Here’s the card for WWE Battleground:
- Tye Dillinger vs. Aiden English (pre-show kickoff)
- Sami Zayn vs. Mike Kanellis
- Charlotte Flair vs. Becky Lynch vs. Lana vs. Natalya vs. Tamina Snuka (fatal 5-way elimination match)
- Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Baron Corbin
- A.J. Styles (c) vs. Kevin Owens (United States championship)
- The Usos (c) vs. The New Day (Smackdown tag team championship)
- John Cena vs. Rusev (flag match)
- Jinder Mahal (c) vs. Randy Orton (Punjabi prison match for WWE championship)
So the big twist is the return of the Great Khali, who gingerly trudged down the ramp, climbed the structure and wrapped his size 47 hands around Randy Orton to allow Jinder Mahal to win for the third straight pay-per-view. If this means Khali vs. Orton at SummerSlam, good Lord.
A surprise finish (and this was a surprise in the most milquetoast way possible) means the rest of the match is rendered moot, and this was a strange title match to gauge.
A structure as striking as the Punjabi prison may be awe-inspiring, but for practical purposes—such as a WWE championship match—its impressive aesthetic imposes serious limitations to the match quality. The gimmick during the first half of the match is to escape from one of four inner doors within 60 seconds. For storytelling purposes, of course the first three doors will shut before either competitor can come out, which means a good 15 minutes of the match is spent within the squared circle. The problem, though, is that the offense is limited with the structure on all four sides. Competitors can’t bounce off the ropes, so there’s not a lot of kinetic momentum. There’s no near falls or submissions. Instead, there were lots of punches, suplexes, ramming heads against the bamboo cage etc. It’s like a more restrictive steel cage match.
Once both competitors are between that first and second cage, the latter half of the match is about escaping the tall exterior structure. The gimmick here was interference from the Singh brothers, weapon shots with a Singapore cane (sure looks like a Kendo stick), and at least one death-defying bump from up high (that honor went to Samir Singh, who crashed 15 feet into an announcer’s table).
So the match has a built-in narrative arc. The question is whether the action in between had enough drama and violence to keep the crowd compelled. And the crowd just seemed dead for much of it. Having two sets of bamboo structures severely limits the sight views inside, which made for watching the match an awkward experience (even worse in person, I presume). As a result, there wasn’t as much audience buzz as you would imagine. Samir Singh’s bump felt like it could have garnered some louder “holy shits,” and Khali’s return was lukewarm at best.
It’s hard to say whether this match was good or not, because there were a lot of unfamiliar parameters. It was restrictive, it was long, and worse yet, Mahal retained the title. At least it’s Brock Lesnar’s Universal championship that will main event SummerSlam.
Placed in the notorious buffer spot of death before the main event, Sami Zayn continued his unfortunate slow descent into lower/mid-card status. This was a bottom-of-the-hour Smackdown match, with a fake-out interference by Maria Kanellis, and a Helluva kick by Zayn to score the pin. Holy 50-50 booking, Batman.
Just take away the first 15 minutes of this match, and this had your classic 1980’s, larger-than-life, American hero-vs.-foreign adversary dynamic. Those first 15 minutes had its ugliness—a John Cena drop kick that looked to have landed on Rusev’s thighs, a Cena dive from the top turnbuckle reversed into a “powerbomb of sorts.” Then the action transitioned from the ring and to the stage, where two pedestals were set awaiting either the American or Bulgarian flag.
Look, this was comic book silly fun. Rusev had Cena in the Accolade camel clutch, and seemingly the evil foreign enemy had victory in his sights. And just when Rusev was about to stick the Bulgarian flag into the stand—and metaphorically, into the heart of every red-blooded American—Cena caught Rusev’s flagpole with inches to spare, placed him in the fireman’s carry position, and AA’d Rusev through two tables.
Boom! Cena plants Ol’ Glory to the cheers of the difficult Philadelphia crowd, and we have ourselves a heartwarming and patriotic victory. It almost makes me want to blast Hulk Hogan’s entrance music.
