We're just over a month out from a two-night WrestleMania 37 that overachieved in almost every way possible. So WWE's clearly back on track and rolling on all cylinders heading into WrestleMania Backlash on Sunday, right?
Well, not exactly.
Part of it boils down to the WrestleMania Backlash concept. Revisiting a significant portion of two nights of action that gave us conclusive results across the board is tough. That's why the two triple threat matches and the one-on-one between half of a WrestleMania tag team match don't quite feel as fresh or as interesting as the rest of the card.
The matches on the SmackDown side are carrying a lot of weight at Backlash, and as we break down Sunday's card, let's dig deeper into what's working, what's not, and what we can expect to see heading into the summer.
Universal championship: Roman Reigns (c) vs. Cesaro
Nothing could stop @WWECesaro from earning a #UniversalTitle opportunity against @WWERomanReigns at #WMBacklash! #SmackDown @HeymanHustle @WWEUsos @WWERollins pic.twitter.com/Lanr7tbaOY— WWE (@WWE) May 9, 2021
What's working: Cesaro is one of the most talented in-ring performers in the history of WWE. Full stop. His technical abilities are off the charts, his smoothness and movement should be impossible for someone of his size and musculature, and his mind is unmatched. There is not a single performer in the WWE right now who hasn't looked better having been in the ring with Cesaro then they were beforehand. Just look at Seth Rollins.
In two matches, everyone was instantly reminded of just how incredibly gifted Rollins is, despite being left to spin his wheels for the better part of the last year, character wise. In a WWE world that too often repeats matches with only slight changes to match equations for months at a time, it is a rare and incredibly valuable gift to have.
Cesaro has spent over a decade with WWE in a variety of different character arcs, but in the rare moments he has had a chance to shine at the highest levels, circumstance and an occasional awkward promo have spelled doom for any momentum he built up. But in the midst of that grind, Cesaro has made every opportunity, in tag team partnerships with Tyson Kidd, Sheamus and Jack Swagger, far greater than the sum of its parts. Now he finally gets his first one-on-one world title match of his WWE career.
Enter Roman Reigns. He is at the top of his game and only getting better. After decisively pinning both Daniel Bryan and Edge at WrestleMania, he pushed Bryan off of SmackDown entirely in one of his best matches to date. The emotion surrounding a post-match Con-Chair-To achieved a dual goal of feeding directly into this match with Cesaro and keeping Edge at the front of everyone's minds.
What's not: The only drawback here is that there are very few people who expect Cesaro to win the title, if any. But in a moment in which Reigns is at the very top of his game, a match between these two people with these stakes is clearly the standout match on the Backlash card. Reigns has repeatedly taken matches that he was 100% going to win and turned them into compelling showcases.
How does it play out: Reigns retains, with the likely interference of at least one of the Uso brothers, and likely both. The hope would be that the performance by Cesaro on Sunday will serve as a reminder to the powers that be in WWE that Cesaro is more than capable of working in a successful world title program, and should be in this type of position more often. Edge seems to be lingering in the background with a potential one-on-one Reigns match at SummerSlam.
Triple threat match for the Raw women's championship: Rhea Ripley (c) vs. Asuka vs. Charlotte Flair
Quite the surprise visit from @AlexaBliss_WWE & Lilly on #WWERaw! 👀 pic.twitter.com/BovgpB1xpe— WWE (@WWE) May 12, 2021
What's working: The match itself will be a lot of fun. The Raw women's championship match between Ripley and Asuka at WrestleMania 37 was good, not great, and another showcase will prove to be even better. Adding Flair into the equation feels very familiar in terms of what we've seen in WWE's women's division over the last five-plus years, but all three of these women can go in the ring.
Throwing Flair right into the fire seems to be a pivot intended to give Ripley more gravitas as a young, yet unproven champion.
What's not: Ripley is not being set up to succeed. Her forced, overly scripted-feeling promos make her sound amateurish. WWE has a consistent problem of trying to bend their champions and top stars to fit a certain profile, rather than steering into the strengths each performer has. Why not keep her the strong, badass, woman of few words who lets her fists do her talking? She doesn't have to try to cut promos like Flair, or Bayley, or Sasha Banks. Let her be Rhea Ripley.
How it plays out: Ripley retains her title, likely by pinning Asuka again. Typically that would set up something against Flair beyond Backlash, but on Monday's edition of Monday Night Raw, in the midst of a show-opening six-woman tag team match, Alexa Bliss suddenly showed up and alluded to the fact she was keeping her eye on someone in the match. Early clues indicated that it could be Flair. While past attempts to fold the supernatural spookiness of "The Fiend" Bray Wyatt into the rest of the WWE ecosystem have been tepid, at best, Bliss will eventually have to make that leap -- and Flair makes sense in that regard.
Where does that leave Ripley? Your guess is as good as mine.
WWE championship: Bobby Lashley vs. Drew McIntyre vs. Braun Strowman
THROUGH THE BARRICADE@BraunStrowman @fightbobby #WWERaw pic.twitter.com/ZlypHqhR2P— WWE on FOX (@WWEonFOX) May 11, 2021
What's working: Despite the loss at WrestleMania, Drew McIntyre has continued to improve and he's clearly in the pocket in terms of finding a deeper connection to his character by the week. Braun Strowman has also hit a nice stretch, and his victory over McIntyre, despite the interference from Mace and T-Bar, has clearly given him a boost after a stretch of uncertainty.
