Previously on the Best and Worst of WWE Smackdown Live: New Day pressed Mr. McMahon about Kofi Kingston deserving a title opportunity at WrestleMania and got Kofi put into a five-man gauntlet match to prove himself. Also, Shane McMahon revealed his true form, the IIconics (successfully) called out the Boss-n-Hug Connection, and Rey Mysterio wrestled in gear that made him look like a blow-up doll.
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And now, here’s the Best and Worst of WWE Smackdown Live for March 19, 2019.
Best: Giving Us Reasons To Care About The Good Guys
The best thing about Smackdown Live right now, and something they’re doing way better than NXT even, is how they’ve been writing the characters we’re supposed to cheer for. “Heel” and “babyface” have been swallowed up by shades of gray for the past twenty years — most of my material between 2012 and 2018-ish was, “the heel is actually the face,” and vice versa — but if you break it down to a simpler, “who we’re intended to support,” and, “who we aren’t,” they’re doing WWE’s best work in that field in YEARS.
Look at Daniel Bryan, for example. When he first “turned heel,” his character played like he hated You, The WWE Universe™, and they toed a weird line where he was supposed to be a villain because he cared about the planet and didn’t like gross excess. Now, they’ve laser focused in on what would make a reasonable person actually boo someone who is clearly this good at their job: hyper-specific hypocrisy, and Bryan using the very same lines that were used to hold him down against a popular, underutilized and historically under-appreciated veteran to selfishly preserve his own spot.
Shane McMahon’s another good example, if we’re allowed to assume the last couple of years of how he acts on the show has been a long con to convince us he’s awful.
Writing a “good guy” in pro wrestling is maybe the hardest thing to do right now, because people have been conditioned (especially in pro wrestling, and also the United States in general) to see emotions, vulnerability, and a need for support as weaknesses. You’re supposed to do it all by yourself, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, never accept any “handouts,” never let them see you sweat, never let them see you cry. This gave us Stone Cold Steve Austin, who worked because he was atypical for his era. When it also gave us John Cena, and proxy Cena stand-ins like Roman Reigns, it became the norm. Now it’s tired, and a character can feel revolutionary by actually understanding his own motivations and giving a shit about what’s going on around him.
Miz’s previous face runs didn’t work because they tried to make him The Rock. They want everyone to be The Rock. They want everyone to be this disaffected, better-than-you, quick-with-a-joke or a burn cardboard cut-out of a man who couldn’t exist in any real life situation. Hulk Hogan plus Steve Austin equals John Cena, and those are three of the five biggest stars in the history of the company. It should be a money equation. Instead, it makes everyone seem flat and false. Here, Miz doesn’t suddenly pretend to be a different person; he acknowledges and embraces his past, he knows he’s been a scoundrel more than he’s been a hero, and he’s not suddenly going to pretend to be this humble everyman because he’s on the side of the angels. He’s still in his suit, he’s still openly acknowledging himself as a rehabilitating asshole, and, most importantly, he’s clearly laying out what has happened and why it affects him. He’s not pretending it doesn’t matter. By caring, he allows us to care. By staying consistent as a character, he’s allowing us to see him as fully-formed. It’s fucking great.
Also, in simpler terms, it’s just a really effective babyface promo. He’s mad about a personal situation, he reiterates what that is and why it fuels him, and he boils it down to a clear, simple, “I’m going to kick your ass when we fight.” And his “I wasn’t handed anything” contrast with Shane works, because at the core of the “A-Lister” character, there’s always been this Ohio-born try-hard who postures for the job he wants, not the job he has, and is clearly about a dozen times busier than everyone he works with. He’s a born hustler, and while he’s never learned loyalty, he’s coming around on respect.
Mr. Hero Mike Mizanin is the jam. I really hope they give us a good guy Miz vs. evil Daniel Bryan feud continuation after WrestleMania.
And for the other kind of well-written babyface we have Kofi Kingston, whose most important quality (I believe) is that he has a passionate, loyal support system. How many times on Raw or at pay-per-views do we watch “faces” get beaten down by a group of heels with nobody running out to help them, and laugh about it? It’s happened more times than I can count. WWE got so dedicated to putting over the idea of a “lone wolf” bad-ass (note: not Baron Corbin) that needing help or friends came across as a “bad look,” and made you look more like a jobber than a Top Guy.
