Written By: Mark Armstrong
This week’s Wrestling Thoughts will be a little shorter than usual, as this has been a less eventful week after a whirlwind of events in and out of the ring since SummerSlam weekend. Nevertheless, here are my opinions on the week in wrestling, as well as predictions for Backlash this Sunday.
- Although Raw opened with a fiery debate that officially began Seth Rollins’ babyface turn, and both Rollins vs. Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn were very enjoyable matches, the rest of the show felt like a drag; there were four consecutive segments that achieved almost nothing or were painfully average, and the sound-on-paper pastiche of The New Day by “retirement home” geniuses Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson (with three fake pensioners playing “The Old Day”) turned out to be awful. The talent is there and the main event scene has plenty of potential directions, but Raw is still struggling to find its groove since the Draft; right now it’s largely a mixture of the very good and the poor or, in some cases, very poor. With the NFL season having resumed in the States, the ratings have already begun their annual autumn slide. I hope that WWE can inject some excitement and find a way for the “new” Raw to succeed after a promising start the night after Battleground. If not, then the next few months could be a struggle on the red side. Perhaps Clash Of Champions on September 25 will establish what we can expect moving forward from the Raw team, hopefully for positive reasons. (Incidentally, I felt that many overreacted to the teased retirement by Sasha Banks; sure, some performers have retired due to injury, but how many people truly expected 24-year-old Sasha to call it quits from injuries that we were told would only keep her out of action for a limited time?)
- On that subject, there’s a rumour that the Women’s Championship match between Sasha and Charlotte may headline Clash Of Champions. It would be a tremendous moment for the women if that were to happen, but it feels like WWE is speeding up the process right now. We have seen on NXT how good these women are and that they are worthy of main eventing big shows, but on the main roster, it could be argued that the Triple Threat match at WrestleMania 32 and Sasha-Charlotte from the July 25 Raw have been the only really good matches since the “Revolution” began in July 2015 (and that’s not a knock on the women involved, as they were given more time and more logical booking on NXT). Therefore, it feels like WWE are telling us that the women should main event a PPV, rather than the fans feeling that way themselves. We’ll see what happens; but I should mention that Bayley suddenly being booted from the title picture in light of Sasha’s earlier-than-expected return is a sign that perhaps her much-anticipated call-up was premature, and that it remains frustrating for WWE to paint the picture that all of the credit for the new perception of women in WWE comes directly from Stephanie McMahon, who merely tried to take credit for the success of the women on a show (NXT) operated by her husband Triple H. (That HHH wasn’t on Raw this week was a real head-scratcher and a reason why most disliked Raw overall this week; surely he will be on hand next week?)
- As for SmackDown, it was more or less a filler show with its first PPV of the Brand Extension II era, Backlash, just days away. To that point, WWE Champion Dean Ambrose, AJ Styles, Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton all had speaking roles rather than matches, whilst Dolph Ziggler merely provided commentary while his opponent The Miz took on Apollo Crews. The show still had its moments, most notably the long-awaited heel turn of The Usos on American Alpha, which took them out of the SmackDown Tag Team Title tournament to put heat on Jimmy and Jey and establish a big doubles rivalry on the blue side. To me, the most memorable moment of the show was a clear production gaffe whereby a commercial break ended with the usual we’re-introducing-a-pre-tape speech from the commentators being drowned in darkness and the show suddenly fading to black with Mauro Ranallo asking JBL if he wanted to say any more about the tag situation (at least he didn’t let out a swear word thinking he wasn’t still live!), followed by an awkward pause and then a second take of the same segment being done, which this time went to plan with correct lighting and the desired video coming on afterwards. There was also some sort of botch with the one-by-one arrival of the women in the opening segment, as more than one female appeared to come out too early. Yeah, it was a rough night for the usually-topnotch WWE production team. But if those were the key moments for me, then it illustrates why SmackDown wasn’t must-see this week.
- In TNA, the inevitable sequel to the infamous Final Deletion has just aired in the United States. Known as Delete or Decay, this battle of sorts between the Hardyz and Decay will have no doubt pulled out all the bells and whistles in order to be even more memorable than Final Deletion was. Regardless of whether or not you approve of the movie-esque approach that TNA has taken to matches involving the brothers Hardy in recent months, it is a positive that the promotion is being talked about by fans who are genuinely excited about the product for the first time in many years. If this “match” achieves another big rating on Pop TV for TNA Wrestling, then perhaps the promotion has real hope for the future, and the company could continue to promote extravagant matches going forward. If that does represent TNA’s new direction, then it provides a new meaning to TNA being considered an “alternative” to WWE.
