This week marks two years since World Wrestling Entertainment officially kicked off a new era with the company’s second “Brand Extension.”
With the benefit of hindsight, let’s take a look back at the brand split in concept, the initial draft itself and the fallout. Who won? Who lost? Which perceptions changed over time?
In May 2016, WWE announced it would be instituting the Brand Extension to reflect the creation of SmackDown Live and a focus on creating opportunities for talent throughout the company.
The company announced a draft to split its rosters between Monday Night Raw and the newly christened SmackDown Live. Every name on the main roster, with the exceptions of those who were injured or suspended, was eligible, and six more superstars would be drafted from WWE’s developmental brand, NXT.
Along with the draft, the brand extension meant SmackDown moving from its traditional Thursday or Friday night taped slot into a full-time two-hour live show on Tuesday nights. Each of the two main brands was assigned a somewhat convoluted hierarchy of a General Manager and a Commissioner — Mick Foley and Stephanie McMahon on Raw, Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon on SmackDown Live, respectively.
Those weren’t the only differences from WWE’s prior brand split in 2002, though. Raw moved to three hours several years ago, which made the dynamics for the draft itself different. Because of the extra time needed to fill on Raw, that brand received three picks for every two from SmackDown. Along with Raw getting the first overall pick, it only added to the decades-old perception that WWE views SmackDown as a clear second to Raw in importance.
The draft took place in the July 19 edition of SmackDown Live and later that night on the WWE Network, drawing a huge ratings boost for the Blue Brand and marking a rare instance of SmackDown beating Raw in head-to-head ratings, including an increase of nearly a million viewers from the prior year’s SmackDown.
At the end of the night, the rosters ended up as follows:
Charlotte (WWE Women’s Champion)
Finn Balor (from NXT)
The New Day (WWE Tag Team Champions)
Rusev (United States Champion)
Enzo and Big Cass
Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson
The Big Show
Nia Jax (from NXT)
The Golden Truth
Darren Young (w/Bob Backlund)
The Dudley Boyz
The Shining Stars
Dean Ambrose (WWE Champion)
The Miz (w/Maryse, Intercontinental Champion)
American Alpha (from NXT)
Alberto Del Rio
Alexa Bliss (from NXT)
Mojo Rawley (from NXT)
Carmella (from NXT)
The roster layouts were interesting, with SmackDown notably landing veterans like John Cena, Randy Orton and Kane, but also filling up on NXT call-ups (four to Raw’s two). In addition, SmackDown drafted young, fresh-to-the-roster individuals like Apollo Crews, the Vaudevillains and Baron Corbin.
Recognizing the unique makeup of the brand’s roster, WWE dubbed SmackDown “The Land of Opportunity,” focusing heavily on Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon’s fan favorite status by trying to establish new stars and re-establish traditionally underutilized ones.
But in the time between the draft and 2017’s “Superstar Shake-up” (*shudder*), who did the draft benefit and who did it hinder? Which show “won”?
Undoubtedly the superstar who most benefited from the brand split, AJ Styles seamlessly transitioned from a feud with John Cena into being the centerpiece of SmackDown Live, a role he was less likely to have on a Raw show dedicated to the likes of Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins and, soon, Goldberg and Brock Lesnar. On SmackDown, Styles simply drew the biggest reactions on the card, quickly outshining the likes of WWE Champion Dean Ambrose and Randy Orton.
By October, Styles held the WWE Championship and became known for getting the best match of the week out of his opponents, who ranged from Ambrose and Cena to Dolph Ziggler and the unlikely James Ellsworth. Through it all, his promos and matches stood out as the best in the company during this time.
Despite holding the Intercontinental Championship, the Miz was lost in the shuffle before the brand split, a seeming non-factor in the grand scheme of WWE. With a new roster of opponents and a bigger spotlight on Tuesday nights, Miz raised his game to new heights (with the help of his lovely and talented wife, Maryse), taking advantage of every minute of screen time WWE afforded him. Where he shined most was on a new SmackDown recap show on WWE Network called Talking Smack. There, he engaged Daniel Bryan in an ongoing war of words that set the internet ablaze and generated buzz unlike any SmackDown had experienced in ages.
