Battleground is the last major stop on the way to SummerSlam. Sunday's pay-per-view in Philadelphia looks likely to tie up some loose ends, while also setting the stage for some of SmackDown's biggest showcase matches in Brooklyn.
On paper, the card looks a bit choppy, but SmackDown has made a habit of defying expectations. Tim Fiorvanti provides a live recap, with ESPN Stats & Info's Sean Coyle providing ratings for every match.
Jinder Mahal defeats Randy Orton in Punjabi Prison match (27:40)
A complete recap of this match can be found here.
Sami Zayn def. Mike Kanellis via pinfall (7:15)
This match followed a familiar pattern. Sami Zayn got out to an early edge by laying into Mike Kanellis, but as Zayn wound up and looked to hit a suicide dive, Maria pulled her husband out of the way.
We got a lot more offense this time around than we did during their brief clash on SmackDown Live, but that also meant a lot more over-the-top displays of affection.
The relationship between Mike and Maria is clearly shaping up to be both a blessing and a curse for the Kanellis' future prospects, and when Maria is not in position to help, Mike could be doomed to fail. That was certainly the case when Zayn hit a tope con hilo over the top rope, and with little to no assistance from Maria, Zayn completely took control back.
Maria, in perfect time, slid into the ring to prevent an exploder from Zayn onto Mike Kanellis in the corner, but it only delayed the inevitable. Zayn wriggled out of Kanellis' grip, hit the exploder, followed with a Helluva Kick and earned the three-count victory.
Could Zayn move on to bigger and better things? Could the Kanellis' move their PDAs elsewhere? It feels as though this brief rivalry has run its course.
Like the Punjabi Prison match, a flag match sounds good in theory, but the limitations of the format often prove to be a fatal flaw -- and that certainly seemed to be the case of John Cena and Rusev.
When Rusev first came into the WWE as an indestructible monster, running roughshod during an undefeated run, he hit the peak of his career in the lead-up to his United States title defense against John Cena at WrestleMania 31. Rusev ultimately lost that match, his title and his momentum, and despite some flashes in the past two-plus years, Rusev has never fully recovered from that loss.
Rusev dominated much of the early action in this one, but in reality, was Cena ever going to lose a flag match or let old glory become disrespected in any way? The mild crowd reaction from the typically boisterous Philadelphia faithful told you everything you needed to know about how much of a chance they gave Rusev going into this match.
As Rusev finally grabbed the Bulgarian flag, his showing off and waving the flag while standing on the top rope got him an Attitude Adjustment for his troubles. Cena held on to the STF in an attempt to ground Rusev, but as soon as he grabbed the American flag, Rusev hit a high running kick to Cena's face and evened things out once again. Rusev claimed the Bulgarian flag and slowly circled the ring but ate a running strike from the apron.
Cena ran Rusev into the ring step, claimed the American flag and started walking down to the podium at the top of the stage. Rusev caught him midway down the ramp and dragged him back to the ring, grabbing the steel steps and smashing Cena in the face for good measure. Each man got their flags most of the way up the ramp, with Rusev eating a face-full of the LED board and Cena getting tossed like a rag doll by a fall-away slam.
Rusev sought to symbolically toss Cena from the top of the American flag-emblazoned podium with an Attitude Adjustment through a pair of tables he'd set up to the side, but as you might imagine, he couldn't make it happen. Both headed back onto the ramp, and they collided with a double clothesline, but Cena rebounded quicker and slowly started crawling up ramp and toward the podium. Rusev delayed Cena by hitting him with the flag stand, then locked in the accolade between the two podiums.
It might have lasted a bit longer than expected, with Rusev getting in a healthy amount of offense, but Cena finally dropped the hammer by hiding behind the Bulgarian podium and denying the final motion of Rusev planting his flag. A second accolade attempt led to an Attitude Adjustment through the aforementioned tables and a triumphant planting of the American flag.
Coming in at over 20 minutes, this match -- a throwback to a less reality-based style of wrestling, and one that leaned too heavily on nationalism -- was a clunky return to pay-per-view for Cena
United States championship: Kevin Owens def. AJ Styles (c) via pinfall (17:50)
Sometimes a screwy finish is exactly what you need to keep a rivalry moving forward, and in the case of this match, which saw Owens pull off a lucky pinfall victory following some shenanigans with a knocked out referee, it looks like we've got at least a few more weeks of this budding rivalry.
