LECLAIR’S WWE SMACKDOWN REPORT 1/15: Alt perspective, detailed coverage of Reigns & Pearce contract signing, Uso vs. Nakamura, Mysterio vs. Corbin, more

By Brandon LeClair, PWTorch contributor


SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...

LECLAIR’S WWE SMACKDOWN REPORT
JANUARY 15, 2021
ORLANDO, FL IN WWE THUNDERDOME AT TROPICANA FIELD
AIRED LIVE ON FOX NETWORK

Announcers: Michael Cole, Corey Graves

-The show opened with a recap of the ongoing saga between Roman Reigns and Adam Pearce, with a full rundown of last week’s gauntlet match.

-The camera zoomed out from Roman Reigns’ “Head of the Table” shirt to reveal him sitting in an oversized leather chair, Paul Heyman leaning over the back. Heyman said they delivered Reigns the contract for the Royal Rumble only two minutes before the show went live.

Heyman said he doesn’t like it and believes the match needs a stipulation – one that allows Reigns to “be him” and teach Pearce a lesson. He took the contract from Reigns, telling him he’d bring it to Adam Pearce. “You can consider this handled,” Paul said. The camera focused in on Reigns’ contemplative face as Paul left the room.

-Jey Uso headed to the ring as the camera cut to the Thunderdome. Corey Graves said Jey Uso is a critical piece of Reigns’ rise to dominance, being his right hand man. Cole welcomed the audience to the Thunderdome. Jey Uso retrieved a microphone.

Jey opened by welcoming everyone to Friday Night Smackdown. He quickly changed his mind, “welcome to the bloodline’s show,” he corrected himself. He said Adam Pearce isn’t in control, neither is Kevin Owens. It’s he and his family. He said Adam Pearce is going to be wishing he kept his suit on come the Royal Rumble. Jey said it’s not just about dominating Smackdown, he said the entire company should be thanking Roman Reigns for keeping them relevant. Jey said they should thank Roman for the food in catering and the opportunity to be relevant.

Jey said he’s trying to get his. He declared himself for the Royal Rumble, said he’s going to win, and then go to Raw to beat Drew McIntyre or “Oldberg.” Jey said it’s his family, his bloodline, and they are the “whole WWE.” Uso transitioned to tonight. He said everyone is talking about Shinsuke Nakamura’s performance in last week’s gauntlet. Jey ran down the list of wrestlers Nakamura defeated. “As soon as we said nuhuh, he was out like a light,” Jey said.

“As soon as you cross my family, you’re gonna wind up leaving in a stretcher,” Jey said. Shinsuke Nakamura’s (old!) music cut him off. Nakamura walked to the ring with a microphone in hand.

“If your cousin is the big dog, that makes you his little puppy!” Nakamura laughed. He kicked Jey in the face. Nakamura bowed, then dropped to the floor in his signature rope split. Cole said they’d face off after the break.

(LeClair’s Analysis: Well, if last week wasn’t enough of a confirmation, there it is. Shinsuke Nakamura is a full-on babyface. Old music, old poses, old demeanor. The original WWE Shinsuke Nakamura is back. This was an effective segment. From Reigns’ and Paul backstage looking over the contract, right into the transition of Jey coming to the ring and cutting a really strong promo, this all just worked, as things with Roman Reigns often do these days. Jey seems comfortable and confident in this role, and it sounded like he truly believed it when he said he was going to win the Rumble and go over to Raw. Good stuff.)

(1) JEY USO vs. SHINSUKE NAKAMURA

The bell rang as soon as the show returned from commercial. Jey Uso and Shinsuke Nakamura traded a flurry of concurrent punches to get things going. Nakamura quickly dropped Jey with a shoulder tackle and covered him for a two count. Shinsuke transitioned into a headlock. Jey worked his way to his feet.

