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(1) Smackdown is badly lacking in acts that are actually over
I’ve seen a lot of people quick to label the live crowd as “poor” because of how quiet and disinterested they were in the majority of the show and seemingly blaming them for it. It’s WWE’s job to ensure that doesn’t happen. For as well as Smackdown has been booked since the brand split, the roster has barely any acts who are actually over. Popular, sure. But not over. Styles and Ambrose for instance are popular but neither are actually over in their respective roles. Despite technically sound heel work, A.J. isn’t getting heat as a heel. A.J.’s job is to make fans want to see him lose and make them want to see the babyface he’s opposing beat him. Fans don’t care whether or not Ambrose beats A.J. And the same applies to Ambrose. Sure he’s popular, he has fans and gets a nice pop when he comes out but he’s not actually over because if he was then people would care about seeing him beat A.J. Styles. To become the World Champion no less! All the proof that WWE needs that neither act are over is the reaction when James Ellsworth knocked Dean Ambrose off that Ladder.
And this issue was apparent throughout the card. If Dolph Ziggler was over then fans would have been lamenting The Miz for the way he won their match but instead they were largely subdued for what should have been a big heat gaining moment for The Miz. And in Dolph Ziggler you have another babyface who gets a pop when he comes out but nobody actually cares about him winning or losing. It’s near impossible for an act like that to have any significant impact on WWE’s business.
WWE need to start learning from this sooner rather than later because “I want to see AJ and Dean have a great match” has a lower ceiling in the metrics that are brought up in WWE’s quarterly financials than “I want to see Dean beat AJ and get back his Title that he got screwed out of”. Hands up how many of you were just reminded that AJ actually cheated to take the title from Ambrose?
(2) The heels won all but one match and nobody noticed
This ties into the preceding lesson. The only babyface to win their match on this show was Nikki Bella, and even then she ended the night on the bombshell (that nobody saw coming I’m sure) that her friend was the one responsible for attacking her at Survivor Series. Does it really matter? Not really but that’s where the lesson lies. Nobody cares who wins and loses. And that matters.
This current era is “come and see the show” and while that will do good business for WWE, we’re seeing proof in more and more metrics that it won’t do great business. The proof is in the pudding from wrestling’s history that business has always been at its hottest when your audience wants to see someone win and/or someone lose.
(3) Smackdown badly needs an injection of talent
And they need it in basically every sense. They need talent that can be put into main event pictures, talent that can be put into the IC Title picture and talent to bolster the Tag Team Division and Women’s Division. TLC was an ok show with a great main event but the excitement for the show was minimal and the main reason is the roster. The top two matches people have seen enough times and had minimal anticipation for another round even with gimmicks added to them, Bray and Randy are stuck facing a comedy team because of a lack of teams to hold the belts and the rest of the card is pairings of acts that round a card off rather than sell a card.
If we work on the assumption that Vince gives Smackdown the biggest main event possible for Wrestlemania (which he should) then Cena faces Taker who is the champion after beating Styles at the Rumble. That leaves Styles and Ambrose in an awkward spot with an alarming lack of potential opponents. We have to assume that Bray and Randy will be paired together either as partners and opponents. That basically just leaves Miz and Ziggler on the active Smackdown roster which would likely end up as a case of them moving down to their level rather than bringing them up to your level. If only WWE had a reserve of main event ready talent like a Samoa Joe or a Shinsuke Nakamura on hand to fill such a hole.
Where do Miz and Ziggler go now? They’ve played this feud out as long as possible because there’s really nobody else for either to work with. They essentially *are* the midcard on Smackdown. It’s so frustrating seeing such talented acts like Neville and Sami Zayn being underutilised on Raw or just outright neglected in Neville’s case when Smackdown’s roster is so thin and crying out for more talent. It also hasn’t helped that they’ve never replaced Alberto Del Rio’s spot on the roster since his parting with the company.
The Tag Division isn’t so much in need of numbers as it is credible teams. Using the division to further the Randy Orton/Bray Wyatt program is clever but the lack of credible teams in the division meant that they had to win the belts from a comedy team that the crowd stop caring about in between bell rings. Big picture there’s still only American Alpha and The Usos as truly credible teams in the division and with all the other teams with a permanents stain of being geeks it’s another area of the roster badly in need of credible talent.
And finally, the women are in need too. With a deeper division and literally any other challenger for Becky to work I suspect we don’t see her drop the belt. Because of the lack of numbers though, we’re seeing WWE trade title wins back and forth in each women’s division as a ploy to extend programs beyond their usual expiry date for little reason other than they can’t afford to end programs like Becky Lynch/Alexa Bliss early.
The encouraging side is that none of this is impossible. Bringing in Shinsuke Nakamura, Samoa Joe, The Revival, and Mickie James along with giving some new life to some midcard acts on Smackdown act is very feasible and would do wonders for making these Smackdown exclusive shows events that fans look forward to.
(4) Effort will only get you so far
This lesson relates to the two women’s matches on the show. Both had good builds with good backstories, good character work and good hype for the actual match. And all four women worked really hard in their respective matches and worked technically well put together matches. The effort from both a booking and performer perspective could not be faulted. But for all the effort and the addition of being given gimmicks to work with, still a novelty for the women, the matches were at best decent and won’t be talked about for any significant amount of time afterwards. And that’s kinda the glass ceiling for effort.
Becky is obviously an exception here but Nikki Bella, Carmella, and Alexa Bliss while all good acts that work really hard, still come across as acts trying to play pro wrestler rather than just naturally coming across as actual pro wrestlers like polished acts do. The lesson here is that The Four Horsewomen of NXT have set a high standard for women’s wrestling which has now become the expected standard for a women’s match on the main roster and WWE need to fast track the rest of the women up to a level where they at least look like polished pro wrestlers and not attractive looking women trying to play pro wrestler. Working with Becky will do Alexa wonders but they need to pair the Alexa’s and Carmella’s of the roster with the polished women’s wrestlers they have like Natalya and hopefully soon, Mickie James. Giving them more time at the Performance Center with Sara Del Ray and missing the odd house show would also be a good idea.
(5) The comedy should be kept separate from the serious
Comedy definitely has a place on a wrestling show. That place, however, is not with A.J. and Ambrose or with Wyatt and Orton. When you mix comedy with serious it can either turn the comedy into serious or the serious into comedy. But in these instances, it’s sadly the latter.
Fortunately Bray and Randy ran through the comedy team of Heath Slater & Rhyno very decisively (it should have been a full on monster squash mind) but the fact that the champs were a comedy duo weakened the significance of The New Wyatt’s winning the belts and putting the entire division on notice. Rather than being put over as a threat by walking through an established and credible team (ala The 2 Man Power Trip squashing The Hardys) they beat a pair of geeks, nobody cared and it failed to get them any heat or elevate The Wyatt’s as more of a threat than they were before.
The main event was a much worse example of this. Go back and listen to the reaction when Ellsworth tips Ambrose off the Ladder. Cheers and laughter. Your most featured babyface should not be laughed at and cheered when someone costs him a match for the biggest prize he has to fight for. Ellsworth in himself is not a bad act. Do this exact same program with Miz and Ziggler and it would work out much better. But all it’s done is turn your most important program that was built up to a TLC match where both guys worked their butts off and took some brutal bumps into a joke. And rivalries that build to a TLC match and/or a World Title match should never be a joke.
(This is the premiere edition of “Five Count,” a weekly Specialist column by PWTorch Specialist Matt Seabridge who will present a list of five lessons to be learned from various categories, theme, shows, eras, or events in pro wrestling.)