After all this time talking about it, stressing over it, spending way too much time thinking about it, the “WWE brand extension draft brand split” (for Bound For Glory?) has finally come and gone. In true WWE fashion, which tends to be “ill-fitting,” no one is close to completely happy about the outcome, be it the fans or the Superstars themselves. But as far as WWE failures and successes go, as things stand right now, the 2016 WWE Draft falls firmly into the latter column. The same goes for the first episode of SmackDown! Live* as well, but the meat really is the draft. Next week is when the real and long test begins, but this week’s episode works very well as a practice test.
*Please accept SmackDown! Live as the show as SmackDown! as the brand, at least in this review.
Each actual match on the SmackDown! Live card is solid for what it is, but from the moment the show starts the excitement is in the air for the actual draft picking. The show doesn’t start with a 20-minute promo from the RAW and SmackDown! authority figures, nor does it need to; SmackDown! Live being two hours means it doesn’t have the luxury of RAW’s brand (no pun intended) of time-filling. In fact, SmackDown! Live almost feels too short with two hours, as it has so much to squeeze in and manages to, with the help of the WWE Network and picture-in-picture on USA during commercial time. There isn’t time for full ring entrances, but for once, it’s completely understandable for once in a way it never really has been for a three-hour RAW.
Seth Rollins (for RAW) is the first draft pick, yeah yeah, but Stephanie McMahon and Mick Foley start the whole draft off strong with their surprisingly early picks of Charlotte and Finn Balor, and that sets the tone for the rest of the night (and probably what this brand split will be like moving forward). The fact that the story for Stephanie and Foley is that they have a mutual respect for each other (while still maintaining a give-and-take relationship) works in their favor; the Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns picks are the biggest example of this dynamic, which is something the two of them even address during and after SmackDown! Live. Meanwhile, SmackDown’s Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan appear to have a singular mind in their approach to the show, and that actually ends up being to their detriment, surprisingly and unintentionally.
You see, SmackDown!’s draft decisions for the first four rounds feel like they prove something pretty disappointing: Shane and Bryan don’t care about women or tag teams. Well, the combination of draft decisions along with everything Shane said on this week’s RAW and Bryan’s comment during the draft about Foley’s “obsession” with women’s wrestling actually say Shane and Bryan don’t care about women or tag team wrestling. Plus, Stephanie and Foley simply make the smarter, more diverse choices for the RAW roster, of all places. All while Shane and Bryan going through the draft with what feels less like a plan and more like a reliance on their own charm to get them by.
Of course Bryan and Shane are just doing and choosing what’s been scripted for them, but the way the SmackDown! side of things is scripted, things come across a certain way: that Stephanie and Foley draft smart, while Bryan and Shane draft whatever feels good to them at any given moment. After Stephanie’s announcement on RAW about the Cruiserweight Championship, Bryan and Shane don’t even draft a champion post-Dean Ambrose (whose title is in jeopardy on SmackDown! Live and Battleground, which is not the case for Charlotte or New Day, who RAW also gets) until the fourth round with The Miz. They don’t even bring up the concept of a new belt to counteract RAW’s one. Both rosters are definitely good in their own ways—that’s what happens when you have a very talented full roster in the first place—but SmackDown!’s shortcomings in this draft don’t so much feel like intentional sabotage in favor of RAW (which is the common denominator of every past WWE draft) as they legitimately feel like the characters’ mismanagement within the story itself. Essentially: It’s not Creative’s shortcomings, it’s the authority figures.
That’s actually progress then. Now all WWE has to do is address it.
Despite those particular shortcomings though, props to Worcester, Massachusetts for being a crowd that came to see the draft and for being actually being excited for the NXT call-ups. The reactions to the Finn Balor and American Alpha announcements could have gone so horribly wrong with a terrible crowd, but it’s heartwarming to know things didn’t go down like that. SmackDown! isn’t going to have the added help of piped-in reactions anymore, and it’s good to see the first official SmackDown! Live on the books easily get reactions out of the crowd.
