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A bit outdated with a look back at Backlash now, but better late than never, right? So without further ado let’s jump straight into Five Lessons For WWE To Learn From Backlash, looking at what to learn from the success of The Usos vs. Breezango comedy match, the flaws of Nakamura vs. Ziggler and Harper vs Rowan, the future of the women’s division on Smackdown, and a cause for concern regarding interest in the show.
(1) The End Product Has To Match The Hype
WWE was actually doing a really strong job presenting Shinsuke Nakamura as a special attraction. Debuting him in front of that post WrestleMania crowd and letting their reaction to him tell the story was a strong start. The journey between then and Backlash wasn’t the best, but saving his debut for a big show and heavily promoting Backlash as the show to see Nakamura’s debut on made the fact that he was debuting seem like a significant event and led fans to believe that he’d be treated differently than everyone else on the show. Shinsuke was something different to everyone else, he was special.
And then the match happened…
In any context, Nakamura debuting in an uninspiring 15 minute match where Dolph Ziggler works on top for the majority of the match isn’t a good idea but, when you’ve hyped Nakamura up as being something above the ordinary, it’s extra damaging. One of the many problems that WWE has in this current era is that, with the exception of Brock, everyone is the same. Everyone turns up on the TV show just the same, cuts the same long promo in the ring, and works the same in-ring style. Everyone is interchangeable. It wasn’t long ago that Dolph was working matches with Apollo Crews that had a similar layout. If he was working against Dean Ambrose right now instead of Shinsuke Nakamura, do you think the match would have been much different?
Everything being interchangeable is an issue in itself, but even more so when you give someone extra hype as being something special. It’s a big blow for Nakamura in terms of being accepted as something special by the majority of WWE’s audience who won’t have seen him before. For most of them, Backlash would have been the first time they’ve seen Nakamura in the ring and, quite frankly, to them, they must think everyone else getting excited about him are off their heads.
He wasn’t anything special at all. He wasn’t even particularly good! Whether we look at it from the perspective of viewers who react to wrestlers who have great matches or from the perspective of those who react to wrestlers based on how they’re booked, Nakamura didn’t come across as anything to get excited about seeing more of. The match wasn’t good, Nakamura didn’t have any great spots in the match, and he was getting worked over for a good ten minutes by a guy who has been defined down as a loser. Anybody not familiar with Shinsuke Nakamura must be scratching their head wondering what on earth all the hype was about. To them, he’s just another addition to the 50-50 club.
What this should have been was Shinsuke completely running through Dolph. Give the match enough time for Nakamura to get all his spots in but nothing else. Give Dolph absolutely nothing. Sure, it would hurt him, but he’s at a point now where’s not needed to be kept strong and, if WWE brass do decide to push him again, then Nakamura isn’t the starting point. This is where the predictable uniformity of WWE’s shows can actually pay some dividends. Predictability is good in the sense that it gets the unpredictable aspects over better. Think Lesnar vs. Goldberg at Survivor Series. Imagine how different the reaction would be if Nakamura just dominated and decimated Ziggler in under five minutes. That’s a guy who people would think was something special and must-see. A guy who works a back and forth match with Dolph Ziggler in 2017 isn’t.
In some fairness to WWE I can see what they were going for. Debut Shinsuke against a great wrestler and give them the platform to go out and have a Match of the Year contender together and have everybody talking about the match. The same formula as his debut in NXT against Sami Zayn. The issue with that, however, is that Dolph Ziggler was a terrible choice of opponent for that to happen. If you wanted to go that route, then it had to be against a guy who is a protected asset on the show that will really have an undeniable Match of the Year contender with him. If they put A.J. Styles into that slot and let him and Nakamura go out and have a match similar to the one they had at the Tokyo Dome last year, it might have worked. But it’s Dolph Ziggler and Dolph Ziggler is beyond washed, beyond having any credibility as a winner, and ultimately now beyond being able to have that level of a match.
The end product not matching the hype not only did damage to Nakamura, but also to the concept of WWE hyping something up as being important and special. The next time they try something similar, how do you think viewers are going to react to it? I seriously doubt they’re going to buy into it as strongly as they might have done here with Shinsuke. If you promise something, then you have to deliver. If you don’t, then don’t expect the same people to buy into the next time.
(2) This Smackdown Women’s Division Is Doomed
It wasn’t looking good even when you moved Charlotte over as a heel, but at least as a heel you could lean back on Charlotte being one of the best workers on the roster who could very likely carry a mediocre babyface worker to a good match as she’d be the one controlling the majority of the match. But now, with her confusing babyface turn, the potential matches for Smackdown’s Women’s Division look pretty dire.
