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WWE Backlash recaps and ratings: Backlash doesn't move the needle

Seth Rollins opened Sunday's Backlash pay-per-view with a tremendous Intercontinental championship match. Courtesy of WWE

Sunday's Backlash event brought a return to co-branded WWE pay-per-views outside of the "big four," with superstars from Monday Night Raw and SmackDown Live battling throughout the night. From the no-disqualification WWE championship rematch between AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura, to the grudge match between Samoa Joe and Roman Reigns, to both women's championships being on the line, WWE Backlash offered an opportunity to tie up any remaining loose ends from last month's WrestleMania 34 and the Superstar Shakeup.

Matt Wilansky and Tim Fiorvanti offered match recaps through the night, with ESPN Stats & Information's Sean Coyle offering match ratings based on a five-star scale. This was updated in real time.

(c) - indicates defending champion

Roman Reigns def. Samoa Joe

If you tuned into Sunday's Backlash pay-per-view hoping for a much-needed change of pace or any kind of real story progression, to quote Wade Barrett, I'm afraid I've got some bad news.

On a night when Seth Rollins and The Miz tore it up in the opener, and Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles KO'd each other with a series of low blows, Roman Reigns was once again the center of an unsatisfying main event that answered exactly zero of the many questions circling his current status.

Samoa Joe dominated the vast majority of the match, Hit an Uranage on Reigns through a table before the bell even rang, locked the Coquina Clutch on for a long stretch and even avoided a pinfall on Reigns' first spear. But if you were to sketch out a way for Reigns to emerge victorious in the most predictable and agonizing way possible, the match we saw Sunday night at Backlash followed that blueprint down to every last painstaking detail.

No matter how many times Joe threw Reigns around the ring and ringside area, no matter how hard he hit his suicide dive forearm and no matter how long he held Reigns in a submission hold, this match's inevitable outcome was the perfect representation for a card that didn't feel like it cared about how the fans felt.

From here, where does Reigns go? Does he keep on waiting until another Brock Lesnar match at SummerSlam? Is that something that a Brooklyn crowd is going to stomach? And what about Samoa Joe? This was his third match since coming back from an injury, and he was posturing for a WWE championship opportunity last Tuesday opposite AJ Styles.

This was a night when the WWE could have paid off all of Samoa Joe's tremendous in-ring and on-microphone performances of the past two years with a career-defining victory that would've likely done more good for Reigns long term than another in an endless string of victories over everyone not named Lesnar.

Instead, Backlash ended with an unsatisfying postscript to a supremely unsatisfying stretch of creative decisions. With Raw and SmackDown finally settled into their own self-contained worlds, here's hoping it gets better in the months to come.

Braun Strowman and Bobby Lashley def. Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn

You can't have a pay-per-view without Braun, right?

Poor guy. As big as he is, and as popular as he has become, he has become kind of lost in the Monday Night Raw landscape at the moment. But that wasn't going to stop him from having at least a small window to shine.

And the truth is, his partner, Bobby Lashley, while someone with a robust wrestling CV, isn't well-known to the newer generation of WWE fans. So it made sense to pair them up and let them kick the stuffing out of a couple of bad guys.

Lashley began the match by outmuscling his opponents, inside the ring and, for Zayn in particular, outside of it. But Owens' nefarious distractions as he awaited a tag gave the underdogs a brief advantage.

Owens and Zayn did a terrific job in keeping Lashley away from Strowman -- until they didn't. Once Strowman was tagged in, he cleaned the clocks of his foes. KO and Zayn tried to evade Strowman. At one point, Zayn tried to bail from the match completely, until Owens berated him for his cowardly act. Then, Zayn turned on his partner, throwing Owens in the ring, before KO did the same to Zayn.

Mercifully, it finally ended when Lashley pinned Owens.

Afterward, Strowman and Lashley continued to beat down the hot mess of Owens and Zayn. The match, while obviously a buffer between Styles-Nakamura and Roman Reigns-Samoa Joe, accomplished everything it was supposed to -- most notably the strength of Strowman and Lashley and the fragile friendship of Owens and Zayn.

WWE championship (no disqualification): AJ Styles (c) vs. Shinsuke Nakamura ends in a double countout

There's no way of really telling if the ends justify the means until something is all said and done, but after a single decisive victory, two straight countouts and at least a dozen low blows, it's easy to feel anxious when it comes to where AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura are at.

