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WWE Raw Recap: Sasha Banks is the boss of Independence Day

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Sometimes during the course of a television show, there will be a “window” episode. This is an episode that has a self-contained story that doesn’t have any effect on the rest of the season.

With Monday Night Raw falling on the 4th of July, it seemed like we were headed for one of these episodes, especially after the 16-man Team USA vs. Team International elimination tag team match was announced.

Seriously, who did you think was going to win that?

Surprisingly though, plenty of feuds that are set to culminate at Battleground were actually advanced. There weren’t any surprises on Monday – besides the return of Vickie Guerrero — but hey at least this episode wasn’t a total waste.

Shia

Like the Boss

It’s been awhile since we’ve heard Sasha Banks deliver a live promo and boy has it been sorely missed on Raw. Charlotte did a nice job warming the crowd up for Banks, who came out and immediately proved why she’s going to be a S.T.A.R.

The Boss just oozed confidence in this segment. Charlotte held her own because she’s fantastic at countering words with her facial reactions. The smile she had on her face during Sasha’s promo was just perfecto.

You know what was not perfect? Sasha’s kick to Dana Brooke. Not sure what happened there, but anytime Mike Cole has to oversell a botch, you know it was bad.

Besides that little mishap, this was an excellent next step for their program and hopefully they’ll get the opportunity to have a contract signing segment before their match at Battleground, just so we can see this again:

Sasha

Smacktalker, skywalker

AJ Styles very well might be the best in-ring performer in the world, but when he finally signed with the WWE, it was fair to wonder if he would be able to hang on the microphone. Over his career, Styles’ promo had improved, but it wasn’t anywhere close to his ability in the ring.

Well I’m not sure what has happened over the last month or so, but Styles has been on fire with the stick. He’s way more comfortable as a smarky heel than he was as a smiling babyface, which is in fairness the hardest role to play in 2016. His promo on Monday about beating up John Cena on holidays was simply splendid. It was so good that it woke up a dead crowd in Ohio.

It’s amazing to think that when Styles walked into the door back in January that the “Powers That Be” thought Styles was a mid-card guy at best. He’s been the company’s MVP in the first half of 2016.

Realist guys in the room

Enzo and Cass coming out to help Cena was a nice callback to a story Enzo has told about how Cena helped establish the tag team.

For those who don’t know, years ago Cena stopped at Full Sail University and made an appearance after an NXT taping for a segment with Damian Sandow. Cena asked for Enzo and Cass to come out during the segment because he saw the chemistry the two had backstage. Enzo had just debuted on NXT TV and wasn’t linked to Cass, but it was clear to Cena that the two had something special and he wanted them to be in the ring with him.

Fast forward years later and now Enzo and Cass will team with Cena to face The Club at Battleground. It’s a surprising move considering WWE’s usual booking plan of having guys face off at three consecutive PPVs in singles matches, which seemed likely with Cena and Styles, but this is a nice change of pace. When Styles and Cena face off again in a singles match (likely at SummerSlam) it’ll feel even more important.

USA, USA, USA

While it was no surprise to see Team USA defeat the Multinational Alliance, I was caught off guard a bit by seeing Zack Ryder get the final pinfall for the U.S. I just don’t understand the booking of Ryder in general. I get that he’s the lifelong fan that grew up in Long Island and is living his dream, but with the hot and cold booking he’s received this year, it just seemed like a waste to give him the “main event” shine spot.

Why not give that final fall to Apollo Crews to continue his feud (gulp) with Sheamus?  Sometimes the WWE overlooks the simplest booking ideas.

Rydergif

Match Results

Rusev successfully defended the U.S. title by making Titus O’ Neil tap to The Accolade.

Enzo & Cass beat the Social Outcasts (who were dressed up as Minute Men) with the Badaboomshakalaka.

Dean Ambrose pinned The Miz clean in the middle after hitting the Dirty Deeds.

Seth Rollins pinned Dolph Ziggler after hitting the Pedigree. Easily Match of the Night.

Golden Truth pinned The Vaudevillians in a squash match.

Becky Lynch forced Summer Rae to tap out to the Disarmer.

Team America defeated the Multinational Alliance in a 16-man elimination tag match after Zack Ryder pinned Sheamus with the Rough Ryder.

