The Hot Tag w/Steve Russell: The Land Of Opportunity?

Not long ago, the current WWE World Champion, Jinder Mahal, was losing to mostly everyone on WWE’s minor shows. Events like Main Event were, no pun intended, main evented with losing efforts from the Modern Day Maharaja, and, let’s not forget his Match of The Year Candidate in a losing effort to El Torito.

Despite this, Mahal has survived. He has endured and committed himself to his cause, having found a new passion in his job, his career and, most importantly, himself. This push, however, did not come about solely due to perseverance. In truth, Mahal is the lucky recipient of universal circumstance.

WWE’s market growth in India, coinciding with Mahal’s new, impressive physique, demeanour, and attitude all added up to a simple, obvious, winning formula. Mahal went on to gain a shock win (delicious, considering the fabricated reality of our favourite sport) in a Number One Contenders Six-Pack Challenge (try saying that six times fast) before usurping Randy Orton for the top spot and claiming the coveted strap itself.

In just over a month and change, WWE had taken one of its lowest of the lower card workers, who nobody would ever have guessed would make it into the main event of anything, and gifted him the time to develop into a somewhat credible – but ultimately unwanted – story with Randy Orton.

Of course, no one was expecting Mahal to win at Backlash. But then no one was expecting him to become Number One Contender in the first place, and that’s what makes the current SmackDown product so interesting. The “shock” felt is only through the lengthy, undeniable conditioning the promotion ingrained upon us as fans. Years of watching somebody consistently lose will do that. This willingness to shake it up, even if it is born out of purely corporate reasons has led to new possibilities for SmackDown’s entire roster. In this uniquely specific case, it really was “best for business.”

It’s also one that could only have been done on SmackDown LIVE.

That being said, is SmackDown truly, as commentators have espoused on its programming, the land of opportunity?

Mahal’s transcendence is undeniable, despite the tasteless, done to death, antiquated ‘anti-American’ gimmick he is currently tasked with running. From a pure story, character driven perspective, it’s enthralling. One does wonder that if this push were attributed to somebody else – in particular, an American – one where they couldn’t play the ‘race’ angle in the same way, would they have done so? Would people have bought into it? Would they simplistically play it off as a simple Rocky-style underdog win, ala 1-2-3 Kid beating Razor Ramon?

The amount that the writers have been able to craft out of the shows’ run time always amazes me, especially when contrasted with the much longer slog that is RAW.

The ability to create so much genuinely good content, stories, characters and audience connection within its starkly shorter running time only puts RAW to shame all the more. Looking at other, shorter shows often leads to the same conclusion. When SmackDown LIVE, Lucha Underground, Ring of Honor, et al are all capable of producing solid, tight shows that contain great wrestling whilst always pushing their stories forward, how, then, can RAW always get it so wrong? How is RAW so consistently a wasteland of mired creative decisions?

This is the primary argument that can be made for SD LIVE being the proverbial land of opportunity.

With the Mahal victory, the current product is trying to adopt a faux MMA mindset/advertising slogan: anybody can win on any given night.

However, whilst this sudden rocket strapped push is intriguing, it does lead me to question the validity of the initial comment. When they have done such a good job of curating matches, storylines and (mostly) forward progression, why then do we have such a high number of top talent lost in the shuffle?

At the time of writing, the New Day have just returned to instigate a feud with the Usos. Aiden English is currently struggling with a singing gimmick that was meant to lead to a big push, I suppose in the same way that Cesaro’s yodelling schtick was meant to make him a big star, and, most glaringly, American Alpha have been criminally missing from any sort of TV time whatsoever.

Despite what they have been able to achieve with SmackDown LIVE’s shorter run time, there are clearly still people who are being overlooked and lost.

From a narrative perspective, I get it. Not everybody can be used at all times, just like not everyone can be main event calibre. When you book a card, you have to have people who serve both the lower and mid card ranks. It’s not a disservice to their ability, it’s just how you craft the art. It’s pacing and investment. It’s the ebb and flow of story.

American Alpha’s ascent through NXT, through to their debut onto the main roster, short term feud, and eventual tag team championship victory all amounts to nought since they’ve dropped the belts. The momentum, the excitement, the passion and emotional investment from us as an audience has dissipated like rain in a desert; I can’t even remember the time those two had any real featured TV time.

So what’s the answer? More time means more opportunity? No. Not at all.

As highlighted, this RAW mentality is antithetical to growth. As anybody who has listened to me before on the podcast that I co-host (recently rebranded as Network & Chill, which you can find here), I have a firm belief that additional time doesn’t equate to appropriate talent and story development.

Look at 205 Live and tell me that it is the best utilisation of the high calibre talent they have. Solid wrestlers and great matches, wasted on one of the lowest watched WWE Network shows and poorly attended in real life, post-SmackDown tapings, by exhausted fans. It’s nonsensical. The answer isn’t more time, it’s correct use of the time you have, and as much as SmackDown is currently getting right, it’s evident that there is still work to be done in order to give headway for other talent to get their shot at that proverbial brass ring.

SmackDown LIVE is not yet the land of opportunity it purports to be, but, in contrast to its own branded rival, it is undeniably on a steady path towards it.

–  Steve R // @stevetendo

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