out of a bad feud with Baron Corbin where he traded wins, and he's been uninspired as a performer ever since being cast aside for a returning Roman Reigns after said Survivor Series '14 triumph.

That being said, I won't totally write off Ziggler as a lackadaisical selection to challenge Ambrose. His pre-taped promo reminded people how good he can be with a camera in his face and free reign to speak. If he's not trying to have THE BEST MATCH EVAR and is working within the limits of a story, he's potentially one of the best hands WWE has. He hasn't had a good feud since being part of that Survivor Series match buildup. Giving WWE the benefit of the doubt is a dangerous game, but Ziggler might not be the utter disaster that his initial win telegraphed.

Still, in the moment, his win was an uninspiring end to a typically lazy WWE multi-man match. Six guys were in the match, but did any stretch of the match have more than three in the ring at the same time? Apollo Crews and Baron Corbin had so much iso time in the ring I thought I was watching Takeover: Respect and was expecting to hear the latter tell the former to go back to Ring of Honor. For a show that promised to be the start of a new era, it ended with the most formulaic bullshit from the prior one possible.