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Posted in: Doctor's Orders
Doctor's Orders: July 24-27, 2017 - Pros and Cons for WWE Raw/Smackdown Live, Summerslam Lacking Distinctively “Summerslam” Match, & Critical WWE Battleground Review
By The Doc
Jul 27, 2017 - 12:57:22 PM

”The Doc” Chad Matthews has been a featured writer for LOP since 2004. Initially offering detailed recaps and reviews for WWE's top programs, he transitioned to writing columns in 2010. In addition to his discussion-provoking current event pieces, he has written many acclaimed series about WrestleMania, as well as a popular short story chronicle. The Doc has also penned a book, The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment, published in 2013. It has been called “the best wrestling book I have ever read” and holds a worldwide 5-star rating on Amazon, where it peaked at #3 on the wrestling charts.

Pros and Cons for WWE Raw and Smackdown Live

Raw Creative Needs To Be On Point

WWE Battleground Review (w/ star ratings)

Pros and Cons for WWE Raw and Smackdown Live

QUESTION OF THE DAY: How likely do you think it is that WWE goes the unexpected route and has Nakamura face Jinder Mahal at Summerslam?

Monday Night Raw (Two Pros)

-Elias Samson vs. Finn Balor (No DQ), Sasha Banks vs. Bayley (#1 Contender), and Ambrose/Rollins vs. The Miz and his Miztourage provided the red team a trio of strong performances that added considerable value to another strong episode. The strength of the in-ring product might be consistently good for all I know but, as I have mentioned in past columns, I will only watch a match on TV if it hooks me…and random guy X vs. random guy Y presented as little more than air-time filler for lack of creativity is not a strong enough hook for me in 95% of cases. It has been refreshing to see Raw put a better foot forward in booking compelling matches with purpose while also keeping narratives for PPVs moving along.

Take your pick for Match of the Night on Monday between Banks-Bayley (top notch) and Balor-Samson (Elias has been a great, unique main roster addition), but the storyline advancement of the Rollins-Ambrose saga continues to fascinate me more than anything else on the flagship.

-In spite of my feelings about the Fatal 4-Way feeling more like a Battleground than Summerslam main-event on paper, the execution of the segment that made clear Raw’s intentions for next month’s Universal Championship bout was excellent. Roman Reigns cut quite possibly the best promo of his entire career as he continues to showcase himself as more of a heel on the tweener spectrum. The three-man brawl between Reigns, Strowman, and Joe may have been too close to the similar pull-apart melee between Joe and Lesnar six weeks ago to be maximally effective, but it was still an engaging piece of build toward the 4-Way that highlighted each man’s monstrous capabilities. As of right now, I cannot pinpoint a favorite to win at Summerslam – just that Lesnar losing the title is probable – and that’s a very good thing.

Monday Night Raw (One Con)

-This is a minor thing, but unless Kurt Angle does end up wrestling in some capacity at Summerslam, filling what feels like a “special attraction” void, the timing of his paternal bond with Jason Jordan seems strange in hindsight. This is more a criticism overall than one specific to this week’s Raw, granted, but right now it feels like WWE could wind up between a rock and a hard place with Our Olympic Hero’s kid. If they do not book Jordan for Summerslam, instantly this storyline will have already been put on the backburner; putting Jordan on the card for the Summer Classic, though, might very well feel forced. There was enough hype behind the announcement to compare it to a chef telling his patrons, "This is going to be a meal you will never forget," and then serving them something underwhelming; even if they get the unforgettable meal later, it will not be quite the same as if the chef had delivered immediately following the big proclamation. If they had simply waited until after Summerslam to make the announcement, Jordan would have had a wider field to earn playing time with five weeks until the next Raw exclusive pay-per-view.

Smackdown Live (Two Pros)

-I had no intention of watching Smackdown after Battleground left me in a “bridge has been fully burned and is in need of rebuilding” mindset, but I hosted a lengthy seminar on Tuesday and was wiped out enough that my original plan to watch something more stimulating and interesting than the B-show when I got home was altered to a desire to watch something mind-numbing, so Smackdown was gifted a 17th chance…and low and behold it was actually quite entertaining. Though expectations having been lowered to “Real Housewives of the Potomac” levels did not hurt, the blue team started its Road to Summerslam with an eventful show. Chris Jericho’s return was unexpected and the role that he played in a fun opening segment and a very good main-event match set an important tone for the night. I’ve felt that Smackdown has for roughly 14 weeks done nothing but produce paint-by-the-numbers TV featuring characters positioned oddly across its roster, but the events surrounding the United States Championship picture and another angle to be discussed momentarily changed the tune for at least one week. The title change was an eye-opening surprise and a good cliff-hanger for the next stop for Smackdown between here and Brooklyn.

