Welcome to our preview of WWE’s Purgatory, the annual post-WrestleMania event that makes you wish it was still March and has you scratching your head that it’s still three months until SummerSlam. Officially, it’s titled Backlash, but this year above all others it represents a major inflection point. Per usual, the company hopes to sustain interest beyond its aforementioned marquee spring spectacle, but post-Superstar Shakeup, is duly banking on the appeal of a more streamlined PPV schedule that combines talent from both Raw and SmackDown’s rosters. Think of Backlash and subsequent events as similar to All-Star Games, but with more charitable lineups and—to our present knowledge—no clear operating definition of when and how often the typically siloed sides will interact.
Any inter-brand battles this Sunday are either burning off pre-Shakeup story lines (Seth Rollins vs. the Miz) or biding time until headliners—cough, Brock Lesnar, cough—return from hiatus (as seen in Roman Reigns vs. Samoa Joe). Otherwise it’s essentially Raw- or SmackDown-specific scores being settled. Besides the notable exception of Shinsuke Nakamura fighting for AJ Styles’s WWE Championship, Backlash is largely an opportunity for fans to get comfortable with the newly established good vs. evil configurations (e.g. Braun Strowman and Bobby Lashley vs. Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn).
Here are our picks for which man or woman will win each of the night’s eight contests, along with some speculation about what’s next for the participants. We made a concerted effort not to betray our lack of enthusiasm.
AJ Styles (Champion) vs. Shinsuke Nakamura for WWE Championship
Styles has played the straight man ever since Nakamura felled him with an uppercut to the groin at WrestleMania, a motif that—along with an array of slithering tics best described as a state of sadistic ecstasy—has become Nakamura’s calling card. This has gotten real nasty real quick, and is the clear main event, no matter what WWE.com tells you.
Who Will Win: Backlash could use a buzzy outcome, but this is a feud that transcends this moment. Thus, a Nakamura win might feel hurried. On the flip side, endless title pursuits are more of a babyface endeavor. Not to mention that according to kayfabe wrestling rules, Shinsuke may not be entitled to another immediate shot at AJ. Hence, there’s every chance the Artist low-blows his way to destiny. A virtual pick ’em, but my gut says go for Styles.
What’s Next? This gets more personal and runs through at least SummerSlam, with the distinct possibility that Shinsuke takes the title at June’s Money in the Bank (even if Samoa Joe insinuates himself into the mix) only to drop it two months later.
Roman Reigns vs. Samoa Joe
These two have had at it periodically during the past year, though any real momentum was deferred due to Joe’s multiple injuries and Reigns’s card-hopping. But with Universal Champion Lesnar laying low, Joe was maybe the only man up to the task of cutting crisscrossing promos between Raw and SmackDown that tethered together recent past, present, and future entanglements. His narration hasn’t necessarily translated to great anticipation, and each competitor will decamp to his respective brand (Reigns on Raw, Joe on SmackDown) at the end of the night, no matter whose hand is raised. Ideally, the match’s relatively low stakes will encourage plenty of high-risk combat.
Who Will Win: Maybe, in a way, Joe needs this more to legitimize his contention for the WWE Championship on SmackDown. And perhaps after his reception at WrestleMania (and his failure to win there and at the Greatest Royal Rumble), WWE doesn’t see Reigns as its next big thing. Fat chance, so Roman needs it more. Reigns wins.
What’s Next? It’s hard not to envision Roman (finally) hoisting Universal gold by early or mid-summer. And if Joe stays healthy, he can—as mentioned—be a factor in Styles’s and Nakamura’s business, lengthening the eventual resolution of their animus as a thorny third wheel. The forecast might also call for Joe’s definitive, near-future face turn, with champion Nakamura or a nudge like the Miz in his sights.
Nia Jax (Champion) vs. Alexa Bliss for the Raw Women’s Championship
Strangely, it’s Bliss who has stolen the spotlight since dropping her belt to Jax at Mania. Her genuinely entertaining “Moment of Bliss” bits—”More You Know”–like PSAs pegging Jax as the schoolyard meanie—continue to put distance between her and the cringiest promo in recent WWE history. Jax, on the other hand, has been in the background, chiming in on color commentary and raising her friends’ arms in victory as they take turns tormenting Bliss and pal Mickie James. Still, the reverse-bullying angle is a clever tweak to Nia and Alexis’s saga, which leaned too heavily on Jax’s emotional vulnerability. Time to watch her kick some ass.
Who Will Win: Despite the fact WWE has used her mostly to celebrate alongside newbies Ember Moon and Ronda Rousey over the past few weeks, Jax is just warming up. The nod goes to Nia.
What’s Next? Rousey can only warm up with cockamamie tag combos for so long, and Bliss can pair up perfectly opposite Moon as Sasha Banks and Bayley keep building up to their big blowout. James hasn’t had a lot to work with since returning to Alexa’s corner, but one more title shot might be what Money in the Bank ordered.
