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What we learned from WWE Backlash 2016

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SmackDown’s first pay-per-view was a success from start to finish, and a great sign for the brand split as a whole.

AJ Styles celebrates after becoming WWE World Champion at Backlash WWE.com

SmackDown’s first pay-per-view of the brand split era, Backlash, aired on Sunday. It’s hard to say it was anything but a success, either, considering it introduced us to two new championships with fascinating — and welcome — champions. It also brought about a title change that, even just a year ago, seemed impossible. In the spirit of SmackDown, let’s get right to it.

SmackDown Women’s Championship Match: Becky Lynch defeats Naomi, Natalya, Carmella, Nikki Bella, and Alexa Bliss

SmackDown did not have a Women’s Championship until Sunday, when they crowned their first-ever Women’s Champion. While there were plenty of worthy contenders in this match — one that featured every women on the roster except for Eva Marie, who is out due to (storyline) exhaustion — giving it to Becky Lynch is the right call for establishing the belt as significant.

Nikki Bella would have given the championship the gravitas it needs right off the bat, as well — she was the longest-reigning WWE Divas champ before they retired that belt and branding — but she has a story going with Carmella that doesn’t require the championship to be told. With that in mind, who better than SmackDown’s first draft pick in the women’s division to be the first-ever SmackDown Women’s Champion?

Becky Lynch holds the SmackDown Women's title after defeating five opponents at Backlash WWE.com

What we learned: The future of the women’s division on SmackDown is promising. Natalya and Nikki Bella are veterans who can work well with the still-untapped potential of Naomi, Carmella, and Alexa Bliss, and with heels like Natty and the last of those two around, Becky Lynch has no shortage of opponents to defend her new title — also her first in WWE — against.

SmackDown Tag Team Championships Tournament Match: The Usos defeat The Hype Bros

This match was set up to determine who would face Heath Slater and Rhyno in the finals of the SmackDown Tag Team Championship tournament. There was basically never a chance that The Hype Bros would win here, but that doesn’t mean the match lacked a point: last week showed us that The Usos were turning heel, and this match was meant to show us what that meant. It succeeded in that, and provided a fresh matchup for the tournament for the finals to boot.

What we learned: The Usos are fully embracing their heel turn, as they no longer perform a haka dance prior to their entrance music, they slowly walked to the ring wearing hoodies, and they dressed in black. Maybe more importantly for The Usos and their future, you could actually tell which of the twins was which. One wore a shirt and the other did not, their facial hair was noticeably different, and the face paint that covers the differing facial features they do have wasn’t worn for this match. All of the above is a good plan to establish The Usos as legitimate heels in a division lacking them.

Intercontinental Championship Match: The Miz (c) defeats Dolph Ziggler

If you weren’t looking forward to this match, you probably can no longer remember why that was. The Miz and Dolph Ziggler both looked the best they have in ages, with Miz looking reinvigorated and motivated, busting out moves that even his current nemesis, SmackDown general manager Daniel Bryan, would have been proud of if he didn’t hate The Miz so much. It took some cheating for Miz to win, but he doesn’t necessarily look weaker for it: he just looks like a jerk, and that’s all you need.

What we learned: The Miz is as good as he says he is, and he’s not a coward so much as a heel who knows when to take advantage of the situation. When his wife, Maryse, distracted Dolph Ziggler long enough to attack him and give her husband an opening, he took it, but the important thing here for Miz is that he stuck with the match, kept up with Ziggler move-for-move, and hung around long enough to gain this unfair advantage over his opponent. Miz gets to say — rightfully — that he’s not the coward his opponents and detractors claim he is. But he also gets to bask in the glory of a heel by pretending he didn’t benefit from cheating, or gloating in the fact that he broke no actual rules with his own hands.

Maryse sprays Ziggler in the face with an unknown substance, setting The Miz up for his finisher and the win.
Maryse sprays Ziggler in the face with an unknown substance, setting The Miz up for his finisher and the win.
WWE.com

It’s win-win, and all that’s left to wonder is what’s next for Miz, and what’s next for Ziggler, who needed this W almost as bad as The Miz did. Regardless of what’s next, though, this was the showcase both of these talents — and SmackDown — needed to prove that the change in direction and focus the brand split offered was working.

Kane defeats Bray Wyatt in a No Holds Barred match

This was a bit of a surprise, as it wasn’t supposed to be on the card at all. We were supposed to get Bray Wyatt vs. Randy Orton, but Wyatt attacked Orton backstage before the match by repeatedly slamming his leg with a door until Orton was no longer cleared to compete. The rumor is that Orton is still hurting a bit from SummerSlam, when he was Brock Lesnared, and the result was Kane vs. Bray Wyatt. Orton did come out long enough to perform his finisher on Wyatt, though, handing the win to Kane, so one wonders how much truth is in that rumor, or if WWE is just playing on concerns.

What we learned: WWE isn’t quite done with Kane yet, nor are they prepared to launch Bray Wyatt into the main event scene of SmackDown. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, not with AJ Styles and The Miz holding on to the singles titles on the men’s side, but one hopes Wyatt’s talents don’t end up wasted on SmackDown like they were by WWE as a whole prior to the brand split.

As for Kane, maybe with Baron Corbin winning on the pre-show against Apollo Crews, we already know who his next opponent could be. A win over Wyatt to help build Kane up against a rising talent who could use a win themselves? They did have that stare down on the ramp not that long ago, you know ...

SmackDown Tag Team Championship Match: Heath Slater and Rhyno defeat The Usos

He did it! Heath Slater did it! He became a tag-team champion and now gets to have an actual job on SmackDown! That was the nature of the agreement made by Slater and the blue brand’s commissioner, Shane McMahon, and now we’ve finally got Heath a show and a contract and the ability to feed his many children.

What we learned: Heath Slater is so popular with the crowds these days, and in large part due to the story he and WWE have told over the last couple of months: Slater went undrafted, then did amazing work to get everyone laughing at the situation, and now after the last few months’ of humiliation piled on top of what has been a career with a whole lot of it, he’s a tag team champ. Rhyno is, too, but in respect of his mostly silent nature, we’ll be quiet on that front, too. It’s Slater’s moment, after all.

WWE World Championship Match: AJ Styles defeats Dean Ambrose (c)

AJ Styles didn’t even join WWE until January. He wasn’t supposed to be launched into the main event — that’s the rumor, anyway — but the crowd reaction to him was so great that WWE changed plans and threw him into a series of matches with Roman Reigns and then John Cena. Freed from his feud with Cena, he got another chance at the WWE World Championship, and he made the most of it by defeating Dean Ambrose. Sure, he kicked Ambrose right in the beans to do it, but a win is a win when you’re a main eventing heel.

What we learned: We knew WWE loved AJ Styles, but now there is no denying how much they’re into the dude who is arguably the greatest wrestler on the planet at this time. It’s disappointing that his victory comes at the expense of Dean Ambrose, who was a deserving champion in his own right, but Ambrose has also had the belt since the early summer, and Styles is now in a position to hold onto it until WrestleMania if that’s what WWE wants to do ... maybe just in time to get back into a feud with John Cena and give us all a Mania dream match that seemed an impossibility less than a year ago.

As for what’s next with Ambrose? He’ll get his rematch, so that’s the short-term answer. Long-term, maybe he feuds over the Intercontinental, or goes another few rounds with Bray Wyatt, or something else we haven’t even considered yet. There are quite a few possibilities, many of them intriguing, and that's about all you can ask for from someone who just dropped a major championship.