This past Sunday, WWE took a bold step by creating an entire event that featured American Wrestlers fighting foreigners. On the positive side, the performers’ cultural differences and “evil foreigner” trope was only central to the narrative of three of the event’s seven matches. On the negative side… pretty much everything else. Seriously, if you watched this instead of last night’s episode of Game of Thrones, you really backed the wrong metaphorical horse. There were some good performances, sure, but a dead crowd, jingoistic narratives that have been outdated for decades, and the stupidest cage match variation that doesn’t involve dogs humping each other at ringside or Abdullah the Butcher pretending to be electrocuted make Battleground possibly the most skippable network special of the year.
- I’ll touch on it more throughout this review, but this entire event is built around foreigners fighting Americans. Now the foreigners aren’t always the heels in these scenarios, but literally every match is American(s) Vs. Non-americans, and the fact that the three most promoted matches on the card are built entirely around nationalistic differences is, frankly, really sad. This is the kind of shit that makes reasonable adults embarrassed to admit they like professional wrestling. That they’re running this kind of angle at a time when NJPW is also running an entire series of amazing shows on their own channel is just insane.
- Man, this crowd. In the pre-show they’re chanting like lunatics over all sorts of nonsense – saying pretty much everything from “Nak-a-mu-ra (clap clap clap clap clap)” to “Fi-re Ro-man!” for a guy that isn’t even on the show. It’s so distracting and obnoxious that there was no way they can keep it up all night. And yeah, they’re hot for the opening match of the main card, but the rest of the night they are absolutely silent. Not like Japanese crowd silent, where there are frequent applause breaks or some level of interaction – just silence. It really takes a lot of the wind out of the sails of the rest of the event. The crowd managed to be shit in both possible ways.
- Appropriately, the only match on the Battleground pre-show is between an American and a foreigner. Now, that’s not the story here, but then again, there is literally no story for the bout between Aiden English (American) and Tye Dyllinger (Canadian). It was just thrown together based off of what, I guess, was a Twitter beef. God, I hope that doesn’t become a thing. Anyway, it’s a decent exhibition between the two underutilized performers and its ending is pretty miraculous, as English actually won clean! Like, what? That guy hasn’t had a televised win in over a year. This is the first of many match endings that seem like they were chosen to throw off people’s expectations, but it’s definitely not the last.
- They catch up with Jinder as he arrives at the arena, and he cuts what looks like a babyface promo to the Hindi announce team. Later, in a backstage segment, Jinder cuts another babyface promo about not needing the Singh brothers to win his match. I mean he goes against that in his actual match at the end of the show (spoilers), but it looks like they’re trying to Bret Hart Jinder and have him be a face everywhere except the US.
Match 1: The New Day Vs. The Usos for the Smackdown Tag Team Championships
You’ve got to give it to the four men in this match: Even with the New Day using the B-Squad lineup of Kofi and Xavier, the two teams put on a hell of a match. These teams have long had great chemistry with each other, and now that the Usos are doing their best work as heels, it’s the best time to see a match between sons of Rikishi and the ice cream slinging trombone enthusiasts. Oddly enough, the only team that features a member not born in the United States (Kofi was born in Ghana) is wrapped in the most ostentatiously patriotic gear on the show. Of course, it should be said that Kofi’s winged victory kicks (though loud as shit and only suitable for 4th of July foot races) are dope.
Like the best tag matches, this bout is constantly moving, with the Usos in particular maintaining a kinetic pace of tags and double team moves. There’s a great heater segment early on when Kofi goes for a dive on both Uso brothers, who catch him and turn the move into a thunderous double powerbomb on the floor. Woods tries to get in on the action, but his dive is met with a double uppercut. What follows is intended to be a heroic performance for the man perceived as the weakest member of the New Day (Woods), and for the most part it succeeds. Xavier hits this really cool wheelbarrow facebuster to Jimmy for a nearfall, and goes for his diving elbow drop only to eat a basement dropkick to the face for another near fall. Woods then endures a really long stint in Jimmy Uso’s attempt at a Tequila Sunrise (it’s really just a lazy half crab) before Kofi is able to climb back into the match.
