SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
The headline coming out of this week’s Smackdown is unmistakable – Shinsuke Nakamura has been reborn. In many ways this was the best night of his WWE career with the possible exception of the 2018 Royal Rumble. His outstanding showing in the gauntlet match was a perfect example of a telegraphed elevation and a wrestler’s performance meeting the opportunity. I believe it’s still likely that he ends up being Roman Reigns’s challenger at the Royal Rumble as the Adam Pearce story plays out, but if not, he has still been elevated by the obvious trust that was placed in him to carry such a significant part of last night’s program. This was his his best showing in WWE since this summer with an intensity that was missing during his big run three years ago.
Running the Gauntlet
Gauntlet matches have turned into the best gimmick matches in WWE despite their lack of violence or complicated stipulations. They carry the mystique of possibility that makes the Royal Rumble such a fun watch with the added element of excellent in-ring work that the Rumble simply cannot carry. WWE has slowly but surely been using the gauntlet as an elevation mechanism for talent and this week’s incarnation was no different. Rey Mysterio put on an excellent showing that raised the possibility of a future patriarch vs. patriarch feud with Roman Reigns, Daniel Bryan had an extraordinary match with Shinsuke Nakamura that elevated Nakamura, while pausing Bryan for a brighter day coming soon, and Sami Zayn’s character shined in the brief moments he was featured. That would be a lot on it’s own, but it was paired with the shooting star performance by Nakamura and the storyline-driven ending with Adam Pearce. It was wall-to-wall compelling TV and a major win for Smackdown.
Adam Pearce has long felt like a weak link for me in this era of WWE TV. He often feels like the lame, all-we-have-available actor for this administrative role. Tonight though, Pearce put on his best performance alongside the ever great Roman Reigns and showed fear, anxiety, and all around fine acting throughout the night. I’m curious to see if he actually fulfills the role as the Royal Rumble opponent for Reigns, but regardless, it was an unpredictable turn in the road while also not being a deviation from the natural progression of the overall storyline.
Brain Busters 2.0
A mild hit, but a hit nonetheless: Robert Roode and Dolph Ziggler are Tag Team Champions. It was time for a team like Roode and Ziggler to carry the titles and my hope is that they do for an extended period of time. It would be great if they truly leaned in on their Brain Busters 2.0 elements, including the great spine buster finisher, and strip away the pink trunks for more formal white and black ring attire. The Street Profits have done a fine job as tag champions but are better chasing the titles. The treatment of the tag team division has been so poor the past few years that it is nearly impossible to picture this playing out in a substantive way. For now, it’s a step forward.
There was nothing flashy about Sonya Deville’s return, but enough was shown that her previous reason for exit hasn’t been unnecessarily forgotten while positioning her in an important role. Perhaps Sonya’s authority gets her back in the Royal Rumble for a surprise win and eventual feud with Sasha Banks. Sonya carries a presence that few have right now and is a total net positive for the overall show.
Big E’s Big Loss
Just two weeks ago we were discussing Big E’s big win. This week he was pinned, albeit in a double pin, within minutes by a low card act in Apollo Crews. It is obvious at this point that the Smackdown writers do not view losses as preventative from elevating an act rapidly, but this treatment is consistent in the reality that Big E is the worst developed character on Smackdown. He looked like a poor sport by not immediately agreeing to the match re-start and was completely outclassed in the ring by Crew’s spectacular power moves. Big E just can’t win – even when he does.
The extension of the Carmella and Sasha Banks program was clearly made as an eventual transition for Banks heading into WrestleMania. The problem is that it feels every bit of a feud that has gone on a beat too long. Carmella seems to be losing some of the spark she had even a month prior and needs to be prepared to find a new motivation once the Royal Rumble has concluded and she, likely, is without the women’s championship.
NOW CHECK OUT LAST WEEK’S SMACKDOWN HITS & MISSES: WWE SMACKDOWN HITS & MISSES 1/1: Big E’s Big Mo Extinguished, Trading Places, Savior Sonya, Mania Momentum, Best of the Mid-Card, Tag Team Turf War, more