As the 11-year brand extension is officially declared as no more, the Place To Be Nation staff looks back on the championship runs that they enjoyed the most.
In his newest role, Triple H often sits down for weekly fireside chats with Michael Cole on WWE.com, but their interview after Survivor Series was the one that piqued my interest. The bulk of the discussion revolved around the major news that the TLC match between John Cena and Randy Orton would be for both the WWE Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship in an attempt to permanently unify the belts and create an undisputed WWE Champion. But what seemed like a transitional throwaway line stuck out for me during the interview when Triple H said that the main reason for unifying the two championships was due to the 11-year-long brand extension being “no longer in effect.”
Now, for any educated WWE fan, the writing was on the wall for years that the brand exclusivity and separatism of Raw and Smackdown had been waived by the company’s creative team more often than not. The last few years of the Raw/Smackdown quandary and slow deviation from the original brand split in 2002 had the same eventuality as a workplace that gets methodically downsized and the boss reluctantly announces it months later. One of the annual entertainments of the WWE was the Draft Lottery in which Raw and Smackdown superstars would switch allegiances and make their new home on USA Network or SyFy (Or Spike TV, or UPN, or the CW, o- well, you get my point). But they have not done one of these drafts since early 2011, and it is already well documented how little significance the World Heavyweight Championship (Smackdown’s formerly official main championship) carries these days. A decade after being established as its own unique program with an exclusive roster and a championship to aspire to, Smackdown has served plainly as a secondary program that goes through the motions after all the moving and shaking that occurs on Monday Night Raw earlier in the week.
There are many ways to feel about Triple H officially putting to rest the glaring suspicion that the brand extension thought up by Vince McMahon in the aftermath of the Monday Night War in an attempt to create competition from within. Most fans feel desensitized or indifferent to this occurrence while some others would argue that with their overload in current talent stock, the WWE is giving up on the brand split at the wrong time. I find it funny that Vince McMahon was more than willing to provide us with three exclusive brands (Raw, Smackdown, and ECW) in 2006 when it can be argued that the WWE had one of their weakest overall rosters in company history at that time. But now with the onrush of upcoming talents, young mid carders on the rise, and ascending superstars like Daniel Bryan taking on main event spots, now is the time to cut the bait on the brand extension? The writing, as I already mentioned, was on the wall for the brand split to end for a long time, but I just wish that there was some attempt at restoring the blue brand, whether it would have been in vain or not.
With the disappearance of a second world title after TLC this Sunday to represent Smackdown (and the virtual downgrade of Smackdown as vital viewing in comparison to Raw), it seems like a perfect opportunity to reflect on a time when there was slightly healthy debate over which champion on which brand that WWE fans appreciated the most. There are the standard-bearer reigns that mostly occurred on Raw like John Cena’s and C.M. Punk’s year-plus-long reigns in 2007 and 2012, respectively. Although being given the belt was a slap in the face of tradition to many, Triple H’s run as the World Heavyweight Champion (which occurred on four different occasions) was very important in legitimizing what could have easily been dismissed from the outset as a bogus title. I was not a fan of JBL’s WWE Championship reign for most of 2004 and a portion of 2005, but it had its fair share of praise from others. You had reigns from every notable superstar imaginable during these past 11 years between the WWE Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship, from Cena to Randy Orton to Kurt Angle to Hulk Hogan to Triple H to The Undertaker to The Rock and so forth. There was even the small blip on the radar screen that was the ECW Championship, which was never considered as important as the WWE Championship but brought along solid runs from the likes of Mark Henry, The Big Show, and Christian between 2006 and early 2010, when the program was canceled.
But among the many different title reigns that took place on Raw and Smackdown (more than 40 for the WWE Championship and more than 50 for the World title), which ones did we personally enjoy the most? I now pose the question to members of our immensely talented Place To Be Nation staff to see who they chose between the many different runs to the top of the WWE card in the past decade. And yes, even The Great Khali is eligible in this case, but I dare you to pick him!
JBL (June 27, 2004 – April 3, 2005)
Steven Graham: When the idea came up to talk about our favorite Champion from the brand split era I didn’t have to think very hard at all. That answer is easily JBL.
