Last year, Battleground was a weirdly fascinating show. It came just days after the 2016 draft and had major implications on the returning brand split. For the first time ever we’d see the Shield triple threat as Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns battled for the WWE title. Elsewhere we saw some pretty funky matchups as well as Bayley’s main roster debut (sort of) and of course the blow-off match (sort of) to Sami Zayn’s blood feud with Kevin Owens. Why have I spent this whole paragraph discussing last year’s show you ask? Well just look at this year’s show, there’s not much to say.
In all seriousness though, I’ve very much enjoyed the brand split’s return and I wholeheartedly believe that it has done much more good than bad. However, this show feels like an example of its flaws as there seems to be very little to sink your teeth into. I’d argue that this isn’t a brand split issue though as the talent is clearly there but instead it’s indicative of SmackDown’s recent struggles. Heading into Backlash I wrote about my concerns and two months later many of them still remain and some have even been validated. Nonetheless, I hope this PPV turns out to be a nice surprise and over delivers in a big way.
(That’s actually a complete lie as I really want this show to be a colossal and comical failure in order to make this thing readable.)
DISCLAIMER: any wild predictions I make that you disagree with will likely be proven completely wrong in the coming weeks, months and years anyway so don’t worry too much. Basically, take everything you read from this point forward with a grain of salt as its credibility is preposterously low.
ANOTHER DISCLAIMER: it's currently 4:30 am and I'm running off of nothing but Domino’s leftovers and Coca Cola (seriously). Basically, the level of actual insight is likely to be minimal.
Before we dive into the main card we first have to get through that portion of the event that we all watch for reasons none of us really know: the pre-show. I usually just dive straight into the match here but because it’s my only chance to mention her I have to give some quick props to Carmella who performed exceptionally in her brief segment on the panel. She’s really finding her way as the brand’s top female heel and I’d argue that she’s actually the best villainess in the whole company right now. There’s literally nothing likable about her and that’s pretty damn cool.
Tye Dillinger vs. Aiden English
Can we talk about how tremendous it is that this match was even booked to begin with? Two months ago at Backlash we were in the exact same scenario with these guys fighting on the pre-show and after a clean finish and no development since, here we are again with no explanation as to why. As Aiden English sung his heart out I stood in applause but the Philadelphia crowd apparently wasn't so keen. God, I love gimmicks live this. Tye Dillinger is indeed still very popular and that makes sense considering the proven fact that wrestling fans love outwardly flaring their hands and fingers in a childish fashion. Great PPV tan on Tye too by the way.
This is a fun match up in all seriousness as Dilinger is a 1970s babyface and Aiden an obscenely old school midcard heel. Speaking of such, Aiden threw a Rick Rude-esque forearm/punch thing and that was pretty cool. Rude was actually mentioned by JBL soon after this upon thought, can’t remember why but he was and that’s always a good thing. Aiden was super aggressive here and refreshingly got the upper hand with a headbutt and knee to the back. From there we went into the heat and Tye sold nicely but it was just a chin-lock which meant no limb work for me.
Tye then made a strong fiery comeback before being cut off with an ARN ANDERSON style spinebuster. I think they put this match together with my Report Card in mind to be honest. They worked so well together that people began to believe that Aiden was actually going to win and that’s quite the feat….oh wait never mind he actually did win. This was the right finish in the sense that it elevated English who deserves a chance but it wasn't the best idea considering it was the opener because it didn't exactly prep the fans in the best of ways. Luckily the work was really solid and that made it effective regardless.
SmackDown Tag Team Titles
The Usos vs. The New Day
It’s at this point I should probably come clean in order to maintain my journalistic integrity: about 10 hours ago I purchased an Usos T-Shirt and five months ago they retweeted my article about them. Basically, it’s fair to say that Jimmy and Jey are close personal friends of mine at this point and for that reason, I’m obviously very biased. Either way, it was nice to start the show with such quality but in hindsight, these teams were over enough to go later on the card without suffering. Kofi jumped on Jey early which not only made for a hot start but also really worked psychology wise as The New Day were rushing after last month’s count-out finish.
The Usos soon cut Woods off in vicious fashion though and battered him. Just like every Samoan that came before them, The Usos have a real sharpness to their punches and strikes which allows them to be grounded with their offense whilst still creating excitement. They are methodical in control but violent in attack. Their stuff often looks genuinely painful too. Add to all of this that they talk some trash too and you’ve basically got heel perfection. I also like that they are more than happy to cheat but they do it with enough venom that it doesn't hinder their believability as tough guys.
