The card for WWE's Backlash pay-per-view on June 14 is taking shape, with four key matches already locked in, including three top title bouts and the preordained "Greatest Match of All Time" between Edge and Randy Orton.
WWE's third pay-per-view event since all shows moved to the Performance Center in Orlando will look significantly different from the two that preceded it, as there will be an audience reacting to the action in the ring. No, there won't be paid attendance from fans quite yet. Instead the prospects training at the Performance Center and working their way up the ranks of NXT will serve as "fans" in the interim.
That approach started Monday night, as the venue was filled with trainees wearing a variety of WWE superstar T-shirts, each standing 6 feet apart and separated from the action by Plexiglas that ran down both sides of the ramp and along each barrier surrounding the ring. This could well be a preview of how WWE will attempt to bring in fans once they are allowed to be in the arena.
One of the biggest criticisms of recent WWE TV was that there was nobody in the audience to react to the action. Rival promotion AEW used performers who were not actively wrestling as the crowd from early on in the coronavirus pandemic.
It seemed as though those in the audience were disinclined to react individually early on, sticking to generic positive or negative reinforcement, although some in the audience ultimately offered a more organic-feeling element as the night went on.
That's especially true because of how performative the separation turned out to be in the end. As WWE champion Drew McIntyre battled Bobby Lashley in the ring, referees summoned the members of the audience to run around the Plexiglas and separate the two wrestlers. While it was made clear at the top of the show that everyone in attendance had been tested, the rush to the ring made the whole operation feel more like security theater than actual safety measures put into place.
There are common-sense ways to approach laying out an audience when they are in the same controlled environment as those stepping into the ring. If the efforts to socially distance among crowd members are done in order to promote that kind of behavior from the audience, why not have those in the crowd wear masks? There are a variety of WWE-branded masks on sale and that would serve several needs -- reinforcing safe social practices and an opportunity to push more merchandise, which would seem to be supremely on brand. It would also dampen any issues with up-and-coming NXT stars worrying too much about being seen to act out of character.
Sound in the arena was a welcome change on Monday night, but there are quite a few areas open for improvement, and it's likely WWE's approach will evolve moving forward.
Charlotte Flair continues to work overtime
While most of the WWE roster has been working a significantly reduced schedule over the last few months, Charlotte Flair has channeled many of the road warrior and workhorse instincts her father was famous for -- although she hasn't had to make more than one town during that stretch.
Flair continued to make her presence felt on all three of WWE's weekly shows. She interrupted the main event of NXT and delivered spears to both Io Shirai and Rhea Ripley, setting Flair up for a title defense against both women on June 7 at NXT's In Your House event. On Friday, Flair took a somewhat surprising loss to SmackDown women's champion Bayley, who turned the tables on Flair and used the ropes for leverage. On Monday, Flair fell short again in a triple threat No. 1 contender's match for the Raw women's championship as Nia Jax pinned Natalya.
On the surface, it's easy to see some portion of the audience being immediately turned off by having Flair continuing to occupy so much of the spotlight in the women's division. She's already a 12-time women's champion, and the mere suggestion of another match with Becky Lynch at one point was enough to elicit an extremely negative reaction from almost the entirety of the WWE audience.
It's not going to work for everybody, but the groundwork has been laid for a story that's uncharacteristically layered and nuanced in the world of WWE. Even when Flair has lost in her career, there haven't been many stretches in which she's been too far down for too long, which makes her current level of ego and confidence feel warranted. By slowly stretching herself too thin as NXT women's champion, whomever it is that eventually steps up in NXT and beats her, whether it's Ripley getting her revenge or someone else, it will be supremely meaningful.
Flair is having great matches with a wide spectrum of performers, but a new challenge of actually trying to build back up from a devastating fall could do even more to help her in the long term.
Crews crowned new U.S. champion
Four years (and a month) after making his main roster debut, Apollo Crews won his first singles title in the WWE on Monday when he defeated Andrade for the United States championship. Crews spent an unusually short stretch in NXT, with his Raw debut coming less than a year after his first televised appearance on NXT. The 32-year-old has had several starts and stops during that time, with his most notable run coming with Titus Worldwide in 2017 and 2018.
