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WWE Backlash 2018 proved once again that WWE doesn’t want AJ Styles or Shinsuke Nakamura to lose to each other.
Nakamura should have defeated Styles in cheap fashion and made history in the process to become the first officially recognized WWE Champion in company history. The victory would have put SmackDown’s most prestigious title back around the waist of a heel for the first time since Jinder Mahal lost it to Styles in early November 2017, but instead of the title being held by a red hot heel performer, WWE couldn’t decide who should win the bout and booked a controversial finish again.
It’s no secret that well-booked heel champions typically make for a product, and WWE has struck gold with Nakamura but has yet to go all the way with him.
Make no mistake about it, Mahal’s six-month long title reign was a desperate ploy for WWE to boost business in India, and though the evidence suggests that didn’t happen at all, Mahal did firmly establish himself as a detested midcard heel as a result of his push on SmackDown last year. WWE, however, likely has higher hopes for Nakamura, whose push may also have something to do with the recent success of New Japan Pro-Wrestling and WWE’s upcoming shows there, but is more about giving the blue brand a new top heel to build its programming around.
WWE, after all, was clearly taking a bit of a risk by turning Nakamura heel. Given his language barriers and his undeniable popularity, it was far from a guarantee that fans would accept Nakamura in his new heel role, but it’s worked out wonderfully so far. Nakamura has more momentum as a heel than he had at any point during his babyface run on the main roster, and perhaps just as importantly, he is now positioned as a tremendous villainous foe for SmackDown’s impressive slate of top babyfaces.
At last, the blue brand now has a strong nucleus of fan favorites consisting of Styles, Daniel Bryan, Jeff Hardy and Randy Orton.
Though not as deep as the babyface side on Raw, SmackDown’s doesn’t have to be because it is a two-hour show as opposed to a three-hour one, meaning virtually everything that happens on the blue brand is more concise and to the point. Now, with Nakamura running the ship on the blue brand, WWE finds itself with a heel who both feels fresh in that role (because he just turned last month) but has a proven track record of being a capable headliner as he was in NXT.
SmackDown’s TV ratings steadily increased in both 2016 and 2017, but that jump was much more noticeable (17%) in 2016 when the show’s top heel was, ironically enough, Styles. We’ve seen the blue brand struggle mightily in the ratings department when it does not have a strong heel to build around, as was the case in early 2018 when viewership plummeted for six straight weeks during the seemingly never-ending push of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn.
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