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SmackDown: one half brilliant, one half inscrutable
WWE

Pro Wrestling

SmackDown: one half brilliant, one half inscrutable

This week’s episode of SmackDown highlighted Sami Zayn’s stunningly brilliant character work.

There’s only two episodes of SmackDown left to go before the Royal Rumble is upon us, and the Superstars of the Blue Brand are jostling to get a spot in one of WWE’s most exciting and important events of the year.

Listen to the latest episode of our weekly wrestling podcast, PTW!

AIPT’s very own brothers of destruction Brendan and Tim Lee are here to break down the most important pieces of the SmackDown for you: Kevin Owens and the Tribal Chief’s battles on the microphone and in the ring, Sasha Banks and a sommelier bringing intergender wrestling to WWE programming, Big E’s penchant for hip openers, Bianca Belair and Bayley’s NXT of yesteryear challenge, and Sami Zayn’s stunningly brilliant character work.


  • Asuka/Charlotte Flair vs. Riott Squad w/ Billie Kay (Asuka/Charlotte Flair via pinfall)
  • Cesaro vs. Dolph Ziggler (Cesaro via pinfall)
  • Sasha Banks vs. Reginald w/ Carmella (Sasha Banks via submission)
  • Intercontinental Title Match: Big E vs. Apollo Crews (Apollo Crews via DQ due to Sami Zayn interference; Big E retains)
  • Bayley / Bianca Belair Obstacle Course (Bianca Belair via completing the course)
  • Dominick Mysterio vs. King Corbin (King Corbin via pinfall)
  • Adam Pearce vs. Paul Heyman (Heyman unable to compete, Roman Reigns takes his place. Kevin Owens attacks Reigns before the bell rings and stops the match)

Brendan: It only took two weeks for me to break my resolution to recap every episode of SmackDown in 2021. I blame WWE, but maybe I just don’t have the iron resolve of a champion who doesn’t miss appearances, shows up, and puts in the work. You know, like our Tribal Chief?

Nevertheless, I am back this week and ready for a good time, or whatever SmackDown has planned for me. Tim, were you entertained by tonight’s main event of “Scrap Daddy” Adam Pearce returning to the ring after 6 long years to take on…Paul Heyman?

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WWE

Tim: Goofy as this episode was, I thought it was a vast improvement over two weeks ago. I’m only vaguely aware of what happened last week and managed to miss the opening segment tonight, so maybe that heightens my emotions. Anyways, the main event was a good time. I would have liked to have seen Paul Heyman swing and miss, but I understand the need for symmetrical story telling. Kevin Owens making the save (after a solid five minutes of Pearce getting his ass kicked, finally) was a jolt of energy that was lacking from previous interactions. Owens dropped a pretty monster promo earlier in the night that I really bought, albeit as one of the most casual of fans.

Brendan: That promo was excellent. Sold with conviction and quite a bit of emotion when discussing his grandfathers. Face K.O. is not my favorite K.O., but that was okay as far as weekly television goes.

One of the aspects of this prolonged feud between Reigns and Owens that they haven’t really leaned into since before the Christmas episode is promo segments where the two of them interact. Seems like a no-brainer to me to have them trade quips, especially given Owens’ ability to improvise. It could be that they want to protect Reigns and showcase his heel mic work without interruption, but I could actually do with more talking on a WWE broadcast for once.

Tim: I’ll agree. At least with regard to more talking by people who aren’t named Billie Kay. Or employed as a sommelier. What a weird writer’s room SmackDown must have. Half of what is happening is pretty brilliant and the other half is inscrutable. Those halves at least seem to be lining up quite nicely for some of the former indie darlings.

Cesaro is being treated as a legitimate threat to win a singles match. Sami Zayn doing Piper-esque heel work. Nakamura is taking wrestling seriously again. Supposedly, Keith Lee is being pushed pretty hard on Raw. Certainly a far cry from where things were a year or two ago. It’s nice to see and I hope that it translates with a wider audience.

Brendan: For the purposes of this discussion, let’s lean into the stuff that worked tonight, namely the IC title picture. For all the discussion about how important Roman Reigns is to SmackDown week in and week out, Sami is also carrying the load too. #JusticeForSami better have trended worldwide tonight.

At one point during the Charlotte Flair & Asuka vs. Riott Squad match, it appeared that Sami was in the middle of a 15 minute long screed to a fake documentary camera in an empty arena after chaining himself to the entrance ramp. That tag match was perfectly adequate and I love any opportunity to see Asuka work (Top 5 in the industry right now, don’t @ me), but the world deserves to see that promo footage.

Tim: I couldn’t agree more about Sami. I wonder how much input he has over his character because it’s genius level work and he’s absolutely killing it. To gain the level of heat that he has without a crowd is a skill that I don’t think any other wrestler has ever even needed to hone, much less mastered at this level. The snide liberal zealot isn’t exactly a new heel archetype but it feels fresh when Zayn engages in it, in part, because he’s playing into the fears and prejudices of a lot of the right-wing fanbase. It’s hard to believe that WWE is letting this breathe. Tonight was really a masterstroke in terms of getting him screen time.

Asuka and Charlotte are as close to the Mega Powers as one could reasonably hope for in 2021. I know a lot of people have mixed feelings about Charlotte Flair, but her in-ring work is undeniable. I ended up enjoying that tag match a great deal more than I expected.

