HomeTelevisionReview: WWE Friday Night Smackdown Series Premiere

Review: WWE Friday Night Smackdown Series Premiere

The Friday Night Smackdown Premiere on FOX.  There’s a lot to unpack here so we’ll get a running start with the kickoff show.  Numerous outlets report the atmosphere leading up to tonight as being “like a mini-Wrestlemania” and that’s likely the theme that management was going for.

In a pre-taped segment, Michael Strahan and Becky Lynch walk through the FOX headquarters, to acclimate her to the FOX facilities.  Along the way, they encounter broken glass attributed to Stone Cold Steve Austin, Braun Strowman lifting weights with FOX Sports robot mascot “Cleatus,” and Becky’s new dressing room being vacated by a comically cowed Terry Bradshaw. Michael finds himself in a dark and creepy room just in time for The Fiend to appear and cut the lights.

Out on the “blue carpet,” Charissa Thomson gets a minute with Ric &Charlotte Flair where Ric hypes the women’s match as going to be hard to top. No lie there.

Inside the Staples Center arena, Booker T & Rene Young are with Big E & Xavier Woods. With trombone and Big E’s signature intro, they give us our first glimpse of the new Smackdown set.  No giant fist but still impressive with a lot of vertical component to it.

A quick montage shows us some classic moments from WWE history like Hulk Hogan & Mr. T coming out for the first Wrestlemania, Shawn Michaels sending Marty Jannetty through the Barber Shop window, and Mike Tyson & Steve Austin getting into a scuffle as well as some of the great champions of the modern era like Mick Foley, Bret Hart, and The Undertaker.

Seth Rollins joins Booker and Rene who ask him about the moments he remembers most from Smackdown’s nearly 20-year tenure. He teases Booker about his supermarket brawl vs Steve Austin but brings up The Shield’s first 6-man tag loss, too. They have a laugh about the supermarket incident and play some footage from that night.

Rene is happy to announce her WWE Backstage on FOX Sports 1. No mention of a third co-host. They might be keeping that one in their back pocket or just … punked out … on counting their chickens.

The blue carpet sees stars from entertainment, sports and media like Erin Andrews, O’Shea Jackson, Shawn Porter (who was introduced in his last fight by Big E,) and The Masked Singer’s “The Eagle” alongside WWE’s AJ Styles, R-Truth & Carmella, The Miz, and HHH & Stephanie McMahon.

b is with Kofi Kingston who hypes Brock Lesnar as a daunting challenge.  He wanted to prove himself against Brock but, after Lesnar brutally attacked Rey Mysterio and Mysterio’s son, Dominic, this is about more than himself now.

Goldberg is seen with FOX College Football’s Big Noon Kickoff Team (including former 24/7 champ, Rob Stone!) while Brie & Nikki Bella are talking with Charissa Thompson about this being a homecoming for so many WWE performers and alumni.

Becky Lynch shows up on the blue carpet, looking every bit “The Man” in a suit fit for MiB. Maria Menounos has had her hair dyed pink for the occasion.  Mick Foley and Braun Strowman likely have to go head-to-head later to find out who has the best beard game of night.

A hype promo from Steve Austin shows that ol’ Stone Cold can still catch beers like Jerry Rice.

Kayla Braxton is in the other camp and being interrupted by Paul Heyman about her hopes to speak with Brock Lesnar.  Heyman says that “Hope is a joke.” He says that there was “hope” for Rey and for Dominic but look how that turned out. Reality is coming and it’s coming in the form of The Beast Incarnate.

Somehow, it’s relevant to mention that, the last time Brock wrestled on Smackdown, MySpace was a big deal as we go to the Friday Night Smackdown Premiere.

WWE Friday Night Smackdown Premiere

The opening of Friday Night Smackdown Premiere sees Vince and Stephanie McMahon getting a mixed reaction but still a huge refrain from crowd to Vince’s classic “No Chance” theme. Steph welcomes us to history and to FOX.  Vince welcomes us to Friday Night Smackdown. Less is more and I’d like to think that Vince turned around and allowed himself a scotch or a smoke or attempted to fight a stagehand or whatever he does to decompress after this symbolic moment.