-Since Jinder Mahal settled into his role as the worst WWE Champion in at least a decade, it has become painfully obvious that he would keep the title through at least WWE’s tour of India in September, pretty much dooming the main-event scene until he either lost the title or made a rapid improvement still yet to happen. That meant Cena vs. Mahal at Summerslam in a yawn-fest that I’ve been prepping myself to endure for the last two months. We may still end up there, but as of now WWE did a smart thing in creating some doubt by booking Cena vs. Nakamura next week to determine Mahal’s Summerslam opponent. Nakamura has been heavily protected in his first four controversial months on the main roster and it is conceivable that WWE could call an audible and have him go over Cena, simultaneously removing the tired narrative of the WWE Title scene revolving around Jinder the disrespected foreigner. At the very least, it’s a stay of execution.

Smackdown Live (One Con)

-As fascinating as it may be next week, why in the world is WWE doing Nakamura vs. Cena at any other event but a major, Big 4 PPV? Maybe they want to gauge what kind of domestic ratings impact it could have or maybe they just no longer have the ability to see the forest through the trees with big match-ups that fans might fork out money to see; I really don’t know. From the moment Nakamura debuted on Smackdown, it seemed obvious to me that his match with Cena was part of the endgame for one of their runs on that brand, one of those, “this is a match we have to do before one of them goes to Raw” type deals; perhaps Cena is not long for Smackdown so they felt that they needed to offer that match before he uses his Free Agent status to go to Raw for WrestleMania Season next year. There is only one “first time ever,” though, and Cena vs. Nakamura is being given away on Smackdown with a week’s notice. For those who question why people dislike matches being done on TV rather than PPV, the prestige of the setting matters in a historical context and Nakamura vs. Cena is one of the matches that a lot of fans had hoped to see for the first time on a much grander stage than Smackdown Live.

What Summerslam Currently Lacking That Distinctively “Summerslam” Match Means For Raw Especially

Dating back to the beginning of the decade, WWE has done a really good job making Summerslam feel like a mini-WrestleMania. Huge first-time matches like Lesnar vs. CM Punk, marquee title bouts like Bryan vs. Cena, and grudge matches culminating first-rate stories like Rollins vs. Ambrose have complimented finales of classic series like Orton vs. Christian, WrestleMania rematches like Taker vs. Lesnar, and showstealers like Styles vs. Cena. On paper, Summerslam for the last several years straight has looked like a card that compared reasonably well to its big brother from late March/early April.

Right now, Summerslam 2017 does not quite have that same look. There is time for developments to take shape that may enhance the appearance of the marquee for the annual August PPV, but the foundation has been set by the Raw brand's creative decisions and it currently lacks that one match in particular that screams, “It's SUMMERSLAM!” Of course, such a statement is judgmental (to an extent) of the Fatal 4-Way main-event instead of Strowman or Joe or Reigns straight-up against Lesnar; the 4-Way gimmick, like its cousins in the multi-man genre sans for the more popular Triple Threat, has a distinct “B-pay-per-view” aura about it. The one-on-one match is generally preferred for many reasons, superior storytelling probability and classic drawing power among them.

Nevertheless, this year's Fatal 4-Way main-event does have a boat load of potential. Place the WrestleMania Season headliners of Royal Rumble 2015 and Fast Lane 2016 in the main-events of their respective Showcases of Immortals and both recent triple threats involving The Beast Incarnate would have gone over quite well in the larger context brought forth by The Show of Shows; the bottom line being that Lesnar in multi-man scenarios has thrived over the past two years and that adding another body might only enhance the Summerslam situation. The onus will be on WWE creative to fully sell the match, though. Unlike some of the aforementioned leading performances of Summerslam's past, a Fatal 4-Way is not something that can simply be rolled out with an expectation of ravenous consumption by the audience. Each challenger for the Universal Championship is as well-defined as he has ever been, so it is not inconceivable that WWE can pull it off successfully; this just flat out will not be a Summerslam Season where they can rest on their laurels.

It has been since Backlash 2007 that we have seen a Fatal 4-Way featuring four talents each of whom are at least close to firing on all cylinders as characters; not coincidentally, that particular 4-Way ten years ago has stood the test of time as one of the preeminent versions of its non-Elimination style stipulation. Strowman is one of the leading candidates for WWE MVP in 2017 and his booking has been the most consistent of anyone on the roster for the last year; Joe has been red hot dating back to early June and his level of badassery rivals Strowman's; Reigns took the ball at WrestleMania and has turned up the volume of his more aggressive personality, almost at this point a wolf in sheep's clothing as a babyface to kids who's really a heel; and Lesnar was reinvigorated by the Goldberg feud and was thankfully made further vulnerable in the Joe storyline leading to Great Balls of Fire. So long as WWE does not coast, there is no reason why this hoss brawl supreme should not be one of the best 4-way matches ever.

