Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but… Paul Heyman is pretty good at what he does.
We’ve witnessed that when he’s on commentary, and we’ve witnessed that when he’s on the microphone as an on-air character. He’s been doing this for 34 years now, ranging from working for Championship Wrestling From Florida to the American Wrestling Association to the National Wrestling Alliance to Extreme Championship Wrestling to the World Wrestling Federation, and many other places in between.
With that said, some of the best work he’s ever done has been taking place recently, and it hasn’t been seen by a ton of people.
His current role as co-host of Talking Smack, WWE’s Smackdown post-show, has seen some incredible promos from the man formerly known as Paul E. Dangerously. There is a less-than-zero percent chance his promos are being scripted for him, or are even being viewed by Vince McMahon. He is able to speak freely and use one of the greatest creative minds in the history of pro wrestling to build matches and storylines in ways that WWE’s writers could never dream of doing.
In the last few months, he has made every one of Roman Reigns’ opponents look like they were absolute studs, all while making sure to tell them that they still weren’t quite on the same level as Reigns. That’s common sense wrestling build right there. Far too often, especially with heels, you’ll see a lot of promo talk that basically says “my opponent sucks and I am great” in the build to a match. That’s fine and all, but if your opponent “sucks” and they beat you, what does that make you? It’s all about getting asses in seats or eyeballs to televisions, and why would people want to spend their time and money on “this guy is awesome but the other guy sucks” matches? Heyman understands that. He knows that there is money to be made in a dominant champion taking on the best of the best, who are viewed as legitimate contenders to the throne.
Recently, he has been taking that line of thinking and using it on matches and feuds that Reigns isn’t involved in. He spent a lot of time making Big E look like a future World Champion as E became the new Intercontinental Champion, but his newest work might be his best yet.
If you’ve been reading my work for years, you already know my stance on Apollo Crews. He has an elite combination of speed, strength, and athleticism, especially for his size. He has everything… ev-er-eee-thang… necessary to be a World Champion. Signing with WWE was a golden opportunity for him to get to work on his character and promo skills. Unfortunately for him, WWE has zero idea how to create and book face wrestlers. Apollo came in with all this hype, and all he was presented as was… smiling black guy who is pretty athletic in the ring. Commentary would always put him over as a future main event talent, but NXT and WWE never quite gave him anything for fans to sink their teeth into. Time and time again, he would receive these mini-pushes with nothing about him being changed, and then the pushes would disappear just as quickly as they began. As a big fan of the guy, it has been pretty infuriating to watch him get shoved out there with nothing for him to do. This is, after all, the world of sports entertainment. You need to be larger-than-life, far more often than not, to make it in the land of WWE.
Then came Talking Smack.
After failing in his attempt to take the Intercontinental Title from Big E, Crews would appear on Talking Smack, where Heyman would absolutely rip into him with a promo about how Apollo screwed himself over in the match by letting his friendship with Big E get in the way of becoming the champion. As Heyman is talking, Crews is intently listening, but when Heyman turns it up a notch, that’s when things get interesting. Heyman says that Apollo might as well let E come to his house, take the food off of his table, and then make love to his wife because that’s pretty much what he’s letting him do. He says E wouldn’t let Apollo do that because E sees Crews as the threat he is. As he’s saying all this, the look on Apollo’s face changes. He went from taking the words in to becoming enraged, looking as though he wants to do serious bodily harm. The real selling point, though? He didn’t look like he wanted to do that bodily harm to Paul Heyman, who just brought up his wife and children at home. You could almost see the gears turning in his head as he was fuming. You could see that he not only understood what Heyman was saying, but that he might believe what Heyman is saying, too. In that moment, Heyman and Crews provided more character development than WWE had done in the almost six years prior.
I went to social media and read the tweets and posts from all corners. What I saw was very promising. People were saying they had never been as invested in the Apollo Crews character as they were after Talking Smack. It was a “real” moment. Immediately, there was speculation that a heel turn for Crews was coming. At face (no pun intended) value, a heel turn is a dangerous move. WWE just loves to turn someone heel and have them cut the exact same “I blame all you people” promo right away. I don’t want Apollo to fall into that trap. Honestly, he doesn’t need to change much. One simple promo about how he originally had no problems going out and being a “nice guy” because that’s what he is… a nice guy. Then, somewhere along the line, his life changed. He became a family man. With a wife and kids at home, simply being a “nice guy” in the ring wasn’t cutting it anymore. He has commitments to honor. Mouths to feed. People that are depending on him. If WWE played their cards right, that wouldn’t even need a heel turn. When the fans can relate to you, you become someone they can root for. Do you realize how many people out there could relate to someone who cut a promo like I mentioned? I’m a married man with a daughter. I can relate to the added stress that comes along with that. A lot of you reading these words right now have children. You know how much changes in your life when you go from being single with no kids to being in a committed relationship and having at least one kid to take care of.
