By Matt Straub and Brad Carroll
When the WWE went back to a true split of its shows, the best way for it to succeed was to have the brands be very different. Give WWE credit for at least this much: they have achieved variation in their two main programs.
While Raw is about big characters being used over and over, Smackdown has become about talent which, if not always young, hasn’t gotten the proper exposure. Smackdown is supposed to be the “land of opportunity” for new faces to emerge and become stars. As we get away from Wrestlemania season, having those new players develop becomes important. The time to start earning your chance at next year’s big stage is the summer before, and as the weather warms up, so has the effort from Smackdown’s top performers.
Smackdown definitely has a unique brand, but is it any good? Can it produce enough good matches to make an entire interesting PPV? Let’s look at this weekend’s Backlash card and see who might be earning a place in the build toward next season and how WWE is doing in building its next generation.
Tye Dillinger vs. Aiden English (Kickoff Match)
Straub’s Breakdown and Pick: My job here is to give you an honest appraisal of what WWE is giving us and tell you whether it’s interesting. I’m very happy I’m in that role, because if I were a WWE promotions person, I’d be fired today. The reason? I can’t come up with a single reason to watch this. I suppose you could sell me on Dillinger being a prospect, but that’s about it. He has beaten English twice, and yet WWE decided we need the trilogy here. Maybe English gets some push back with a win? Probably not. Instead, Dillinger wins, we make sure the cameras work, and we get on with the show.
Carroll’s Breakdown and Pick: Straub is right about everything that has to do with this match (and you can tell by the weather here on the East Coast that indeed Hell hasn't frozen over). There is absolutely no reason to watch this match, unless you want to chant “10” in your living room for about eight minutes. WWE at least isn’t throwing English to the waist side after his tag team partner left the company, so that’s a positive for him. Dillinger will win this match, and then the WWE creative team will have to figure out something to do with him. He’s better than this match, but he isn’t on the world title or US title level yet either. He’s caught in the middle, just like a ton of other wrestlers on Smackdown.
Sami Zayn vs. Baron Corbin
Straub’s Breakdown and Pick: The upbeat beginning of Zayn’s music is a good way to start the show and get an immediate pop, so I’ll predict this one opens the main show. These two remind me of top prospects in baseball who never seem to pan out. Both started runs with much fanfare and talk of potential, but neither lived up to it. Both are still plenty young enough to recover, and any wrestler is one good angle away from getting over, but these two guys just can’t seem to get on track to get to the upper part of the card. Corbin could use the win more, and I’ll give it to him after Zayn makes five comebacks.
Carroll’s Breakdown and Pick: I get what Matt is going for with his “prospect” breakdown, but in WWE it has more to do with the right person liking you at the right time to fully make an impact. Zayn is the perfect example, as he was a huge star in NXT, can wrestle with anyone, and is over with the crowd. But the WWE sees him, right now anyway, as nothing more than a glorified jobber, meaning he’s going to lose to anyone he faces that is either making their way up the ranks, or is already there. Corbin, who I really didn’t like at all in the early going, but has gotten a lot better in the ring recently, is one of those guys on the way up, so he’s going to win this match. It’s not fair, but it’s the reality of the situation. Zayn should win this match because he’s the better wrestler and he’s over with the crowd, but Corbin is the “next big thing” and he gets to win matches he shouldn’t right now to make him look like a force. Just look at Jinder Mahal pinning AJ Styles, which we’ll get to later.
Luke Harper vs. Erick Rowan
Straub’s Breakdown and Pick: Speaking of potential, these are two big men who are also athletic. They should be Vince McMahon’s dream wrestlers. Unfortunately, wrestling is as much, if not more, about gimmicks than talent, and these two will always be stuck in the middle of the pack or lower unless they get complete overhauls. They should be shelved for six months and repackaged entirely. The Wyatt family thing is over, and there’s no reason to keep reminding us of it. No one remembers Kane as the scary doctor, a big change can work for these two as well. Give them completely different looks and stories and only the diehards will ever know. As for the actual match, I’m going with Harper in a really good match for big men.
Carroll’s Breakdown and Pick: Straub’s right again (does it feel a little cooler outside?) as these two guys are hugely talented but just don’t have the “look” to be big stars. I thought WWE was going for it with Harper leading up to Wrestlemania, but they trashed the idea of a three-way match for the WWE title between him, Randy Orton and Bray Wyatt. That would have been a great match, and everyone would have loved to have seen Harper win the title. And that’s great because it does prove WWE wrong … Harper, even with his backwoods look, could have been champion in the fans’ eyes. But I still think if Harper just took off his shirt, he’d be that much better a contender in WWE’s eyes than he is now. Harper is really awesome in the ring and he deserves better. For Rowan, he’s actually got a lot of ability as well, but he’s in worse shape than Harper, as his look, facially, the beard and the get-up all make him nothing more than a glorified jobber. I’m not sure how they can repackage him, or if it would ever work, but it’s something to think about. Rowan got a shocking win over Harper, to me anyway, on a Smackdown episode, so Harper will regain the upper-hand here with a win.
