One sign of a successful go-home show is it makes all the matches at the pay-per-view matter, regardless of their ultimate outcomes. I don’t mean viewers should come away without a rooting interest—quite the opposite, in fact. There should be a result that fans desperately want to see and one they would absolutely hate seeing, and both possibilities crucially need to be able to spin out the next chapter of the story. This is just the fundamental logic of faces and heels, of course. Take the SmackDown Tag Team Championship: After Chad Gable’s injury knocked American Alpha out of the tournament, Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan announced on Talking Smack that Backlash would see the newly heel Usos and the Hype Bros square off for the right to face Heath Slater and Rhyno for the title.
The key with all this is that the undesired result needs to be unwanted for in-universe reasons. The Usos shouldn’t be the inaugural SmackDown Tag Team Championship winners because they’re despicable villains who injured Chad Gable and then—if they were indeed to win—beat down the Hype Bros and denied Health Slater his long-awaited contract. Those are all really good reasons for them not to win, which would make it just the perfect kind of awful if that’s what ended up happening. That’s very different from the Usos shouldn’t win because they’re stale or dull or whatever else. It’s not that it’s illegitimate to feel those things—neither is a particularly hot take on the Usos—but for this whole wrestling thing to work, SmackDown needs to be given an opportunity to tell a compelling story that can move them to someplace new, and tonight’s bit of business with American Alpha accomplishes that.
Tournaments are great at giving all involved a chance to show off their in-ring capabilities: Breezango look like real contenders after that shockingly good 10-minute match with Gable and Jordan in the opening round, and even the Ascension regained a smidge of credibility after getting in some offense against the Usos. Tournaments are less great at bringing out character, especially when Miss Renee isn’t prepared to go to every wrestler’s single-wide, and that fact hasn’t done many favors for American Alpha, who at this point haven’t shown much beyond some admittedly awesome in-ring ability. Gable’s setback gives them a story to pursue with the Usos in two to four weeks, while also not putting them in the potentially awkward spot of having to beat Slater and Rhyno in the final, which—absent a Rhyno betrayal that I don’t think any of us are emotionally prepared for—is going to make whoever beats them the most hated villains in the company. Instead, the Usos, American Alpha, and maybe even the Hype Bros and Breezango—plus Slater and Rhyno if they do emerge victorious—can come out of this month as engaging teams with compelling stories.
SmackDown is at a similar point with the women’s division, although the obligatory six-woman tag match doesn’t accomplish all that much beyond establishing both Becky Lynch and Nikki Bella—the two most plausible winners of the SmackDown Women’s Championship—have injury concerns that could cost them the title on Sunday. Honestly, the much bigger development came in Daniel Bryan’s opening address, as the general manager declared Sunday’s match would in fact be an elimination six-pack challenge. That really ought to mean the match is going to get a decent amount of time, which is always good to hear as WWE works to prove it takes women’s wrestling seriously. It also provides way more options to create new stories. The feud between Carmella and Nikki Bella appears well-established, but Becky could end up being paired with either Natalya or Alexa Bliss. (Both of whom are obviously just keeping the seat warm until Eva Marie gets back. Obviously.)
An elimination match also gives someone a chance to look strong while still suffering ultimate defeat, and yes, every part of my being is demanding I go ahead and replace “someone” with “Becky Lynch,” because short of somehow throwing Cesaro in this match, that’s the most Becky Lynch sentence ever written. Perhaps more than all that, the elimination stipulation takes a lot of pressure off of who actually wins this thing. I try not to put too much stock in smarky concerns like whether a particular title has been legitimized or not, because the truth is that titles are just storytelling devices, and they can instantly be made to matter just by having characters take it seriously—look no further than the Miz and the Never Ending Intercontinental Championship World Tour for proof of that. But an elimination match suggests a genuine, multifaceted battle is going to be fought for that belt, and even if the eventual winner is opportunistic, she likely won’t be a total fluke.
As for the I.C. title scene, it’s good to see the Miz and Daniel Bryan share the scene once again after that legendary Talking Smack confrontation. Last week suggested WWE was backing down a little for fear of building fan expectations of a match between the Miz and Bryan, but tonight’s interaction works beautifully in once again legitimizing the latter’s perspective while still keeping the focus on the ring in anticipation of the title match between the Miz and Ziggler. As LaToya pointed out last week, there’s been a subtle shift in just what the criticism of the Miz is: Two weeks ago, Bryan said he wrestled like a coward, a style-based critique that allowed the Miz to go for the jugular by bringing up their divergent injury histories. But now that the Miz is just straight-up ducking any confrontation with Ziggler, it’s not that he wrestles like a coward, but rather that he simply is a coward.
That’s a much more straightforward idea to get across, and it’s one that makes Ziggler look good independent of his win-loss (mostly loss) record, which is his own separate thing to worry about. This feud feels slapped together, as anything with a two-week build is likely going to, but both the Miz and Ziggler come into Backlash with something to prove about themselves. That they don’t exactly have something to prove to each other suggests this shouldn’t be a decisive endpoint for either of their stories, but again every conceivable result—victory for the Miz, DQ or count-out victory for Ziggler while the Miz retains, or Ziggler victory—suggests a possible way forward. That’s really all I can ask for, especially given the tight turnaround between SummerSlam and Backlash.
