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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: Let’s analyze that odd LaVar Ball segment from Raw

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We finally got to see what LaVar Ball’s gigantic personality would look and sound like in a professional wrestling ring and it was … something. The phrase train wreck comes to mind, but I’m not sure that accurately describes what took place at the Staples Center.

You see, professional wrestling isn’t easy. Whether it’s with worked punches or words, you have to be able to bounce off of the other person you’re in the ring with and that’s something Ball proved he could not do despite being in the ring with one of WWE’s best talkers.

Here’s the full segment:

Now there’s a lot to unpack here, but I’m going to do my best.

Let’s start with LaVar’s entrance. He’s being accompanied by his youngest son LaMelo, who will play a much bigger role later on, but for now, let’s just focus on how LaVar “runs” to the ring.

LaVar is immediately booed by a majority of the crowd, but as soon as he mentions the Lakers and Lonzo Ball, the crowd roars with approval.

Lonzo gets his own entrance, as he should, but for some reason he’s rocking a sock-sandle combo that doesn’t translate well to WWE programming.

The Miz is a true pro and proved it after he gave Lonzo the opportunity to speak to the Staples Center crowd for the first time. Ball’s eldest son is a very quiet person, so he was understandably brief, but Miz wasn’t going to let this moment pass. He hyped up Lonzo and the crowd did respond positively.

After the Miz declared that he and LaVar should be business partners (I want a triple Bs and M shirt), the segment began to crumble. When LaVar told Miz that he wasn’t on the same level as himself, the Staples Center immediately began to cheer The Miz as a babyface who fired up and asked LaVar and Lonzo how many championships they’ve won.

After Lonzo said three, Miz delivered the line of the segment:

“Did UCLA win this year?”

Here are LaVar’s next set of lines:

“Now we know what The Miz stands for! Misinterpreted Zone” (Which doesn’t make sense it’s only two words.)

“Or it stands for A Million Zippers!” (That’s even worse!)

When Miz refers to LaVar’s comments about how he would beat Michael Jordan one-on-one, the crowd has had enough of Ball. He got booed louder than Roman Reigns, which is an achievement.

Ball’s retort: “Like I said before, there’s only two dudes better than me and I’m both of them!”

Miz then refers to himself as the Michael Jordan of WWE (……) and then LaVar tells LaMelo to “handle his lightweight.”

Miz responds with another great line: “Oh what you’re going to unleash all of the balls on me?”

When Miz tells LaVar he wants him to backup his mouth, Ball responds with his signature catchphrase “stay in yo lane,” which is just mind-numbing if you know where the phrase originated.

(Yes LaMelo wore a “Stay in yo lane” shirt that LaVar’s brand is selling.)

When the Miz gets “serious” and says “or what LaVar,” Ball responds “or the hunt is on and you’re the prey.” But instead of delivering it in a serious tone, Ball has a huge grin on his face and is about to start cracking up.

I can’t even describe what happened next:

Then Dean Ambrose’s music hits and then the segment somehow managed to get even weirder.

As Ambrose walked out onto the stage, LaMelo suddenly realized he had a live microphone with the opportunity to say whatever he wanted and this happened (NSFW, NSFW):

I would pay 10 dollars to see what Vince McMahon’s reaction was backstage. If you know anything about how strict Vince is with segments, you know that he had to be absolutely fuming and what happened next probably made him break something.

After Ambrose stops smiling because he heard what LaMelo said and begins his promo, Ball CUTS HIM OFF. But what LaVar didn’t realize was, he actually stopped Ambrose right as he was about to talk up Big Baller Brand for giving him a free shirt.

However, because Ambrose does this for a living he was able to get through his promo and the segment quickly ended after that.

We’ve seen LaVar Ball cut promo after promo leading up to and during the 2017 NBA Draft, but when he was placed in world of pro wrestling, we found out that he was out of his league.

Twitter: @ScottDargis

WWE: One-on-One with Daniel Bryan

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Before Daniel Bryan makes his return to SmackDown Live this Tuesday night at 8 p.m. ET on USA, I had the chance to chat with him about #DadLife, why WWE needs to change how they’re presenting their stars, the independent guys who have the best chance of making it and the one guy he’d love to wrestle in New Japan Pro Wrestling.