With Kofi, you’ve got Big E and Xavier Woods behind him. It works not only because those guys are all so likable, but because they (again) have a documented, consistent history of being supportive. New Day’s in this together, and it goes beyond “being in a tag team” and making your gear look the same. They’re maybe the first faction since the original incarnation of the nWo (or D-X, or whatever) that actually looks like they’re having fun together and are friends for a reason. They compliment each other. They aren’t aggressively masculine, and come across as believable human men because of it. Not everyone in the world is Brock Lesnar, some people like hanging out with their friends and family and eating food and playing video games. They’re believable, three-dimensional people, and that allows us — presumably also believable, three-dimensional people — to see ourselves in them.
And on top of that, a babyface with friends is an easy way to show a crowd why they should also want to be that babyface’s friend. I loved those shots of the Smackdown locker room coming together to watch Kofi’s match, both because it showed that he’s someone worthy of support, and because so many of the people we saw have actual established relationships with him. Of course Woods and E would be back there, but also yeah, the Usos would want him to win, too. So would established veterans who’ve never gotten top runs despite being forever fan favorites (Matt Hardy, R-Truth), young babyfaces of color (Mustafa Ali, Ricochet), and so on. It feels like a real community of characters whose alignments are natural. They don’t feel like they’re in the “babyface locker room.” It just feels like friends in the normal locker room.
If I could ask anything of the remainder of 2019 and WWE going forward, it’d be to look at Smackdown’s booking as an example of how to make writing likable characters work, and to know that the changing idea of what makes someone valuable as a hero or friend evolves with the times. We want to love so many of these people, and it seems so easy, and yet we always feel like we’re in conflict with them somehow if we think about it for more than five seconds.
Now that we’ve talked about that at length, let’s go back to the old material and rejoice in the fact that THE IICONICS HAVE PINNED THE WOMEN’S TAG TEAM CHAMPIONS!
Real babyfaces hold hands!
BEST: THE IICONICS HAVE PINNED THE TAG TEAM CHAMPIONS
From a “person who writes about wrestling on the Internet and analyzes it on a deeply critical level” perspective, I tuned into Smackdown to see the latest developments in The Miz’s advancement as a character, Daniel Bryan’s spectacular run as The Planet’s Champion, and Kofi Kingston’s slow but inevitable march to WrestleMania championship glory.
From a pure fan perspective, I tuned into Smackdown to see Bill and Peyton pin Raw’s terrible approximations of Sasha Banks and Bayley so they can get into a match at WrestleMania, get a WrestleMania entrance, and maybe even get some mic time. That’s really all I want. I want them to be Women’s Tag Team Champions, too, because they aren’t awkward blood rivals who got jammed up into a tag team in a company without a real women’s tag team division* on a show without a great women’s division** to get a consolation title run, but that’s beside the point***.
The IIconics take the match from the overconfident champions via “cheating” (that is actually just good teamwork) (cough), and validate the claim that they could beat Sasha and Bayley if they’d ever make good on their promise to show up to Smackdown. BRING ON THAT BEAUTIFUL IICONICS WRESTLEMANIA MOMENT, YOU COWARDS.
*the IIconics, Fire and Desire, and the Riott Squad were the only previously established actual tag teams, and two of those three are on Smackdown (and the one on Raw is just there to lose to Natalya every week)
**if you want to know the state of the Raw Women’s division, the big WrestleMania feud involves two Smackdown women and one MMA star who keeps telling us wrestling is fake
***don’t @ me
Speaking of those two Smackdown women competing for the Raw Women’s Championship at WrestleMania, they get a fun segment that’s more or less Kevin Owens recapping their feud and setting them up to brawl without a lot of goofy dialogue. That’s valuable, and it works. Owens is a fun host, and I liked his “AM I RIGHT” understanding that things don’t always work out with your former best friend.
I appreciate that Smackdown’s interpretation of the main-event WrestleMania feud is that Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair are the top two performers on the show and former best friends turned blood rivals who each have something to prove on the grandest stage of them all, while Raw’s interpretation is, “UFC is more important than fake-ass WWE.” They’re trying to work this thing where we as wrestling fans start hating Ronda Rousey because she’s insulting the thing we all love and trying to “undermine” it or whatever, and don’t seem to realize that all that’s doing is confusing stupid people and making reasonable folks less interested in the match.
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Best: Príncipe Mysterio
Three great things about this segment:
- Rey Mysterio is facing Samoa Joe for the United States Championship at WrestleMania, which I’m going to pretend is going to be a dope one-on-one smark legends match and not the beginning of a 16-man scramble or whatever it ends up being
- it’s really cool to see Mysterio bring back Eddie Guerrero’s son Dominick
- Poor Dominick is gonna get David Flair’d so hard soon, and I applaud them for reintroducing him and not instantaneously throwing him into the human wood chipper of Samoa Joe
My only question here is, “where the fuck was Vickie?”
