Are you ready? Are you for a good time?
We sure hope so because AIPT’s very own JJ Travers and Brendan Lee are here to break down the most important pieces of the SmackDown for you: Roman Reigns’ dominance on the mic and continued growth as a tremendous talent, the utter mess that is the WWE SmackDown Women’s title picture, the horrible booking for the Women’s Tag Team Championships, and Apollo Crews’ bold new character.
Brendan: Last night’s edition of SmackDown featured a cage match, a returning superstar, and my favorite WWE staple, extremely questionable booking. In spite of myself, I was still able to have a moderately OK time. Maybe even a good time. We also have a big name coming back here too. JJ, I’ll defer to you. Where would you like to start this week?
JJ: I want to start by discussing what was probably the best part of the show, and that was the opening promo with Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns.
Bryan came out and cut a good promo that touched on his ambition report — which we’ve heard about previously — his love for the business, record at Elimination Chamber, and cut a general very relatable spiel about how stoked he is to be wrestling. He loves it. Right? Wrong. He needs it.
Reigns saunters down to the ring and proceeds to cut a much better promo in which he explains to Bryan that love is about service to others, not what you need, and Daniel Bryan needs wrestling. The Tribal Chief loves wrestling, but he doesn’t need it. Everybody in WWE needs him, and guess what? He’s absolutely right. It’s still a little weird after a year to sit with the realization that Reigns is one of the best promo guys in wrestling, not WWE, but the entire business of professional wrestling. But I’m glad to be here.
Brendan: I’m starting to look back on The Shield and Big Dog era with even more anger. If Reigns was always capable of performing this well on the mic and evoking this level of response as a heel, why did we even try to do it the other way? I look back on the night after he broke Taker’s streak at Mania and stood in the ring for 10+ minutes getting nuclear heat and booed in a way I had never seen before. He was smug and silent, and it was the best character work he ever did to that point. The signs were there. I was just too busy complaining to see that Roman Reigns had the potential to be the most complete heel on the roster.
Last night’s promo hit the same note for me, but in a completely different way. The entire framework of the segment (passion vs. love, need vs. service, etc.) was a brilliant promo. Since nobody else in the company besides maybe Sami Zayn is coming close, I have to imagine that Reigns is writing his own material. Maybe Heyman is helping? Either way, I kinda zoned out after Jey Uso interrupted and missed the back half of that segment because I was busy examining every personal relationship I’ve ever had. Sometimes, you can work the audience into a shoot, Roman.
On a side note, I’m tired of hearing about the ambition report. Unless Vince is a huge Welsh history buff, we need a new angle from Daniel Bryan when he decides to get serious. The idea of legacy, this being his final run, whatever it is. Enough with the past. Edge vs. Bryan is the dream match we all wanted and very easily could have gotten at FastLane. Now, we’re knee deep in meandering promos about Daniel Bryan’s ambition again.
I’m not sure where this program is headed, but I am fairly certain that it doesn’t end with Reigns dropping the belt. Having said that, it was also low key hysterical to me that Michael Cole asked Daniel Bryan to explain why he’d rather compete for the Universal Championship over being part of a meaningless tag match with Edge at a placeholder PPV. Excellent reporting, Cole. Rich and compelling.
JJ: I fully expect this to be a simple filler feud to keep us entertained until Reigns and Edge face down at Mania, and I’m absolutely fine with that. I’m not about to complain about Bryan and Reigns in a one-on-one main event at Fastlane. Despite the fact that there’s no chance in hell Reigns drops the belt, it will still be a fantastic match. Bryan is one of the few folks on the roster that I’d say is believable enough to take down Reigns, but it just doesn’t make sense here. When Jey Uso and Bryan were jawing at each other in the ring and throwing fists, Reigns didn’t move, he just stood there. Dude couldn’t have cared less, couldn’t be bothered with it. And I believed it. That’s how dominant he is right now.
Brendan: Speaking of dominance, your Women’s Tag Champs were working again this week. Fresh off defending the belts over on NXT, Shayna Bayzler lost clean to Bianca Belair on SmackDown. I was disappointed that we got less than 10 minutes of them wrestling, given how well they performed in NXT and the potential for a good weekly TV match. Shayna’s methodical joint manipulation and Bianca’s huge upset in a clean win were overshadowed by the saga of Reginald. Unless this ends with a Banks heel turn and Reggie becoming her valet, I’m starting to get the feeling that the SmackDown writing team don’t know what they are doing here. Regardless, we shouldn’t be speculating about Reginald’s future in a program that features Sasha Banks and Bianca Belair. There were 3 separate Reginald segments tonight and this match didn’t go 10 minutes. The train has derailed, guys. In fact, it’s crashed into the f***ing mountainside. We have officially lost the plot.
