In this day and age you can’t just “predict” a PPV anymore, you have 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 WWE BACK TO THE NEEDLE! BACK TO THE JUICE! BACK TO THE SUPER MUSCLE MAKE GROW BIG TIME SAUCE! IT’S THE JINDER MAHAL SHOW!
Presented by Tom Phillips (whatever) and JBL (never forget). Also starring Ninja Michael Jackson!
But seriously JBL, go away. You’re a very bad man and no one likes you.
On to the show, but first…Q&A!
How are you?
Can’t complain. I just finished a marathon rewatch of Mad Men. Great show. Now I’m rewatching Arrested Development. I’m up to season two and loving all the references to Buster’s left hand. Also I tore my meniscus and need surgery but it’s a minor thing and I should be okay.
How are you really though?
It’s tough, you know? I can walk but I have to be careful. Also I can’t ride my bike any more. And there are these three ducks that keep hanging around outside my bathroom window…
They just sort of hang out, eat bread and sleep.
I envy those ducks.
And how’s WWE?
About the same, I suppose. Raw continues to be boring but puts on good PPVs. Smackdown is pretty consistently good but rarely ever great. NXT is still kinda stale but not bad, it’s just not as must-see as it was a few years ago. I like the Raw women’s division now more than Smackdown’s even though all they’ve done is swap Charlotte and Alexa Bliss. Was Bliss really that good or was Charlotte secretly that not so good?
Last time on SO OF COURSE, it was Raw’s opportunity to turn a terrible month of buildup into a half-way decent PPV…and they did! Smackdown meanwhile has been cruising along with AJ Styles chasing Kevin Owens and the US title while Jinder Mahal feuds with Randy Orton for the WWE Championship. And if you think the blue show is almost great except for the position of those two feuds on the card, you’re not alone. Other than those two title feuds there’s the big main roster PPV debut of Shinsuke Nakamura, and a few minor but pleasant undercard contests in between. It’s been a pretty standard month of Smackdown, nothing amazing and nothing terrible. Except for JBL.
This year’s Backlash comes to you from Chicago, IL, and the city even received an NXT special over the weekend just like the big shows. Does anyone think all the love to the second city will translate to an absence of “CM PUNK” chants?
ON TO THE SHOW!
AJ STYLES vs KEVIN OWENS
For the second month in a row, the Kevin Owens/US Title feud is the best thing on the show. It’s just that last month it was on Raw and this month it’s on Smackdown. At some point Vince is going to realize Kevin Owens should be more than just a featured attraction on the midcard. He’s the best pure heel since maybe Triple H in the year 2000. WWE has had a lot of great heels between now and then, but most of them have been in the mold of CM Punk where, no matter how much you were supposed to hate him, you couldn’t help but cheer him. It didn’t help that Punk’s biggest rival was John Cena, and it was easy in those days to root against whomever Cena was feuding with. AJ is much more universally beloved than Cena was a few years ago.
Speaking of, AJ Styles is exactly the kind of talent WWE should be building their show around. He’s charismatic, good on the mic, great in the ring, has a good look, the crowd loves him, he works hard, stays clean. He’s got it all. Even though he—like almost everyone, ever—works better as a heel, he’s so popular right now, and Owens is so on point as a bad guy, that the crowd is eating up everything babyface Styles is dishing out. This feud is money and it’s really only just begun. Hopefully it lasts throughout the spring and early/summer with a few twists and turns along the way. Right now it would take some catastrophic bad booking to screw it up. Here’s to a long match, a satisfying conclusion and some post-match action to keep things going into next month.
SO OF COURSE!
SAMI ZAYN vs BARON CORBIN
WWE has a bad habit of only booking one kind of story for a lot of its talent. For Sami Zayn, he stuck as the “guy who can’t win, loses to bigger guy and occasionally steals a victory.” That’s the only story they know how to tell with him, despite the fact that he had so much depth on NXT. Ever since his main roster debut a year or so ago, he’s been stuck in an endless cycle of losing feuds to bigger guys. He’s a jobber to the stars; a popular talent that is popular enough he can take loss after loss and not lose the fans’ support. He’s Daniel Bryan, if Bryan never had his magical WrestleMania run.
Baron Corbin, meanwhile, is a main eventer waiting to happen. He’s managed to be—along with Alexa Bliss—one of the few NXT talents to actually improve since leaving for the main roster. Most NXT talents (especially the home grown workers like Corbin and Bliss) regress after being called up, due to being one among many more talents and not having access to as much hands-on time needed to develop and grow. But where Bo Dallas, Big E Langston (before finding success with New Day), Bray Wyatt and Bayley struggled, to varying degrees, to make their characters work, Baron Corbin just kept right on chugging as the cocky, indie-hating, mini-giant with a chip on his shoulder. He has a natural heel personality, the kind of “I hate looking at that guy” face that you can’t teach. He’s exactly what Vince likes in main-event heels, which makes his feud with Sami Zayn the perfect “stepping stone” before he gets his big chance.
SO OF COURSE!
THE USOS vs BREEZANGO
Speaking of NXT talent that struggled to translate their Full Sail shtick to the WWE “universe,” here’s Tyler Breeze, a talent that looked dead on the vine and ready for a pink slip, but who is now one half (along with Fandango) of the most inexplicably delightful tag teams: Breezango. What started out as a “creative has nothing for you…just team up” pairing has become one of the most popular acts on Smackdown. They got over the old fashioned way: vignettes, self depricating humor and total ownership of their characters. It worked with New Day. It worked with Team HellNo. It worked with Slater and Rhyno. It’s a tried and true formula and Breezango used it to turn a joke at them into a joke by them. They’re channeling the kind of effortless, over the top nonsense that made the Southpaw Regional Wrestling videos so wonderful. It’s great to see.