Speaking of reactions… Obviously, a major criticism of modern WWE is just how scripted every single thing is these days, to where no one sounds original because they’re not. This over-scripting is why it’s especially easy to tell when a Superstar is working off of a script or not, even when they don’t ask for a line. So when it comes to the WWE Network’s draft coverage and it’s apparent the script has essentially been thrown out the window, it makes it all feel even realer than anyone could have initially expected. I’m not just talking about Booker T point blank telling the Usos that “the fans hate” Roman Reigns (and them, by proxy). I’m talking about post-draft promos from Superstars who clearly aren’t happy with their draft position or the roster they end up on.
WWE Superstars, past and present, have gone on the record to say that no one knows who’s getting drafted until either the night or moment of, and while there are bound to be exceptions to such a rule—off the top of my head, his name is John Cena—it’s very much the norm and it’s also an extremely vulnerable position for a Superstar to be in (and for WWE to even show). That’s also arguably one of those “shitty little things” WWE does that most publicly-traded companies wouldn’t and couldn’t possibly get away with, but it’s certainly not at the top of that list. So while there has been a lot of discussion of how refreshing it is that WWE has treated the draft as seriously and legitimately as it possibly could, I’ll go a step further and say the more refreshing part is how unscripted the wrestlers’ (and commentators’ and authority figures’) reactions to the draft picks are, even when that lack of a script pulls back the veil in an uncomfortable way.
It really shows in moments like Dolph Ziggler and Cesaro’s post-draft promos on the Network (the word “pipe bomb” is literally used for the former, and the latter’s frustration is palpable). Dolph even calls out his usual “steal the show” and “scratch and claw” promos, while addressing how he was never actually given the chance to run with the ball on those certain occasions he should have been allowed to. Cesaro, on the other hand, not only calls out not being drafted to SmackDown! (more on that in a bit) but also the criticisms of his speaking ability (and he doesn’t stumble with his words once here), and he does so in the measured way of a man and talent who is legitimately frustrated and clearly expected better from this entire draft situation.
Then there’s Alberto Del Rio, who is also none-too-pleased during his post-draft promo, but not in the typical Del Rio way. Not only does he not go to the “perro” well, it’s almost scarily calm in a way where if he raises his voice, that’s it, he’s done. It’s actually kind of defeated, in a way. I wouldn’t usually drag in the personal aspect of it all, but his spot on SmackDown! officially separates him from his actual significant other (Paige), and that’s obviously not a decision made for storyline purposes (since they’re not even an acknowledged couple on WWE programming, at least not yet).
You also have people who absolutely crumble without the aid of a scripted safety net: Kalisto (drafted to the brand without the Cruiserweight division) cuts an absolutely terrible promo about Baron Corbin and a “good lucha thing,” while Titus O’Neil’s deadly serious promo is only saved by Darren Young and Bob Backlund’s appearance… and even that is almost brought down by O’Neil’s inability to even show any happiness for his close friend’s new lease on life.
26. Neville (RAW)
27. Natalya (SmackDown!)
28. Cesaro (RAW)
29. Alberto Del Rio (SmackDown!)
30. Sheamus (RAW)
Really think for a moment about what being in this particular round says about Cesaro’s worth as a WWE Superstar. It ultimately says he’s only as valuable as: a guy who’s not even officially back from injury, a woman who regularly shows herself as all hype and a family name, and two “main eventers” who have become absolute punchlines and afterthoughts. Cesaro has every right to be upset (both legitimately and in-character) with the draft, especially when you compare it to the round he arguably “should have” been drafted in:
16. Rusev (with Lana) (RAW)
17. The Miz (with Maryse) (SmackDown!)
18. Kevin Owens (RAW)
19. Baron Corbin (SmackDown!)
20. Enzo Amore and Big Cass (RAW)
You see, for all of Corbin’s improvements, it feels way too much like he took Cesaro’s spot (both in number and on the SmackDown! roster); and in this “New Era,” Cesaro is not the guy whose spot needs or deserves to be taken by a “youngster.” It’s not just feeling a sense of entitlement when it comes Cesaro either: It’s literally taking Shane McMahon’s words since his return to WWE (not even just since the beginning of the draft talk) at face value and then seeing them completely crumble under an ounce of scrutiny. Underdogs, people being held back, potential glass ceiling shatterers—Baron Corbin doesn’t fit under those criteria. He doesn’t need to in order to matter, but that criteria is supposedly the backbone of Bryan and Shane’s entire brand. It’s not like the excuse for this is that it’s early in the draft when they have to sacrifice some of their vision in order to catch the bigger draws first. These are drafts four and six. It simply makes no sense, even if Creative actually has a plan for Cesaro and Corbin.
