In this episode of Wrestling Night in America, PWTorch columnist Greg Parks breaks down both nights of WrestleMania with callers and emailers. Topics include the quality of the Firefly Funhouse match, the decision to put Charlotte over Rhea Ripley, the potential of wrestlers getting more creative freedom in the current environment, and more.
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KELLER’S WWE FRIDAY NIGHT SMACKDOWN REPORT
MARCH 13, 2020
ORLANDO, FLA. AT PERFORMANCE CENTER
AIRED ON LIVE ON FOX NETWORK
Announcers: Michael Cole, Triple H
-After the WWE branding video, Triple H stood in front of the Performance Center logo. He introduced himself and welcomed viewers, then showed off the Performance Center. He said on any given day, 100 students are training there. He listed Sasha Banks, Bayley, Roman Reigns, Bray Wyatt, and Baron Corbin as having “all walked through these doors.” He said tonight they pass through the doors and not to train, but rather to entertain. He said this show will be different than anything they’ve seen before. “Sit back, relax, and if you can forget about the world around you and let WWE do what we do. Let us put a smile on your face. Welcome to Friday Night Smackdown on Fox.”
-The AC/DC Smackdown intro song aired as the camera panned the empty arena and Cole introduced the show. He said it will be a unique show in front of an empty arena. He plugged the return of John Cena to talk about his WrestleMania match against Bray Wyatt, plus Jeff Hardy. He also plugged an interview with Roman Reigns to talk about the “spear vs. spear Universal Title match” at WrestleMania.
-“And we kick things off with Boss Time,” said Cole with a little less vitriol. The ring announcer introduced Sasha and Bayley. He said “ladies and gentleman” in his introduction, and he meant the viewers at home, not the live audience for once. They went to ringside where Cole sat next to Triple H. Cole said, “As you can imagine, we are working with a very small crew here tonight.” He said he’d be joined by a number of guest stars, starting with Triple H. Triple H said it’s an amazing opportunity to show the world what they do in a very different way. Sasha and Bayley got to ringside. Bayley said the Role Model and the Legit Boss have arrived. (Noticing here how weird it is for the wrestlers to talk to empty chairs. They should all be addressing the cameras directly at this point or actual people like Cole and Hunter.) Bayley addressed Hunter and asked where Paige is. Sasha said she’s late and they’re on time. Cole said Paige has apparently had travel issues. Triple H told Sasha and Bayley he’s sick of Cole’s excuses. Instead, Alexa Bliss walked out with Nikki Cross.
Bliss asked if they love surprises. She said they were expecting Paige, but it doesn’t look like she’s going to be there. Bliss said they called out the Kabuki Warriors, but all they got were some weird tweets that they couldn’t make sense of. She said if they ever stop talking trash about everyone in WWE history, they’re ready to fight them. Nikki got excited about the prospects. Bayley said if they want a fight, they just made a big mistake.
(Keller’s Analysis: I feel for everyone involved in this segment, especially Bayley and Sasha Banks having to be pioneers in carrying a segment without a crowd. It was odd when they seemed to address the empty seats rather than the camera. The reality is, they are playing to the cameras now and not the stands, but that’s an adjustment from how they usually are instructed to act. This ended up feeling more disconcerting than I expected at first, as it really sank in how different pro wrestling is going to be during this crisis.)
(1) BAYLEY & SASHA BANKS vs. NIKKI CROSS & ALEXA BLISS
Triple H said when you’re not feeding off the crowd, it’s a different feeling and there’s a completely different performance level that’s going to take place. He said it’ll be interesting to see who can bring out the fire themselves. Paige and Bayley regrouped at ringside early. Nikki leaped off the steps onto Paige. Bliss slidekicked Bayley into the announce table. They cut to a break. [c]
Cole said it’s a surreal night. “This is odd!” he said. Triple H said in Vince McMahon’s voice, “What a debacle this is, Cole. Ahhhh!” Then he added, “That’s my best Vince McMahon.” They actually cut briefly to the announcers away from the action in the ring. The match continued. (I wonder if they considered having the wrestlers in training who are at the P.C. regularly to occupy seats in the crowd, with proper social spacing, to provide some atmosphere.) Cole talked about Promo Class run by Dusty Rhodes, and that when Bliss was training at the P.C., all of them at that time knew Bliss was going to be a star. Triple H imitated Gordon Solie briefly. He said he needs Mauro Ranallo to help him with some pop culture quips. Cole cackled and said, “You’re a little too old for that.”
