The six-man gauntlet match on January 8’s WWE SmackDown was held to decide the 2021 Royal Rumble challenger to Universal Champion Roman Reigns. This match yielded a surprising winner: WWE official Adam Pearce. He entered the ring as a competitor for the first time in six years, but what brought him there were the machinations of Reigns and his special counsel Paul Heyman. Reigns’ displeasure stemmed from Pearce’s decision the previous week to grant Kevin Owens a match against Jey Uso, which Uso did not win. In this match, Reigns and Uso punishingly attacked Owens in retaliation. Reigns not only lay the blame for their brutality on Pearce but had an elaborate punishment designed for the official who set the stage for Uso’s defeat.
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— WWE (@WWE) January 9, 2021
Roman Reigns confronted Adam Pearce about what he perceived as a slight and humiliation, berating and taunting him for granting the match, prolonging the feud that Reigns was confident he had put behind him. He was also enraged at the idea of the gauntlet match to decide his Royal Rumble appointment, fuming that he could pick his opponent himself. Reigns manhandled Pearce, talked down only by a cajoling Heyman. Although Reigns had flippantly quipped that maybe Pearce should join the gauntlet match roster and get in the ring himself, clearly the idea stuck in the crafty brain of the special counsel as a unique check to Pearce’s authority.
The suggestion caught fire and spread quickly-but when Sonya Deville brought it up, Pearce assured her that he had no intention of joining the gauntlet.
Paul Heyman approached Pearce, appealed to his vanity, enticing him to enter the ring for the first time in over six years. Heyman then informed him that strings had been pulled; Pearce was joining the gauntlet.
Rey Mysterio and Sami Zayn were the first contenders to meet in the ring. Mysterio quickly put the former Intercontinental Champion away with a deft and swift signature 619, followed by a frog splash. Mysterio went on to face Shinsuke Nakamura. “The King of Strong Style” was in rare form and noticeably motivated, seizing the day for his title shot. Mysterio did some considerable damage with his characteristic flying maneuvers, but Nakamura forced him to submit and went on to the next challenger, King Corbin. Nakamura put Corbin away and, still fired up, went up against Daniel Bryan, who gave Nakamura a merry chase but ultimately fell to him as well.
— WWE (@WWE) January 9, 2021
Adam Pearce, the last challenger, walked the ramp, looking noticeably hesitant. He wasn’t alone, though, as Roman Reigns, Jey Uso and Paul Heyman strolled behind him. Shockingly, Uso and Reigns savagely assailed Shinsuke Nakamura, rendering him unconscious. Pearce was also laid out by a stiff kick from Uso. At this point, Pearce was laid out on the canvas not far from Shinsuke. Reigns instructed Uso to drape the inert Pearce over Shinsuke and prevailed upon the ref to call the match. Reigns’ and Heyman’s plot to punish Pearce for aiding Owens had worked: Pearce would be Reigns’s challenger at the Royal Rumble, and the Universal Champion is surely counting on doing maximum damage to the WWE official.
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