Both teams exchange their tandem finishers for close nearfalls, but the actual end comes when the Usos look to perform a double splash on a prone Kofi, only for Woods to come alive and knock Jimmy off the turnbuckle. This allows the New Day to hit both a Trouble In Paradise and Woods’ diving elbow for the win, and their first run as Smackdown Tag Team Champions. They’re now the first team (doesn’t WWE love their “firsts?”) to have won both the Raw and Smackdown tag titles. I’m a little upset that they changed the title now, given that it seems likely that the two squads will face off again at Summerslam (if they’re on the card at all) – but it’s hard to be mad at the effort both teams put forth tonight.
Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from here.
Match 2: Shinsuke Nakamura Vs. Baron Corbin
After weeks of non-starts and brawls, we finally got a legit match between the King of Strong Style Shinsuke Nakamura and the Lone Wolf Baron Corbin. One of the most prolific strikers in all of pro wrestling facing off with a former Golden Gloves champion sounds like a solid matchup on paper and the end result is…okay? I guess? I don’t know, the match wasn’t bad per se–I mean, the ending was, but the bout itself was fine–it just wasn’t really enough to keep anyone’s attention. They did let Nak get his full entrance in (though the timing has changed from NXT, making it shorter and screwing up what were impactful music cues), and he got in most of his signature offense (by the way, his “good vibrations” maneuver is really not over; I can’t blame this garbage crowd, no one ever reacts to it) but they have him fighting from the backfoot for most of the contest and it just removes a lot of his mystique. He shouldn’t squash Corbin or anything, but making him look weak so often takes away from the aura of invincibility he came into the company with. Now performers should definitely grow and expand their oeuvres, and that means Shin can’t be the terminator in every match (we don’t need another Brock Lesnar) but the bloom is off the rose with Nakamura now that he struggles with guys like Corbin and Dolph Ziggler.
The highlight sees Shinsuke go for a Kinshasa only for Corbin to pop up and turn it into a Deep Six for a two count. This sequence leads into the end when, after additional back and forth, Shinsuke sets up for a second Kinshasa attempt, but Corbin is unable to get up and in position to take the move. Shin moves in and picks the Lone Wolf up to set him up for an exploder suplex only for Corbin to mule kick Nak right in his Great Balls of Fire for the disqualification. After the match Corbin whacks Shinsuke with his MitB briefcase and throws him in the End of Days for good measure.
I guess this means no Nakamura-Styles at Summerslam, as it appears both men’s current feuds will continue for at least one more cycle. In a sense, I think that’s okay, as it’s important to let a rivalry develop–but given the promise of a much fresher (and let’s be honest, much better) bout between the two former NJPW mainstays, I’d rather have the remainder of Corbin/Nak playout on this week’s Smackdown so he and Styles can square off at the Biggest Party of the Summer®. Alas, a non-finish means we’re due for at least four more weeks of backstage brawls and seeing these two on the opposite sides of tag matches with guys from other featured feuds.
Match 3: Fatal Five-Way to Name the #1 Contender for the Smackdown Women’s Title
Going into this event, did you know this was an elimination match? Neither, seemingly, did the pre-show announce team! Or some of the competitors it seems, given how many people break up pinfall/submission attempts. Probably would’ve been a good idea to advertise that fact. Speaking of bad ideas, Naomi is out for commentary on this match. I do enjoy Naomi as a performer for the most part, but she’s not a great improviser on the mic, and thus, her commentary is just garbage. It’s not just a lack of interesting or useful things to say, nor is it the somewhat faulty mics that made her sound hushed throughout the entire ordeal–it’s actually something that I’ve been seeing across a lot of superstars of both gender: putting your competition over. In pretty much every match where a wrestler is sitting in on commentary (except maybe Kevin Owens), the superstar has nothing but praise for the abilities for their would-be opponents. They spend a good amount of time putting over their competition’s abilities (“extremely talented,” “one of the best,” etc.) and it just always feels wonky. The thing is, if you’re feuding with someone and devote your in-ring or backstage promos to running them down, why would you put them over on commentary? Why wouldn’t you still be like “Lana sucks” or “I’ve beat Natty a million times, so what?” It’s just awkward and unwelcome.
