Smackdown’s #1 Contender Problem
Welcome to the Cool Points.
A champion is as interesting as the contenders they have to face and overcome. Otherwise, a champion’s reign will suffer from staleness and disinterest. Dominant heel champions benefit from underdog faces. Dominant face champions benefit from menacing, monster heels. Those are just a few of the types of feuds we’ve seen in modern pro wrestling.
The current state of the Friday Night Smackdown roster is worrying. There are no clear championship contenders and, what’s more concerning, is the lack of new names being pushed into a position where they could challenge the current champion, Roman Reigns. Let’s look at the male singles roster and assess their viability as #1 contenders. You may agree that Smackdown has a #1 contender problem.
Drew McIntyre, Sheamus, Shinsuke Nakamura, Jinder Mahal
A common trend in WWE’s championship booking is to work from a select pool of talent. Their preference is seemingly to rely on past champions, those who have already been elevated to that position on the card. Think of the championship feuds we’ve seen in recent years: Reigns/Lesnar, Rollins/Lesnar, Rollins/Wyatt, Strowman/Wyatt, Reigns/Rollins. Those are all wrestlers who have been main eventing TV or PPV (Special Live Event) shows for years.
Good for WWE for having a strong pool of championship talent, but most of the combinations have been done. McIntyre, Sheamus and Mahal have all had feuds against Reigns. The only one here that hasn’t yet is Nakamura. He seems poised for an opportunity, since his tag partner, Rik Boogs, got injured. That has some potential, but there has been no build at this point. Nakamura doesn’t have much momentum, having lost the Intercontinental Championship to Ricochet, and the Wrestlemania tag match against the Usos.
If WWE had spent some more time booking a #1 contender for Reigns, Nakamura could be placed in a tournament or a fatal 4-way between now and Backlash. A #1 contender could be established for Backlash or Hell in a Cell.
Mid to Low to No Card
Happy Corbin, Madcap Moss, Mansoor, Mustafa Ali, Shanky, Ridge Holland, Butch
In this list of names, we do have Corbin who previously fought Reigns. Other than him, none of these guys are in a position where they’d be taken seriously. Only Corbin, Moss, Holland and Butch are presently getting consistent TV time. Moss won the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal a few weeks ago, so he’s receiving a bit of positive attention. Not a serious contender for a championship yet. The others are assigned to the Smackdown roster, but Ali and Mansoor haven’t wrestled since the fall. Shanky had a few appearances this year in tag matches and battle royals. Nothing that would make me think they’d be ready to compete with the head of the family though.
Holland and Butch are getting a pretty good shine with Sheamus’ Fight Night crew, but Holland and Sheamus are mostly wrestling in the Tag Team Division right now. Butch is brand new to the Smackdown roster and has only worked one TV match thus far. He’s a fantastic wrestler but his character has yet to compel the audience, especially us nXt fans who know him as Pete Dunne. In that form, he would be much more believable competition for Reigns. Yet he would still need a 6-12 month push for fans to get behind him as an underdog babyface with the wrestling chops to be a champ.
Ricochet and Sami Zayn
There have been times where the Intercontinental Championship was held by the best “wrestler” in the company, the one who wrestled the best matches. Winning this title was seen as a necessary step before proceeding to the tier of world championship contenders. Many columns have been written about that golden era of Intercontinental Champions who became World Champions. It was a logical way of determining talent, ability, and fan interest. If a wrestler won the Intercontinental belt and had a good run with it, it would help fans to see them as championship and main event material.
That just isn’t the case in 2022. Winning the Intercontinental Title does not seem to lead wrestlers to be considered as main event material. The last 5 winners of the IC belt are: Ricochet (current), Sami Zayn, Shinsuke Nakamura, Apollo Crews and Big E. Big E won the IC title for the first time in 2013. It took him 7 years to win it again and be considered world champion-material. Nakamura only won the IC title after winning the WWE Championship, which is backwards to the usual progression. Zayn, Crews, and Ricochet are all very talented wrestlers. None of them have gained main event status from their time as Intercontinental Champion. Ricochet might get there, but the track record would suggest that it won’t happen.
The last #1 contender’s match took place in January on Raw, and it featured Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, Big E and Bobby Lashley. All of those guys have been established as main eventers, and they’ve all been world champions. So much for building new talent and forget about the Intercontinental Championship having anything to do with that!
Glimmer of Possibility
Gunther with Ludwig Kaiser
Gunther, formerly known as WALTER, recently debuted on Smackdown. He’s an impressive talent who had a very successful run in nXt and nXt UK, as well as notable matches on the indy scene. His size, and demeanour are akin to the types of heels who would get built up to challenge a face champion in the 80s and 90s. His agility and talent are a great deal better.
In six months, could we be talking about Gunther challenging Roman Reigns for the WWE Unified Heavyweight Championship? That’s a possibility.
Would WWE actually book him in a #1 contender’s match to get him there? That seems a lot less likely. Too bad. Logic, conflict and rising action are helpful in creating stories. More character progression with those elements would create a decent pool of #1 contenders to choose from, and not just the same old names.
Here are a few questions to consider from today’s column:
Who is the most deserving Smackdown roster member to be the next #1 contender for the WWE Unified Heavyweight Champion?
Would you like to see more emphasis from WWE on establishing #1 contenders for their world titles?
Please join in the discussion below on those questions or anything else you’d like to share. You can also follow me on Twitter to keep the conversation going there. A bunch of WH and LOP Forums writers are doing an All Time Fantasy Draft where we are drafting rosters to write super cards. Follow the hashtag #ATD22 to see results and check out this link for the draft so far: 2022 All Time Fantasy Wrestling Draft from LOPFORUMS
Sir Sam’s team may look pretty tough, but when you draft RVD and Sabu before the Undisputed Era and the Road Warriors, questions on if you’re trying to build a profitable card or a bingo hall show, should be asked.