On Sunday night the WWE’s Smackdown brand hosted its first Pay-per–err… Network Special of the year, Elimination Chamber. Headlined by the titular gimmick match, the event was a fairly uneven affair. Did the blue brand bring enough fire to leave audiences satisfied, or did the lack of roster depth make this a one-match show?
- Before the main card we get a nonsense throw-away match between the physical embodiment of cocaine, Mojo Rawley, and the living warning to any would-be returning performers, Curt Hawkins. In addition to have little action or heat, this match showcases just how bad the presentation of some of these men (and women) can be. Mojo’s wearing these ugly bicycle shorts with leopard print siding, whereas they added a singlet to Hawkins’ tights which makes it look like he’s wearing some sort of hideous overalls. Listen, WWE, how do you expect fans to invest in these guys if you don’t? We wanted to like Hawkins, and Mojo seems like an okay dude on Breaking Ground, but watching these two wrestle is like watching flies fuck: it sounds like we should care, but there’s nothing worth watching. Rawley hits Hawkins with a tilt-a-whirl power slam for the win. At least he’s not literally hitting people with his ass anymore.
- Throughout the entire show they cut to these nonsense segments where Carmella and James Ellsworth, still dressed like Steve Buscemi trying to infiltrate high school on 30 Rock, sitting in a skybox and talking crap, usually about the other women on the show. I don’t know if they feel the need to utilize Ellsworth more now that he’s on a full contract, but Jesus, they need to recognize that he doesn’t have the acting skills or comedic timing to handle these skits. They’re just dreck and really contribute to the feeling that Smackdown is still – and will always be – the B show.
- On his way to the announce table JBL tripped and busted ass again while trying to do some weird skip thing down the ramp. If you don’t think that someone on the writing staff is trying to think of a way to make this a regular part of the character’s act you don’t understand wrestling.
Match 1: Becky Lynch Vs. Mickie James
In concept, this isn’t a bad place to start the show. Of the women’s matches for the evening, it has the best workers and the most over babyface. The thing is, it also has the lowest stakes and that really does hurt the bout’s appeal. Also not helping is the lackluster effort they’ve put into Mickie James. She’s rocking some flaired 90s jeans and a tube top with some kind of lime green energy drink logo and it just doesn’t work. While I’m griping about this, she needs new music, too. Her current track is too bright and happy for a heel whose gimmick isn’t “crazy pixie” like AJ Lees used to be.
I feel like the producers of the show told these two ladies that because they were the best workers in the division, that they should endeavor to put on the most technical match of the night. Unfortunately, that slows the action down considerably and means we’re watching a solid five minutes of elbow and collar tie-ups and headlock takeovers. Eventually things pick up as James works the arm, and Becky gets little bursts of babyface offense in but eventually eats a Mick Kick for a two count. The final sequence is another technical display, as Lynch goes for the Disarm-her only for James to turn it into a sunset flip rollup, which Becky then reverses into a jackknife pin for the win.
Honestly, given the talent of the two participants, I kind of expected more. The crowd popped for Becky and she and Mickie had time to work with. It just feels like whoever booked this match couldn’t really plot a compelling technical story and the result is a relatively bland affair.
Match 2: Apollo Crews and Kalisto Vs. Dolph Ziggler
Up next is the bafflingly booked handicap match that sees two babyfaces (they’re the good guys if you don’t know the lingo) teaming up to take on one heel (the bad guy if that wasn’t obvious). Now this kind of match can work if the heel is a monster like Braun Strowman–a dude who obviously physically outmatches his opponents. While I’m sure Ziggler enjoys “lifting weights and eating steaks” as much as anyone, seeing as Crews alone outweighs the Showoff by more than 20 pounds, it’s not quite the same.
The main problem with setting up this match was that there could be no winners. If the faces win, we’re meant to root for two dudes beating up another guy who is at worst a harmless douchebag. If they lose, these two schmoes combined couldn’t even beat a guy who spent most of the year losing to a fake movie star.
