WWE Backlash 2023 — Review

The first WWE Premium Live Event following WrestleMania rolled into Puerto Rico, the first time it had held a major show for eighteen years. Roman Reigns wasn’t on the card, so it fell to the heir apparent to “continue the story” in his absence. 

Before all that, the show kicked off with Bianca Belair defending her Raw Women’s Championship against Iyo Sky. It should not surprise to say this was a strong showing. Both are gifted athletes. Bianca Belair has ascended to the true upper tier of professional wrestlers. Sky sits in the group below (which is higher than most).

Belair sold the idea she’d injured an arm, which played a pivotal role as the story unfolded. There was one spot where she lifted Iyo above her head single-handedly, and on the release it appeared that Sky was caught between the no-man’s-land of not flipping to her back or landing safely on her front. Even at the highest level, such things can happen, so it’s no criticism of either woman. But Sky then played into it, by indicating she’d taken the brunt of the landing to her face. If it was intended, it was genius. If it was accidental, Iyo Sky showed sharp thinking.

There was a Damage CTRL run-in, it wasn’t enough to sway the result. Belair retained a belt for a brand they have drafted her away from.

Even with an electric crowd, and one of the most talented performers from any generation — Seth Rollins — it’s hard to get behind a match with Omos involved. Rollins vs Omos was WWE’s latest attempt to make the giant appear a credible threat without costing an established star a loss. They tried it here by having him resist one of Rollins’s stomps. Seth rested his boot on Omos’s neck as if he were waiting for his boots to be shined.

Rollins got the inevitable win with an elevated stomp and we had our first average match of the night. This led into another average bout: Austin Theory defending his US Title against Bobby Lashley and Bronson Reed. A title change here never felt likely, they are building the Theory brand. It probably isn’t the best place for Lashley to be right now. He deserves to be more than mid-card filler. WWE learned tonight, if the Puerto Rican crowd are to be believed, that Bronson Reed could be trusted with a bigger spotlight.

Rhea Ripley, defending the SmackDown Women’s Championship (a brand she’s been drafted away from) was next. It was an emotional entrance for her opponent Zelina Vega. She had tears in her eyes as she stood in the centre of the ring, spreading the host nation flag wide, paying homage to her late father. In other sports, home advantage has a lot of sway. On nights like this, it should serve as a superpower. Normally, the smart money would be on Rhea in this match-up, tonight, it would have been good to see Vega’s emotionally charged effort cause an upset.

It didn’t, and now we wait to see how WWE solves its lazy draft planning and gets Ripley and Belair to switch titles. A solution to prevent this situation occurring again — because it seems to happen every draft now — is to rename the belts so none of them are brand specific, like what we have with the men’s titles.

The match which may have been given the most love online during the live broadcast was the Street Fight between Bad Bunny and Damien Priest. And with good reason. Bad Bunny held his own. In the early stages, Priest carried the match well in the ring, proving his real worth and talent to WWE. It spilled to the arena where Bunny found himself put through a table and was attended to by Adam Pearce and a crew of WWE officials. They wanted Priest to show mercy — he didn’t.

It then became a spot with run-ins, Judgment Day as expected, Carlito less so. It gave the event the feel of a house show. That’s meant in a good way. It was a raw, organic energy. 

Priest began to sell an injured knee and Bad Bunny grabbed a win with a Canadian destroyer. It was a case of giving the people what they want. It also means only Rhea Ripley can win for Judgment Day when it matters.

It’s easy to skim over The Bloodline against World Tag Champs of Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens who were teaming with Matt Riddle. The action itself was decidedly average. The main point was to service The Bloodline’s story. The sticking point is the beef between Jey Uso and Solo Sikoa.

The problem this faces is it’s the sequel to the best story WWE has told for years. The Karate Kid Part II isn’t a bad movie, it’s just not as good as the first. This was an above average affair but the overall programme will need something extra to stop it falling well short of its predecessor.

Brock Lesnar facing off against Cody Rhodes closed the show. Beforehand, my vote would have been for a Lesnar win. Rhodes needs his story to have a few more chapters before he faces Roman Reigns again. A setback against the Best Incarnate would achieve this. This gave WWE a few options, meaning nothing was a given.

One thing almost certain was that Rhodes wouldn’t just live through a prescriptive Lesnar suplex city match. Sure, that element featured, but only after Rhodes had given him the jump before the bell (stomping for the ring steps as if he was a Bushwhacker). Cody Rhodes is about putting on showcases and was always going to try and get a memorable bout out of Lesnar.

Eventually, a turnbuckle became exposed, and when the time came, Brock committed his head into the exposed metal. The cut was deep and instant; the blood followed in a way that would make Jon Moxley proud. Lesnar fought on and applied the Kimura lock. Rhodes rolled Brock’s shoulders to the mat and stole a win.