Hey Daniel, so everyone who I told about this interview wanted me to wish you a happy Father’s Day …

“Oh, well thank you!”

… So let’s start there. Is there one word that you can use to describe how yesterday felt?

“Gosh … I suppose just blessed? I feel like I live a very blessed life right now.”

Has there been anything in the month since your daughter has been born that has caught you off guard, or have you been pretty much prepared for everything that’s come?

“I mean I don’t think you can ever be fully prepared for parenthood when your first child comes. I mean, maybe some people can. I had never changed a diaper before our baby was born [laughs]. I’m really learning on the job you know?

I thought I was the world’s most patient man. Brie sometimes gets frustrated with my patience [laughs], but what I’ve realized through having a child is, man I really need to work on my patience. I’d be changing a diaper and I have a real aversion to poop and pee, so I’m slow in doing just about everything. I take it off, I clean her and I’m like OK I’m doing really good. Then she pees and I’m like oh no, now I have to clean her again. Then she starts pooping again and now I have poop all over me. So now I start to get frustrated [laughs].

You have to constantly work on yourself and understand the things that you need to get better at.”

And this is the stage where all they do is poop or pee, just wait until she starts moving around.

“[Laughs] It was really hard for me because every time I would hold her or interact with her, in the first few weeks especially, she was crying. She was either sleeping, which was awesome because I would be holding her and she looked so peaceful and happy, but when she was awake, she looks at me and the only thing she wants from me is to change her diaper, but when I’m changing her diaper, she’s very unhappy. When I’m changing her clothes, she’s very unhappy and the only time she stops being unhappy is when I hand her to Brie and Brie starts feeding her [laughs]. When do I get to do the stuff that makes her happy!?”

Switching gears a bit, now that you’ve been in the role of SmackDown GM for almost a year, how would you assess your performance on-screen?

“Um … I don’t know. I would say a solid B-plus [laughs]. I always feel like there’s things that I can do better. I always strive to be the best that I can in any given role that I’m given. I always think that I can do better on things like Talking Smack and when I’m doing interviews and that sort of thing. How do we best make our fans excited for SmackDown Live? What is the best things that we can do to help the fans relate to the superstars?

We’ve had our hits and our misses, but I’d like to think over the last year that we’ve had more hits than misses.”

It seems like it didn’t take you long to get comfortable in the role. Was it easy to pick it up and run with it?

“Yeah … it’s just a natural extension of wrestling in the WWE. If you would have had me do this when I started with WWE seven years ago, I would have been horrible at it. But during my time with WWE I got more and more talking experience and now all I do is talk, so I’ve been able to get more comfortable with it.”

Scale of 1-10, how much fun is it to let loose on Talking Smack?

“I don’t really view it in a scale of 1-10. Sometimes when I’m talking about things that I know I shouldn’t be talking about [laughs] it raises those parts in your brain that excites you and makes you happy. For example, when I refer to James Ellsworth as “The Big Hog” I don’t think anyone really appreciates that other than me and some of the viewers. It makes me chuckle.

I consider a 10 as the happiest or the most fun that I have. A 10 would be doing something really fun with my wife and daughter. Just yesterday we went to a place to eat and Birdie was cooing and smiling and Brie and I were having a great time. That’s just the best. Talking Smack on its best day can get to like a six or a seven. Once you have this idea of where your true happiness lies, it changes your perspective.”

So as I got ready for this year’s Money in the Bank I went back and watched some of the older shows and the level of talent that is on the entire roster now in comparison to five to seven years ago is pretty astounding, but I feel like the product as a whole in its current state is very stale. What tweaks do you think need to be made in order to give the WWE a spark of excitement?

“I think a change of presentation is absolutely necessary. I think the way that we present our superstars probably needs to change. Years ago, [WWE] went through with this idea of having as much live stuff as possible on the shows, but I think when you watch say UFC for example, some of the things that are the most endearing, that make you care the most about the fighters are these backstage vignettes that show their real personality. You’ll see great fights that people will cheer maybe because they’re great fights, but the fights that have the most impact are the ones with fighters who people actually care about.

I think one of the things that really endeared me to people was that people got to view more aspects of my personality than most because of the different things that I did within WWE. Seeing performers frustrated and being able to show that on TV and being able to show their experiences, their reactions to what’s happening to them on the show and doing backstage vignettes. There was a great one on NXT about Roderick Strong recently about being a new dad and all of that kind of stuff.

