Heading into a new brand extension, the questions were always going to revolve around the Smackdown brand. Sure, WWE would probably bend over backwards to make sure Raw, the flagship show, came out looking strong, but what about the often mistreated blue brand? Well, since then, Smackdown Live! has put on more good shows than bad ones, even with a few glaring weaknesses. Backlash was the first real test for Smackdown, however, seeing if it could cobble together an entire PPV with a smaller roster than Raw, as well as less established stars. And honestly, for the most part, Backlash rose to the occasion. The PPV showcased most of the roster favorably, and while it was far from a perfect show, with some definite room for improvement, it did make it seem like the Smackdown brand might come out of this brand split looking just fine. Here’s some thoughts we had after watching the show, about what they did right, and what still needs to get better.
10. Two Guys In Search Of A Purpose
Whether you like or hate either man, it’s hard not to be somewhat sympathetic for Baron Corbin and Apollo Crews, two wrestlers who should have bright futures, but maybe could have benefited by staying in NXT a bit longer, and seem to have been brought up more as available warm bodies than because WWE had any specific plans for them. Watching them wrestle a pretty decent match on the pre-show, that took place with absolutely no build and no on-screen issue between them, kind of underlines the lack of direction their careers have take thus far. Both have the capacity to be major parts of WWE going forward, thanks to unique looks, decent wrestling skills, and a certain level of charisma, but neither has had much to work with up until this point. When Corbin is still getting announced solely as the Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal winner, it only shows how little he’s accomplished since then (as well as shining the light once more on how little the Andre Battle Royal actually matters). It seems ridiculous that a show with as small a roster as Smackdown has isn’t utilizing talents like Crews and Corbin more meaningfully. Hopefully by the next Smackdown PPV, both men will have some sort of feud going that actually gets them onto the main card, because it’s not like Backlash didn’t have room for a couple more matches.
9. A Most Bexcellent Decision
Yeah, like we’re not going to make a pun out of Becky Lynch becoming the first Smackdown Women’s Champion. Frankly, she’d probably be disappointed if we didn’t. But in all seriousness, just the idea that six women could have an elimination match that went over the ten minute mark and have it be pretty good is an incredible accomplishment, especially given that it wasn’t exactly a match containing all the best and brightest. No disrespect intended to those involved, but they’re not exactly Charlotte, Sasha, and Bayley, you know? With that said, it was a good match that continued to showcase the Smackdown women, who haven’t exactly been recognized as huge stars like their Raw counterparts. And yes, it was the absolute right choice to have Becky win, for more than just sentimental reasons. Obviously Nikki Bella has the big comeback story, but part of that story is the fine print, which states that she’s not going to be a full-time performer, and therefore probably isn’t the person who should be carrying the belt and representing the division, especially when it comes to things like live events. And while “deserve’s got nothing to do with it”, few deserve the belt more than Becky, who has always seemed like the least recognized of the Horsewomen, and the only one without a title, NXT or WWE, to her name.
8. Arrogance: For Her
Count us among the people who thought that maybe Dolph Ziggler should have won the Intercontinental Title at Backlash, simply because The Miz should be doing his act at a higher level than the midcard title. But on the other hand, he’s arguably holding the second-most important title on the brand, and maybe he’s actually doing that whole “elevating the belt” thing we’ve seen talked about in the past just by being the champion and one of the current hottest acts in the entire company. During the build, Dolph Ziggler said he didn’t know why WWE always calls on the Miz to do media appearances, but it should be crystal clear by now what the reason is: It’s because he’s a damned good performer who has worked hard and improved every step of the way, and he should be one of the faces of the company. Even the prospect of Maryse blinding Dolph with something we can only hope came from Rick Martel’s old perfume sprayer potentially leading to a dreaded blindfold match (we don’t have anything to back that up, just a gut feeling) doesn’t worry us that much. And more importantly, thanks to Miz becoming this huge heel act, whomever actually beats him and ends his reign of terror will likewise look like a big deal. Sorry, Dolph, that train left the station for you long ago.