SmackDown Tag Team Champions The Usos vs. Breezango
Straub’s Breakdown and Pick: Tyler Breeze and Fandango are actually a great fit together, but I hate both their gimmicks. Similar gimmicks have been used going all the way back to Adrian Adonis and Rick “the Model” Martel, and they’ve all been awful. At least their pairing was made with some foresight. They will fight for the titles against The Usos, who are the champions again apparently because the Bushwhackers were unavailable and the Godwinns said no. They’ll retain and eventually fight someone more popular. Hopefully soon.
Carroll’s Breakdown and Pick: Adrian Adonis? Rick Martel? The Bushwackers? Godwinns? Man, this is a trip back to my childhood. What Straub might not realize is the Bushwackers were once known as the Sheepherders and were the most bad-ass tag team out there save for the Road Warriors. The Godwinns, well, I went face-to-face with both Godwinns at a house show at Nassau Coliseum many, many years ago and before I could even yell at them, I took one glance and backed away, cause they scared the crap out of me. And I’m pretty sure I was a college student at the time. So, Straub has jokes, but I’ll always have memories. Anyway, I just don’t like the Usos, never have and probably never will. I didn’t really have a feeling one way or the other for Breezango, but their “Fashion Files” segments, while not great, have won me over. They are doing things the right way since becoming No. 1 contenders and that needs to be applauded. And they are different, which is always good. I’m going with an upset as Breezango wins the titles. Why not at this point?
SmackDown Women’s Champion Naomi, Charlotte Flair & Becky Lynch vs. Natalya, Carmella & Tamina (Six-Woman Tag Team Match)
Straub’s Breakdown and Pick: Nothing says “we have no idea what to do with this group” quite like sticking your entire division in one match. A six-man match makes it impossible for any one person to come away looking terribly strong, doesn’t allow for much one-on-one action, and really serves no purpose. A long time ago there were six-man tag titles in NWA/WCW, which allows me to bring up the York Foundation, the last title holders. They were led by Terri Runnels (Marlena to most of you) and included both IRS and the Red Rooster. They also had Mr. Hughes, who years later was Triple H’s bodyguard. Wrestling in the early 1990s, after Hogan’s peak but before the Attitude Era and NWO, was so bad it was awesome. This one will just be bad. Charlotte’s group wins over the Welcoming Committee.
Carroll’s Breakdown and Pick: So far, this entire card has the feel of an any-week episode of Smackdown. It’s that bland. This six-woman tag match continues that trend. There’s really nothing to write about, because no matter what happens, it doesn’t matter. I’ll go with the Welcoming Committee winning with help from James Ellsworth. Maybe Charlotte turns on everybody. After all, it doesn’t make any sense to have the three best women on the roster teaming with each other, when they should be feuding for the title.
Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Dolph Ziggler
Straub’s Breakdown and Pick: Brad and I have been friends for probably a decade now. He’s been mad at me both personally and professionally on a few occasions, and has ripped me in these columns many times, mostly for my legitimate respect for John Cena and his theory that I like Roman Reigns much more than I really do. I believe I’m about to make him madder at me than ever, however. So if this is the last time we do this, it’s been fun trying to entertain all of you. Since I talked about being objective and honest earlier, however, I have to say what I think. I hate Nakamura’s entrance. I don’t mean it’s not my cup of tea but I can respect it like the cruiserweights or NXT. I mean I actively hate it, and it will make me root against him. It might be my least favorite thing in wrestling right now, and Total Divas is a thing in wrestling. At least the live violin player seems to be gone, but the music isn’t uplifting, and his gyrations are just weird. Is he dancing? Is he impersonating drunk Finn Balor? The faces he makes are even more bizarre. And is that a mouthpeice he’s wearing? It’s not that I don’t get it in this case, I just really, really dislike it. I haven’t seen a lot of his work, but I like his unusual delivery on a lot of what would normally be basic strikes. I do love the way WWE has built him slowly. It’s the one-month version of the Sting-Hogan build, where they don’t let him actually wrestle until he gets to the PPV. For those who don’t watch NXT and are being exposed to him for the first time, Ziggler is the perfect opponent for him. Ziggler never got his character over, but he can work, and will throw himself around to make his opponent’s debut a good one. They’ll have an interesting match and the fans will go nuts when Nakamura wins. Ziggler has always deserved better, but never found a way to connect with people. He should get a violin and a mouthpiece.