“Or, should I say, KEVIN OWEN?” Thanks, Hideo!
But seriously, K.O. broke away from the pack on Raw thanks partly to a devastating injury to inaugural Universal Champion Finn Balor and mostly to his natural charisma and work ethic. Owens spent the latter half of 2016 as Universal Champion, delivering classic promos alongside his “best friend” Chris Jericho. Frankly, their banter and partnership was one of the few things keeping Raw afloat from a quality standpoint after the draft, and for Owens, it was an opportunity that would’ve been delayed if not for the draft.
CHARLOTTE AND SASHA BANKS
One could make the argument that the rivalry between Sasha Banks and Charlotte (Flair) was the preeminent story on Monday Night Raw during the latter half of 2016. What is inarguable is that the brand split allowed these two women to break new ground, main eventing Raw on multiple occasions and engaging in the most violent and heated women’s feud in company history.
Their biggest accomplishment during this time was main eventing the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view, the first time in company history women had been afforded that honor. They followed with sensational Falls Count Anywhere and Iron Man matches, firmly entrenching women in the main event picture where they belong.
Jimmy and Jey Uso were dead in the water as a happy-go-lucky babyface team in the summer of 2016. Luckily, thanks to Talking Smack, the brothers were able to completely change their image into a vicious heel tandem with the ability to spit fire on the microphone. The Usos shocked internet fans who had largely written them off by crafting dangerous characters who felt more realistic than just about anyone else on the mic. It was a breath of fresh air for one of WWE’s greatest tag teams.
The third person from NXT to be drafted, Bliss quickly proved to be the most valuable. She transitioned from being primarily a manager in the developmental brand to being SmackDown Live’s top heel and one of the best promos in the entire company. Her facial expressions and understanding of her role made her a standout and, by the end of the year, the number one woman on SmackDown Live.
This could be perceived as a controversial choice. After all, she was the first SmackDown Women’s Champion and held that title from September until December. However, even as the champion, it felt like Becky’s comparatively limited roster of opponents (including the green Carmella and Alexa) combined with the red-hot Charlotte-Sasha rivalry to make her title reign look unimpressive. Bliss’ fiery promos took much of the spotlight in the division, and Lynch found herself left in the dust by January, with the company moving on to Naomi as the top babyface and Lynch headed for a lackluster 2017.
Fresh off the heels of his rivalry with Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn seemed to finally have an opportunity to break out of Owens’ shadow and forge his own path. Unfortunately, he and Owens ended up on the same show and Zayn quickly found himself serving as an enhancement talent to the likes of the rising Braun Strowman and, of course, his old pal K.O. It would take more than a year and a change of brands for Sami to begin realizing his potential.
Despite holding the U.S. title at the time of the draft and being thrust into a feud with the company’s perceived top guy, Roman Reigns, it became apparent quickly that Rusev wasn’t valued as a top-level star. He had a series of up-and-down matches with Reigns that resulted in him losing his title at Clash of Champions. He spent the rest of the year running in place, finally feuding with Enzo Amore and Big Cass before succumbing to injury.
A team that seemed like a can’t-miss draft pick ended up flopping quickly. Without being given characters or cool vignettes, Jason Jordan and Chad Gable were left to go out and just wrestle. While they had some excellent matches against the Usos and the surprisingly potent team of Randy Orton and Bray Wyatt, Alpha never seemed to connect with audiences in a major way, nor did they get the booking support needed to get over as a modern day Steiner Brothers. These two talented prospects ended up as pre-show fodder, if they could even make the roster of major PPVs in 2017.
