Is The Brilliance Of Roman Reigns Papering Over WWE SmackDown's Raw-Esque Flaws?
Remove the Tribal Chief from the equation and the blue brand suddenly looks bleakly similar to Raw...
As we collectively scream into the void that is Monday Night Raw, it’s clear that SmackDown is the better of WWE’s two main brands at the moment.
A major reason for that is Universal Champion and show centrepiece Roman Reigns. For various reasons, the Tribal Chief has been the best part of the blue brand for close to a year now.
There’s a lot to like here. His compelling dominance of opponents as varied as Daniel Bryan, Edge, Kevin Owens, Cesaro and Rey Mysterio. His mic skills, which have improved outrageously in a few short years. His wonderful supporting cast, with Heyman and the Usos playing their parts to perfection.
But along with his part in a number of 2021’s standout main roster matches, I think my favourite aspect of Roman’s reign has been those little backstage moments.
If you watch SmackDown you’ll know exactly what I mean - interactions with Jimmy or Jey, or sometimes alone with Heyman, where he quietly conveys frustration, arrogance and duplicity, all underpinned by a sense of barely repressed anger. Throughout, there’s the fear that for all Reigns’ heinous actions so far, we’re yet to see the full extent of that anger should it be unleashed.
It’s fantastic television, and even sometimes reminds me of the time I first fell in love with wrestling - the company’s golden period of 2000 to early 2001. It was in such backstage segments that we bore witness to the majority of Triple H’s scheming, Kurt Angle’s goofiness, Chris Jericho’s insecurity and so on.
Likewise, Roman’s heel persona has been patiently moulded by these moments, quite unlike anything else in WWE today.
This uniqueness is a good thing. But it’s also a sad reminder that Roman - and those involved with his ongoing storyline - are operating on a different level to anything else in WWE right now.
The Reigns stuff is so much better than anything on Raw without question, and much has been made of that fact. But it’s also better than anything else on SmackDown, by a margin so wide that it’s becoming hard to overlook.
It's gotten to the point now where I’m beginning to wonder, even worry, is SmackDown really that much better than Raw? Or is the brilliance of Roman Reigns simply masking its flaws?
If we can bring ourselves to tear our eyes away from Roman and explore the rest of SmackDown, some serious cracks become apparent. And, peering into those cracks, we actually see many of the same criticisms we aim at Raw on a weekly basis.
Like the red brand, SmackDown has drawn many of its feuds out for too long, displaying a startling lack of imagination in the process.
Hell in a Cell saw yet another edition of Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens, taking place only a couple of months after they clashed at WrestleMania. Admittedly, part of Zayn and Owens’ respective career arcs is that they’re doomed to fight forever, but can the same be said of another ‘Mania rematch in Seth Rollins vs. Cesaro?
It isn’t just WrestleMania reruns, by the way. It’s been over three months since Big E wrestled a match that didn’t also involve Apollo Crews. The same can’t quite be said of Baron Corbin and Shinsuke Nakamura’s endless clash for the crown, but it certainly feels like it.
This curse has befallen the women’s division too, as Carmella and Liv Morgan look set to duke it out on Friday nights for the foreseeable. Last weekI wrote about the idea that WWE have forgotten how to book women’s wrestling, and most of the examples I used were from Raw.
But I must now admit that this is one area where the red team actually wins, because...well, at least they have a women’s division.
I know that SmackDown runs an hour shorter than Raw and therefore has a smaller roster, but the numbers are very troubling. There are currently nine women listed on the SmackDown roster: Champion Bianca Belair and recent foe Bayley; tag title holders Natalya and Tamina; new eternal foes Carmella and Liv Morgan; the yet-to-appear Reckoning; Sasha Banks (currently taking a well-earned break) and authority figure Sonya Deville.
Setting aside Sonya, Sasha and Reckoning, that leaves us with six active women’s wrestlers on the entire brand - and the tag champs are basically Raw Superstars at this point.
In a world where WWE can happily cherry pick the best talent the industry has to offer, the SmackDown women’s division - or lack thereof - is both desperate and inexplicable. Both brands are clearly subject to the same creative stagnation and short-sightedness. These are deep flaws that no longer simply blight WWE - they define it.
With that said, SmackDown is still slightly ahead in my book. Whether that would remain true without Roman is very much up for debate, but I think there’s another key reason too.
Despite all its history, and the huge Fox deal, SmackDown is still the younger brother. This status has allowed it to escape an energy-sapping third hour, and perhaps even more importantly in recent times, Vince McMahon’s self-destructive laser focus. If regular reports are to be believed, Vince rewrites and micromanages Raw within an inch of its life. He rewrites the show with hours to spare and abandons storylines halfway through their lifespan.
Yes, Bruce Prichard is nominally in a position of influence, but we can all guess who really calls the shots.
This is where, Reigns aside, the real differences between the two brands become apparent. SmackDown at least feels as though it has a shred of autonomy left; it has yet to delve into spooky puppet territory.
Admittedly, the blue brand has its fair share of silliness too - Bayley’s ‘Ding Dong, Hello!’, which is often a sneaky highlight of the show, and the aforementioned crown feud, which is most certainly not. But SmackDown never strays into that full-blown Vincent Kennedy brand of absurdity, which we see play out on Raw with astonishing regularity these days.
As long as Vince maintains his iron grip on Monday nights, Friday's show will continue to come out on top because it will remain bearable. But the gap isn’t quite as sizeable as we might think, and with a draft reportedly taking place after SummerSlam, that could be set to reduce even further.
SmackDown had better pray that its Universal Champion stays put, or it could well be exposed as a house without foundations.