Atmosphere plays a really important role in WWE. The WWE Universe is supposedly the most important part of the show, after all. A hyped crowd can make good moments even greater, special moments immortal—all that WWE video package rhetoric. A dead crowd, on the other hand, can give you… Capitol Punishment 2011. (Fine, Capitol Punishment 2011 was bad independent of the Washington D.C. crowd, but that doesn’t let said crowd off the hook for how dead they were.)

On paper, this week’s SmackDown from Memphis, Tennessee has all the fixings for another “Wild Card Finals.” There are only three matches on the card, but all of them are given proper time, and they’re big matches. Plus, the show itself is truly crammed with material for its two hours, which is what you want in your weekly episodic WWE show. There’s a live King’s Corner talk show segment to move the Dolph Ziggler heel turn along, capitalizing on the show being in Jerry “The King” Lawler’s backyard; Alexa Bliss defends her championship against Becky Lynch in the main event of the show, in a steel cage; Nikki Bella and Natalya stick to their strengths, taking their weekly brawling to the merch stand; Dean Ambrose has a fresh encounter against The Wyatt Family in his one-on-one match with Randy Orton; The Wyatt Family find themselves reaching a state of absolute combustibility; Mickie James makes her WWE main roster return; Elimination Chamber is officially announced as the next SmackDown exclusive pay-per-view, and John “John Cena, Recognize” Cena immediately finds a way to stir the pot for the pay-per-view’s namesake match.

There really is a lot squeezed into this week’s SmackDown, to the point where a promised pre-taped segment of Carmella and James Ellsworth on a shopping spree doesn’t even make it onto the show. That’s a good problem to have, opposed to the problem with David Otunga’s worshiping of Cena during Cena guest commentary stint throughout the Styles/Miz match.

But while Memphis is a wrestling town, either its Southern wrestling sensibilities don’t quite translate to WWE shows or the crowd seriously paid to be quiet. That’s not really a first for WWE, not will it be the last of this type of crowd. A quiet WWE crowd (and as much as I don’t want to attack Southern crowds, it’s a common occurrence) can quickly hinder a show, and that’s what it does with this week’s SmackDown. And again, this is a show that, on paper, is a pretty big show. It’s not as though the crowd is given bad match-ups or ripped off in terms of seeing the brand’s stars.

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With this week’s SmackDown, while the show is technically proficient, it quickly becomes difficult to judge the show without taking the crowd’s tepid response into account. It’s not just the lack of ability to coordinate chants again (Memphis has a better attempt at “LET’S GO CENA”/”AJ STYLES” than most recent crowds though), it’s an apparent lack of ability or even desire to get vocally invested in the show in the first place. When WWE doesn’t do its job to get those results, it’s understandable to get the same crowd and it’s maddening on WWE’s side of things to push such a product. But honestly, this week’s SmackDown is mostly a good episode in terms of structure, presentation, and storytelling; the only major exception comes from the cage match and its aftermath, but it suffers from the problem with cage matches in general.

Keep in mind, this week’s show has Dolph Ziggler go full heel on Jerry Lawler to get heat in Lawler Country, and there’s barely any heat to go with it. It’s not from lack of trying on Ziggler or Lawler’s part, as they go with WWE’s choice to go as tasteless as they possibly can in their attempts. They use the history and footage of the 2012 RAW match with Ziggler’s elbow drops on Lawler, right before he went into cardiac arrest. Ziggler doesn’t speak for most of the promo, and when he does, he talks slowly, against his normal speech patterns. It’s actually another character change to go with the heel turn, outside of the changes in his in-ring style introduced last week. Speaking of last week, last week’s Talking Smack was also the first time Ziggler really ever worked in the show’s format, as he illuminated his character’s new motivations, apparently feeling a sense of twisted comfort and catharsis in inflicting pain on Kalisto and Apollo Crews. That’s genuinely fascinating, especially as a heel motivation, and you can’t say SmackDown isn’t putting in the work to try to ensure that Dolph will finally get booed for his actions this week and going forward.

Dolph Ziggler superkicks Jerry Lawler in the damn heart. Of all the moments in this week’s show, this is the one tailor-made for this particular audience, and even this lacks true heat.

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As for the main event, SmackDown has gotten and still deserves praise for how it’s gone the anti-RAW approach in handling the cage match (at least, for the blue brand) between Alexa Bliss and Becky Lynch: It is a big deal, and in term of the whole “making history” thing, that’s certainly true… but it’s not the focal point of the match. As for the match itself, while Alexa Bliss still needs the guidance of Becky Lynch within the ring, the steel cage setting works better to mask Becky directing things—and it appears that there is far less spot calling here than there was was in their “Wild Card Finals” title match. This isn’t an all-time classic match, and with a cage, you still need something to make it worth it. Sometimes it’s a ghost child. Here, it’s Becky Lynch’s thrust kick off the cage and the BEXploder from the top rope. And of course the finish that you had to see coming a mile away, with the “reveal” of La Luchadora.