Looking at the women currently on Smackdown, the amount of wrestling ability is startlingly low. Charlotte is fantastic, but turning her babyface forces the other half of her matches to be carrying the bulk of the match and thus you remove Charlotte’s greatest asset which is her ability to work on top as a dominant heel with the swagger of a champion. Now as a babyface she’s got to trade that in for selling a beatdown and garnering sympathy from the crowd. It’s a role that she’ll be good in because she’s so talented, but we’ve already seen her have brief babyface runs in NXT and on Raw, and neither set the world on fire.
So you’ve taken your best asset, who was such a strong hand in the ring who could maybe get a good match out of someone as limited as Naomi (they had a good TV match prior to the turn), and diluted that asset. A heel Charlotte versus someone like Naomi was something that you could talk yourself into being a good match and could help to get Naomi more over as a babyface. Does anyone expect a babyface Charlotte versus a heel Carmella or Tamina to be any good or to get either act over more in their respective role? The only women’s match on Smackdown that you’d look at as a match that could be considered somewhat of a big deal on a PPV would be Charlotte vs. Becky, and they’ve taken that off the table.
Let’s go through all the options with the current lay of the land. The heel side of the equation has Natalya, Carmella, and Tamina. Carmella has something as a character but as a wrestler she isn’t having good matches, Tamina has never produced anything, and Natalya – while technically talented – rarely actually has memorable matches and her overly forced heel act just isn’t believable. Charlotte vs. Carmella or Tamina are very unlikely to be good matches or even compelling programs. Charlotte vs. Natalya is likely the best option, but it’s nothing fresh and exciting and is diluted by both acts being aligned the wrong way. Any of those three against Naomi just won’t be good and, for as good as Becky Lynch can be, she’s always been someone who wrestles to the level of her opponent so she won’t be carrying wrestlers like Carmella to much of anything. Hey, maybe Lana finally debuts and turns out to be a super worker who can work great programs against everyone.
Charlotte, Sasha and Bayley along with years of women’s matches in NXT have set a standard that fans now expect from women’s matches. Having a year of two-and-a-half-star to three-star matches is now seen as a disappointment for the women because expectations have been raised. It’s especially insufficient at a time when WWE is really trying to get over the fact that the women are just as good as the men and warrant all the extra screen time that they’ve been given. With the current state of Smackdown’s Women’s Division, they’re doomed for failure at a time where failure just isn’t an option for the “women’s revolution.”
(3) Comedy Matches Shouldn’t Be Taboo
I never really realized this until watching the Smackdown Tag Team Championship match at Backlash; WWE never does comedy matches. I mean, they do plenty of comedy within the show itself, but you rarely see the actual comedy wrestling match in WWE. This is strange given how much WWE loves to force their cringey comedy on us. Backlash proved however that the comedy match does have a place in modern WWE.
If nothing else, the Usos vs. Breezango match brought some much needed diversity to a WWE PPV where every single match is exactly the same style of wrestling. So much homogenisation on a wrestling show isn’t a good thing. The comedy match isn’t the greatest style of match in the world and only works at a certain level on the card, but it’s something different. And different is good, especially for WWE in 2017. Even if it’s just more comedy spots within matches, it’d be a welcome addition.
Take someone like Enzo. I love the guy, but he’s not good in the ring. Instead of putting him in the ring with guys like Cesaro to have bad matches trying to work Cesaro’s type of match, give him his own formula where he goes in, goofs around and does comedy spots, play that out for a bit, and then when the comedy tricks stop working he gets killed. At least that way fans get to enjoy and maybe even look forward to an Enzo match because they know while it won’t be good it might at least be fun.
With the match at Backlash, it was absolutely the right call to work it as comedy. Yes, Fandango and Tyler Breeze are both good wrestlers and, yes, there’s a fair chance that if they let them work a more straight up wrestling match that it would have been good. However, I feel pretty safe in saying that it wouldn’t have got half as over as the match with the comedy spots did. And that’s what it all comes down to. It got over. And if something gets over, you should go back to it, especially when it’s something fresher than what you’re currently doing.
(4) Luke Harper and Erick Rowan Have Brighter Futures Together Than Apart
I actually like both guys, but the reality is that neither of them have bright futures as singles wrestlers. At best they’re going to be solid mid-card acts that lose more matches than they win. Maybe Harper gets featured slightly further up the card, but he’ll only ever be featured that high up to be a plot device for the real stars of the show or to serve as a stopgap for a bigger star than himself to go over and look strong against.