Up until the point when Nakamura simultaneously kicked each other full force in the groin, leading to the second countout result in a WWE championship match between them in nine days, there was a collective groan from the Newark, New Jersey, audience that seemingly represented the bulk of WWE fandom.

There was an era when "Dusty" finishes -- so named because of the legendary Dusty Rhodes and his style of booking indecisive or misleading finishes to extend money rivalries -- made sense. That was an era with a maximum of one hour's worth of TV per week and one show in the region. With seven-plus hours of Raw and SmackDown alone, jamming so many indecisive finishes into such a short window doesn't tend to end up well-received.

It was a confusing move to begin with not to position the WWE championship match on the Backlash card, until we saw the finish -- but that's an issue for another day.

The honest truth is that this could ultimately lead to an absolute in-ring classic, which we saw flashes of up until the supremely disappointing finish. Nakamura landed everything from a devastating apron knee to the back of Styles' head, to a middle rope flying knee to the chest, to a landslide, to name a few. He dominated the action for much of the match, and he and Styles were as crisp and as violent with their strikes as you ever could have wanted.

They got the crowd into the show after hours of quiet, which had been the atmosphere after a thrilling opener, by throwing caution (and chairs) to the wind. Styles got busted open by a ricocheting chair.

Both threw their all into the match and each man felt like they were moments away from winning, but until we see another decisive result in this rivalry, it's going to be hard to justify the process.

SmackDown women's championship: Carmella (c) def. Charlotte Flair

It took Carmella 287 days to successfully cash in her Money in the Bank briefcase and win the SmackDown women's championship. The question was whether she could hold on to the belt for more than a month.

There's no question the blue brand needs a big-time women's heel, but on the flip side, Charlotte is the most accomplished women's performer in the business. How long can you keep the title away from the Queen?

Turns out, at least a little while longer. Carmella played the cowardly heel well to start off the match, as she took her title and looked like she might try to make a beeline back to the locker room. Charlotte would have none of it and stopped her and tossed her back into the ring.

Carmella spent a good amount of time shouting and taunting her opponent, and the pace of the match was slow for the most part.

Charlotte, in a rage of anger from the stalling and taunting, finally speared Carmella to quiet the champ. But it didn't last for long. Carmella caught Charlotte in a code of silence, but the turning point came when Charlotte went for a moonsault of the top rope, landed awkwardly and appeared to injure her left knee. Carmella took advantage of the situation and rolled up Charlotte for the win.

It was a much-needed victory for Carmella and the overall landscape of the women's SmackDown division. She wasn't overly impressive, but the fact that she left Backlash with a win, while annoying the fans with her endless yelling, was an important step in her reign as the titleholder.

Daniel Bryan def. Big Cass

With Daniel Bryan and Big Cass both coming into their match at Backlash to have their first one-on-one showdown in a lengthy stretch, few knew what to expect. Would we get the unthinkable, with Bryan taking an early loss that could derail his seemingly undeniable post-return momentum? Or would Cass come back after nine months out to lose right out of the gate?

What we got was a little bit of everything -- and an uncertain future.

Bryan got a decisive submission victory after absorbing some of Cass' brutality -- finishing it all up with a series of left crosses to Cass' face and the "Yes!" lock. But just when you thought it was safe to put this puzzling matchup in the rearview mirror and look forward to enticing matchups such as The Miz, AJ Styles or Shinsuke Nakamura, Cass executed a postmatch attack that once again muddied the waters.

This wasn't a particularly bad match for Cass, by any means; he got plenty of heat from the crowd, and he hit a few key moves, including a modified torture rack and some solid, chained clotheslines. But it's still unclear as to why he was inserted directly back into a high-level rivalry when he seemingly would've benefited from being built back up by tearing his way through the roster from the bottom up.

His postmatch attack could have indicated a number of possibilities, from a future alliance with The Miz, to another match with Bryan, or perhaps a parting note to send him on to a different opponent.

United States championship: Jeff Hardy (c) def. Randy Orton

Depending on how you look at this match, Jeff Hardy and Randy Orton were either two longtime accomplished dudes battling for the United States championship -- or just quality filler-time material.