This match was entirely about telling an in-ring story, even to the slight detriment of some of the physicality you might expect from an Owens-Styles match. Owens returned, time and again, to a grounded headlock, and both men showed their strengths in counter-wrestling, which proved especially important in the closing moments of the match.
After sliding in and out of the ring several times to build up the tension, Owens hit a back elbow, only for Styles to respond with a sharp dropkick. When Owens went out of the ring for a third time, Styles followed, sending Owens into the barricade. When Styles missed with the follow-up splash, Owens picked up a spread-legged Styles and threw him groin-first into the ring post.
Owens settled back into the headlock and fought off numerous attempts at Styles' escape. On one occasion, Styles fought to his feet by getting his knees up on an Owens senton attempt. Once he tried for his flurry of attacks, however, his spinning back-fist missed, and Owens hit a snap DDT, which led right back into the headlock.
Styles threw everything he had at Owens. The lightning-quick strikes. A low running forearm. Planting Owens face-first into the mat, and then an Ushigoroshi. A springboard 450 was finally the tide-turner, as Owens got the knees up on Styles and resulted in a close two-count. A turnbuckle sequence led to a torture rack into a spinning powerbomb by Styles, but a quick return to the high-rent district got Styles crotched on the top turnbuckle.
The match reached its climax as Styles' attempt at a phenomenal forearm was thwarted as Owens sent him shoulder-first into the ring apron. Owens hit an armbreaker, Styles hit a Pele kick and as Styles looked for the Styles Clash, his shoulder couldn't handle the lift, and Owens threw Styles full speed into the referee.
Styles checked on the official and gave Owens an opening. Owens hit a superkick and set up a pop-up powerbomb, but Styles rolled it through into the calf crusher in the middle of the ring. Owens rolled through into a crossface, and as the referee recovered, Styles rolled it through into his own crossface. As the referee finally got lucid, Owens rolled Styles onto his back while Styles still had the crossface locked in, bridged just in time, and got a sneaky three-count to become a three-time United States champion.
This wasn't their best collective effort, but something tells me they're saving a little bit for the biggest payoff.
Fatal 5-Way elimination match to become No. 1 contender to the SmackDown women's championship: Natalya def. Charlotte Flair via pinfall to win (Natalya def. Becky Lynch via pinfall; Lynch def. Lana via submission; Lynch def. Tamina via submission) (11:00)
Every time we let it slip our minds that SmackDown is the land of opportunity, a surprising result in a big match comes along and makes that point crystal clear.
At Battleground, it was all about Natalya getting her shot at SummerSlam.
The early stages of this match featured the type of car-crash chaos most any multiway match has, including a surprising amount of offense by Lana.
Tamina and Lana teamed up on Charlotte Flair, and then continued to team up throughout the match. This pairing has been coming together for a few weeks, and after the lengths to which Tamina went to help Lana throughout the contest, it seems as though there's something there in the long term.
After Becky Lynch finally rolled back into the ring and evened things up by sending Tamina and Lana out of the ring, we got a reprise of a great match from Tuesday's edition of SmackDown Live as Flair and Lynch came to blows. As soon as Flair hit Lynch with a neckbreaker, Natalya ran in, stepped on Flair's back and followed it with a low dropkick to Lynch's face.
Everybody got a Bex-ploder until Tamina ended the run with a superkick to Lynch, and after a Samoan drop on Natalya, Flair ran Tamina out and went for a figure eight only to get rolled up by Natalya for a two-count.
Natalya locked the sharpshooter on Flair in the center of the ring, but with eyes on a more direct revenge on Flair, Lana hit an X-factor on Natalya to try to get a three count on Flair for herself. That didn't work.
Lynch locked on a dis-arm-her on Lana, but Tamina superkicked Lynch to save Lana again, going so far as to spear Flair out of the ring. Lana got a two-count on Lynch, only to fall back into another dis-arm-her that Tamina broke up a second time. Lynch decided to turn her attentions, locking a dis-arm-her on Tamina instead, and this time, Tamina tapped, becoming the first person eliminated in the match.
Lynch locked on the dis-arm-her for the third time on Lana and quickly knocked her out of the match, too.
The celebration was short, however, as Natalya got a roll-up with a big handful of tights to pin Lynch in the blink of an eye. It was down to Flair and Natalya, two women with a fair bit of history.
