Nothing says "patriotism" more than a John Cena flag match and the naming of the "Miztourage."

wwe the new day screen shot
Xavier Woods and The New Day in the "Smackdown Live" rap battle

[We recently started our weekly coverage of WWE Wrestling leading up to the Wrestlemania at the Mercedes Benz Superdome April 8, 2018.]

This week Smackdown Live took place on July 4, so the WWE celebrated Independence Day with a special red, white and blue program starting with John Cena over-emoting his patriotism en route to the announcement of a flag match between Cena and the Bulgarian Rusev. Fortunately, the show got better almost instantly with an A.J. Styles/Chad Gable match to see who would get the last spot in the Independence Day Battle Royal with the winner to face Kevin Owens for his U.S. Championship belt at the Battleground pay-per-view. You could wonder how one of Smackdown’s top stars was left out of the battle royal in the first place, but it doesn’t matter because he and Gable put on a good show—athletic, creative, and high impact. Styles won, but the match helped build up Gable, who’s been a bit a lost since his tag team, American Alpha, came up from NXT. 

The WWE treats holiday shows as if they’re not exactly canon, but Smackdown Live was more consequential than most holiday shows. Naomi beat Lana for a third time, raising questions about what kind of photos she has to get three title shots with almost no background as a wrestler. After Naomi squashed her, getting Lana in a submission hold in under 30 seconds and forcing her to tap out, the story moved incrementally forward as Tamina came out to the ring to usher the devastated Lana back to the dressing room. Since Lana played no role in Rusev’s spot, it looks like the husband and wife that were also manager and wrestler are now pursuing different paths on screen. Since Tamina needs something to do as well, her intervention was welcome.

The Usos and The New Day met in a rap battle refereed by Wale, and as so often happens when the WWE meets pop culture, it’s clear that no one in a position of power at the WWE listens to rap. The battle was closer to a dozens throwdown, and it was never as funny as anybody in the ring thought it was. The New Day won when Xavier Woods broke off an insult that caused The Usos to lose their cool. Cue the melee. 

The battle royal was, like most battle royals, a lot of stars doing largely uninteresting things. It was nice to see “The Perfect 10” Tye Dillinger get to play a major part in the finale as one of the last three in the ring with A.J. Styles and Sami Zayn. He’s another talent from NXT who hasn’t yet found his niche on the Smackdown roster, so it was nice to see him shine and get some love from the audience before Styles beat him and Zayn to advance to Battleground against Owens.

After a s-a-w-f-t episode of Raw last week, this week tightened up a little after its opening with an extended promo by Enzo Amore that challenged Big Cass to a match at the Great Balls of Fire pay-per-view on Sunday. The break-up of their tag team has meant little to me, but Enzo got in the game on his mouth, and he made his time alone in the ring work as he said goodbye to old Enzo and Big Cass catchphrases—“I’m a Certified G and I’m exactly me!”—and tried out a few new ones, at one point referring to himself as a “smack talker Skywalker.” The segment didn’t make me care more about the feud, the match, or Enzo, but it was definitely interesting, particularly in the way it sounded like an “I did it my way” goodbye speech. Maybe he can see the leftover adhesive on his locker where a piece of masking tape once read “Bushwacker Luke” and knows his future.

Bayley remained in WWE purgatory this week as she made an early exit from a tag team match that paired her with Sasha Banks to fight Alexa Bliss and Nia Jax. The match built heat for Banks’ battle with Bliss at Great Balls of Fire, but Bayley sold a concussion when Nia Jax knocked her off the ring apron and into the barricade, then knee-lifted her pumpkin into the barricade again. Bayley must have parked in somebody’s spot to end up in pro wrestling Siberia because her character entered the WWE with a lot of love and was presented as one of us—the audience’s surrogate in the ring. She won the Raw Women’s Championship, then dropped it to Bliss, got wailed by Bliss in a cane match, and knocked out by Jax this week. Is the WWE saying that this is what would happen to us if we got in the ring? I still assume that this is all part of a slow build of a toughening Bayley storyline, but we need to see something positive—even a flicker—to think she’s more than just a camp body these days.

