To borrow a phrase from the (spoiler alert!) new WWE World Champion, last night’s Backlash pay-per-view was phenomenal. Despite a lean-looking card that lost a match before the show even started due to Randy Orton’s real injury, the first PPV for SmackDown Live was a brisk two-and-a-half hour exhibition on how to pace and structure a modern WWE live show. Part of it came from giving every match time to breathe; the other part came from telling stories that were simple enough to be told in the ring, a forgotten luxury in recent WWE times. From the chaotic women’s six-pack challenge that opened the show to the physically grueling main event that closed it, there were only momentary lulls (looking at you, Kane and Bray Wyatt) strewn about in between some of the best matches WWE has put on this summer.
I’m starting to sound like a broken record on these recaps, but what made Backlash great is that it was as consistently efficient as the blue brand’s been since the split. Every single person looks stronger after the show than they did going into it (except, again, Bray Wyatt), and we had a couple of star-making turns featuring a fiery redhead and a pair of tenacious Samoans. If last night was a sign of what’s to come from these split PPVs, we’re in good hands with the brand split. And if not? Well, at least we had a good start before the darkness of having a PPV every other week for the next 4 months.
5. The Right Woman Won
Confession: despite being a huge Becky Lynch mark, and an Alexa Bliss convert, I was convinced that Nikki Bella was going to win this one. And, surprisingly, I was ok with that; she had a great real-life recovery from a career-threatening injury, the fans love her, and she has her new reality show to promote. It wouldn’t have been my first choice, but a Nikki Bella title run sounded alright to me. Pleasingly, though, WWE went with the better and more correct decision, giving the honor of “first SmackDown Live Women’s Champion” to the Irish Lass Kicker.
The match itself was fantastic; messy at times in the best ways, but proficiently structured throughout. The aforementioned Bliss showed off her mini-hoss status, decking everyone in sight and rocking a Harley Quinn cosplay worthy of a better movie than Suicide Squad. Naomi threw on a Cattle Mutilation submission and took flight a couple of times, landing a crossbody on the other five women before catching a BRUTAL forearm from Nikki Bella that led to her elimination. Speaking of Nikki, when she wants to buff up and destroy everyone, there’s no one better in the division. Natalya…was Natalya. And Carmella might have done the most for her character, turning the heelisms up to 11, and frankly terrifying me that we were about to get a Fabulous title reign. But the star of the night was Becky freaking Lynch; the most likable babyface this side of Bayley, the Fiery One threw Bexplexes all over the place, while also grounding the match for the less-experienced newcomers. Her win might have been the obviously correct call, but it was still a moment she needed…hell, it was a moment WE needed. Becky Balboa finally won the big one, and now we get to see her at the top of the hill.
4. The Miz’s Hot Streak Continues
This can be said with absolute certainty: The Miz has never been better than he’s been the last two and a half weeks. From his promo on Daniel Bryan, through his match at Backlash, the former Mike Mizanin should be everyone’s dude right now. Not only did he put on his worker boots to play off of Dolph Ziggler’s over-exaggerated selling, but Miz also threw out some new moves, including a gnarly-looking slingshot sit-out powerbomb that had my entire Twitter feed freaking out. And because he’s one of the best heels in wrestling right now, he also channeled nuclear heat the temperature of Mercury by stealing some of Bryan’s signature moves (the dropkicks to the corner were great, but the modified surfboard was my personal favorite). If Miz can keep doing this, we really might have to make him the World Champion sooner than later, as long as he keeps Maryse around to be the living embodiment of #RelationshipGoals (if your girl isn’t mace’ing your enemies so you can win, get a new girl), he’ll be golden.
3. Bray Wyatt and the Existential Sadness
Bray Wyatt should be better than this. The man moves like a bowling ball downhill in the ring, has undeniable charisma, and an intoxicating presence. Yet, for some reason, WWE refuses to make him An Important Thing. How low must you be on the totem pole right now to not only get a match with Kane, but to lose that match?! I don’t care if Randy Orton had come in and punted him in the head; Bray should have no-sold it and refused to job to the 2016 version of the Devil’s Favorite Demon. Alas, here we are again: excuses or not, Bray Wyatt has lost yet another PPV match to another opponent that definitely did not need to beat him. Let’s move on before this makes me more disappointed in every decision I made that led to me to wanting more from Bray Wyatt. Maybe go check out Lucha Underground; they know what to do with supernatural characters.
2. “We’re Getting a Double-Wide, BAYBAY!”
Heath Slater, Tag Team Champion. Has a nice ring to it, no? The man has been put through the ringer of dumb WWE gimmicks and jobbings, but no matter how many legends and rappers he has to put over in the future, they’ll never take “Heath Slater was the first SmackDown Live tag team champion” away from him. And Rhyno! Rhyno got “We Want Rhyno” chants in 2016, and, what’s more, he deserved them! Not even the power of the suddenly-incredibly Heel Usos could derail the Beauty and the Man Beast hype train. Get that double-wide, Heath; you deserve it. *clap clap clapclapclap*
I do want to shout out the Usos here, though; I’ve always been…lukewarm-or-worse about the Samoan Twins, but they rocked it at Backlash. Their first match was a heel tag team clinic right out of the Revival’s playbook, while the finals played out like an old-school beatdown of the defenseless face; these dudes threw every evil move they had, including a brutal double suplex onto the ring post, at poor Slater. That I want to see more of the Usos is surprising enough; that I want them to win the titles ASAP is more shocking than anything else in WWE right now.
1. AJ Styles Is a Miracle Worker
As far as I can tell, no one has been able to make Dean Ambrose’s offense look powerful since The Shield split up. Between his half-assed clotheslines and weak “flurries” of punches, the Lunatic Fringe’s ringwork definitely lags behind his mic skills. That all changed last night, though, thanks to one AJ Styles; the Phenomenal One bumped SO hard for Ambrose that I was worried he was about to go on a “vacation” to recuperate. As an example, the slingshot into the ringpost would have dislocated a weaker man’s shoulder, but Styles took that like a champ. And, well, following this match, he became that champ.
Yes, AJ Styles is the new WWE World Champion, and 2016 officially hit a new level of weirdness. The man that had lorded over Ring of Honor, TNA, and New Japan Pro Wrestling over the last 15+ years now stands at the peak of the WWE; the fact that Kevin Owens, his Raw counterpoint, has a similar indie wrestling background is icing on the cake. It’s not even that surprising that Styles would win the belt; he’s been booked stronger than pretty much everyone since the night after WrestleMania, and it would have been foolish to keep him away from the belt for too long. But tonight? That’s so fast that even Styles looked shocked at the three-count. And all it took was a weak ref bump, a kick to the Little Lunatics, and a Styles Clash to do it. Your new WWE World Champion is the Face that Runs the Place, the Phenomenal One, AJ Styles.
Good luck topping that, Raw.