When Smackdown’s move to Tuesday nights was announced to coincide with the WWE brand extension, there were reasons to be optimistic about the blue brand. No longer pretaped, maybe Smackdown Live could shake the stigma of being the company’s B-show. Many of us immediately remembered the good times we shared with the Smackdown Six back in 2002 during the last brand split era and were hopeful that another core group of young talent could recreate the magic. Alas, Tuesday nights have been a disappointment thus far. Raw has asserted its dominance as the must-see show ever since the draft. At SummerSlam, Raw presented a much more intriguing primary title match that saw Finn Balor defeat Seth Rollins, while Smackdown’s offering of Dean Ambrose vs Dolph Ziggler lacked any clear direction. A Raw superstar absolutely and utterly destroyed a Smackdown guy in the main event. Even with the loss of their first Universal Champion to injury, Raw rebounded in a big way two weeks ago when Kevin Owens captured the vacant prize with the help of Triple H. The next night, Smackdown ended with an exceptionally silly scene, a prone AJ Styles seemingly paralyzed after being crotched on the top rope, Dean Ambrose playing games with him. This week, Raw followed up with another great show, and they didn’t even have to rely on Triple H explaining his actions – they still have that in their back pocket for a future episode. Smackdown followed up by replaying the image of AJ Styles crotched on the top rope a few times. It is clear that Smackdown is still very much the B-show.
With an impressive Clash of the Champions card on the horizon, Raw continues to show the world why it’s the #1 wrestling program on the planet. If Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan are ever going to make Smackdown feel like an equal alternative to the flagship program, they’re going to have to do it soon – they’re going to have to do it at Backlash. Can they?
At a glance, Backlash doesn’t have what I’d consider a stacked card. At the conclusion of this week’s Talking Smack, we’re heading into the event with just six matches announced, and not many that look like surefire blockbusters. That said, the implications carried by them are large, as most of the contests pit New Era stars against the old guard. The outcomes will be telling, as will how the WWE plans to round out the show once it gets underway.
The event is guaranteed to see at least two new champions crowned in the forms of the first ever Smackdown Tag Team Champions and the inaugural Smackdown Women’s Champion. Starting with the tag belts, I think it was a curious decision to remove American Alpha from the tournament due to a storyline injury to Chad Gable. Alpha is one of the hottest acts going on Smackdown, arguably the brand’s most popular New Era stars. The only reason that I can fathom that the WWE did this is a fear that having American Alpha end the Cinderella story of Rhyno & Heath Slater at Backlash could result in the team getting booed. Still, Jordan and Gable are the team that should have won this tournament. They’re young, they’re hungry, and they perfectly exemplify what the WWE’s New Era is all about. Instead, we’ll likely see a tournament final between Slater & Rhyno and the newly-villainized Usos, assuming they get past the Hype Bros. The former team is a combined 73 years old, while the latter have been in the tag team title picture for the past 6 years. We’re not off to a great start.
As for the Smackdown Women’s Championship, the title will be decided in a six-pack challenge between Carmella, Nikki Bella, Naomi, Becky Lynch, Alexa Bliss, and Natalya. The driving feud in this match has been between Carmella and the newly-returned Nikki Bella, but all of these women should be given time to shine in this elimination matchup. My suspicion would be that Carmella and Nikki would be the last two competitors left, in which case, Carmella has to win. Nikki has been a staple of the women’s division for the better part of 8 years, and with a 300+ Divas Title reign on her resume, she’s already accomplished everything there is for her to accomplish. In short, new blood is needed here, and if Smackdown wants to showcase any kind of youth movement, one of the fresher faces should take home the gold. I’d personally like to see Alexa go over, but more important than what woman wins the gold is which ones do not. No matter how you slice it, a win by Nikki Bella or Natalya would tell the world that Smackdown’s commitment to the new breed is half-hearted at best.