- Arguably the only other wrestling-related story of real value this week, besides Backlash on Sunday of course, is the debut – at long last – of CM Punk in UFC this Saturday when he fights Mickey Gall. Ever since Punk suddenly left WWE the day after Royal Rumble 2014, it has been a fascinating journey as an assumption that Punk would return to WWE turned into hope, then wishful thinking, and then a false dream as it became clear that Punk was done. Following his enlightening yet controversial podcast appearance in November 2014 where he detailed why he left WWE, his sudden UFC signing suggested a summer 2015 debut; but due to injuries and his inexperience in legitimate fighting, only now, over 31 months after Royal Rumble 2014, is Punk finally entering a ring for some combat once again. As weird as this may read, no UFC fight has ever been more anticipated by WWE fans; it’s taken a very long time to get here.
- As for the outcome? Many UFC die-hards want Punk – the “phoney wrestler” – to get destroyed. It’s worth noting that many wrestling fans feel the same way, because of Punk having such a negative attitude to wrestling since he left WWE and, to a lesser extent, because he suddenly abandoned wrestling in the first place. Punk’s huge fan base are hoping that he can find a route to victory against an opponent who was essentially hand-picked for him in Mickey Gall. But Punk is no Brock Lesnar, the mountain of a man with amateur wrestling experience and who still lost his first UFC fight. And Punk, who has never been considered “old”, is nearing the age of 40 as he finally enters the Octagon. I personally predict that it will be a close contest, and while a Punk victory is possible, I slightly give the edge to Mickey Gall and therefore predict that Punk will lose. It’d be nice to see him win for having the courage to enter UFC, and given how long he’s waited to make his MMA debut, it’d be a huge let-down if he were knocked out within the first few minutes.
- The result will have a big impact upon what happens next with Punk. Should he win, then he has the basis to form a career in UFC, however long that may last and however successful it could be (I would assume that a UFC career would be done by 2020 or 2021, if it were to be a long-term thing, due to Punk’s age and physical wear and tear from wrestling). Should he lose, then his second UFC fight could be make-or-break. And if Punk is defeated in spectacular fashion, then it could even be a one-off fight by the “Best In The World”. One thing is for sure: even if Punk does get pounded in the Octagon, a WWE return anytime soon is simply not happening; there’s no way that Punk would return to WWE anytime soon, if nothing else for the huge damage that it would do to his famously-large ego. If WWE somehow tries to support Punk during his UFC tenure, then perhaps a part-time return could be a possibility in a few years, but for those who continue to chant his name, they should not be expecting their hero to resurface at next year’s WrestleMania, regardless of whether or not he is triumphant in his UFC debut. It will be very interesting to watch, though.
- As mentioned, Backlash – the first single-brand PPV in WWE since 2007 – is this Sunday. The card looks a bit weak right now, so I’m expecting one or two more matches to be added between now and the weekend. Of the matches announced, I’m expecting new heels The Usos to beat The Hype Bros and to dash the dreams of Heath Slater and Rhyno to become SmackDown Tag Team Champions, I think Nikki Bella will win the six-women match to become the first SmackDown Women’s Champion, I see The Miz retaining his Intercontinental Championship against Dolph Ziggler, I envision Bray Wyatt getting a sneaky win over Randy Orton perhaps with some assistance (a returning Luke Harper, maybe?), and with momentum on his side and to give this event a buzz, I predict that AJ Styles will beat Dean Ambrose to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. It’s very strange that WWE would rather have John Cena compete on a house show in China than to compete on a PPV event for his home brand, but Styles-Cena III for the WWE Title at No Mercy in October is a possibility, and could be set up by AJ beating Ambrose on Sunday. I’m expecting the main event to be a great encounter, but I think this will end up being a one-match show: Orton vs. Wyatt is a fresh match, and the other bouts are by no means of a low standard, but once Backlash is over, it’s almost a certainty that we’ll mostly be talking about Ambrose vs. Styles.
- I finish with my WWE Network recommendation, which this week has two parts. Firstly, the Last Battle In Atlanta was a famous Cage match from the 1980s between Tommy Rich and Buzz Sawyer which, for whatever reason, was never seen on television in any form after it originally happened. But that match is now on the WWE Network in the Hidden Gems section, so any longtime fans will want to check this out. And with Backlash returning on Sunday, I recommend some Backlash classics: Triple H vs. The Rock from 2000, Mick Foley vs. Randy Orton from 2004 (the match that made Orton’s career, really), John Cena vs. Edge vs. Triple H in an underrated 3-way from 2006, Cena facing Shawn Michaels, Edge and Orton in 2007, and Cena once more battling Edge in a great Last Man Standing match from 2009. Cena has a pretty good record at Backlash, making it more inexplicable that he won’t be at the latest Backlash event this Sunday.
That’s my random round-up of wrestling opinions this week; I’ll return with my thoughts next week, including what I thought of Backlash and the fall-out to CM Punk’s UFC debut!