What's not: The combination of Bobby Lashley and MVP has been a winner, however the mind-numbingly shortsighted decision to break up the Hurt Business has definitely taken some of the steam out of their sails. It would've made at least a little sense if they had officially absorbed Mace and T-Bar in the aftermath of the dissolution of Retribution (and gotten rid of their terrible names, along with the masks that have mercifully been tossed aside).
Coming out of the WWE championship match at Wrestlemania 37, which was a big victory for Lashley, it seemed like a pretty good opportunity to keep McIntyre separate from the WWE championship for a little while to refresh things as Lashley and Co. ran roughshod over Raw for a little while. Despite continued good work from Lashley and MVP, it feels like some of the momentum from that big win has dissipated.
How it plays out: As is the case with the triple threat match for the Raw women's championship, this feels very formulaic in terms of the path to the match and the likely outcome. Lashley retains again, likely by pinning or submitting Strowman. McIntyre may linger around for a little while longer, but it's clear he'll need some kind of shot in the arm in order to become a more serious and believable challenger on the way to SummerSlam, if that's the direction WWE chooses to go.
Lumberjack match: Damian Priest vs. The Miz
What's working: Damian Priest got a big shot in the arm with his win alongside Bad Bunny at WrestleMania, which picked up a lot of positive mainstream coverage. It appears that WWE thinks highly of Priest, in general. A lumberjack match at Backlash seems likely to give Priest a final, decisive victory. That would be good news for everyone involved, as I don't know what else any of the three involved parties could get from any future extension of this conflict.
What's not: This match between Priest and The Miz seems like a blessing only in terms of finally being able to write the final chapter of a story that has long since outlived its momentum. Without Bad Bunny in the picture on TV every week, there is no real fire left heading into this match. It's a shame that the victory at WrestleMania wasn't a good, natural breaking point and a chance for Priest to do his own thing upon Bad Bunny's departure. All this match has done is remind us that The Miz fell a long way, fast, despite all of the good feelings surrounding his performance in particular at WrestleMania. His Money in the Bank cash-in and brief WWE championship moment was nothing more than a reminder of how valuable he can be, and how often he's overlooked and taken for granted. In a WWE ecosystem that desperately needs good villains, he is sitting right there, spinning his wheels.
How it plays out: Priest wins. If Miz wins and extends this rivalry further, everyone loses.
SmackDown women's championship: Bianca Belair (c) vs. Bayley
😱😱😱 #SmackDown pic.twitter.com/GnQNyt4W0E— WWE on FOX (@WWEonFOX) May 8, 2021
What's working: Belair has settled into a nice groove since WrestleMania, and working alongside her husband in matches with the Street Profits has been beneficial. Bayley makes a lot of sense as the first test of Belair's title reign. After an unforgivable absence from in-ring action on the actual WrestleMania card, Bayley reminded everyone of it throughout both nights by stealing the spotlight from every legend she stepped on stage with.
What's not: There's not much. The only problem is that it's hard to figure out where Bayley goes next. It feels like we are getting closer and closer to a point where a serious fork in the road in terms of Bayley's overall character arc makes a lot of sense. She did great work with Sasha Banks throughout 2020, and I don't know that the current iteration of that character can continue to operate at the very highest levels if she loses a few more big matches.
Much in the same way that Sami Zayn is overdue for a turn back to the light side -- remember when they were the babyface heroes carrying NXT? -- it has been plenty of time since Bayley was anything but despicable and evil. There was a time where Bayley was up there with John Cena and Rey Mysterio, in terms of characters unlikely to be evil. Her experiences and increased depth to her character would serve her well when she makes the move back to the light -- a complex character, rather than a cartoonish caricature.
How it plays out: It is highly unlikely that Belair will lose this early into her title reign. Similarly to her match with Banks, Belair is in great hands with Bayley, who is a great opponent to help build her confidence and comfortability, while allowing Belair to show off all of the things that she does best.
SmackDown tag team championships: Dolph Ziggler & Robert Roode (c) vs. Rey and Dominick Mysterio
What's working: The last few years of Rey Mysterio's career have seemingly been building up to this moment. His son Dominick has been doing well in the ring, but he needs a singular, step-up moment in which he can announce himself on a bigger stage as something more than just a legacy spot on the roster.
Enter Dolph Ziggler and Robert Roode, who could produce great matches in their sleep. Both veterans excel at telling a good cohesive story in the ring, while making their opponents look great. As the Mysterio clan likely sets out on their first collective championships together, it will be as good a launching pad as could be hoped for.
What's not: The Street Profits have been knocking on the door of a title shot repeatedly, and Montez Ford's relationship with Belair had him and Angelo Dawkins alongside Belair opposite Bayley, Ziggler and Roode on SmackDown. But in a WWE world where decisions with the tag team titles seemingly happen on a whim, the Mysterios not being portrayed as a direct and immediate threat might actually indicate a likelier title change than persistent shows of strength.
How it plays out: The Mysterios need the boost and direction of a big win. Defending the tag team titles on an almost weekly basis would be a great showcase every Friday night, and it would fit as SmackDown continues to distance itself from Raw in terms of quality bell-to-bell action. It is also time for Ziggler and Roode to re-enter the singles landscape and work on their own again.