The United States Championship will be up for grabs Sunday night at WWE Backlash as Kevin Owens defends against No. 1 contender AJ Styles in a match almost certain to steal the show.
Featuring two of the best wrestlers in the world battling for the right to hoist the prestigious championship overhead at the end of the night, the contest should bring a quality of match head and shoulders above anything else on the show, barring any overbooking or abundance of interference.
The question is, though, whether WWE Creative is banking on Owens carrying the title on SmackDown Live or if Styles will add to his already impressive resume with the company by collecting his second singles title.
The April 11 episode of SmackDown Live saw AJ Styles, Sami Zayn and Baron Corbin battle for the right to challenge for the United States Championship. The Phenomenal One, fresh off defeating Shane McMahon at WrestleMania 33, continued his winning ways and guaranteed himself a shot at the prestigious title.
One week later, Styles battled Corbin in singles competition, while Owens watched from the commentator’s position, where he ran down his Backlash opponent. Late in the match, the action spilled to ringside, where The Phenomenal One sent The Lone Wolf crashing into Owens and left the champion fuming.
Avenging what he felt was disrespect the week prior, Owens attacked Styles following another victory over Corbin, this time leaving his No. 1 contender lying following a vicious Popup Powerbomb.
At Payback, the Raw brand-exclusive pay-per-view event, Owens lost his title to Chris Jericho and threw the title picture into disarray. It appeared as though Styles would have to wait to avenge his assault at the hands of Owens, instead challenging Y2J.
Jericho’s reign would be a short one as the future Hall of Famer lost the title back to Owens two nights later on SmackDown.
On the May 16 episode of SmackDown, Styles battled Jinder Mahal in singles competition. The Phenomenal One was attempting to cut off The Maharaja’s momentum by beating him ahead of his WWE Championship match with Randy Orton, but interference by Owens cost him the match.
When Owens blasted Styles in the knee with this title, he may have tipped fans off to the story of Sunday’s bout.
A championship clash in which Owens viciously and relentlessly targets the knee of the sympathetic babyface Styles is one that fans can invest in and Chicago’s most passionate will respond favorably to.
The Phenomenal One is equally as great at fighting from underneath as a babyface as he is when controlling the action as a heel. That makes him one of the most adaptable stars in the industry and invaluable to WWE Creative in an era in which an ill-timed injury can derail plans months in the making.
Owens is at his best when he is cerebral and violent, remorselessly targeting and pummeling an injured limb or joint. The cocky arrogance mixed with scary focus and relentlessness makes for a compelling watch and creates an even more unlikable villain.
Given the strengths of the performers involved and the quality of their performances in high-profile matches, there is no reason to believe this match will not be among, if not the best of the night.
Neither Styles nor Owens should really lose at this point. Both are essential cogs in the SmackDown Live machine.
They are legitimate stars who will serve as the face of the promotion in the coming months. Delegitimizing them for the sake of a meaningless win on a throwaway pay-per-view feels like a mistake—especially considering the sense the feud will continue beyond Sunday’s show.
It may not be the most popular outcome, but this writer predicts Owens will retain his title but lose via disqualification, utilizing a low blow or recalling Tuesday’s show by once again blasting Styles in the knee with his title.
The feud continues and Owens looks like a bigger heel in the process.