The decision to pool roughly two-thirds of Raw’s best into one match opens the door for the mid-card to get a larger percentage of the spotlight. If Smackdown predictably runs with Cena vs. Mahal for the WWE Championship, it will be that much more imperative for the health of this year’s Summerslam that Raw’s mid-card scene carry a substantial portion of the load, on the show itself of course but especially in the build. What this show might lack in noteworthy headlining attractions it will need to recoup in the form of strong sub-main-event narratives.

Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins are in a prime position to become one of the most memorable things about the 2017 Summer Classic. As mentioned in last week’s post-Raw column, the story of Rollins attempting to take the next step toward complete redemption by earning the forgiveness of the former Shield member whom he scorned most in 2014 is compelling in a manner unique to most WWE angles; it worked so well when Rollins turned three years ago because it cut a little deeper for those who had invested a lot in The Shield’s rise to prominence and it is working for those same fans (myself included) now as they come closer to burying the proverbial hatchet. It is a rare example of a protagonist getting significant character development by addressing past actions. One suggestion tossed about has been for Ambrose and Rollins to vie for the Tag Team Titles against The Bar, perhaps climaxing at Summerslam with a championship victory and the meeting of The Shield’s signature fists; that has Hart Foundation vs. Brain Busters in ’89 – an awesome, show-enhancing tag bout – written all over it.

The tag team scene for both brands, frankly, could be a major determining factor for the success of Summerslam. Let’s say that Shield-ish vs. The Bar does happen. New Day vs. Usos III absolutely must take place and could set the tone as the opener on August 20th as well or better than it did for Battleground; throw in The Hardys vs. The Revival advancing Matt and Jeff further toward being “Broken” and perhaps tag team wrestling could get the golden opportunity to shine on a Big 4 stage that it has not had in years.

Expecting much from the build to Bray Wyatt vs. Finn Balor seems like an exercise in futility – every Wyatt feud is pretty much the same old, same old – so what about the Women’s division? The red team made a curious choice to go with Bayley over Sasha Banks as the Summerslam foil for Alexa Bliss and her Raw Women’s Title. Banks has largely been immune to what many have called WWE’s attempts to assassinate her persona’s standing over the past year, as she remains the most popular woman (by crowd reaction) in the women’s game; running another Banks-Bliss match on the second grandest stage was the logical route to take. With Bayley, meanwhile, we were seeing the backlash during and after Mania Season for WWE’s poor handling of her transition to the main roster; to go with her again might be the catalyst for the long-anticipated Banks heel turn, but for right now seems more like WWE rushing toward a Bayley reclamation project that could have used another few months of breathing room from the peak of her failed initial push. Bayley and Bliss did have a really good match at Payback, so it is not as if there is a lack of potential for their match to add something valuable to the show next month, but it does feel like Raw creative efforts need to be extremely dialed in there so as to avoid a feeling 4 weeks from now that Banks vs. Bliss was undeniably the path they should have followed.

Smackdown probably needs to book Shinsuke Nakamura vs. AJ Styles to separate Summerslam from even Great Balls of Fire but, even if they do not, the absence of that inimitable, “This is the second biggest PPV on the calendar” type of attraction will put WWE’s creative vitality to the test. Hit a mere single on the Road to Summerslam and history may remember Raw’s July PPV as the card that should have been saved for August; hit at least a triple and Summerslam ’17 could still create the kind of momentum that we have grown to expect from this time of year and deliver the kind of complete Summer Classic that we have not seen since 2014.

WWE Battleground Was a Turd Sprinkled With Rainbow Glitter

In hindsight, it is as if the Superstar Shake-Up in mid-April was, for the Tuesday creative team, a mental time machine transporting its mindset to a period in WWE history filled with a level of audience apathy that would make the negativity associated with today’s fans blush. The booking of what can best be described as archaic angles and poor roster positioning are evidence of a show in a total disarray. The latest example of Smackdown shooting itself in the foot with lousy decisions was WWE Battleground, easily the worst pay-per-view since the WWE Network launched in 2014 and a leading candidate for the decade’s worst special event, as well.