There’s a reason why the only live draft reactions available are the NXT ones. No worry about that blowing up in anyone’s face:
As for Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens’ status in the draft: They’re destined to do this forever, you guys! Just kidding. Sort of.
It’s really simple. As Battleground is supposed to put an end to their feud, I feel like the smartest thing to do (as they’re both stuck with each other on RAW) is just have an authority figure make them sign a no contact contract. Even the video game WWE SmackDown!: Here Comes The Pain figured that one out 13 years ago. Zayn and Owen have been actively messing up matches, whether they’re a part of them or not, and that’s hardly best for business. A “no touching” rule could be great for them and the entire never-ending feud, especially when the bubble finally bursts. Plus, it’s just a logical, yet outside-the-box, idea. It’s a band-aid, but even Edge and Cena (my go-to contemporary feud for guys who just hate each other) didn’t beat the shit out of each other every time they entered the same arena. They wanted to, but they didn’t.
The matches here are obviously secondary, but they’re still worth discussing. After this week’s RAW’s terrible decision to essentially hype an upcoming Battleground match with the match itself (Sasha and a partner versus Charlotte and Dana Brooke), SmackDown! Live instead just does a handicap match between Sasha and the two. WWE probably should have done that on RAW instead, but— Actually, doesn’t it make more sense to start a feud with the handicap match and build to who could possibly be Sasha’s partner who sticks? Or does that always just lead to Stardust? Then again, who (kayfabe-wise) are we supposed to believe booked this handicap match in the first place? What would either McMahon sibling hope to accomplish with this particular match? The same goes for Bryan or Foley. None of these characters have specific allegiances to either side of things, even with their own heel/face dynamics, so who could possibly take credit for a match where Sasha is thrown to the wolves right before her big pay-per-view match?
Actually, it was probably Shane, as we’ve previously established. Testicles.
Xavier Woods versus Bray Wyatt also brings up the question of why WWE didn’t just do this on RAW, but in a different way. In fact, that’s not so much the question as the question is still: Why did RAW go with a disaffected New Day, post-“Compound Fracture”? Everything would be golden with this storyline if not for New Day completely laughing off the Wyatt Family (as well as taking the fight to them) on RAW, because the Xavier/Bray match is such a perfect blend legitimate character work within a fascinating and new storyline—everyone sells it, from the talent to the commentary—and the RAW misstep just remains on the fringes of it all, indelible.
I also pointed out on RAW that the Darren Young/Del Rio match failed due to a major lack of chemistry, and thankfully that really was the problem and not just a sudden deterioration of Young’s in-ring skills. SmackDown! Live’s Darren Young/Zack Ryder versus Rusev/The Miz (a dynamic WWE sadly won’t get to play with more) match is much better, and Young’s offense and intensity just works so well. Young’s just so full of energy and enthusiasm, an he’s clearly going to make himself great again if it’s the last thing he does. At the risk of disappointing “The Villain” Marty Scurll, I must admit I found myself yelling out “CHICKENWING” as Young went for the (beautiful) Crossface Chickenwing on The Miz. So while I’ll probably never go to Puerto Rico, it’s really good to see that all attempts to make Darren Young great again are actually working.