Also awkward and unwelcome? This match. From start to finish this thing is a complete boondoggle, with many of the women missing cues or jumping the gun on moves in ways that expose the business. Of course there’s no surprise that Lana was the worst performer in the ring. Her frequent yelling is obnoxious, but I can see them arguing that it does build heat. It’s her offense that is nearly indefensible. She just keeps throwing these kicks that fall into one of three categories: either they’re super stiff and looks like she’s legit kicking these women in the back, a complete whiff, or they’re feather soft and come off as weak love-taps. She’s clearly not ready for the main roster, so why force her upon the fans? Oddly enough, the best performer in this match may have been Tamina. Her offense was crisp and she hit her marks–yes, she was the first eliminated, but she definitely got to look strong during her stay in the match.
There is a ton of napping going on in this match, so all the women get a chance to go one-on-one in the ring for a bit, while the remaining opponents all lay around the outside. There’s actually a pretty funny bit when Natalya and Becky are facing off in the ring and someone in the crowd yells “Go back to Canada!” I know the gimmick of the night is xenophobia, but when you’re Canadian performer is being told to leave while she’s fighting a European, it doesn’t speak well of Natty’s popularity as a performer. Which makes it extra weird when she wins later on.
Yep, after Becky manages to submit both Tamina and Lana with the Disarm-Her within 30 seconds of each other, Natty runs in and rolls her up to complete the hat trick all within the scope of a minute. This leaves Natalya and Charlotte to fight it out for the win, with Natty going for another roll up that sends the back of Charlotte’s head into the turnbuckle, knocking her out and letting Natalya get the win. Again, short of Lana (who isn’t a real wrestler) and Tamina (who has the charisma of a taxidermied raccoon), Natty was the worst choice to win this match from a fan interest perspective. I get that she’s a legacy performer who has been with the company for years, and I get that you can’t ONLY push the Four Horsewomen in these kinds of matches, but who is actually excited to see Naomi vs. Natalya? Is that really going to get people to sign up for the network? Are they going to forego a late-season episode of Game of Thrones to see the crazy cat lady dominatrix against the blacklight raver? It’s just odd.
Match 4: Kevin Owens Vs. AJ Styles for the United States Championship
Who would have thought that of the three American-Canadian face offs on the card that this would be the biggest disappointment. Oh it wasn’t the worst of these matches (it may’ve been the best, actually); it just had the most missed potential. Given the pedigree of both men, as well as the general weakness of the rest of the card, most people expected this to be the match of the night. Instead it was the worst thing you can get from two world-class performers: it was boring.
If there’s one thing it was missing, it would be pacing. As I mentioned in the the first match, what made that bout so great was that it never let up. It was kinetic and all four men made sure that there was constant motion. This, on the other hand, had a lot of lulls. KO doing his “headlock master” shtick is only funny if he’s inspired to talk trash while he’s rest holding his opponent into submission. “Inspired” being the operative word here. He spends some time working over the shoulder, which bears fruit when AJ can’t get KO up for the Styles Clash. This allows Owens to pick up the phenomenal one and chuck him into the ref in one of the funnier visuals of the night, and yet an empty gesture as it bears no purpose. The ref is down for the remainder of the match, so you think one of two things will happen: Either Owens will use this opportunity to cheat without being caught or AJ will have KO beat, only for the ref to be unable to see it. Neither actually ends up happening, as after a series of reversals, Owens counters a crossface into a weak rollup pin where it looks like both men have their shoulders down, and AJ doesn’t struggle to kick out. The ref even counts super slowly, but nothing comes of it. Talk about anticlimactic. It felt like they forgot the finish and just went with this in the moment.