7. No, This Roster Isn’t Thin At All
We took a little flak in the Backlash predictions for claiming that the WWE roster was thin, and we should clarify that while the entire roster as a whole is deep, when split across two shows, the pool for each brand becomes significantly shallower and make things like Alberto Del Rio getting the heck out of town an actual significant loss for the Smackdown brand. Take, for example, the news that Randy Orton failed to get medical clearance to wrestle at Backlash (and may have trouble getting it anytime soon, apparently), thanks to the concussion he got wrestling Brock at SummerSlam. We’ll set aside the fact that WWE knowingly promoted a match that they had knowledge might not actually happen the entire time due to Orton’s condition for now, and look at who Smackdown had available to replace Orton in his match against Wyatt that wasn’t already working the PPV. Well, there was Kane, and…nope, just Kane. Even as people halfheartedly hoped for a surprise NXT debut or someone returning from injury, deep down, we all knew it was going to be Kane. And the match was fine for a last-second replacement, until it ended with Kane getting the victory. You’re telling us Bray Wyatt doesn’t even get to beat the substitute opponent, which would have made him look somewhat stronger for when the actual Orton-Wyatt match happens? Not that we think it should, now, since Orton basically got his revenge by hitting an RKO during the match anyway.
6. Why Heel Turns Work
Okay, so you have the Usos, who are a decent but bland face team that fans are mostly okay with watching wrestle, but whom have pretty much worn out their welcome as faces (pairing them with Roman Reigns almost certainly accelerated that problem), to the point that there’s not really anything else you can do with them as good guys. So, you have them suddenly turn heel, lay out a popular face team with brutal efficiency, start wrestling a different style with new moves that they didn’t use as faces, and even change their look so any vestige of their old act is basically gone. Suddenly, they’re an intriguing heel act that fans want to see face off against their favorite teams, freshening up a stale act that could result in some hot matches that could carry the tag division for at least the next several months, if not longer. Sure, they could have kept doing their tired face act to rapidly diminishing crowd reactions, probably for a long time, but had they done that, they likely would never have been a meaningful part of the brand ever again. Now, is there anyone else on the WWE roster who could probably benefit from a heel turn and complete character change, that would probably turn them into a hot property again? Someone who, by some coincidence, is also Samoan?
5. Making An Actual Star
For all the times WWE drops the ball on making someone into a star (but enough about Bray Wyatt), with Heath Slater, they did everything right. Even when they were portraying his family as poor white trash and possibly at least partially in-bred, there was an inherent sympathy in this dumb redheaded yokel who just wanted a job doing what he loved in order to provide for his current wife and at least seven kids. The thing is, being poor and struggling to succeed against a system that screws you over at seemingly every turn actually speaks to a large portion of the population. We all want to do better for ourselves, living our dream, no matter how dumb it might seem, and thanks to some great work from Slater (and Rhyno, who deserves some credit for his “silent partner” routine), WWE tapped into something that turned the entire thing from a massive joke into a real underdog story, and then they actually paid it off in a huge feel-good victory. We have minor quibbles about the fact that Slater and Rhyno are going to end up placeholder champions in the grand scheme (since The Usos or American Alpha are getting those belts sooner rather than later), but in the moment, when they held the new belts high and you could actually see Slater whisper “Thank you” to Rhyno, that was one of the best things we’ve seen on WWE programming this year.