Best: That Other, Hour-Long Smackdown Match
Finally, we have the Kofi Kingston gauntlet match that takes up the entire second hour of the show.
I have mixed thoughts about this, so I want to make sure I say the positives first. Kofi Kingston is awesome right now, and is putting on so many incredible, hour-long performances in such a short period that his rise feels divinely blessed. This guy is doing everything right, and Smackdown somehow lucked into and/or managed to turn a week-before-Elimination Chamber audible into the most interesting, compelling, and emotional WrestleMania story. Daniel Bryan is basically Skeletor right now and I love it. Everyone played their roles well, and I’m kinda happy-shocked that Kofi actually pinned four of these five opponents, and didn’t rely on Mysterio running in to distract Joe and Styles running in to distract Orton.
On the negative side, I do wish they’d more clearly establish why Vince McMahon is going through this much effort to keep Kofi out of the main event. I know they’ve dropped in the “B+ player” stuff and they have Bryan manipulating the situation from behind the scenes, but to go from “you’re the authority now” to “I’m going to replace you at Fastlane for no reason, and if you want to wrestle at Mania you have to beat five guys, whoops, you beat all five guys, here’s a sixth guy, and if you beat this sixth guy there’s probably a seventh” without an actual escalation. It just feels like Vince is brutalizing Kofi’s career for no reason, especially when the “B+ players don’t deserve championship opportunities at WrestleMania” is happening on the same show where Mandy Rose might get a Smackdown Women’s Championship shot, the Usos challenged the Hardys for seemingly no reason, the United States Championship was on R-Truth until two weeks ago, and so on.
You know how this would work without an additional Vince explanation? The assumption that Vince actually has an opponent in mind for Bryan at WrestleMania. Is he supposed to be defending against no one for the company’s top prize on the company’s biggest show in a couple of weeks? If Vince was like, “Kofi, you can’t have the match at WrestleMania because you’re a B+ player and I’m giving the match to John Cena” or whatever, sure. Then you’d have the necessary foil to explain these bullshit manipulations. You’d even be able to improve the match by having Vince say that whoever knocked Kofi out of the gauntlet GOT the title match, so these heels would have a reason to be doing McMahon’s bidding and be trying hard to win for something beyond vague heel fellowship.
I think we’re all in on the assumption that Vince is just actively trying to keep a black man out of the WWE Championship match at WrestleMania, and I’m not 100% sure that’s what it’s supposed to be? It’s just the idea that we get when you don’t give us a better one. Can I uh, ask you to give us a better one? I really don’t want that to be the reason. I need a much thicker line between how the fictional characters act on the show and how the company acts in real life.
Best: Top 10 Comments Of The Week
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A 10 year old could beat these goons! Oh, wait…
Kofi has run 14,600,021 simulations of this gauntlet match on WWE 2k19, and he only wins in 1 of them, so he knows exactly what to do
VINCE: I didn’t see that gauntlet. Do it again.
Daniel Bryan might legit be the greatest of all time, he can go from Sting Babyface, to elitist heel to underdog babyface to inspirational comeback baby face to Jericho/Flair/HHH heel and has done this before 40 and that’s not even counting his RoH years. What a showman
Joe has no interest in pancakes, he’d rather eat at Wendy’s
Somewhere in a locker room in the UK, a heartbroken Rhea Ripley is tearing down her Miz poster
The Real Birdman
Byron yelling “Kickout! KICKOUT!” is the most I’ve ever liked him
Baron Von Raschke
Women’s Tag Team Champions….lost
SmackDown Tag Champions….cheering in the back
SmackDown Women’s Champion: ?????
I like Kofi’s chances.
Graves: This is over.
::Kofi pins Joe::
Graves: Kofi has no shot
::Kofi beats Orton::
Graves: Kofi’s dream is over
::Kofi pins Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania::
Graves: Kofi gave it his all, but he came up short
know your role
How many weeks until Kevin Owens eats a Snickers and returns to his natural heel alignment?
That’s it for this week’s Smackdown. Thanks for reading, as always.
Drop us a comment to let us know what you thought of the show, and share the column on social to help us out. WrestleMania’s got a lot going for it, especially for you casuals out there, but hopefully next week’s Smackdown will finally solidify a few more important matches. Bryan vs. Kingston needs to shit or get off the pot here, we need to figure out how many people are going to get piled into the ‘Dre, and The Hardys and Usos should probably do more than cheer for New Day together if they’re gonna have a tag title match.
Regardless, a very good show this week. Smackdown is killing it. See you next week!