Woods sold all of this offense absolutely impeccably before fighting back with desperate head-butts. He really is one of the most underrated workers in the industry right now. Kofi soon made the hot tag and hit a crisp sequence but was caught in his ‘trust fall’ and power-bombed through the damn floor. This wasn’t awesome enough for my boys Jimmy and Jey though and they next turned around to catch Woods with uppercuts in mid-air. All of these moves are incredibly cool but it’s the swagger that the Usos bring with them that really makes it work on the big stage.
After some more control time for the champs Xavier fought back and went for his long distance elbow drop but he was instead kicked directly in the face ala Shelton/Shawn but way cooler. This made for a brilliant false finish and a single leg Boston crab only added to the drama. Woods’ selling continued to be incredible by the way. Eventually, Kofi returned and was tagged back in before nailing a deadly double team move that Tommy Phillips wrongly called ‘The Midnight Hour’ because of course he did. It was an incredible false finish nonetheless. Back came the Usos with a superkick and splash for another stunning false finish. The crowd was enthralled and rightfully so.
Desperate to end it, the champions foolishly went for a double splash and that cost them as the New Day came back and got the win with Woods’ elbow drop of doom. Insanely great match and the Usos aren't hurt by the loss as they looked so insanely good within it. The post-match was the icing on the cake as people gleefully celebrated the New Day’s win whilst The Usos brilliantly sold the disappointment with their faces. One of my main takeaways was honestly that Woods should be used more as he’s an absolute star. Oh and also, these are two of the all-time great WWE tag teams so please enjoy them whilst they’re still in their peak.
I know people will scoff at that grading and granted it wasn't the best tag match I’ve ever seen but I honestly can’t find a single fault with it. That’s how much I loved this match.
Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Baron Corbin
This match had a tough act to follow but there was a nice strike exchange early and Corbin mocking Shinsuke’s weird “come on” was awesome too. Corbin’s heat segments are objectively solid in the sense that he talks trash, is methodical and just generally rough and tough. However, they are quite one-dimensional and at times a little too plodding and aimless for my taste. It all feels unimportant and that’s a major problem for me. Shinsuke’s counter of the body slam into the triangle choke was cool though. His focus on the lower back was decent but I’d hope that wrestling legend Alexa Bliss sent him some VHS tapes afterwards as he could definitely be a little more aggressive.
Shinsuke’s strikes do look good but they aren't the kind that wow American crowds that are more used of major thigh-slapping shenanigans. He did sell Corbin’s big clothesline very well though. His matches on the main roster have been fine but aren't likely to capture or impress casual viewers and no matter how much you analyze the writing that’s on Shin. I love the man but he’s clearly banked on his "overness" at times and it’s exposed in front of crowds like this. Corbin, on the other hand, has some nice character work and a couple of really cool moves but just needs some more experience as far as pacing lengthy matches. It’s now a case of stringing it all together.
The finish came when Baron intentionally hit a low-blow for the DQ before hitting Nakamura afterwards. This really did nothing for anyone.
Fatal 5-Way Elimination Match for Summerslam Title Match
Becky Lynch vs. Tamina vs. Natalya vs. Lana vs. Charlotte
Naomi is here and does her full GLOW entrance all just for a commentary role. She was really picking up steam when she won this belt, it’s a shame that they’ve made her seem such an unimportant champion. Unsurprisingly, there was zero heat early because the crowd only really cared about Becky and Charlotte. We’ve seen so many multi-woman matches on SmackDown at this point and this was likely the weakest line-up so far. Lana at this point is a very mixed bag in that she’ll do some decent heel character stuff but then will miss a kick by approximately 2 miles. It’s not her fault though, she simply shouldn't be in this spot.
Oh and Charlotte is way too physically imposing and impressive to be a babyface. You need charm to play the cool bad-ass and Charlotte just doesn't have it. Though she’s incredibly likeable in out of character interviews and such, Charlotte just seems to be a naturally grating wrestling character. Even when they had Tamina and Lana double up on her she got zero sympathy from the people. This made what was a quite lengthy heat segment even worse and it clearly should’ve been done with Becky as the babyface because her strength is selling. Speaking of Lynch, she soon saved things and got rid of the heels before squaring off with Flair again.
I like the whole ‘Becky stands up whilst being pinned’ gimmick but you have to work it a little and Charlotte wasn't anyway near pinning her here which just makes it look just silly. The lack of heat for Lynch’s flurry on Natalya was indicative of the crowd’s disinterest here. Natalya had some nice moments and soon put the sharpshooter on Charlotte but the people still didn't seem to care much. Lana broke this up so she could get the glory herself and I have to say that she’s completely unbearable. I know it’s by design but still, I just can’t deal with her right now.