So naturally, Dolph jumps Kalisto before the match to even the odds and has a mildly competitive, but pretty unremarkable match with Crews. The thing is, the crowd cheers Ziggler every time he does something scummy. Dude bodies Kalisto on the ramp? The crowd pops. He starts slapping Crews and smirking every time he hits a move? They start chanting his name. He loses the match (because Dolph never actually wins) and wears out Crews and Kalisto (who returned late in the match to turn the tide) with chairs? The crowd literally chants “Thank you Ziggler!”
The match is short, and while not all that bad, it does no one any favors. Crews and Kalisto look like they couldn’t hang with anyone on the roster without cheating–not ideal for two babyfaces–and Ziggler takes yet another in a long series of pins from a guy who is so unpopular that the crowd is cheering the fact that he may have broken an ankle.
On the plus side, I guess, Ziggler’s heel mannerisms are pretty good. Maybe if the creative team actually comes up with an idea for him, he can use them in a way that people will actually pay attention to.
Match 3: Tag Team Turmoil Match for the Smackdown Tag Team Titles
Speaking of questionable booking that does no favors for anyone involved with the bout, we have a tag team turmoil match for the Smackdown Tag Team Titles. The match sees all six teams compete in what is essentially a single elimination gauntlet. There are only two ways to make something positive come from this kind of match: Either you have one team start the gauntlet and make it all the way through, OR you have the champs get tired out by defending the title against so many other teams that the last guys out manage to take advantage of their fatigue and walk away with a win. Needless to say, WWE went with neither.
Former champs Heath Slater and Rhyno start the match going against back to back comedy jobber teams, making short work of Breezango (who look more like the cabin crew for the Love Boat than fashion police) and the Vaudevillains (who…man, I’m sorry guys. At least you got to appear on TV.) before The Usos come out. Naturally the first non-comedy team runs through the would-be mayor of Detroit and the absentee father of at least seven ginger children, which brings out the champs, American Alpha.
Alpha and the Usos put on a good show, which is to be expected. Honestly the match should’ve just been these two teams–they’ve got good chemistry and are the only other team on the show that has any kind of believability. Of course, that means their back-and-forth contest has to end in a rollup. This pisses off the Usos who then beat up American Alpha and leave them laying for the last team, non-comedy(?) jobbers The Ascension.
On last Thursday’s Smackdown, The Ascension actually won a 12-man tag team match (well, Viktor got the pin for his…you know what, let’s just say they won) that included all of the teams competing tonight, giving the faint impression that they could be construed as contenders for the titles. So they are suddenly being positioned to pounce on the beaten and tired champs, pick the bones, and walk out the Smackdown Tag Team Champions.
Hah, nah that didn’t happen. They just got stomped by American Alpha with little fanfare. Viktor and Konnor (rocking a new Immortan Joe-style facemask I might I add) actually hit the Fall of Man on Jordan and go for a pin that gets broken up by Gable. After like two minutes of back and forth, Jordan hits the hot tag and the Grand Amplitude for the win. The Ascension are about as effective at wrestling as the Stormtroopers were at shooting named characters in Star Wars.
Like I said at the start, this match didn’t do anyone any favors. The three jobber teams look as bad as they always have (actually the Ascension may look worse) and American Alpha faced a weakened Usos and still only barely won that match. The five minutes or so they faced off with the Ascension after being beat down didn’t do much to give them their heat back. I know people say the Smackdown women’s division is too thin, but man the Tag division is probably in worse shape. The Revival can’t get called up soon enough.
Match 4: Nikki Bella Vs. Natalya
Oh look, a women’s match where the entire motivation for the feud could be described as “jealousy,” one woman’s attractiveness has been labeled the reason for her success, and her partner’s reticence to get married or have children is used as world rattling insult. Truly, the women’s revolution has changed the way we view female-centric storylines.
The match itself isn’t entirely bad while it lasts. True, Nikki is trying to use more technical moves that either (a) she hasn’t quite mastered yet, (b) Nattie doesn’t know how to sell them yet, or (c) both, but they are both trying new things. Nikki hits this snap knee smash on Nattie and it’s like the dopest move she has ever hit. Her transition from the Sharpshooter into her new trapped-knee STF is also super slick. It’s like she really practiced only a handful of spots with Nattie and it shows.
