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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Before it can show No Mercy, SmackDown! Live plays it safe

Kenny (left), Mikey
Kenny (left), Mikey
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The other week, I pointed out how SmackDown! Live technically created a better go-home show for No Mercy than RAW did for Clash Of Champions without even needing to. So of course the actual SmackDown! Live go-home show for No Mercy isn’t at that same quality level. But even this average go-home show still gets the job done.

Like the matches this week, this SmackDown! Live is really anything special, but everything clearly serves a purpose, and it sells No Mercy the way it should—by telling simple stories that make the audience want to see the matches and without burning the audience out from the overexposure of characters and feuds. No more, no less. As much as the past couple of years of WWE has conditioned and kind of spoiled the audience to expect at least one great match a show, that’s not as sustainable on SmackDown! Live, as it does what it can to prevent overexposure. So while this week’s show has nothing on the same level as Sasha Banks versus Charlotte’s most recent title match, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As long as the product makes sense from beat-to-beat (and can remain compelling), there’s a leniency: SmackDown! Live has realized this, while RAW appears to willfully ignore it.


There are still missteps on the show, but at the same time, they’re not exactly missteps in terms of No Mercy; they’re more in line with the bigger picture, which is something WWE constantly struggles with. The biggest example of this is, of course, Bray Wyatt.

Illustration for article titled Before it can show No Mercy, SmackDown! Live plays it safe

The Bray Wyatt/Randy Orton feud is so far outside the realm of what anyone could have imagined for it, and honestly, I’d argue they’re actually doing something pretty interesting. It’s absolutely insane, and Talking Smack doesn’t know how to commit to it, but the live audiences are biting on what are ultimately a bunch of backstage vignettes about a weird game of hide and seek. I’d also argue that these segments are a much more successful attempt from WWE capturing—in WWE’s still over-produced way—anything resembling the spirit of “The Final Deletion”/all things Broken Matt Hardy than that ill-conceived “Compound Fracture.” It all really amounts to “mind games” being brought up over and over again, but since the last time WWE brought up “mind games” was the conclusion to the poorly-executed Naomi/Usos/Miz storyline, this is definitely an upgrade.

However, the biggest problem with this storyline ends up being apparent in this week’s SmackDown! Live: The version of Bray Wyatt in this storyline is basically a fraud. I’ve written plenty about why Bray Wyatt isn’t as Teflon as WWE believes he is when it comes to his constant losses, and him losing to Kane again—even by count-out—is obviously another example for that long list as to why. But that’s not even why Wyatt is a fraud here. Here, Orton keeps proving that he’s in the same league as Wyatt when it comes to “mind games,” but that doesn’t excuse or explain Wyatt doing things like taking a count-out loss against Kane, clearly out of fear—only to scream on his way up the ramp, “You’ll get yours, Kane! They all will!” I’ll go out on a limb and assume Kane won’t get his. But the fear part is the most troubling part, as fear isn’t something Bray Wyatt shows: He’s supposed to be fear. He’s also a character who lives or dies based on the commitment to his gimmick, which is possible the one thing that has kept him afloat this long. Randy Orton getting to him makes sense. Randy Orton fascinating him makes sense. Randy Orton causing him to be too afraid to face Kane? Makes no sense. Bray Wyatt is the rare cerebral, monster heel, and that’s part of what makes him so dangerous. But the danger is gone.


Then there’s the major misstep in the form of a lack of a compelling character altogether. In Jack Swagger’s embarrassing introductory promo to SmackDown! Live, he made of point of saying that he was going to be a new Jack Swagger and that “you don’t know Jack”… only to immediately top it all off with “We The People!” and the same entrance theme he’s had for years. Fast-forward to this week for his in-ring debut on the show, and he has the same gear, the same theme, the same move set, and the same awkwardness on the mic as he’s always had. His match against Baron Corbin is literally a Main Event match that now has the benefit of being live on the main show. Plus, the San Diego crowd chants “USA” in support of Swagger during this match, despite the fact that:

  1. Both competitors in the match are American.
  2. “Let’s Go Swagger” would show a real support of the character and not just the very concept of a pro-USA gimmick with a catchy catchphrase.

