Twice a year, WWE bring RAW and SmackDown to the UK, and they’re usually the most raucous shows of the year – save for the greatest show in all of Sports Entertainment, Wrestlemania. But they happen on a Monday and Tuesday. This is Wednesday. This is WWE without all the cameras. This is the freedom for the wrestlers to ply their trade without the restrictions that seem to come with TV. There is no time wasted on “cutting promos”, save for a couple of short exceptions.
Tonight, Birmingham plays host to the roster of SmackDown Live. Recently, the entire WWE roster was split into Raw and SmackDown, and the question was raised when they first announced the tour; which city would get which roster? Would we be seeing RAW’s superstars like Kevin Owens, Sasha Banks, Seth Rollins and The New Day? Or would we be seeing SmackDown’s AJ Styles’first WWE UK tour, alongside superstars like Dolph Ziggler, Becky Lynch and Nikki Bella?
We kick things off with a video on the “tron” (big screen) at the top of the entrance ramp. Daniel Bryan, the General Manager of SmackDown Live hypes the crowd up, and has everyone chanting “Yes!” and thrusting their fingers into the sky. Then the screen goes blank, and the Ring lights go up, and SmackDown announcer, Greg Hamilton addresses the crowd, setting up a title match to start the night off right. It’s a triple threat match for the Tag Team Titles. Champions Heath Slater and Rhyno are out first, and the crowd pops for them. They are followed by The Usos, who draw massive heat from the crowd, and the boos ring out until the third team arrive. Breezango, the team of Tyler Breeze and Fandango. It’s a mixed reaction for the two, until their theme music includes the cue to start “Fandangoing”, a craze that started in 2013, and seemed to disappear into the abyss until he comes back to Europe. It was a good match, with a few moments of silliness. The champions retained, with Rhyno hitting the “Gore” on one of the Uso brothers. After celebrations and photos with the fans ringside, they disappeared through the curtain, which allowed the next match to begin.
The match card is stacked tonight. With appearances from Curt Hawkins, Apollo Crews, Nikki Bella, Carmella, Natalya, Baron Corbin, Jack Swagger and Naomi, the first half of the show flies by. Then everything goes a bit weird. The arena goes dark after a very brief vignette, of about 2 seconds. Then a song starts to play. It’s haunting and quite eerie. The arena lights up with phone lights being raised. The “fireflies” are out for the arrival of Bray Wyatt and Luke Harper for a 6 man tag match. They’re joined by one of WWE’s biggest stars in the form of the Apex Predator, Randy Orton. They are fighting American Alpha and The Devil’s Favourite Monster, Kane. Throughout this match, Luke Harper keeps making a strongman pose, which is hilarious, and begs the question, why? It seemed to be directed at Kane, but still, it makes for a fun match.
An interval now, to break up the night. More titles are on the line, including the Intercontinental Title, held by Dolph Ziggler, who defends it against The Miz, who is accompanied by his gorgeous wife, Maryse. The stipulation – a Street Fight – is unneeded, as both have the chemistry to perform great matches with no stipulation, as has been the case for the last couple of months on TV and on the WWE Network. So far, this is the best match of the night. It had tables, Kendo Sticks, near falls, tension, resilience… everything you could want from a wrestling match. Plus, The Miz is one of the most underrated workers and bad guys in the history of pro wrestling. He and Ziggler are the perfect foils for one another. One is arrogant and self absorbed, and the other works his heart out, overcoming what should be impossible, by showing great resiliency and heart to overcome the obstacle. This is shown perfectly by Ziggler’s escape from the Figure Four Leg Lock, a move that is synonymous with tap outs, and his eventual win.
Then for the Women’s Championship to be put on the line. Becky Lynch vs Alexa Bliss. There’s been a lot said for Women’s Wrestling in the last couple of years, and all the focus is on Raw’s Charlotte and Sasha Banks of late. But quietly, Becky Lynch and Alexa Bliss have been putting on stellar matches, and they are always consistent. They may not have the stipulation of a steel cage, or the Hell in a Cell match, but they consistently bring their A game. Bliss is an amazing heel, coming off as a spoilt princess sort of character, who always gets what she wants. She argues with the referee, throws tantrums, and teases the fans with high fives. The story told by the two goes beyond mere wrestling. The facial expressions, the interaction with the crowd, everything about their match defines what I wrote above.
The Main Event of the evening.
The first time AJ Styles has ever headlined a show in Birmingham, England. His opponent? The Lunatic Fringe, Dean Ambrose. There is a special guest timekeeper in the form of the insanely popular for a reason that is pretty unbeknownst to most people, James Ellsworth. He is a lovable character, and someone that you can feel a little sympathy for. He doesn’t have the build you expect from most wrestlers, and he just seems so humble. But AJ refuses to wrestle with an “ugly foot” at ringside. Cue “The Ride Of The Valkyries”. Cue the “YES!” chants. Cue SmackDown GM, Daniel Bryan. He makes his way to the ring, and give AJ an ultimatum. Put a show on, or forfeit the title. The match ends up taking place, and it is a masterclass in wrestling. Both AJ and Dean have storied histories in other companies, and they have a natural chemistry that allows them to work so well together. There are near falls, moments of wonder, and teases of finishing moves that get reversed. Eventually, the match is decided and AJ Styles retains the championship following a Styles Clash. He celebrates for a while, then decides to attack The Lunatic Fringe afterwards, with a steel chair, no less. James Ellsworth gets involved and almost receives a chairshot for his trouble. There’s a bit of a commotion that leads into Ellsworth hitting “No Chin Music” (a superkick) on AJ, who falls straight into “Dirty Deeds” (a DDT) by Ambrose. So tonight finishes with the faces standing tall and posing in the ring, and celebrating with fans who have rushed to ringside to get an opportunity to meet their heroes.
WWE Live is absolutely a spectacle, and really allows you to suspend your thoughts of the outside world, especially when tonight, outside is just full of disappointment, anger and hatred. It’s like a pantomime for the most part, with the superstars playing to the crowd, and listening to the chants, and sometimes even starting them.
A truly wonderful night, and I cannot wait until they return in May.