There was a battle of wills and submission attempts in the center of the ring, with Natalya locking on a cross-armbreaker only for Flair to dead-lift Natalya up and drop her with a sit-out powerbomb, getting a two-count in the process. Flair went up to the top rope for a moonsault to finish things off, but Natalya got her knees up.
A roll-through sent Flair's head into the bottom turnbuckle, and Natalya got a frankly shocking victory in the immediate aftermath.
This is the biggest one-on-one opportunity that Nattie has gotten in a long time, and with just one title to her credit despite her lengthy tenure with the company, it's time for her to get another shot in the spotlight.
Shinsuke Nakamura def. Baron Corbin via disqualification (12:30)
Sunday night's match with Shinsuke Nakamura was a big test for Baron Corbin as a likely future champion, and while the pair showed a solid idea for how things could play out and flashes of chemistry, the end result was a clunky match with an unfulfilling ending.
Nakamura took the initiative with an early forearm, and as he's apt to do, Nakamura played mind games through the early stages of this match before Corbin overwhelmed him with physicality. They fell into a familiar pattern, as Corbin locked in a bear hug, Nakamura fought out with elbows and everything else built off of these moments. They really sold the attention to the lower back, as Corbin ran Nakamura into the barricade several times on the outside.
Back to the bear hug, Nakamura fought out with elbows, Corbin ran him into the corner and locked the bear hug in again.
Nakamura finally got his comeback, with his combination of Good Vibrations and kicks and knees flying from every direction imaginable. Corbin regained control with one of his patented maneuvers, the slide out and slide in into a lariat, and in the match's peak moment (just edging out a solid Deep Six), Corbin turned Nakamura inside-out and deposited him on his head.
It ultimately turned back in Nakamura's direction with more knees, a spinning kick and a kick to the back of the head, but just as Nakamura looked to set up his Kinshasa knee for the second time, Corbin dead-weighted him long enough to set up a windup kick straight into a low blow.
An instant DQ, a briefcase shot to the face and End of Days. This looks likely to carry on beyond Battleground, and hopefully it's better next time around.
The period in between Money in the Bank and Battleground wasn't a particularly inspiring time in the rivalry between New Day and The Usos, save for some savage one-liners in their rap battle, but the payoff to their conflict Sunday night more than made up for any downtimes we had to go through.
Xavier Woods took a beating for two lengthy stretches of the match, as both Jimmy and Jey Uso laid in absolutely everything they had. After six or seven minutes, when Kofi Kingston finally got his chance to tag in and come in like a house on fire, it seemed this match might take the path of so many New Day matches over the past few years -- tough in the beginning and a steamroll through to the end.
But that wasn't to be.
Kingston's new "Trust Fall" blind jump to the outside got him picked out of midair by both Usos, and they turned it into a powerbomb on the outside, rendering Kingston out of commission for the next few critical moments. Woods got taken down on the outside for his troubles, as well, and once he was thrown back into the ring, it appeared perhaps The Usos would run away with it.
However, Woods just kept pulling things out of his hat.
It started with a lucha-libre inspired (and innovative) move in which he was picked up in a wheelbarrow but flipped it inside out into a face-planting slam. With Kingston still subdued on the outside, Woods ate a tag team super Samoan drop, kicking out at two, but swung wildly to even the numbers for a time. As he went for his patented top-rope walkout flying elbow, he got caught straight in the jaw by a low superkick on his way down and kicked out just in time.
Woods then was placed in a single leg crab but slowly fought his way to the ropes. Out of nowhere, a finally recovered Kingston tagged in, they hit Midnight Hour on Jimmy Uso, but he kicked out before the three count. As Woods got tossed out of the picture, Kofi got hit with a superkick and a top rope splash, The Usos finishing sequence, but he, too, kicked out.
As The Usos positioned themselves for a double splash to end things, Woods pushed Jey Uso off the top rope and Jimmy missed Kingston. Kingston then hit Trouble in Paradise, followed by Woods' step-out elbow with him flying all the way across the ring, and The New Day finally finished the job.
The time was right for new tag team champions, and this match was a showcase of just how great these two teams can be as the anchor to SmackDown's division. The New Day are the first to wear both the Raw and SmackDown gold, and we'll likely see them run this match back at least once on the way to SummerSlam.
Still to come:
Jinder Mahal (c) vs. Randy Ordon for the WWE championship (Punjabi Prison match)