The truth is that there was no visceral heat between them. Matter of fact, they actually like and respect each other. Still, each is at his athletic best and, more so, Hardy in particular needed a bona fide foe to truly kick-start his title reign. Who better than Orton?

As the battle began, Orton channeled his inner Viper and beat down Hardy with a series of kicks to the skull. But outside of the ring, Hardy caught Orton with a high-flying knee to the face to neutralize his larger opponent.

Orton rebounded quickly with a massive drop kick that sent Hardy outside the ring and followed that up with three consecutive slams onto the barricade. While it looked like Hardy could have broken his ribs or back -- or both -- he was hardly done. Back in the ring, he caught Orton with a Whisper in the Wind, only for Orton to rebound with a DDT and power slam.

The momentum was short-lived, however, as Hardy quickly strung together his one-two punch of a twist of fate and Swanton Bomb for the win.

Predictable, perhaps. Filler time? Maybe. But a worthy win for Hardy so he can move on to big and better things? Most definitely.

Raw women's championship: Nia Jax (c) def. Alexa Bliss

Modern professional wrestling has adapted to allow for an almost endless amount of match styles. The kind of matchup we got for the Raw women's championship, pitting a diminutive villain against a much larger hero, presented one of the most challenging scenarios there could be.

It was a lot to ask for from Nia Jax and Alexa Bliss, and though there were hot and cold periods throughout the match, and the length of the contest strained suspension of disbelief, there were enough highlights to shine over some of the rougher patches.

The most memorable moments were watching Bliss get ragdolled all over the ring. From the time that Bliss got slingshotted from the top turnbuckle all the way to the middle of the ring, to the many tosses that saw her touch every bit of the mat, the moments where Jax exerted her will felt like they made the most sense. Bliss got all of her offense in through nefarious means, and she made it to the edge of victory a couple of times in at least somewhat believable fashion.

Ultimately, Jax's victory makes a lot of sense for Monday Night Raw; after being the center of attention on SmackDown and Raw for the better part of two years, Bliss can afford to step back a little bit as Raw sees what it has from other members of the women's division.

Jax's anti-bullying message wasn't warmly received by the New York/New Jersey crowd, but it's still the strongest hook that Jax is going to have if she's going to remain the top face on Raw.

Intercontinental championship: Seth Rollins (c) def. The Miz

How can you top this? Seth Rollins and The Miz put on a performance that was pay-per-view worthy -- and then some.

Rollins, the hottest performer in the business, fought a good part of the match on one leg after a miscue led him to bashing his surgically repaired knee into the ring post. But nothing was going to stop him. Not even The Miz's quest for history. With a win, The Miz would have tied Chris Jericho with his ninth Intercontinental title, the most ever. That quest will have to wait.

After a fairly methodical start to the bout, the fireworks began, perhaps starting with Rollins' exceptional jump off the top rope. Rollins leaped nearly three-quarters of the way across the ring and landed perfectly on top of The Miz. Though it only went for a two-count, the degree of difficulty was recognized by the fans, who offered up a "This is awesome" chant. Moments after that, Rollins hurt his knee by slamming it into the ring post and opened the door for a spurt of offense from The Miz.

The Miz took advantage of the situation, locking in a figure four for an extended period of time, only for Rollins to muster enough energy to reverse it. Moments later, The Miz almost won the match again with a skull-crushing finale.

Still, Rollins summoned the energy to move on. Incredibly, he executed a supersplex off the top rope; but even more incredibly, The Miz reversed his falcon arrow attempt that followed it into another skull-crushing finale for another near-fall.

Rollins was not going to concede, though. He has been given a massive push for a reason. As he hobbled around with one good knee, Rollins ultimately caught The Miz with a curb stomp for the win

Rollins has dominated everyone in his path lately, and if you include multiperson matches, he has now beaten The Miz eight straight times.


Backlash Kickoff Show: Ruby Riott def. Bayley

In spite of a Bayley-Sasha Banks storyline that continues to go off the rails, Ruby Riott and Bayley impressed during their WWE Backlash Kickoff show match. Riott ultimately picked up another big victory and some more momentum, while showing off more of her expansive offensive repertoire.

Tim Fiorvanti, ESPN.com226d ago