It’s not always easy to pin down exactly what it is about professional wrestling that makes its audience so damn passionate. It can be even harder to explain as an adult. “You know it’s fake, right?” is the first thing any adult wrestling fan will hear when they proclaim their love for all things sports entertainment. Hell, I’m only one week removed from Canadian Thanksgiving and my 11-year-old cousin laughing at me as he flipped to Monday Night Raw and joked about me loving to watch something that was so clearly fake. (Note: one minute later Rich Swann executed a beautiful head scissors takedown and said 11-year-old cousin popped for it, so soon enough he’ll be buying shirts from WWE.com). It can truly be hard to explain the appeal of pro wrestling because it’s often thought of as childish, one of the few “guilty pleasures” that hasn’t totally been reclaimed as hip, like so much other pop culture; I say “totally” because the transition is certainly happening, with outlets like our own, and ESPN, covering wrestling now, and more and more adult fans finding their way back to WWE with the Network.
If I had to point to a single show that showcased the plethora of pro wrestling tropes, and that showed exactly why it’s so much damn fun to watch, I just might choose tonight’s Smackdown! Live. It’s probably not the best episode of the newly minted Smackdown! Live, but there’s something about its string of moments that make it one of the more memorable ones. There’s a certain amount of energy running through almost every single segment, and it brings the night to the fever pitch that’s needed when we finally reach the beautiful denouement that is the WWE World Championship match between AJ Styles and James Ellsworth.
Look, ultimately wrestling is about storytelling (bet you haven’t heard us mention that before!). It’s about stacking the odds against an underdog, or leaning into personal, real-world happenings to get heat. It’s about making sure that nearly every single beat builds towards something cathartic. If the history of WWE programming tells us anything, it’s that Smackdown! Live is in a tough spot right now because it has a ton of time to fill before the next PPV, Survivor Series, a joint production with Raw. Typically, that’s a death knell for WWE’s storytelling, as they struggle to tell a competent story for a single episode, never mind for several weeks on end. But, lo and behold, the Blue show is thriving. It’s using its extra time to highlight secondary feuds, while also bolstering its main event scene.
That doesn’t mean there’s not room for improvement. In fact, Apollo Crews gets the shaft once again tonight, forced into the role of being a silent dummy for Curt Hawkins’ increasingly obnoxious, but not in a good WWE heel kind of way, gimmick. I get that Crews hasn’t shown much in the way of a personality, but Smackdown! Live could potentially remedy that by putting him in a meaningful feud where he has the opportunity to hone his promo skills. At the very least, he should be wrestling nearly every week, because the man is ridiculously talented. I mean, look at what could be considered a throwaway segment from Jack Swagger and Baron Corbin tonight. Corbin absolutely destroys Swagger in a match, but there’s purpose there. It shows that Corbin is legit, even if his opponent is the consistently neutered Jack Swagger. The Crews-Hawkins segment doesn’t make anyone look good, or even get the necessary heat to justify the continued presence of Hawkins and his barely-defined gimmick.
But let’s put that aside, because this is the week to celebrate pro wrestling in all of its ridiculous forms. I know some might balk at the “old school” notion of Bray Wyatt coming out in a casket surrounded by creepy druids in sheep masks, with Kane eventually rising from said casket, but for me, it’s just the kind of Attitude Era-inspired craziness that works. It’s not a main event. It’s not supposed to be the show’s main draw. Instead, it’s a fun, ludicrous feud that makes good use of two aging legends and two future stars. Pro wrestling, just like watching any other episodic TV show, is largely about suspending your disbelief. That’s what’s required of the Wyatt-Harper-Kane-Orton feud, and the narrative beats have been convincing enough that it’s easy to be drawn to the more supernatural elements of the storytelling.
Maybe I’m losing it because I’m used to reviewing Raw every week, but there was hope throughout tonight’s Smackdown! Live. I don’t just mean in the story of James Ellsworth, but in everything else. While David Otunga uttered the dreaded word “jealous” during the Nikki-Carmella promo, it’s great to see Smackdown! Live giving time to a secondary storyline within the Women’s division. And that comes on the heels of a solid match between Naomi and Alex Bliss. Credit where it’s due too: history states that Naomi wins that match, but instead Smackdown! Live swerves, having Bliss reassert her dominance, therefore cementing her #1 Contender status. That’s great storytelling, and coupled with the legitimate stakes being established in the feud between Nikki and Carmella, there’s a lot of hope that the Blue show is crafting a Women’s division that outshines that on Raw, Hell In A Cell match be damned. Now let’s move away from all mentions of boyfriends, please.
With all of that said, this night is about James Ellsworth, and that’s because the story Smackdown! Live is telling with him is the very essence of what’s magical about professional wrestling. The story of James Ellsworth is the story of someone who’s probably dreamed of being on a WWE program, and now has his chance. James Ellsworth is also the embodiment of Smackdown! Live’s insistence that this is a show built on “opportunities.” James Ellsworth is the David to AJ Styles’ Goliath. He’s the stand-in for all of us, for everyone who dreams way too big, gets their ass kicked, and then gets back up to keep chasing that dream. Professional wrestling is built around moments, and when Ellsworth managed to hit AJ Styles with a crisp Superkick, sending this wrestling writer straight into the air with a fist pump and a shout, a moment was created. It was special, not just for Ellsworth, but for any fan of professional wrestling. We live for these moments, for the times when we can just buy into a story without any irony or cynicism. James Ellsworth, with the help of AJ Styles and Dean Ambrose, whose contribution and generosity here cannot be understated, made us all believers for a single moment.
Wrestling isn’t always pretty, but for at least tonight, it was pretty much perfect.
- Results: Randy Orton defeated Luke Harper via DQ; Alexa Bliss defeated Naomi; Apollo Crews vs. Curt Hawkins was DOA; The Miz and the Spirit Squad defeated Dolph Ziggler, Heath Slater, and Rhyno; Baron Corbin defeated Jack Swagger; James Ellsworth defeated AJ Styles via DQ (WWE World Championship match).
- Tonight’s version of Dean Ambrose is the Dean Ambrose I want to see more often. More about creating chaos than zany antics. Plus, he gets to be a badass when it’s needed, delivering another Dirty Deeds to Styles.
- Something I never thought I’d hear Daniel Bryan say: “Did you just quote Whitney Houston?”
- Some choice descriptions of the James Ellsworth run: “The Chinderella Story.” And that Superkick: “No Chin Music.”
- Okay, so I think David Otunga is getting better, but his “where’d they go?” after the Wyatt’s disappeared sounded like he was narrating an episode of Scooby-Doo.
- I don’t use “on point” too often, but Alexa Bliss’s Freddy Kruger-inspired outfit this week was certainly on point.
- Dammit Nikki, you were doing so well distancing yourself from John Cena, then you went and mentioned your injury and how you “never gave up.”
- “Those people don’t care about you.” Baron Corbin accidentally hitting the nail on the head in regards to Jack Swagger.