Since I’ve been gone, they’ve been doing some really fun stuff with the Fashion Police. Not that there needs to be more of that exact kind of stuff, but it helps people get to know their personalities.

I think one of our failings on SmackDown Live was American Alpha. They’re great and on NXT they did all of these fun little interview segments with the two of them that got to show the people behind American Alpha. (They saw) who Chad Gable is, who Jason Jordan is. I’d like to do more of that kind of stuff.

In combat sports, personalities are what draw. Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao was one of the worst boxing matches I’ve ever seen, but millions of people watched it because of the personalities involved.

I think changing that dynamic and highlighting the personalities is something we really need to do. Now, I don’t know how we do it. I think if anybody has a magic answer of what the best way is to present personalities in this modern day of television, they’d make millions of dollars, so I may not have the answer.”

Time for the speed round

Best WWE match you’ve seen this year?

“Oh gosh that’s hard … so I was watching the NXT Takeover from Chicago and I really loved the Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne match. That’s my style of wrestling. Pete Dunne working over the wrists and manipulating finger joints is kind of attention to detail I really enjoy.

It’s hard because we get so many matches all of the time that are awesome. I really liked the AJ Styles-John Cena match from the Royal Rumble. Watching AJ Styles on a weekly basis is a constant pleasure.”

Best non-WWE match you’ve seen this year?

“There was a Minoru Suzuki-Kazuchika Okada match from New Japan (Pro Wrestling) that was my style of wrestling. Forty minutes, lots of submission stuff, it was really cool. I think a lot of modern fans in the United States would have a hard time with it, especially if you’re used to WWE style, but I really enjoyed it.

Even though the matches are totally different I would put it right there in terms of match quality with Will Ospreay-KUSHIDA match from the Best of the Super Juniors final.

“So that was really good. I really enjoy KUSHIDA’s work. He’s one of the guys that I would love to have a chance to wrestle because he does so many awesome technical things.”

Who is the one “indie” guy who has the best chance of becoming a star in WWE?

“It’s hard to define any of these guys as ‘indie’ guys anymore because they all have contracts [laughs].

I have really enjoyed watching Matt Riddle. I think he has a ton of personality and a ton of charisma and he’s got that look that WWE really likes and the has history in UFC. I think if he were to get an opportunity in WWE, he would do really well.

I also think Kenny Omega if he were given an opportunity would absolutely kill it.”

Coolest move you’ve ever seen?

“So I define cool as different than most people [laughs]. My favorite thing in wrestling that I’ve tried to do a million times and can’t do it, is when Jerry Lawler punches somebody in the face. It’s the best! He does it better than just about anybody. He punches dudes right in the nose and I don’t know how he does it without breaking them. It’s magic!

How you view wrestling evolves as you become a bigger fan. When I was in high school, I saw Juventud Guerrera do a 450 splash and I was like that’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen! And then now it’s like watching Jerry Lawler punching someone in the face is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Is there one bump* you wish you could take off of your bump card? 

“There’s not a specific one. I feel like there wasn’t one big bump that caused any of my major problems. My neck problems came from years of wrestling a very hard style and my concussion stuff came from, hey I have a lot of concussions [laughs].

I think the one … actually I will say one. OK, in 2000 I did this ladder match and at this point I’d been wrestling for about six months. There was a 12-foot ladder and I jumped off of the top of the ladder that was in the ring and did a flip dive onto a guy that was on the floor, but I didn’t realize that I needed someone to hold the ladder, so the guy tried to catch me, but I just fell shoulder first onto my right shoulder and I’ve had right shoulder problems off and on since then. I also got a concussion in that match as well, so that match might have been the start of shoulder problems, which would then lead to other issues. If I could take that one away I would.

I honestly did a lot of stuff because for my size you have to do different stuff to get recognized. It’s different for someone like Randy Orton. When you’re tall and you’re good looking and your dad is a former WWE superstar, it’s a lot easier to get in the door. When you’re five-foot eight, don’t have really any natural charisma and you look like a normal guy who works out at the gym, you have to do some things to get noticed.”

*A bump is when a wrestler takes a move or does a big … dive, during a match.

Twitter: @ScottDargis