I love the Smackdown tag team division. Love it. Most of my favorite characters on the show are there, from the Vaudevillains to Beauty and the ManBeast to the Hype Bros to Breezango.
But lately, it seems like every time I get excited for a big upcoming match, I just end up disappointed. What happened, and how can Smackdown correct it?
The champs are over-powered.
When American Alpha were introduced, they were positioned as a big deal and seemed poised to take over the division. I was reluctant to see this. I had heard a lot about their time on NXT from other fans, but as a main-roster-only viewer, I wanted to see and experience a story about these newbies for myself.
That’s why I was so heartened when the Usos jumped the Alphas just as they got close to the belts, "injuring" Chad Gable and giving these kids something to overcome. It looked like the beginning of a feud, and I was interested to see where it would go.
Though the Usos did not stay engaged with Alpha as closely as I wanted, the next time Alpha got close to the belts, the Wyatts came out of nowhere to steal them. I felt sure that we were finally in for a long, engrossing feud that would let the still-rather-anonymous Alphas start to show some personality as they were contrasted against the dominant, well-established Wyatts.
But then American Alpha scooped the titles off the Wyatts barely a few weeks later. It was done for a reason – to tell the story of Orton and Harper being unable to get along - but the twist only served the Wyatt story, leaving the tag division with an abrupt switch to two cheerful jocks who still hadn’t had to overcome that much.
To make a disappointing twist worse, American Alpha got very little to do after their win. They were absent from the Royal Rumble, and their invisibility became so notable that they even complained about it in kayfabe.
So at the Elimination Chamber tag turmoil match, I was ready for a switch. Take the belts off the Alphas for a bit, give them a more interesting build, and then let them grab the titles back, once it felt like we knew who they were.
Instead, we saw them survive a post-match beatdown from the Usos, start their Ascension match virtually unconscious, and then somehow Overcome the Odds (copyright: John Cena) to destroy the Ascension and keep their belts.
The Usos abused the Alphas, but it didn’t end up affecting their ability to win, so what does it matter? The Ascension came out when Alpha were so dead-looking that I believed they were going to steal a victory and cause a huge, unexpected shakeup in the division. But then the Alphas powered themselves up through Grit and Determination, or whatever, to win.
Now the Usos’ beatdown becomes meaningless in hindsight, and the Ascension’s inability to pin a pair of virtually-dead victims made them look like absolute chumps. And the perky-but-generic Alphas still hold the belts, same as when the night started, with no realistic contenders to face.
The Alphas are part of the problem here, but their overpowered status wouldn’t matter so much if it weren’t for a sorely underpowered division facing them.
Too many teams exist just to eat pins.
Last week on Smackdown, it seemed like the Ascension were being quietly positioned for a power-up. Commentary had been talking them up recently, and Konnor got the pin to win the division’s brawl. For all their face paint and bluster, the Ascension had never really accomplished anything on Smackdown, and it looked like the characters were finally going to be positioned as a force. Though I’ve never particularly been an Ascension fan, I like the idea of new storytelling opportunities opening up with a set of first-time champs.
Instead, now we have two dudes who think they’re threatening but who can’t even pin semi-comatose competitors handed to them on a platter. The Ascension has never been positioned as a credible threat in the division, and now they look that much worse.
And what of the rest of the division?
The Vaudevillains have been languishing at almost the same level as the Ascension. Aiden English’s glorious, Gumby-esque bumps are the highlight of their performances, and Simon Gotch – who some say has had ongoing heat backstage – has eaten a number of pins in recent months. Other than their brief dominance over Enzo and Cass when they first premiered, they have been asked to take so many pins that it is difficult to take them seriously.
Breezango has shown some life by developing their Fashion Police gimmick and leaning into it hard (Fandango wrestling with a stack of tickets in his pants was a highlight of Elimination Chamber), but the storytelling has yet to allow them to make any impact. They have been grouped with the faces and with the heels over the months, depending on where more support is needed, which is an interesting flexibility, but they never come through with victories.
Back in the fall, Beauty and the ManBeast seemed poised for a breakup and some singles matches against one another, but in a confusing lack of continuity, they now appear to be the best of buds again. Perhaps due to Zack Ryder’s injury and the loss of the Hype Bros, B&theMB are still in the division serving a face role. They seemed to have some momentum during the Elimination Chamber match, but other than that, they have largely been losing since dropping the belts.
And finally, the Usos have flickered in and out of the picture since their much earlier attempt to destroy Chad Gable’s leg. They are the only team other than American Alpha that is currently showing any kind of dominance, though theirs comes from beat-downs rather than from wins.
So what do you do with a division that’s built around allowing just one team to look good? You take a cue from the women’s division.
There is no character development outside the title feud.
The tag division is not going to thrive until it is booked as intelligently as the women’s division. Last night, every active women’s wrestler was featured – including Carmella, who did not have a match, so she was given screen time throughout the night to keep her relevant.
I have stopped thinking of the women’s division in terms of who has too much/not enough power, because they are all given time, lines, and character by the show. Carmella’s record of losses matters a lot less when I see her moving forward as a character, developing new connections, showing confidence, and building a story.
The tag division needs to go back to its approach with Beauty and the ManBeast from last summer, when they were building the characters through charming vignettes about doublewides and squeeze cheese. What could Breezango do with two minutes of backstage shenanigans on a regular basis? What new layers of silliness could Heath Slater and Rhyno add to their colorful backstory? The Vaudevillains could go for miles with silent movie parodies or hipster mustache clichés, and the Ascension and American Alpha could finally tell us who they are after months of generic characterization.
The women’s division fielded three feuds last night, all of which felt genuine and relevant, even though only one featured a title belt. What if the tag division could do the same? Breenzango and B&theMB have shown that they can build entertaining characters; put them up against some of the less-developed characters and let the feuds and the vignettes benefit everyone.
It’s been suggested more than once that the Revival, a dominant NXT tag team, should be brought in to shake up the Smackdown tag team division, and that could indeed be part of the recipe for success. But until the existing teams are treated with care, developed as characters, and powered appropriately, a new arrival will just be doomed to the same cycle of only-one-team-matters-at-a-time.