With all due respect to Jinder Mahal, who has been targeted enough by yours truly over the past three months, he continues to embody the core problems on Smackdown right now. The choice to push him straight to the top is a cancer for the blue brand. All the complaints levied at Roman Reigns over the years are better fits for Jinder because, unlike Reigns, Mahal has not shown the ability to deliver under pressure, yet the WWE Champion occupies such a prominent spot on PPV cards that, by his mere presence alone, he drags down the show quality; he is a very limited performer. WWE has done him zero favors, keeping him in a storyline with Randy Orton that nobody cares about and strapping their payoff match with the awful Punjabi Prison gimmick that not even The Undertaker in his in-ring prime could make more than barely watchable. Mahal vs. Orton III was by far the worst match in their series and one of the most boring matches of all-time, clocking in at nearly thirty God awfully monotonous minutes; a lot of that had to do with the stipulation itself, but Mahal has no credibility and has done nothing in the ring or on the microphone to change critical reception to his privileged status.

Philadelphia, known for having some of the most passionate fans in the world, sat on their hands during last night’s main-event, a by-product of a bamboo structure that limited visibility, a lame-duck champion, and a miscast challenger. The return of the worst wrestler in the history of WWE’s main-event scene, The Great Khali, certainly does little more than exacerbate the growing angst regarding Smackdown’s ability to recover its past form. Fortunately, the Orton-Mahal saga should now be over; unfortunately, with The Golden Boy waving old glory around, the assumption is that the WWE titleholder’s next challenger will be John Cena. Yay ‘Murica and all that, but if Cena’s tedious Flag Match with Rusev was any indication of what we can expect from replacing Bulgaria with India in an upcoming Mahal-Cena feud, then it is safe to say that red, white, and blue in this case are the colors of creative stagnancy instead of patriotism. America vs. The World is a tried and true trope to garner interest, but it takes strong booking and charisma; Mahal has no charisma and Rusev’s strong booking ended during his last run with Cena in 2015, so WWE does not have the necessary ingredients for it to work in 2017.

WWE had to put in a lot of lackluster work to make an audience care so little about a John Cena match. That is what happens when you bring back a pair of inspired wrestlers with an uninspired storyline; neither Rusev nor Cena benefitted from it and the fanbase is set to keep paying the price if Mahal takes Cena’s place. It reeks of 2007 roster positioning, when Khali established his reputation as the sorriest excuse for a headliner ever; and, considering WWE’s talent depth now compared to then, there is just no excuse for it.

AJ Styles vs. Kevin Owens should have been WWE Battleground’s critical apex, but its finish wound up being the first nail in the show’s coffin. The climactic moments of the Backlash match two months ago did not go over well either, but it made sense as the catalyst for giving the gifted pair a more engaging reason to keep fighting. Conversely, the final moments of last night’s match were depressing, as they brought to a head the realization that Styles and Owens, who in their sleep could have a good match, either do not have it in them to create magic together or are not being given the opportunity to produce greatness. When your expectations are 4-star classic to Match of the Year contender – not unfair given the wrestlers involved – and you instead get a solid match (*** ¼) with another lousy ending, you would be forgiven for feeling robbed.

Frankly, Battleground needed Owens vs. Styles to live up to the hype to help off-set the downtrodden emotions surrounding the horribly overlong Flag and Punjabi Prison matches that sucked the life out of not just the live crowd, but perhaps any remaining general enthusiasm regarding the Smackdown brand, which is now on life support. As structured, the second half of the card (minus a solid, short, two-star Zayn vs. Kanellis match) was always going to bad. Had Styles-Owens maximized its potential, though, it would have helped the perception of the show overall, giving it a second peak after the first hour of the show delivered reasonably well. The Women’s Title #1 Contender Match was just fine (** ½) and the Nakamura vs. Corbin bout, though it under-delivered, was a decent change of pace (** ½) from the hot opener. The doom and gloom labels might have been absent if Styles and Owens had been better.

So, WWE Battleground will be remembered as a steaming pile, the rainbow glitter covering the otherwise turd of a show coming in the form of a fantastic, Match of the Month contender in New Day vs. The Usos. I was lulled into a false sense of security by it, personally; it made me believe that this show would turn into something that it was not destined to be. I absolutely loved that match – the rare tag team bout given the chance to be wrestled like an epic, full of believable false finishes off of moves that would have ended 95% or more of its peers in the tag team genre. It was a coming out party for Xavier Woods, who has never looked like more of a star than he did last night; it was a validation of sorts for the value of tag team wrestling, which has been struggling on the main roster due to the splitting of so many popular duos; it was a reinforcement of what New Day and The Usos can bring to the table when given the chance to shine, not just in the ring on a PPV night but in the build-up as well. On a night distinctly lacking for the most part, New Day vs. The Usos undeniably delivered and, while they could not save the show, they damn sure stole it (**** ¼).

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