The Backlash match with the highest stakes, in my view, is the only one that’s not for a title – Randy Orton vs Bray Wyatt. Wyatt, one of the most unique characters in the WWE over the past several years, has yet to have his moment in the sun. There’s no denying his charisma, and he can handle himself in the ring respectably. He’s constantly on the cusp between upper mid-carder and main eventer, but has consistently failed to get over the hump. The reason why high profile feuds with the likes of Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, John Cena, Chris Jericho, The Undertaker, and Daniel Bryan have failed to make Bray Wyatt a bona fide main event player is simple – he’s lost every single one of them. The New Face of Fear simply cannot survive another loss on a big stage. He desperately needs a victory over an established star if he’s ever going to make an impact at the top of the card, and Randy Orton should be the man to fall victim to the Eater of Worlds this Sunday. Randy Orton’s best days are behind him, and even after being mauled by Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam, he can afford a loss. If Smackdown is to break the status quo, a Bray Wyatt victory is entirely necessary.
The Intercontinental Title match between The Miz and Dolph Ziggler is a battle between two guys in unfortunate circumstances. Both are entering the backend of their careers at 35 and 36 years of age respectively, and they’ve both seen their momentum dashed at various times over the past several years. Both of them are former World Champions who have never been viewed as legitimate marquee names, through no fault of their own, and it’s likely too late for either of them to ever be higher on the card than they are right now. That said, another Intercontinental Title run for Dolph Ziggler does nothing for him. The buzz around Miz after his verbal destruction of Daniel Bryan should be capitalized on here and he should walk out of Backlash with Maryse on one arm and the Intercontinental title on the other.
And then there’s the main event – the WWE World Title match pitting Dean Ambrose against AJ Styles. I’ve talked a lot about age in the preceding paragraphs, insisting that the WWE focuses on youth, so it might seem contradictory for me to suggest that a 39-year-old should defeat a 30-year-old for the top title of the brand. However, not only has AJ been the arguable wrestler of the year to date, he also represents the tides of change. Never has a star that made his name in TNA ascend to the top of the WWE. With wrestlers like Samoa Joe, Austin Aries, and Bobby Roode already in NXT, an AJ victory here lays the groundwork for them to be taken seriously on the main roster someday.
With only six matches on the show, there’s a strong possibility that additional matches are added once the show is in progress. Two guys who should absolutely be included on the show are Baron Corbin and Apollo Crews. As mentioned in today’s 5 Up / 5 Down, Baron Corbin went from wrestling the World Champion in the Smackdown main event last week to not even being included on last night’s show. He should be made to look like a monster, and leaving him off of his third consecutive pay-per-view is not the way to do it. The problem with needing to squeeze he and Crews both onto the card is clear, though – neither can afford to lose at this time, so it wouldn’t be a natural fit to have them face each other. Instead, I think that Kane could be a candidate to face Baron Corbin. The WWE missed a chance to build towards this on this week’s Smackdown after the two had a brief staredown in the aisle on last week’s episode. It’s a little more difficult to find a match for Crews, as the only remaining unbooked heels for the show are tag teams. That in itself presents another problem – the absence of the Vaudevillains and Breezango on the show.
At a time when the WWE is putting a heavy emphasis on the New Era, Backlash sure seems to be lacking. Save for the Women’s six-pack challenge, almost all of the new talent is left without a spot on the card. With American Alpha, Baron Corbin, Apollo Crews, The Vaudevillains, Kalisto, and Tyler Breeze all watching from the sidelines, Mojo Rowley is the only male NXT call-up that’s being showcased at the event. Couple this with the fact that John Cena will most likely not be appearing, and you’ve got what could end up being a recipe for disaster.
The time for Smackdown to establish itself as an equal brand to Raw is now, and given the ability to adapt that the WWE has demonstrated in recent years, they may be able to pull it off yet. If the quality of the past several Smackdown episodes are any indication though, combined with the obvious holes in the announced Backlash card, my money is against them. If Backlash ends up being the disaster that it looks like, at least we’ll have the Kevin Owens Show to look forward to the following night.