By Thomas Brady
WWE SmackDown visited Manchester this week and brought a phenomenal show. In the historic main event of the evening, AJ Styles defeated Jinder Mahal to become the first WWE champion to be crowned outside of North America in over 30 years. AJ’s massive title win, ending Mahal’s drab 170-day reign at the top of the WWE tree, was the perfect cherry on top of a hugely successful European tour and has giant implications on the upcoming pay-per-view event, Survivor Series.
Now the main event of the Survivor Series show – which is considered one of the ‘big 4’ events of the year – AJ Styles will collide with Brock Lesnar in a match that has fans salivating. It is a dream contest which most never thought could be a reality. During this show, SmackDown and WWE’s flagship show Monday Night Raw will go head-to-head for one night only. All of the respective champions from each brand will face one another and there will be huge five-on-five male and female matches between the rosters.
The entire night was well received by a loud crowd, the event sadly not a sell-out given the once-in-a-lifetime impact of the evening. That said, the TV cameras began to roll and storylines instantly began to progress. First out the blocks for the night was SmackDown Live commission Shane O’Mac. He ran down the evening’s scheduled matches and rounded off by commending the New Day, who invaded Raw the day prior, costing Raw tag champions, The Shield, their titles.
The New Day trio, Xavier Woods, Kofi Kingston and Big E, look set to face The Shield at Survivor Series but before they could get to that, their celebrations were interrupted by Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. Zayn and Owens are disgruntled with the way Shane is running SmackDown and call the segment ‘painful,’ so in repose Shane set up a match between Kofi and Sami, which began right away.
Sami and Kofi had some great chemistry in the ring and were the ideal match to get the crowd on their feet. Each peppered the other with a flurry of quick drop kicks and signature moves, but despite Sami being much more aggressive, he succumbed to a top rope crossbody dive, much to Owens’ displeasure. The New Day stood tall as the fans clapped along to their theme tune, with the promo and match being a lovely way to start proceedings and warm up the fans.
Next up we saw Randy Orton facing The Bulgarian Brute, Rusev, whereby if Rusev won the match he would be granted a spot on the men’s five-man team. Rusev was introduced first, followed by Randy Orton, who got a huge positive reaction from the viewers.
Both tried to immediately end the showing with their finishers, the superkick and the RKO – neither were successful and Rusev took full control with body strikes, kicks and chinlocks. The Bulgarian continued to dominate the entire contest until he turned his back. When he spun back around Orton hit him with his classic RKO, spiking Rusev into the match for the win.
It was a standard Orton match with not too many exciting moves or elements to shout about, and it also meant Rusev would not take the final spot in the Survivor Series team. Instead, we have since learnt that everybody’s favourite polarising superstar John Cena, would be taking up that final spot, completing a star studded line-up for Team SmackDown.
Following Rusev’s crushing defeat we got our first backstage segment of the evening, between James Ellsworth and Team SmackDown’s female captain Becky Lynch. The two exchanged words which led into an intergender match between the two. Intergender fights are incredibly rare in the world of WWE, so Manchester got another amazing gift from the management team.
The slimy Ellsworth ran down Becky with a series of disgusting and misogynistic comments. He told Becky that she didn’t have a chance of defeating him, simply because she was a woman and that she was in MANchester, not WOMANchester for a reason – the entire run down was met with appropriate boos from the audience.
Before the match could begin, the rest of the women from Team SmackDown came to ringside to support Lynch in her battle. The match that ensued was perfect given the earlier antics; Becky schooled her foe and kicked him all across the ring before quickly submitting Ellsworth with her ‘disarmer’ hold. Following his crippling defeat, his love interest Carmella added sweet insult to injury by superkicking Ellsworth in the mush, seemingly putting their alliance to rest. The crowd ate up the match, raining boos down onto Ellsworth whilst all of the women, especially Lynch, thankfully were met with warm responses.