Jey dropped Shinsuke with a shoulder tackle of his own. He gave him a quick body slam in the center of the ring, then forced Nakamura to the mat for a cover. Nakamura kicked out at one. Both men worked back to their feet and traded punches again. Uso shot Nakamura into the corner. Jeu pulled Shinsuke to his feet, but Nakamura dropped him with a kick. Shinsuke followed up with knees to the shoulder and midsection. He hit a quick snap suplex and went right back to the grounded knee strikes. Jey pulled himself to the corner in retreat.

Nakamura heeded the official’s request to break from the corner. He let Jey wander out, then grabbed a quick headlock. Jey fought free, but Nakamura dumped Jey into the corner and stuck his boot into Jey’s face. Cesaro’s music hit, and he walked to the ring as the match continued.

Nakamura gave Jey a baseball slide through the bottom rope. He tossed Jey into the ring post. Nakamura returned to the ring as Cesaro rounded the corner toward commentary. Cole sent the show to commercial.

Jey Uso managed to bounce Nakamura to the apron as the show returned from break. Uso kicked Nakamura and sent him crashing to the floor. On commentary, Cole asked Cesaro why he didn’t come to Nakamura’s aid last week. Cesaro said Tropicana Field is large and he couldn’t get there in time. Cesaro said he’s entering the Royal Rumble match.

In the ring, Jey continued to beat down Nakamura in the corner. He hit a running elbow, then a vicious hip check. Jey continued to stomp away at Shinsuke. Jey tried to charge at Nakamura, but Shinsuke cut him off with a kick to the face. Jey rose quickly and Nakamura caught him again. Shinsuke peppered Jey with kicks, then a quick knee to the midsection. Jey fell to the corner, then kicked Nakamura in the face. Nakamura wasn’t phased, he quickly hit the sliding snap German suplex, then covered Jey for a two count.

Uso managed to counter an Irish whip with a Samoan Drop for a near fall. Nakamura returned to his feet and the two traded punches, chops and quick strike kicks. Jey hit a neckbreaker and covered for another near fall. Shinsuke rolled to the corner to avoid Jey climbing the ropes for a splash. Nakamura fought him off and hit a leaping knee from the middle rope, covering for a two count.

Shinsuke set up for the Kinshasa, but ran into a super kick from Jey Uso. Jey climbed to the top rope and went for the splash, but Nakamura got his knees up. Jey posted Nakamura, rolled him up and put his feet on the ropes. The referee initially counted to three, but then waved it off, seeing Jey’s feet. Nakamura rolled Jey through and hit a quick strike Kinshasa for a three count.

WINNER: Shinsuke Nakamura in 12:00

(LeClair’s Analysis: Really good match. Nakamura seems motivated, and Jey was great as always. I love the idea of trying to rejuvenate Nakamura as a babyface. I presume this leads to a feud with Cesaro, who is later revealed to not have Nakamura’s best intentions in mind. In any case, I love the idea that we’ve got a new foil for Reigns coming down the line, and a prominent position for both Nakamura and potentially Cesaro.)

-Backstage, Sonya Deville discussed match strategy with Adam Pearce. Paul Heyman walked on screen. He handed the contract back to Adam Pearce and told him Pearce has the opportunity of a lifetime as the main event of Royal Rumble. Heyman said Pearce is facing the biggest star in all of sports entertainment, then became momentarily distracted by Sonya Deville’s perfume.

Paul said the match will be contested under no disqualification. Pearce cut him off. He said the idea is ridiculous, and Paul knows it is. “It’s only designed to get me injured,” Pearce concluded. He signed the contract anyway and passed it back to Paul. The show went to break.

-Jey Uso was berating Charles Robinson backstage when the show returned from break. He told Robinson to count to three when the shoulders are down. Jey said Robinson is about to get fired for messing with the chief.

-Back at the announcers desk, Cole and Graves tossed to the Progressive Match Flo, covering the feud between The Street Profits and Dolph Ziggler & Robert Roode.

-Kayla Braxton welcomed The Street Profits to the interview set backstage. She talked about their valiant effort against Ziggler and Roode last week, but asked if it was wise to put the titles on the line after being attacked during the New Year’s celebration. Ford and Dawkins said you can call them a lot of things, but “scared” is not one of those things.

