Welcome to the "Land of Opportunity" on SmackDown Live. While that title has been a frequently used moniker of the brand since the WWE draft last July, SmackDown had not made any dramatic moves to showcase how the whole roster had a chance to succeed until the April 18 edition of SmackDown, where Jinder Mahal won a Six-Pack Challenge and earned a main event shot at WWE champion Randy Orton at Backlash on May 21.
This move was such a shocking turn that it left most in shock. Just the previous week, Mahal had been losing minute-long matches on Monday Night Raw, and his transition to SmackDown Live through the Superstar Shake-up was hardly encouraging as he lost in decisive fashion once more to Mojo Rawley.
As the news settles in, it brings up the most crucial question: Can Mahal actually step up and pull out a main event match for SmackDown? The heel roster on the brand is lacking for quality talent at the moment, and Mahal has always been a reliable hand if not much else. The man who holds Mahal's future in his hands is Orton, the current WWE champion.
Unfortunately, Orton is the one most likely to hurt Mahal's chances of taking a step forward in the company, as the 13-time world champion has a poor track record of developing talent. The Viper has become a legend in the business despite a shockingly mixed performance history. One of the best pure athletes in WWE's history, it is hard to tell which Orton will show up on a weekly basis.
With John Cena taking time away from SmackDown, Orton is the resident veteran on the roster and has been asked to take on a role he simply may not be made for. With SmackDown in need of fresh faces taking the next step, someone has to be the proving ground for talent to rise to the occasion.
One man who has been ideal for that role over the past few years has been Cena, who has feuded with Bray Wyatt, Kevin Owens, Rusev and AJ Styles. In the main event spotlight, these new faces to the WWE Universe wrestled some of the best matches of their careers and cut quality promos along the way.
While criticisms of Cena burying talent have merit even if they are overblown, Cena has never pulled back in his performances. He has given his all and only improved over the years. His United States Championship Open Challenge was extremely well-received as it ended up giving many stars, including Cesaro, Sami Zayn and Neville, career-defining performances that proved their worth.
In that same time, Orton has not had many memorable outings. His recent match against Luke Harper at WWE Elimination Chamber is a rare exception to disappointing performances against Wyatt, Sheamus and Seth Rollins. His TV matches have been particularly lackluster with a frequent languid pace even against top performers such as Dean Ambrose and The Miz.
No one can deny that Orton has the talent to put on great matches. His legacy includes fantastic contests against Christian, Triple H, Rey Mysterio, Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker. He just has not put in that effort consistently, especially over the past few years with his character change from Legend Killer to The Viper.
SmackDown has an interesting list of potential stars in Mahal, Baron Corbin, Luke Harper, Mojo Rawley and Erick Rowan. How can WWE find out which among these wrestlers can take the next step if the main stepping stone never gives them a chance? Until Cena returns, it may just be folly to take a shot at Mahal and other stars rather than relying on more proven talent like Styles and Zayn.
The Land of Opportunity is a fascinating avenue for WWE that could make SmackDown a unique product separate from Raw. However Orton cannot take the lead role in that effort if he continues to perform with so little enthusiasm against those he does not know well. Until Cena returns, there may just not be anyone on SmackDown that can take on that mantle.