What happens with the Intercontinental Title in this scenario? Well, there are two ways to look at this:
- On one hand, Big E just won the title. He’s coming up on three weeks as the champion, so a lot of people would view this as too soon for him to drop the title, whether it’s this week on Smackdown, or even at the Royal Rumble. If he lost it at the Rumble, his reign would be 37 days. Not exactly setting the world on fire there, but WWE has titles change hands a lot, so it wouldn’t kill him to have a short reign, despite what some people might think.
- On the other hand, would we be having this discussion right now if Crews was feuding with the former champion, Sami Zayn? It wouldn’t make any sense. Apollo would still be the “nice guy” face, and nothing would change, even if he defeated Sami to become the new champ. The story needed a face to be the champion. It needed someone Apollo was friendly with. That’s the spark that set this whole thing ablaze. Besides, if you take the title from Big E, that frees E up to do the thing that everybody wants him to do, anyway… go after the Universal Title.
This is WWE we’re talking about, folks. I’m 1300+ words into this column, and it could be for nothing once WWE decides not to capitalize on what took place on Talking Smack. No title rematch for Apollo, or even worse, a rematch where nothing changes for his character and he loses again. There’s certainly a good possibility of that happening. I want this to be followed up on, though. Not just as a fan of Apollo Crews, or as a fan of WWE, but as a fan of storytelling. Give me something, WWE. Something. Anything. I’m just excited about what the future might… might… hold for Apollo Crews.
Weekly Power Rankings
- Adam Pearce: Not only is he next-in-line for a shot at the Universal Title… not only is he getting that shot at the Royal Rumble, one of the biggest wrestling events of the year… but his sell of Jey Uso’s Superkick might be the best I’ve ever seen anyone sell that move in all my years of watching wrestling. Just a fantastic job to make the move look like a legit knockout blow, and not just some wrestling move. I’ve seen the rumors that Pearce won’t actually get the title shot, and it will somehow end up being Kevin Owens that faces Roman Reigns again, but hey, let’s celebrate the new number one contender for the time being.
- Kenny Omega vs Rey Fenix: In a week that saw a lot of very good in-ring action, this was my pick for the week’s best match. When he’s “on” in the ring, there aren’t many people in the business who make the incredible look as effortless as Fenix. He was damn sure “on” here. This was a fast-paced, innovative, hard-hitting match that probably could’ve gone another 10-15 minutes with no real problems at all. The only “negative” to the match is that the outcome was never in doubt. Nobody thought Fenix was going to become the AEW World Champion, but both men still delivered here. Of course, there was also the post-match shenaniganery, with Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson showing up with the Impact Tag Team Titles to help Omega fend off Jon Moxley, who was out for blood. Then, after various members of the AEW roster tried to fight the “intruders” off, here come Matt and Nick Jackson, who look like they might be trying to settle things until… the Bucks joined in. Dynamite ended with Omega, Gallows, Anderson, and the Bucks standing tall and giving the Bullet Club hand sign. That’s quite the draw for the next episode.
- Rhea Ripley vs Raquel Gonzalez: With these two involved, you know it’s going to be crazy. Throw in a Last Woman Standing stipulation, and the expectations were very high. Not only did the match meet my expectations, it exceeded them. Just a wild, near-20 minute brawl that you don’t see too often with the women on WWE’s roster. They beat the hell out of each other. Now, with another Ripley loss, the rumors of her getting a main roster call-up have begun all over again. We’ll see how that goes. One thing that is clear, though, is that Gonzalez is being primed to possibly be the next NXT Women’s Champion.
- Finn Balor vs Kyle O’Reilly: Honestly, if you flipped this match and the Ripley vs Gonzalez match in the rankings, I wouldn’t complain. Either way, this was every bit as physical as I was expecting it to be. O’Reilly really seems to turn things up a few notches when he faces Balor. Not only is it a former Universal Champion that he’s facing, but also the current NXT Champion, and he also wrestles with the chip on his shoulder as he tries to shake the “he’s just a tag team wrestler” stigma. I don’t know if I should be surprised that Balor retained again, but I kinda sorta was. The obvious challenger for Balor coming out of this match is the former champion, Karrion Kross, but as I’ve said in the past, I think we’re also building to a Balor vs KUSHIDA match, with two of New Japan’s most decorated Junior Heavyweights ever going to war in NXT. That should be a ton of fun.
