By Jason Powell, Prowrestling.net Editor (@prowrestlingnet)
The WWE Smackdown brand is a mess. There was a time not all that long ago that Smackdown was a good, no nonsense show that I genuinely looked forward to watching regardless of how much of a marathon a bad three-hour Raw show was at the time. These days, Raw is filling the three hours well and producing superior shows compared to Smackdown on a near weekly basis.
We could spend a lot of time recapping all of the poor decisions that were made starting with Jinder Mahal being forced into the WWE Championship position and the company subsequently moving the face of the brand into the secondary title picture. Or how they have shifted so much focus to the ongoing bickering between authority figures Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan. There’s plenty of additional examples, but there is one glaring issue on this show that needs to be addressed.
The heels on Smackdown are severely damaged.
Kevin Owens: A former WWE Universal Champion and secondary champion who lost credibility with viewers once he and Sami Zayn were booked as a unit and the two of them couldn’t beat AJ Styles in a handicap match. Owens always came off as a legitimate threat to champions in the past, but now he and Zayn come across like guys who can outsmart Shane McMahon on a regular basis, yet can’t get the job done even in a two-on-one situation while also getting storyline favors from Daniel Bryan.
Sami Zayn: The heel turn and reunion with Owens has done more good for Zayn than it has for Owens. Don’t get me wrong, the duo are entertaining, but there’s no denying that Owens has lost some credibility due to the way he’s been booked. Zayn has been positioned as a pest heel and there would be no reason to take him as a real threat to the championship if he’s booked in a singles match against Styles now that he and Owens have been unable to get the job done in handicap matches.
Baron Corbin: Pinned clean by Styles on Tuesday’s Smackdown Live, yet they want fans to see him as a threat in the five-way match at WWE Fastlane. Sure, they’ll probably give him some parity booking win between now and Fastlane to give him a boost, but it won’t matter since we are constantly reminded that Corbin is his own worst enemy and squanders all of his opportunities.
Dolph Ziggler: Is he a heel? Probably not given his last two television opponents, but I honestly can’t tell. If he’s not a heel, then why is he still coming out to his “record scratch, pause, horrible theme music” entrance? He started this to mock fans because his character accused them of caring more about entrances than what happens in the ring. Is he a babyface who is still mocking the fans with his ridiculous entrance?
Jinder Mahal: WWE swung and missed in their attempt to make Mahal a strong WWE Champion. Even so, the move elevated him and gave him some sense of credibility. In fact, I would actually argue that he has more credibility in terms of feeling like a threat to win a title than the other heels, but that says more about the others than it does about Mahal’s standing. It’s too soon to put Mahal back in the WWE Championship picture. He’s slotted correctly in the U.S. Title scene, though I would have had him follow his loss of the WWE Championship by having him win the U.S. Title tournament.
Rusev: The fans love the guy. As silly as Rusev Day is, the fans love it. Fans want to cheer him, but WWE inexplicably keeps him slotted as an undercard heel. They had a chance to rebuild Rusev as a monster heel when he returned, but they fed him to John Cena and made no attempt coming out of that program to recapture the magic that existed with him and Lana during their initial main roster run. It’s been downhill for Rusev’s push ever since the big tank entrance at WrestleMania 31.
That’s it for the list of meaningful heel Smackdown singles wrestlers in the men’s division. Rather than attempt to build up one of the heels as a major threat to the WWE Championship, the creative team continues to book AJ Styles in handicap matches or big multi-person matches. The mindset seems to be that the fans don’t take any of the heels as legitimate threats, but maybe they will believe there’s a chance Styles could lose if they stack the odds against him. It’s not working and it’s doing more damage to the heels in the process.
Meanwhile, the creative team should be doing everything it can to elevate the stock of Shinsuke Nakamura heading into his WrestleMania match with Styles. Looking at that crop of heel talent, none seem likely to give Nakamura the type of momentum building win he needs on television or at Fastlane. Nakamura barely receives television time these days aside from channeling the Henri character from “Cheers” by telling Styles that he’s going to steal his girlfriend, er, WWE Championship. And even Nakamura was stuck in no man’s land before they threw him the life preserver known as the Royal Rumble win. Are they serious about Nakamura or is his match with Styles at WrestleMania just their way of throwing the so-called internet fans a bone?
The Smackdown women’s division is in an even worse place than the men’s division. There are three full-time babyfaces and seven heels, yet not one of those heels has been established as a real player. Sure, it’s Ruby Riott’s turn to challenge Charlotte for the Smackdown Women’s Championship, but it sure looks like they are just killing time before WrestleMania. And what have we learned about the Riott Squad members since they were called up in November? The Smackdown creative team was handed three new heels with real upside and none have received character development nor have they served any real purpose beyond filling television time in the weekly parity booking matches involving one to three of the usual babyfaces.
The only heels on the entire brand with any semblance of momentum are The Bludgeon Brothers. Luke Harper and Erick Rowan are plowing through enhancement wrestlers and are clearly on their way to feuding with The Usos. The only thing we’ve learned about them since they reunited is that they have an affinity for large hammers, but at least there seems to be an actual plan in place for them.
Smackdown lead writer Brian “Road Dogg” James has taken a lot of abuse from online fans for the decline of the show. I have tried to give him the benefit of the doubt simply because we don’t know who is responsible for what. For instance, was James a real advocate for Mahal’s title reign or was that something Vince McMahon forced on him?
Rather than point fingers without knowing who is responsible for the decline, I’ll simply say that something has to change. Smackdown can get by with babyface vs. babyface matches such as Styles vs. Nakamura and perhaps Randy Orton can serve as a high end challenger to either man coming out of WrestleMania. It’s also possible that Smackdown will be bailed out of its creative funk via the next Superstar Shakeup. Even so, steps need to be taken to ensure that it’s not just a matter of time before the same mistakes are repeated.
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