Backlash 2016 had the somewhat unenviable task of re-introducing single branded "PPV" events to the WWE Universe after a ten year hiatus. With a main event like AJ Styles v Dean Ambrose and a supporting cast including Becky Lynch, Natalya, Kane, Dolph Ziggler and Bray Wyatt, but notably without the likes of John Cena, Randy Orton and American Alpha in action, could the Smackdown Live crew pull a rabbit out of the hat?
The main event would see Dean Ambrose's World Championship run come to an end after 84 days (the longest since Seth Rollins vacated the title in November 2015) as AJ Styles would win his first title in WWE in a slow burning 25 minute collision. I'm a big fan of a slow burner, the kind of match that you think isn't quite living up to expectations, but then a flurry of action in the final third with some cute call backs to earlier in the contest makes you wonder why you ever doubted two of the best wrestlers in the company. The one moment in particular that caught my attention was Styles managing to block a suicide dive in the earlier exchange by dropping The Lunatic Fringe throat first into the bottom rope, before Ambrose would be able to hit the move twenty or so minutes later in a satisfying bit of symtetry that would see the then World Champ finally kick into top gear and scrap with his challenger all over ringside.
The match was packed with little pockets of story, that kept things varied and interesting, like Styles going after Ambrose's knee after driving it into the canvas in the corner of the ring. This was used to set-up a series of Calf Crusher attempts, including the first which was a well-worked spot that saw Ambrose's knee give out on a suplex attempt and Styles transition seamlessly into the hold. I'd have liked to have seen this continue to be a theme after the spot had been used, as it was a shame that it seemed to be dropped later in the match, as it could have made the closing sections even more interesting. However, they added an extra level of drama to the bout with both men selling those moments and the build up very well, whilst also playing into the two other on-going storylines the match had going.
The bout was built around the basis that the veteran Georgia native was always one step ahead of the Champion, with a counter for almost all of Ambrose's offence, but was unable to put him away. This would become very clear in a sequence that would see Styles getting three near falls in quick succession, off a Ushigoroshi, a Rack Bomb and the Superman 450 splash. Personally, I think throwing in a move that Styles has regularly won matches with, like the Phenomenal Forearm, would have hammered the point home with a convincing near fall, but also could have ended up as a bit of overkill. All of this was building to the finish, as Styles took advantage of a ref bump, to kick Ambrose in the nuts (calling back to their testicle based antics on Smackdown Live over the last two weeks) before hitting an awkward Styles Clash for the win. It was supremely satisfying to see that narrative conclude in a logical way, that leaves the door open for a possible rematch at No Mercy next month and with the two perhaps holding back some of their top draw sequences, I've got a feeling that they could top this match next time out.
In what would become the show's semi-main event, The Miz and Dolph Ziggler battled over the Intercontinental Championship, in a match that far surpassed my expectations. That isn't to say that I don't think either Miz or Ziggler are talented or capable of having good matches, but it's not exactly the most inspiring fixture to see on the card, especially after Ziggler fumbled his big World title match at SummerSlam. However, the pair worked an especially clever match, chock-full of story and paced almost to perfection, that held my attention throughout it's admittedly lengthy 18 minute run-time. Ziggler and Miz have an odd chemistry within the ring, one that is perhaps a bit clinical, at times, there's an efficiency about it, without any real fire, however on this occasion that ended up suiting the setting and produced a very good match.
The contest had my attention from the beginning, featuring some interesting amateur wrestling from Ziggler, as the commentary talked about his background and upcoming Hall of Fame induction at his University, before Miz would take advantage of a rope break to get the upperhand. It was sound psychology that played off the storyline going in, that Miz was a coward and Ziggler had something to prove. Then there were the touches from The A Lister as he mimicked General Manager Daniel Bryan, by pulling out a number of very un-Miz like submissions, as well as Bryan's signature corner drop kicks. I think this could have perhaps been expanded upon later in the match, as Miz's obsession with Bryan could have been used to create some convincing near falls. There were some strong close calls though for both men, like Miz locking in the Figure 4 Leg Lock after we'd seen The Show-Off struggling to hit a superkick, followed up a Superkick where Miz would manage to get his foot on the bottom rope. The finish was a satisfying one though, as we came back to Miz's cowardly ways as his wife, Maryse, sprayed perfume into the eyes of Ziggler and a Skull Crushing Finale allowed Miz to retain. If these lads are allowed a similar stage for a rematch then I'd look forward to it much more than I did for this match.
