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    Credit: WWE.com

    One brand was putting the final touches on pay-per-view hype while the other was setting in motion the stories and matches that will culminate at its next WWE Network presentation as SmackDown Live and Raw engaged in their weekly battle for brand supremacy.

    Raw kicked the week off by revealing plans to determine a new No. 1 contender to Brock Lesnar’s Universal Championship while SmackDown did everything in its power to present Jinder Mahal as a worthy challenger to Randy Orton’s WWE Championship at Sunday’s Backlash.

    The aforementioned Mahal and AJ Styles tore the house down Tuesday night with SmackDown Live’s best in-ring offering, countering Raw’s most intense in Finn Balor vs. Roman Reigns.

    New feuds and culminations of SmackDown’s top stories helped make this week’s product a vast improvement over last week’s underwhelming presentations, even if neither was particularly electrifying.

    Which show pulled out the victory this week, providing fans the better product in what proved to be a significant week for both?

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    The injury to Braun Strowman created a void in the No. 1 contender’s spot, opening up the possibility of one of five Superstars rising to the occasion to challenge Brock Lesnar for the Universal Championship as soon as July’s Great Balls of Fire pay-per-view.

    General manager Kurt Angle announced a Fatal 5-Way match Monday night that would pit Seth Rollins, Samoa Joe, Roman Reigns, Finn Balor and Bray Wyatt against each other in the enormous main event of the Extreme Rules pay-per-view.

    That announcement, coupled with television main events in Balor vs. Reigns and Rollins vs. Wyatt, helped add gravity to a show that otherwise did little to energize fans.

    The match between Balor and Reigns, in particular, was fantastic and once again showcased their in-ring chemistry for the WWE Universe to enjoy. Bringing the series to an even one win apiece, Reigns scored the victory with an enormous spear that also dealt Balor his first main roster loss.

    The potential for more matches involving those two, perhaps in a major pay-per-view setting, should have the WWE Universe excited. 

    The interaction earlier in the show between Bayley and Alexa Bliss was effective in that it stayed true to the characters involved but also set up a Kendo Stick on a Pole match for Extreme Rules that, given the wealth of talent at the top of the card, will likely be one of the higher profile supporting bouts on the show.

    Bliss masterfully played the crowd and carried the segment, re-enforcing her status as the lead heel on the roster and strengthening sympathy for Bayley…even if fans are engrossed in her increasingly convincing performances.

    Goldust’s fantastic heel turn on partner R-Truth and a solid Intercontinental Championship match between Dean Ambrose and The Miz rounded out a solid, if unspectacular, episode of WWE’s flagship show.

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    SmackDown Live had the unenviable task of putting a bow on its Backlash hype Tuesday night, making a largely uninteresting pay-per-view card feel like a show worth going out of one’s way to watch Sunday night at 8:00 pm.

    It did the best it could, shining a spotlight on every rivalry that will unfold on the WWE Network production.

    Jinder Mahal scored a pinfall victory over AJ Styles, then left Randy Orton lying in a heap before holding the WWE Championship high overhead. While there is a very real argument to be made against the fact that Mahal only achieved success through a numbers advantage in both situations, the fact that WWE Creative featured him so prominently suggests it is very serious about promoting him in a way that suggests he is equal to the top stars the brand has to offer.

    The opening promo from Kevin Owens was a fantastic way to highlight the United States champion and “New Face of America” ahead of his match with Styles Sunday night. As always, the conviction with which Owens speaks, even in the highly scripted environment of WWE, helps him connect with the audience in ways others simply cannot.

    He is believable, can be sarcastic or funny, intensely serious and even threatening when he wants to be. Tuesday night, he did a fantastic job of running down Chris Jericho and keeping the potential for a renewal of that rivalry alive while also turning his verbal assault toward AJ Styles and hyping their match for Backlash.

    The overbooking of the women’s division and the shortened matches remains a problem but Carmella’s victory over Naomi sets up the potential for a fresh program while Becky Lynch and James Ellsworth’s continued verbal sparring keeps hope alive for a potential intergender match between the two at some point in the near future.

    The opening match between Mahal and Styles was strong and put over The Maharaja’s in-ring skills ahead of the most important bout of his career.

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    While Raw produced a truly horrible segment of television involving Enzo Amore, Big Cass, Apollo Crews and Titus O’Neil, the biggest botch of this week in WWE television came courtesy of an Intercontinental Championship match between Dean Ambrose and The Miz that may have been a strong in-ring presentation but whose outcome hardly lived up to the three weeks of hype that went into it.

    After an intense, dramatic match that saw a number of quality sequences, reversals and near-falls utilized by the performers, the bout ended awkwardly and unsatisfyingly as Ambrose caught Miz attempting a low blow and haphazardly kicked him in the crotch, drawing a disqualification.

    The match had quite literally been built to for three weeks and dominated the Raw airwaves over that period.

    To throw it into the middle of the show and end it in such a disappointing fashion essentially rendered the weeks of television that went into presenting it as a marquee bout meaningless.

    That is a major miscalculation on the part of WWE Creative and a not-so-subtle reminder to fans that yes, the Intercontinental Championship is secondary in terms of importance, just in case it had you thinking otherwise.

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    SmackDown Live did an admirable job of building to its Backlash pay-per-view Sunday night but pales in comparison to what Raw was able to do to drum up interest in Extreme Rules, its June 4 extravaganza. Higher stakes, more intriguing stories and competitors helped push the flagship past a somewhat stagnant SmackDown devoid of dynamic stars at the top of the card.

    Whereas SmackDown Live feels like it is in a holding pattern ahead of Backlash, Raw feels like a show building to a major pay-per-view event. That benefits it, especially with five different, more interesting stars to play with when compared to the one-dimensional Randy Orton and Jinder Mahal, whose issues are neither fleshed out nor entirely interesting.

    Raw has found a steady consistency at a time where SmackDown appears to be experimenting and trying to find itself in the wake of a Superstar Shake-up that completely altered its identity.

    That provides the Raw brand with another victory in this constant battle for superiority.



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