Ford talked about the Profits holding the tag team titles for 312 days. “Every single tag team the stepped up got dealt with,” he said. Ford said by not accepting the challenge, they’d be disrespecting the legacy they’re trying to build. Ford said Ziggler and Roode go by a lot of names, but the newest is champions. He and Dawkins grew serious. He said even though they’re down right now, the Street Profits are up.

-Roman Reigns sat in his oversized leather chair, talking to someone off camera. The scene pulled back to reveal Apollo Crews sitting on a coach beside Reigns. Paul Heyman walked in, delivering the signed contract to Roman. Apollo got up to leave. Roman told him to stay. “You could learn from this,” he said.

Reigns said he’s not going to sign the contract, because he never wanted a no disqualification match. “I wanted a last man standing match,” Reigns said. Paul said Pearce would never go for it. Reigns said he’s going to go for it, in the ring tonight. He handed the contract back tp Paul. “I’ll consider it handled.” Roman continued talking to Crews.

(LeClair’s Analysis: This could get interesting. I’m all for giving Apollo Crews a new personality, and aligning him, even peripherally, with Roman Reigns, is an automatic huge boost.)

-Natalya was already in the ring when the show returned from break. The Riott Squad’s music hit. Billie Kay ran to the ring with Ruby Riott and Liv Morgan at her side. Billie sported new “punk” gear, and asked for help getting up on the apron. Ruby and Liv were annoyed, but tolerant.

(2) NATALYA vs. LIV MORGAN (w/ Ruby Riott & Billie Kay)

Liv Morgan and Natalya locked up to start the match. Natalya worked Liv into the ropes and slapped her chest. Liv immediately grabbed a headlock. Cole and Graves talked to Billie about joining the Riott Squad. In the ring, Liv caught Natalya with a back elbow, then entered into a test of strength. Nattie worked her to her knees. Liv countered with a monkey flip.

Nattie and Liv rolled to their feet. Nattie scooped Liv up by the legs and dumped her onto the ropes. Liv collapsed into the corner. Natalya hit a quick snap suplex and tried for a second, but Liv rolled her up for a two count. Natalya hit a quick clothesline and covered for another two.

Natalya scooped Morgan up into a back rack. She stomped to torque the hold. Liv tried to elbow her way out, and managed to fall onto the apron. Liv hit a sunset flip over the ropes for a two count. She followed up with two quick knee strikes and an enziguri. Nattie retreated to the corner, Liv charged and hit a knee to the face. Liv gave Nattie a moment to recover, allowing her to dump Liv into the turnbuckle. Billie jumped off of commentary to try to “help” Liv.

Morgan hit a quick double knee and covered Nattie for another two count. Tamina came to the ring and started yelling at Billie Kay. Billie ran in the ring to get away from Tamina. Natalya rolled up Liv Morgan for a three count.

WINNER: Natalya in 5:00

(LeClair’s Analysis: Bad match, bad angle, just bad. The Riott Squad have no character, no momentum, and virtually no hope of gaining ground in this mess of a division. Tamina seems to shift allegiances on a semi-weekly basis. Natalya get never seem to get about .500. There’s just no consistency, other than Billie Kay acting as a nuisance to everyone she’s in a segment with. That’s the biggest problem here – entire segments, matches, and character journeys are based entirely around trying to get a trivial laugh over Billie Kay’s incompetence. It’s tiring.)

-Rey Mysterio headed to the ring for his match with King Corbin, coming up after the break.

King Corbin entered the ring as the show returned from break. Cole and Graves welcomed Dominick Mysterio to the commentary table.

(3) REY MYSTERIO (w/ Dominick Mysterio) vs. KING CORBIN

King Corbin immediately grabbed Rey Mysterio by the throat for a choke slam. Rey flipped through it, sending Corbin crashing into the turnbuckle. King Corbin quickly shrugged it off and dropped Mysterio to the mat with a couple of punches. Corbin hit a high angle backdrop and covered Rey for a two count.

