Another Backlash is in the books, and it was memorable if nothing else. An entertaining show pretty much from top to bottom was largely overshadowed by the shock of its main event, where perennial enhancement talent Jinder Mahal walked away with the most prestigious prize in professional wrestling when he became the 50th person ever to hold the WWE Championship.
Yes, that Jinder Mahal, who until this month hadn’t had a main roster singles win since September when he defeated Jack Swagger and has an overall 17% winning percentage in WWE. That Jinder Mahal, who’s best known for being Heath Slater’s bandmate in jobber comedy stable 3MB. That Jinder Mahal, who once charmed Santino Marella’s cobra by playing a flute. In the upside-down world that is pro wrestling in 2017, that same man is now WWE Champion.
It’s almost difficult to process that fact, but there are some positive takeaways to keep in mind. Jinder winning solidifies Smackdown Live as the show where anything can happen, the "land of opportunity" so commonly boasted by Commissioner Shane McMahon and General Manager Daniel Bryan. Over on Raw, the top dog doesn’t even show up for months at a time. On Smackdown, anyone who shows promise can get an opportunity, and Mahal seized that opportunity in the six pack challenge to become #1 contender, and again last night to win the championship.
If it proves anything, it’s that Vince McMahon truly is as body-obsessed as the memes suggest. Mahal likely never got a second glance from the boss a year ago when he looked like your average enhancement talent. But now that he’s put on at least 50 pounds of muscle and taking the bodybuilder route of carb deprivation/extreme dehydration to look like a god (or juicing. Probably juicing.), he gets thrusted to the top of the card. Good on Jinder for putting the effort in to stand out from the crowd. At the very least no one can say he isn’t working hard for this opprtunity.
It’s also not a bad story. Sure, the foreign heel who plays on America’s xenophobia by bashing our country is the most tired pro wrestling trope there is, but there’s something a little different going on here. It’s basically Muhammad Hassan 2.0, with a less hot-button race than Hassan’s Arab descent. Mahal’s beef with America is essentially that he tries to be a good guy, comes in peace (actually calling back to the brief "The Man Who Comes in Peace" gimmick he did for a few months about a year ago), but he was nevertheless chastised for what he looks like and how he sounds. It’s a bit more nuanced than, say, a Rusev, who takes the Iron Sheik "Bulgaria #1, USA hatuey!" route. If given a chance, it could provide some interesting moments and even be given a resolution, instead of Hassan whose angle had to be cut short when real-life terrorism exposed just how in poor taste the angle was.
And at the very least, Mahal winning is something different, and aborts the painfully boring reign of Randy Orton, who hasn’t been interesting since his angle with Bray Wyatt jumped the shark when he writhed under a projection video of a bunch of maggots at WrestleMania. There is at least a sense of unpredictability coming from the WWE Championship scene right now, whereas with Orton as champion the world title picture on Smackdown was about as interesting as Raw‘s (i.e. nonexistent).
Masters of Disguise
The other highlight of the night, on a show full of shock, was not the main roster debut of Shinsuke Nakamura, but rather Breezango vs. The Usos for the Smackdown Tag Team Championships. Breezango’s "Fashion Files" vignettes have been some of the most entertaining parts of the show in recent weeks, and they absolutely hit it out of the park with their match at Backlash. Rarely does WWE do comedy matches right–the aforementioned snake charming from Jinder Mahal/The Great Khali and the WeeLC match are the only two that come to mind in recent years, but you can add this match to the list. WWE has been sleeping on both Fandango and Tyler Breeze for far too long now. Both are solid in-ring wrestlers with great looks and some of the best comedic timing in the company. Breeze whispering "it’s me, it’s me" to ‘Dango after he dressed up as an innocuous old lady halfway through the match was a small moment, but it killed me.
In the end The Usos retained the titles and probably rightfully so, but here’s hoping this isn’t the end of the line for the Fashion Po Po. They are getting themselves over in impressive fashion (pun woefully intended), and in a tag division that desperately needs help, they should be staples of it for as long as possible.
Despite the two aforementioned surprises, all eyes going into Backlash were on Shinsuke Nakamura, who has finally made his long-awaited WWE main roster debut, defeating Dolph Ziggler in a good, not great match. Going into the show I almost thought this match would be the main event, but in retrospect opening the show hot was the right call. The two had a fine match that could be described as "WWE style"–a little plodding, with predictable momentum shifts. Still, a good story was told and most importantly, the King of Strong Style has arrived.
The Rest of the Card
- It’s a testament to how noteworthy this show was when AJ Styles vs. Kevin Owens is the fourth most interesting thing that happened. Styles and Owens easily had the match of the night from an actual wrestling standpoint, even if the countout finish was a little deflating. I’d expect their feud over the United States Championship to continue since AJ basically lost through the fluke of getting his foot stuck in the announce table. I’ll take it–I could watch AJ Styles and Kevin Owens wrestle every day of the week and not get sick of it.
- Sami Zayn and Baron Corbin had a fine match that wouldn’t have felt out of place on Smackdown, but the two were able to keep the crowd pretty invested for a match with so little buildup. Zayn winning cleanly via Helluva Kick was about the last thing I expected to happen, so kudos to WWE for that. I expect Corbin to lose his mind on Tuesday in retaliation and for this to continue.
- The Welcoming Committee (Natalya, Tamina, and Carmella) vs. Charlotte Flair, Naomi and Becky Lynch ended up being a non-starter. What could have been a springboard to Charlotte and Naomi’s championship feud instead felt like filler. The best part of the match was James Ellsworth’s delusional Rick Rude-style promo beforehand.
- Likewise, Luke Harper vs. Erick Rowan was unfortunately a nothing match for two people who deserve more. Harper is lowkey one of the better wrestlers in the company and Rowan has been given the opportunity to showcase his character a bit more as of late, which makes him a lot more interesting. Sticking them in a nothing feud against each other because "we both used to be in the Wyatt Family" is disappointing.
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