Patrick

Time to “Go Home”

Seth Rollins’ promo about how Roman Reigns is like everyone in the crowd because they take shortcuts was delivered perfectly. The crowd was initially cheering for Rollins and he flipped those cheers to boos. You can’t ask for more than that from a heel.

– Rollins and Reigns are going to get drafted to the same show aren’t they? With the way Rollins is ranting about Reigns it seems logical to extend their feud past Battleground.

– Xavier Woods finally spoke out about his fear of the Wyatt Family, which made logical sense considering the way the storyline has progressed between the two. As much as I’m against a transfixed gimmick, I have to applaud creative for the pace of this feud.

– So when the New Day head to the Wyatts’ Compound, are we going to get footage like this?

– Vaudevillians got a jobber entrance and lost to Goldust and R-Truth in a minute. Life comes at you fast bro.

– The WWE finally produced a sponsorship plug that was actually funny.

– A lot of Enzo and Cass on this episode of Raw, which no one should mind, especially when Enzo is rocking those “Gym Red” Jordan 12s.

– An episode of Raw survived without Shane and Stephanie!

– This has to be the final match between Rusev and Titus right?

– LOVED seeing the red, white and blue ropes again. It’s just the little things.

– This was actually said by Ziggler as he held a cell phone up to his ear: “Yeah mom I lost again, but I tried really hard.”

– The food fight segment was super predictable, but still fun. Kevin Owens always finds a way to steal whatever segment he’s in.

– Looks like Fandango really enjoyed the food fight.

Twitter: @ScottDargis

Your 2017 WWE Backlash primer

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In kayfabe, SmackDown is the land of opportunity. This is the show where guys who were floundering on Raw or on the mid-card have the chance to reinvent themselves with fresh personalities.

The idea of SmackDown being the best place for guys to move up the card was on full display during the build to a very, very interesting Backlash Pay-Per-View. Even though none of the feuds heading into the PPV have been built particularly well, it’s the fresh faces that have me intrigued.

Since his thunderous debut entrance, Shinsuke Nakamura has felt like the top babyface on Tuesday nights, but now he has to get in the ring against a veteran who the crowd hasn’t cared about for a long time. If you’ve followed Nakamura’s journey, you know how he can turn it on in big matches and this is a huge match for him. He needs to make a good first impression.

Then there’s the Fashion Police and Jinder Mahal. Two low-card jobber acts that have seen their stock rise since WrestleMania. As crazy as this is about to sound, it’s not unreasonable to think that the PoPo and Mahal could walk out of Chicago with gold around their waste.

Randy Orton (C) vs. Jinder Mahal (WWE Championship)

Whether or not you agree with the decision to give Jinder a world title match after he was positioned as a jobber since last summer, you have to admit that after Mahal shockingly went over in a six-pack challenge match to become the number one contender, he’s been booked extremely well.

The crowd is responding to Mahal as a heel, which as we know, is difficult to do in 2017. Getting over as a traditional heel is rather tough when the crowd wants to cheer for heels and boo the “good guys.” It’s just further proof that a sure fire way to get a heel over in America is to have them insult the country, especially when they’re a foreigner.

Orton on the other hand, has felt like just another guy on the card since winning the title at WrestleMania. When we look back at the end of the year, Randy’s feud with Bray Wyatt might very well be the worst of the year due to their lackluster match at Mania and the horrific House of Horrors match that needs to be locked away forever and never spoken about again.

When I was chatting with Easy Ed about the card this Sunday he made a great point about the current WWE champion.

“Orton never seems to elevate the guy he’s in the ring with,” Ed said.

I thought about the programs he’s had over the last few years and sure enough Ed was right. Orton has good matches and is a fantastic in-ring worker when he’s motivated, but his opponent doesn’t get a boost on the card after his feud with Orton is over. Randy stays in his spot, while the person he was working with usually stays in the same spot, or falls down the card.

Think about Mahal’s match against AJ Styles this week on SmackDown. It was Styles’ job to make Mahal look like he’s a credible threat to Orton’s championship and that’s exactly what AJ did.

