WWE's WrestleMania Backlash on Sunday night was what pretty much everyone likely expected going into the event: downright amazing wrestling with ho-hum storytelling.
And that's the rub with WWE at most high-profile events these days. Fans know the deepest, most talented roster in wrestling history will put on great matches. Historic matches, even. But will the storytelling aspect stick the landing and keep fans wanting to come back?
Sunday night was stunning from an in-ring standpoint but a flop in that other critical area. Rhea Ripley was in the ring with modern greats like Asuka and Charlotte Flair and retained her title, yet the actual story behind it was so-so at best.
Rey and Dominik Mysterio got a fun chance to win a title, which needed to happen. But besting a tag tandem known as The Dirty Dawgs was meh personified. Terrible name aside, Dolph Ziggler is the guy who normally only comes around to sell for a bigger act and Robert Roode has the stench of never living up to potential after his NXT run.
Similar stories in other title contests (we won't even touch that thing called an Army of the Dead Lumberjack match). Bianca Belair kept her title over Bayley, and Bobby Lashley survived a Triple Threat with Braun Strowman and Drew McIntyre to retain his WWE title.
But nothing there is really shocking, and the storytelling aspect didn't come close to feeling like something that should have fans tuning in the very next night to catch a three-hour Raw, peep at NXT, catch SmackDown the following Friday or check a YouTube account.
And because of it, the oddly titled WrestleMania Backlash could have just as easily been called WrestleMania Hangover. It didn't have a chance to gain any momentum because stories weren't really allowed to blossom. Instead, it felt just like a lot of the weekly programming these days: holdover content while WWE waits for something bigger like a Money in the Bank or SummerSlam.
Part of it is just oversaturation of the product, though the long-running unwillingness to work other Superstars into the main event scenes didn't help. Throwing these same feuds out two or three times a week, plus the countless social media appearances and such, just hurts things. A cliche like absence makes the heart grow fonder comes to mind.
Case in point, that stunning, fun Triple Threat match for Lashley's title. All three combatants put on a show. It was pure, big-hoss fun as three juggernauts beat the tar out of each other. Strowman looked like a monster because so many moves were required to keep him down. McIntyre came out of it looking somewhat strong and Lashley retained, which was important because it means MVP remains as his mouthpiece for a longer time while they try to make this thing work.
But so what? Zero storytelling means little fan investment. McIntyre has now been completely derailed overall after losing the belt before 'Mania. He needs to get away from the title scene. Strowman is starting to feel like that guy who never wins the big one and just pops up to make others look good.
And Lashley can hardly talk for himself, which would be fine, but what he can do in the ring has largely been exhausted on weekly programming. Plus, he spent so long toiling in the midcard that all of these feuds he's having feel like they could just serve as a staple of a Raw broadcast (the only thing missing is Baron Corbin). The main event feel is lacking, to say the least.
Even when WWE tried to get some good storytelling going and give fans a reason to stay invested, the results were so-so. The Seth Rollins attack at the end of the show was about as ho-hum as it gets.
For those who missed it, The Messiah came out in a suit that looked like he walked under one too many painter's ladders on the way to the show, then beat the tar out of an already-exhausted Cesaro. He shouted "I'm Seth 'freaking' Rollins" a few times and the show ended.
What does that even mean? Is Rollins going back to more of his traditional type role instead of the silly stuff of the past year? Is he going to start contending for main event titles again now that the stench of the feud that ruined his character with The Fiend is past? And why isn't there a bigger connection to Roman Reigns?
Compare that, for a moment, to another time Rollins had an epic end-of-PPV return in 2016 when he came back from his serious knee injury early to attack Reigns. That was downright incredible, whereas Sunday night felt like it was maybe enough to have fans catching a written recap of SmackDown next Saturday morning.
This probably sounds really harsh but it's worth stressing that this isn't on the talent. WWE Creative continues to fail its Superstars for the most part, and it's a testament to their world-class skill that they can still put on amazing shows without any sort of creative support.
As always, none of this is to say WWE can't pull off a stunning reversal and make it all work in the long run. Rollins probably ends up feuding with Reigns at bigger events over the summer. Keith Lee or somebody gets built up to take down Lashley, etc. But right now? There isn't a must-see feud on deck that fans haven't seen before or absolutely must put down everything to see how the story unfolds.
Nobody can fairly argue that these lesser pay-per-views should feel so by-the-book, boring, even. And there's no way WWE doesn't want to find ways to get fans excited by these events so they actually tune in to weekly programming.
Point being, when fans know WWE is in a holding pattern until the much bigger events, they are more inclined to tune out until those events. Backlash on Sunday night didn't do enough to change this annual problem for the company.