Big E announced on the New Year’s episode of Smackdown that he will be resurrecting the Open Challenge for the Intercontinental Championship. Let’s examine the potential pros & cons of the Open Challenge.
It’s one of those tropes that fans seem to love: an Open Challenge for a Championship in WWE. It’s being resurrected, this time an Intercontinental Championship Open Challenge, as Big E looks to assert himself as bonafide and top tier singles wrestler (more on this later). His Open Challenge was quickly answered by his tag team partner from the New Year’s episode of Smackdown, Apollo Crews.
Like with anything in pro wrestling, there are both positives and negatives to having an Open Challenge. The ultimate goal of these gimmicks should be to elevate the Champion/Championship (both match-by-match and over a longer arc) and elevate the challengers.
With this iteration, the majority of the focus should be on giving Big E definitive, clean, and at times hard-fought victories that assert his position as one of the top singles acts on the show. If there’s a model to follow, it would undoubtedly be John Cena’s United States Championship Open Challenge in 2015. Not only did this introduce the larger audience to Sami Zayn (in-match injury notwithstanding) and then-NXT Champion Kevin Owens, but Big E himself was actually a challenger to Cena on the Oct. 5, 2015 episode.
Big E could cut a passionate promo about how his experience as a challenger to Cena reasserted his belief that when the time came, he could hang with the best in singles competition; check out his matches against the likes of Daniel Bryan, Sheamus, and Cesaro since his match with Cena for further proof. He could also say how he wants to have an Open Challenge that’s remembered positively just like Cena’s, pushing himself against the best Smackdown has to offer week after week.
While it seems like it’s been a bit since WWE has done the Open Challenge concept, AEW executed their TNT Championship Open Challenge with Cody very well and to a lot of positive acclaims, so that’s another example WWE could (reluctantly and secretively) emulate.
Still, with only four months between now and WrestleMania, and the unknown of the Royal Rumble match, this may not prove to be Big E’s ascent to the main event of WrestleMania. However, if booked well, Big E might be the one standing tall as WrestleMania goes off the air.
Let’s proceed, beginning with the cons.
Cons: monotonous booking, redundant matches, and roster depth
I’ll tackle these by combining the first two points, then proceeding to the roster.
The one big flaw in these Open Challenges, at least with WWE, is that there is an overwhelming likelihood that the Champion will retain. I’ve written before that predictable booking isn’t necessarily a negative when it’s coherent to a story, but with Open Challenges, the only story you generally have going into the match is that the challenger wants the Championship.
Even if there is a backstory, there’s basically the entrance, introductions, and match to tell that history, an unideal situation.
This ties into the next point about redundant matches. In the WWE style, you can pretty much play the macrostructure of the match in your head: a test of abilities, Champion gains advantage, the challenger takes control and has a hope spot or two, Champion wins.
Sure, the matches can be exciting, but when you always know the Champion will retain, it diminishes some of the lusters, like people reminding me that just because Ben Simmons hit a 3-pointer this early in the regular season it doesn’t mean he’ll do the same in the playoffs.
Just give us Sixers fans a moment to celebrate!
I digress. The biggest hindrance to Big E’s potential Open Challenge is the roster depth on Smackdown. According to this “Tier List” from Ryan Satin and FOX Sports (letter grades with A+, A, B+, B, down to D and F), Big E is in the fourth tier, a B. He’s behind Universal Champion Roman Reigns, Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins, Rey Mysterio, and Owens (B+). He’s in the same tier as Otis, Jey Uso, and former Intercontinental Champion Zayn.
The rest of the men’s roster includes Tag Team Champion The Street Profits (one tier ahead of Big E), Dolph Ziggler, King Corbin, Murphy (tier fivers at C+), Cesaro, Shinsuke Nakamura, Robert Roode, Dominik Mysterio (tier sixers at C), Chad Gable, Aleister Black, Apollo Crews, Lars Sullivan (tier sevens at D), Kalisto, and Mojo Rawley (tier eights at F).
Assuming that Bryan, Rollins, and Owens are locked into the Universal Championship picture; and that The Street Profits remain stalwart defenders of their own Championship, then that leaves a rather shallow number of potential opponents for Big E, particularly those that fans could believably conceive of as wrenching the Intercontinental Championship from him.
While we all love Zayn, I only want to see a rematch with Zayn being a serious character rather than a comedic act, and a rematch this soon just becomes another in the run of redundant booking. Aside from Dominik Mysterio, every name in tiers five and six have been repeatedly and distinctly defined as solidly mid to lower card and perennial losers (looking at Ziggler) that having them defeat Big E would truly be a shock.