Corbin went for a second backdrop, but Rey countered it into a bulldog. Both men returned to their feet. Corbin kicked Mysterio and tossed him outside the ring. Corbin followed him out and dropped him with a big clothesline. Corbin shoved Dominick and started talking trash. He tossed Mysterio back in the ring at a count of seven, covering him for a two count.

Graves told Dominick to stand up for himself. Dominick said he didn’t want to get his father disqualified. Graves continued to egg him on. In the ring, Corbin stepped on Mysterio’s head and laughed. He dragged him to his knees, then dropped him with a big right hand. Graves told Dominick to carve his own path. Corbin yelled at Dominick and called him a “little cheerleader.”

Mysterio managed to take down Corbin and hit a quick senton off the top rope. He went for a springboard off the ropes, but Corbin caught him in power slam position. Mysterio managed to spin through it and trip Corbin into the ropes, setting up for the 619. Corbin blocked the attempt and countered with Deep Six for a near fall.

Corbin went for his signature round-the-post clothesline, but Mysterio cut him off with a baseball slide. Corbin shrugged it off and tossed Rey in the ring, then gave Dominick a cheap shot. Corbin tried to drag Dominick to the ring post, but Mysterio hit a 619 from behind. Corbin rolled in the ring.

Rey tried to check on Dominick. Corbin threw his body into Mysterio, bouncing Dominick off the apron and onto the floor. Corbin hit the End of Days for a three count.

WINNER: King Corbin in 5:00

(LeClair’s Analysis: Not much to this one – a basic King Corbin match with a couple of neat moments created by movement Rey was able to give to Corbin. It’s hard to get invested in stories involving either of these guys, honestly. Mysterio’s angle with Seth Rollins was incredibly damaging, and King Corbin just consistently underwhelms in the ring. While I’m higher on the guy than most, I can’t help but think WWE missed a huge opportunity to move him to Raw and get him in a fresh environment. He’s worn out his welcome on Fridays.)

-Cole and Graves teased Daniel Bryan vs. Cesaro for later in the night.

-Adam Pearce was shown walking down a hallway backstage. He crossed paths with Paul Heyman. Pearce asked if Roman had signed the contract. Paul said there’s a “bit of a wrinkle.” He informed Pearce that Reigns “agreed with Pearce’s concerns” about a no disqualification match. Paul shrugged off the idea, insinuating that it’s not good for Pearce’s return to the ring in the main event of a Pay-Per-View.

Pearce balked at the idea of a last man standing match. Paul handed him the contract and told him to take his time thinking about it until he joins Roman Reigns in the ring later tonight. “I’m going to consider this handled,” Paul said. He gave Pearce a smile and shrugged.

-Crew members hauled in the set for Bayley’s new talk show, “Ding Dong, Hello.” Cole and Graves said the debut episode, featuring Bianca Belair, is next.

-Dominick Mysterio paced beside his father backstage when the show returned from break. Dominick expressed his frustration over Corbin. Rey told Dom not to pick a fight with someone like Corbin, and listed his credentials. Rey said if they want to talk care of Corbin, he knows a guy they can talk to. “Trust me,” Rey said.

-In the ring, Bayley walked through a standalone door as 90’s style talk show music played. She was dressed in a turtleneck, blazer, and big gold glasses. Bayley was overly jovial and welcomed her first guest, Bianca Belair.

Bianca Belair headed to the ring. Cole said both women have declared themselves for the Royal Rumble match. Graves talked up Belair’s performance in last year’s match.

Bayley admonished Bianca for not ringing the doorbell. Bianca went behind the door and rang it, then Bayley welcomed her through the door. Bianca took Bayley’s comfortable, plus recliner. Bayley awkwardly shifted to the guest stool, then decided to stand, in preparation for her long-haul performance in the Royal Rumble.