Of course, neither woman is quite on the level of Charlotte or Sasha (or Becky or Bayley for that matter), so they make some clumsy mistakes and poor choices. Nikki’s timing is super iffy, as should be evidenced by the enzuguiri spot that they telegraphed by like five full seconds. Nattie’s trash talk, meanwhile, is definitely something she could work on. Whether she was spamming Cena’s “you can’t see me” taunts or antagonizing Nikki’s mom in the crowd, she’s more annoying than menacing.
Eventually the ladies get into a brawl at ring and get counted out. They brawl up the ramp and into the back where Nattie throws Nikki into a nearby Maryse who is holding all of the cocaine that the Smackdown writing team used to think up Breezango’s fashion police gimmick (or an industrial-sized tub of baby powder). Naturally it ends up all over her and potentially lays the grounds for the beef there that is likely to be the basis for her expected mixed-tag match at Wrestlemania.
Match 5: Luke Harper Vs. Randy Orton
If it weren’t for the main event by its very nature being a ridiculous spectacle, this would easily be the the match of the night. While the outcome was never in doubt, this was the coming out party for Luke Harper as a solo star. This is maybe the best he’s looked in a one-on-one match both literally (they gave him a clean shirt and trimmed his beard a bit) and as a character the audience can get behind. Seriously, there are “Luke! Luke! Luke!” and “Lets go Harper!” chants throughout the match. If this is a test run for a Harper face turn, then I think it’s proof of concept.
These guys work well together, with Harper getting to look like he can hang with someone of Orton’s level and Randy gutting out a win, that made him look strong and capable. Harper hits a number of big moves: A pretty great topé suicida (Mama Mia!), a devastating looking sitout powerbomb, etc. Though there were times where it felt like they were told to play it safe to avoid injuries this close to Wrestlemania, that superplex spot was fantastic–particularly Harper’s sell of it on the slow-mo replay.
The ending sequence comes with Harper and Orton exchanging chops and right hands, Harper staggering Randy long enough to go for his Discus Clothesline, only for Orton to block it and hit the RKO out of exactly where you expect it from. While it would’ve been amazing for Harper to kick out of an RKO, it remains one of the most protected moves in the business. With this win Orton’s got some momentum and buzz building toward his bout at Wrestlemania.
Again, with the exception of the main event, this is the best booking of the night too. Now the herculean task of making Harper’s character something that works. We know the performer has the talent to be a star, but can his character progress follow Batista’s lead and move past the “most competent henchman” label and into actual superstar territory?
Match 6: Alexa Bliss Vs. Naomi for the Smackdown Women’s Championship
Not sure if I want to pigeonhole her or anything, but Naomi may have the best entrance on the main roster. Certainly the best of the Women’s division. I also think it’s neat that Bliss’s gear, which appears to be taking a cue from the Supergirl costume, actually matches her title belt.
As may be expected, the action on this one isn’t too memorable. Bliss is a better character than she is a wrestler, and Naomi is a better athlete than she is a ring general. Both women are competent performers, but neither has (yet) reached that ‘must-see’ level that more elite performers like Asuka, Charlotte or Sasha Banks has.
Still the match isn’t bad. Naomi’s offense is improving, and the fact that the Rear View is no longer her finisher is a huge step in the right direction. Instead she’s using a split-legged moonsault that Bliss no-sold the first time through (most likely she was meant to roll out of the way and just couldn’t in time) and turned into a dirty pin for 2. This lets Bliss go for Twisted Bliss, only for Naomi to get her knees up, catch Bliss in the stomach, hit a second moonsault and win her first women’s championship with the company.
Not how I assumed the match would go down, but good for Naomi. She’s been one of the most talented performers on the female roster for years, so it’s nice to see that they are finally recognizing her with a title run. Also not a bad idea to put the title on a woman of color during black history month, either, particularly given the company’s sometimes spotted record of racial sensitivity (allegedly). It’s even better because this means she’s likely heading to WrestleMania (which is in her hometown of Orlando) as the champ. After the match she gives an emotional speech to loud “you deserve it” chants, and it’s an all around feel-good moment.