While the matches between Big E and Gable, Black, and the forthcoming bout with Crews would/should be great matches, those names have been defined down or missing outright in the case of Black that they would need weeks to months of a winning streak to be taken seriously against Big E. A “Milan Miracle” can happen at any time in pro wrestling, but that would harm everyone involved rather than elevate anybody.
So, with all this said, are there any positives for the Open Challenge?
Well, let’s continue.
Pros: the ability to roster shuffle, elevating the IC Championship, and establishing Big E as a Universal Championship contender
Pulling a page out of the Cena playbook, let’s expand the roster only for the Open Challenge!
Remember the buzz that was created, the buzz you created when the music for Zayn and Owens hit with Cena waiting for them in the ring? Remember the Montreal crowd erupting for their hometown wrestler in Zayn as national hero Bret “Hitman” Hart introduced him?
I’m not saying that can happen quite yet with Big E as his stature is not at the heights of Cena (who’s is?), but he does have equity built with fans that few in WWE earn. Still, what E needs right now is a credible, dangerous heel he can build his babyface character alongside together.
Damian Priest is just that person from NXT. He’s basically a tweener at this point, but his original character was this brooding, Gothic playboy, a definitive heel. The issue is much of Priest’s move set leans babyface. However, he is talented and knows how to wrestle a heel style, particularly his size and strength. A 20-minute match between Big E and Priest would be a physical endeavor indeed and sets the stage for a future rivalry between the two as I believe Priest is exactly who Smackdown needs to bolster their roster.
Channeling Cena again, after Big E has established himself with a string of successful defenses, have Finn Balor’s music hit in a scene reminiscent of when Owens challenged Cena. Rather than hold off on the match, have it right there and capitalize on the moment. I know I wrote earlier about the lack of build in these Open Challenges, but this might be one of those “strikes while the iron is hot” moments, and holding it off might dull the enthusiasm. This would be a situation where WWE would rely on word-of-mouth to draw viewers live.
In a nod to his undeniable influence and mentorship of Black wrestlers, the leader of The Hurt Business M.V.P. (with the crew in tow) challenging Big E would be one of those generational moments. It would be a match that would tie two generations of Black wrestling together, and a potential post-match show of respect from M.V.P. to Big E could only further elevate the Champion.
Sticking within the show, I wouldn’t mind seeing Jey Uso and Big E in the same ring again. The story is simple: Reigns instructs Jey Uso to not only be the next challenger to Big E, but to WIN the Intercontinental Championship so the Family holds more gold and so Jey Uso can “put food on the table.” The burgeoning singles career of Jey Uso is a nice counter to Big E’s, and they would be sure to put on an emotionally engaging match.
Here’s something else to consider as well: it’s FINE to have squash matches in Open Challenges! As much as I like Kalisto and Gable, they shouldn’t last longer than 90 seconds against Big E in the current iterations of their characters. He might be the son of a legend, but Dominik Mysterio should last about 15 seconds, about as long as Big E takes to hit the Big Ending and pin him if he answers the Open Challenge.
The same could be said if the likes of Titus O’Neil, Slapjack, or even Ricochet answer the challenge (unfortunately for the latter).
The beauty of squashes is Big E could grab a mic, say he’s still ready to go, and have another challenger appear. He receives the benefit of defending successfully against two unadvertised opponents consecutively.
All these matches (and others) would serve to help elevate the title. What does it say that wrestlers from different shows, Champions on other shows, appeared on Smackdown not to challenge Reigns, but to challenge Big E for the Intercontinental Championship? From a fan perspective, it indicates we should probably hold the title with as much esteem as those vying for it, and that should translate to the Champion.
Continuing, if all these wrestlers challenge Big E week in and week out and he’s able to retain every week, wouldn’t that make you think he could pull off a WrestleMania VI and challenge/win the Universal Championship as Intercontinental Champion?
Right now, it’s hard to buy into anyone on Smackdown being a viable, believable challenger to Reigns. Maybe the best option is to have Big E successfully defend for eight to 12 consecutive weeks and establish him as Regins’ opponent at WrestleMania.
With that kind of build, I can already picture Big E on the second turnbuckle, Intercontinental Championship in his left hand and Universal Championship in his right, elevating them as fireworks explode in the background, confetti falls, and Xavier Woods and Kofi Kingston reacting as happily and emotionally as when Kingston won the WWE Championship at WrestleMania as the show fades to black…