With the inclusion of the Singh brothers in Mahal’s gimmick, it’s conceivable that he could walk out of Chicago with the WWE championship. In order for a heel to beat a babyface for a title in WWE, there has to be some sort of interference and that layer is already built into Jinder’s character.

I know I’m going to bite on a near fall after one of the Singh brothers wacks Orton and Jinder hits his finisher, but I think Orton is going to walk into SummerSlam as the champion.

I’m not saying that’s the right decision because I think this is the time to give Mahal the title. He feels fresh and the crowd is taking him serious (YES THIS IS REAL LIFE), but Orton vs. Styles at SummerSlam for the title is much more appealing than Jinder vs. whoever for the title.

Kevin Owens (C) vs. AJ Styles (United States Championship)

SmackDown Pay-Per-Views have started off with WWE title matches before, so I can totally picture the Orton vs. Mahal match going on at the mid-point of the show, or even possibly as the opener.

Let’s be honest with ourselves, Owens vs. Styles should main event in Chicago. They’re the two best in-ring workers in the company and it’s in Chicago, so you know the crowd is going be white hot.

I’ve written about Owens’ “New Face of America” character and why I think it’s a big step in the right direction for him, but he’s not the only one in this match who has had a character change recently.

During Styles’ heel run the crowd couldn’t hold back from cheering for him. He did everything he could to try and get the crowd to boo him, but it rarely worked, besides the time when he refused to put Ambrose through a table. Note to all heels, if you tease a table spot and refuse to give it to the crowd, you’re going to get easy heat.

On the first SmackDown after WrestleMania, Styles shook Shane McMahon’s hand as a sign of respect for their match in Orlando. It didn’t seem like much at the time, but that was in fact the official face turn for Styles. He’s playing to the cheers and has been positioned with babyfaces in six-man tag matches.

Styles is an excellent seller, which is going to be on display this Sunday because the WWE style requires a heel to work over the face for a prolonged period of time. Owens has the offense to make the heat segment of the match appear to be brutal, which will only fire up the “AJ Styles, clap, clap, clap-clap-clap” chants in from the crowd.

I’d love for this match to turn into an ROH-NJPW style match, but it’s not in the realm of WWE to do that, so expect a ton of near-falls and big move after big move (a lot of power grapples if you’re familiar with WrestleMania 2000 or No Mercy for the N64).

This has the potential to be the best WWE match of 2017. I expect Owens to retain his title by hook or by crook.

Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Dolph Ziggler

If you skipped the actual build to Backlash and caught the commercials for PPV, you’d think Shinsuke Nakamura was wrestling in the main event for the championship. Every once in a while you’ll catch one featuring Mahal vs. Orton for the title, but Nakamura’s in-ring debut is getting a hard push and rightfully so.

Nakamura is a one of a kind performer. He’s unlike anything the world of professional wrestling has ever seen. If you watched him in NXT, you know that there’s more to him than his exhilarating entrance. He has the ability to put on captivating matches without having to sacrifice his body. He’s a smart worker with vicious looking strikes (Nakamura was a legit MMA fighter at one point in his career).

Has he been booked perfectly since his debut after WrestleMania?

The idea of having him cut promos in the ring with his mouthpiece in was a curious decision. Almost as curious as having him speak Japanese to Ziggler. When someone speaks a foreign language in front of a live crowd, the WHAT chants won’t be far behind.

Still, the fact that his in-ring debut is being saved for PPV and is getting this much attention is a big deal. Nakamura feels like a special attraction, which is something the WWE desperately needs right now. No one on the roster feels special outside of Brock Lesnar.

When Nakamura vs. Ziggler was announced I thought, it’s a perfect opponent for Nakamura’s introduction. Ziggler can make Nakamura look like a million bucks to the people who aren’t familiar with his work. But what I didn’t anticipate was how much Dolph would benefit from the build to this match.

The promo video pushing Ziggler’s accomplishments in the WWE was well done and it made him seem like a credible threat to Nakamura. Obviously working with Nakamura is a major upgrade over feuding with Apollo Crews and Kalisto. Even though it’s likely Dolph eats a Kinshazaaaaaaa and gets pinned on Sunday, at least this feud helped him a bit.

These two have worked with each other in dark matches for a few weeks now, so I’m expecting them to potentially tear the house down.