Prior to his 2004 run as WWE Champion JBL was always somebody that WWE would try to push as a singles star, but they would give up pretty easily. He came in as Justin “Hawk” Bradshaw in 1995 with Uncle Zeb (Colter) as his manager. His push didn’t get him out of the midcard and in 1996 he began teaming with Barry Windham, reforming the 1980’s tag team The Blackjacks. They were very low on the card and in 1998 they tried their next attempt to make him a singles star. Windham turned on him and Bradshaw would feud with the NWA faction, led by Jeff Jarrett, even getting a singles match with Double J at No Way Out of Texas. Later in the year he teamed with Taka Michinoku against Kai En Tai and started teaming with Terry Funk. He then turned heel and took out Funk and had a match with Vader at Breakdown. In 1998 I was very high on Bradshaw and was loving this run and hoping it would lead to something bigger. However, it ended with him forming a new tag team with Faarooq. They were originally called The Acolytes, but later became the beloved APA. After a very successful run the original brand split lead to another attempt to push Bradshaw as a solo act but he didn’t get very far and was eventually injured. After his return he re-teamed with Faarooq until Faarooq retired in 2004 and that is when the true magic began.
The next night after Faarooq was fired by Paul Heyman, JBL was born. He showed up in a suit and cowboy hat and changed his name to John “Bradshaw” Layfield. They played up his appearances on Fox News as a financial expert and he became a JR Ewing type character.
He immediately won the Great American Award for going to the Texas/Mexico border and beating up illegal immigrants. This put him in line to face Eddie Guerrero for the WWE Title. This is when he started entering the arena in a limo to mock Eddie entering in a low rider. At Judgement Day he beat Eddie by DQ in a great match. Probably the first great match of his career. He then won the title at The Great American Bash in a bullrope match and ended the feud by defeating Eddie in an awesome cage match on Smackdown.
From there JBL became a new age Honky Tonk Man, doing whatever it took to keep the title. He escaped with victories over The Undertaker at SummerSlam and No Mercy. He added Orlando Jordan as his Chief of Staff to help him win matches. A really cool angle happened after he was chokeslammed through a limo at SummerSlam and he showed up on television with a complete halo resting between his suit and cowboy hat.
He got by Booker T at Survivor Series and survived Booker, Guerrero and The Undertaker at Armageddon. Around this time his Cabinet started to grow. He employed Doug and Danny Basham as the “Co-Secretaries of Defense” and Amy Weber as his “Image Consultant”. They were all there to help him cheat and keep the title.
Amy Weber didn’t last too long as she quit the WWE so after starting in the role. However, her last appearance was pure gold. On an episode taped in Japan she accidentally shot JBL with a tranquilizer gun. This lead to JBL drunkenly boxing a blow up Godzilla in the ring. On air, Weber was fired for this incident.
At the Royal Rumble he sneaked by Kurt Angle and Big Show, which lead to JBL facing the Big Show in a barbed-wire cage match at No Way Out. His victory in that match was great, as he was chokeslammed through the ring and crawled out from underneath for the win.
His final act as Champion was to put over John Cena as the next face of Smackdown at WrestleMania 21. He got his rematch with Cena at Judgement Day and lost an epic “I Quit” match by quitting before Cena could hit him with a pipe. A perfect way to end his run on top.
JBL was the longest reigning champion in over a decade at that point and was a real stabilizer on Smackdown. He had some real good matches, but what really stood out was his charisma and promos. Truly one of the bright spots of the brand split era.
Eddie Guerrero (February 15, 2004 – June 27, 2004)
Ben Morse: The era of the brand extension and advent of two World championship-caliber titles in WWE not only allowed for new stars to be built from scratch, it provided opportunities to veterans who had been on the cusp for years but could never break into an overcrowded main event scene. Perhaps no wrestler since the heyday of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels typifies that second description like Eddie Guerrero did.
When he returned to WWE in 2002 following a year of conquering his demons and rebuilding credibility as well as his personal life, Eddie initially found himself on RAW in a hot feud with Rob Van Dam over the Intercontinental title. However, he would shift over to SmackDown over the summer, where he’d stay for the remainder of his career and build the momentum that brought him to the top of the mountain less than two years later.
Eddie teamed up with nephew Chavo in the fall, becoming part of the “SmackDown Six” alongside Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, Edge and Rey Mysterio. Whether in tag team or singles matches, any combination of the sextet could be counted on to deliver incredible matches weekly, and along with legit athlete Brock Lesnar dominating the top of the card, helped establish SmackDown as an exciting alternate to RAW.
