By Matt Straub and Brad Carroll
The whole point of WWE moving away from single-branded Pay-Per-Views was to give us fewer shows, as evidenced by the cancellation of two later this year, which should produce better, deeper cards. With more time between shows, WWE can give feuds longer to develop and provide more of the emotional connection required to truly make a match great.
In time, I think this is a terrific idea. For now, however, WWE has blown the concept entirely by giving us their third PPV broadcast in a month. The result is a number of matches which seem thrown together, and others which feel like they are just ways to setup future matches. There are a couple of good matches on the card, but even they have been hurt by circumstances out of the wrestlers’ control, like timing or other events which give away the outcomes before the matches even start.
All totaled, WWE gives us a card which is deep and should be considered strong, which we should come to expect in the months ahead, but instead makes us doubt their ability to pull off co-branded shows in the future. Let’s look at what should work at WWE Backlash on Sunday, and what we already know won’t.
United States Champion Jeff Hardy vs. Randy Orton
Matt’s Breakdown and Prediction: Here’s the quintessential old WCW mid-card match, a formula which didn’t work then and doesn’t fly in WWE in 2018. We have two guys who don’t need the title using their name power only to sell a match which lacks a point. This “rivalry” wasn’t given any time to develop, and the constant shifting of the belt in recent days has made it feel less relevant. One of the reasons The Miz turned into one of the best IC champs of all time was because he was given time to hold the belt, making his eventual loss feel meaningful. With the U.S. belt, the lack of a champion given any time to matter and a match without any build just feels like two random stars fighting for no reason, a staple of WCW in the 1990s. It’s not good. Since I don’t believe Hardy is any kind of long-term plan for the company, I’ll give Orton the win, which sets up another match with Bobby Roode.
Brad’s Breakdown and Prediction: It’s pretty funny this match had to be set up by a guy who isn’t even involved - The Miz - which proves the WWE doesn’t care a whole lot about this and is just putting together two big names into one big match. I already wrote in our previous preview that Jeff Hardy doesn’t makes sense as a singles champion, and Randy Orton is boring as hell, so put them together and we have a match that’s easily skippable. Of course, we’ll watch anyway, but you get the point. The match itself has the potential to be good, with both being able to entertain if fully invested. But are they? Does Orton really care about putting on a good performance opposite Hardy? Does he care about the US title at all? It’s anyone’s guess and I’m sure Orton won’t even know his motivation until he gets in the ring. My original thought was Hardy has to keep the title because he not only just recently won it, but was also a big name coming over in the Superstar Shakeup. But I can’t see Hardy beating Orton clean. He’s a face, so he can’t win by some dastardly deed, which makes me question if he actually will leave with the title. It’s a back-and-forth decision, but Orton’s not going to get pinned by Hardy, which means Orton wins back the title and … well … I don’t know what happens next with the two of them.
Raw Women’s Champion Nia Jax vs. Alexa Bliss
Matt’s Breakdown and Prediction: This match, unlike the U.S. belt, gives us everything you want in a title bout. The build for this feud was really well done, and it was given plenty of time to play out. If you’ve been watching Raw in the last few weeks, you have some level of interest in how this ends. There’s also a competitor who you want to see have the belt. Jax is a little miscast as the underdog, but her chase for the belt lasted so long people were actually happy to see her finally win it. She’s going against one of the best young heels in a long time in Bliss, who makes us want to see her lose, the ultimate goal of a bad guy. Throw in the clash of styles, with Jax’s power going against Alexa’s wrestling skills, and they can put together an interesting match. Jax can’t lose the belt so soon, but I’m still interested in seeing the fight.
Brad’s Breakdown and Prediction: Alexa Bliss continues to shine as the ultimate heel, easily the best in the women’s division. She’s always great on the mic and is more than capable in the ring, making for a lethal combination, and the reason she’s been at the top of the women’s division for most of her career, even with the likes of Charlotte, Asuka and company around. She’s done great with her own anti-bullying snippets on Raw as well, switching the narrative in a funny way in her feud with Nia Jax, who has turned into a smiling baby face since she split from Bliss. Jax has lost all of her aura since beating Bliss for the title, becoming that smiling good guy I can’t stand and is completely void of personality. You saw it when she went into the ring with Ronda Rousey and Natalya, after chasing Bliss away, where she looked a Rousey and for a moment and it appeared she could have been sizing her up for what lies ahead in the distant future, but instead just smiled and raised both their arms in victory. Why? I don’t know. But this feud between Jax and Bliss won’t end here, which means Bliss is going to get her title back. It would be best if they kept the title with Bliss for a while after, but odds are the belt will be traded back and forth instead to keep this going. Either way, for Backlash, Bliss will be champion again.