- Shinsuke Nakamura: Was that so difficult, WWE?!? When Nakamura won the 2018 Royal Rumble, it looked like WWE had something special on their hands. He was electric, was having good-to-great matches with everyone, and remained one of the most over names in all of wrestling. Then we got a nonsensical heel turn in the middle of four unsuccessful attempts at taking the WWE Title from AJ Styles in the span of two-and-a-half months. By that point, the wheels were starting to come off of the wagon, so to speak. Sure, he had a five-month reign as the United States Champion to close out 2018, a two-day reign as the United States Champion to open up 2019, a six-month reign as the Intercontinental Champion, and a two-month reign as one-half of the Smackdown Tag Team Champions after that, but even his biggest fans would admit he was never quite the same after that first loss to AJ at WrestleMania 34. With the way he wrestled in the Gauntlet Match on Smackdown, as well as the show of respect between he and Daniel Bryan after their match, it appears Nakamura is going to be presented as a face again. I’m all for it. With him being screwed out of a shot at the Universal Title, he has reason to seek revenge on Roman Reigns and Jey Uso. I’m damn sure all for that, especially if Cesaro can come along for that ride to even the odds.
- Dolph Ziggler & Robert Roode: They’re the new Smackdown Tag Team Champions, so… huzzah? I’m sorry. I simply don’t give a country fried fuck about either of them at this stage in time, but when you win titles, you get a spot in the power rankings for the week, so here they are.
- Santos Escobar vs Gran Metalik: You mean to tell me Gran Metalik is more than just a job guy from Lucha House Party? Amazing. It was very weird to watch El Hijo del Fantasma vs Máscara Dorada on any sort of WWE programming, but they delivered a very good Lucha Libre match. Metalik got to show that he probably deserves better than what he’s been getting, and Escobar got to show that he might be ready for bigger and better things in 2021, as well. I wouldn’t mind seeing Escobar make a run at the NXT World Title, to be honest. He’s one of the best in-ring workers WWE has, and his character work has been phenomenal on top of that. He can handle it.
- Xia Li: After not having a match for two-and-a-half months, Li made her return after weeks and weeks of bizarre segments and vignettes that saw her trained to damn near become a lethal assassin. She’s only had the one squash match victory, but it was impressive, and the cinematic feel to her new look and entrance was cool. It was her first win in nine months, and only the ninth televised or Network-aired win she’s had since making her NXT debut in 2017. We’ll see where things go from here, but at least it was a good start.
- Wardlow: Is it crazy to say that Wardlow is one of the more underrated wrestlers on the AEW roster? Because… Wardlow is one of the more underrated wrestlers on the AEW roster. He’s listed at 6’3″ tall and weighing 267 pounds, so he’s a big guy made to look even bigger when compared to the generally smaller wrestlers in the company. He plays the intimidating big guy role well, but when he gets in the ring, he can move around like someone much shorter and lighter. He picked up a big win over Jake Hager, which now has him sitting at 11-3 in his non-Battle Royal appearances for AEW, including 10-1 in singles matches. It’s hard to say what he’s being built up for, but he’s being built up for something, which is intriguing.
- Pyrophilia: For those of you that are staining your Underoos over the sight of fire, WWE just continues to give you gift after gift. You’ve seen a ton of fire on WWE programming, and there was even more of it on Raw this week, with Alexa Bliss showing up to shoot a fucking HADOUKEN into Randy Orton’s face. Tune in next time, when The Fiend shows up with a flamethrower and murders Tom Phillips!
This Week’s Playlist: “Drag Em N Tha River” by UNLV… “(sic)” by Slipknot… “Good God” by KoRn… “Blind” by KoRn… “Falling Away From Me” by KoRn… “Cold” by Static-X… “Dig” by Mudvayne… “Heat” by 50 Cent… “Breathe” by The Prodigy… “I Don’t Give A Fuck” by Lil Jon, Krayzie Bone & Mystikal… “Damn” by Youngbloodz & Lil Jon… “Neva Eva” by Trillville, Lil Scrappy & Lil Jon… “Never Scared” by Bone Crusher, T.I. & Killer Mike… “Shit” by Future… “Bodies” by Drowning Pool… “When Worlds Collide” by Powerman 5000… “Across The Nation” by The Union Underground… “More Human Than Human” by White Zombie… “Thunder Kiss ’65” by White Zombie… “Pride” by Damageplan