Professional wrestling started the New Year off with a bang across nearly every major promotion, and as a result SmackDown finds itself in a position where it’s going to be exceedingly difficult to capture fans attention. Within the past few days we’ve witnessed a Goldberg return, a Kyle O’Reilly and Finn Balor NXT Title match, Wrestle Kingdom, and the birth of a new faction on Dynamite that could change the landscape of professional wrestling as we know it.
Will the Tribal Chief maintain his spot at the head of the table and continue to provide for his family? Can Sami Zayn correct the great injustice done to him? Does anyone in WWE care about the Tag Team division? Let’s find out.
AIPT’s very own Brendan Lee is joined for the first time by his brother, Tim Lee, to break down the most important pieces of the SmackDown for you: Roman Reigns gaslighting Adam Pearce, Sami Zayn’s magnificent heel work, a Nakamura of yesteryear, a complete disregard for the Tag Team division and The Dirty Dawgs, and the joys of a Big E and Apollo Crews match.
Brendan: It’s been a jam-packed week in professional wrestling to start the new year: we had Goldberg nailing his scripted promo and the annual “Let’s remember some guys!” extravaganza on Raw; two nights of NJPW perfection during this year’s Wrestle Kingdom; and a full slate of PPV-caliber matches Wednesday on Dynamite and NXT, punctuated by an OG Bullet Club reunion. Who knew the week’s biggest, most shocking moment would be the return of NWA Hall of Famer SCRAP IRON ADAM PEARCE on SmackDown?! You’re goddamn right I’m ready for a good time.
Welcome to the AIPT Wrestling, Tim. I know you’ve been away from SmackDown for some time, but can we meet this moment in wrestling history and place it into proper context?
Tim: Ugh. In a week of travesties, this is neither the worst nor the most interesting. It’s indeed been awhile since I’ve watched the main roster product, but I have to imagine that this is the best (and most motivated) they’ve made Shinsuke Nakamura look in years. I will give them credit for making the bold choice and I suppose this sets up a big return at the Rumble, but just dreadful booking, in my humble opinion.
Brendan: For context, it’s probably important to describe briefly how we ended up in this precise spot.
Tonight’s episode of Smackdown opened with our weekly 20 minute fireside chat with the Tribal Chief and Head of the Table, Roman Reigns. Since his return at SummerSlam last year, Reigns is one of the most compelling wrestlers in the world, and his heel turn was cemented by a callous, bulletproof new version of his unbeatable hero persona, increased workrate in big matches, and excellent mic work on a week-to-week basis.
I’m not saying tonight was a letdown by any measure, but bullying the GM is not exactly new territory for a WWE heel, even in the postmodern hellscape of the Thunderdome. Did you enjoy Reigns gaslighting Pearce with a professionally-assembled highlight package?
Tim: I’ll preface this by saying that a fifty-foot holographic version of myself doing the “Oooooh, Ahhhh” is how I’ll be reintroducing myself to my students when we return to physical learning in 2025. That said, this Thunderdome s--t is f-----g bonkers.
It’s interesting to see Roman finally harness the potential that he always flashed while with The Shield and in his singles run. The permanent look of utter disdain added a third dimension to this segment that was so sorely lacking from his “Big Dog” era promos. As for the “Nice Package” that you referred to, I appreciated Roman’s invitation to look.
The highlight package salvaged a meandering promo for me. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by AEW on a weekly basis, but 22 minutes of mic work without any wrestling was hard to stomach. That said, I’m excited to see Adam Pearce get his ass kicked, so there’s that.
Brendan: All signs are pointing to Adam Pearce taking a beating and disappearing from weekly television. That’s a welcome development, especially if he’s replaced by an incoming Sonya Deville. I guess where this booking falls apart for me is the idea that it comes at the expense of the singles talent at the top of the men’s division.
Tonight’s gauntlet match featured no less than three certified modern legends in Rey Mysterio, Daniel Bryan, and Shinsuke Nakamura. Outside of maybe Roman Reigns, there’s currently no better heel in WWE than Sami Zayn and his bonafides are real enough to hang with those aforementioned men. King Corbin also showed up. Good for him.
While I am glad the match yielded a fantastic right wing conspiracy trolling promo from Zayn and long in-ring segments with Nakamura vs. Mysterio & Bryan vs. Nakamura, that’s a long way to go for the short, boring punchline of a Reigns-assisted Pearce win.
Tim: I’m torn about whether or not the Gauntlet benefited from the lack of a live crowd. It’s hard to imagine an audience being pleased with how they did Nakamura, but I gather that was the point. It would have been interesting to see what kind of heat the finish drew.
It was a reminder of how solid Nakamura is as a performer and it was certainly an entertaining match from a wrestling standpoint. But I feel like that is the story of the modern-era of WWE. Incredible talent, unimpeachably good matches, but booking that just kills any motivation to want to invest in it weekly.