Brock Lesnar appearing shocked and bloodied sold the brutality.

Backlash opened and closed with matches scoring 8/10. Overall, a very fun show.

Cody’s story continues.

Overall rating: 7/10

WrestleMania 39 — Review

WrestleMania Hollywood is in the books now. It led to shocking some, attempting its own cinematic ending. The anticipation fell flat in some areas, exceeded in others.

Below is the Twitter feed of scores as the two nights unfolded and post-match opinion:

Night 1— Saturday

While Cena Putting Theory over wasn’t a shock, elements of the bout were — including the finish. It was a bland start to the Showcase of the Immortals, and make no mistake, John Cena is one of the immortals in this pantheon. There’s some leeway given to a part-time performer, and they designed the finish to protect the 16-time World Champion.

But are we supposed to think Big Time John has left his in-ring experience on a Hollywood set? This isn’t even a reference to a lack of thrilling action. The false finish where he thought Austin had tapped was excruciatingly cringe.

The criticism comes from a place of disappointment. The cheap shot to win, without Cena ever looking near his best or a credible threat to Theory’s US Title, means that one big last match appears less likely. Another go around with a fellow legend doesn’t work as well when one of them has taken soft losses.

The Tag Team Fatal 4-Way was one match I saw as filler. It left me in the awkward position of having to temper its rating. It was a great match. Fast-paced, standout moments — take a bow Chad Gable. He hit a German suplex on Braun Strowman. It was a tremendous show of strength and technique. For a match this writer had little interest in seeing before the bell, it paved the night well for some great action. This felt like WrestleMania had started.

WWE has a history of dropping the ball and doing the wrong thing in big matches, killing its own stars in the process (hello, Bray?). The fear going into the event was Rollins was going to be fed to Logan Paul. Thankfully, that never happened, and arguably WWE’s most prolific performer’s legacy remains intact.

The match itself lacked the impact seen in Paul’s bout with Roman Reigns. That’s probably due to the shock factor dissipating: we know Paul can hold his own between the ropes now.

The above Tweet says it all. It had some legends, two of the biggest women in today’s WWE and it was bang average. This is what nostalgia gets you in 2023.

Many loved this result, but it makes little sense. In hindsight, it wasn’t important to keep The Judgment Day’s momentum going (more on that later), but surely it was wrestling props for Rey to put his son over? Nothing will harm the legacy of the man freshly entered into the WWE Hall of Fame. He’s not winning another world title. Letting Dom bag the win would provide his lad with the sort of boost others can’t buy.

But the babyface won — it was time to start a tab on that front.

Sometimes in professional wrestling, it’s important to give the fans what they want (more on that later). The last time Ripley and Flair met at WrestleMania, the Queen was put over to keep her legacy intact, and let her run with the NXT Title to challenge AEW on Wednesday nights. The effects were only detrimental. AEW continued to draw more viewership every week, and Rhea Ripley’s natural momentum was derailed.

Through hard work, Ripley is seen as a legitimate threat again. She avenged her loss here in a match which was the best of the night so far. Charlotte Flair — for all the criticism she gets about being too protected — is afforded this position because of how good she is at putting on bangers. This was no exception. She has a way of making you feel every klump, and the way she sold in the dying moments was nothing short of epic.

Charlotte will be back, and will reign again. But this was the right call for what WWE needs now. The match rating perhaps should have been higher but the WrestleMania calibration gauge was in a state of turmoil with what it’d already seen and what was expected to come. Ratings made in the moment shouldn’t contain too much emotion [good luck with that – Danny].

As a final thought: this always should have been the main event on the first night. It sends the women’s division back a little when the tag team division, scorned by WWE for so many years, is seen as the bigger match (admittedly, if probably was a bigger draw — even so, it feels off).

Speaking of emotions, it doesn’t come much bigger than Sami Zayn teaming with Kevin Owens to take down The Bloodline, by way of the Usos. This was another example of WWE giving the fans what they expected. It needed the feel good pay off which was duly delivered. Fans online and other reviews have perhaps graded it on heart because the wrestling itself wasn’t the best match you’ll ever see.

But it ticked all the boxes. And that is what prevents it getting a higher rating — it was an exercise in reaching certain checkpoints, almost formulaic, for a result that was never in doubt. It set the whole “is the Roman Empire crumbling?” narrative into play.

Night 2 — Sunday

Is there any bigger sign that WWE is merging with UFC and Vince is back at the creative controls than Brock Lesnar reasserting his dominance? Sorry, my bad, that line was meant for a day later. This was a match that no one asked for, and we all remembered why afterwards. Brock is too important to waste in matches like this. The whole size issue was a flat gimmick. It was Brock beating a lower mid-card talent.