Triple H talked about Sasha and Bayley revolutionizing women’s wrestling. He talked about walking past a Takeover poster with them on it when they sparked the revolution. Cole said it was one of the most classic match-ups. Bayley complained of an eye injury. Asuka ran out to ringside and threw Biss into the ringpost. Banks then put Nikki in the Bank Statement and she tapped out. Sasha’s music played.
WINNERS: Banks & Bayley in 12:00.
(Keller’s Analysis: I’d recommend more bells & whistles to enhance the viewing experience. With proper social spacing and not expanding the skeleton crew, anything they can do to add more energy to a match with people at ringside or in the stands besides two wrestlers working a “WWE style” that is so typically geared toward playing to crowds would help. This was strange to watch. It’s really clear how important playing off of fans is to what WWE wrestlers do.)
-They went back to the announcers at ringside. Cole said it’s been a lot of fun, but then told Triple H he has a lot of business to tend to in order to get through the night. Hunter said he’s not very good at this, so he’s going to leave it to Cole “even though a lot of people think you’re not very good at it.” Cole laughed – seemingly genuinely, to be fair – and transitioned to plugging the Reigns interview. And it’s “Exclusive!” (It’d still amazing how WWE scores all these big exclusive interviews with their Superstars!) [c]
-Back from the break, they showed the exterior of the Performance Center.
-A video package aired of Goldberg two weeks ago asking “Who’s next?” and then Reigns coming out with a staredown.
-Cole introduced Roman Reigns. He walked out and looked around at the empty seats like he looks at the crowd. They kept going with a camera angle where they catch the back of another guy’s head. It was strange hearing his music without boos. Cole and Reigns fist-bumped (setting a solid example by avoiding the handshake). Cole asked Reigns, “How weird was that?” Reigns said, “I mean, we’re in a businesss based out of reactions and filling seats and making people loud and stand up. It was weird, but it’s good to be back in the Performance Center.” Cole asked about his past year. Reigns said there’s been highs and lows, but ultimately no matter what happens, as long as he has his health and is able to wake up and participate in the next day, that’s what’s been driving him all year. He said he finds himself in familiar territory being “towards the main event.” Cole said a lot has happened over the last year, and there have been a lot of critics saying that he put himself in the main event at WrestleMania and he doesn’t deserve it. Reigns said he’s been dealing with critics his whole career. He said if he can main event Youngstown, Ohio in front of 5,000 people and other cities every night, why can’t he capitalize on all of that hard work. He said he’s busted his ass night in and night out. “There’s nobody here who has that level of commitment I have,” he said, sounding like he’s turning himself heel. “When it comes down to it, I literally came back as fast as I could in order to do what I love. So now that I’m here, I’m not bowing down to anybody and I’m taking what’s mine and I’ve done everything to deserve what I get.”
(Keller’s Analysis: Man, that was a capsule of obliviousness that is a big part of why he’s been booed for years and hasn’t been able to adjust so often. He just explained why he deserves a main event in a way that’s completely disconnected from the storylines. The criticism of him main eventing WM isn’t because he doesn’t deserve it in real life; people are critical of the booking within the storyline that instead of winning the Royal Rumble or Elimination Chamber, he just walked out and was granted the shot. How does he or the people coaching him not see the vast and vital difference between these two approaches? And then bragging that nobody is as committed as him just comes across as arrogant at the expense of his colleagues. This was another one of those completely un-self-aware tone-deaf segments with him that he’s had on various off-TV interviews over the years.)