Los Guerreros became one of the most over acts in the company, to the point where the fans turned them babyface by sheer force of will despite Eddie and Chavo openly proclaiming their penchant for heel tactics. When Chavo went down with an injury and Eddie became United States Champion, WWE attempted to portray him as a villain once more; once again, the fans would have none of it. It became clear that not only did the crowd not want to boo “Latino Heat”—try as he might to encourage them—but that after his years of struggles and success, they did not feel he belonged in the tag team division or mid-card any longer.
After besting the traitorous Chavo in a feud, Eddie reached his zenith of babyface heat and earned a shot at the behemoth WWE Champion Lesnar. A clear David vs. Goliath classic, Guerrero vs. Lesnar pitted the plucky underdog who won with his skills and wits against an unstoppable bully who didn’t need tricks but would occasionally use them anyway; it’s a dynamic that rarely fails. The two delivered a classic match at No Way Out in 2004 and then—with slight assistance from Goldberg—Eddie achieved the unthinkable and became WWE Champion.
Considering where he had come from a few years earlier, Eddie Guerrero has to be considered one of the most unlikely WWE champs of all-time. But the crowd had followed his story—be it from his days toiling in the WCW mid-card, his bouts with substance abuse and losing his family, or his role anchoring the SmackDown roster—and appreciated his perseverance and love for his craft. You won’t hear many bigger pops than after Eddie got the 1-2-3 at No Way Out because fans not only loved him, they had become attached to him. Eddie represented not a flawless super hero, but an average man who fell, got back up, and became extraordinary; we saw him as us at our best.
But without the brand split and a second World title, it’s hard to imagine Eddie would have soared as high as he did. Despite the crowd’s love, the rest of the playing field on SmackDown around this period consisted of a soon-to-depart Lesnar, a part-time Undertaker, a not-quite-ready John Cena and an injury-riddled Kurt Angle. Had the roster been united, the likes of Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Randy Orton, Kane and half a dozen more likely would have taken their place in line ahead of Eddie Guerrero.
Today, we remember Eddie Guerrero as a WWE Hall of Famer, and it’s well-documented that he came to be one of Vince McMahon’s personal favorite performers in large part because he clawed his way back from his lowest point. However, would Eddie have gotten the chance to prove himself, cheers or no cheers, under the circumstances of a 2013 WWE? Luckily for our fond memories, we’ll never have to find out.
Batista (April 3, 2005 – January 10, 2006)
Adam Langton: April 3, 2005: it was the day that WWE held their twenty-first WrestleMania. It was the day that Batista won his first World title. But more than that, it was one of those rare instances where WWE caught lightning in a bottle and managed to push a performer to the moon at precisely the same moment that fans wanted to see that push.
As we know all too well, the E tends to only half-ass many of the pushes that the fans are calling for (i.e. Daniel Bryan, 2013) but Batista’s reign with the World Heavyweight Championship through 2005 had it all. We got to see the build of a new marquee monster, featuring a dominant win at the Royal Rumble. We got to see a slow-burn babyface turn against Batista’s mentor, Triple H, in the footsteps of Virgil and DiBiase. Then, after finally igniting the babyface-Batista with the infamous thumbs-down contract signing, we had a rarity leading us in to WrestleMania: Triple H playing the cowardly, ass-baring heel. The stage was set and, thankfully, WWE was clever enough to pull the trigger on the Grandest Stage of Them All.
This was followed by a couple of Triple H rematches at Backlash and Vengeance. While fans complained at the time that Triple H was insisting on keeping himself in the title picture, these rematches served to solidify Batista as a dominant babyface champion, allowing him to move on the new challengers as the man on Raw. Vengeance also gave Batista his first Hell in a Cell match, an important proving ground for getting over with a particular variety of fan. Arguably, over these months, the Triple H/Batista feud over the World Heavyweight Championship caused this title to be the number one belt in the industry, rather than a secondary championship, as it had been before and would be again.
So how was Batista rewarded for ruling Raw for months? He got bumped to Smackdown. No problem; the separation from his usual contenders and suspects served to give Batista a new lease on life, providing a lengthy, meaningful championship reign the likes of which we hadn’t been seeing when there was only one strap to fight over. Batista stepped up to the man who had been ruling Raw and took him out over three straight pay-per-views. WWE decided to keep the same formula over on Smackdown, serving The Animal JBL in a standard match, a No Holds Barred match, then a Texas Bullrope match. Not only was Batista incredibly over as a babyface–without the middling boos that most babyfaces today retain–but his destruction of Triple H and JBL in succession was a symbolic overcoming of two heel characters who had worn out their welcome with the fans at the time. Feeding him two of the most over heels in the company drove Batista’s pops to even bigger heights… and his massive pyrotechnic entrance display continued to grow right along with them.