Intercontinental Champion Seth Rollins vs. The Miz
Matt’s Breakdown and Prediction: Remember when Brad and I made our picks at the Greatest Royal Rumble for the second-level belts based on who would be on what show? Well, the U.S. title match has two SmackDown Live! wrestlers, meaning the belt stays there. The Miz is on team blue as well, meaning he can’t win this match and put both belts on Tuesday nights. Therefore, Seth has to win. Unfortunately, it’s that simple, because this could have been a good feud and a solid match. Instead, the only drama here is how WWE gets us to Miz vs. Daniel Bryan.
Brad’s Breakdown and Prediction: Matt breaks down the dilemma in getting fully invested in this match perfectly. There’s no way The Miz is going to win, so there’s no reason to care. Oh, they could put on a fun match that will keep you interested, but everyone knows the result. Nobody likes spoilers, and this match is already spoiled.
Braun Strowman & Bobby Lashley vs. Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn
Matt’s Breakdown and Prediction: What we have here is a match featuring four guys with nothing else to do. We got used to those on the brand-exclusive shows, which had time to fill an people they wanted to feature, even if those superstars had no real reason to be on the show. Owens and Zayn are funny, but they are lost and useless as a team, and need to be separated as quickly as possible. Owens should be in the title picture, and he’s being brought down by Zayn, whose only asset is his exceptional chemistry with Owens. If they’re not going to be dominant tag champs, there’s no reason for them to be together. Let Owens shine, and put Zayn on 205 Live or a kickoff show where he belongs. Strowman also seems lost at the moment, though not of his own doing. I get what WWE is trying to accomplish here, as they don’t see Braun in the title picture at the moment (though why they gave him the win at the Greatest Royal Rumble despite knowing that blows my mind), but want him strong so they can interject him into it at any time. I still think they’d be better off giving Strowman a consistent partner he can develop a real story with, instead of sticking him with random people. As for Lashley? He makes me miss Nicholas. Strowman wins and hopefully moves onto something more important.
Brad’s Breakdown and Prediction: This match is made for an episode of Raw or SmackDown, and actually wasn’t it just a match on Raw last week? Anyway, as Matt writes, it’s just a way for these four to get on the card even if we all have to suffer because of it. Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn are great and I’ve enjoyed their teamming together, even though it is holding Owens back from doing something great. But still, it’s been a fun ride, and it gives Zayn main-event billing. Plus, that Montreal reaction was fantastic. Strowman is great too and it’s too bad the WWE has dropped the ball with him, turning him from a monster into a comedy act into a guy who actually came to the rescue of Roman Reigns last week. Yes, the same Reigns he tried to murder several times, and who tried to murder him in return. The “I’m not done with you” blood feud turned into a friendship in no time. It’s what sucks about WWE, as they forget everything when it comes to these type things. The fans notice, though. In the meantime, Strowman is stuck in a meaningless tag team with Bobby Lashley, who really has nothing going for him. Since his return, he’s done nothing to impress, and is actually completely void of charisma. He might have had it in the past, but I wasn’t watching him then. Plus, he almost killed Cass at the Greatest Royal Rumble trying to do his hold-em-up suplex, and dropping him on his head instead. That move was impressive the first time but now does nothing for anyone. He’s beyond boring with no backstory at all. He’s just here and we’re supposed to care. I don’t. But him and Strowman are winning. There’s no doubt about that.