The finish of the match does Swagger absolutely no favors either, as the referee calls it in favor of Jack Swagger, even though Baron Corbin is clearly crawling to the ropes and not tapping. I feel confident in saying this after living through the Corbin/Ziggler feud: This feud is off to a very stupid start. I also feel confident in saying that the combination of Corbin’s pre-match interview (he’s the “the baddest man on SmackDown! Live”) and his work in the match itself make me excited for just how good he’ll possibly be by this time next year.

At least there’s an “end game” for these Curt Hawkins segments.

The rest of this week’s SmackDown! Live does its job in selling the No Mercy pay-per-view. Nikki Bella and Alexa Bliss’ one-on-one match devolving into chaos and becoming a tag team match is one of the most WWE moves possible, but it’s also the same type of WWE move that’s usually reserved for the male Superstars. I’ve said before that one of the best ways to make these women’s storylines work is to just treat them like the men’s, and a simple pay-per-view competitor tag match based on impromptu violence is one of those things. The key is just to not do the same match over and over again, and since Alexa versus Nikki could be something special in the future, it’s actually for the best that it’s cut short.


In the Tag Team Division, the Hype Bros/Vaudevillains match (with the Ascension on the outside) is good for what it is in terms of attempting to build and rehabilitate those lower tag teams. And Jason Jordan versus Jey Uso—while short—continues the excellent storytelling between The Usos and American Alpha, with Rhyno and Heath Slater remaining the valiant babyfaces who can’t seem to realize they’re just collateral damage, even though they’re the champs.

In terms of this current Miz renaissance, this week’s MizTV “Dolphumentary” is a relatively safe version of the other promos he’s cut on Dolph and Bryan since the Talking Smack “pipe bomb.” But it’s also significantly better than the last “This Is Your Life” segment WWE did. It’s actually kind of worth it for the surreal return of two-fifths of the Spirit Squad, complete with a pay-off for them being shipped back to OVW by DX. If this really is Dolph’s last hurrah on SmackDown!, then going out the way he came in… is appropriate in the context of Dolph’s entire WWE journey, actually.

It also really puts things into perspective, as the two members of the Spirit Squad to return—Kenny and Mikey—are a sobering reminder of how nothing’s a sure thing in the wrestling industry. As the leader of the Spirit Squad, Kenny (who is only 30 years old now) was seen as the future of the company… until he wasn’t. Just a few years ago, Mikey was constantly being pushed during the Jim Cornette era of Ring Of Honor; and he also looked like this. In comparison, Dolph Ziggler has certainly come a long way from being Nicky and Kerwin White’s personal golf caddy. As good as Miz is, he also remains in full “I really want Dolph to beat him up” heel mode going into No Mercy, and it’s great to see that this feud hasn’t run out of a steam before it gets to the big show.


Ziggler’s post-show interview on Talking Smack, where he talks about his time as a “bad guy” and his “character,” does a lot to undo the work of this story though. So hopefully that’s merely the result of this actually being the end of the line for him.

The show ends with the segment that’s really supposed to get you to buy No Mercy or watch on the Network: the “face-off” between AJ Styles, Dean Ambrose, and John Cena. It’s the type of WWE segment that doesn’t exactly make sense within the story as a scheduled segment (as they’ve had no problems just interrupting each others’ promos before), but these three men just nail every single beat and make you forget about that.


The best and most fascinating part of the segment—which truly boils down to these three men being the best at what they they do, entertainment-wise—is John Cena’s silence for the majority of it, especially in a go-home show setting. John Cena, the man who became synonymous with the go-home summary promo. John Cena, the man who can talk circles around everyone. John Cena, the man who can completely tank interest in a competitor just by cutting a promo that’s essentially a verbal wanking motion. Here, he just stands there and takes it as Styles and Ambrose lay into him. And lay into him they do, especially Ambrose, as he ends his rant with the gut-punch of “Have fun being the guy who plays John Cena on TV.” Cena’s subsequent “Talk is cheap!” line before tackling Dean is the type of “provoked” babyface violence that actually works: First, Styles spends the entire promo questioning Cena’s genuine desire for the title, saying that Cena only wants the notoriety of being in the same conversation as Styles’ Fortune mentor, Ric Flair. But then Ambrose just completely obliterates Cena’s entire “Hustle Loyalty Respect” brand and motto, which is truly a personal attack. This is how you do it. This is how you sell a show.