Bayley thanked Bianca for joining her, then said she has a special sneak peek of Belair’s new show coming to WWE Network. It was just a clip of Bayley beating Belair on Smackdown last month. Bayley asked Belair to explain the “EST” nickname, but quick ly cut her off.

Belair said she doesn’t use the moniker to brag, but to showcase that she’s unapologetically her. Bayley said since she beat Bianca, that makes her the best. Belair challenged Bayley to a rematch right now. Bayley turned her down. She said she had an idea to finally decide who is the better athlete. She challenged Bianca to an obstacle course. Belair laughed and accepted. “You got a little EST in you, but there’s no way you can whoop me. Ding dong that.” Belair’s music played. The two argued off mic.

(LeClair’s Analysis: This wasn’t terrible, and I’ll admit, Bayley bursting through the prop door in the ring got me. The music is good too. But, do we really need another talk show? The way they presented this makes me think it was not a one time thing, but I’m not sure it shouldn’t be. Talk shows are WWE’s crutch. Most of them aren’t good. Many of them are downright bad. Rarely do they advance a feud in any meaningful way, or drive the product forward. They more often than not wind up being useless filler. This feels like it could easily cross into that territory. With that being said, Belair was better here. She’s got a ways to go on the microphone, but the improvement is evident each week.)

-In a segment recorded “earlier today”, Chad Gable led Daniel Bryan and Otis in a training session. Kayla Braxton walked on screen and asked Bryan how his training has been going. “Great!” Bryan said. He talked up Gable’s training methods and said he’s all in. Kayla asked Bryan about his loss to Shinsuke in last week’s gauntlet match. Bryan said he’s got the utmost respect for Nakamura, and believes Nakamura feels the same way.

Cesaro cut Bryan off. He said Nakamura felt sorry for Bryan. He mocked Bryan’s training with Otis and Gable. Bryan said he’d show Cesaro in the ring tonight.

(LeClair’s Analysis: I know Bryan is a lot of people’s pick to win the Rumble, but I just can’t imagine a guy doing comedy segments with Otis and Chad Gable is going to win this match. I’d be happy to be proven wrong, but I’m just not seeing what other people are seeing.)

-Daniel Bryan headed to the ring for his match with Cesaro, next.

Cesaro was already in the ring, waiting for the bell to sound when the show returned.

(4) DANIEL BRYAN vs. CESARO

Daniel Bryan and Cesaro locked up in the center. Cesaro grabbed a headlock and took Bryan to the mat. Bryan fought to his feet and shoved Cesaro away. Cesaro hit a quick shoulder tackle and covered for a one count. Cesaro stepped over Bryan off the Irish whip but got caught in an arm drag. Bryan began methodically working over Cesaro’s arm, driving him to the mat.

Cesaro managed to back Bryan into the corner to force Bryan to release the arm. He gave Bryan a quick elbow to the jaw, then an uppercut. Cesaro tossed Bryan to the opposite corner and followed him for another quick uppercut. Bryan sidestepped a third uppercut and kicked Cesaro in the chest repeatedly. Bryan hit a running body kick, then a sliding arm drag out of the corner. He worked over the arm again, contorting the wrist and kneeing the shoulder.

Cesaro fought to his feet, dropped Bryan with a shot to the lower back and then shook off the arm. Bryan bridged himself to his feet and monkey flipped Cesaro right into the ropes. Cesaro landed awkwardly on his neck on top of Bryan, then rolled to the outside. Bryan climbed to the top rope and dove onto Cesaro. Both men stood. Cesaro tried to cover up, but Bryan peppered him with kicks. Cesaro ducked a final kick attempt, causing Bryan to strike the ring post. Both men dropped. Cole sent the show to break.

Bryan was tied up in the corner when the show returned from break. Cesaro leveled him repeatedly with kicks to the gut. Cesaro   lifted Bryan to his feet and Bryan managed to connect with some quick strikes to turn the tide. Bryan kicked Cesaro’s injured arm, then hit a tilt-a-whirl into the Yes Lock. Cesaro powered out and kicked at the leg that connected with the ring post.