Daniel Bryan vs. Big Cass
Matt’s Breakdown and Prediction: I know Brad loves what Cass has done lately, but I just don’t see him working as a solo act. He’s terrific as the big, occasionally witty sidekick, but he just doesn’t have enough ability on the mic to get himself over as a singles star. Still, his new role is in its infancy, meaning it would be fatal to his momentum to have him lose to Bryan, who continues to be one of the most popular wrestlers of his generation. Absence actually made the crowd fonder of Bryan, who will be going onto bigger things soon, despite my complete and total lack of understanding of why anyone likes him. I really can’t think of too many people I want to watch less than Bryan, but he needs to be kept strong to get to the feud with Miz, which is happening at some point this summer. My guess is Cass wins when Miz interferes, setting up his feud with Bryan and keeping Cass relevant without hurting Bryan.
Brad’s Breakdown and Prediction: I do believe Big Cass is doing an awesome job in his role, mainly because, admittedly, the expectations were so low. After all, did anyone really believe Cass would have been given this type opportunity upon his return, going right into being a top-level guy and pushed into a feud with Daniel Bryan? Especially into a feud where he has actually done a solid job building it up on the mic for the past few weeks? To me, he’s done great. He’s second-tier for sure, but he’s perfect for SmackDown, which is in desperate need of characters and interesting storylines. This storyline probably isn’t all that interesting, and the match is going to be all about Cass bullying the smaller Bryan, but fans will actually care about Cass losing. And he will because Bryan isn’t going to lose this soon. The Miz might interfere as Matt points out, but he’s got his own issues to deal with on this night. So Bryan wins, the crowd gets to cheer, and Big Cass will find a way to keep this feud going at least for another PPV.
SmackDown Women’s Champion Carmella vs. Charlotte Flair
Matt’s Breakdown and Prediction: I don’t have any problem with Carmella cashing in and winning the title, but the timing made no sense. Charlotte was coming off perhaps the highlight of her already storied career, beating Asuka and ending her amazing streak. Her reward? Losing the belt to someone who can’t wrestle. Again, I don’t hate Carmella, she tries and has built herself a sellable character. She shouldn’t be beating Charlotte, however, especially after one of the biggest women’s matches in WWE history. While she shouldn’t be anywhere near the belt right now, there’s also no point in killing her push once WWE decided to go with it. Carmella needs the win, and should get it. The result will hurt Flair and Asuka by default, but there’s no point in building Carmella if you’re going to take her down now.
Brad’s Breakdown and Prediction: I didn’t agree either with Carmella taking the title away from Charlotte right after the latter’s historic win over Asuka, but there was really no other choice. Carmella had to cash in her money in the bank briefcase when she did, and she had to win the title, as it would have been a disaster for the women’s division if she lost, as it would have made the first-ever Women’s Money in the Bank match meaningless. So, I get it. And while Carmella is probably the least convincing champion in a long, long time, she has done well with the title, as she’s a better talker than wrestler. But she’s going to have to prove herself on the big stage here against Charlotte, and how well or poorly she does will tell you all you need to know about her future in the division. She’ll either become a star in the making or go back to glorified jobber. I also believe that’s how the WWE is making their decision here. If they think she can put together a credible match against Charlotte, they will have her keep the title, probably due to interference from the IIconic duo. If they don’t see any way she can carry a match going forward, her reign will be very short and Charlotte will win the title back at Backlash. I’m going to go with the former, as Carmella will do some nice things in the ring, while getting carried by Charlotte at the same time, and will be thanking the IIconics during her victory celebration.
Roman Reigns vs. Samoa Joe
Matt’s Breakdown and Prediction: WWE’s creative team is just crying out for help at this point. They don’t know what the heck to do with Roman. They know it’s over for him, but their boss insists on keeping him as a big star, even if Vince himself finally realized putting the belt on Roman was so insane he had to give Brock Lesnar a cushy new deal and change the finish to the biggest show of the year days before Wrestlemania just to avoid doing so. Reigns is now the anti-Finn Balor, a wrestler who is incredibly popular with the fans but not trusted by the creative team to be given a huge push. Instead, Roman has worn out his welcome with everyone but Vince, who insists on putting him in matches like this over the objections of millions of people. And yet, somehow, he’s still in this spot. We’ll be lucky if this isn’t the main event of the card. Joe, another wrestler people actually like, needs a big win in his comeback from injury, and this would be a great springboard for him. Would WWE really knock Reigns down a peg to lift Joe? The answer to that question lies in the answer to another: Who’s in charge of Roman’s career arc right now? If it’s creative, Joe gets a big win. If Vince calls the shot, however, Roman buries Joe and our hopes. I’m going to be the optimist and says Joe wins, though I can’t think of a good reason to defend the pick. It’s just my heart talking. Even I’m done with Roman, which should tell Vince all he needs to know.
