Following the WWE Draft this past Tuesday, there’s been a real mixed bag of sentiment in the air regarding how the blue brand fared when it came time for the WWE Roster to be divided. And while I had many of the same feelings watching the show, always wanting Smackdown to pick that one or two extra great workers to shore up the playing field, I do think that a lot of the post-Draft comments are missing the mark on the potential this show has. Granted, I groaned like the rest of the world when Baron Corbin was given a high pick and the “future WWE Champion” rhetoric, and shook my head as Cesaro, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn all landed on Raw, but all is not lost by any means. In fact, I’m a great deal more positive than most.
Depth may be an issue in a sense, but it’s not the be all end all. One look at the WWF in 1998 when it came from behind in the Monday night ratings battles, with Raw eventually overtaking and pulling ahead of Nitro, tells you that depth isn’t necessarily the biggest key to a promotion’s success. They had Austin and Vince at the top, and everybody else was far behind. While you had Taker, Kane and Foley in the mix, all you had underneath was DX and The Rock, and everything else was completely disposable. The point is, depth is a luxury and a huge benefit, but it doesn’t always mean that everybody is used to their fullest. While fans (including myself) laud a year like 2000, where the WWF’s depth was incredible, you also end up with performers like Tazz, Eddie Guerrero, D’Lo Brown and others not being close to maximised, because there’s only so much TV time to go out, and only so many top spots. But with a pauper’s lot, as the WWF had in the fallout of the Montreal Screwjob in 1997, you strive to do more with less, rather than less with more.
One of the theoretical advantages to a brand split is that more can be made of what they have, because honestly, they have to go the extra mile with the hand they’ve been dealt. So therein lies the true question. What cards does Smackdown have to play? Let’s take a look.
The A Players
For the first two rounds of the Draft, Smackdown was doing well, and I don’t think it’s a debate that when it comes to strength at the very top, which is where it really counts in the eyes of Vince McMahon, this is where Smackdown is as strong as Raw.
You have the biggest star in the company, John Cena, who has proven consistently to be a top flight performer and brings a credibility that few others can. You have Dean Ambrose, a fresh top guy that can do anything you want him to, can deliver great promos and heated rivalries that people get behind. You also have the interesting question mark of Randy Orton, fresh off a long layoff, who is mentally one of the smartest workers in the industry. If Orton comes back with a fresh coat of paint, rejuvenated and reinspired, he could be a tremendous addition. When he’s bold and trying something new, Orton can be the best part of the show, as he was in the days of the cocky Legend Killer in 2004, or the early days of the sadistic Viper in 2007. Unfortunately, we’ve seen that when he’s in a comfort zone, his auto-pilot mode is fairly uninteresting, so it really is all about how he’s used and how motivated he is.
But to work with these three hot babyfaces, we have arguably the best worker on the main roster, AJ Styles, who is certain to be the backbone of the show much as Kurt Angle was in 2002. As top heel, he could have an excellent series with any of the other guys listed above, before we even look elsewhere. Styles will end up being the centrepiece of Smackdown in many ways, is as consistent as they come, and is a better big match wrestler than almost anybody in the world.
Bray Wyatt is the other major name they are trusting to carry the show. I’d expect Luke Harper to end up on Smackdown upon his return for the original Wyatt Family to dwell here. The problem with Bray is that, when it comes to opponents on the babyface side, the only guy he hasn’t already had an extended run against is Randy Orton, and that can only go so long before Wyatt’s run starts to feel redundant. As with many WWE characters, the major flaw with the Wyatts is the failure to evolve them or develop them past stage one, and that could go either way with the brand split. It will either be exposed and they’ll be a tired act quickly, or with a separate writing crew and an innovative use, they could be fascinating to watch.
The B Players
Undoubtedly, this is where things feel weakest, and is where the concern comes for Smackdown in the long haul. The individual they clearly see the most in is Baron Corbin, and with depth what it is, I’d expect him to be working with top guys imminently, long before he’s proven he deserves it. Thus far he’s shown every weakness anybody paying attention to NXT was fully aware of going in – a lack of charisma, dull performances, the personality of sawdust, and a striking inability to connect to the audience. Flashbacks to failed experiments like Heidenreich and Kenzo Suzuki from 2004 Smackdown are running through the mind, and a Corbin push may be what consitutes “growing pains” in the early days.
Beyond that, you have acts that are in desperate need of rejuvenation. Alberto Del Rio, Kane, and to an extent even Dolph Ziggler have exhausted themselves in their current roles, and need to be retooled. Funny as it is to say, The Miz has done a far better job of staying current and interesting than everybody else in this group, which is a credit to him and an indictment of the others in one go. This circle of guys have been around the block as opponents countless times, and there isn’t a lot to get excited about between them. Filling out this area we have two new acts that will hopefully breath life into the proceedings – Kalisto and Apollo Crews. Any intention they had of breaking Kalisto out the pack seems to be gone, but he’ll have plenty of chances to be exciting in his role. More focus on Crews will only be a boon for him, and I’d be very surprised if he isn’t Intercontinental Champion before too long.