It’s almost unfathomable that a match between these two could be so bland, and yet here we are. This match, like this PPV, is so utterly forgettable, and the only thing people are going to talk about is the result. Kevin Owens is once again the U.S. Champion, and it looks like we’re going to see another KO/Styles clash at Summerslam. If that was the goal, then why hotshot the title to AJ in the first place? I personally feel like Owens benefits more from holding the belt, especially since he has a new “face of America” shirt to go along with the gimmick. It’s of more intrinsic value to him as a character, so why would you put him against Styles in a throwaway PPV like Battleground? He could’ve given a shot to like Tye Dyllinger and given him the rub of competing for a major title on a PPV, even if KO was always going to win. This? This was just a waste.
Match 5: John Cena Vs. Rusev in a Flag Match
So I recently wrote a piece on the best ways to book 10 prominent gimmick matches, and while some prominent stipulations didn’t make the cut (I notably missed out on ladder matches), one thing I purposefully didn’t include was “____ on a pole” matches. A lingering vestige of Vince Russo’s unfortunate influence on the wrestling world, there is no way to book a pole match, because the central conceit is too stupid to make anything decent out of. At Battleground, the WWE tried to make one work by changing the rules of a flag match and completely bungled the booking for two different stipulations in the process. You see the whole conceit of a flag match is that the performers have intense personal connections and respect for the flags they fight under. Yet the added stipulation that the competitors must grab their flag from the pole then run it up to the entrance and plant it on these cute lil pedestals they set up at the front means that retrieving the banner is only part of the equation. It also means that there will be a ton of fighting AFTER the flags have already been taken down from their poles to boost the tension.
Here’s the thing, though, you can’t have an even fight if both guys are holding flagpoles. One, or both, will have to drop their flags on the ground to properly fight the other guy – and that’s exactly what happens. Multiple times. In most countries (including the U.S. and probably Bulgaria), this is a tremendous sign of disrespect – and both guys did it! To their own flags! Cena literally (and tastelessly) evoked D-Day and 9/11 in his promos leading up to this match to touch on how important the stars and stripes are to him, and yet he’s sullying the flag according to section 8B of the U.S. Flag code. Fun fact, that same code says that Cena should now respectfully dispose of this sullied banner by burning it. Also odd? Cena’s still wearing his University of Florida colors instead of any patriotic garb. Shoot, Rusev is wearing red, white and blue (A holdover from his Russian sympathizer gimmick), but All-American big match John is clad in garish orange and blue ‘cause merch sales.
All that said:
We all knew going in that there was no way Cena was losing this match, and even though my boy Handsome Rusev controlled most of the action, this match just went to prove that he will always be a jobber to the stars. This is made most evident by Rusev tapping out to the STF, midway through the bout. The thing is, this is a no disqualification match, so the tap out didn’t end anything and didn’t count. It’s just to prove that Cena would have won in a regular match. I mean based on the traditional rules of flag matches, Ruru would have won because he grabbed the Bulgarian flag first, but I digress. While both men are able to retrieve their flags, the second half of the stipulation is where things feel the most dragged out and silly. So in order to win you have to plant your flagpole in the pedestal at the front of the arena right? So why not throw your opponent’s flag like into the crowd before running yours up to the front? Shoot, the base that holds the flagpole isn’t fixed to the pedestal, why not throw that away? At one point, Rusev takes a minute or two to set up two tables next to the American pedestal while Cena’s on the ground – but like, if Cena was out, why not grab your damn flag and win the match?