Brad’s Breakdown and Prediction: The best thing about the Greatest Royal Rumble result between Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar was the fans didn’t care one bit that Reigns’ feet hit the ground first after crashing through the steel cage. The fans wholeheartedly rejected the idea when Reigns claimed he was the real Universal champion, as the Raw crowd booed him unmercifully until Jinder Mahal came out to interrupt the proceedings. Having Mahal rip Reigns for losing was the icing on the cake. Trying to get Reigns sympathy, or whatever they were going for, by having him claim the title was his backfired once again for WWE. The fans have branded Reigns a loser now, and it’s all WWE’s fault. WWE should have just given him the title at WrestleMania, then the fans would be forced to care. Now, what’s the point of caring about a guy who always loses to Brock Lesnar, despite all the bragging about doing the opposite? Everyone already hates him, but now WWE itself has ruined its own creation. Heck, even Reigns’ biggest fan, Matt, is done with him, which I still don’t actually believe. But that’s how bad things have gotten for Reigns. Still, he needs something to do, so they continued his feud with Samoa Joe, who’s more popular and better on the mic than Reigns will ever be. Like some of the other matches Sunday, however, we know the expiration date of the feud. Since both are on different brands, this feud ends here, and that’s means Reigns is going to win. So, other than getting to watch Joe beat up Reigns for several minutes, the result is already known. Afterward, for once, I have no idea where Reigns goes from here, because the Universal title picture can’t include him, the IC belt is tied up with others, and there’s no ready-man feud for him to jump into. Reigns is a lost character on Raw and it’s all WWE’s fault.
WWE Champion AJ Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura (No Disqualification Match)
Matt’s Breakdown and Prediction: The award for most disappointing feud of 2018 has already been locked up. These two had the match everyone was salivating for at WrestleMania and simply failed to deliver. I wasn’t mad I got the result wrong in my pick, but my rant about how it was going to be the match of the year and was almost assured of being great was as wrong as any pick I’ve ever made in my life. Their first match was put in a bad spot, both by its placement and because of the incredible expectations, but it was still beyond underwhelming. It should have been able to shine anywhere on that card, and just didn’t. The rematch in Saudi Arabia had no chance to be good because it was designed solely to get us to this third and final match. Now, these two superstars have been put in another bad position thanks to the stipulation for their third match. The no DQ aspect works in selling the emotion of the match, and Nakamura is a natural heel, which helps, but it also lends itself to a match with lots of weapons and time outside the ring, taking away from the strength of the wrestlers. This should be a 45-minute wrestling clinic. I was certain these two were going to deliver a modern-day Flair-Steamboat trilogy, but the circumstances they were given and their own inability to produce on the biggest stage in the industry made sure it didn’t happen. Instead, Styles wins to blow this feud off and we move on, as sad as that is.
Brad’s Breakdown and Prediction: Not surprisingly, and although it took longer than anyone could have imagined this go-around, Matt is completely wrong about this. This Styles-Nakamura feud has only gotten better since the WrestleMania encounter, which even though it disappointed greatly, really began after the match. It was there that Nakamura truly made his mark for the first time in WWE, turning heel and becoming a low-blowing badass, which is the perfect character for him to play. He even has new music, which I thought was strange at first, but now I’m all in on. He’s turned this friendly rivalry, something that doesn’t work in the WWE, into the most interesting title match and feud in a long time. Plus, with the roles clearly defined now between Styles and Nakamura, this match should easily be the best of the three between them, and it should deliver, although expecting a masterpiece will probably result in disappointment. Matt is wrong too about the end result. I thought Nakamura was going to get his championship moment at WrestleMania, but WWE had other ideas, and for once, it was actually brilliant. Nakamura is now set up to win the title at Backlash, in the heel role that allows him to continue this feud with Styles into the future, while the fans have all they need to pick sides and not feel guilty about turning on one of their favorites. Nakamura will win the WWE title at Backlash and this feud is far from over.