Cole said they are billing the match as spear vs. spear. Cole said on their digital morning show, The Bump, Goldberg said he’s going to bulldoze him. Reigns smiled and said Goldberg went to Georgia, so he’s not sure he’s smart enough to operate a bulldozer. “Seriously, though, I have a lot of respect for Goldberg,” he said. He said their job is filling seats, and he’s done a good job of that and he’s an icon. “But he’s a part timer, man, and we don’t have time for that here. I’m a full time performer and I’ve dedicated my life to this craft… I was bred for this, born for this. I’ve been groomed since I was just a little boy. He doesn’t know what he’s in for. This ain’t about one move. I have mastered the nuances of performance. I’ve busted my ass week in and week out and the experience I have shows it. So when it comes to the main event of WrestleMania, I’m going to whoop Goldberg’s ass. I’m taking back my Universal Championship and I’m going to set this place right.” His music played and Cole talked about their match again.
(Keller’s Analysis: That was awful, and a capsule example of so much of what’s just so screwed up about WWE’s approach to conveying what they do within the narrative of their shows. Reigns talks about whooping Goldberg’s ass, but then he muddies his message by talking about “mastering the nuances of performance.” WTF does that have to do with winning a match? The business is all about putting people in seats? Isn’t the purpose of his business to “win matches” within the narrative of this show? It’s this incomprehensible mish-mash of kayfabe and meta talk that is just so unpleasant and disengaging.)
-They went to Kayla Braxton backstage. Cesaro interrupted her and introduced Sami Zayn as the new Intercontinental Champion. He nicknamed him “The Untouchable Sami Zayn.” Braxton said they’ve been bumped from this segment. Sami said that would normally enrage him, but they have celebrating to do. In walked Jeff Hardy. He said it feels so good to be back. He said he’s as happy and healthy as he’s ever been. He said he’s searched his soul and said he has a lot more to do. In walked Baron Corbin who said not everybody’s happy he’s back. He said some things have changed. He said he’s a benevolent king. He asked if he’s going to recite the alphabet backwards or maybe close his eyes and touch his finger to his nose. Hardy said he has a match and he’s surprised he hasn’t heard. Corbin asked against who. Hardy said it’s against him. In walked Elias with his guitar. He said he has a song for him based on what he said about him last week. He said he went ahead and wrote a song about the whole thing. Corbin said he doesn’t have time for this. He walked out as Elias began strumming. Elias said, “He’s got no idea what’s coming.”
(Keller’s Analysis: Baron Corbin’s performance as a heel in front of live fans is pretty decent; I wouldn’t go much further than that. But when he’s backstage acting without a crowd present, he’s in the bottom five percent of anyone I’ve ever watched. His reciting of his awful, unnatural, implausible scripted lines is – and I don’t say this flippantly – Vince McMahon’s “sports entertainment” at its worst. This was that. Are we supposed to believe with a skeleton crew Corbin showed up ready to wrestle, but Hardy was told he was wrestling Corbin but Corbin wasn’t told? Why not create a backstory on that if they insist on such a needlessly stupid moment that required Corbin’s bad acting to sell it? They could have shown Corbin arriving late. He could have said he was busy with something else and just came out of his locker room after being holed up for an hour. But instead, it was just contrived with no attention paid to having it seem even slightly believable to anyone over age 9. Then when Elias strummed in, it started to feel like a Sesame Street skit. Again, just WWE at its worst.)
-They plugged that they’d present the Elimination Chamber Tag Team match next.
-They went back to Cole and Triple H at ringside. Cole said they hear all the time about how busy Hunter is, yet he’s back. Triple H said he is the only man in the world who can get demoted and get busier. Hunter said it only took one comment on the show begging for him to return and save the show, so he’s back. Cole laughed and said, “I guess we’re going to shoot tonight.” (Cole and Hunter seem to have a genuine appreciation for each other.) They reviewed Daniel Bryan beating Drew Gulak at EC.