This week’s SmackDown! Live is far from the best show in recent memory, but in terms of go-home shows, it’s a safe choice heading into this Sunday’s No Mercy. The blue brand doesn’t fumble on its way to the endzone, and as we’ve seen from RAW, that’s sometimes all you can ask of WWE.


Stray observations

  • RESULTS: Kane defeated Bray Wyatt (via count-out); Alexa Bliss versus Nikki Bella went to No Contest, then Alexa Bliss & Carmella defeated Nikki Bella & Becky Lynch; The Hype Bros defeated The Vaudevillains; Jason Jordan defeated Jey Uso; Jack Swagger defeated Baron Corbin
  • I attended this week’s RAW in Los Angeles, so here’s some dirt. We were all excited when they announced Sasha Banks versus Charlotte would be the main event, but we were even more excited when the actual match started and Sasha eventually won. I’m so happy I was able to be there for that—and the Gift of Jeri-KO. On the less happy side of things, I’ll mention the Cruiserweight Division. The crowd was decently interested in TJ Perkins (kids like him, obviously) versus Brian Kendrick, but I sadly can’t say the same about Rich Swann versus Tony Nese. That second match was the only time where the folks in the floor seats (where I was sitting) didn’t stand for entrances, and trying to get a Swann (or even a Nese) chant going was futile. Nese managed to impress during his flurry of offense, but being there for this match allowed me to see firsthand how the Cruiserweight Division really needs something more than Diva’s Revolution booking, and it needs it fast.
  • The bear was released, and it was exactly what I hoped it would be. In case you missed it, you can find it in its entirety here. In case you’re then seriously confused, go back and watch every single episode of The JBL & Cole Show, immediately.
  • As much as I love the awe with which Bryan calls Bray Wyatt a “magician,” I can’t see that classification working for keeping (or at least making) Wyatt’s character credible. When it comes to Bray Wyatt, all I’m looking for is a happy medium between Bryan finding him amusing and JBL’s “serious” commentary during his entrance (which mostly comes across like JBL’s afraid of awkward silence).
  • According to WWE.com, we’re supposed to infer that Sister Abigail is the one who saved Bray Wyatt. So chew on that.
  • Despite the fact that the story has built to it and both the women and Daniel Bryan want it, Nikki Bella versus Carmella at No Mercy is not a No Disqualification match. The only explanation I can come up with is one that’s anything but truly story-driven: If Hell In A Cell has Sasha versus Charlotte in the Cell, the last thing WWE would want is for a different women’s match to possibly steal its thunder. That’s the only “logical” explanation for why one brand wouldn’t go with a gimmick women’s match (for this particular feud) before the opposition can do one.
  • WWE still can’t tell the difference between the Usos, even though one wears a shirt and the other is Jey. Before the Uso/Jordan match, WWE advertises it as Jimmy Uso versus Jason Jordan. As you may have noticed, Jason Jordan faces Jey Uso. Also, Mauro refers to the Usos’ new gimmick as “the urban Usos,” which honestly sounds pretty suspect but also ignores the fact that the Usos have always had that swag.
  • Apparently Mojo Rawley has brought back his awful “Hammer time” dance/“move” from his early NXT days. But the most embarrassing part is how much reaching JBL has to do when it comes to pretending he enjoys Mojo’s schtick. He calls Mojo “the crazy one,” which makes zero sense.But that’s nothing compared to how he calls Mojo getting the hot tag: “This is gonna be constant action.” And these are gonna be written words. JBL also still thinks they’re called the “Hype Brothers.” From what I’ve seen of and read about Mojo outside an actual wrestling environment, he seems like a really great guy. From what I’ve seen from Mojo inside an actual wrestling environment, that doesn’t really matter here.
  • I know no one can ever agree when it comes to who we thought would be the breakout star of the Spirit Squad—I rooted for Johnny and never saw anything in Kenny—but I think we can all agree that no one ever picked Mitch as their guy, right?

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