For an already dead crowd, a cage match may sound like a good idea—it’s a No Disqualification gimmick match, after all—but in practice, it’s really not. Speaking from experience, cage/Hell In A Cell matches (and possibly even Elimination Chamber and Punjabi Prison matches) are rarely as fun a live experience as they are watching at home. The cage obstructs the view of the action, and there’s really no fun in watching an overhead screen while you’re at a live show. That hurts for getting into the match, but it also hurts for any type of reveal in said structure, which is exactly what this match goes for with the return of Mickie James in the role of La Luchadora. Having to figure out who you’re seeing through the holes of a cage (or a camera looking through the holes of a cage) kind of kills the mood.

Plus, it’s difficult not to be frustrated with structure matches supposedly being the great equalizer when anyone can get in or out as they please. That’s certainly not on Memphis.

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The Miz versus AJ Styles and Dean Ambrose versus Randy Orton are also both marquee matches, but while the crowd predictably can get into these matches as they get near the end (and an “RKO” chant always endures), a truly hot crowd is still nowhere to be found in this show. Lukewarm is the deepest this crowd gets, even with the interesting stories that are being told.

The Miz and AJ Styles, in particular, have an interesting dynamic because of their heel versus heel status, even though AJ Styles is almost universally cheered. They have the biggest egos on the entire SmackDown roster and even go against typical WWE storytelling that says all heels should just get along, because they both find themselves too “awesome” and “phenomenal,” respectively, for anyone else. Then there’s the added facet of Styles cutting Cena off from getting a word in edgewise after the past couple of weeks of Cena taking the WWE Universe to promo church, which causes Cena to go with an often underutilized quality of his character: his brain. Cena fans the flames of these two men’s egos not just because he knows they have egos, but because they’re two of his greatest rivals. So even when he can’t beat them (especially Styles), he at least knows how they tick and can use that to his advantage. John Cena the character getting a chance to use his intelligence first in a situation is a rare sight, and it really works here.

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The crowd really likes when Cena hits an Attitude Adjustment on Styles though.

For professional wrestling or sports entertainment or whatever you want to call it, the live crowd reaction is a major factor. Take away what WWE does with crowd reactions in the long run and it still all goes back to what I’ve been saying since the beginning of these regular WWE reviews: As a live, weekly form of performance art, the crowd reaction is as much an integral piece of the equation as anything else. This week’s SmackDown is a competently booked episode overall (again, cage matches can be a recipe for muted reactions in a live setting), already preparing for the next SmackDown pay-per-view after the joint Royal Rumble show. But while the storytelling on this SmackDown mostly works, the thousands in attendance that don’t stick out like sore thumbs.

Stray observations

  • RESULTS: The Miz verssus AJ Styles ended in No Contest; Dean Ambrose defeated Randy Orton; Alexa Bliss defeated Becky Lynch (Cage match for SmackDown Women’s Championship)
  • “SCREW THE INTERNET | RESPECT JOHN CENA” Apparently the owner of this sign hasn’t been on the internet lately. Respect for John Cena is now the default. I believe “SCREW THE RYBACK | RESPECT JOHN CENA” would be more appropriate.
  • While Cena is surprisingly crafty before Styles/Miz’s match, the same can’t be said for him retaliating after Styles throws Miz into him during the match. It’s a WWE trope that’s obviously used often, but it’s also the type of thing where Cena would usually wait until after the match to attack either man. Of course, this finish keeps neither man from taking a loss as SmackDown builds to both Royal Rumble and Elimination Chamber (and even WrestleMania).
  • The Miz may be in a main event program going into Elimination Chamber and even want to win the Royal Rumble match, but make no mistake: He still wants his Intercontinental Championship back and promises to take it once he gets his rematch against Dean Ambrose. If there are still any questions about the many criticisms Roman Reigns’ United States Championship reign (and subsequent blowing off of the title after losing it), please look at Miz for clarification.
  • Ambrose’s chill “yeah, I should be in that” to Shane McMahon about the Elimination Chamber match is a very nice beat, especially since he has his plate full with “those Wyatt boys” and his Intercontinental Championship reign/Miz feud. Land of opportunity just means speaking up, y’all, and he did.
  • Ambrose versus Orton is about as rough around the edges as a match between the two of them (especially Orton) can be, but it’s also the type of match I wouldn’t mind seeing more of down the line. Especially after that rebound lariat into a powerslam counter from Randy Orton.
  • On pure speculation alone, I’m saying Mickie James has aligned with Alexa Bliss because of Bliss’ existence as Trish Status’ illegitimate child. Also, just a reminder: Mickie James and the non-Becky Lynch La Luchadora have completely different body types and skin tones.
  • 205 Live sidebar: I am pro-Jack Gallagher, but WWE is growing dangerously close to cribbing a babyface version of “The Villain” Marty Scurll’s gimmick. 1. Now he’s “The Gentleman Jack Gallagher.” 2. The umbrella(s), obviously. 3. He won the “I Forfeit” match with an umbrella-assisted crossface chickenwing.

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