In the unenviable position of following WrestleMania on WWE’s Premium Live Event calendar, Backlash has become something of a damp squib in the eyes of wrestling fans. Oridinarily packed with rematches from the biggest event of the year, instead of heralding in new beginnings, for years the event has been lacklustre.
Heading into 2023’s effort, the WWE Universe expected something similar, but were instead treated to an outstanding night of action in front of a raucous Puerto Rican crowd. Records tumbled both on social media and financially, with viewership of the event seeing a 28% increase versus the record set in 2022.
One reason for such a drastic spike in viewers was the inclusion of hometown hero and music sensation Bad Bunny. Labelled as the most-streamed music artist in the world, the hip-hop star’s appearance helped mark the largest gate in the history of Backlash.
Andy Spoors explains why Backlash will live long in the memory, but could also pose WWE problems heading into the future…
Ear Splitting San Juan
A little over 18 years on from the last PLE to be held in Puerto Rico, the WWE Universe got a tease as early as Friday afternoon to expect something special. Hosting a press conference ahead of the event, as well as an episode of SmackDown, fans turned up in huge numbers and in great voice for every Superstar making an appearance.
In a year when WWE have already hosted an event in Montreal and have an upcoming London date pencilled in for Money In The Bank, Puerto Rico staked their claim for the loudest chapter of the WWE Universe. The noise was relentless from the minute a drone flew through the Coliseo de Puerto Rico José Miguel Agrelot to kick off proceedings.
And that volume hit 11 as two of the island’s hometown heroes went head to head in the co-main event of the night. Damian Priest of The Judgement Day and Bad Bunny locked up in a San Juan Street Fight for the ages. Not satisfied with just two residents, fans were treated to appearances from island legends Carlito Colón and Savio Vega to send the crowd into raptures.
For a music superstar who has in recent weeks headlined Coachella, to not only step into a wrestling ring, but put on a show-stealing performance (and not for the first time) is astonishing. Unlike celebrity appearances of the past, it is obvious Bad Bunny is first and foremost a fan who understands the business. That mentality ensures an outlook of relishing every moment and helping grow the audience. With his stock as high as anyone in the world, WWE are in a position to reap the rewards of taking a calculated risk.
To play out a grudge match in front of his home town acted as the icing on the cake. Those in attendance lapped up every move, every attempted pinfall and ultimately a Bad Bunny victory. His entrance alone had 18,000 singing along to create one of the best WWE ring walks in decades.
With the company moving to international events, the bar has now been set for noise levels moving forward. Puerto Rico did themselves proud and showcased exactly why wrestling will always be better when the crowd is in full flow. Perhaps an unfortunate victim of having to follow one of the best atmospheres this year, Jacksonville, Florida just didn’t come close. Judging by the comparable flatness displayed on Monday Night Raw, WWE may have to think twice when booking locations in the future.
Bianca and IYO Set The Tone
With two women’s title matches on the card, it was slightly surprising to see proceedings kicked off by Bianca Belair defending her championship against IYO SKY. Not because the pair couldn’t put on a fantastic match, but because the other match featured Zelina Vega, whose Puerto Rican heritage made her an overwhelming crowd favourite.
Pressure well and truly on, Bianca and SKY adopted the now infamous NXT mentality of “Follow That Motherfuckers”, knocking it out the park. Interestingly the crowd threw their support behind IYO SKY instead of the babyface champion. Receiving loud boos for the first time in her main roster run, Bianca recovered well and stuck to her task admirably.
To this point and despite holding the Women’s Tag Team Championships, IYO has never really had a chance to display her impressive in-ring ability. That all changed in one night at Backlash. No longer a supporting character for Bayley, IYO showed why she is considered the ‘Genius of the Sky’ and for those members of the WWE Universe not au fait with NXT, a coming out moment.
For Bianca it was ultimately a title retention, but thanks in part to IYO’s running buddy, Bayley. There are growing voices on social media, claiming the champion is fast becoming a modern day Super Cena. This is not a compliment, but more of a harken back to a stage of John Cena’s career where his character outstayed its welcome and he “buried” any and all challengers.
As we have mentioned before, WWE must decide what to do with Belair. An undoubted talent, but one that threatens to go stale if not given some more substance and crucially, someone that can act as a foil for her ‘EST of WWE’ gimmick. In IYO, they may have found that Superstar, but time will tell if the company are ready to stick or twist on a gimmick quickly wearing thin.
The Beast Bleeds As Cody Capitalises
If Belair vs SKY opening the show was a shock, Cody Rhodes vs Brock Lesnar closing it was potentially even more so. Since his losing effort in WrestleMania’s main event, Rhodes has featured heavily on WWE programming to some of the loudest receptions. His appearances without the Undisputed WWE Universal Championship however, have served as a painful reminder of that fateful night.
Being plunged into a feud with Brock Lesnar has at least kept the American Nightmare busy. In San Juan, Rhodes even managed to pick up a victory over the Beast Incarnate. The real story was however the manner in which the win was achieved. After being launched into an exposed turnbuckle, Lesnar’s forehead immediately began to pour with blood.
Unlike other wrestling promotions, the use of blood in WWE since the Ruthless Aggression era (circa 2002-2008) has been few and far between. The image of one of the most dominant Superstars of the past 20 years, covered in his own blood was startling. Still managing some offence, Cody turned a submission move into a winning pin opportunity much to the chagrin of a wounded Lesnar.
Somewhat foolishly hoping a victory would end their rivalry, Cody looked to move on and progress in the tournament for WWE’s new World Heavyweight Championship two nights later on Raw. Instead Lesnar would cost him his opportunity, before viciously beating down the ‘Grandson of a Plumber’.
Chillingly looking down the camera lens screaming “Look at my face!”, Lesnar challenged Rhodes to another showdown at Night Of Champions later this month. With Brock in the mood for dishing out punishment and Rhodes still looking for redemption, the prospect of a rematch now becomes tantalising.
Rollins Rolls On
With little to no build for his match vs the giant Omos at Backlash, fans have clambered for Seth Rollins to be crowned the first World Heavyweight Champion. Very few Superstars fit the bill Triple H described when introducing the new title, quite like Rollins.
Used as the measuring stick for great matches in WWE, Rollins has it all. Charisma, media training, impressive in-ring skills and a connection with the WWE Universe very few enjoy. Pulling out Omos’ best performance to date, Rollins moved on to claim his place in the finals of the tournament to take place in Saudi Arabia.
Winning a triple threat match against Shinsuke Nakamura and Damian Priest, before overcoming Finn Balor, the Visionary’s route to the title has already been earned, but WWE have never been one to go down the easy and obvious route. Should Rollins claim the championship, the company instantly gain the antithesis of Roman Reigns. A full time champion that appears night in and night out.