There's little doubting his in-ring abilities, and Crews has shown flashes of charisma that could serve him well. The hook of Crews' injury angle, losing his spot in the Money in the Bank ladder match and then getting revenge on Andrade was enough for WWE to give Crews his shot. There are only a few things that could seemingly hold him back -- one of the prime examples being his finishing sequence. As impressive and flashy as the standing moonsault and standing shooting star press are, physics are working against Crews; there simply can't be nearly as much impact from a standing position as there is from the top rope.
Crews appears to be one of the key pieces WWE is looking to in a push to feature some fresh faces on Raw. Austin Theory, likely in a similar position, officially cemented himself as one of Seth Rollins' "disciples" on Monday. Lashley, long left to languish in a morass of a story with Rusev and Lana, has taken full advantage of his new partnership with MVP with a WWE title shot to come at Backlash. Lashley and MVP were disqualified in the main event of Raw when Lashley pulled Montez Ford off of MVP, locked in a full nelson and refused to let go.
Title tournaments continue
The opening round of the Intercontinental championship tournament wrapped up on Friday's SmackDown, as Jeff Hardy snuck past Sheamus with a roll-up and AJ Styles defeated Shinsuke Nakamura. The finish to the Hardy victory strongly implied his tensions with Sheamus had only just begun, and there's plenty of reason to believe that Sheamus could be a factor in Hardy's next match, which is against Daniel Bryan. Styles and Nakamura gave fans a tantalizing taste of what their WrestleMania rivalry could have looked like without making the story all about low blows with 14 fun minutes of action. Styles gets Elias on Friday in the semifinals, and if the bracket wasn't built to lead to a Styles vs. Bryan final, Styles' move back to SmackDown seems a bit puzzling.
As for the interim cruiserweight championship tournament, Drake Maverick picked up a victory over Kushida in the final match of pool play in Group A and created a three-way tie at 2-1. The winner of a triple threat match between Maverick, Kushida and Jake Atlas will face the Group B winner, newcomer El Hijo del Fantasma, in the finals. Maverick has been under the brightest of spotlights, as his name was listed among the group of WWE stars who were released due to coronavirus-related budget cuts and he filmed a tear-jerking video in the immediate aftermath. Over the next few weeks we'll see one of two outcomes -- a wrestler who loses a predetermined match and his chance to continue to wrestle, or he'll win the tournament and the WWE utilized a moment in which more than a dozen people lost their livelihoods to drum up sympathy for an on-screen story. Neither is a particularly good look.
The Miz and John Morrison, Braun Strowman and the silly concept of handicap matches on PPV
Since the start of 2018, there have been six handicap matches on WWE pay-per-view, four of which had titles on the line. Two champions successfully retained despite their disadvantages -- AJ Styles successfully defended his WWE title at the 2018 Royal Rumble against Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens, and Bayley beat Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross to keep her SmackDown women's title at Extreme Rules 2019. Finn Balor overcame his 1-on-2 disadvantage to win the Intercontinental title against Lashley and Lio Rush at Elimination Chamber 2019, and Zayn took advantage of the 3-on-1 edge he, Cesaro and Nakamura held to pin Braun Strowman for the IC title at Elimination Chamber back in early March.
Strowman will once again defend while at a significant disadvantage as he puts his Universal championship on the line at Backlash against The Miz and John Morrison. It's puzzling why the match is even happening, as Strowman pinned Miz and Morrison in successive weeks on SmackDown, but the significant flaws in logic weigh it down even more. There was a suggestion during the SmackDown broadcast that Miz and Morrison would be "co-champions," a concept not utilized on a singles title since Michelle McCool and Layla in 2010, but that lack of clarity adds further confusion to a supremely flawed format.
In addition to either making a team look weak compared to a single performer, or the team living up to expectations (as they should) in holding such an advantage, the net gain just isn't there. The simple answer is making a triple threat or Fatal 4-Way match that's still a bad spot for the champion, as the possibilities of collusion to pin one another and the ensuing tension when someone looks out for themselves instead of their teammate at least adds a layer of intrigue.