-Backstage Bryan said he’s been looking all over for Drew. Drew tried to walk away. Bryan said when he told him he had holes in his style, he didn’t believe him. But when they got in the ring, Drew countered everything he had and he had never experienced that before. He said a week after their match, his neck still hurts. “I’m willing to learn, are you still willing to teach?” Gulak pondered the offer when Sami walked up to him with Shinsuke Nakamura and Cesaro. Sami gloated about becoming the IC Champion after pinning Braun Strowman, and there he is, a shell of his former self after having been chewed up and spit out. “You’re reduced to asking for wrestling tips from a nobody,” he said. Bryan stepped toward Sami, but Cesaro got in his way. Bryan said his issue with Sami. Cesaro asked if he has a problem with him. Bryan asked if that was a challenge. Sami said it sounds like it. Bryan told Cesaro to meet him in the ring. Gulak noted that Sami called him a “nobody.”
(Keller’s Analysis: Although it’s a bit of a stretch to think Bryan would think Gulak really could teach him something, this did seem to be a possible course of this storyline and if it ends up with those two as a team, matched against the right heels, it could lead to some good matches. Gulak, like Buddy Murphy, deserved better than he was getting over at 205 Live in terms of exposure and appreciation, because he is so good. This gives him that spotlight.)
-Cole asked if they can make Bryan vs. Cesaro official. Hunter said, “After a promo like that from Shinsuke Nakamura, absolutely you can make it.”
-They cut to the Elimination Chamber Tag Team match from this past Sunday. They went to a commercial after the big spot by Gran Metalik leaping off of the pod onto Kofi Kingston and Big E. [c]
They cut to another break few minutes later after Big E broke up a cover on Kofi by Miz. [c]
-They went back to Cole and Hunter at ringside. Cole said, “The world indeed is watching.” He touted that they are the no. 1 trend on Twitter. Triple H joked that Cole went to the bathroom and “fortunately we haven’t been affected by that run on paper, you know what I’m saying.” Cole laughed and threw back to Philadelphia.
-The EC match concluded 15 minutes into the second hour.
(Keller’s Analysis: If roughly a million people saw this already, more than half the usual Smackdown audience didn’t see this yet. And those who did see it might want to rewatch it, as it was quite a match. This could be a window into what they have planned going forward – supplementing the fan-free studio with the high-energy big-show vibe of some of their standout matches of recent times or distant past. The key I think is to augment the replay with fresh commentary, including perhaps patching in wrestlers in past classics to comment from home with a picture-in-picture set-up. WWE can splurge for some nice USB mics for wrestlers at home without them.)
-Miz and John Morrison sat mid-ring and bragged about themselves. Miz talked about there being Oscar buzz for his new kids’ movie, “Main Event.” Morrison seemed to doubt a kids’ movie could win an Oscar. They took a dig at Orlando and celebrated together. Morrison said they don’t need a fancy sing-along like New Day or Usos. “We’re not here to pander to a bunch of cheering fans,” said Morrison. “We are here for us and we’re here for these.” They held up their tag belts and called themselves winners. “Be jealous!” they said before singing “Hey hey, ho ho, Miz and Morrison!”
(Keller’s Analysis: This was okay. It wasn’t particularly long, and they have done backstage segments before and are used to playing without instant crowd feedback.)
-Cole plugged Cena would be there later to talk about his match against The Fiend. Then Cole plugged that they’d address the rumors about Rob Gronkowski tonight.
-Bryan’s ring entrance took place with Gulak. They did the “Yes!” chant together. They went to Cole and Hunter at ringside. Hunter said it’s amazing how comfortable Miz and Morrison were. Cole told Hunter not to talk over the ring announcer. Hunter said he didn’t go to announce school then continued. He said it’s as if Miz and Morrison are used to getting no crowd reaction.
-A commercial aired for Raw hyping the A.J. Styles-Undertaker contract signing. [c]
-Cole thanked “The Weeknd” for the “Blinding Lights” theme song for WrestleMania. Cole sat alone at the table and Hunter held up a camera. Hunter said they’re shorthanded so they can’t all have one job and not be very good at it and still have a job 30 years later. Cole asked another camera guy not to shoot his bald spot. Cole said his career started with Hunter and DX giving him wedgies and now look at him.
