A few takeaways were abundantly clear from Sunday night’s WrestleMania Backlash pay-per-view, most prominently the line of challengers for Roman Reigns’s spot as WWE and universal champion.
While WWE has a surplus of frustrating qualities (like the callous way it cuts talent under contract), there is also no denying its roster is outrageously talented. That was on display at Backlash, where the majority of matches exceeded expectations. This was a night when a number of key players—Becky Lynch, Bianca Belair, Sasha Banks, Kofi Kingston, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Rey Mysterio and Shinsuke Nakamura, to name just a few—weren’t even on the six-match card, further illustrating the depth of the roster.
The card opened with Cody Rhodes defeating Seth Rollins, which was the match of the night. Rhodes has infused excitement into WWE programming since his return last month. Immediately putting him in the ring across from Rollins was brilliant, as Rollins is so talented that he continues to dazzle even when he is losing.
Rhodes and Rollins have tremendous chemistry together, and their match at Backlash made a great deal of sense. Rollins had claimed he was better prepared for Rhodes at Backlash than he was last month at WrestleMania 38, where Rhodes caught him unprepared as his mystery opponents. Rollins had an answer for all of Rhodes’s offense at Backlash, then pulled Rhodes’s tights in an attempt to secure the winning pinfall—which was reversed by Rhodes, again one step ahead, who scored the victory with an assist from a handful of Rollins’s tights.
The card also saw Edge defeat AJ Styles with help from Rhea Ripley (who adds a new element to the faction of Edge and Damian Priest); MVP-led Omos beat Bobby Lashley; Ronda Rousey won the SmackDown women’s title from Charlotte Flair in an entertaining “I Quit” match; Madcap Moss pinned Happy Corbin (this was the one bout that didn’t quite hit the mark); and a main event which saw The Bloodline—Reigns and The Usos—defeat Drew McIntyre, Randy Orton and Matt Riddle in a six-man tag, one that delivered nonstop action for 22 minutes before Reigns pinned Riddle.
A year ago, Backlash was Cesaro’s moment. He headlined the show in a title match against Reigns, but he was severely hurt by the fact that the pay-per-view took place in front of a fan-less ThunderDome. Cesaro desperately needed the adrenaline from the crowd, which he had received during WWE’s return to live audiences at WrestleMania 37. Reigns won the match, Cesaro was moved out of the main event picture, and less than a year later, he and the company parted ways over creative differences. Now, a year after Cesaro got his shot, the same issue exists for WWE: Reigns needs the right opponent.
Reigns is so phenomenally talented that he even drew attention to a house show this past weekend in Trenton, N.J., delivering a promo that instantly went rival.
Listening to Reigns cut the promo in the ring, it captured the spirit of the entire Reigns/Paul Heyman collaborative process, which blurs the lines between character and reality. That’s a part of the beauty of their relationship—they come from two vastly different generations, yet merge their talents to form this incredible alliance.
Remarkably, their partnership is even more influential than the duo of Heyman and Brock Lesnar. Together, Reigns and Heyman have surpassed everything they did creatively beforehand in WWE. Reigns’s time in The Shield feels like a distant memory, and he is an entirely new act with Heyman, shedding more than just the vest. Heyman is even more captivating with Reigns than he was with Lesnar. Their work is so progressive, and that promo in Trenton was another example of their magic, instantly making the six-man tag at Backlash more compelling.
Reigns has been champ for more than 600 days. He began as the universal champion, and now also holds the WWE title. That makes sense, considering he is the face of the company—why muddy the waters with another men’s world champ? Making Reigns the standalone champion is the right call, but new opponents are needed for him to continue this reign with the belt. Perhaps The Rock will return, but even if that happens, it would be built around next year’s WrestleMania in Los Angeles. A lot of time exists between now and then.
Reigns’s upcoming dance partners were all visible at Backlash. Winning the six-man tag set the tone for the story of The Bloodline prevailing. Now, who will step up and stop them? Based on last night, the next three opponents for Reigns will be Orton, Riddle and McIntyre.
Orton is ready right now for that platform. As evidenced by the massive reaction from his RKO on Reigns last night, so is the crowd. Riddle is an unknown in the main event, but it was interesting to see the way he was positioned in last night’s six-man. Yes, he ate the pin at the end of the match—yet he also had the most high-spots, the most saves and the most attention throughout the match. He is ready for a program with Reigns, who needs opponents at the three upcoming high-stakes stadium shows at Money in the Bank (Las Vegas), SummerSlam (Nashville) and Clash at the Castle (Cardiff, Wales) following next month’s Hell in a Cell show. McIntyre is the third opponent in line for Reigns, but he needs time to be properly heated up before the Cardiff show in the UK.
But what about Cody Rhodes?
Rhodes’s return to WWE has been full of energy. He is cutting heartfelt promos, working fantastic matches, and breathing new air into Raw, which often struggles due to its laborious three-hour time slot. The son of the legendary Dusty Rhodes, Cody was raised in the WWE system, then left when it was apparent that he and the people running the company shared different visions for his future. Rhodes believed he could be a legitimate main-event star, so he left the company and proved it. He had compelling runs in New Japan Pro-Wrestling and Ring of Honor, then went on to make AEW feel like it was his promotion. In many ways, it was. Now Rhodes is back, using the same music and gear he had in AEW. If that doesn’t have a “Monday Night Wars” feel to it, then what does? There needs to be a build to his ascent to the main event, but the company also needs to strike while the timing is right.
A telling detail of WWE’s future plans will be the winner of Money in the Bank, which is scheduled for July 2. Either Rhodes or Riddle as the winner would add an interesting dynamic to the weekly programming, with either Rhodes chasing his dream to become WWE champion, or Riddle holding the briefcase while still partnered with Orton.
The most fascinating figure in all of pro wrestling remains Roman Reigns. That is set to continue through the summer, especially with fresh opponents ready.
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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.