For nine months, SmackDown Live has heralded itself as “The Land of Opportunity,” promising fair shots for Superstars allegedly left behind by WWE. It’s clever branding, no doubt, but there remains some truth to the claim. People like AJ Styles, The Miz, Alexa Bliss, Heath Slater, Baron Corbin, and Naomi received chances that weren’t likely to come in a world without a brand split, and used those chances to elevate themselves in big ways.
The impending “Superstar Shake-up” means the blue brand should soon have fresh Superstars to establish or rehabilitate. While many candidates could certainly use a spell on Tuesday nights no wrestler fits the blue brand’s credo better than Sami Zayn. But it’s not just that Zayn would uniquely benefit from SmackDown Live—it’s that SmackDown Live would uniquely benefit from him.
As the narrative-driven show, SmackDown urgently needs to find a face that the crowd can universally get behind and follow on an extended journey. SmackDown’s best stories have been Heath Slater’s arc of earning a contract and becoming a tag team champion; Luke Harper’s struggle to alert his leader to the dangers of Randy Orton (unfortunately, this story was short-circuited so that we could get bugs projected on the ring during a dismal WWE Championship match in Orlando); and Nikki Bella’s long term quest to prove to all her doubters that she was a star on her own merits AND that the charges of her being a fake were false. SmackDown fans now need a new story to sink their teeth into.
The blues just gained a beloved megastar in Shinsuke Nakamura, so why is someone like Zayn so necessary? It’s rather simple, and his debut made very clear—The King of Strong Style is already positioned as the top face on SmackDown. He is already a made man; his presence at the top of the card is a fait accompli. Zayn, despite being a regular player on Raw, has plenty of room to grow in stature. He’s never won any title on the main roster and his pay-per-view record is dismal. There is an opportunity to give the audience a progressive journey of a man starting from, if not the bottom, a middling morass, to reach the top of the mountain.
Moreover, Nakamura is more a special attraction, a rockstar, whereas Zayn can function as the show’s emotional heartbeat. We know this to be the case because he served this exact role in NXT when the brand was first turning into a smash hit. Even now, when referring to the “heart and soul” of NXT, the two most obvious standouts are Zayn and Bayley.
It is interesting that the narrative driving forces of the face brand—and SmackDown Live is very clearly, and deliberately, the face brand, given that AJ Styles literally started his turn by saying he wanted to stay on Tuesdays—have been heels for the most part: Styles. Miz. Bliss.
Naomi’s addition to that list is only a recent development, but she seems destined to become a more central figure over the next year. But there’s zero face equivalent on the male side of the aisle—SmackDown desperately needs someone likeable.
There’s something infectious in Zayn’s goofy personality, and his manner of speaking is extremely authentic. But what makes Zayn such a special package is that he combines those strong character chops with exceptional ring work—he has the ability to deliver on a weekly, gradual story, and then blow it off huge in a classic Big Match.
It was perplexing at the time, and hindsight only makes it more so, but billing the Battleground match between Kevin Owens and Zayn as “the final battle” in their feud despite the pair both being drafted to Raw did Zayn no favors. While Owens began a long angle with Chris Jericho, Sami, despite winning in Washington, D.C. in July, was essentially a man without a country. The rest of his 2016 was uninspiring to say the least: He got only a thrown together tag match on the SummerSlam Kickoff show, lost to Jericho at Clash of Champions, lost an Intercontinental Championship match versus The Miz at Survivor Series, and “won” a match with Braun Strowman by surviving a 10 minute time limit at Roadblock: End of the Line. (He did put on a great Last Man Standing match on Raw with Strowman on Jan. 2, but again lost.)
Not exactly a stellar record. His 2017 on Raw hasn’t been much better: lasting a lengthy amount of time in the Royal Rumble only to be unceremoniously dumped by a part-timer, losing the opening match of Fastlane to Samoa Joe, and being a complete afterthought at WrestleMania—eliminated from the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal without fanfare.
As an underdog face, it’s natural that Zayn would take a slew of losses. The issue is that the inconsistent writing and short-sighted booking on Monday nights meant that any narrative thread was lost, and there was no payoff to ever be found. He wasn’t losing a lot in order to eventually overcome—he was losing a lot because he is a geek. Fortunately, his persona wasn’t damaged or cheapened in any way during his spell on Raw—he didn’t participate in any wildly out of character 5-on-1 beatdowns, nor was he presented as a shallow caricature rather than a fleshed out character.
The serialized nature of SmackDown’s creative philosophy, and a full year of time to play with, means that fans will willingly invest in a long term angle for Zayn even if it starts off rocky for him. The blue brand has earned patience from its fans—they should use it to good effect and present a nuanced, lengthy arc that sees a common man become a hero.
Zayn to Tuesdays seems a slam dunk for the host of reasons listed above. But does WWE agree? Find out during the Superstar Shake-Up during both Monday Night Raw and SmackDown Live this week.