WWE SmackDown Live's first pay-per-view, Backlash, aired last night (Sept. 11, 2016) from Richmond, Virginia. For full results and the live blog click here. For even more coverage of Backlash, check out Tonya Rodgers and 14fizzpatrick discussing the episode on Live! After Backlash.
His Time Is Now
AJ Styles is pretty damn good at this wrestling thing.
Before the match, The New Face That Runs The Place ostensibly gave a couple of "rookies" in the back veteran advice before turning on them to say they were "destined to be failures." The result seemed inevitable at that point. You don't give someone a clean win, and decisive feud win, over John Cena to have them not go over Dean Ambrose.
And it was with good reason: Styles' exceptionally crisp and devastating offense and absolutely maniacal bumps got this match over in a big, big way. He gave an easy five star performance in one of the most impressive carry jobs in recent memory.
Dean Ambrose was also in the match.
Kind of amusing that the angle WWE seems to be taking is that the lowblow "tarnished" Styles' title win, despite him being wildly cheered and Ambrose regularly booed throughout the match during his comebacks. (Hard to blame Richmond though—the enormous gulf in the quality of strikes alone was more than enough to turn the crowd heavily pro-Styles.)
In last week's Smackdown Live review, I wrote:
Ambrose does get in a very good line that "we don't give out trophies out here for the face that comes in second place"—but then promptly is low blowed by Styles. A bit of revenge from last week, perhaps, and certainly a pointed statement that Styles is no joke. The challenger berates the fallen champion and stands tall to end the show—he is The Face That Runs the Place, and demands to be seen as such.
And when he wins the WWE World Championship on Sunday, he's going to be proven right.
He was proven right.
AJ Styles is WWE World Champion.
What a delightful story WWE has told with Heath Slater over the six weeks or so.
That dramatic crawl into the cover after Rhyno had hit a Gore #OuttaNowhere with the referee distracted was wonderful. It's easy to tell great stories and have hugely satisfying results to main event matches, but to accomplish that with a literal jobber and an aged veteran is an immense testament to the quality of Smackdown Live's creative. They turned Heath Slater and Rhyno into one of the hottest acts in the entire promotion. Slater literally got a "He's got kids!" chant from the adoring faithful in Richmond.
That's not to undercut Slater, though, who was seriously motivated in this match, even hitting several of his old finishing moves in his attempt to get a Smackdown Live contract (thanks to ReverandKain for that bit of knowledge). His post-match celebratory promo was wonderful:
You see this [pointing to belt]? You hear them [pointing to crowd]?!?! I said when I wasn't drafted that there had to be a mistake... I need to thank Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon, and MY MAN RHYNO! TAG TEAM CHAMPIONS! I get a contract now! The only thing I gotta say is that this is one of the biggest moments of my life, other than a couple of my kids being born [smiles] ... No, I'm being serious.
Heartfelt comedy and dorkiness done right.
Special mention to The Usos, who are an absolute revelation as heels. As soon as I saw the shortened entrance and new muted ring gear, I was all in, but even little heel mannerisms like lightly kicking Rhyno's hand away as he reached for a tag were on point. They were remarkably good tonight. The play-in match versus The Hype Bros easily could have been a throwaway, but even that contest was comfortably at least a three star match.
And Still, the Never Ending Intercontinental Champion
Before successfully defending his Intercontinental Championship versus Dolph Ziggler thanks to a little mace from Maryse, The Miz ran into Smackdown Live General Manager Daniel Bryan backstage:
I have been overlooked and underappreciated for far too long. Shane and you need me. I want to renegotiate my contract, I want to be paid like the A-Lister that I am. What, nothing? You have nothing to say to me? And you call me a coward. "AWESOME" (theme song hits). Once I retain, negotiations are gonna get a little tougher. Watch me go do what YOU can't do anymore."
Bryan is furious at this slight. I can't wait to see where they go next with their continuing feud.
Furthermore, if you think The Miz isn't an exceptional in-ring wrestler, it's time to readjust your prescription. The man has been putting on a clinic in 2016, not just with heel character and mic work but heel in-ring acumen. Making Maryse a more active partner in his title reign is also a wonderful decision and opens up a lot of booking avenues for a classical heel Intercontinental Champion.
While Styles was the performer of the evening, Miz-Ziggler was pretty clearly my match of the night.
Boulder Shoulders for the Title
At long last, Becky Lynch has won a championship in WWE. Her name will forever be in the record books as the first-ever Smackdown Live Women's Champion.
I had feared this match would be overly sloppy, and while no one will pretend it was technically smooth, the result gave the crowd a feel-good moment for them to get hyped for the show. It's impossible to deny that the match was mostly a series of separate one-on-one matches, with the four others playing dead on the outside, but it worked well enough to get the crowd heated.
Even better, the match managed to further the Carmella-Nikki Bella rivalry (and Carmella has been wonderful as a heel, before the match tonight waving to Nikki and mockingly saying hello), ensuring a second women's feud will get substantial time going forward Tuesday nights. I have to imagine Becky's first challenger will be Eva Marie when she returns from her suspension in a few days.
Everyone contributed to this in their own way, which was so refreshing to see. It'd be nice for Monday Night Raw to make this much good use of their entire women's division rather than just giving empty time to their select few stars.
All the rest
Kane pinned Bray Wyatt in a no-holds barred match. Wyatt had injured Randy Orton in storyline earlier in the night, meaning that The Viper was unable to compete. Wyatt's demand that Charles Robinson actually make the customary 10-count before Bray could be announced as the winner by forfeit was a wonderful bit of heeling. But The Eater of Worlds would still have a match, against The Demon Kane. This was also a surprisingly good contest, but Orton would have his revenge here, slowly limping to the ring, forcing Wyatt to choose between targeting Kane (who had just done his dramatic sit-up gimmick) or himself, and then immediately pouncing when Bray reasonably chose to go after Kane—given that Orton was dramatically limping. One RKO later, Wyatt was essentially finished, and The Devil's Favorite Demon followed with a chokeslam to make sure.
Saw some grumblings about this result, but it made a lot of sense to me. Orton-Wyatt remains the feud here, and scrapping the entire segment would have resulted in several other parts of the show unnecessarily lengthened and thus worsened.
Perhaps if WWE hadn't had the brilliant idea of letting Brock Lesnar giving Orton a suspected concussion via shoot elbows to the head at SummerSlam, they wouldn't have had to resort to this tonight. But they did the best they could given the situation.
Baron Corbin defeated Apollo Crews after a surprisingly good unannounced pre-show match. This was far better than their bout at TakeOver: London, which was a middling affair and is only remembered because Corbin famously told Crews to "go back to Ring of Honor." This set the tone for the whole night, really: it was wildly better than anticipated and both guys looked better after the match than they had beforehand.
It's almost like the blue brand's creative team have experience running pay-per-views that consistently outperform expectations.
This was an exceptional pay-per-view. The right results, babyfaces getting pay off to their stories, no crowd-crushing booking decisions, every segment felt worthy of its place on a live special, no ridiculous desire to make the show far longer than it should have been. And all that accomplished with a notably less impressive roster on paper than its Monday night counterpart!