Smackdown’s new opening theme is the AC/DC classic “Are You Ready (for a Good Time?)”  The music choice and the rest of the title sequence definitely has a network sports look to it as the WWE Superstars are portrayed against CGI backgrounds as colorful and unique characters, using a second or two of facial expressions and body language to tell new viewers who these superheroes-in-the-flesh are while legends from the past are shown behind them.  It really works.

Huge pop for Becky Lynch to start the Friday Night Smackdown Premiere!  Side panel factoids are back and so are Becky’s steam blasts!  Michael Cole & Corey Graves are our two man announce team. Again, sometimes less is more.

The Man tells LA that she’s loving being the one to kickoff the first ever Smackdown and she wants to pay back all the fans who raised her up by kicking someone’s ass!  We all know that’s someone’s cue. No Sasha Banks or Bayley just yet, though. A royal entrance is made by King Corbin. He asks if Becky still thinks she’s “The Man.” She tells him to take one more step to find out.  He does and on that first step… The Rock has come back to Smackdown! The Great One shakes The Man’s hand and goes to the corners for the “Roc-ky!” chants. Rock tells the story of how many many many moons ago, the Rock told “some jabroni” that he was going to lay the “smack down.”  Since then “smackdown” has entered the lexicon of the English language while Corbin grew up to look like a punk ass Burger King on crack.  

When the crowd is done chanting “Burger King,” Rocky tells us how great it is that… finally… he has come back home.  Corbin disputes as to whether Smackdown is Rock’s home anymore, telling him that he left and that there’s a new king in town.  Rock tells him that being King of the Ring doesn’t mean he has to dress like a 35-year-old virgin going to ComiCon. After all, Becky is “The Man” but she’s not walking around holding a pair of testicles (but if she was they’d be bigger than Corbin’s!) After insisting that his testicles are perfectly adequate, he asserts that  he’s better than Rock, Becky and all the fans because LA only has one king and it’s not Lebron James. 

The Rock asks Corbin if he really thinks that and, sure enough, Becky cuts him off by saying “it doesn’t matter.” Rock tells Corbin that he recognizes Corbin is legit: Money in the Bank winner, King of the Ring, retired Kurt Angle, super tough dude.  Rock and Becky get the crowd to acknowledge that Corbin is a Super Tough Dude, aka STD. They tell him he’s welcome for the STD chant that will follow him for years. Rock notices that Corbin is looking embarrassed and angry. When you insult, The Man, the fans, and The Rock, that’s what you get. Corbin about to step out the ring but then he steps up, dropping the robe and crown.  Becky and Rocky batter him around with punches, The Peoples Elbow, and a Rock Bottom. Corbin powders out and a mic drop from The Rock.

Reactions:  The opening title sequence, starting the Friday Night Smackdown Premiere with one of the most over talents on the current roster getting the rub from arguably the biggest star in the history of wrestling as they completely take the piss out of pretty much the number one heel in the company?  That was exactly what people were tuning in for. That was dude-bros that left after the Monday Night Wars, frustrated diehards, curious casuals, and kids that get to stay up late because there’s no school tomorrow all getting a laugh and a thrill from the idea that justice was served to an arrogant jerk.  It’s a simple formula done right with quality ingredients.

We see Hall of Fame inductees, Trish Stratus & Lita in the crowd.  They’re sitting with Maria Menounos. Fun fact: All three have clean wins over Beth Phoenix!

Becky is still in the ring after Rock leaves and she’s soon joined by her partner, Charlotte Flair.  The two show no affection towards one another, barely acknowledging each other’s presence. Their opponents are another story as Sasha Banks waits for Bayley and her wacky, arm-waving, inflatable tube men.