There’s nothing positive to add about the Rousey/Baszler win in the Fatal 4-Way, other than it was a good excuse to fill up on the snacks, do some ironing, and tidy my bookshelf.

The fans that were wax lyrical about this online are the same ones dismissive of AEW and the indies. Everything that was good about this match — and there was a lot of good — was a watered-down version of what you can find regularly elsewhere. Gunther winning was the correct call. He’s been handled well and when he transitions to a world title bout, he’ll appear a credible threat.

The tease that this is the one belt Sheamus hasn’t won left some doubt in the match. Personally, since he’s blocked me on Twitter following a sense of humour transplant, I’m pleased he went home empty-handed [at least you’re not bitter — Danny]. You have to feel for Drew, though. The pandemic WWE Champion has been denied a packed WrestleMania moment and appears to be slipping further down the card, perhaps out of WWE altogether.

Heading into the event, a great match was all but guaranteed. The outcome was less clear. Asuka may have been used like the modern day Sid Justice. She appeared indestructible heading into Mania, only to be beaten by the champ.

Except Bianca Belair is no Hulk Hogan — she’s infinitely better.

It takes two to make a great match, so all props to Asuka. In hindsight, this was the best match across the two nights. While the build was good, the contest itself is what pushed it over the line as the one to rewatch.

In all honesty, the match was only rated this high (6/10) because of the effort and commitment. Finn Balor clearly took a nasty blow to the head as Edge threw a set of ladders his way. Based on what we saw, one of the matches this writer was most looking forward to, fell apart and fell flat.

Where to start? Circumstance played its hand. Balor clearly needed important treatment after the ladder shot. But a company as experienced as WWE should be able to think on its feet quick and weave a new story element into play. Saying plainly that The Demon is receiving medical attention kinda kills the idea of The Demon persona.

But we shouldn’t have worried about this. Edge won the match, and with it, The Demon is dead. It’s a shame. It could have been this generation’s version of a rarely used Undertaker. Which has also been said about someone else, many times…

Once Edge won, it was clear WWE were keeping the gold on Roman Reigns. If you’ve watched enough pro-wrestling, the sign posts are always clearly marked. The tally of babyface wins reached its threshold. And with it, The Judgment Day lost its teeth. 

Before we dive into the main event, some loose ends:

I didn’t want to comment on The Miz’s WrestleMania treatment. He’s poorly utilised and under-appreciated by the WWE and its fans. He shouldn’t be getting buried in unexpected matches. But it would be remiss not to mention Snoop Dogg’s quick thinking to save the Shane McMahon segment.

There were some questionable matches on the card. That aside, there was probably about two hours wasted each night on filler. There were opportunities for people like Bobby Lashley and LA Knight to feature.

This rating took some flack online. But it was overbooked. The story (which Cody never finished) didn’t require the interference. There were more near falls than a drunkard walking on ice. Which was fine, it ramped up the tension and emotion even more. And this was a match built on emotion.

So it would have been fine to have Reigns win clear after a war of attrition. That would keep his standing as the man to beat intact, while still keeping the story alive for Cody. After such a strong showing, he could still have been considered a credible and deserving opponent.

And for the record, I have no issue with the result. (Sorry, Amy.)

Many were left dumbfounded, and one point is absolutely valid: this was the most perfect time to pull the trigger on The American Nightmare. There’ll never be a better chance to coronate Cody. But what was the best outcome for Cody was only the best outcome for Cody. For WWE, it would have created a few issues.

Firstly — and the Vince McMahon return may have played a factor here — dethroning the modern day Bruno Sammartino would make some a little uneasy in Stamford when the candidate is a guy who set up a rival company and never challenged for their world title.

Now maybe when he signed for WWE, he was the chosen one, and they could have ironed this issue out during a year-long campaign of proving his value. He was well on his way to doing this by overcoming Seth Rollins in every meeting (including the unforgettable Hell In A Cell). But due to injury, it was a small record when going up against the sheer dominance of Reigns.

A story is made up of many chapters, it feels like Cody’s WWE return requires a few more so when he does (if he does) finally become World Champion, no one can say he was gifted the belt. Everything worth working for is hard fought. Cody is about to enter his Hard Times.

While the perfect WrestleMania moment may have slipped through his fingers, a more enriched crowning now awaits.

Overall, despite how the cards looked on paper, Saturday was the best of the two nights. The general consensus has credited this WrestleMania as the best in years. Maybe that shows how lacklustre they’ve become. It was better than average, but once the dust settles, it won’t be making any top ten lists.