Batista feuded with JBL, Eddie Guerrero, Randy Orton, Big Show and Kane. Hell, he even won the WWE Tag Team Championships along the way with his lil’ buddy Rey Mysterio. It seemed like the stage was being set for Batista to carry the World Championship from WrestleMania 21 all the way to WrestleMania 22… but you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. Batista was injured and side-lined… but the WWE decided to have him vacate the title and step aside, undefeated. While this has happened several times since, when Batista made the announcement it was a legitimate shock; rather than have him job to his current challenger (Mark Henry), the E decided to keep planning long-term with The Animal, keeping him an imposing threat for whenever the day came that he’d be able to return.
So did it work? Boy, did it ever. Batista followed this first-ever title reign with five other world championships. His character was bullet-proof, remaining a threat despite several transitions from babyface to heel. Just how bullet-proof did Batista remain? Well let’s face it: if for whatever reason the big man were to return to WWE programming tomorrow, we’d all love to see it. A lot of that is in thanks to a dominant, well-booked, well-wrestled 282-day long first World Championship reign–a reign that we may never have gotten if it wasn’t for the Brand Extension.
Edge (December 16, 2007 – March 30, 2008)
Andrew Riche: There were plenty of championship reigns between the WWE Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship that I appreciated and held reverence for in a variety of ways, from the shorter ones like Batista’s heel run right before WrestleMania XXVI to John Cena’s year-long reign as the WWE Champion in 2006 and 2007. But sometimes it turns out that your favorite era is the one that is less heralded and more quickly forgotten over time. With that in mind, the perfect candidate for my favorite title reign in the brand split era was in late 2007 and early 2008 by one of the most underappreciated superstars in the company’s history, Edge.
Before that reign, Edge had already won the WWE Championship on Raw on two separate occasions, during which he took part in a sultry alliance with Lita and a bitter, star-making feud with John Cena. When Edge had returned to in-ring action after major neck surgery in 2004, fans quickly went lukewarm on his solo act before he turned heel, turning his real-life affair in Lita into a fascinatingly conniving duo, and cashing in the first ever Money in the Bank briefcase to win his first championship. He lost the belt quickly the first time, but eventually won it back before ultimately losing the belt again in September of 2006.
But the legacy had already begun. By the time Edge was done on Raw and Lita had left the company in 2007, he himself had become the star name that fans three years earlier thought he could never be. He quickly gained the nickname of the Ultimate Opportunist after cashing in another Money in the Bank briefcase on the Undertaker to win his first ever World Heavyweight Championship in May of that year. Unfortunately, Edge ran into bad luck when he tore his pectoral muscle after spearing a guy in a Mardi Gras costume and he had to surrender the title after undergoing surgery.
But that did not deter the WWE from having faith in Edge’s incomplete feuds with Batista and the Undertaker and seeing it through when Edge returned at the Survivor Series to rain on Taker and Batista’s Hell in a Cell parade. By the time 2008 began, Edge was back on top as the World Heavyweight Champion on Smackdown. This time in Lita’s place as Edge’s sweetheart was the unlikely Vickie Guerrero, which started her quite successful career as a universally hated cougar. Even with a gimmick as tacky as two tag-along cronies in Zack Ryder and Curt Hawkins, Edge was still able to put over his World title reign as something of significance, a belt that he held dear and would stop at no lengths to protect.
After a series of nice matches with Rey Mysterio, Batista, and a young CM Punk on Smackdown, Edge finally got his shot at destiny when he wrestled the Undertaker in the final match at WrestleMania XXIV. Although he had reached unexpected heights as a tag team champion and as the WWE Champion, it was in this losing effort to the Deadman that Edge had one of his proudest triumphs and perhaps his greatest match. Since that match, the World Heavyweight Championship would never main event WrestleMania again, and he became a permanent fixture and part of the legacy of Smackdown to go with the likes of the Undertaker, Eddie Guerrero, and Rey Mysterio.
It was fitting years later in 2011 that Adam Copeland announced his retirement on Monday Night Raw, but got his classy, well-deserved goodbye to the WWE Universe on Smackdown a few nights later. Adam “Edge” Copeland may have had his most talked-about moments on Raw, but it was on Smackdown (and in this World Heavyweight Championship reign) that Edge truly became a Hall of Famer.