Tamina, unfortunately, saved her twice before Becky submitted both of them. Natalya then eliminated Lynch by holding the tights and this, like everything else, was very flat. Though I don’t love her babyface work, Charlotte is an undeniably great performer and she showed that here with the way she really struggled to pick Natalya up and powerbomb her, maximizing the move in a major way. She then went for the moonsault but Natalya got her knees up and won by launching Flair’s head into the turnbuckle. Bad finish and bad decision all around in my opinion. Nothing but respect for Natalya but perception is reality and rolling into Summerslam with her as the number one contender just screams B-Show.
The promos in a feud with Naomi are likely to be rough and they’ll possibly be opposite an Alexa Bliss-Sasha Banks match. What I’m saying is, this is not a good look. I’m sure the logic is that they can save the Charlotte/Becky title matches for SmackDown exclusive shows and that they’ll then get more time and focus but still, it doesn't make the brand look particularly good. My grade is unfortunately affected by my just complete lack of interest in this division, a division that was once stellar.
United States Title
Kevin Owens vs. AJ Styles
Owens was aggressive early which was obviously great for the story considering his absolute rage at the MSG title change. I also enjoyed that AJ was too quick for him often and would soon get back on offense regardless. KO eventually got the upper hand on the outside though by targeting AJ’s great balls of fire. Owens does some great simple heel stuff that I really enjoy like the way he was grinding his forearm into Styles' face and just his overall approach of never letting AJ breathe. The headlock fascination isn’t really for me but it is smart and Owens’ trash-talking is money.
I was very upset with Owens’ failure to protect the DDT though. He should respect a move that the RAW Women’s Champ invented and now uses as a finish. Speaking of such, can we discuss how Kevin Owens and Alexa Bliss are basically the same wrestler at this point? Both are wildly attractive, very curvaceous and often scream “and that’s why I’m the champ!” Seriously though, there are genuine similarities in their current heel approaches, think about it. Nonetheless, Styles fought back with his always awesome strike flurry and that real cool torture rack slam thingy. What makes Styles special is that his aggression and intensity really allows you to forget his lack of size.
Owens soon got back on top as he took out AJ’s legs on the apron and began to focus on AJ’s hurt shoulder. Why? Because he and Alexa Bliss are the same wrestler, I’ve already explained this. A creative ref bump followed and after both men exchanged submissions, Styles came out with the calf killer/crusher/murderer but Owens rolled him over and the referee counted the pin as slow as humanly possible. We have a new champion folks. One has to ponder what the point of the ref bump was and more than that why Styles suddenly couldn't hear the count? This finish absolutely sucked but I found the match itself to be very good although I appreciate it definitely won’t be for everyone.
We now got a backstage segment with Jinder Mahal and the Singh brothers in which Jinder looked real jacked baby.
Rusev vs. John Cena
Ok so this wasn't just any old flag match but instead, the way to win was not only retrieving the flag but also taking it up the ramp and placing it on your own colored podium. Rusev immediately sprinted for the flag which seemed odd for his character but whatever, who cares? Cena cut him off and began to climb himself. The absolute lack of heat for this was tragic considering it’s a Cena match. Can we just stop doing matches that involve poles please guys? They suck. Rusev got the heat in very meandering fashion as JBL tried to stress the match’s importance which was comical but I did admire his efforts.
Cena halted Rusev again before making a comeback only to be cut off by a spinebuster. The machka man then hit a “powerbomb of sorts” as Tommy Phillips described it. Rusev finally got the flag but Cena came back and hit an AA which led to the STF and more importantly, Cena discussing the match as loud as he possibly could. Cena then captured the American flag and thrust it into the air proudly whilst Vince McMahon stood in Gorilla, screaming in excitement. Rusev fired back with a superkick and the two men brawled up to the ramp whilst I contemplated getting another Coca Cola at this startlingly late hour.
“Where’s the flag?” Rusev asked. He then went and got a table. Why? Because that was going to be the match’s eventual finish. After some more fighting on the stage, Rusev got control with a couple of kicks to the face and the Accolade before Cena picked him up and AA’d him through the aforementioned table. Cena quickly sealed the deal and he was our flag match winner. They actually had the people rather interested by the end and I commend them for their incredible effort but this was just brutal for me until the very, very end. It was all so predictable and contrived. A real waste of Cena who felt as though he was in his Hogan 1995 phase in this match.
It seems I didn't even make notes about this but I know that both men were laid out and the crowd laughed as Fandango was dragged away. Love both guys but I really hope that all this comedy isn’t leading to a serious team forming or returning, that’d be an odd fit.
Mike Kanellis vs. Sami Zayn
Hate following the crowd but that Kanellis theme really is wonderful huh? Regardless, Sami was in control early until Maria interfered which led to Mike cutting him off with a dope punch to the brain. Bennett is always aggressive in the heat and I appreciate his commitment to being the heel but they were in the death spot unfortunately so the heat was pretty muted. Zayn did sell admirably though and eventually got some response before he fired back with some big clotheslines. He then threw Kanellis to the outside and did his trademark every match dive.
