WWE SmackDown 9/15/2023: 3 Things We Hated And 3 Things We Loved

Welcome to the most electrifying weekly review column in all of Wrestling Inc., the one for "WWE SmackDown!" Well, this one is pretty electrifying, anyway. Somewhat electrifying, at the very least. Not sure if you heard, but The Rock showed up on WWE TV for the first time in four years Friday night, and our staff has THOUGHTS on that. We even have a few thoughts on other things not related to The Rock, though it's clearly "SmackDown" itself didn't have a ton in that regard.

Anyway, as usual, we're not covering everything here. You will find no blow-by-blow breakdowns of Finn Balor vs. AJ Styles; for that kind of thing, try our live coverage. What we have for you here are opinions and analysis courtesy of the WINC crew — or, to put it another way, these are three things we hated and three things we loved about the 9/15/23 episode of "WWE SmackDown."

LOVED: The Rock, Pat McAfee, and Austin Theory create magic in Denver (Liam O'Loughlin, WINC news writer)

FINALLY, The Rock has come back ... to WWE! After a lengthy absence from the company where he made his name, the iconic Hollywood star made his triumphant return on "WWE SmackDown" to assist Pat McAfee and confront former United States Champion Austin Theory while receiving a raucous ovation in Denver, Colorado.

McAfee would make his own comeback to WWE to kickoff the program and welcome the crowd to "SmackDown," earning his own massive pop in the process, before being interrupted by Theory, who cut one of the better promos of his career opposite the former NFL punter. The pair had history from an impromptu match earlier this year at WrestleMania 39, and their interaction showed plenty of promise for a second official encounter (while also tying up a loose-end). However, the segment truly picked up when McAfee began to mention "the people," leading to a jaw-dropping entrance from The Rock. After some cute back-and-forth and the returning hero getting in his trademark verbal jabs and cheap pops, Theory would cop a Rock-induced chant of "you are an a**hole'"from the amped-up Denver crowd, before things got physical and the up-and-comer found himself looking up at the lights.

This was a magical moment for the fans in attendance, and it also gave Theory yet another spotlight against two genuine mainstream personalities — he looked more than capable across from them on the mic, even if he got laid out to end the segment with a couple of People's Elbows. The return of The Rock will undoubtedly lead to plenty of speculation about his in-ring future in WWE, but even if he was only back for one night, it was awesome.

Hated: ...was that it? (Miles Schneiderman, WINC senior lead news editor)

So let me get this straight.

We spend more than a year obsessed with the possibility of The Rock vs. Roman Reigns at WrestleMania 39. Back and forth reports, constant speculation. Is he winning the Royal Rumble? Is he appearing at the Royal Rumble? Is he still showing up at WrestleMania even though he didn't win the Royal Rumble, because it's in Los Angeles? This goes on for months. Everyone assumes the match is happening because of the Bloodline storyline; The Rock is part of the Anoa'i family and is the logical final boss for anyone claiming leadership over that family. It's the only thing anyone really wants to see him do.

Then, on Friday, before "SmackDown," Dwayne does an interview with Pat McAfee where he says the match with Reigns almost happened, and says he'd be open to it at WrestleMania 40. Then McAfee comes out to open Friday night's show — and then The Rock returns! On "SmackDown," the home of the Bloodline story! It's finally happening!

So then The Rock does the thing where he embarrasses a younger talent (in this case it's Austin Theory, so little of value was lost), gives him the People's Elbow, pops the crowd, briefly runs into John Cena backstage, and that's it. Reigns wasn't there, but Jimmy Uso was, and Solo Sikoa was, and Paul Heyman was. The Rock interacts with none of them.

Look, the ridiculous pop Rocky got when he showed up was great, and the segment was fun just because the crowd was so into it. But this didn't feel like Rock coming back for a storyline, or even to plant the seeds of a storyline. This felt like he just happened to be in Denver and decided to show up and get a huge one-off reaction. It's fine, I guess, but after a four-year absence from WWE, after all the rumor and speculation, after the "Young Rock" teases, and after the interview he literally gave the same day, it kind of sucks that he finally comes back and doesn't even wink at the story we all want to see him join.

LOVED: LA Knight Is Moving On Up (Olivia Quinlan, WINC news writer)

LA Knight is finally entering the title picture! YEAH!

The feud between Knight and The Miz had been growing stale after their match at WWE Payback, and honestly, I was disappointed when it didn't end in Pittsburgh. I didn't see a need for the two to continue a program given that they were losing some of their momentum, and especially not a match on a random episode of "SmackDown".

I can't say I really cared about this match, but I was pleasantly surprised after Knight grabbed a mic to put United States Champion Rey Mysterio, Intercontinental Champion GUNTHER, World Heavyweight Champion Seth "Freakin" Rollins, and Undisputed WWE Universal Champion Roman Reigns on notice. With all the popularity Knight has gained over the past few months, I think it's a smart move for him to call out the titleholders on both brands and keep fans guessing as to which title he's coming after and which brand he'll show up on. WWE has played their cards right, and if they keep it up, Knight has the ability to bring more eyes not just to "SmackDown", but to "Raw" as well.