Seth Rollins (Champion) vs. the Miz for the Intercontinental Championship
Rollins was impressive winning his first IC title off of perennial champ the Miz at Mania and even more so defending it against multiple opponents at Greatest Royal Rumble. Something is brewing between Rollins and Finn Bálor. Rollins defeated Bálor once more this Monday on Raw in what is quickly becoming a memorable in-ring series. Sunday’s rote rematch with new SmackDown signee Miz has all the markings of a platform for Bálor’s overdue heel turn. Bálor isn’t on the card otherwise, and he’s been grinning a lot lately. Plus, it would be a cool twist on SummerSlam 2016, when Bálor won the Universal Championship over Rollins.
Who Will Win: If Bálor does interfere, it’s possible he helps Miz achieve a record-tying ninth IC reign (leading to a possible title run down the line for Miz’s nemesis Daniel Bryan). But as puzzling as it is to wrap one’s mind around a SmackDown guy claiming a Raw belt, it’s equally hard to figure Bálor and Rollins rolling out a fully realized feud without prestige on the line. Rollins is your winner.
What’s Next? Miz v. Bryan, and Rollins v. Bálor, two of the best on-paper matchups in WWE right now.
Carmella (Champion) vs. Charlotte Flair for the SmackDown Women’s Championship
The shrieking, moonwalking, second-generation superstar swung some fan favor her way by simply clinging onto her Money in the Bank briefcase for just shy of a calendar year. She also spoiled Charlotte’s win over undefeated Asuka at Mania by cashing in, cheapening the Empress’s first L in WWE to boot. Does that mean she earned a championship run? Or that she has any real chemistry with the preternaturally gifted Ms. Flair? Is Carmella a staple in the modern WWE women’s division or a throwback with limited shelf life? What does any of it mean?
Who Will Win: Tempting to say Charlotte, as she has a knack for snatching titles back before her opponents can blink. But an even more apt wrap on Carmella’s run would be a newer face (maybe Sonya Deville or Mandy Rose now that Absolution is kaput?) inheriting that briefcase in June and doling out some karmic comeuppance by pinning the Princess of Staten Island.
What’s Next? If men’s Royal Rumble winner Shinsuke Nakamura has already benefited from numerous championship opps, women’s Rumble victor Asuka—having sacrificed her two-and-a-half-year undefeated streak—is clearly on deck for Carmella’s title. But once that’s done, can Charlotte please go back to being a bad guy and give the Empress her first formidable ongoing challenge?
Daniel Bryan vs. Big Cass
Big Cass came back from a lengthy injury break a couple of weeks back looking oilier and bronzer (and, according to Wikipedia, “notably more lean”) than before. He picked a nit with “little man” Daniel Bryan, then nearly beat big guy Braun Strowman in the Greatest Royal Rumble 50-man tussle, and has since prattled on about Bryan’s pint-sized puniness, pounding on a dwarf to demonstrate his point. Yawn. Cass has the makings of a legitimate main eventer, and this was an easy way to pick up where he left off without putting him in the title scene. And for Bryan, it’s all part of rebuilding his myth—and getting rid of the ring rust—before cementing the legend.
Who Will Win: Barring some DQ nonsense that drags this on through June, a clean Bryan victory is far likelier than Cass standing tall.
What’s Next? For Bryan, it’s gotta be Miz. For Cass, anything’s possible. He could be in the main event next week or back to powerbombing little people. Only time will tell.
Jeff Hardy (Champion) vs. Randy Orton for the United States Championship
These two have been in a pissing contest the past couple of weeks that’s roughly the ringside equivalent of one guy bumping into another on the sidewalk and taunting, “Watch where you’re going, asshole.” It got sort of real when Randy RKO’d Jeff on SmackDown this week (is it really still outta nowhere, Jeff?), and now here we are.
Who Will Win: If there were a title that can swap owners at Backlash with minor repercussions, this would be it, so anything is possible. But Jeff will win.
What’s Next? Perhaps Randy isn’t going on his reported 2018 hiatus after all (yet). If he loses, Eric Young and SAnitY could be the next eccentric upstarts to try vexing the Viper. If he wins, then this thing with Hardy probably intensifies. Can’t Matt Hardy make this all simpler and demand his Oracle retrieve Brother Nero from Tuesday isolation?
Braun Strowman and Bobby Lashley vs. Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn
This is Survivor Series in miniature (and among one brand’s heavyweights). Owens and Zayn have been busy gatecrashing Raw since coming over in the Shake-up, and Strowman and Lashley—a watered-down Mega Powers if there ever was one—have been deployed by Kurt Angle to let them know how things roll on Monday nights.
Who Will Win? Strowman could take a loss here. But Lashley is still fresh from his return to WWE and a good bet to keep racking up wins. Then again, KO and Sami left SmackDown licking their wounds after falling to Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon at Mania, so they arguably need a boost the most. Best guess? Lashley and Braun put down the merry pranksters, only for Bobby to turn (hell, he may have been brought back exclusively to work with Braun), or Lashley straight up sabotages Strowman and rolls Sami or Kevin on top of him for the 1-2-3. All of this could be wrong.
What’s next? Do Owens and Zayn compete in the tag ranks for real? As for Strowman, if he’s being warmed up for another go-round with Reigns, could this finally be what positions Roman as villain by design? As Nicholas might say, someone’s gotta get these hands!