-Cole threw to their special contributor Ryan Satin addressing the Rob Gronkowski rumors. He said he is near signing a deal. They showed various headlines from media outlets. Cole said the question is whether he’ll sign as a WWE Superstar. Mojo Rawley joined Cole and Hunter at ringside. He said he is there to confirm the rumors are true. He said nothing is officially signed, but next week live on Smackdown, he will be there and he’ll talk about everything that’s on his mind. Cole adjusted Mojo’s mic because he was so hyper he kept jostling it. He then got in Cole’s space and shoved him around. (SOCIAL SPACING, PEOPLE!) Cole asked Hunter if he gets a bonus after that. (He gets a COVID-19 test for free, I hope.)
(Keller’s Analysis: Seriously, I got angry watching Mojo completely disregard Cole’s personal space in a way that was not only obnoxious, but dangerous in these times. He’s so needlessly over-the-top to the point of being one of the least appealing people in the world to watch on TV when he gets like this. Everyone seemed irritated by his frenzied disregard for the placement of the mic on the headset. Just calm the f— down and talk about Gronk with some composure and dignity. Geesh.)
(2) CESARO (w/Shinsuke Nakamura, Sami Zayn) vs. DANIEL BRYAN (w/Drew Gulak)
Sami joined the commentators at ringside. Cole talked with Sami about his win over Braun. He called him out on bragging that he beat Braun “single-handedly.” He asked if he’d defend the title with honor. Sami instead complimented Cesaro’s early flurry of uppercuts. [c]
Back from the break, the announcers joked about how the script changes every Friday at the last second. Bryan then suddenly rolled up Cesaro with a small package to win.
WINNER: Bryan in 6:00.
-After the match, Nakamura attacked Bryan. Gulak made the save and put Cesaro in the Gulak sleeper. Sami joined in the beatdown as the ref yelled at them. Another ref came out and ordered the heels to leave.
(Keller’s Analysis: What, no tag match?)
-Hunter used a black marker to turn Cole’s grey soul patch darker. Cole plugged Hardy vs. Corbin. [c]
(3) JEFF HARDY vs. BARON CORBIN
Elias joined Cole and Hunter at ringside. Corbin attacked Hardy before the bell. The announcers disagreed over whether the bell actually rang. The ref checked on Hardy to be sure he was okay and signaled for the bell and the official start of the match. Hunter said Elias missed the class at the Performance Center when they explained what the bell ringing means. Cole talked about Hardy telling Renee Young on “WWE Backstage” about his road back to WWE and overcoming his demons. Elias said Hardy’s been so resilient his entire career. Elias distracted Corbin with his guitar playing. That opened up Hardy for a comeback with a Twist of Fury and a Swanton Bomb for the win. Hunter told Elias not everyone has the skill to play so badly, it can knock out a man in the midst of a match.
WINNER: Hardy in 3:00.
(Keller’s Analysis: The difference between Hardy’s return here and what could have been a big high-energy emotional moment in front of a big crowd is a warning about how flat a Drew McIntyre title victory over Brock Lesnar might be in an empty venue next month if that’s what WWE does.) [c]
-Hunter stood on the platform inside the Performance Center. He said he hoped everyone enjoyed this “historic” episode. He said due to “current conditions, the most important part of what we do, the WWE Universe” isn’t there. He said they aren’t in attendance, but they are “here.” He pointed at his heart. He said it hasn’t stopped the WWE Superstars from pouring their hearts out and performing every night. “We have truly earned the right in WWE to put the words at the top of the show we do every show – “WWE, Then, Now, Forever.”
