The wrestling world is gearing up for Tuesday night’s first live edition of SmackDown, which will revolve around the WWE Draft. There are big changes in store for both Raw and SmackDown as a result of whatever shakes out as a result of both shows’ draft picks, to say nothing of how NXT will be impacted by at least six of its stars moving up to the main roster.
The first brand extension was steadily diluted over nine years from 2002 to 2011, until it finally came to an anticlimactic and inevitable end. The return to separate rosters has detractors and supporters both from fans and from industry veterans, but one thing everyone agrees on is that WWE has to handle this new brand split carefully.
During Monday night’s episode of Raw, a few things were made clear about what is going to happen after the WWE Draft. The specifics will all shake out on Tuesday night, of course, but for now, we’re aware of the broad strokes. Here’s how the landscape is about to change for WWE.
This is being positioned as a competition between brands
We know how well that has worked in the past, of course. In fact, Vince McMahon inexplicably handing over Raw to Shane McMahon after WrestleMania, then instructing him and Stephanie to crush each other in order to earn the right to run Raw just ended up with them each running a show. So … you know, sometimes the “competition” aspect of things falls somewhere in between “empty talking point” and “wait, this doesn’t make any sense.”
But the naming of Mick Foley and Daniel Bryan as general managers and pitting them against one another is a clever grab for fans’ affection and allegiance. (As was Stephanie’s bombshell that Raw would feature an exclusive cruiserweight division and Bryan and Shane’s insistence that SmackDown would focus on competition over authority figures, but more on that in a bit.)
The original brand extension was meant to be viewed as a competition, as well, but the manifestation of that pretty much began and ended with the oddball Bragging Rights pay-per-view and eponymous trophy. But the fact of the matter is that for a long period of time, that competition actually worked, regarding fan loyalty. During the famed “SmackDown Six” era, hardcore wrestling fans swore fealty to the blue brand and found comfort in its in-ring competition and storytelling, while casual fans stuck with Raw and its mass-market appeal.
I believe the same thing will happen this time around, if the broad mission statements laid out on Monday prove to be accurate. SmackDown could once again become a haven of workrate enthusiasts. Of course, a giant star like John Cena would go a long way toward ensuring the ratings remain high. You can bet WWE higher-ups will be looking both at fan reaction and to the all-important ratings. But it is of utmost importance that the brand remain as separate as possible, for as long as possible, in order for people to take the competition aspect seriously.
The cruiserweights are back, so get excited and be nervous
Until the WWE Draft was announced, the Cruiserweight Classic was the most-anticipated event of the summer. The WWE Network tournament is stocked with indie darlings and is generating a ton of positive buzz for the company. It’s also a testament to how thoroughly bonkers the current state of wrestling is in 2016.
Before introducing Mick Foley as the commissioner of Raw, Stephanie McMahon announced that there would be a new, brand-exclusive cruiserweight division. Rumors are flying that the live finals of the CWC just might crown a new WWE Cruiserweight Champion, just as Daniel Bryan predicted.
Just like the brand extension itself, some fans have been asking for the return of a cruiserweight division for years. The CWC is a nice preview and a good example of what that division could ultimately look like, but be wary. WWE has never had a great grasp on what makes cruiserweights work. Historically, things haven’t worked out well for cruisers in the company. But we can hold out hope that things will get figured out this time around.
That being said, no matter how exciting the cruiserweights are or how much the fans love their segments, there’s always the possibility an angry Brock Lesnar will show up, stack the entire division on his shoulders and F5 them all directly to hell, before challenging … I don’t know, Sheamus. Someone who really matters.
If nothing else, it will be nice to have stars like Kalisto and (possibly) Neville have showcase matches and storylines every week. Hope for the best with the cruiserweight division, but be aware that that other, clumsy shoe could drop at any time.
The precarious balance between “workrate” and “overworked”
Over the past year, the WWE roster was hit with a nearly unprecedented spate of injuries to high-profile performers and main event Superstars. When we were a dozen injuries in, the prospect of a pro wrestling offseason had never been more compelling. In theory, the brand split is the next best thing: Wrestlers will be on two different rosters and will thus potentially work half as many dates.
In practice, this is really only true of the main-event players (which is great), while the slightly-thinner rosters will mean that mid-card and lower-card wrestlers will be working more dates than they were previously, on account of they’ll actually be getting used on a regular basis. I’m of the mindset that this is a good thing all the way around, but this is another area where WWE needs to be careful, particularly on SmackDown.
If Bryan and Shane are correct and SmackDown will once again be the haven for the workrate fiends, the more intense, longer and hard-hitting matches will be more prone to possible injuries. That’s all part and parcel of being a wrestler, of course. As Heath Slater’s recent nasty injury showed, you don’t even have to be wrestling a serious match, or be on television for something to go awry.
The split rosters might be good for preventing injuries, but there’s no way to cut them down drastically without a serious offseason (even an offseason for portions of the roster at a time, so the product can continue to run year-round).
We’ll see how everything shakes out on Tuesday night, but the future is rife with possibilities and pitfalls. Let’s hope the former outnumbers the latter. Personally, I’ve been an ardent supporter of a return to the brand split and I’m hopeful that the draft will lead to many very good things. But I’m also a stupidly relentless optimist when it comes to pro wrestling. So join me and bathe in the hopeless optimism of limitless possibilities.
Just remember: If something goes wrong, we can always complain online.