Cesaro initiated the swing, then transitioned into the Sharpshooter. Cesaro tried to shake out the arm again. Bryan crawled toward the ropes. Cesaro transitioned into a Crossface. Bryan rolled through into the Yes Lock. Cesaro turned his body enough for his foot to reach the bottom rope and break the hold.

Bryan continued to hyperextend Cesaro’s arm over his shoulder. He placed him on the top rope and set up for a top rope ‘rana. Cesaro caught him and deadlifted him into a superplex. Cesaro covered Bryan for a near fall. Cesaro lit up Bryan’s chest with uppercuts. He set up for the Neutralizer, but Bryan countered and rolled him into a backslide for a two count. Cesaro blocked a Yes Kick, but Bryan stepped through and hit one the second time around. Both men struggled to their feet.

Daniel Bryan called for the running knee, but ran into an uppercut. Cesaro hit the Neutralizer and covered Bryan for a three count.

WINNER: Cesaro in 12:00

(LeClair’s Analysis: Really, really good match between two absolute professionals who are so good at what they do. Every week, Bryan has these miniature versions of so-called dream matches and every week he seems like less and less a viable contender to actually win the Rumble. Is that by design? It’s not unlike WWE to throw a total curveball and get people off the scent of the trail, but as I mentioned previously, this just doesn’t feel like a guy being prime for a Rumble win. On the other side of the coin, I’m glad to see rejuvenated interest in Cesaro. None of his momentary pushes have stuck in the past, but I’ll enjoy it while we’re getting it. He and Nakamura are too talented to be the designated jobbers in the tag team division.)

-Kayla Braxton welcomed Carmella to the interview set backstage. Carmella said she told the truth about Sasha Banks last week. She wondered why she hasn’t seen Banks since she pinned her. Carmella said Banks is hiding from her. Banks showed up, but Reginald, the assistant, stepped in front of Carmella. Banks said Carmella can have a title rematch, but only if she can face Reginald first.Banks laughed and walked away.

-Apollo Crews headed to the ring. Cole and Graves mentioned that Crews was seen in Roman Reigns’ locker room earlier tonight. Cole sent the show to break.

-Out of the break, Michael Cole tossed to Paul Heyman’s rally speech to Apollo Crews on last week’s Talking Smack. Cole and Graves wondered if that’s why Crews was seen in Reigns’ locker room earlier tonight.

Sami Zayn headed to the ring with his new camera crew.

Big E sat on a big white couch at ringside, eating from a fruit cup. He had the Intercontinental title draped across his waist and he danced to Sami’s music.

(5) APOLLO CREWS vs. SAMI ZAYN

Apollo Crews dropped Sami Zayn with a dropkick right out of the gate. Cole asked Big E about the pep talk that Crews received from Heyman, and compared it to the one that Big E received from Paul a few weeks prior. Sami Zayn knocked Crews from the ring and talked trash to Big E. “Don’t call me brother,” E said to Zayn.

Crews slammed Zayn’s head off the announcers desk and hit a quick moonsault off the desk. He slid Zayn back in the ring and leapt to the top rope. Zayn shot up and cut Crews’ feet out from underneath him. Zayn laughed, climbed the turnbuckle, and hit a quick axe handle. Zayn covered Crews three times, only securing a two count on each attempt.

Zayn went for another axe handle, but Crews blocked it and hit a German suplex. Crews went for a standing moonsault, but Zayn got his knees up and rolled Crews up, grabbing the tights. The referee caught Zayn and broke the count. Sami hit a quick exploder suplex to Crews, then set up for the Heluva Kick. Crews ducked it and rolled Sami up, grabbing the tights and securing a three count.

WINNER: Apollo Crews in 4:00

Zayn screamed at Cole and Graves about Crews cheating. Crews grabbed the Intercontinental title from Big E, stared him down, and then tossed it back. “I see your handful of tights, keep coming for it,” E said. Big E said that’s the closest Crews will ever get to the Intercontinental title. The two continued to jaw at each other.