There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be the best match of the night.
Edit: What the hell just happened? Let’s start for the beginning: this felt more deliberate than the previous meeting between A.J. Styles and Kevin Owens—slower burn (does Owens do the headlocks for heat?), more storytelling (Owens going after Styles’ left shoulder), and throw in a ref bump too. Maybe I was expecting the near fall-after-near fall excitement of the Owens-John Cena trilogy, but the match never took off. The finish saw the two trading submission holds: calf crusher reversing into a crossface, back and forth, until Owens rolled Styles’ shoulder back on the mat for a three count. The bizarre thing is Styles never even attempted to kick out; he just laid there like a dead fish. Here’s my theory: Perhaps they were suggesting that Styles’ shoulders were up and that the referee didn’t see it. But they never showed a replay, and from the looks of it, Styles’ shoulders looked pretty firm on the mat. Who knows if this was a screw up? In any case, it was a confounding end to a match that wasn’t close to the potential that these two fine wrestlers could have.
I suppose the good thing about an elimination match is the falls come fast and furious, which means a machine gun rat-a-tat of offense. After a few minutes of typical five-way fare, we had three falls within 30 seconds: Tamina Snuka got submitted by Becky Lynch. Seconds later, Lynch applied the Disarm-her on Lana, submitting her as well. Seconds after that, Natalya grabs a handful of Lynch’s tights and pins her. Then we’re left with Charlotte and Natalya. These two, who in one 2014 match arguably gave the NXT women’s division its well-earned reputation, kept things short after that—Charlotte escaped a cross-armbreaker by deadlifting Natalya into a sit-out powerbomb. She then went for a top-turnbuckle moonsault, which Natalya blocked with her knees. Natalya then whipped Charlotte’s head to the bottom turnbuckle, and scored the quick pin. It was short, but it worked.
Shinsuke Nakamura made his WWE company debut 15 months ago, and ever since that first match against Sami Zayn at NXT TakeOver: Dallas, we the pro wrestling cognoscenti have been measuring up his WWE matches against his IWGP performances. By that measure, Nakamura’s WWE tenure can be argued as a disappointment thus fair. Perhaps that’s not fair. Perhaps we should view this version of Shinsuke Nakamura as a separate entity, one who works within the confines of the American style, then sure, the guy’s still fantastically entertaining to watch.
I liked the interaction between Nakamura and Corbin quite a lot. There were flashes of strong style between the two, so it felt vaguely familiar of the Nakamura of old. This felt harder-hitting and faster-paced than a typical WWE match (fewer rest holds and stall tactics), and there’s good chemistry between the two (despite a few missed spots). Still, I wouldn’t call this a good match; it was… fine. Even though this was a terrible finish—Corbin low-blowed Nakamura for the disqualification—it sort of made sense. It’s too early for Nakamura to lose, and Corbin’s not in a position to get pinned with his Money in the Bank briefcase. So we’re left with Nakamura’s music playing in the end, and Corbin cheapshotting him for the last word. So it goes.
Last time we saw these two teams in a pay-per-view, the match ended on a total bullshit finish—The Usos walked out and retained on an intentional count out. I had lost interest in this program. Then we had—oh, how shall we phrase it—a memorable rap battle with Wale as judge, and all of a sudden, my interest level went back on the upswing. Lazy booking aside, it’s easy to forget the talent levels of these two teams. In this opening match, we saw some innovative offense here: a sick double power bomb on the outside against Kofi Kingston, Xavier Woods reversing a wheelbarrow into a facebuster, a 3D into a Samoan drop by the Usos, Woods catching a superkick off a dive from the top turnbuckle.
Finish saw the Usos kick out of The New Day’s double-stomp Midnight Hour, then Kingston kick out of a top-rope splash. Kingston then hits a Trouble in Paradise against Jey Uso, followed by Woods hitting a gnarly elbow drop four-fifths across the ring. Solid opener, had the feel of something different, and The New Day are your new Smackdown tag team champions.