Carroll’s Breakdown and Pick: Straub could not be on more of a roll than he is now. (Especially making it a point to bring up Roman Reigns, even though he isn’t even on the show! True and undying love!). It’s almost like a wrestler who has been stuck in the mid-card, and then says, screw this, I’m getting over and I’m going to the top no matter what. Almost like when Steve Austin asked to ditch the Ringmaster gimmick and become Stone Cold. Or Rocky Maivia becoming The Rock. Straub has now become The Straub. Or Stone Cold Straub. Or whatever nickname he’s going to come up with, because you know that’s all he’s thinking about right now. I would guess Straub is playing the heel in his above promo, because there is no way on this Earth that he can seriously say he doesn’t like Shinsuke Nakamura’s entrance. There’s just no way. Nakamura’s entrance is probably the most over thing in wrestling today. I love it so much I’ve watched his entrances on YouTube. Just the entrances. His movements leading to the ring is all part of his mystique as well, and really couldn’t fit his character more. And when he finally gets to the ring, and does his two dramatic poses, well, I don’t think it gets any better. When it comes to entrances, Nakamura, Finn Balor as the Demon and Bobby Roode are at the head of the class. So, nice promo, Straub. I loved it. But we all know you will be blasting your TV and gyrating on your couch as soon as the violin’s strike. Now, finally, a good match everyone will be looking forward to, and the two that will follow it as well, although the case can be made against the WWE title battle, but that’s coming. Nakamura’s build has been done really well by WWE, making his debut match seem like a big deal, especially for those who have never seen him wrestle before. We will just have to wait and see how the crowd reacts, because a WWE crowd is very different than an NXT crowd. This match should be great, however, as both Nakamura and Ziggler can wrestle and put on a show. Obviously, Nakamura is going to win, but hopefully there is a lot of fun spots getting there. As long as WWE allows Nakamura to be Nakamura, everything should work out fine. But how about that heel turn by Straub? Never expected that.
United States Champion Kevin Owens vs. AJ Styles
Straub’s Breakdown and Pick: Here’s something WWE has gotten right. Owens might be a more dominant presence on the show than the current champion and No. 1 contender, and Styles is a star. The two are allowed to have a good feud for the secondary belt, which they have made feel important. I love when the IC and US belts are made special, the way they were when I was young. It used to the be champ was the star, but the best wrestler had the IC or US belt. This feels like a big match and has been a really good feud. Owens wins, as he is the face of America after all.
Carroll’s Breakdown and Pick: In the world of Smackdown, the United States title is more important than the world title, because yeah, it has to be, doesn’t it? After all, the US title features the two best wrestlers on the show, while the WWE championship match features Orton and Mahal, oh my. This match should actually close the show, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it did, although then it would just be admitting outright that the world title means crap. Anyway, this is going to be one heck of a special match. There’s just no way it won’t be. AJ Styles is probably the best wrestler in the world, and Kevin Owens isn’t that far behind. Remember, Owens became a quick star by out-wrestling and out-performing Straub’s favorite wrestler of all time, John Cena. And Styles had incredible matches with Cena as well. It’s going to be great. The only problem is I love both of these guys, so I don’t know who I want to win, or even who is going to win. Styles did lose to Mahal on Smackdown, but we will all forget about that, so that shouldn’t come into play here. But Owens just got the title, so he should keep it, somehow, someway. Then, Styles can graduate back to the WWE title picture and then take it from either Orton or Mahal, probably at SummerSlam. Whoever wins, this match will steal the show.
WWE Champion Randy Orton vs. Jinder Mahal
Straub’s Breakdown and Pick: I’m so torn about Jinder Mahal. I love when guys who wait their turn get opportunities. I love seeing the creation of new feuds and new stars, especially near the top of the card. But Mahal’s early career was so bad I have a hard time believing him as a strong contender. The guy has never won a big feud and used to be in 3MB. There’s just no way you can go from that low a level and be a real champion. Santino could actually wrestle, but could never be taken seriously once they made him a clown. I feel the same way about Mahal. If WWE is going to try and push him, however, they have to go all in here. It makes no sense to have Mahal get this much momentum only to get shuffled back after a loss. He has to win for the last few weeks to matter. Unfortunately, WWE rarely makes sense. Orton retains.
Carroll’s Breakdown and Pick: Like Straub, I’m one of those guys who doesn’t mind a low-card wrestler getting pushed to the heavens and given an opportunity, especially if he’s been in the company for a while. Jinder Mahal pushes that to the extreme, however, because the WWE built him as a jobber, and not even a glorified one. Mahal literally was losing every match he was part of until winning the No. 1 contender match. It’s tough to see a guy go from winless to winning the world title, without it being a 1-2-3 Kid beating Razor Ramon kind of moment. With that, WWE has done a nice job in building Mahal ever since. And adding the Singh Brothers was a must as well. Mahal needs backup for his character and WWE gave it to him. WWE has handed Mahal the ball, now he has to score. And the way he does that is to be believable in the ring with Orton Sunday. He may or may not have the ability to do that, but now the onus is fully on Mahal to prove he can be a top star, without WWE’s help. If he does, big things are ahead. If he fails, it’s back down to the mid-card, if he’s lucky. I’d actually like to see Mahal win the title, mainly to get the belt off Orton, who is just another guy at this point in his career. Orton can get his rematch, but then we can move on to Styles vs. Mahal for the title. They can build that. Orton probably wins, because I can’t see WWE fully putting its trust in Mahal, but I’m going Mahal anyway. For Straub, I’ll see you next time.