Becky Lynch would become the brand's Women's Champion in a Six Pack Challenge, pinning Carmella last, after Nikki Bella, Natalya, Naomi and Alexa Bliss had already been eliminated. A little sloppiness aside, this was a cracking contest, that keep a number of storylines ticking over, whilst also making use of having six women in the ring, in what was a cleverly crafted encounter. The build towards the first elimination, gave each and every woman involved the opportunity to showcase themselves, with strong sequences between Naomi and Lynch, Bliss and Bella and Lynch and Bliss, as well as a sweet dives sequence and a tower of doom. Whilst the match seemed to be well thought out as it unfolded, I feel like the first woman eliminated was the one who impressed me the most here, as Bliss' performance throughout, whether that be trying to steal pin covers immediately after the Tower of Doom spot or scrapping with more experienced performers, she made the most of her time in the bout and looked great doing it.
The pinfalls would come thick and fast after Bliss had left the match, with Natalya stealing an elimination on Naomi after a Bella forearm, Bella eliminated Natalya with a TKO and Carmella catching Bella off guard with a jackknife cover. It was the Bella and Carmella story that would be the most obvious story running throughout the bout, with their battles being strategically placed to get the best reaction. The showdown after Bella was eliminated could have been played a little better, but with it coming just before Lynch would tap out Carmella to win the bout, anything stronger would have effected the quality of The Irish LassKickers submission win. The match did a good job of raising the profile of talents like Carmella and Bliss, whilst placing Lynch right at the top of the women's division, which has shown it has a lot more potential than I'd previously given it credit for.
As stories leaked earlier in the afternoon that Randy Orton had still not been cleared to compete after his TKO loss to Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam, it was clear that WWE would have to switch The Legend Killer out of his scheduled bout with Bray Wyatt on the PPV. It was a shame that WWE went down a fairly unimaginative route, having Wyatt assault Orton backstage before coming to the ring and celebrating a forfeit victory. It didn't really suit The Eater of World's gimmick and felt very weird seeing him involved in the backstage assault and even weirder seeing him basking in getting out of having a fight. With more than enough time to work out a creative decision on what to do with Orton (You'd have to think that a contingency plan should have been in place for if Orton hadn't been cleared by Sunday) I feel like the creative team should have been able to come up with a better angle than what was presented.
Luckily, they managed to redeem themselves by actually giving us Wyatt match, that was another surprisingly good bout as he went up against Kane in an impromptu No Holds Barred bout. Wyatt and Kane really went at each other in satisfying big lads action, with the No DQ stip adding just what the bout needed to take it above what I can only imagine would have been a fairly dull contest otherwise. It wasn't the most violent display you'll ever see, but it was plenty of fun, that included a cracking running senton through the announce table spot from Wyatt. Apart from that spot it had a cool house show vibe about it and considering the duo have had five or six Street Fight's opposite each other on the live event circuit this year, I'd guess that a lot of this match was going over what fans in Kalamazoo and Corpus Christi had got to witness earlier in 2016. Orton would manage to make it out for the finish, selling the knee that Wyatt had attacked like his life depended on it, before hitting an RKO that would gift The Big Red Machine the victory (following a Chokeslam of his own). It would be easy to moan about Wyatt putting Kane over, but the focus was all on the Wyatt and Orton feud which now has some extra fuel and hopefully the pair will get their bout in four week's at No Mercy in Sacramento, California.
HEATH SLATER AND RHYNO WON THE TAG TEAM TITLES! Does anything else really matter in this world? It was Rhyno's first title victory in WWE since he defeated Tajiri at Unforgiven 2001 for the WCW United States title and Heath Slater's first win since teaming with Justin Gabriel, as part of The Corre, to beat John Cena and The Miz and win what is now the RAW Tag Team Championship on a February 2011 episode of Monday Night RAW! This is the Heath Slater who won ONE match out of 132 last year. The Heath Slater who hasn't won a PPV match since early 2011. Slater has managed to build on the connections he'd made consistently doing his best with whatever shite he was given [3MB and Social Outcasts] and whilst others have moaned, complained and been released, Heathy Baby just kept plugging away and ended up getting rewarded for his hard work. The free agent storyline has been one of the best things about wrestling in 2016.
