WWE Backlash 2017 takes place on Sunday, and there is no argument about what is the featured match of the night: Kevin Owens vs. AJ Styles for the WWE United States Championship.
While there are a number of intriguing matchups on the card, none is as anticipated as this.
WWE is pitting two of its biggest Superstars against one another for a secondary title, one it hopes to elevate after toiling since John Cena's tremendous U.S. title run of 2015. Over the year-and-a-half stretch since Cena lost the title, Superstars like Alberto Del Rio, Kalisto, Rusev and Roman Reigns have held the title, and none of them were able to replicate Cena's success with the title.
Much of that is on WWE, which couldn't script better storylines for its titleholders. The company finally got back on track this year with its Chris Jericho-Owens feud, but much of that centered on the duo's hatred for one another rather than the title itself.
Now the SmackDown creative team is taking its turn at developing a story that fits both the belt and the man holding it. The New Face of America angle works well, with Owens as the arrogant foreign heel who can squeeze the most out of the gimmick.
Pitting him against Styles, the face of the SmackDown brand, works on many levels, as each man is not only fighting for a title, but what that title represents: supremacy over the hottest wrestling brand in the U.S.
And let's not dismiss the fact Owens and Styles are arguably the best two Superstars inside the ring that WWE has today. The fact they've only matched up a handful of times in WWE is both confusing andd criminal.
Those few times they have met inside the ring—like when the duo opened Raw in March 2016 in the hostile confines of Philadelphia—they've stolen the show.
Both men have put on amazing matches since their main-roster debuts against the best the company had to offer. Now they'll be able to showcase what two amazing athletes can do with one another when given the chance.
Owens vs. Styles might be the most anticipated match of Backlash, but there are a few others fans are looking forward to watching.
Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Dolph Ziggler
The in-ring debut of Shinsuke Nakamura is another highly anticipated event at Backlash, one WWE has smartly developed since introducing him in April.
While most hardcore wrestling fans know of Nakamura's exploits from New Japan, and more recently in NXT, casual fans have been treated to a build that makes Nakamura seem like must-see TV. WWE was also smart in choosing his first opponent, as Dolph Ziggler is a perfect foil for The King of Strong Style.
As Marc Normandin of SBNation wrote: "This match could end up being the best one of the entire show, as it's [Nakamura's] first real opportunity to let loose against an opponent who will make him look amazing since his NXT debut against Sami Zayn from TakeOver: Dallas over a year ago."
Whether you're a fan of Ziggler or not, The Showoff doesn't have bad matches. He gives it his all in the ring and is someone who helps elevate his opponent's strengths. Also, he's been able to carry the buildup on the mic, letting Nakamura's theatrics and actions speak for him instead of forcing him into a battle of words.
There's no question Nakamura is destined for bigger and better things than a feud with Ziggler, whether that is a world title program or a longer dispute with the likes of Styles, whom he battled with in New Japan.
In the meantime, WWE needs to build Nakamura slowly so as not to overexpose him. Backlash is a good first step.
Baron Corbin vs. Sami Zayn
Finally, the matchup pitting The Lone Wolf Baron Corbin against The Underdog from the Undergroud Sami Zayn is an tantalizing one that will have major implications for both Superstars.
Make no mistake: Corbin is one of the apples of WWE's eye. He's a future world champion who's been given a taste of the title scene in recent months. He's fought the company's top Superstars, feuded with intercontinental champion Dean Ambrose and has been granted chances to claim the No. 1 contender's spot for others.
As B/R's Graham "GSM" Matthews noted:
"Corbin isn't quite ready to receive a prominent push at this point, but he possesses all the tools necessary to fill the void Wyatt and Miz left behind on SmackDown. Similar to Raw's Braun Strowman, he is rarely beaten in decisive fashion and can be the monster heel the blue brand desperately needs at the moment."
Zayn, on the other hand, is a Superstar in flux. In his most recent 10-Count, B/R lead WWE writer Ryan Dilbert spotlighted Zayn's apparent status on the main roster, that of a "stepping stone of SmackDown" whose time has not yet come, while arguing that the narrative needs to soon change:
"Zayn is one of SmackDown's top in-ring performers. He's a popular star who fans sing for when he competes. He's thrived in feuds against Strowman and Owens and is likely to make Corbin look tremendous. Backlash won't be his time to rise, and that's fine. There is only so much space on center stage at any given time. Moving forward, though, WWE must carve out a higher spot for Zayn."
Fans who wanted a Zayn revival following the Superstar Shake-up are generally disappointed, as the former NXT champion is stuck in the same gear on SmackDown as he was on Raw.
How Zayn is presented at Backlash will go a long way in figuring out where he falls in the WWE hierarchy. A decisive defeat at the hands of Corbin would be damaging for a Superstar fans have wholeheartedly rallied around.