This Sunday SmackDown Live’s first post-superstar shakeup event takes place as Backlash emanates from Chicago. For many months following last July’s draft, the blue brand was widely considered the main roster’s stronger half. Though some had originally felt that their roster was somewhat weak, they’d seemingly maximized their talent’s potential and created a strong weekly product as a result. As the dust settled on last month’s Superstar Shakeup many believed, myself included, that SmackDown had in many ways gotten the better of the trades. Fast forward five weeks later though and SmackDown seems to have lost momentum and buzz rather than gaining any. In my view that’s no better represented that in this Backlash card.
To be clear, I’m not saying that the show is outright bad. It’s inoffensive and certainly has some shining moments but overall, has felt rather uninspired and formulaic as of late. I wasn't’t a huge fan of some of SmackDown’s WrestleMania build either honestly but I understand that there’s a lot of factors going into that time of year and just hoped that it would re-find its groove afterwards. So far that hasn't been the case though unfortunately, at least not for me anyway. SmackDown definitely lost some key personalities in the shakeup but I still feel they gained valuable assets in the process which makes the lack of interest all the more confusing.
I think it’s always smart to start at the top so that brings us immediately to the current WWE title programme between Jinder Mahal and Randy Orton. Both of these men have been controversial as of late for a range of reasons but I don’t really have too big of a problem with either, especially Orton. I still enjoy Orton and struggle to blame him too much for his current lack of momentum. The alliance with Wyatt was rather engaging I thought and Orton had some really good matches with Luke Harper and AJ Styles earlier this year. The issue has been the woeful direction they went with the Wyatt WrestleMania feud and the damage it caused to both men involved.
Mahal is an interesting case. He has size and I don’t mind his in-ring work at all. However, I have to concede that his promos leave a lot to be desired and he just seems to be lacking in charisma. This main event positioning is too much too soon for Mahal and no amount of wins can change that in such short time. I’ve been most disappointed with his Talking Smack appearances. He just hasn't maximized this opportunity in my mind and that’s a shame. Regardless of the reasons why though, this is a cold WWE title feud and simply doesn't carry much weight unfortunately.
Luckily, the ‘lesser’ title on SmackDown is currently being fought over by AJ Styles and Kevin Owens. The current United States champion Owens is an undeniably excellent talent and can make almost anything work. I’d argue that Owens is absolutely making ‘The Face of America’ gimmick work too but I still feel it’s a waste of the man’s potential. His promo this week was almost tedious and whilst I accept that it is getting heat, Owens is capable of creating genuinely great television with a microphone in his hand and this isn’t the best way to capitalize on that rare skill.
Opposite him is the face of the blue brand: AJ Styles. I will never complain about what Styles brings but I feel like the interest in a match with Owens should be much higher. These are two of the absolute best all-round pro wrestling performers on earth and this should feel more important. This could of course be just the start of their programme together but it still feels rather heatless and lacking in any real animosity between the pair. Styles is simply fighting for the belt and American pride it seems, which is fine but just a little lazy and uninteresting.
Another interesting aspect is the current women’s division. The first draft seemingly left SmackDown completely hamstrung on the female side but they made it work and soon became an integral part of the programme. The multi-woman route taken at WrestleMania was disappointing but nonetheless, the blue brand's women's division massively over performed following last year’s draft and the shakeup led to a perfect switch between Alexa Bliss and RAW’s Charlotte Flair. Bliss had been a revelation on SmackDown but now needed a new environment and Charlotte was in a similar situation. It was top heel for top heel and seemed to work for everyone.
It turns out that hasn't been the chosen direction though. Bliss has definitely slotted into Charlotte’s now vacant spot but to the confusion of many, Flair has made an apparent babyface turn. I say apparent because though she’s teaming with babyfaces and fighting heels, Flair’s character isn’t likeable or endearing in the slightest. It very much feels like a square peg in a round hole right now and more than that, it has left the women’s division painfully unbalanced. With Becky Lynch and Naomi, SmackDown already had two strong babyfaces and with the addition of Charlotte, has now left themselves with a rather outgunned heel side.
To solve that issue an alliance has been formed between Natalya, Carmella and Tamina. The idea is obviously that as one they’re stronger than each on their own but it still feels like a rather toothless group. Tamina and Natalya are both valuable assets but have been minor players for too long to now be considered as real threats. That leaves Carmella. For a while I’ve expected them to give Carmella a spotlight similar to the one provided to Bliss last year and I’m not against that idea at all. Carmella does have personality and charisma even if I do sense something is missing as of right now. Nonetheless, I completely understand the idea on paper as it makes sense.
The afterthought in all of this of course is Naomi. I felt that SmackDown’s team did an excellent job of elevating Naomi as she chased the belt earlier this year. Her improvements in the ring have been clear and Bliss was the perfect heel to get heat on her verbally. Naomi’s charisma isn’t as over the top as some of her peers but she has an endearing quality that simply makes people want to cheer her. Nonetheless, they smashed her over and people began to respond pretty loudly. I can’t help but feel like that’s all been a little undone by this current feud though as unfortunately, Naomi feels more like an afterthought than a centerpiece.
This week’s contract signing represented the division’s regression quite blatantly I felt. The handful of contract signings the SmackDown women previously had were all very good and played a major part in the division’s surge in popularity. Becky and Alexa were always a great pairing and even the four person signing in February was a strong showing. This week’s segment felt unimportant and lackluster though. The focus seemed to be in all the wrong places and sadly, it’s really struggling to maintain my interest. The uncertainty surrounding Lynch’s allegiance was quickly glossed over too and now this all feels very 2015 Divas Revolution.
Daniel Bryan’s absence has unsurprisingly hurt the product too in my opinion. Shane McMahon seems to be sleepwalking through segments at times and Bryan’s passion and wit are sorely missed. That carries over to Talking Smack too. The network show had previously helped characters like Mojo Rawley and Baron Corbin tremendously and was also the home to key moments in the careers of SmackDown focal points Miz and Alexa Bliss. Speaking of such, both of those performers regularly had great exchanges with Bryan and no one seems to have found that kind of chemistry with Shane as of yet. Bryan’s absence is obviously unavoidable and not really a criticism but instead just another factor for the recent change of tone.
It’s easy to get caught up in this negativity but it’s obviously important to remember that it has only been five weeks and SmackDown still has the return of New Day, Rusev and John Cena to come. Once again, this isn’t to say that SmackDown has been overly bad or that RAW is much better but the gap between the brands is now almost non-existent and beforehand that wasn’t the case in my view. I expect SmackDown to pick up some steam as it finds it feet with the recent roster alterations as in many ways, these current criticisms also serve as a credit to how great the programme was at the end of last year.
Throughout the final months of 2016, SmackDown was simply on fire. At the top, AJ Styles was on a level of his own as champion, Dean Ambrose was having great matches and finding an elite groove on the microphone and John Cena was coming in and out. Miz had reignited his career and was in the midst of a spectacular run opposite his perfect opponent in Dolph Ziggler. Alexa Bliss was taking the ball and scoring touchdowns every week on the microphone and every other woman in the division had a clear direction too. Interest in Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton was again growing due to their newly formed alliance and against all odds, even Heath Slater and Rhyno had found their spot as a highly entertaining tag team act. That was a special time and hopefully a run similar is only just around the corner but as of right now, it feels like a somewhat distant memory.