LUKE GALLOWS AND KARL ANDERSON
Before the draft, Gallows and Anderson had carved out a valuable niche as the Club, AJ Styles’ brothers in arms. As an indicator of their value at the time, note how they were drafted on the televised portion of SmackDown Live, when even the more established Usos had to settle for being picked on the Network.
Unfortunately, separated from Styles and with their other former Bullet Club buddy Finn Balor injured, Gallows and Anderson were just another forgotten tandem after a notably bad feud with the New Day. Perhaps sunk by the all-time bad “Old Day” skit, they never really rose above pre-show enhancement matches.
These were the picks that ended up, for various reasons, failing to live up to the hype of their draft positioning.
ALBERTO DEL RIO
The last televised pick for SmackDown, Del Rio was a bit of a head scatcher even at the time. But within a month, he was suspended for violating the company’s wellness policy, and he was released on September 9, making absolutely no impact on the brand.
As SmackDown’s top pick, Ambrose was expected to carry the brand as the WWE Champion. But in his first major PPV encounter, he laid an egg with Dolph Ziggler at SummerSlam and found himself getting booed in the process. By September, the title was gone, and by January he was back in the Intercontinental Championship race, where he’d been a year prior. Despite some genuinely great matches (including a classic TLC match against Styles), Ambrose wasn’t able to shine as the flag-bearer for his brand, at least at this time.
Finn lands here through no fault of his own. Balor was on the precipice of superstardom, winning the inaugural Universal Championship match at SummerSlam. Unfortunately, he suffered an injury in the process that put him out past the following WrestleMania. The injury left Raw somewhat short-handed and allowed others to rise and fill the vacancy. By the time he returned, Balor appeared to have lost favor as a potential top champion.
Arguably the hottest star of 2017 was the 48th person picked in the 2016 WWE Draft. Strowman went from Wyatt Family flunky to jobber-destroying monster in no time, overcoming initial skepticism to get over organically more than anyone else on Raw.
Call her Ms. Irrelevant if you must, but the last pick of the draft is the current SmackDown Women’s Champion and the winner of the inaugural women’s Money in the Bank match. After a thankfully brief babyface run, Carmella found a suitably annoying heel character and grew into it over the course of a year, thanks partly to an entertainingly obnoxious alliance with James Ellsworth. Ring work aside, she succeeded beyond what her draft status would indicate.
SHEAMUS AND CESARO
Both these guys were spinning their wheels in WWE before the draft. Cesaro still couldn’t quite figure things out on the mic, while Sheamus had settled into a boring midcard role. Neither wrestler appeared destined for greatness until they were put against one another in a best-of-seven series in the fall. After that, they formed a “Wacky Tag Team Partners Who Hate Each Other” alliance that surprised many by actually working. Today, the Bar is considered one of the best tag teams in recent WWE history, and it all dates back to this draft.
And the Winner Was …
SMACKDOWN LIVE was better and more consistent than Raw during the time between the brand split and the first Superstar Shake-Up, owing to a shorter runtime, a better main event picture, more emotional storylines (remember the incredible Miz-Ziggler feud culminating in the Career vs. Title match?), more surprises and a consistent tone as the “wrestling show.” Even wrestlers like Dolph Ziggler and Bray Wyatt, who had been stale, found brief resurgences on SD Live, as Wyatt’s pairing with Orton proved shockingly successful. Sure, it ended in a brutally bad WrestleMania match, but the pairing worked in the beginning.
Raw, meanwhile, dealt with prominent injuries, little in the way of elevation, a depth issue in the women’s division and inconsistency in presentation. The return of Goldberg helped, as did Chris Jericho sticking around longer than expected, but the Roman Reigns push continued to disappoint, Seth Rollins struggled to find his footing as a babyface and Brock Lesnar rarely appeared.
Ultimately, the brand extension itself was a bit of a mixed bag, but it rejuvenated several careers and gave SmackDown its relevance back. As a fan, that’s a win, and we should be happy for the many superstars who reached new career heights as a result of the brand split.