Sami’s heel work is magnificent. If they could jar MAGA-chud reactions to this particular persona and sell it in stores, I’d buy it. He is, bar none, the most hated wrestler in WWE at least insofar as I’ve learned in my travels on social media. I won’t say it’s “stabbed outside of San Juan” heat, but he’ll probably get there if they let him. Start the show with 22 minutes of that and I’d watch live every Friday. It would also cool if they let him wrestle.
Baron Corbin, you’re just gonna choke a legend?
Brendan: Last week, I closed this column by declaring that I would be picking up a “I AM THE INTERCONTINENTAL CHAMPION” t-shirt and I am proud to report that I could not be happier with that purchase.
It’s overshadowed by Reigns’ transformation, but Sami’s return last year produced some of the best in-ring and backstage segments on SmackDown. It’s extremely gratifying to see him continue that work in 2021, albeit getting squashed. It’s a small price to pay for being able to watch him dismantle conservative identity politics in real time under the auspices of the McMahon Family.
As for actual wrestling this Friday night, it was slim pickings beyond the gauntlet match. The Men’s Tag titles changed hands! All hail your new champs…The Dirty Dawgs?
— WWE Network (@WWENetwork) January 9, 2021
Tim: I will paraphrase Don Rickles from the 1990s Norm MacDonald picture Dirty Work and say that The Dirty Dawgs have the collective charisma of a dead moth. Dolph Ziggler is a goddamned improv comic. Think about that for a second. The man has been able to have a decade plus wrestling career while moonlighting at comedy club open mics. I don’t understand his appeal and probably never will. I bet Jim Cornette loves the Dirty Dawgs, and that means I f-----g hate them.
I’m fine with taking the belts off of the Street Profits. I’m even fine with it happening on SmackDown (thank you to AEW, for bringing back TV matches where titles change hands). It could have been literally any two other wrestlers from the roster (minus Adam “G.O.A.T.” Pearce) and I would’ve been pretty thrilled with the match and finish.
Brendan: Street Profits are an extremely frustrating case study in squandered potential at the moment. Over the course of almost a year, they managed to hold both brands’ tag belts, but that time yielded one memorable match (against New Day, so that’s a given) and a handful of humorous backstage segments with Viking Raiders. Even though Ford is clearly headed toward a singles run at some point in the future, his chemistry with Dawkins is good enough that they can deliver in-ring. Unfortunately, WWE has nothing for them, which couldn’t have been more clear tonight.
I’m a little more sanguine about Ziggler than you. HBK cosplay and bad jokes aside, he’s more than a good hand in a company where that quality is valued. “Robert” Roode is one of the most decorated tag wrestlers in Impact/TNA history, so it’s not like he doesn’t know his way around a good tag match. There’s zero chemistry between these dudes and even less good writing/creative being made available to them. Right now, they are a less compelling version of The Revival before they up and left. Yikes.
So it makes absolute perfect sense that they are SmackDown Tag Champions now. JJ and I bemoaned the lack of tag teams on the roster last week and that problem still exists. We just have heel champions now. It’s Sonya Deville’s first day on the job and she even pointed out that they booked themselves into a corner. Pearce probably needs to figure out what he’s going to do when he wins the Universal Title, so I get that he’s preoccupied.
Tim: It was certainly refreshing to see an honest to God tag team match take place on the main roster, particularly one that wasn’t booked with four singles wrestlers who were in individual feuds. It seemed like for years in WWE that the tag division was an afterthought, and perhaps it still is, but I will say that my qualms with the match had little to do with the in-ring performances.
Ziggler has always been capable of good matches, but he just irks me for some reason.
Brendan: You know what doesn’t irk me? Watching Big E break out the hard hat, put down the orange cones, use the yellow tape, and do some construction on Apollo Crews’ behind. Not entirely sure why there was a dusty finish and restart, but you definitely don’t slap E in the face.
Tim: I was legitimately confused by the fake finish. Was Roman’s promo not long enough? Was there another match that got cut? There was no reason not to: A.) Open with that match; and B.) Let it go for ten uninterrupted minutes.
Big E is a national treasure and I marked out hard when I found out he’d won the Intercontinental title (even though he took it from Zayn). Crews has definitely come a long way from his NXT days (and his borderline criminal misuse when he was called up) and was booked strong against E. I guess I should have realized I was back in the WWE Thunderdome by this point in the night. Yet another classic case of overbooking a match that speaks for itself.
Brendan: Doesn’t matter, man. We still saw Crews deadlift Big E THREE F*CKING TIMES for rolling germans and got the best uranage in the business from E to boot. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to head over to the WWE T-Shirt Exchange and see what Adam Pearce swag is available.
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