By Will Pruett
After the Superstar Shakeup in April, I looked at Smackdown with absolute joy in my soul. Sure, everything had gone wrong with this brand going into WrestleMania, but after the greatness of Shane McMahon vs. AJ Styles, I was ready to trust again (Shane O’Mac matches are a hell of a drug). We saw a roster come together with John Cena, AJ Styles, Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch, Shinsuke Nakamura, Sami Zayn, and Kevin Owens. Looking at this roster, we could all come up with days worth of enjoyment. Somehow, Smackdown has sucked the joy from their roster and made this cavalcade of great wrestlers less than the sum of its parts.
We’re four months removed from this roster coming together and instead of focusing on, and making a bigger star of, any of the wrestlers I listed above, Smackdown has been the Jinder Mahal show. I won’t fault WWE’s effort to do something new or unexpected, but Mahal hasn’t been a success. Jinder, even in his unhindered form, hasn’t risen to the occasion. His matches have been lackluster. His promos haven’t been more than one-note exercises in encouraging xenophobia. Jinder Mahal as the centerpiece of the show has been disappointing at best.
With a depressing centerpiece, one would usually look to the rest of the roster to make up for it. Afterall, one boring wrestler, even when paired with Nyquil in human form Randy Orton, does not make for a full boring show. What’s been going on with the wrestlers listed above while Mr. Mahal has been making diversity look like a poor heel tactic?
Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch, two women who could be the centerpieces of the Smackdown Women’s Division, have been locked into match after match with five or six women competing against each other. Since WrestleMania (and really, since before WrestleMania), Smackdown has featured an awkward combination of all of their women working together. It’s suboptimal use of any roster and wouldn’t fly if it were five exceptionally talented men. Charlotte and Becky deserve better storytelling opportunities.
One feud we’d think was can’t miss is AJ Styles vs. Kevin Owens. It’s as simple as grabbing two wrestlers off the list I made above, giving them something to fight over, and watching magic happen, right? This feud has had creative missteps at almost every turn. The best match of the feud was likely at a Madison Square Garden house show that we can’t watch. The rest have had surprise pins, random count-outs, and other less than amazing moments. The endgame might be getting me Shane McMahon vs. Kevin Owens, a match we all know I plan to love, but getting there hasn’t been fun.
What about the rest of those wrestlers? Shinsuke Nakamura has been locked into a feud with Dolph Ziggler, then with Baron Corbin. At no time did he come out of the gates hot like he did in his NXT debut. He wasn’t allowed to show what made him popular, but instead was branded a rock-star and given a new vaguely-racist font for his now somehow poorly timed entrance.
Smackdown took a roster I was excited to see and made their show skippable on a weekly basis. What for? Was the goal to get to SummerSlam to deliver big matches? Smackdown is limping into SummerSlam without featuring Zayn, Flair, or Lynch on the card. Styles and Owens are continuing a program we’re praying the angel from heaven Shane McMahon can reignite. Instead of a dream match of sorts between Cena and Nakamura, we have the incapable of a big match performance Jinder Mahal against Nakamura and Cena taking on Corbin. What’s going on?
The Smackdown roster is great, but the actual stories on Smackdown have made a great roster far less than the sum of its parts. What was a must-watch show about a year ago has become almost pointless viewing. Hopefully WWE can find a way out of the mess they’ve made of Smackdown before we have to endure anymore of its mediocrity.
Last week’s essential viewing:
What matches do you need to see from the last week of wrestles? Note: There are spoilers in this section, so read with caution.
From NJPW’s G1 Climax 27 Tournament:
Kazuchika Okada vs. Minoru Suzuki (NJPW G1 Climax 27 Night 16, August 8, 2017) – I’m not always the biggest fan of Minoru Suzuki matches and I am mostly ignorant of the mystique surrounding him. I know that I miss somethings when I approach a Suzuki match. I totally got what was happening in this match though. Suzuki and Okada had an insane battle with some of the most strikes of the tournament thus far. The 30 minute draw perfectly played into the story of Okada breaking down as the tournament bore on. This was delightful.
Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Tomohiro Ishii (NJPW G1 Climax 27 Night 17, August 11, 2017) – Conflicting styles lead to another great battle between Ishii and ZSJ. This had a lot in common with their match in the IWGP United States Championship tournament and both are totes worth watching. ZSJ getting his win back and he is propelled into contention for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship was logical and delightful. It was a great way to cap off a great G1 from ZSJ.
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Tetsuya Naito (NJPW G1 Climax 27 Night 17, August 11, 2017) – Matches between any combination of the top four in NJPW are rare. Anytime we have the opportunity to see one, it is special. This contest between Naito and Tanahashi was special. Once again, Tanahashi was more of the antagonist in this, as the crowd more vocally supported Naito. This played off of their matches from earlier this year well and the climax of the match was exceptional.
Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega (NJPW G1 Climax 27 Night 18, August 12, 2017) – Okada and Omega did it again. This match, with just a 30 minute time limit, started off at an insane pace. The aggression from both men was something different from the tentative way they approached their 60 minute time limit draw and 45 minute Tokyo Dome main event. Friends, this is the new best trilogy of matches in all of wrestling. This is the new gold standard. The way Omega and Okada worked in spots from their prior matches, told the story of the tournament breaking Okada’s body down, and delivered something so cathartic and beautiful in the end was stunning. Watch this match. Watch all of Okada vs. Omega.
Tetsuya Naito vs. Kenny Omega (NJPW G1 Climax 27 Finals, August 13, 2017) – This was delightful. These two stole the show in last year’s G1 Climax tournament and haven’t had a match together since then. It was worth the wait. The crowd was on fire as this match began. Omega and Naito delivered maximum effort and were so effective. This match, in some ways, felt like pure energy. It capped off a great tournament with a great ending. It was beautiful.
Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose’s reunion fist bump (WWE Raw, August 14, 2017) – Rarely does a fist bump have this great of a build up or elicit this grand of a fan response. Rollins and Ambrose’s story has been the highlight of Raw as we have built up to SummerSlam. What seemed really obvious in week one has slowly morphed into something far better. The buildup of tension on each side and the near-bump experiences we’ve seen have been excellent. WWE told a real story here and it’s been delightful.
Baron Corbin completely fails (WWE Smackdown, August 15, 2017) – Normally, I only list good things here, but Corbin failing to win his Money in the Bank cash in because of a roll up is too funny to miss. It’s honestly absurd and a poor use of everyone’s time/emotional investment. It’s an example of Smackdown’s counter-productive creative strategy at its worst. Hey, at least the ongoing theme of Corbin’s inability to survive a surprise roll up continues.
What I absolutely positively love in wrestling this week:
Galloway – End of the Independents – This is a fun glimpse into the world of indie wrestling from a wrestler leaving it behind. Galloway/McIntyre is honest and forthright when confronted with documentarian David Lagana’s camera. It’s interesting and insightful. Ultimately, as we see Drew return, it’s inspiring. It’s worth 20 minutes to watch. It also should be a kind of blueprint for the future of indie wrestling storytelling. Companies like FloSlam should be having docs like this made for contracted talent. We should see more of the humans behind the curtain, especially in indie wrestling.
Omega and Ibushi backstage – Be still my beating heart. Kota Ibushi and Kenny Omega have hinted around each other since they were both announced for the G1. Perhaps the greatest romance in all of wrestling has been teased in NJPW. This brief encounter was a great payoff to them almost meeting in the tournament and a great tease for what is to come. Tokyo Dome, anyone?
What I absolutely positively love in the world this week:
Game of Thrones – I know it’s a pretty basic choice, but such is life. The show is rapidly approaching its conclusion, with just eight episodes left until it concludes. The story has often felt too big and overstuffed, but as the time ticks away, Game of Thrones is becoming more and more about the characters and what truly motivates them. It’s interesting to see such a soaring story get so deeply personal. I’m about this and depressed that we’re only two episodes away from the season ending.
Got something to say/react to in today’s piece? Write to me at email@example.com or on Twitter @wilpruett. Just let me know whether you’d like your name attached to your statement or not. Alternately, there’s a comment section just below this article, so comment away!
No mail this week, and the horrid news of the week has me feeling less than excited to confront idiots, anyways. Let’s just watch this gif of a kitten cuddling a stuffed animal.
SSMGOTW (Superfluous Shane McMahon Gif of the Week):
Perhaps one of the greatest moments in SummerSlam history…
This week’s wrestling reading:
From time to time, I want to highlight some of the best wrestling reading I’ve found over the past week.
Why WWE Should Stop Deferring To Terrible People by Tim Kail
When should the WWE push Sami Zayn? by April Lavalle
We’re Done Here:
What a week, huh? In real life we’re all trying to deal with how elected officials have dealt with a violent Neo-Nazi march. In non-real life we have SummerSlam this weekend. One is far more important than the other. Get out there friends and be better than our elected officials. Condemn Neo-Nazis with every fiber of your being. Tell the KKK to f*ck off at any opportunity. If you get the chance, tear down a confederate monument as well! We, as humans, are better than that shit.
Will Pruett writes about wrestling and popular culture at prowrestling.net. Of interest to him are diversity in wrestling and wrestling as a theatrical art form. To contact, check him out on Twitter @wilpruett, leave a comment, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.