Next came the most disappointing part of the night. Scheduled was a tag team title match, which would see The Usos defend their belts against the challengers, Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin. Many expected the bout to be a joyous festival of technical wrestling but, in reality, we only saw a couple of minutes of action as Gable delivered a chop block to Jey Uso’s knee, resulting in the champions being counted out, and losing the match. Now, here’s the catch, the titles cannot change hands on a countout victory, so this was completely stupid behaviour on Gable’s part. He cost his team the chance of becoming tag team champions and made himself and Shelton look ridiculous. Why would they want a countout win if they wouldn’t capture the belts? The mind boggles and the fans were left completely unsatisfied in what was the only lowlight of the evening.
But every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction, and every lowlight has an equal and opposite highlight; which brings me to the main event of the evening. ‘The Modern Day Maharaja’ Jinder Mahal entered first to an ocean of disapproval, perfectly juxtaposed by the deafening cheers and applause for ‘The Phenomenal’ AJ Styles. Little did everyone in attendance know they were present for what would be the most important WWE match in the UK since British Bulldog defeated Bret Hart for the Intercontinental Championship way back at Summerslam 1992.
The match utilised the classic big man (Jinder) versus little man (AJ) formula as the champion controlled his opponent with power moves and clubbing blows, cutting off any comebacks with further strikes and one particularly vicious clothesline. Styles never gave up though and used his superior speed and calf crusher hold to bring the bigger man down to the mat. Both of their tactics blended wonderfully and it became evidently clear that we were seeing something special unfold.
As we approached the final moment of the night, the match began to beautifully crescendo with false finishes, bringing the crowd to their feet each and every time. First, Styles found an opening and nailed Jinder with his ‘phenomenal forearm’ finishing move – but Jinder was saved by his minions, The Singh Brothers, who dragged him out of the ring to safety. Enraged, Styles systematically dismantled the brothers with a combination of forearms, tackles and knee strikes.
Amongst all the commotion Jinder, being the crafty and dishonourable champion he is, attacked AJ and crashed him into the canvas with his own finishing move, The Khallas. Nobody has avoided defeat following this manoeuvre and the dejected crowd were certain that it was over. Jinder went for the cover and the referee began to count. 1, 2, wait…AJ got his foot on the bottom rope, meaning the match continued! People shot to their feet in excitement; you could feel the electricity in the air and a genuine belief that the beloved AJ Styles could win grew across the arena.
Furiously, Mahal plonked the challenger on the top rope, looking to hit a super Khallas and assure that the belt stays around his waist. However, too much time was taken and AJ had time to recover; he drove Mahal’s neck into the top rope, stunning the champion – AJ scrambled to the outside and, as Mahala turned around, he flew with the grace of a peacock and the speed of a panther, smashing the champion with another phenomenal forearm. Jinder crushed to the floor and AJ covered him, the referee counted the 3 and the building burst into rapturous cheers, drinks flew into the air and limbs flailed in uncontrollable joy. Nobody could quite believe what they were witnessing, but the beloved AJ Styles had become the brand new WWE champion, right here in Manchester!
As Styles basked in the riotous crowd’s appreciation, Jinder slumped to the back. Sadly for him, it was the best match of his entire title run, but also happened to be the last. Emotions were overwhelmingly positive and the championship changing in England for the first time ever was the dream scenario for everyone in attendance, sending the fans home beaming with glee.
Styles’ win has massive historical implications. As mentioned, this is the first time the UK has seen the WWE championship be won and it is also the first time since 2003 that a new champion has been crowned on SmackDown. Coincidentally, the man who won it in 2003 was AJ’s opponent for Survivor Series, Brock Lesnar, so everything has rounded to a mouth-watering circle.
This show illustrates exactly why WWE shows are must-see and in 2017, wrestling truly has an emphasis on ‘anything can happen.’ Survivor Series is now a must see event and, if you’re a wrestling fan, you’d be mad to miss it as the landscape of the company could completely shift yet again.