4. Time Is Not On Their Side
We need to thank WWE for not doing the dumb thing and deciding that the Pay Per View had to be three hours, by hook or by crook, simply because they had a three-hour time slot. Even with some great workers on the card, there simply wasn’t enough material to stretch the show that long without making it significantly worse, and as we’ve said before, maybe making the single-brand PPVs shorter, since there’s another coming in two weeks, isn’t the worst idea in the world. With that said, we kind of wish they hadn’t had to resort to some obvious filler material in order to even get the show to push past the two and a half hour mark. Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan coming out to start the show by running down the matches on the card was a bit obvious for its time-wasting properties, but largely inoffensive and could be seen as necessary to have the authority figures for Smackdown introduce the very first brand-exclusive show. And we’ll give credit for WWE not just handing out extra time to matches that didn’t really need it, because frankly, nobody really needs to see Mojo Rawley in a match longer than five minutes, and the Tag Title match had the perfect length of Slater getting beaten before the hot tag and finish, which we wouldn’t have wanted to stretch any longer. But an eleven-minute commercial for the WWE Network is the kind of blatant time-filler that didn’t need to happen. If they truly needed eleven minutes of commercial filler, next time, don’t jam it all into one segment.
3. CM Punk?
Let’s take a second to talk about the elephant that’s been in the room for a few years now. In case you hadn’t heard or seen the gifs, CM Punk had his UFC debut the night before Backlash and it did not go particularly well for him. But on the bright side, it was over quickly. Anyway, we all know WWE never misses a chance to subtly mock former employees whenever they get an opportunity (well, subtle for them, at least). At Backlash, WWE made two fairly overt references to Punk and his UFC thrashing, first by having Miz and Dolph Ziggler basically re-enact the opening minutes of the fight, with Miz charging Ziggler, getting caught in a double-leg takedown, pounded, and locked in a brief rear naked choke before making the ropes. In case you didn’t pay to see Punk’s fight, that’s basically how it went for him, except it took two minutes and there aren’t any rope breaks in UFC. That was the more overt reference, but later in the evening, Dean Ambrose essentially stole a Punk signature move, hitting a high knee in the corner and transitioning it into a running bulldog. Combine all that with Hideo Itami getting to use the Go 2 Sleep down in NXT (frankly, given that he invented the move in the first place, it’s only fair), maybe we can finally come to terms with the reality that WWE and CM Punk are never, ever, ever getting back together.
2. The Heel That Runs This Deal
Maybe people are starting to get tired of our effusive praise of AJ Styles, but we can’t help it, because the guy is on fire right now. Possibly the only good thing to come out of a PPV with only six matches booked was that we knew going in that at least part of that extra time had to be given to AJ Styles, so that he could show off exactly why he’s one of the best wrestlers in the world right now. And that’s pretty much what happened, as roughly the last half-hour of Backlash was given over to AJ Styles, as well as Dean Ambrose, showing exactly what they can do with a little freedom to maneuver. It won’t be the Match of the Year when everything is said and done, but it might have been the best singles match of Ambrose’s WWE career, as he broke out some moves we’d never seen him try in an effort to keep up, and for AJ Styles, well, it was Tuesday (we know, it was actually Sunday, but otherwise nobody will get the reference). As often as WWE misses the boat on things, with AJ Styles, they’ve done exactly the right thing, making him the WWE World Champion and the top star of Smackdown when he’s at his hottest (so far) in the eyes of the audience. Maybe we’re being a bit optimistic, but this can only lead to good things for the blue brand.
1. What An Age We Live In
All right, we’re going to need you to be honest with yourselves right now, and we say that knowing we’re all wrestling fans here, and complete honesty is hard for us. But remember way back at the start of 2016, literally the first day of January, when we had Roman Reigns as WWE World Heavyweight Champion, still feuding with Sheamus and The Authority, half the roster was injured, and pretty much no hope in sight of anything changing? Okay, now think about the WWE you woke up to this morning. A WWE where Kevin Owens, AJ Styles, and Shinsuke Nakamura, two of whom weren’t even under contract with WWE on January 1st, are holding the top three men’s singles titles in the company. Where there are not just one, but two Women’s (not Divas) Champions on the main roster, both of whom are respected and talented wrestlers. Where WWE is hosting a tournament involving 32 of the best cruiserweights in the world, actually using them correctly, and will be starting a new division on Raw in the next few weeks. Where the Big Show has been on TV like three times since WrestleMania. And where Heath Slater is somehow one of the biggest fan favorites in the company. Doesn’t that make you feel at least a little hopeful about the state of WWE right now?