Match 7: The Elimination Chamber for the WWE Championship
While this was a great match, what really most stands out is the finish. After years of start-stop pushes, unfortunately timed injuries and a miraculous ability to stay over with the fans despite never being allowed to win a match that matters, Bray Wyatt is the WWE Champion. What’s more, he won clean–by pinning both John Cena and AJ Styles in the same match, no less. It’s a long overdue coronation for a guy who was perhaps called into the spotlight too soon, went back to the minor leagues to reimagine himself, and became a truly compelling and menacing character that evokes the best parts of Bruiser Brody and Jake the Snake Roberts. Time will tell if Bray’s first run with the belt will help cement him as a top-tier talent, but at least the match he won it in will be memorable for the right reasons.
To Tarantino this review, we start with AJ and Cena in the ring working a good, but truncated match. Almost immediately they start trotting out high spot callbacks to their previous encounters. I feel like both Styles’ torture rack spinout powerbomb and Cena’s version of the code red come out within the first five minutes. When Ambrose comes in, the spots ratchet up, with a number of callbacks to these guys’ triple threat match. They repeat their three-man german suplex spot, Dean dives off the top of his pod onto Cena, then there’s an amazing sequence that sees all three guys hit their signatures on one another, ending with Dean hitting his rebound lariat on Styles who sells it like a man getting hit by a rocket launcher.
Wyatt is out third and the match starts moving in different directions. Bray plays to the crowd, hits a sweet release German suplex and then gets caught between the posts by AJ. Meanwhile, Styles and Cena start climbing the cage for some reason, only for AJ to knock Cena off and John to lay around corpsing for maybe the next 15 minutes. Somehow AJ and Dean end up fighting on top of a pod, and after a few shenanigans in all directions, Ambrose ends up hitting a tower of doom spot by powerbombing Bray off the turnbuckle, while AJ comes flying off the top of the pod. Styles either has Wolverine’s healing powers or is Magic Man from Adventure Time, because he keeps taking insane bumps, getting back up and doing it all over again.
Corbin’s in next and works over Ambrose pretty well before just wrecking shop on everyone else. He hits a deep six on Dean followed by an End of Days on Styles, only for that pin to get broken up by Cena, who puts him in the STF. Corbin powers out of that and hits an End of Days on Cena for good measure. That pin is broken up by Dean, who, again, gets his shit wrecked by Corbin. Corbin’s still standing tall when the bell for Miz’s entrance dings. As Baron antagonizes the former Real World star, Ambrose pops up in time to roll up Corbin for the first elimination.
Naturally with WrestleMania coming, and both men needing something to do, Corbin sticks around to wreck Ambrose’s shit. He tosses him through a pod before hitting an End of Days on the Lunatic Fringe and leaving. Miz slides in and steals the pin on a prone Ambrose for the second elimination of the match. Now that it’s Miz’s time to shine, he starts in on the Daniel Bryan kicks, even hitting the Busaiku Knee, before (for some reason) going for a crossbody on Cena. Naturally, Cena catches him, rolls him through into an AA. Miz is eliminated.
With the final three men in the ring, the finishers come pretty fast and thick. Cena AAs both guys and both kick out. Styles hits the Styles Clash on Cena for a 2. Shoot, at one point Cena does a plancha onto both men from atop the pod and then it happens.
Cena goes for another AA on Bray, only for Wyatt to get out of it and…actually hit his Sister Abigail to eliminate Cena. Again, no cheating, no interference. He just…won. It’s so out of character. He then goes on a stellar five minutes with Styles before catching him in another Sister Abigail to win the match and the title. Again, clean as a whistle. What the hell? Is it too good to be true? Are they actually going to book Bray as a competent heel champion? I mean, no probably not, but still. This was a good win for Wyatt.
As Bray celebrates in the ring Randy Orton appears on the stage to look at the man that (everyone already knew) he will face at Wrestlemania and we go off the air.
If it weren’t for the ending, I feel like this show would be a bust. The writers lazily booked the same beatdown spot in 3 out of 7 matches (technically they did it twice in the Ziggler match) and the Carmellsworth stuff was just unwatchable. Harper/Orton and the main event were great matches, and seeing two new (as in first time) champions crowned made the event somewhat special, but the bad taste left in audiences mouth from the Ziggler, Natty/Nikki and tag team matches made this one a mixed bag at best. By the nature of Chamber matches needing six guys, you effectively decimated the top of the card, leaving some half-baked matches for the rest of the show. Oh well, at least Bray and Naomi got their moments in the sun!