In this day and age you can’t just “predict” a PPV anymore, you have to to account for the capricious whims of WWE’s septuagenarian, sleep-deprived egomaniac owner. You can’t just “preview” a PPV…you have to preview how things should go, in a reasonable and sane world, and then add “so of course…” and explain what Vince McMahon will probably do instead.
Consider this your SO OF COURSE preview of BACK TO THE BRAND-EXCLUSIVE PPVs BECAUSE THOSE WERE SUCH A HUGE SUCCESS BACK IN THE DAY, I MEAN REMEMBER “CYBER SUNDAY”? LASH!
Last month WWE presented SummerSlam, a wrestling show literally longer than Gone With the Wind. It concluded with Finn Balor winning the WWE “Universal” Championship and Brock Lesnar turning the top of Randy Orton’s head into Meatwad. When the smoke cleared Finn Balor was out (due back for WrestleMania) and Kevin Owens was crowned the Universal champion in his place. Now a feud with Seth Rol—
Actually, in true WWE brand split tradition, SmackDown has emerged as the better show. As great as it is to see Bayley, Sasha Banks, and “Champion of the Universe, Kevin Owens” on Raw, the superior product is on Tuesday nights. It may have less starpower but it has better writing. It has more energy and a breezier flow (due to it only being two hours long) and—probably due to the smaller roster—it feels like everyone you see has a purpose on the show and is used to the best of their abilities.
It doesn’t hurt that Vince is clearly not as engaged in the creative process on SmackDown as he is on Raw. The show doesn’t feel as hastily put together as the Monday night program; there’s not that helter-skelter, flying off the rails feeling that you get when watching Raw. SmackDown feels, by contrast, to have a destination in mind for each of its storylines and—most importantly—the patience to see the story through to its original end.
Brand-split PPVs made too much sense not to do, in this WWE Network age. A decade ago the company asked fans to shell out $50 every three weeks as it ran sixteen PPV events spread across four banners (WWE, Raw-only, SmackDown-only and ECW-only). It was too much money without enough quality content to justify it. With the network however, the company would be crazy not to run brand-exclusive shows. Right now it looks like we’ll be getting one show from each brand per month, with the exception being on the months that feature supershows (Royal Rumble, WrestleMania, SummerSlam, Survivor Series). There’s no word yet on how they will do things like Money in the Bank or even King of the Ring, but there’s plenty of time for Vince to change his mind before we have to worry about that.
Right now we have the first brand-exclusive show and it’s Backlash. The card features six matches, some of which are very storyline-driven, a couple are “exhibition”-style matches, designed to showcase the SmackDown talent, a couple champions will be crowned for the first time, and we get a big time main event. Like SmackDown itself, it lacks a lot of the starpower that we saw a month ago at SummerSlam (even SmackDown-superstar John Cena is noticeably absent), but everything looks competently put together. And as a WWE fan, we can’t take for granted how nice it is to have something “competently put together.” So let’s see how Vince can screw it up.
ON TO THE SHOW!
THE USOS vs THE HYPE BROS – TAG TITLE TOURNAMENT SEMI-FINAL
If you missed Smackdown this past Tuesday, you missed the long-needed heel turn by the Usos. SmackDown had been holding a tournament to determine who would win their debuting version of the Tag Title (since, foolishly, WWE split the tag teams up, so now we need two tag champions). The tournament has been a great way to hook viewers and keep them coming back to the show, week after week. The real stars of the tournament, and seemingly the team around which it has all been built, has been American Alpha. The NXT call-ups of Chad Gable and Jason Jordan have brought their infectious energy and easy-to-root-for personalities to Tuesday nights and instantly captivated live audiences. They breezed through the tournament to the finals that were originally held on the final SmackDown before Backlash. However, after defeating the Usos to earn a place on the Backlash card, the Samoan duo turned heel and viciously attacked American Alpha, injuring Chad Gable in the process. As a result, American Alpha were forced to vacate their spot, so GM Bryan ordered a Backlash play-in match between the Usos and the Hype Bros (who had previously been defeated by Rhyno and Heath Slater).
Obviously the only logical thing to do here is for the Usos to win the play-in match. Nothing else makes sense. The only alternative is for Jason Jordan to do a run-in and cost the Usos the win as payback, which would continue their feud at the next Smackdown PPV (No Mercy, on October 9th). But what makes more sense is for the Usos to advance and ultimately win the titles, giving the wounded heroes American Alpha an actual goal to strive for beyond simple revenge. In order for that to happen, the Usos need to win this match and win it clean.
SO OF COURSE…
DOLPH ZIGGLER vs THE MIZ – INTERCONTINENTAL CHAMPIONSHIP
This is one of those matches where WWE books themselves into a corner, but probably doesn’t care enough about one of the guys to notice. The only reasonable winner here is Miz. He’s the one who had the big promo last month; a promo that was easily the best anyone has cut since The Pipebomb. In the middle of that he pronounced himself the Intercontinental Champion and said he was never losing it. He said it would be the most relevant title on the show (whatever that means) and that he was on his 141st day of his never-ending title reign. You simply can’t say all of that and then drop the title two weeks later. WWE is stupid.
WWE is really very stupid and dumb.