Okay, so that was me getting excited about the result, but that doesn't really matter if the match was a load of old shite, does it? However, it wasn't it was a good quality tag team bout that built well to it's finish and used the characters well to create a compelling bout. I've written barely any notes on this one, because I was so invested in the action, perhaps more than I've been in years for a WWE bout. The Usos were glorious as they turned up their heel meter up to cunt, doing dastardly things like suplexing Slater into the big ringpost. Slater put on a performance that made me like him even more, selling his beatdown wonderfully, whilst knowing his character and doing things like tagging himself back into the match moments after a Rhyno hot tag, because he was a man on a mission and that mission was to get Beulah a motherfucking double wide. And Rhyno, well Rhyno was just a bloody man beast and the moment when he dragged Slater into the cover after nailing a Gore on one of them Usos was pure wrestling perfection. HEATH SLATER AND RHYNO WON THE TAG TEAM TITLES!
The Usos got to debut their new look and feel opposite The Hype Bros [Mojo Rawley and Zack Ryder] in a match that was billed as a "Second Chance Challenge", after Jey & Jimmy had injured the previous Tag title Tournament finalists, American Alpha. This match outdid my expectations with the new gimmick for The Usos allowing Hype Bros to fit into the babyface role much better than previously, as Ryder scrambled against the cocksure Usos. In particular, the lengthier match allowed Rawley to shine, with a number of power spots, including running around the ring and nailing both Usos with a shoulder ram and sending them into the barricade. Plus Ryder was doing stupid moves like dropkicks off the apron and bumping like he wanted to cause himself somekind of bodily harm. The finish was especially busy, with Rawley ending up in same wall he pushed the Usos into and Ryder tapping out to an arm trap single leg Boston crab, cementing 2 time WWE Tag Team Champions as nasty heels and give them their match against Heath Slater and Rhyno.
The Kick-Off match was a bonus bout between Apollo Crews and Baron Corbin as the pair put in a solid outing before the main show began. When they announced the bout in a cheesy backstage segment, I have to admit that I wasn't exactly chomping at the bit to see a rematch from NXT Takeover: London but the lads actually managed to put on a good little match in their spot. The bout was structured well and told a strong story, as both were presented as strong and powerful, with Crews having the advantage on speed and Corbin being a bit more ring savvy. Repeating the spot where Corbin runs out and straight back into the ring was a cool moment and this managed to propel the contest into an exciting close sequence. The crowd seemed to get into the action as soon as the match came back from the ad-break, meaning that when Corbin managed to pick up the victory with End of Days it felt like both men had made some kind of gains in getting over with the audience.
The show started with a segment that can only be described as a time-filler, as Commissioner Shane McMahon and General Manager Daniel Bryan headed out to the ring and ran down the card for the evening. It was clear that the show was going to struggle to fill the three hour time slot, but this was a bit silly. McMahon and Bryan are always going to pop a crowd and keep them interested, because of their undoubted popularity, which is a good way to get the crowd warmed up at the start of the show, I suppose. However, on the actual PPV it stinks of desperation to fill space on a rushed event!
Best of the Rest
- Rhyno and Heath Slater went in hard during an interview with Tom Phillips in the Social Media Lounge, pulling out a series of above ground pool based references.
ATPW Scale Rating - 6.63/10
(6.57 with Kick-Off show)
Backlash 2016 was a good wrestling show, that didn't feature a single match that I'd consider below a good rating and entertained me throughout the majority of it's two and half hour run time. The main event was clearly the match of the night, with AJ Styles and Dean Ambrose producing a great World title clash, that was a gratifying watch. Having the World title change hands on the first of these new supercard events, instantly lends them some prestige that they perhaps didn't have going into the show and will hopefully make them feel more must-see events.
Outside the main event there were a number of sleeper bouts, that outperformed my expectations, such as Dolph Ziggler and The Miz's semi main over the Intercontinental Championship and the bonus match between Bray Wyatt and Kane. The Six Woman bout was also much better than I'd felt it would have been after the six woman tag they had together on this week's Smackdown Live. The Tag Team tournament offered a feel good moment with Rhyno and Heath Slater winning the belts, as well as the debut of a new exciting look and gimmick for The Usos. Had it not been for the filler at the beginning of the show, then Backlash 2016 would have gotten an even higher rating!
This was a great start to the new run of shows, taking a decent card and producing a PPV verging on being very good, that will hopefully make fans think twice before deciding to skip one.
All content - James Marston
Poster Credit - World Wrestling Entertainment