At the same time as Bayley looks weak, Banks made good use of her time, selling the struggle of being outnumbered by Bliss and the powerhouse Jax before knocking Jax off the apron and locking Bliss in the Banks Statement until she tapped out. The match moved everybody’s story forward as Jax ended up clearly pissed at Bliss for not being able to hold her own. It’s only a matter of time before Bliss has to face Jax, the opponent she has strategically staved off for now.

The match also moved the story forward when Finn Bálor met Cesaro in the ring with Cesaro’s tag team partner Sheamus at ringside and The Hardy Boyz at the announcer’s table. The only part of their story not in place before the bell was Elias Samson, the wandering troubadour, who true to his role wandered to ring side, distracted and tripped Bálor, which brought the Hardys into the fray. Bálor won and was the quick, charismatic, dynamic guy in the ring that the Hardys used to be. If the result of the Iron Man match doesn’t drive the Hardys to the “Broken Matt” gimmick, I think the Hardys will get some time off. Right now, they’re a distraction. Fans at ringside chant “Delete!” anticipating Broken Matt, but at the moment, the gimmick’s future remains in limbo because Impact Wrestling claims to own it, and without it, the Hardys’ return seems random. 

Each week, I go on about The Miz because his segments remain the most complete on Raw as he feuds with Dean Ambrose. This week, he cracked me up by introducing his entourage as his “Miztourage,” and Heath Slater interjected himself in the feud because he pinned The Miz last week after Ambrose incapacitated him with a Dirty Deeds. Slater’s low-rent gimmick is itself pretty funny, portraying himself as a worker who’s just trying to feed his family. He came to the ring in an “I Have Kids” T-shirt backed by Rhyno, who wore a muscle shirt with “I’m With Heath” written on it in iron-on letters. Slater and Miz fought until the Miztourage got involved, which brought Ambrose to ringside, where he too was gooned by Miz’s posse. I assume this means we’ll get more Slater and Rhyno now to balance Miztourage members Curtis Axel, Bo Dallas, and the bandana Dallas wears so low on his forehead that it almost covers his eyes. Brilliant.

Once again, the top stories remain the most static. I hope the WWE will get the title belt off of part-time wrestler Brock Lesnar because without him in the ring occasionally, all movement in his stories have to take place in promo spots, videos and sketches. This week, he and Samoa Joe were to talk to each other via closed-circuit TV to each other from different rooms in the arena. Joe said Screw it and rampaged through the backstage looking for Lesnar, treating us to the less-interesting-than-it-sounds spectacle of officials trying unsuccessfully to stop him until he finally found Lesnar, who laughed as a Matrix-like body pile finally stopped Samoa Joe’s progress. 

The other big Great Balls of Fire match will be Braun Strowman’s Ambulance Match with Roman Reigns, and because Reigns was supposedly injured last week, he wasn’t around this week and Strowman wanted someone to beat up. For me, that’s the best part of Strowman’s character. He just wants to beat people up. Unfortunately, relentless destruction machines are boring because they relentlessly destroy everything. NXT call-up Apollo Crews got the match at the encouragement of manager Titus O’Neil, and the only drama was whether or not the WWE would make Crews look strong before Strowman dispatched him. The answer: strong enough. Crews was explosive and powerful enough to get Strowman off his feet before the tide turned. 

When Strowman started to beat up the defeated Crews, O’Neil got into it with Strowman and took the beating for Crews. Strowman took Crews to the ambulance parked by the stage, loaded him in, and when he tapped the side of the ambulance to tell the driver to take him away, Reigns came out of the driver’s side door to wail on Strowman, smashing him into the stage’s video wall before spearing him off the stage. The segment was more interesting than most of those building the Strowman/Reigns match since all they did in the last few months was sell Strowman’s awesomeness. Between Crews’ fight and Reigns’ spear, for the first time it seemed possible that Reigns might win—a possibility that hadn’t been teased before Monday night.