Becky Lynch & Charlotte Flair vs Sasha Banks & Bayley

This match was on the short side (a theme throughout the night) but the “WWE style” means something different for the women and there’s no “paint by numbers” from the girls trained by Sara Amato.  Bayley & Sasha do a better job of strategic tags, keeping them in it while getting outclassed. The finish comes when the match breaks down. Becky and Sasha reenact the Don Frye-Yoshihiro Takayama “hockey fight” from Pride FC with Bayley and Charlotte following suit.  Charlotte hits her signature Moonsault to outside, getting a big crowd reaction. Back in the ring, Bayley taps out to Charlotte’s Figure Eight leglock.

Your winners by submission… Becky Lynch & Charlotte Flair!

Reaction: Ric Flair was half right on the kickoff show. These four in one ring are as good as the current product can get or audiences can ask for. This wasn’t a five-and-seventeen-eighteenths match and shouldn’t have been. Everyone on this show is introducing themselves to (hopefully) millions of people who weren’t tuning in last week on USA.  Becky is the fiery brawler. Charlotte the long and strong superior athlete. Sasha is the quick, sly, and ruthless opportunist like her hero, Eddie Guerrero. Bayley has turned the corner in transforming from the gutsy underdog into the desperate and frustrated weasel that strikes out when cornered.  Four personalities. Six relationships. One match.

Erin Andrews is in the back with ya boys, The New Day!  She wants to talk to Kofi about the main event and that, despite being champ, he’s the underdog.  Kofi tells her that he was the underdog against Samoa Joe and Randy Orton. It’s who is and what he does.  She asks if he’s bringing your posse and X & E seem to take a bit of offense. Big E says they’ve been call “troublemakers” and “rabble-rousers” and even  “mother…” Hey! No. Xavier tells her that, even though they always have his back, Kofi has asked them to stay back because he wants to prove that he deserves to be everyone’s W-W-E heavyweight champion.

Shot of boxing champ, Tyson Fury, in the crowd.  Urban Meyer and Dennis Rodman are namedropped as having been on set but aren’t shown.

Seth Rollins vs Shinsuke Nakamura

Good pop for Seth’s “Burn it down!” theme and a good reaction for Firefly Fun House on the big screen.  Bray Wyatt addresses Seth. He introduces himself to the FOX audience as well as all his friends. This includes Seth’s biggest fan, Ramblin’ Rabbit!  Rabbit warns him not to get in the cell with The Fiend. Bray Wyatt thinks it would be more convincing to stage a “Hell in the Cell” where Mercy the Buzzard tears Ramblin’ Rabbit apart as the Fiend.  Bray laughs and tells Seth that history tends to repeat itself. He gives The Architect a happy “See you in hell.” Nakamura’s music starts right before commercial break. When we get back, Hulk Hogan, is in the front rows and saying hello to Ric Flair and Rock’s Mom while “Real American” plays.  Sami Zayn is at ringside but barely mentioned for the television audience. Seth with good dance partner can give you magic and Shinsuke can too if he’s currently giving a damn. Neither is given the time in this case. The crowd chants “Burn! It! Down!” as Seth strikes up the band for a curb stomp. Lights go out.  Fiend music comes on. Seth is at entrance way and, after several beats and blackouts, The Fiend shows up and Mandible Claws Seth. Seth is tossed from the stage like so much human refuse.

Reaction: Downside?  Too short a match and keeping the live crowd’s reaction to Nakamura’s theme and/or Sami Zayn’s promos has to be seen as a missed opportunity.  Upside? Great TV for Bray Wyatt and The Fiend. Not the best Firefly Fun House but awkward and unsettling. This was my wife’s first look at The Fiend and she said she’s “going to have nightmares about that creepy ****.”  She’s not alone. I’ve seen social media videos of people reacting to the Fiend’s “pop up” at the end of commercials and asking “What was that?” It’s the larger-than-life character that we’ve come to expect and done the correct way that we so frequent say isn’t done anymore.