But even they are not that stupid, especially since they really like Miz (and rightly so; he’s a true-Hall of Fame midcard heel).
Having said that, SmackDown is so short on talent and they really need to keep Dolph Ziggler strong. He just competed for the WWE Championship. Having him slide down to the midcard and lose a shot at that title seems like it would essentially end whatever push he had and slip him back to irrelevance. So they’re in a corner, but do they even care enough about Ziggler to think of it as being “in a corner?” Not likely.
SO OF COURSE…
ALEXA BLISS vs BECKY LYNCH vs NATALYA vs NIKKI BELLA vs CARMELLA vs NAOMI – WOMEN’S CHAMPIONSHIP
I suppose two title tournaments would be overkill so instead of doing that, WWE went with the old “throw the whole division in a match and let it sort itself out” approach. SmackDown’s women’s division is very different from Raw’s. Though, again, they really should have just put the whole sub-roster on one show, and the whole tag-division on the other, but I digress. As it is now Raw has the big flashy personalities (Sasha, Bayley, Charlotte), while SmackDown has the more blue-collar workhorses (Becky, Natalya…Nikki?). In a change of pace, it is Raw that has the better women’s stories going on (Sasha’s journey back, Charlotte’s comeuppance, Bayley’s emergence) while SmackDown’s title feud is not about anything more than just “we all want the belt…let’s fight.”
Still, you have to start somewhere, and if you’re going to do a match that features multiple competitors, all vying to be the first champion of a new title, then you don’t really have much option to do a long, engrossing storyline. The greatest disappointment here is that Becky Lynch did not do a pun-filled parody of this classic Rock promo…
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As for who should win, there are only two options: Becky Lynch (happy faces!) or anyone else (sad pandas). Becky is the star around which the whole division should be built. She has the look, the personality, the skills in the ring. She’s perfection. So either give her the title or make her chase it for a bit, but so long as she’s the focal point, I’m happy.
SO OF COURSE…
RANDY ORTON vs BRAY WYATT
Poor Bray Wyatt.
He’s Jake the Snake meets Brooklyn Brawler. He really really needs an entourage, some wins, and a purpose for his character, beyond “guy we feed to guys we want to make look strong.” He has no chance in this match.
SO OF COURSE…
THE USOS vs HEATH SLATER & RHYNO – TAG TITLE TOURNAMENT FINAL
Anyone really think Heath Slater could have found sustained success on Raw? He’d be wasted on Monday nights because Vince would have run his one-segment character (that he’d been doing on both shows in the early brand-split days) into the ground and then just sort of forget about him for a few months. On SmackDown, however, he’s evolved to the next step in his character arc. That’s good writing; that’s what fans want out of WWE. It’s a show that’s on every week, non-stop, forever. A little evolution to the characters is a God-send (as opposed to just stagnation for months and then SUDDEN CHANGE followed by more stagnation). Even Rhyno—who essentially is only there to give the roster an extra body—has found a niche working alongside Heath. Good for both of them.
But, as said above, this is the Usos match. Whether you branch off from here and do a Rhyno vs Slater program or you keep them together and give them a new story to work with, in the end the odd couple tag team needs to lay down for the (1) actual tag team that (2) has championship history, as well as (3) a career-reinvigorating heel change, and (4) a built-in first feud with the superstars of the division. This has “Usos win” written all over it, if only so that American Alpha can win the titles in a big way at either No Mercy or Survivor Series.
SO OF COURSE…
AJ STYLES vs DEAN AMBROSE – WWE CHAMPIONSHIP
Here is the WWE Championship/SmackDown-exclusive world title feud that we needed a month ago. Styles was unavailable at SummerSlam because he was getting his signature win over John Cena. Beating John Cena (!) clean (!!) on a major PPV (!!!) with no immediate payback in sight (remember what happened to Bray Wyatt in 2014…or Rusev in 2015?) is essentially as important as winning a world title. It’s certainly a more rare feat than winning a world title. AJ Styles basically had to jump to the #1 contenders spot; nothing else would have been believable.
Now what do you do with him? You can string his feud with Ambrose along until, say, Survivor Series, but it’s better to strike while the iron is hot. AJ has been on fire since debuting at the Royal Rumble and other than a “pay your dues” hiccup at WrestleMania, he’s been booked remarkably strongly for a relatively short, older, guy who made his name somewhere else. He’s exactly the opposite of the kind of guy Vince would normally push to the WWE Championship scene. Yet here we are.
And as important as Ambrose is, both to WWE in general and to SmackDown in particular, this really feels like AJ Styles’ moment. And if it is, the story they tell seems obvious: AJ wins the title, wins the rematch at No Mercy, then feuds with Orton to close out the year. After that Cena returns and gets his win back and claims his 16th World Title reign. If you didn’t think this was ending with Cena getting his win back in the most historic fashion possible you must be new. In order for that big “Cena redemption story” to feel appropriately epic it needs a big title reign by Styles to build up to it. Whether that means Styles vs Cena happens at the Royal Rumble or at WrestleMania depends on what the plans are for Cena (is he taking on Undertaker? That’s the big question.). Either way, the time seems to be now for Styles to win the belt.
SO OF COURSE…
Oh well, there’s always NXT.
Here’s the Sunday!