Charlotte/Naomi/Becky Lynch vs. Tamina/Carmella/Natalya w. James Ellsworth

Kudos to creative for coming up with something different than just another singles match for the women’s title, but I just can’t get excited for this one. I enjoyed the contract signing on Tuesday and thought Ellsworth crushed his promo (outside of one small botch), but this match just feels like filler. I expect Charlotte to turn on her team and cost them the match.

The Usos (C) vs. The Fashion Police

Who would have thought that Tyler effing Breeze and Fandango would be booked better than American Alpha?

The goofy but highly enjoyable Fashion Files segments have clearly done their job as the two got a great reaction when they came out for their match this past Tuesday. They’ve been given an opportunity to get their characters over and have hit a home run. The sudden success of Breeze and Fandango should be a reminder of how good the SmackDown (formerly the NXT) writing team is.

The Usos have also been on fire lately. They’ve clearly found their heel voice with these quick rapping/shouting promos. Every time they cut one, the crowd has no choice but to clap because they’re so damn good.

 

Even though this is as over as officer Breeze and deputy Dango have been on the main roster, I don’t expect them to win the tag titles. There’s no need to kill the Usos run right now when they’re just getting starting to hit their stride, especially with The New Day coming soon.

Sami Zayn vs. Baron Corbin

So is Zayn’s role to work with a big guy who the company has serious plans for in order to help them get better in the ring? If so, that’s exactly why Zayn is in this match with Corbin.

The “Lone Wolf” has a presence and a good look, but his matches always seem to leave me wanting more. Perhaps it’s because the crowd always seems to be dead for them. If Styles couldn’t get the crowd interested in a Corbin match, there might be a problem.

The story here is that no matter how hard Corbin tries, Zayn is not going to stay down, which makes me wonder if it’s going to lead Corbin to do something extreme to “try and put Zayn away for good.” If so, it might be exactly what Corbin needs to get the crowd to care about his programs. Right now, Corbin is just Braun Strowman-lite and there aren’t many people who like a bad light beer.

Because Corbin got pinned clean by Orton on SmackDown, I think he’ll get his win back in a big way.

Luke Harper vs. Erick Rowan

Even though this is totally a throwaway mid-card match, don’t be surprised if Harper and Rowan go out and blast each other with stiff shots. Harper has worked himself into excellent shape, while Rowan is playing a character that could be Mankind’s third cousin.

Harper should get the win here, but I would not be surprised if Rowan went over as a total surprise.

Tye Dillinger vs. Aiden English

Man, Dillinger is already working pre-show matches? That’s something a seven would do.

Twitter: @ScottDargis

WWE: The three positives in a post-WrestleMania world

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It’s been a few weeks since I’ve had the ability to share my thoughts on WWE’s weekly television product. Despite a 13-hour time difference for two weeks, I watched Raw and SmackDown. I even squeezed in an episode of NXT, thanks jet lag!

Let’s just say, it wasn’t exactly easy to get through the last three episodes of both shows. There were bright spots here and there, but the amount of forgettable segments dwarfed the segments that kept me sports entertained.

It feels like we’re in an elongated holding pattern until the build for SummerSlam begins, which is strange considering we had a “Superstar-Skakeup.” Why did this need to happen so suddenly?

Wouldn’t a mix-up of the rosters work better after the Payback-Backlash PPV cycle?

It’s ridiculous to ask that question because as a viewer of the WWE, I shouldn’t be asking that question. I should be able to trust the people backstage to put on an entertaining product, but if you pay attention to the inner-workings of WWE, you know that big booking decisions get made on the day of the show far too often.

Not only did this Superstar-Shakeup come at a time when it didn’t need to due to an influx of talent that was called up from NXT (less so on Raw because of Dash Wilder’s broken jaw), it happened in the middle of the build for the first brand specific PPVs after WrestleMania. We had two crossover matchups on Payback, which brought Smackdown guys onto a Raw show…

No, B.J. Novak, it doesn’t matter.

You’re just supposed to enjoy your favorite characters’ entrances every week. You’re not supposed to care about what they actually say or do. Wins and losses don’t matter. Almost every promo or backstage segment is rooted in comedy (bookmark: Which can sometimes produce entertaining segment like “The Fashion Files”). Nothing is serious. Nothing matters.