Kevin Owens vs Shane McMahon in a Ladder Match for their WWE careers

KO does well early but climbs too soon.  Shane is brutally successful in using the ladder on KO as a weapon and it sets up the classic Shane elbow drop on the announce table spot.  Owens will not be outdone, though, and hits a Frog Splash to the outside on Shane as he’s laid on a ladder stretched from the ring to the barricade. Shane-O-Mac looks to set up a Coast-to-Coast but replaces the chair with a ladder?  From 20ft away, he nails it! Cole hypes to stakes for Owens’ family as Shane climbs the ladder. Not so fast! Kevin Owens catches him on the way up and powerbombs Shane onto a ladder set up in the corner. That’s what it took. Kevin gets to the briefcase and brings it down.  The heir apparent is told, “Hey, Shane! You’re fired!” and given a stunner.

Reaction:  This feud should have been more.  Shane has done a superb job but he’s not a natural heel.  Kevin Owens fighting to give his family a better life is a compelling story but looks better against an arrogant, Flair-like heel that the evil authority figure.  Either way, Owens is free to move on and the audience saw a quality car crash match with signature spots for both men.

Lashley and Lana are shown at the blue carpet together.  Man, that’s wrong. Want to know one of the things AEW did right on their show?  They didn’t interrupt the main event to have Kylie Rae’s boyfriend make out with Riho with no explanation whatsoever.

Kayla Braxton is with Paul Heyman again.  He says that he doesn’t care about what Erin Andrews or Kofi Kingston say.  He cares that they show the “appropriate” footage of Brock Lesnar beating Rey and Dominic Mysterio.  He gives Kayla and the millions around the world, not a prediction but a spoiler: You will hear the words “The reigning, defending, undisputed WWE Champion, Brock Lesnar!”

Braun Strowman, The Miz, & Heavy Machinery vs AJ Styles, Randy Orton, and Robert Roode & Dolph Ziggler

It doesn’t take long before this turns into The Braun Show and absolute carnage.  With most of the participants outside the ring Braun “goes for a jog,” plowing through his opponents like speeding truck.  While doing so, he has a little interaction with Tyson Fury. Fury doesn’t seem amused, though. Braun tosses Ziggler into Fury and Gypsy King really doesn’t like that.  Dolph cracks Braun good as he egts back into the ring but the big man recovers to plant the showoff with a powerslam for the win. Tyson does not like the way Braun is looking at him now.  He’s had enough and jumps the rail! Security pours in to get him back into his seat as the crowd chants “Let them fight!”

Reaction: One of the top talkers in the business in The Miz.  Heavy Machinery is red hot, right now. AJ, Roode, Ziggler, & Orton are A-level in-ring workers.  Were they “wasted” on this match? Not really. This was about Tyson Fury. Even if it doesn’t go past tonight, it’s a big deal.  Meanwhile, the other seven men in the match got paid and got seen.

Marshmello, a famous DJ (or so we’re told) is fraternizing with R-Truth and The Bellas when Carmella is looking to bounce out and protect her 24/7 Championship.  Heavy Machinery shows up with chocolate and graham crackers to make s’mores out of Marshmello! ‘Mello goes to bolt but ends up accidentally knocking over and pinning ‘Mella!  A new 24/7 champ!

Roman Reigns vs Erick Rowan in a Lumberjack match

Daniel Bryan is at the announce table for commentary.  Odd to have Roman out first but it’s a good indication of how they seem to be looking to push Rowan.  Heel lumberjacks beat on The Big Dog when he ends up outside. When Rowan is out, he actively fights the lumberjacks from putting him backin the ring.  

Once Roman hits the superman punch, Luke Harper shows up to protect his pal, Rowan.  The lumberjacks and Daniel Bryan try to stop him but are steadily getting cut through.  As Harper gets closer to the ring, Roman takes flight and the crowd loses it for Samoan Airlines.  This allows to recover and the big redwood grabs Ali and uses him as a projectile weapon on Reigns.  The finish comes when Roman fights out from the Iron Claw and Harper gets into the mix. He’s clearing out lumberjacks but it’s Daniel Bryan that stops him!  Rown gets the claw on Daniel but a spear takes out Rowan for the 1-2-3.

