Last weekend's pay-per-view perplexed, but this week's shows started some new stories with strong matches.
In recent months, Smackdown Live has been the better WWE show. Raw on Monday nights is the company’s flagship show, but the performers on Smackdown Live have been more dynamic with storylines that let them be great. On Sunday night’s “Battleground” pay-per-view, those same stars struggled in match after match that suffered from derailing flaws.
Professional wrestling doesn’t hold up well to serious scrutiny, so good matches don’t do things that give viewers a reason to ask questions. The main event was a Punjabi Prison Match, which meant that Jinder Mahal battled Randy Orton to see who could first escape an inner structure through a coal chute-like door, then climb over the outer structure to win. Since one of the Singh Brothers slipped through the rather large holes formed by the bars, and Orton clearly had both arms and shoulders through the bars at one point, you had to wonder why no one just crawled out to save us all a half-hour of brawling. I’ve already wondered why we needed a flag match between John Cena and Rusev to defend the honor of the United States against Bulgaria, and someone should ask Lana why, in a five-woman elimination match, she stopped an opponent from eliminating another.
Two weeks ago, Kevin Owens lost his United States Championship belt to A.J. Styles in Madison Square Garden instead of on television, but Owens won the belt back on Sunday to no obvious end. Shinsuke Nakamura has been one of the most dynamic wresters in New Japan and NXT before coming to Smackdown Live, where he “won” Sunday night after Baron Corbin squared him to lose the match, then executed his End of Days finishing move on Nakamura to add insult to injury. It’s hard to see how that finish builds Corbin as a fearsome heel or Nakamura as a rock star.
On Tuesday, Smackdown Live dropped periods at the end of a number of long sentences that reached unproductive ends at “Battleground.” Nakamura and Corbin met in an engaging rematch that gave us what we kept thinking we’d see throughout the program: The unpredictable attack of Nakamura with the imaginative brutality of Corbin. Nakamura sidestepped another attempt by Corbin to square him, then drove him to the mat with an impressive knee to the back of the head, and finished Corbin off with the Kinshasa. Throughout he looked athletic, unpredictable, and dangerous—the traits that make “WWE Superstars” into superstars.
Later in the show, Smackdown general manager Daniel Bryan announced that Nakamura will face Cena next Tuesday with the winner to face WWE Champion Jinder Mahal at “SummerSlam.” Poster art for "SummerSlam" includes Nakamura's picture, which suggests that he might be in a match with Cena and Mahal. Regardless, the match frees up Nakamura and Corbin to move on to something more productive.
The announcement also brought an abrupt end to Mahal’s feud with Randy Orton, and while the feud didn’t lead to good matches or promos, leaving it with Orton losing, held by his neck on the outer prison wall by The Great Khali while Mahal descended to the floor first seems inconclusive. Thankfully, the announcement didn’t promise any further appearances by Khali. The days of big, slow chuds lumbering around WWE rings has passed, and Khali’s obvious acromegaly makes anything he’s a part of a reminder of wrestling’s sideshow origins.
The other high point of this week’s Smackdown Live was the return of Chris Jericho, who ended up in a triple-threat match with A.J. Styles and Kevin Owens. They are three of the WWE’s best performers, so the match was creative including a moment when each incapacitated the other, leaving all three men laying helpless in the ring and no one able to take advantage of the opportunity. After Owens hit a frog splash on Jericho, Styles threw him out of the ring and covered Jericho himself to win back the belt. It seems crazy to keep handing the belt back and forth, but last year the WWE did the same thing with Charlotte and Sasha Banks, letting Charlotte win it on pay-per-views and Banks win it on television. Owens was brilliant throughout the show as a whiny, entitled prick who was mad at everybody because he had to defend his title. His post-match meltdown after he lost his belt without being pinned was beautifully epic, and although he has said that he doesn’t really like working with Styles, the Owens/Styles feud has to continue to SummerSlam.
Raw similarly started some new storylines with an eye on SummerSlam. We discovered to the surprise of no one that all the feuding big guys—Braun Strowman, Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns and Samoa Joe—will meet in a fatal four-way match at SummerSlam, but we also saw Finn Bálor move on. He finally had a strong match with Elias Samson, who I continue to love, before Bray Wyatt interrupted it, hit Bálor with the Sister Abigail, and left him out cold for Samson to cover. The match was Samson’s best appearance in a WWE ring to date—funny and annoying before the match as he asked the crowd to be quiet while he sang a song about what a shithole Washington, D.C. is, followed by an in-ring performance that fleshed out his heel credentials.
His program with Bálor was likely always intended as a stop-gap to get Bálor to Wyatt, a feud that the WWE teased a few months ago. The program on paper seems obvious between the weird, cult leader guy and Bálor, who theoretically lets some kind of Gaelic demon come out for big matches, and if it helps Wyatt be interesting again, that feud could lead to some very entertaining matches. If it turns into a lot of spiritual mumbo jumbo, I’m out and I doubt I’ll be alone.
In the “I’m Not Alone” department, it was really clear this week that no one cared that Kurt Angle has an illegitimate son, and Angle’s paternity is not enough to make people care about Jason Jordan. He made his Raw in-ring debut and defeated Curt Hawkins while an entire arena went for popcorn and beer.
The Bayley reclamation project continued this week when she fought Sasha Banks to see who’ll meet Alexa Bliss at “SummerSlam.” Before the match, Bliss predicted that we’d see the demise of the friendship between Bayley and Banks, and after Bayley won another entertaining match, Banks seemed pissed off and Bliss’ prediction looked like it might come true. Everything about this sequence was fun including the head game it played with viewers accustomed to everything a heel says being a manipulative lie. Every friendship and tag team in the WWE is a feud waiting to happen. Exhibit A? Earlier in the show, Big Cass demolished his former tag team partner Enzo Amore one more time, which prompted The Big Show to come to the ring to stop Cass’ post-win beating on Enzo. That led to a second battle that ended with Cass beating down Big Show. Clearly, Enzo took his beating to get a battle of the Bigs at SummerSlam.
It’s not as obvious that every broken tag team is a reunion waiting to happen, which is the storyline behind Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose’s handicap match against The Miz and his Miztourage (still the best name in wrestling). Can Ambrose trust Rollins again after Rollins stabbed him and Roman Reigns in the back to break up The Shield in 2014? Can he co-exist with the guy who beat the shit out of him in Rollins’ first few months as part of The Authority? The two won the match, and in a few spots showed the kind of continuity and synchronization that good tag teams have. The rush that came with those moments made you want to see them reunite, but when the match was over, Ambrose celebrated separately while Rollins tried to celebrate as a team. He held out his fist for a Shield-style show of unity, and Ambrose left him and us hanging. Is the semi-reunion going to happen (without Reigns, who’s busy in the Universal title hunt), or is it going to turn into a feud? The sequence gave us 20 good minutes in a week where both shows went a long day toward undoing the giant WTF that “Battleground” inspired.