Sorry! I didn’t want to make you cry. Look, there are still plenty of reasons to enjoy the WWE product right now. Here are the three things that I’ve enjoyed post-WrestleMania.

Elevation of Mid-Card titles: Now that Brock Lesnar has joined the list of celebrity departures from The Leftovers and Randy Orton is off working a mid-card feud with Jinder Mahal for the WWE championship, the Intercontinental and United States titles are actually being elevated.

Part of this is due to the sudden emphasis on the titles. Both number one contender matches main evented an episode of Raw and SmackDown and featured full-time main event talent in a pair of triple threat matches.

The other part of this is the Kevin Owens’ Face of America character. The whole “Prizefighter” gimmick never got off the ground on the main roster because outside of his opening feud with Cena. Owens rarely felt like the guy who quickly rose to prominence in NXT as an ass kicker.

Before winning the United States title from Jericho at WrestleMania, Owens has held the Intercontinental championship and the Universal title and in both instances, he wasn’t booked strongly enough to make the titles seem important.

That sounds like a slight on K.O. and it’s not. That’s just a product of the amount of comedy segments he was featured in. In NXT, he was “the guy” and booked appropriately. In kayfabe, Owens was a dangerous, unpredictable dude. For a while on the main roster he’s a full-time guy who is cracking jokes. (Bookmark: For the record, the jokes with Jericho were funny, but that’s not the point here.)

Now it feels like he’s capitalizing on the heel momentum his character gained during the build for his Mania match against Jericho. His beat down of Y2J on this past week’s episode of SmackDown came off really good. It reminded me of moments like this:

This “Face of America” gimmick is going to be perfect for Owens. It’s a different spin on the evil foreigner storyline, which means easy heat, especially when Owens starts speaking fluent French.

K.O. is being positioned as a focal point of SmackDown Live (Bookmark: Out of all of the superstars who changed shows, the #FOA will benefit from the change the most), but the triple threat match to determine the number one contender for featured three prominent names: Baron Corbin, Sami Zayn, and Styles.

The three tore the house down in what was my favorite WWE TV Match of the Year so far. Styles pinned Zayn to become the number one contender for the U.S. title, which in the moment seemed a bit strange considering that Styles, in kayfabe, should be going after Orton’s title, but now that some time has passed, it makes sense.

I can’t imagine Orton vs. Mahal for the title is going to main event Backlash. If it doesn’t, you would have to imagine that Styles vs. Owens for the U.S. title will close the show in Chicago. Deputy Dango and Breezy sure ain’t getting that spot.

Which means the mid-card title will main event a PPV with two of the company’s best workers wrestling for it. Sign me up. I’m curious to see what style of a match they put on. Will it feel more like ROH? Or will it still be a traditional style WWE match?

#FantasyBookingIdea: Owens holds the title for a few months and then John Cena answers K.O.’s open challenge.

Over on Raw, the Intercontinental champion is Dean Ambrose, which you wouldn’t know if you watched Payback this past Sunday. Dude just wasn’t on the show, but he was back on Monday to “call” Kurt Angle in the ring and book a triple threat (sound familiar?) match between Seth Rollins, The Miz, and Finn Balor.

Those three put on the best Raw main event in ages. Now even though the IC title is underneath the U.S. title on the WWE totem pole right now, it’s the most visible title on Raw as long as Lesnar holds the Universal title.

Seriously, if you’re a casual fan who started watching WWE again after WrestleMania, you would have no idea that the Universal title exists, or that Lesnar is the current champion. He’s never mentioned during the bajillion hits the announcers have to do on a weekly basis. It’s absurd.

Due to Lesnar’s absence, Ambrose finds himself in a position to move himself up the card and improve the Intercontinental championship, but we’ve seen Ambrose vs. Miz plenty of times last year and none of their encounters were memorable, but that’s not what’s important here.

Two main event level guys and an upper-mid card guy were positioned in a number one contender’s match for the title. This does appear to be a shift in philosophy around the role of the mid-card titles, which is a WELCOMED change.