JJ: This feud is just a complete mess. There’s so many problems here: the lack of a women’s tag division that led to us here, Shayna and Nia retaining in NXT, Carmella being involved via her sommelier, Sasha and Bianca having no real story to tell beyond last night’s weird Reginald interference, the big hint that Nia will use Reginald to take down Sasha; I could go on and on. This entire “story” feels so far below the caliber of the performers, especially Banks and Belair. This is sadly a perfect example of WWE’s biggest problem, having an incredibly talented roster but god awful writing and storytelling. Their roster is maybe the best it’s ever been, but this is the least excited I’ve been for a Mania since 27 in 2011.
Brendan: The biggest problem with moving Belair along so quickly is that she needs a heel champion to face at WrestleMania. Whether she wins or not doesn’t matter so much as her being able to get over in what is unquestionably the biggest match of her career to this point. That connection with the crowd and audience calls for clearly defined heel / face alignment. On the Raw side, they had set Lacey Evans vs. Charlotte as the Mania title program, so that meant a quick turn for Banks. It doesn’t make sense to me, as she’s more over now than at any other point in her career and is currently enjoying the kind of reaction that Becky Lynch was getting during her title run. She’s an excellent chaotic good face. Why ruin that dynamic in the name of setting up a dream match with Bianca prematurely? I didn’t trust WWE to get this one right anyway, so I am not surprised.
JJ: I’d like to shift gears to what has a lot of the internet fans up in arms about whether or not it’s okay for WWE to be putting on SmackDown; Apollo Crews’ new character. First things first, I’m a white dude and I just want to ensure folks are aware that I realize I’m not the best person to try and analyze this, but as a fan and a critic I’m going to do my best.
To start, I really dig that Crews is taking his character in a bold new direction. That’s never easy, especially for someone who’s drifted around the bottom of the card for most of his time on the main roster. Over the past year, he’s come a long way with his work on the microphone and distinguishing himself as something other than a guy who’s just happy to be there living his dream. Crews’ personality has really started to come out and take shape, and now he made a really big change to his character. A lot of folks are screaming racism right off the bat, but I think it’s really important to recognize that his family is of Nigerian descent, his father was born in Nigeria, and Crews is the son of an immigrant. The dude explained why he changed his voice, it didn’t just happen overnight without explanation, like so many other things in WWE do. Clearly, this is very personal to him and it feels like this is something he chose for himself.
All that being said, I was much more open to this character last week when it was just him. This week the royal guards and the horrible spear prop really brought the whole thing down for me and I hope that he pivots back to relying on a simpler presentation. Either way, it’s still early and I’m not going to write this off until he has a proper chance to show us what he can do.
Brendan: (For the record, fellow white dude here. I will also do my best.)
I am less optimistic about this new direction. Not because of Apollo Crews as an in-ring performer or Sesugh Uhaa as a human, but because of WWE. The idea that we’re even having broad debates about code switching and immigrant culture in American society is extremely encouraging. For every important topic and potential breakthrough that could come out of this heel turn, we have very troubling missteps like the flimsy looking spear and “Nigerian Elite Guard” this week or Crews talking about how cool polygamy is last week. Since this is WWE, the best outcome I can expect is “one step forward, two extremely offensive steps back.” What an extremely strange thing in fandom to have this heel turn juxtaposed with the implications of Bobby Lashley winning the title on Raw this week.
In my estimation, we last rubbed up against this type of booking during Jinder Mahal’s title run. It was hard to evaluate how authentic and positive that version of the gimmick was, but I can tell you that I didn’t have an immediate and visceral negative reaction to it. They are currently running something similar with Roman Reigns and the Anoa’i Family that’s not completely disrespectful or relying on Headshrinkers-level tropes. It’s 2021, so WWE can’t have Crews go full Kamala or Saba Simba on us. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t the potential for something equally as damaging and disrespectful here. I am keeping an open mind here because I want to believe that Sesugh Uhaa won’t let Apollo Crews become a racist talisman.
I also want to believe that Big E wouldn’t be involved in a program that wasn’t uplifting or ended with a negative, hurtful outcome for himself or Crews. That’s a huge component missing here that might flip this whole thing on its head. What is E’s response to everything that has transpired? Crews has used the phrase “I am a real African American” two weeks in a row now. It’s extremely hard for me to believe that Big E can let that go without comment. Will we get a nuanced discussion about the perception of Blackness in the US and abroad? Right now, it feels like we’re getting one half of a conversation. So, I hope for more dialectic analysis and less bad accent work. That’s probably a high bar for professional wrestling in general, let alone a company with a past as checkered as WWE.
I’m going to reserve judgment too, but Apollo is already pretty far out on a delicate limb. Please don’t fall, dude.
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