Daniel offers an olive branch to The Big Dog.  He hesitates but the crowd’s chance of “Yes! Yes! Yes!” prompt him to shake the hand.

Reaction: Really not a fan of guys having matches every week during a personal feud.  Roman is one of the big stars and Rowan is on the rise so it makes sense that they’d put Thor vs Hulk on this big of a show.  The lumberjack match has never been my cup of tea but it does get appearance checks out to twenty guys that might not have had any face time otherwise.

Before the WWE Heavyweight title match, we get a “tale of the tape” graphic displaying Kofi Kingston and Brock Lesnar’s accomplishments and the striking physical disparity between the two.

Brock Lesnar vs Kofi Kingston

Kofi comes out with New Day but, true to his word, he sends them to the back.  Kofi is introduced first so that Paul Heyman can grab the stick and do his schtick.

Off the bell, Kofi goes for a leaping chop and is immediately caught and thrown into an F-5!  The Beast Incarnate is a 5-time champion!

As Lesnar struts around the ring, Rey Mysterio’s music hits and Rey comes out in a sling but he’s not alone.  Rey Mysterio is walking to the ring with Cain Velasquez! Cain Velasquez, the man who dethroned Lesnar as UFC champion!  The man who holds the UFC heavyweight records for takedowns, knockouts, strikes landed, and days as champion! Velasquez gets in the ring and Brock rushes him.  Velasquez gets a double leg takedown and rains down punches from the standing mount position! Lesnar rolls out and staggers back to the entrance ramp. Heyman urges him back towards the ring and, just when he’s close enough to touch the apron, Heyman raises the belt in defiance to slink away again towards the back.

Reaction:  I’ve seen Cain Velasquez in action with Mexico’s AAA promotion.  He’s impressive. Natural athlete or not, taking up the craft of professional wrestling at 37-years-old is a daunting task.  Going shirtless might not have been the best for this debut as Lesnar is looking better than he has in years but those who know who he is (or Googled him immediately afterwards) know that he’s as legit as anyone can ask.  

By the time I’ve typed this, I’ve already read a dozen post on social media decrying how Kofi Kingston is being “unfairly buried” and “disrespected” by this match not going “at least five minutes.”  Stop. Kofi does a good job and he certainly seems like a great person. But he was an accidental champion. He’s beaten five former world champs while he held the belt for six months but, six days before Elimination Chamber, 99% of the WWE Universe wasn’t thinking about a title reign for him.  They were enjoying him as the workhorse of The New Day, who were anchoring any show that they were on, providing moment after moment after moment as the greatest tag team in WWE history. He’s not being demoted. He’s not being held down. He’s getting his old job back, a job he likes and is damn good at.  It’s time.

Final thoughts: In many ways, the Friday Night Smackdown Premiere could be considered (if you’ll pardon the expression) “the greatest night in the history of our sport” and the culmination of Vincent Kennedy McMahon’s life’s work.  Plenty of hits and misses throughout the years but they have all been about one thing and one thing only: mainstream acceptance and recognition. Vince gambled his company itself on ventures like Wrestlemania on closed-circuit television, a subscription cable network, developing a life-long friendship with then-NBC exec Dick Ebersol to create Saturday Night Main Event and The XFL, starting WWE Films after bankrolling the first films to star Hulk Hogan, The Rock, and John Cena, putting Lawrence Taylor in the main event of Wrestlemania.  It brought him to the brink of bankruptcy and it brought him billionaire status. But that goal of being “legitimate,” of not being a carny or a phony or a huckster was something he couldn’t buy. Prime time network television is Vince’s validation.

FOX had lofty expectations for the Friday Night Smackdown Premiere and spared no effort or expense for it, having pumped out commercials with Superbowl-level hype, television specials in the week leading up to the network television premiere, The Miz featured on Extra immediately preceding the half hour “blue carpet” kickoff show.  This Friday Night Smackdown Premiere had all the feel of a network special. If the numbers show that too, I think we’ll see the Friday Night parties staying big and loud and the place to be.

The Friday Night Smackdown Premiere will air on Hulu.



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