On the surface – and in the headline – there are only two storylines fans will be talking about coming out of WWE Battleground: The return of the Undertaker, who reemerged from clanging and banging in Death Valley to seek retribution against Brock Lesnar, and Kevin Owens' loss (by submission) to John Cena.
Neither development is necessarily good – unless you're the Face of the Franchise – and the resulting ripples are even worse. There are just five weeks until one of WWE's marquee events, SummerSlam, and at the moment it's being sold on the strength of a match between a 50-year-old undead biker (???) and a badass fighting machine who really should be doing something better with his time. There is no clear opponent for the company's World Heavyweight Champion, Seth Rollins (where did he go after the lights went out and 'Taker's gong hit during his match against Lesnar?), a nonexistent Intercontinental scene, a murky U.S. Championship picture and a lot of solidly over talent pressed firmly against the glass ceiling.
But let's start with the positives, because despite its last 30 minutes, Battleground was a decent show. Bray Wyatt's win over Roman Reigns – courtesy of interference by his former disciple Luke Harper – was booked well and accomplished what it needed to (namely, setting the stage for a SummerSlam tag match pitting the Family against Reigns and…Sting?) A motivated Randy Orton, wrestling in his hometown of St. Louis, put on a hard-hitting match with Sheamus, and the Prime Time Players continued to take steps as they retained their Tag Team titles against the New Day, who impress every week. And after a momentous Monday night debut, we got to see NXT's Sasha Banks and Charlotte work a PPV match against Brie Bella, which was a bit rough in patches, but showed progression in the Divas division and patience from the folks in the back.
And, sure, you could wonder what's next for any of the men and women involved in those matches (there seem to be only two answers, BTW: "More of the same" or "We have absolutely no idea"), or complain about the lack of direction for guys like Dean Ambrose or Neville, neither of whom was featured on Battleground despite opportunities to do so (since Ryback was out, why not put them both in a four-way with Miz and Big Show to determine the Number 1 contender for the Intercontinental Championship?) But that seems like piling on, and perhaps tonight's Raw will begin to map out their respective paths to SummerSlam. In the mean time, there's so much to say about everything that happened in the last half hour of Sunday's show.
Let's start with the return of the Undertaker. Purely from a fan's perspective, was it cool to seem him appear in the ring just as Lesnar was about to pin Rollins to win back his World title? Absolutely. Will it sell subscriptions to the WWE Network? Definitely. Was it a shortsighted decision that paints the company's creative into a corner? Probably.
Because when the Beast and the Dead Man meet at SummerSlam, who loses? If Lesnar goes down in defeat, it makes him look a lot less invincible, and if he then disappears – which seems certain, given the limited number of shows he's contracted to work – it stalls his drive for the title. If Undertaker takes the dive, it does the same thing, and tinges the luster of his presumptive match at WrestleMania 32. Not to mention the fact that a contest between these two is by no means a sure thing…will 'Taker even be able to take the bumps required in a match with the Mayor of Suplex City?
And after months of being booked as a coward and a cheat, Rollins somehow looks even worse after he vanished once 'Taker showed up to dole out those Tombstone Piledrivers (which, yeesh). Wouldn't it have made more sense for the Dead Man to interfere in the match, allowing Rollins to pin Lesnar and retain? We'd have ended up at the same exact place we are right now, only WWE's champion would actually be able to brag about conquering the Beast. He'll probably do that anyway on Raw, but it would be nice to actually believe his boasts for once.
And speaking of boasts, the two-month feud between Kevin Owens and John Cena has featured plenty of them, as this has been the rare WWE war that's delivered both on the mic and in the ring. Since KO showed up on Raw, NXT title in hand and Cena's U.S. strap beneath his boot, he's been a revelation, continuing to build on his momentum while also pushing Cena to new heights. Their program has been the reason to watch Raw these past eight weeks, and – with all due respect to Cena's terrific run as U.S. champ – their matches at Elimination Chamber and Money in the Bank were the things that elevated the title to the top of the promotion. WWE clearly has something special with Owens, a great worker and compelling character whose machinations and motivations are totally believable, and it would seem almost impossible to stall his rise. So how did they end the so-called "rubber match" between he and Cena? By making him tap out, of course.
That's not to say Owens is dead in the water, not by any stretch, but having him win the title here, in front of a hot St. Louis crowd ready for his coronation, was the right call. Or, if you wanted to save that moment for SummerSlam, why not continue the recent storyline and have Cesaro and/or Rusev interfere? Instead, Owens submitted, and after spending months talking a big game, his credibility took a hit. Sure, he kicked out of plenty in this match, including a mega A.A. from the top turnbuckle, and he gave just as good as he got, but now he's (presumably) thrown to the bottom of the pile of challengers for Cena's title – which is good news, I suppose, for guys like the Swiss Superman or the Bulgarian Brute, but a lousy development for the fans who have rode with Owens every step of the way. It shouldn't have to be this difficult for a surefire star to make his way to the top.
In a way, the tap out also hurt Cena, who has spent much of 2015 building up good will amongst an Internet Wrestling Community that was programmed to despise him. He's made a lot of midcard talent look good with his weekly U.S. Open Challenges, but he's yet to actually put one of them over by ceding his title…and beating Owens here only conjures up memories of other feuds where he came out victorious at the expense of up-and-coming talents, namely Rusev and Bray Wyatt.
And, yes, I've just spent 1100 words criticizing a show that was essentially a speed bump on the road to one of WWE's Big Four events. Nothing was going to happen at Battleground, not with a much larger showcase just five weeks away. The problem is, there seems to be a lot of nothing happening in WWE right now, and after Sunday night that hasn't changed – a few short-term solutions aside. With so many future stars just waiting for their shot, that's frustrating. And seeing a promotion with this much potential continue to spin its wheels is troubling. Maybe we're falling for the same old tricks, and WWE will find a way to make this all work – look how they handled Roman Reigns' Royal Rumble win. But it's a bad sign when, on a night where nothing really happened, so much did…and a lot of it wasn't good.