(LeClair’s Analysis: Quick match, but there were some good spots here. Tough to really get behind either guy here. Crews isn’t established as a heel yet, but he’s clearly headed down that path. Zayn’s conspiracy theorist character is fun, but I’m not sure how much shelf-life it has. At some point, his accusations have to come to a head and I’m not sure what that looks like in a wrestling context. I mean, he’s got a solid argument for tonight’s match. I enjoyed Big E on commentary and thought he managed a sufficient balance between his comedic character and his newly acquired serious side. I’m really interested in a full-on program between he and Crews. It thought they showcased some solid chemistry last week.)

-Adam Pearce was shown walking down a hallway, contract in hand. Cole said the contract signing is next.

-Out of the break, Cole and Graves teased two announcements for next week’s show – Big E vs. Apollo Crews for the Intercontinental title, and the obstacle course challenge between Bayley and Bianca Belair.

-“We turn our attention to the headline maker, the head of the table, the Universal champion, Roman Reigns,” Cole said emphatically. Reigns’ music played and he walked slowly to the ring, flanked by Paul Heyman and Jey Uso. Pyro shot to the rafters as Reigns held up the Universal title. Greg Hamilton introduced him.

Adam Pearce walked to the ring slowly and without music. Reigns and Jey stared him down. Pearce sat down at the table reluctantly. Reigns circled him. Jey settled in just behind his chair. Paul pulled Roman’s char out for him, but Roman declined to sit. Jey forced Pearce to stand. Reigns laughed.

Jey gave Roman the chair that Pearce had been sitting in. Reigns sat at the head of the table. Pearce took the other chair. Heyman told him to hurry up. “You’re not making for good television,” he said. Pearce signed the contract and slid it to Reigns. “He’s so damn passive aggressive,” Paul remarked off-mic.

Reigns signed the contract. “This will be the last damn contract you ever sign,” he said quietly. A smile crept across Pearce’s face. “I’ve waited for you all night to do that.” He got up and left the ring. As he reached the top of the ramp, he began to limp haphazardly. Pearce said he has an old knee injury that seems to pop up at the worst of times.

Pearce’s mic began to cut in and out. He said as everyone knows, standard WWE contract rules apply when a competitor can’t be medically cleared to compete. “I’m not sure I’ll be medically cleared,” Pearce said, “but I’m sure I’ll find a suitable replacement for your championship match. In fact, a suitable replacement is just what I have in mind…” Pearce pointed back toward the entrance. Kevin Owens’ music hit. The show immediately cut.

(LeClair’s Analysis: Pearce’s delivery was hampered by technical difficulties there, but the resolution makes sense. I was of the mindset that they may just go ahead with Pearce vs. Reigns, given that the Rumble matches will serve as the show’s marquee headliners. With that being said, I’m totally cool with Owens getting one final match as well, and I’m also on board with allowing Pearce, the crafty and fair WWE official, using some of Reigns’ own tactics against him to thwart the Bloodline’s hostile takeover of all aspects of the show. This was well thought out, simple, and well executed. Unfortunately, my Fox feed cut the moment Owens’ music hit, so I’m not sure if there was anything that followed. I presume the show came to a close very shortly thereafter, but the quick cut felt far too abrupt to have been WWE’s actual intent.)

FINAL THOUGHTS: While this wasn’t the home run that the Christmas episode was, nor as strong a show as last week’s episode, tonight’s Smackdown was a largely solid two hours of Royal Rumble hype and logical story development. I’m thrilled to see both Shinsuke Nakamura and Cesaro getting new life in singles roles, intrigued (though concerned) about the direction of Daniel Bryan and his position in the Royal Rumble, and, as always, enamored with the Roman Reigns angle and its execution. The women’s division continues to struggle, but both Bayley and Bianca Belair had strong nights to offset the mess that is the women’s undercard. I’m cautiously optimistic about Apollo Crews, and I’m enjoying the attention being put into the entrants of the men’s Royal Rumble match.

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