I probably rate Rowan higher as a worker more than the vast majority of the audience. He’s a good base for more talented workers to work around, he has good offense, and his look works well as a fierce heel that naturally makes his opponent the underdog. Harper undoubtedly has talent, but I really do wish he’d realize how big he is and start working a style more suited to his size and less like an overgrown cruiserweight. The value in Harper being able to do more aerial moves than other guys his size is in the novelty of it. When he’s doing multiple high flying spots in every single match, that novelty quickly fades. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should actually do it.
The reality of the situation is that Harper hasn’t got over in either of his singles pushes in WWE. And it’s not too hard to understand why. He doesn’t have a good promo in him and he’s not exactly a very relatable character. Which was all fine when he was in The Wyatt Family and he could be the workhorse of the group as the scary monster heel who benefited from not having to speak. When he’s trying to get over on his own, however, especially as a babyface, it’s an issue. And barring going away and being drastically repackaged, that’s not going to change. Rowan faces the same problem. Being in a team with another big man like Harper who can provide the movement and more flashy offense to counteract his weaknesses works perfectly for him. But just because someone is a good hand in one context doesn’t mean that they’ll be a good hand in another.
WWE constantly need tag teams, especially with their affliction for breaking so many teams up, often just for the sake of doing it. Just look at Smackdown’s tag team division right now. On this show they promoted Tyler Breeze from tapping out to Nikki Bella to challenging for the titles, such is the shortage of teams. Harper & Rowan as a team would provide far more value to the tag team division than they do as singles acts working against other mid-card acts that aren’t over. Simply by virtue of being two more bodies with a modicum of credibility that you can put in the division, they’d add value. Harper & Rowan as a team are far above that level, though. They work really well together as a pair, have good matches with their opponents, and actually help to get babyfaces over.
You can put them in the division and straight away they’d bring a freshness to proceedings. They’d be far and away the biggest team in the division in a literal sense which helps to insert a fresh dynamic into the matches in the division, along with providing genuinely fresh matchups against The New Day and American Alpha. All of a sudden you have four talented teams with credibility that not only produces an even number for nicely rounding pairings up, but also gets Smackdown’s tag division looking like an actual division.
With them inserted back into the tag team division you give it a much needed injection of talent and freshness. Without them it’s a division struggling for depth with American Alpha dying, stuck with no credible opponents to work with. The singles division with or without them will be unaffected. Their ten minutes of ring time on a PPV can be replaced with a tag match that the crowds are far more likely to be into and that is far more likely to get someone over. Moving Luke Harper back into that role wouldn’t be a demotion. If anything it’d probably be a promotion as he’d be featured better and it prevents his weaknesses from being exposed as badly during an inevitably failed singles run that before long will start doing damage to how viewers look at him.
(5) Something Isn’t Attracting Viewers
We’re all free to speculate why the following numbers don’t read too pretty, but the reality is just that, they don’t read too pretty. Generally speaking Smackdown’s ratings since the brand split have been a success. With the odd exception here and there, they’re up from the previous year and are helping to counteract the declining Raw numbers (the average viewership for both shows for the first 21 weeks of the year is only down to 2.87 million from 2.97 million the year before). However, the numbers for Smackdown following the Superstar Shakeup up to the go home show for Backlash weren’t encouraging which tells us that for whatever reason it may be, the card for Backlash wasn’t sparking interest.
Since the roster split, Smackdown’s viewership has been up from the previous year with the exception of seven weeks (one of which was the Election Day episode). Two of those seven came in the five week spell between the Superstar Shakeup and Backlash. Comparing viewership for Smackdown in 2017 to the same week in 2015, eight weeks were down compared two years prior, half of them coming in this five week spell. The same five week spell that produced five of the six worst viewership figures for 2017 and the worst five week running viewership figure of the year. In fact, it’s the seventh worst five week sum since the brand split, three of them including the Election Day episode.
There’s a lot of positives to be taken from Smackdown since the roster split last July, especially in terms of how it’s had a positive effect on viewership of the show. The five week spell between the Superstar Shakeup and Backlash should spell cause for concern for WWE, however, especially as it comes immediately off the back of shaking up the rosters and giving Smackdown a new look. Whether it be Jinder’s sudden push, trying to feature acts like Breezango and The Welcoming Committee in more prominent roles, or Randy Orton as WWE Champion, the build to Backlash wasn’t keeping the attention of viewers.
NOW CHECK OUT LAST WEEK’S COLUMN: FIVE COUNT: Five lessons to learn from Jinder Mahal’s sudden push