Alexa Bliss: Even though last Sunday in Bayley’s hometown of San Jose wasn’t the right time to take the title off of Ms. Hug Life and give it to Bliss, Alexa hasn’t dropped the ball since it was given to her back in the fall.

Out of all of the women on the main roster, I would put her mic skills just slightly behind Charlotte’s. It’s one thing to be a cool heel in 2017 like Bliss is, it’s another to play a heel who actually gets booed, which is exactly what Charlotte achieved before her inexplicable face turn last week.

Bliss overshadowed Bayley in the talking segments they had together leading up to their match at Payback. The crowd just isn’t feeling Bayley right now on a week-to-week basis. Her dialogue has been pretty weak since her call-up (we get it, she’s a lifelong fan) to the main roster, but her delivery has been extremely awkward.

She’s not queuing up the crowd correctly and just seems to not understand the proper beat for her character to speak. I get that she’s supposed to play a fan that has the opportunity to live her dream, but I shouldn’t be cringing during her promos and when she’s in the ring by herself, the cringe meter starts going up in my apartment.

You could really see the difference level between the promos when Alexa and Bayley shared the ring leading up to the PPV. Bliss was able to successfully counter the crowd’s “what” chants that have swallowed up thousands of promos. There’s a reason why a pocket of the live crowd in San Jose cheered for her when she pinned Bayley, who was again, the hometown babyface.

Bliss speaks in a tone that no other woman on the main roster speaks in. Her character knows that she’s better than everyone else and she’s going to tell you about it in a smart way that the hardcore fan appreciates. It’s hard to think of anyone who has had a rise on the main roster quicker than Alexa has. Baron Corbin comes to mind because he never got to the main event level in NXT (Vince and Co. has big plans for him on the main roster) but he’s still in a holding pattern.

There’s nothing holding Alexa Bliss back.

Braun Strowman: The post-Mania episodes of Raw might as well be referred to as the Braun Strowman saga. His feud with Roman Reigns has been the focus of the show for weeks. There was an incredible beatdown angle that featured Strowman “throwing” Reigns off of a loading dock while Roman was tied down on a stretcher, but Braun wasn’t done there. He then “tipped” over the ambulance that Reigns was supposedly in.

He then bullied around the jobbers backstage, which included putting Kalisto in a dumpster, before the Big Show knocked him down and challenged him to a match. In the main event, Strowman suplexed Show and “broke the ring” (it’s the third time WWE has pulled off this stunt and once again the crowd went bananas).

The next week Kalisto “challenged” Strowman to a dumpster match. Even though Strowman “lost” (beyond dumb, but it’s WWE in 2017, wins and losses don’t matter) he pushed a dumpster off of the stage with Kalisto inside. The drop was about three feet, but still it’s been awhile since someone got pushed off of the stage while they were in a dumpster.

Vince knows how to push a big guy and Strowman is the equivalent of a wet dream for McMahon.

He’s a gigantic dude who can move around the ring like he’s 6 feet 1 inch tall. Strowman has greatly improved in the ring to a point where it’s totally conceivable to picture him as a world champion, but will he actually get pushed to that level?

We know how stingy Vince can be about giving someone too much too soon, especially with how successful The Rock, Brock Lesnar, Batista and now John Cena are doing with projects outside of WWE. Strowman isn’t going to fight in the UFC and who knows if he has any sort of acting chops.

Strowman is a professional wrestler and becoming a damn good one with every day that passes. Raw would have been significantly worse after WrestleMania if he wasn’t on the show. He’s earning a title run with every solid match and over-the-top backstage segment that he performs in.

The reason why we should all be worried about Strowman is; there have been instances where a person was given the title well after they earned it (RVD and Jeff Hardy come to mind). I’m not saying Strowman should be given a title reign tomorrow because he’s still a bit green, but with Lesnar vs. Reigns penciled in as the WrestleMania 34 main event according to Dave Meltzer, you begin to wonder what Strowman’s ceiling is.

When Lesnar vs. Strowman does happen, the crowd is going to explode and Vince will know how to clean it up.

Twitter: @ScottDargis

(Bookmark: If you’re wondering where the Hardy’s section is, don’t worry. It’s coming. Let’s see how this rumored legal situation with Anthem works out.)