Just as Sami was about to take over, Maria blocked his offense by standing in the way like a prime Basil Fawlty. Don’t know how many of you will get the reference but if you did, cool. This moment was all for nothing anyway as Zayn quickly hit the move regardless and followed it up with the Helluva Kick for the win. This was complete nothingness but the actual work was good enough to elevate it above much of tonight’s action thus far.
Jinder Mahal vs. Randy Orton
I’m going to assume that you know the rules because it would honestly take me years to explain them. Jinder’s presentation and look is tremendous, that much can’t be denied. There seemed to be some excitement in the crowd but that was quickly thwarted by one little problem: they couldn't actually see anything. That’s not an exaggeration either, they legitimately could barely see a thing. I’m going to power through and treat this with respect like the Randy Orton stan I am though. Orton’s immediate aggression was great and so were his facials when trying to escape the prison early.
The first door was officially open but neither could escape because of course they couldn't, it’s the first door you fools. Jinder hanging onto Orton’s angle was a cool visual though. Three doors now remained. Mahal now began to focus on damaging Randy’s arm and shoulder, even using the prison to do so. Jinder’s work on the arm was decent but lacked some aggression and urgency for me. At the end of the day, it is limb work, though, and I’ll take what I can get and give this a thumbs up. The work here was actually pretty good in my opinion but there was a complete lack of heat due to the fact that, and I’ll say it again, no one can see anything.
Orton did manage to garner some sympathy though which was a miraculous feat before another failure to escape which meant that wait for it…only two doors remained. Randall did some cool stuff here like a suplex onto the cage and overall, I really was digging aspects of his performance but it was all just so hamstrung by the gimmick. The 3rd door now opened but neither escaped and this exchange was infinitely more fun the first time they did it. With just one door remaining the two men stared at each other like Hogan and Rock but unfortunately, no one reacted because, and I’ll say it one more time, THEY COULDN'T SEE ANYTHING.
Luckily, Orton now hit his wonderful powerslam to make me happy again before calling for the final door to be opened. After it had been opened though, he stopped to attempt an RKO, therefore wasting pivotal time. According to Tommy Phillips, this was “brilliant by Orton,” why or how I don’t really know. After a brief exchange, he did hit the RKO but the Singh Brothers suddenly appeared and pulled Jinder out through the door. Now left with only one choice, Randall had to climb out and bless his heart he sold his bad arm whilst doing it. His selling was legitimately great here as he stepped to the OUTER STRUCTURE and knocked Jinder off before the Singh Brothers beat him down.
‘The Modern Day Maharaja’ fired back though, hitting a big kick before screaming as though he was about to burst into tears. The Singh Brothers were then exposed as being very dumb as they picked Randy up “so he could watch.” This was, of course, a terrible idea as he immediately beat them up and pulled Jinder down before using a kendo stick (shudder) to destroy them all. Samir Singh then headed to the outside somehow and brawled with Orton before falling to his actual destruction as he went flying through the announce table. My notes tell me that he then battered them with a chair but I honestly don’t remember this as I feel as though years may have passed during this main event.
Orton seemed set to finally win it until THE GREAT KHALI appeared, startling Orton and climbing the prison to choke Randall whilst Jinder gleefully laughed and escaped, retaining his title. This should’ve been at least five minutes shorter but it did at least feel like a grueling, brutal affair. Overall I really didn't mind it but it seems I’m very much in the minority.
Since the Superstar Shakeup SmackDown Live has been on a steady decline and this was the culmination of all those woes. Booking these shows isn’t an easy job and I’d never claim it is but a lot of the problems with this show could’ve been so easily avoided with common sense. Don’t do another multi-woman match, don’t do a Punjabi Prison match and please for the love of god don’t do a flag match in 2017. The job is hard enough without making decisions that were so obviously dumb. One of the keys to making SmackDown thrive is eliminating the B-show stigma. Cena vs. AJ did that, Miz vs. Dolph did that and so did the dynamic women’s division at the start of this year.
However, SmackDown couldn’t look more like a B-Show rolling into Summerslam and has absolutely zero momentum going in. Unlike some I really didn't hate anything on this show too much and I loved the opener but there was an overall feeling of indifference and that really saddens me considering where the blue brand was not long ago. Was this the worst show ever? No far from it but it put a magnifying glass on the worst traits of WWE’s current product. For SmackDown things simply need to get better and changes have to be made sooner rather than later.
It’s now 9:00a.m and I need to go contemplate the future of this awful series before I head back to Full Sail on Wednesday night. Until then please comment your Battleground thoughts below or just send me abuse on Twitter like many already do @JoeHulbert5
Speak soon folks.