HATED: Bayley deserves a lot better (O'Loughlin)

It hurts to say it, but one of the best women's wrestlers of all-time has simply become a means to an end in WWE. For close to a decade, Bayley has been one of the most reliable performers in the company, from her days as a popular babyface in "NXT" to her stellar work as a heel before and during the pandemic on "WWE SmackDown" — but right now, the multi-time champion feels like a pure afterthought on Friday nights, and she deserves a hell of a lot better.

It's no secret that Bayley very rarely emerges victorious in her matches these days, and when she does score a three-count, it's usually due to outside interference. While she is a veteran of the locker room and doesn't need to be a dominant superstar that never loses, Bayley is still in the prime of her career at 34 years of age and has plenty more to offer than being used as a pawn in the main-event scene on "SmackDown". Wrestling in three-minute matches or losing via nefarious means is no way to treat one of your biggest female stars, and the ongoing feud with Shotzi has certainly run its course, with the next encounter sure to be their last.

The whole women's division on the blue brand feels disconnected. Asuka is supposed to be a heel and Shotzi is supposed to be a babyface, but the pair ended the segment in Denver with an embrace. Bayley has predominantly worked heel since her return in 2022 but is losing via distraction roll-ups, while her Damage CTRL partner and current champion IYO SKY has been positioned as a babyface. The only members of the women's division on "SmackDown" that currently have a clear alignment are Zelina Vega and Mia Yim, with neither star featured prominently in recent weeks and spending more time in the background of their respective factions.

Next week's bout between Asuka and SKY for the WWE Women's title will be a brilliant encounter, but the overall direction of the "SmackDown" women's scene is leaving plenty to be desired right now, and the usage of Bayley is a prime example.

Loved: The Undeniable Cool Of Bobby Lashley (Matthew Carlins, WINC News Editor)

It is so great to have Bobby Lashley back on WWE TV.

Basking in the hometown welcome in front of fans in his native Colorado, Lashley was the coolest guy in the room during his segment on Friday night's "SmackDown." Cooler than the refreshed Street Profits. Cooler than Rey Mysterio. Cooler than Santos Escobar. Certainly cooler than anyone else in the Latino World Order (although I'm a big fan of the sweet hat that Joaquin Wilde has been rocking). The point of the encounter on Friday night was to set the agenda for Lashley going forward — he wants the WWE United States Championship currently held by Mysterio. To add fuel to the fire, Lashley and the Profits laid out the LWO.

Lashley returned to WWE programming back in July and hasn't wrestled a single match since then, but it doesn't seem to matter. Everyone knows he's a dominant force in the ring. He's got nothing left to prove in that regard. What's left to prove is how far he can take the Street Profits, and whether the once-stagnant tag team can rise to his level as their new alliance moves forward.

HATED: Wheels Forever Spinning With The Bloodline (Daisy Ruth, WINC news writer)

Maybe it was just me, with The Rock and Pat McAfee returning for a huge segment at the beginning of the show, but everything else that followed fell flat. While I was struggling through the entirety of "SmackDown," I thought to myself, "Well, at least something good will happen on The Grayson Waller Effect," as the Australian's talk show segment was main eventing. Sadly ... that was just not the case. I don't really think it even deserved the main event spot, but with kicking the show off the way they did, I'm not sure what I would have put as the main event, truthfully.

While I understand the stories we have going on with Jimmy Uso vs. AJ Styles and John Cena's involvement (kind of), it's just not exciting for me, when you look back at what "The Bloodline" storyline has been. And I still have so many questions. What is Cena supposed to be doing? You bring the man back for a talk show segment and he doesn't get a word in on the mic? He still seems directionless ... unless he's really going to be involved in the Bloodline storyline somehow, fully. Right now, it seems almost half thought-out.

The Jimmy betrayal seems almost irrelevant now that Jey is on "WWE Raw" since Cody Rhodes pulled strings to get him there. Speaking of ... we STILL have a trade that's allegedly going down for "SmackDown," and after this episode, we still have no idea who's making the jump from "Raw." Is it Rhodes himself? Is it McIntyre? Does WWE even know?

As previously mentioned in this column, bringing in The Rock with no Bloodline integration just seems silly. I suppose you couldn't exactly have him run down and beat up Uso without making your fans think it was going to lead somewhere else, especially with what The Rock himself said about facing Roman Reigns on "The Pat McAfee Show," but it just seemed almost awkward to not have The Rock interfere. At best, it seemed pointless. The only portion of this segment that I found intriguing was Solo Sikoa about to go for a Samoan Spike on Uso, then moving to superkick Cena instead. And even that angle is something we've seen a few times already, even just since SummerSlam.