Paul Heyman's ‘Talking Smack’ Departure Underscores WWE's Creative Issue

The Week in Wrestling: WWE has a creative problem, Tegan Nox discusses her first title win, and much more.
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SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every week and provides beneath-the-surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.

Changes to ‘Talking Smack’ rip away the show’s authenticity

Energy has returned to WWE. Fans are back in the crowd, ratings are up and new life has been injected into the product.

But there is still a major problem that needs to be addressed.

WWE’s shows, particularly Monday Night Raw, are built around generating an immediate reaction. The standard operating procedure is to highlight the current stars–or in the case of John Cena and Bill Goldberg, legacy stars—instead of consistently making new ones. This approach was evident through the recent change of Talking Smack into a studio show, and taking Paul Heyman off the show is a blow for fans and the WWE talent.

Talking Smack added realism and authenticity to a very scripted WWE product. Heyman brought more viral momentum to Talking Smack than any other WWE show currently airing. New stars were consistently being made, and Heyman was continually selling for the talent—and always putting over Roman Reigns, which highlighted the weekly product. During his time on Talking Smack, Heyman both got talent over and helped teach them how to get over so they could present themselves as genuine stars. Those who watched every week saw how he worked off-script but never off-message. His interactions with Big E, Kevin Owens, Apollo Crews and Sami Zayn were all examples of outstanding television.

Pat McAfee briefly replaced Heyman, and he would have brought a unique quality to the show, but the company decided it wasn’t feasible to film Talking Smack after SmackDown on Friday nights. Unlike the ThunderDome, there is now a breakdown each week following SmackDown. That has left Talking Smack an entirely changed show. This was a product that was better–and different–from anything produced by any other wrestling company. But without Heyman or the show’s blend of new information and character development, WWE has lost a valuable piece of unique programming.

All of this connects to the issue of immediate reaction in lieu of building newer stars. It is hard to find multiple instances where long-term goals are visible, especially on Raw. Too often, Raw is presented in a manner that leaves no cards on the table for the show even two weeks later.

This past week’s Raw certainly did not lack excitement. Cena returned. Goldberg appeared for the first time since January. Those are moments that grab people’s attention. Nikki A.S.H. closed the show by cashing in her Money in the Bank contract and winning the Raw women’s title, which was a genuinely great moment.

Now examine the long-term planning. Kofi Kingston was demolished at Money in the Bank to build up to Goldberg. Shouldn’t that have been the other way around?

What about Karrion Kross? The undefeated NXT champion debuted on Raw and lost to Jeff Hardy. His arrival should have been full of pomp, aura and mystery. Instead, he loses a throwaway match to Hardy that immediately devalued his standing. And why bring Keith Lee back to Raw and have him lose his first match? Lee should have won his first 25 matches back. He is exactly the type of athletic, charismatic performer WWE should be building around.

WWE’s COVID-19 era should have been an opportunity to make new stars, which is what happened in NXT–and seemed on its way to happening on Raw during the Heyman era. But plans changed. Heyman was replaced as the show’s executive director more than a year ago, and a different approach is now implemented on a week-to-week basis.

The intention here is not to bash Vince McMahon. McMahon and company president Nick Khan have WWE in a position to make even more of a profit than it did last year, which was a year that saw the company enjoy its greatest financial success. McMahon’s job, ultimately, is to raise the stock and drive a profit for shareholders, and clearly, he understands distribution better than anyone. Yet criticism is still fair, as he has not accepted the cultural change in digestion of the product and what it takes to get someone over in 2021.

The WWE roster is overflowing with a collection of the most talented women and men in the industry. Long-term creative needs to be the focal point for WWE as it returns to live crowds, with a vision for next week’s Raw, next month’s SmackDown—and next year’s shows, too.

Will we ever see that vision come to life each week on television? It is an element vital to the future of WWE.


Tegan Nox on her first title win

Tegan Nox is teaming with Shotzi Blackheart on SmackDown, and the new call-ups to the roster are on the precipice of winning the women’s tag team titles.

Nox is a spectacular talent and only 26, yet she has already been through two serious injuries. She tore her ACL and MCL in 2017, then tore her ACL again this fall. Remarkably, she continues to find a way to return even stronger, and winning the tag titles with Blackheart would be a wonderful way to introduce her to the SmackDown audience.

No stranger to championship gold, Nox first became champion in Southside Wrestling. Then working as Nixon Newell, she defeated Kay Lee Ray six years ago in a match in Stevenage, England, to win the Queen of Southside title.

“I won it in a ladder match that involved Kay Lee Ray; she was the champion at the time,” Nox says. “She’s one of my best friends, so that match was cool. That was the first title I won, so it meant a lot to me. It just happened to be on the 10-year anniversary of my grandfather’s death that I won the title, which made it that much more special.”

Nixon proudly held that title for 161 days. When she gets her taste of gold on SmackDown, expect her to represent the brand with intensity and championship flair.

The (online) week in wrestling

  • John Cena was superb on Raw, and he is working plenty of dates during this return run.
  • Finn Bálor is back in SmackDown. He was booked like a legend in NXT. I hope there is a specific plan for him now that he is on Friday nights.
  • With reports emerging on CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, it has been an extremely eventful week for the pro wrestling industry.
  • Dynamite was again red-hot Wednesday night (and even featured Nick Gage), and ended with a surprise finish as Lance Archer defeated Jon Moxley to win the IWGP United States title. I love the win for Archer, who is extraordinarily talented, though I wish he had stayed undefeated for a far longer stretch after signing with AEW. Nevertheless, I’m excited to see how he is presented in this title reign in AEW and New Japan.
  • WWE will receive another momentum boost when Becky Lynch returns.
  • Should Nikki A.S.H. keep the Raw title through the summer to establish herself as champion? If Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch have a grudge match at SummerSlam, that is a big enough encounter even without a title on the line.
  • Jay White is somehow still one of the more underrated stars in the industry. Hopefully his run in Impact introduces more people to his brilliance.
  • Why not have Keith Lee return and win his next 50 matches? Isn’t he exactly the type of athletic, charismatic performer WWE should be building around?
  • Northeast Wrestling’s upcoming WrestleFest 25 in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., this August is loaded with talent, so much so that it feels like an AEW house show.
  • With the Money in the Bank feed sputtering for a good 10 minutes, Sunday wasn’t a great look for Peacock.

Linda McMahon helps create memorable moment for young fan

John Cena’s return at Money in the Bank has been pro wrestling’s biggest story of the week. A moment Linda McMahon helped make even more special for a young fan. A video circulating social media shows McMahon stopping security from escorting the fan away from ringside as Cena entered the ring.

Paul “Triple H” Levesque can see how unforgettable the surprise appearance could be in the eyes of a child.

“That moment brought me back to Hogan slamming Andre,” Levesque says. “That’s what I saw. That child saw that in Cena. That’s what it’s all about.”

Linda McMahon is an integral reason why WWE is a global power in entertainment. Levesque noted that it was that type of approach that helped build WWE from the ground up.

“There’s nothing like that moment for a child,” Levesque says. “Linda knows that better than anyone. She has been here with Vince since the very beginning. That was a beautiful moment, and we mean it when we say we want to welcome our fans home.”

Tweet of the Week

I can’t wait for the start of the Big E era.

More Wrestling Coverage:
WWE Fans Are Back. How Long Will Vince McMahon Listen to Them?
Triple H Gives His Take on a Successful Money in the Bank
Money in the Bank Takeaways

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.