-John Cena came out to his entrance theme. He held up his “Never Give Up” towel. He said to the people at home he can’t wait to get back together with them soon. He entered the ring where Cole stood with a mic. Cole asked if he’s ever been through anything like this. Cena gave a shout-out to everyone watching on Fox. Cole explained how Bray Wyatt said losing to him at WrestleMania caused the downward spiral in life that led to The Fiend. Cena said he won’t accept being blamed for his failure. He said it’s a long list of names of people who have said that about him on the Internet. He said it’s a lazy attitude. He said Bray got lazy and gave up and blamed him for it. He said Bray’s biggest enemy is Bray Wyatt. He asked why nobody says that about him. John said he has won a lot, but he’s also suffered monumental losses. He talked about big losses to C.M. Punk, The Rock, RVD, Miz, and Undertaker. He said after all of those setbacks, nobody ever says he’s buried. They know when he loses, he doesn’t blame himself. He adapts and gets back to work. Cena said some people get lazy when the work gets too hard and blame everyone but themselves. He said when someone blames him, he gives them an Attitude Adjustment.
They replayed a brief clip of Cena two weeks go on Smackdown. Cole then asked why he would try to antagonize Wyatt. Cena said he accepted a challenge. He said WWE should invest in its future, but he doesn’t think Wyatt is the future. He listed Drew McIntyre, Tomasso Ciampa, Matt Riddle, Rhea Ripley, and Velveteen Dream. “Why on earth do we continue to give fifth and sixth chances to people who, when times get hard, they say ‘what about me’ and not ‘how can I help you.” He wants to invest in people who earn it each and every single day. He said he accepted Bray’s challenge so he can take him out of the equation. He said it will be physical, gruesome, and uncomfortable to watch. He said it will accomplish what should’ve happened six years ago – ending the most overhyped, overvalued Superstar in WWE’s history.
Wyatt showed up at ringside and said it was riveting. He walked toward the ring and said it’s good to see him despite him saying mean things about him. He entered the ring and patronizingly said he’s doing great as a big Hollywood star “with big muscles still.” He said most of them can’t imagine what it would be like to be John Cena for just one day. He said he does have him all wrong, though. “I’m not sick, you are,” he said. “I know why you came here, John, and I know why you can’t say no. You don’t really think we believe you care about the future.” He said Cena cares about himself, no matter who he has to smash or bury along the way. He said he just wants the spotlight. “You crave it like an addict,” he said. “You Fiend for it.” He said six years ago at WrestleMania, Cena took something from him. “I thought about it a lot,” he said. He said he wanted to push his hands into his skull and push his brains into a million pieces so he’d have some peace. “Then something magical happened,” he said. “One day I stopped fighting the voices and I started listening to them.” He let out a sinister laugh. He said they took his crooked little world and turned it into a majestic funhouse. “You broke me, John,” he said. “But The Fiend, he put me back together. And at WrestleMania, it’s going to be a slaughter.” He stared a hole in Cena up close and said, “You just don’t know it yet. Let me in, John.” John stared back. The Fiend flashed on the screen and the show ended.
(Keller’s Analysis: I liked that segment at the end. Had some ups and down, for sure, and it was strange to see Bray outside of the Firefly Funhouse setting. I’m on board with the backstory of Bray doing to a dark place after his loss to Cena years ago at WrestleMania and then manufacturing The Fiend out of that darkness to cope. I’m not sure how well it holds up to detailed scrutiny, but it’s something to explain the Bray/Fiend dual personality gimmick and add some fuel to this match-up. Cena was so much better than Roman Reigns here. Cena telling the story of losing a lot yet picking himself up and not letting it define him that he lost is a genuinely good message, and Bray is handling adversity with a pity party that is worth Cena’s scorn.)
FINAL THOUGHTS: I think there is a lot of room for tweaks, but I came away from this thinking this is reasonably sustainable for the next several weeks or months. That said, the novelty aspect could wear off relatively quickly and the zero-fan-response aspect of the matches could make matches decidedly less engaging and end up leading to viewers peeling off in significant numbers over the next several weeks. I do think there are ways to improve this format and the set to lead to a better show. Turning down the lights on the empty seats would go a long way toward that.