I might as well lay my cards down on the table with the WWE World Championship scene: I started regularly watching WWE for the first time ever with this year’s Royal Rumble, which means I began the same night A.J. Styles debuted. I am an A.J. Styles super-fan, and I think both of his matches with John Cena and both of his matches with Roman Reigns were, well, phenomenal. I pretty desperately want him to win the championship on Sunday, even if he’s a total shithead now. And yet, and yet, he’s proven so good at playing a shithead that I’m actually starting to second-guess that. I still think the best use of Styles from a storytelling perspective is to give him the title, let him put on match-of-the-year candidates in the main event for the next several months, and then make whoever ultimately beats him look incredible, but I’ll admit I’m not entirely sure I’m prepared to back the kind of scoundrel who intimidates poor production assistants and throws a tantrum when presented with the objectively funny sight of him stuck atop that rope.
Give credit to Dean Ambrose here as well, whose underwhelming SummerSlam match left him looking like a non-entity next to the white-hot Styles. It’s not surprising that giving Ambrose a mic is the best way to let him remind us all of his value as champion. He’s still a bit of a cocksure asshole, which works rather less well here when paired with the clearly villainous Styles than it did with the fiery underdog Ziggler, but no matter. Ambrose’s promo addresses the big question I had for this match, which is how Ambrose could credibly beat Styles after the guy kicked out of John Cena’s entire damn arsenal. As Dean explains, A.J. is indeed the best wrestler on SmackDown, and he absolutely out-wrestled Cena at SummerSlam. But Ambrose doesn’t wrestle, he fights, and he will go to war to protect the championship he scraped and clawed to get his hands on.
If Styles loses here, it’s not necessarily because of some meta reason about who the company has faith in or how the WWE despises guys who made their name elsewhere. No, it’s because Ambrose presents a chaotic element Styles can’t strategize against like he did with Cena. Is Ambrose too much of a lunatic for even the phenomenal one to handle? That’s a fine story for Styles and Ambrose to tell in the ring on Sunday, and either answer to that question can lead good places. As with the other title matches, there are clear stakes here, even if Styles’ ridiculous talent makes it a little harder to position this in terms of traditional face-heel dynamics. Given no time at all to put together its first exclusive pay-per-view, SmackDown has provided three weeks of solid, occasionally inspired storytelling, and that’s enough for Team Blue to head into Backlash in good shape.
- RESULTS: The Miz defeated Apollo Crews; Alexa Bliss, Carmella, and Natalya defeated Becky Lynch, Naomi, and Nikki Bella; American Alpha defeated the Usos (Tag Team Title Tournament); Beauty and the Man Beast (Rhyno & Heath Slater) defeated the Hype Bros
- Hey everyone, do you like reading A.V. Club people talking about wrestling? It stands to reason that you do! Well, if you think you’d also enjoy hearing some A.V. Club people talking about wrestling, I should point out Kyle, LaToya, and I now have a podcast. It’s fun, I think!
- Fine, there’s the one other feud I didn’t talk about: Randy Orton vs. Bray Wyatt. This ought to be a really good match! It’s fresh, and I really enjoyed Randy’s somehow not rambling parable about the hunter and the snake. But I’ll admit, even as someone who actively resists smarky impulses, it’s so damn hard to get invested in a Bray Wyatt feud without reflecting on his inability to win… anything. My fantasy-booking remains a two-PPV feud between Wyatt and Orton, with the former winning at Backlash and the latter digging deep to overcome a revitalized Eater of Worlds at No Mercy. I say that mostly because it then perfectly sets up Orton vs. A.J. Styles—fresh off defending the title against a rematch-invoking Ambrose—at Survivor Series. But I dunno, everyone, I’m just going to try to enjoy the in-ring stuff with this one, especially since it’s been forever since either Wyatt or Orton had a proper match. (Because no, that Lesnar thing so doesn’t count.)
- As we learned on Talking Smack, Daniel Bryan believes Zack Ryder and Mojo Rawley’s tag team is the Hype Brothers. Never change, Daniel, never change.
- As an unrepentant Breezango mark, I was hoping Daniel and Shane would see sense and have them face off against the Hype Bros, as Breezango had by far the most competitive losing effort off the tournament—they went 10 minutes against American Alpha, and why should you reward dirty losers like the Usos with a second chance? As such, you can imagine how thrilled I was by Fandango’s bizarre segment with Kane, which didn’t even quite manage the nutso glory of its counterpart with the Milkman from last week’s show.
- Dolph Ziggler was leaning hard on the fourth wall on commentary tonight, what with his talk of booking and whatnot. There came a point when, after the second or third time he got asked what he would do if he lost his match, I thought he was just going to go ahead and say he would turn heel.
- I wish there had been some specific reason why the Miz and Apollo Crews were going at it. We’ve seen this stipulation a lot lately, but I wouldn’t have minded if Daniel Bryan had—as part of his general campaign to stick it to the Miz—declared Apollo Crews would be added to the match at Backlash if he beat the Miz tonight. Like I say, the whole “make it a triple threat” stipulation is close to being overused, but it’s about the only thing you can do with Crews until he gets some character development.
- “Settle your tea kettles!” I can only imagine what LaToya, the world’s number one Natalya anti-fan, would have made of the Queen of Harts tonight. Alexa Bliss calling Daniel Bryan a “Bella trophy husband” was on point, though.
- So, as you might have noticed, I’m not LaToya. Nor am I even Kyle. Since they’re both busy this week, they gave me the chance to sub in, which even an occasional read of my Tuesday What’s On Tonight listings would indicate had been a bit of a longstanding dream. Hopefully I didn’t burn the place down. But because this isn’t about me, it’s about the wrestlers, let me leave you with this bit of business from the pre-show, as we once again saw why 2016 is the Year of Slater (baybay!).