Battleground 2017 was a pretty bad WWE event. I flirt with calling it embarrassingly bad, especially since we have seen the heights that SmackDown is capable of attaining. After a week of some much needed vacation and time spent meditating over last Sunday’s events, I have returned to discuss the most infuriating element of SmackDown’s final event show before the Biggest Party of the Summer.
There are a number of things I could spend the length of this column talking about – the return of the Great Khali, the tag team titles changing hands, the victory of Natalya Neidhart, or the atrocious match up between Baron Corbin and Shinsuke Nakamura. Instead, I would like to discuss the foreign heel vs. patriotic face trope.
The idea of a foreign threat against a patriotic savior is a trope as old as time itself. Xenophobia has been so long a part of world history that it has normalized itself in modern culture. The word ‘barbarian’ derives from the Latin word not for ‘savage,’ but for ‘foreigner’. Comic books, television shows, films, and video games are so chock-full of this narrative concept that it would take pages upon pages to come even close to a fair encapsulation.
In wrestling, it is no different. Hulk Hogan had the Iron Sheik, Magnum TA had Nikita Koloff, Lex Luger had Yokozuna, and the list goes on and on and on and on. In small and infrequent doses, this is can be palatable. John Cena and Rusev’s initial feud was entertaining for a spell. In cases where the trope consumes three of the top-billed matches for a pay-per-view – well, let’s say it does go down so easily.
For those who need a recap, last Sunday night we had: Kevin ‘The New Face of America’ Owens vs. AJ Styles for the United States Championship, John Cena vs. Rusev in a USA vs. Bulgaria Flag match, and Jinder ‘You Hate Me Because Of My Heritage’ Mahal vs. Randy Orton in a Punjabi Prison match.
Three matches all predicated on exactly the same theme: a foreign ‘heel’ wrestler against an American ‘face’ wrestler. What incensed me even more was that each individual feud retained an element of individuality that would have made for a compelling story if it was truly exploited to its fullest potential and not squandered in a mess of samey-ness.
John Cena and Rusev was the most outwardly patriotic of the three, but it lacked even the least bit of nuance to the story. Rusev played the exact same burly foreigner he has been pigeonholed into since Day 1 and John Cena did the same wrote patriotic promo that we’ve heard countless times before. That was the entire beginning, middle and end of the story.
The two men had engaged before – and there was ample opportunity to explore that – instead we got a one-note trot through the most worn-out story in WWE history. Jinder Mahal and Randy Orton was the more puzzling of the three in terms of its relationship with this theme. Mahal’s entire gimmick is that he’s Indian and he has quite often referenced his look and his heritage as the reason the crowd doesn’t back him.
Randy has once or twice refuted that claim, referencing that he has no support because he’s a bad person. However, this surprisingly nuanced approach to a trite trope has been pushed aside for a more comfortable heel/face dynamic of a slippery Mahal barely securing victory with the help of his cronies. Maybe that’s for the best. Maybe this is the WWE subverting the trope. I wouldn’t give them that much credit.
The most aggravating – and I do mean the most aggravating – of the three feuds featured at Battleground 2017 is Kevin Owens vs. AJ Styles with a goshdarn bullet. This is not just because it was colossally disappointing in its match quality, not just because it proved to be another meaningless title change (that was itself corrected on the following episode of SmackDown Live), but mostly because it squandered the most purely entertaining Superstar on the SmackDown roster, the best professional wrestler in the world.
The only match of the three that had the actual United States title on the line – and featuring a mostly-fresh take on the foreign heel concept – concluded with a whimper. Actually, a whimper is giving them too much. At least Cena/Rusev had a compelling match story and Mahal/Orton had a memorable spot or two. Owens/Styles had nothing to its name by the time the bell rang. By the time Tuesday night rolled around, it had even less.
Oftentimes throughout Sunday night, it felt like this was the episode of SmackDown Live that should have aired on July 4. Outside the inherent epic-ness of the Punjabi Prison, there was little to set this apart from your average episode of WWE programming besides the program drenched in jingoistic themes.
The reliance on a single trope throughout three top-billed feuds exemplifies the uninspired creative team behind the Blue Brand at the moment. Once able to inject an early October PPV with an intensity usually reserved for a Big Four event, SmackDown creative is barely able to muster a summer spectacle with more than three original storylines.
I make no apologies for coming off as overly harsh – SmackDown has the best roster of talent in North American professional wrestling and has in the past proven their ability to put on shows worthy of an A grade. Battlground 2017 was bad, plain and simple, and at least one person on the WWE Creative team should feel bad for it. While WWE stands alone at the peak of Wrestling Olympus, it is shameful to think that it would fall to such a blatant dearth of originality.
Leave a comment below and let me know what you thought about Battleground 2017. Meet me back here in a couple weeks’ time to discuss all things SummerSlam!
Photo Credit: WWE.com
by Dat Man S.Fran