Of course none of that logical shit happens. Cena fulfills wrestling’s Chekov’s Gun theory (he who sets up a table/pile of chairs/whatever will be the one to go through said hazard) by AAing Handsome Rusev through the tables, then plants his flag in the base and wins the match. What a waste of talent (Oh hey, I got to say that twice in this review, isn’t that grand). Cena has been on something of a goodwill tour with the fans for the last few years due to consistently strong performances in the ring and his tendency to be the best part of whatever non-WWE project he’s a part of (speaking of which, check out HBO’s Tour de Pharmacy, it’s hilarious). Rusev, meanwhile, is beloved by the fans and the true future of the company–if only the company would actually see that. The man never wins anymore, and is always made to look like a chump. If they’re not careful they’re going to Bray Wyatt my man Ruru, and nobody should be Bray Wyatt. Bray Wyatt shouldn’t be Bray Wyatt.
I really wanted to love this, because Tyler Breeze and Fandango have been the best part of Smackdown for a few weeks at this point. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough here. Yeah it was funny to see the Ascension’s reaction to the disembodied head of Tully the hobby horse (especially with the bit of Tully’s stuffing getting stuck in Konnor’s beard), and I don’t mind them dragging the mystery of who attacked Breezey and Dango out until Summerslam, but with the ending of this bit being a little too reminiscent of the Blair Witch Project, I have to assume that means we have some kind of spooky bad guys, and by process of elimination, I assume that means Erick Rowan and Luke Harper are back together, which is only slightly less deflating than it ACTUALLY being the Ascension. Oh well, if it means more skits with these two guys, I suppose I’ll take it.
Match 6: Mike Kanellis Vs. Sami Zayn
If anyone had any suspicion that Mike Kanellis may be getting a push out of this lovebird gimmick, this match put an end to that real quick. There are bits of his packaging that are very on point. His theme song is obviously amazing, it’s great that both he and his wife wear personalized jackets with her face on the back, I like that the announce team refers to him as “Maria’s Husband,” even if it’s clear that Vince is in the back feeding that line to them over and over again. He’s ALMOST there. Yet this match may have exposed him as a relatively weak worker. Kanelis only throws strikes throughout the points in the match where he actually gets in some offense, and they aren’t particularly good looking strikes at that.
Zayn, for his part, is his usual self, but a lot more competitive than he’s usually allowed to be. It’s a weird position to be in as a fan of Sami’s, as he shouldn’t be demolishing Mike Kanellis in his debut PPV match, but he loses all the time. That means I can’t really be mad when he gets a clean, dominant win. It just shouldn’t be at the expense of a debuting guy if the guys in the back have any hope of pushing Kanellis in the future. Shoot, they even repeated the spot from Thursday’s Smackdown match where Maria jumps in the match to prevent Zayn from getting in some offense only for Mike to land some of his own. Only this time, Sami acts like he’s actually seen a wrestling match before and doesn’t allow the distraction to cost him the match. Instead he worms his way out of a Samoan Driver attempt, hits his exploder suplex and Heluva Kick for the win.
I would say this should’ve been their Smackdown match to build interest in a longer, better bout, but for that to work, you wouldn’t want Sami to get such a commanding win. He clearly looks like the better wrestler now, while Kanellis looks like a chump who can’t even win when he cheats. I just don’t know with this one. It was fine, I guess, but it totally murks Kanellis as a performer for a win that, while appreciated, Sami didn’t need. Still, that theme song tho.
Match 7: Randy Orton Vs. Jinder Mahal in a Punjabi Prison Match for the WWE Title
Oooof, this match. So this is only the third Punjabi Prison match ever, partly because the concept only makes sense if one of your performers of of Indian descent (and WWE has only ever pushed two Indian men to the main event) and partly because the very design of the structure makes the match hard to watch. I don’t mean it’s so violent and competitive that the audience is morally and mentally shaken by what they’re seeing (even if that’s what the announce team keeps trying to put over). I mean there’s not a single unobstructed view of the action in the entire match. In Hell in a Cell, the Elimination Chamber and other cage match varieties, the WWE’s production staff has mostly figured out how to get clear video from inside the cage–clearly not a priority when it comes to the Prison, because it’s almost impossible to see what’s going on through the 10 tons of rattan that surrounds the ring.