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WWE

Brendan: The single greatest aspect of the Sami angle is how it takes a traditional trope like the snide woke heel but totally subverts it for the historical period we are currently weathering. The conspiracy theories, the refusal to acknowledge the title loss, meaningless unending and “blocked” off-camera promos that don’t ever get aired or mentioned by the commentary team…it’s staggering to me that WWE is even capable of this level of subtle currents events analysis. He might be using leftist talking points for cheap heat, but it’s very clear where the satire is being aimed.

It’s a near certainty that Zayn is in charge of writing and executing this concept because I’ve never seen anything like it from WWE. As you pointed out while watching, the mere mention of a “CHANGE MY MIND” meme on camera just proves that Sami understands exactly what he is doing. The approach is the polar opposite of, say, RETRIBUTION or how they initially tried to pitch The Hurt Business. Sami should be instructing the current crop of writers backstage how to handle topical material in a way that frames the moment they are seeking to incorporate into a storyline, but also works within the traditional context of pro wrestling. Truly subversive stuff for WWE.

Tim: The RETRIBUTION storyline (if you can even call it that) is one of the few I’d been aware of over my period of abstention and you’re spot on. I think it helps that Sami himself is actually a leftist. For some reason, Dijakovic doesn’t present as someone who genuinely believed in the anti-fascist cause that RETRIBUTION sought to represent or lampoon, or whatever it is. I could be way off base there, but he doesn’t strike me as an enlightened dude. Maybe it’s the weird eagle iconography or something.

Anyways, it’s clear that Sami isn’t so much playing a character as much as he is amplifying aspects of his actual thought process. I think that always wins out when you’re talking about mic work. Obviously the QANON stuff isn’t indicative of his personal beliefs. Here, I’m thinking specifically about the rhetoric and posturing. He doesn’t have to stretch too much to think of something that is sure to rile up at least half the audience. I’m looking forward to him and Big E finally getting a chance to wrestle again, but I’ll settle for the seven match series between E and Apollo for now.

Brendan: Yeah, the actual IC title match tonight was a bit of a letdown, even in light of a Dusty finish. It did yield a hard edit out of a recap video to a live shot of Big E wagging the title belt at Sami in a completely salacious, inappropriate, non-FCC compliant, and Attitude Era manner. Bottom line: worth it.

I know you were down on the Sasha Banks vs. Reginald match, but it’s low key historic in that we just witnessed a legitimate intergender match on WWE programming. Not a mixed tag match where men and women can’t wrestle, not a gimmicky and artless dodge. That was a match where the bell rang, the competitors of opposite gender grappled, countered each other, executed actual wrestling moves, and a clean ending via submission occurred. They treated it seriously. That matters.

It’s not exactly an instant classic, but we’re not that far removed from the idea that WWE would never sanction intergender competition, let alone air it on network television. Mixed Match Challenge was strictly confined to Facebook Live and didn’t allow for actual intergender wrestling. I might not have made World Champion Sasha Banks at the height of her popularity break that new ground, but I am merely an interested fan.

Tim: I honestly hadn’t even really thought of it that way. I guess it maybe signals a move to a more Lucha Underground style for the company in terms of letting intergender matches get air time and have them taken seriously. It might have been made more memorable if we weren’t getting the sommelier angle (or if Carmella wasn’t involved).

I see your point though and it was a surprisingly well-executed match. I might have been harsher on it than I ought to have been due to my inherent distaste for sommeliers. It’s a dumb f*ckin’ concept, just save your money and drink the wine you want to drink. Or better yet, just eat at Applebees or something.

(Full disclosure: I had takeout from an Applebees this evening.)

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WWE

Brendan: That’s some classic ex-service industry rage right there. I’m saving my distaste for the Bianca Belair and Bayley segment from tonight.

There were myriad ways to forward the long term storyline that will lead to an inevitable (and likely excellent) Fastlane or WrestleMania match between these two women. A half-assed obstacle course featuring Chad Gable, Otis, a “four hundred pound” truck tire, and a 7 foot adjustable basketball hoop isn’t one of them.

The only thing that kept me from fast forwarding through this entire ordeal was a desire to hear the promos and see if Bianca could fireman’s carry all 300+ lbs of Otis. The entire thing gave me flashbacks to the Street Profits and Viking Raiders feats of strength, decathlon, golf, basketball, and ninja attack vignettes from 2020. If that makes zero sense to you, Tim, don’t worry. It didn’t work for anyone else either, least of all the talent involved.

I award this segment no stars.

Tim: Not since Okada vs. Omega in the Tokyo Dome have we seen a competition more stirring and technically sound as the obstacle course between Bayley and Belair. Just tremendous work from both athletes. What talent! The network is so pleased with their work. (Cyrus “The Virus” impression, look it up nerds).

Every once in a while WWE books something that seems like it is directly aimed at pissing off smarks like me. It usually works, but for some reason I liked this segment. Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome from the second week of watching SmackDown or something, but I thought it was the right balance of goofy and silly. It looked like the kind of thing a hungover gym teacher would make students do for a field day after spending the previous five days on a soul crushing bender instead of planning. I even audibly gasped when I saw Otis come out from under the ring. It feels weird.

Brendan: I will always accept any opportunity to hear Otis just say “OH YEEEEEEEA” unprompted. It might not have been a total loss, I guess

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