December 3’s Friday Night SmackDown set the wheels in motion for WWE’s newest addition to their pay-per-view calendar, Day 1. There was little doubt that the January 1, 2022 event would be anchored by another installment in the Brock Lesnar v. Roman Reigns saga for the Universal Championship. However, SmackDown segued into this plot twist using Sami Zayn in a manner that inadvertently exposes the flaws in the dependence of WWE regarding part-timer talent like Lesnar.
The Part-Timer Problem of WWE
Sami Zayn’s Fleeting Role in the Part-Timer Problem
The previous week, Zayn outlasted several other Superstars on November 27’s “Black Friday Invitational Battle Royal” to determine the next challenger for the Universal Championship, only for Lesnar’s return to be announced at the end of the broadcast by Kayla Braxton. Zayn’s victory was mined for laughs on December 3 with a tongue-in-cheek confrontation with Lesnar at the top of the broadcast. Zayn’s title shot against Reigns ended in an attack by Lesnar, and The Usos, paving the way for an easy victory by Reigns and a title shot for Lesnar. There was never much reason to believe that Zayn, a comic heel character, would prevail against the most dominant figures on the roster, or that the stage would be set for anyone other than Lesnar to face Reigns on PPV.
Much has been written about WWE’s storyline model, which leans heavily on building up to pay-per-view appearances by popular, veteran performers like Lesnar and Goldberg, who are a consistently big draw. However, for the sake of the inevitable pop that these part-timer appearances elicit from the casual or nostalgic WWE fan, the talents of the regular roster are cruelly diminished.
Zayn’s eclectic body of work spans indie promotions like Combat Zone Wrestling, international promotions like Dramatic Dream Team, as well as a stint in NXT and a reign as NXT Champion. To see his 2015 introduction to Monday Night Raw, in his hometown of Montreal, Quebec, by no less a personage than Bret Hart, to challenge John Cena is to witness a moment ebullient with optimism and charged with promise. However, after years of diminished investment in his potential, he was reduced to a hollow man in service to the Lesnar angle.
Shifting Gears to The Prince
A similar fate was Finn Balor’s in the build-up to September 26’s Extreme Rules. Balor returned to WWE’s main roster after a stellar run on NXT, where he dropped his “Demon King” gimmick and its supernatural trappings for the minimalistic character “The Prince.” If the moniker was meant to be an allusion to Machiavelli’s Renaissance how-to guide for liars, schemers, and double dealers, it was apt, as the Prince engineered the break-up of the Undisputed Era with subtle mind games. After dropping the NXT title to Karrion Kross, Balor joined the SmackDown roster, intent on reclaiming the Universal Championship he was forced to rescind due to injury. Live crowds thrilled to Balor’s entrance, promos, and especially the return of his demonic alter ego… Only for all to end in a whimper, not a bang, with a contrived finish to the end of his Extreme Rules bout against Reigns. For Balor, as for Zayn, there was no real chance, and no chance that Reigns was losing the belt before his October 21 bout with Lesnar at Crown Jewel.
Zayn was once a contender. Just last year, Balor was a dominant force on NXT, and what’s more his place in pro wrestling history is enshrined as New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s first Bullet Club leader. Both have the talent and history to play a greater role in the Universal Championship race than pitstops in the greater Lesnar v. Reigns angle. After all, where can that angle lead? A part-timer like Lesnar is unlikely to take the title, and if he does it, will only elicit collective groans of dismay from fans-which has happened before. Another pay-per-view victory for Reigns, most likely due to interference from the Usos, will only make the Bloodline’s dominance as predictable and cartoonish as Cena’s became in the previous decade, a monolith that fans will clamor to topple with whatever this decade’s equivalent to Bryan Danielson’s “Yes!” movement will inevitably be: an organic groundswell of demand to storm the gates and change the guard.
The Part-Timer Problem of WWE – In Closing
A titanic name and presence like Lesnar’s is a lure to pay-per-view viewers. However, WWE’s year-round television viewing experience is diminished by the current model. As the current Universal Champion, Reigns’s victories look cheaply earned and predictable, biding time until a confrontation with a guest player which, for practicality’s sake, he will also win. In the meantime, the regular roster is populated by wrestlers who are legends elsewhere, but props in narratives that diminish them, erasing their talent, history, and potential. This robs the viewer of far richer stories that could be told, stunning matches that could be staged with talent who deserve a true shot. Although Reigns’s victory at Day 1 is all but assured, in this schema, no one truly wins.
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