Anyway, Jinder comes out first, which is something they really need to stop doing. Champions come out second, WWE. They are (supposedly) the draw, and deserve the most pomp, especially when the challenger comes to the ring riding a terrible CG sperm. Anyway, the match starts and immediately reveals another reason this match type is trash: the doors. So there are four doors on the inner cage and each can be opened only once and for a minute at a time. Literally within the first 40 seconds, Jinder calls for the first door and Randy goes into the lamest defense tactic of grabbing Mahal’s leg and holding on till the time elapses. They do this exact spot two more times, trading who grabs whose leg once or twice, but spend the time in between stalling. Both men nap or stand across the ring staring at one another for way too long, just big stretches of nothing until Orton calls for the last door. After a bit of back and forth, Randy manages to hit the RKO only for the Singh brothers to show up and drag Mahal through the gate and leave Orton on the inside. As they rouse Jinder enough to climb the cage, Orton scales the inner cell and LITERALLY STEPS FROM THE TOP OF THE INSIDE CAGE TO THE TOP OF THE OUTSIDE CAGE. Like…that proves how stupid this whole concept is, doesn’t it? You can easily move from the top of one cage to the second, so why bother with the second at all? You’re literally able to get out quicker by climbing the inside then jumping to the top of the second cage than if you were to go through the door then climb the second cage from the ground up. Randy and Jinder are supposed to fight a bit on the outside cage after this but RANDY IS TOO HIGH UP and literally has to climb down a bit to fight the Modern day Maharaja. Eesh.
Anyway, both men fight to the ground which makes it a three-on-one as the Singhs try to get involved only to once again get murdered by Orton. Sunil gets whacked with chairs and kendo sticks a few times, eats a Vintage DDT onto the mat, but his brother gets it a lot worse. At one point Samir sees Orton climbing the outside cage, so he squeezes through the bamboo (because he’s some sort of pygmy man) and climbs the outside of the cage to hold on to Randy and prevent him from getting to the top. Randy then manages to kick Samir’s ass through the cage, sending the former Bollywood Boy plummeting from about 15 feet in the air and through the announce table. Yes, the best spot of the match didn’t really even involve either of the competitors in the bout.
The finish comes with Orton again near the top of the cage and Jinder on the floor, when Mahal’s music starts up out of nowhere. Now who should come lumbering down the entrance ramp? The Great fucking Khali. The most immobile, unemotive and universally reviled performer of the past 15 years. When Khali left the company in 2014, he could barely move or take bumps because of back and knee problems, meaning he mostly served as a valet or comedy distraction, rather than an in-ring competitor. Do I think a lot has improved in the ensuing three years? Judging by the way he limped down to ringside and feebly shook the cage – I’d have to say no. Khali shakes the cage so hard that Randy, for some reason, drops down a few feet, allowing the Punjabi Playboy to climb only a few steps and hold Orton in a weak-looking choke until Jinder is able to get up and over the cage to retain.
Eesh. Look, we all knew the match wasn’t going to have a clean ending, and we all expected Orton to lose more from shenanigans than actual in-ring competition. But bringing back one of the worst performers in company history to pay off a xenophobia angle with some kind of villainous Indian wrestling stable (with Khali being the only one actually from India) is just awful. Worst yet, it gives Randy an excuse to stick around with this feud a little longer and god help us, the last thing we need is more Orton/Mahal matches. That’s all without even touching on the plot hole that is a partnership between Khali and Mahal, as the latter was originally introduced as the villainous brother-in-law to the former when he made his main roster debut way back in 2011. I’m assuming they won’t bring up that time they both competed with recorders to see who could charm Santino’s cobra either.