Saturday night, the WWE put on one of the best shows I’ve seen live in my 25 years as a wrestling fan. NXT TakeOver Chicago held at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois, a fabled wrestling arena with historically hot crowds. It’s played host to two of the great WWE matches of the last 20 years—Steve Austin vs. Bret Hart at WrestleMania 13, and John Cena vs. C.M. Punk at Money in the Bank 2011—and on Saturday night it added one more: Tyler Bate vs. Pete Dunne for the U.K. Championship. It was incredible to witness 8,000 fans jump out of our seats at simultaneous points during that match.
Even if that show-stealing match didn’t happen, the rest of the card made for a breezy, entertaining show—not a stinker among the bouts—and the post-match turn by Tommaso Ciampa against now-former partner Johnny Gargano yielded a “holy shit” capper to a show full of them.
Walking out of the arena, two guys in front of me were talking effusively about the show we just witnessed. One told the other, “no way tomorrow’s show gonna top tonight.”
The “tomorrow’s show” in reference was WWE Smackdown’s Backlash pay-per-view Sunday night, a show that on paper seemed bloated and uninspiring. With the exception of the Kevin Owens vs. A.J. Styles match, and the main roster in-ring debut of Shinsuke Nakamura, the show did not feel like one to get out of your way to see (the live event was not sold out, rare for a wrestling show at the Allstate Arena).
As it happened, Backlash 2017 didn’t even meet those low expectations. Time will tell, but for now, Jinder Mahal doesn’t feel like a credible champion to hold the WWE title. The finish of the Styles vs. Owens match was flat, and the long-awaited WWE debut of Shinsuke Nakamura—in which he beat Dolph Ziggler, naturally—was nothing more than a serviceable TV main event. It was certainly not as JBL claimed, “one of the greatest debuts I’ve ever seen.”
We’ve not yet seen the Nakamura of New Japan Pro Wrestling. The “King of Strong Style” of the WWE has followed a formula: Mat work, get worked on, short bursts of offense, reverse exploder suplex, Kinshasa, pinfall. Even his series with Samoa Joe have been good-to-pretty good, but nothing blow-away like his classic Wrestle Kingdom 9 bout with Kota Ibushi or the 2015 G1 Climax final against Hiroshi Tanahashi. Perhaps Nakamura can wrestle with a less-is-more American style and ride on his charisma, but until we see flashes of that Nakamura of New Japan, it’ll feel like watching an inferior version.
After that opener, the next 90 minutes slogged on. Were the matches awful? No. But at least awful would be laughably entertaining. These matches felt like a dull Monday Night Raw without the benefit of commercials to break the tedium. There were the comedy spots in the Usos/Breezango match, a long Baron Corbin/Sami Zayn match where Zayn did some effective selling of his back, and a nothing six-women match.
The crowd woke up for the A.J. Styles vs. Kevin Owens match. The two had an unsurprisingly good match until the finish, which saw Styles worked-upon leg fell through a hole in the announcer’s table, got tangled in wires, then counted out to allow Owens to retain (the crowd was chanting “bullshit” afterward).
The Chicago audience fell dead again for the Erick Rowan/Luke Harper match (Harper won), and finding a third wind, resuscitated for the unlikely main event: Randy Orton vs. Jinder Mahal.
As soon as Orton entered the ring, I could feel a title change coming. Orton had a pissed off look on his face—yes, I’m playing Mr. Poker Tells—but perhaps the idea of putting over Jinder Mahal felt like an insult to the veteran Orton, especially coming after two awful championship match efforts with Wyatt. Orton wrestled the prototypical Randy Orton match—crisp moves, draping DDT’s, eliciting the crowd for reactions—but then the surprise of Mahal hitting his cobra clutch slam and pinning Orton got the Chicago crowd to pop, mainly because they got to see something different. But everything save the finish was just a match.
Essentially, Backlash was a show bookmarked by two crowd reactions: Nakamura’s entrance and Mahal hoisting the belt, with 15 minutes of great wrestling between Owens and Styles shoehorned in the middle. Those two guys at the NXT show were indeed correct: The main roster, on this night, couldn’t touch what a bunch of “developmental talents” pulled off 24 hours before.