If these guys continue working amongst themselves, then the midcard looks fairly dull. With a little mixing and matching with other areas, however, and there’s some possibilities.
The Tag Teams
One of the best pick-ups for Smackdown was American Alpha, and by some margin. Chad Gable and Jason Jordan have quickly become a superb team, and one can only hope that the same focused build and personality profiles we were exposed to on NXT will be given to them here. If so, they’ll get over fast, and the field they have to work with is better than meets the eye. Tyler Breeze and Fandango, awful team name aside, have major potential has a unit, and could be a real breakthrough surprise if given the chance to be credible. Good in the ring and with personality to play with, the matches with American Alpha could be fantastic. Similarly, The Usos have a great work ethic and would gel well with both teams. A returning Luke Harper means a possible reunion with Rowan, and their past efforts against the Usos proved they can be an awesome combination, despite Rowan’s weaknesses. Wyatts Vs. Alpha? Yes please. The Hype Bros and Vaudevillains are what they are – teams to lose to the others, and the Ascension are lucky to still be there. Lest we forget, the much-ballyhooed Smackdown Six consisted of just three tag teams tearing it up, and while I’d never compare Tyler Breeze with Eddie Guerrero or Erick Rowan with Edge, we have four very good teams to play with.
Clearly Raw got the better of the Women, if for no other reason than Eva Marie dragging down the average on Smackdown. But Becky Lynch connects with the audience, Natalya is fantastic, Naomi is underrated, Carmella is coming along, and Alexa Bliss has more charimsa and pizzazz in her eye makeup than Eva Marie does in her entire vapid, vacant face. So much of the women and tag team situation will be dictated by what steps are taken with championships – if new belts are created, while you risk exhausting and overdoing titles, you can make them important with each show being a self-contained world. And even with only six women (at least right now), you still have at least three or four very good options as the ones to focus on. And damning as I may be, if Eva Marie can bring the heel heat she did in NXT (which may be a little harder in front of a more casual audience), she does have a use.
Hope is not lost by any means, and Smackdown could be a great show. If nothing else because the mix and match dynamics are fresher than they may seem at first glance. Looking at Styles alone, he has potential matches with Randy Orton, Dean Ambrose, Dolph Ziggler, Apollo Crews, Kalisto, Chad Gable and Jason Jordan on the horizon.
The biggest problem as I see it is the lack of heels to work with Cena, Orton and Ambrose. Styles is awesome, of course, but the B level players they have are guys they’ve gone to the well with, meaning the fresh matches and new major heel will be Corbin, unless we get more signings and call-ups that can contend for the spot.
But as we said at the start, the key is in how Smackdown uses what they have. If there isn’t a mind to use the stale acts differently, and the only big move is the Corbin push, then the concerns will be warranted. Creativity is key here, and that brings us to one of the most important pieces of this puzzle.
Ryan Ward, the head writer, is keenly aware of hiding weaknesses and highlighting strengths. He used video packages and montages as storytelling devices far more than WWE typically does in NXT, and brought some real depth to a pool of talent that was actually thinner than people perceived.
The key for Smackdown will be a word that has popped up a few times – personality. Guys like Del Rio and Ziggler feel played out because we’re sick of seeing the one dimension we’re used to WWE presenting, but that doesn’t mean it’s all they have. A sitdown, UFC style interview with a Del Rio where he shows a more natural arrogance than the over-the-top “DESTINYYY!” cry would be a welcome change and might actually strike a chord. Similarly, giving Dolph Ziggler a chance to talk about his love of wrestling and why it’s personally important to him that he “steals the show” would be far more endearing than the guy trying so hard to get over that everything he does feels like a guy screaming at us to care, non-stop. Scripted interviews and 50/50 booking have neutered a lot of these guys, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Ryan Ward once said that he believes wrestling is about two things – conflict and emotion. He’ll have a chance here, as he did in NXT, to show how to create those two things and prove his theory correct.
It feels to me that the thing people are missing is that we’re used to seeing a certain WWE format that everything has had to fit, as it applied to their Raw formula. Smackdown had to fit within that framework and became lame duck, until now. Now we have a head writer who is used to making something out of a limited crew, and not only does he have a lot of untapped talent to try to turn into diamonds, he has the likes of Styles, Alpha, Ambrose, Cena and Orton who can work fantastically as they are.
It all hinges on Ryan Ward. If Smackdown is forced to rely on the same vision Raw has had for years, then of course, it will become the same flat show Raw has been, but with half a roster. But if Ward is allowed to try new things, with the talent on hand and with another batch apparently on the way following Summerslam, Smackdown could be the nicest surprise of 2016.