Meanwhile there’s the Usos, who started out as generic “Samoan Cenas” but reinvented themselves as a heel team. Too often a bland team will turn heel and their newfound momentum will sputter out because they remain a bland team. It’s easier being the bad guy but it can only take you so far without quality mic work. Fortunately the Usos found their voice and have earned their second chance to be the team a division was built around. Their promos are fire, loaded with passion and creativity. This feud, on paper, should not be as hot as it is. A month ago “Usos vs Breezango” would have been met with groans. But on Sunday, Chicago is going to be hanging on every moment of it. As long as they don’t drag it out, keep the action fast and furious and end with a satisfying conclusion (maaaybe Breezango stealing one, but more likely the Usos staying strong for American Alpha to get their run), this could be a sleeper hit of the night.
SO OF COURSE!
SHINSUKE NAKAMURA vs DOLPH ZIGGLER
This feud is basically the opposite of the previous one. Nakamura should be the hottest thing going. Dolph Ziggler should be a perfect “first opponent” for him on the main roster. All the pieces are in place as they should be but something just feels…off. There’s no sizzle to any of it. Maybe it’s Nakamura being forced to talk way more than he ever did on NXT (and talking through that mouth guard isn’t helping). Maybe it’s the fact that Dolph Ziggler has always been more dorky than threatening, whether babyface or heel, especially when cutting a promo. Maybe it’s the fact that the non-NXT watching crowd simply hasn’t been told or shown why Naka is the bees knees. In hindsight, maybe they should have built to this PPV being his first appearance entirely, the way they did his NXT debut. Right now it feels like the past month has cooled him off too much. That said, if any crowd can make a superstar suddenly look like a million bucks again, it’s Chicago.
I expect twenty minutes, or close to it. I expect fireworks. I expect some stiff shots. And I expect to be very disappointed not to hear Corey Graves calling a “KINSHASA!” at the finish. Ideally, Nakamura would end the feud right here and then move on, either to the US Title (if WWE is patient) or the World Title (if WWE is not). Either way, there were never any long-term prospects with this feud. It was always meant to be a glorified introduction to the guy WWE hopes can help carry Smackdown’s house show business in the absence of Cena. With the feud struggling out of the gate, it definitely needs to end on Sunday, before Nakamura’s appeal with the casual crowd is irreparably damaged.
SO OF COURSE!
SIX-WOMAN TAG MATCH
The biggest problem with Smackdown’s women’s division right now is it has no primary babyface or heel at the center of it. Naomi is the champion and she’s a babyface but she’s not the central character around which the division is built. Charlotte (Flair) is also a babyface (and not nearly as effective as when she was a heel) and because she was the big move during the superstar shakeup, she’s naturally getting a lot of the attention and focus…but not so much that she’s being positioned as the star. And then there’s Becky Lynch, who is also a babyface, and is the natural face of the division. Who are the heels? Natalya (talented veteran who never could get much heat), Carmella (good heat magnet but not good enough in the ring) and Tamina (neither talent nor heat). The heel side of the division is terrible and the booking in the division bears that out. WWE has no bad
guy girl to pair up with any of their babyfaces, so they’re just treading water, throwing them together here in a tag match.
Look at the way the division has been booked this month: Charlotte (a babyface) demanded a title shot against Naomi (a babyface). Smackdown Commissioner Shane McMahon said that if Charlotte could defeat Naomi in a non-title match, she would be granted a title match the following week, which she did. Let’s not even get into the tired and terrible “____ has pinned the _____ champion” trope that WWE relies on way too much. The point is the heels were angry that a babyface was getting a title shot against a babyface when that’s the heel’s job (hey look, someone on the show watches the show!) so they attacked both Charlotte and Naomi. Becky Lynch got roped in to even the odds and that’s the background to this match. The story did an average job explaining why this match was happening, but no one pays to watch six-person tag matches. The money is in the title chase. As long as Smackdown’s woman roster has no credible heels, and no one babyface to build everything around, the division will continue to struggle. Charlotte is already a lousy babyface, just turn her back and let her feud with Naomi properly.
SO OF COURSE!
JINDER MAHAL vs RANDY ORTON
Believe it or not, this feud had a little spark just a few weeks ago. Obviously, Jinder winning the number one contendership was a surprise, but his initial promo after winning and his first attacks on Orton managed to win over the skeptical part of the crowd. Most were willing to give it a chance, but a combination of Orton being a boring babyface (and an even more boring babyface champion) and Jinder not having much depth to his character (not even the sudden “I hate America” twist that feels desperate) has turned most of the WWE fanbase against this feud.
There’s still a chance Jinder wins the title. That would make him the 50th WWF/E Champion in history, a special honor. Vince seems to want to create a big star in India as much as he wants to find the next Eddie Guerrero for the hispanic market. One thing is for sure, the worm has turned on Orton’s title reign and Chicago will probably not have much patience for a long and plodding “WWE main-event style (read: headlocks, snapmares and kicks to the gut)” match. Expect “CM PUNK” to be chanted at least a dozen times.
Personally I think we’re in for a short match, say ten minutes. Either it will be a quick, surprise victory for Jinder or an obviously feud-ending defeat. Either this is will be another of Vince’s bad ideas where he sells out to grab a piece of pie (in this case, selling out the WWE title in order to win over the Indian market…with a guy born in Canada), or it will be a classic Vince McMahon waste of time where he pushes a guy he has no intention of doing anything with after the first month (or, under the same category, he was going to do something but then grew bored and changed his mind). Either way there’ll be much to complain about online.
SO OF COURSE!
Oh well there’s always NXT.
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Here’s to Sunday!