And then there’s the deja vu that is the main event. The Dean Ambrose/Seth Rollins WWE Championship rematch is good, but I feel like that RAW main event was better. On the plus side, this match does tell a different story, with Seth taking the fight to Dean to try to get it over with as quickly as he can (even poking eyes—finally, heel moves!), and it should not be understated just how good both of these men are at telling stories inside and outside of the ring. This match also gets the Superplex/Falcon Arrow combination to a position where there are no finish shenanigans, and that in turn gives Dean the clean 1-2-3 after a Dirty Deeds. That’s all great. The crowd has a moment of “CM Punk” chanting, which is derailed quickly enough by an interest in the match itself, but I don’t know if you can you really blame them for that moment of weakness. Like I said: This is deja vu. This match just happened on RAW, and the finish was a mess. Why wouldn’t the crowd be a little hesitant to get truly involved, you know? Luckily, Dean wins clean, and the crowd is into it, but come on—he’s walking into a title match against two RAW guys on Sunday. Deja Vu. Shenanigans. (And also Roman Reigns.)
This is obviously not a perfect episode of SmackDown! (Live or otherwise) or WWE TV, but as far as the template goes for the future of WWE and WWE drafting, it nails it. It remains to be seen if this experiment will succeed—and there are still so many championship questions up in the air—but as many have said before, WWE truly has all the tools necessary for that success. They just have to use them, as cliched as that sounds.
So let’s at least see how this all blows up in everyone’s faces next week. Is that so much to ask?
- RESULTS: John Cena (with Enzo Amore and Big Cass) defeated Luke Gallows (with AJ Styles and Karl Anderson); Darren Young and Zack Ryder defeated The Miz and Rusev; Bray Wyatt defeated Xavier Woods; Kane versus Kevin Owens went to No Contest (due to Sami Zayn); Charlotte and Dana Brooke defeated Sasha Banks; Chris Jericho (with RAW red scarf) defeated Cesaro; Natalya versus Alicia Fox went to No Contest (due to the “Martyr” Becky Lynch); Dean Ambrose (c) defeated Seth Rollins (WWE Championship)
- I saw people complain about no “surprise returns,” even though there was a list of who was eligible for the draft. There can obviously be surprises in the future, but the draft neither promised nor allowed such a lofty dream.
- I don’t know what’s more delightful about Chris Jericho’s discussion with the panel after being drafted to RAW: Him complimenting Lita and Booker T’s hair or him just completely hating on Renee. Or his retconning of how he’s always respected Stephanie McMahon.
- Congratulations to Zack Ryder. He’ll probably lose on Sunday, but at least he gets this consolation albatross in the form of main roster Mojo Rawley! Yes, that was negative, but I’ll at least inform you that it’s not residual anger over Bayley/Joe/Nakamura not getting called up. Because, really, I’m just happy Alexa Bliss got called up.
- Eva Marie being on SmackDown! means she can no longer claim “all red everything” and she must immediately dye her hair blue.
- WWE.com announced the “New Era” commentary teams, and despite the fact that David Otunga honestly isn’t as good at commentary as I hope he would be (though his ride or die nature for Curtis Axel will fuel my soul for years), I’m intrigued. As for the removal of Jerry Lawler from commentary: I’ve said it before, but the last place Lawler needs to be in WWE is anywhere near a live mic when he can barely make it through a full sentence in pre-recorded shows (and that’s not even the worst of his problems). The Ray Rice “joke” from the Payback Kickoff Show should’ve been the final straw anyway. Him not getting why Bryan would hate drafting Miz (when literally everyone knows why, since Miz never shuts up about their relationship) plus him being super team Miz (after, you know, all of that) is a reminder that being heel doesn’t automatically mean “better” or equate to actually being able to keep up mentally with something as fast-paced as commentary.
- My brother just reminded me of Natalya’s best contribution to the company. “Nobody likes what the Usos do, come on.” (Tyson, we miss you.) Never forget that months-long period of WWE just playing this perfect dinner date over and over and over again.
- The draft discussion about Naomi used the buzzword for every black wrestler who doesn’t have much else to offer character-wise: “athletic.” Drink.
- You know the deal: Read this, make sure other people read this, and then maybe we’ll get weekly SmackDown! Live coverage (starring yours truly). Please? Roman Reigns is on RAW—I don’t want to go back. (Then again, if I have to stick with RAW, I’m turning in Finn Balor fanfiction. Hell, I can do that here too.)
- Justice for Heath Slater!