In the previous draft, RAW was seen as the “sports-entertainment” brand. At the top of the card, Evolution produced Randy Orton and Batista as they bounced off of Triple H and Ric Flair’s energy, Chris Jericho was holding his own post-Undisputed Title reign, Shawn Michaels returned and had one of the best runs of his career, and Rob Van Dam & Jeff Hardy lead the Hardcore division for the brand’s “edginess.”
SmackDown was branded as the wrestling show, with the “SmackDown Six” buoying the show – Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, Edge, Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero & Chavo Guerrero. John Cena would find his voice and style before being drafted to RAW and becoming the WWE’s poster boy. Brock Lesnar would see multiple reigns as WWE Champion, JBL saw a career resurgence with his new Wall Street-inspired persona, and The Undertaker completely reinvented his in-ring style, presence and physique. Meanwhile, cruiserweights like Jamie Noble, Matt Hardy, Gregory Helms, “The” Brian Kendrick, and Paul London held it down in their own division.
It’s been a week since the WWE Draft returned to shake up the company’s roster. The overall feeling was that the draft line-up felt like a disappointment – mainly because the roster fell right in line with what we, the audience, expected. RAW gets the bigger, established stars and SmackDown gets… everybody else. But the biggest talking point to come out of Draft Week was Cesaro’s shoot promo, expressing his frustration at the low placement he received:
“I think Raw going forward needs to be about the Superstars, it needs to be about the performers in the ring and not about how Stephanie McMahon and Mick Foley co-exist … the focus should be on the Superstar who got drafted. We have Seth Rollins, we have New Day, we have Finn Bálor coming up from NXT – those are the people we should be here talking about.”
After last night’s RAW episode, it seems like somebody was listening.
WWE Battleground, largely, felt like a placeholder pay-per-view. The only purpose the show served was to bring both rosters together one last time before the WWE would commit fully to the new brand split. The midcard title bouts for the Intercontinental & US Championships felt inconsequential, as both challengers and champions were now on opposing brands. In addition, the rest of the card felt undeveloped in terms of feud progression and would be stopped cold with the brand split looming. The smartest thing to come out of the draft was putting Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens on the RAW roster to continue their long-time feud. For nearly 20-minutes, Zayn and Owens gave us another Match of the Year candidate and gave hope to the possibilities these brand feuds could bring. Dean Ambrose, surprisingly, retaining the WWE Championship for SmackDown was another highlight – but with John Cena and AJ Styles in contention, it could lead to more fresh feuds for the championship.
And then came Monday Night RAW. New logo, new graphics, new music, new stage, and red ring ropes (!!!). The cynical wrestling fan could have seen this as a new coat of paint on an old, tired automobile. Instead, we were legitimately treated to a fresh perspective, with a prospect of a genuine new era. Finn Balor debuted, winning a high-stakes Fatal 4-Way and defeating Roman Reigns, Vince McMahon’s golden child, to take on Seth Rollins at SummerSlam for the newly-minted WWE Universal Championship. Sasha Banks defeated Charlotte to become the new Women’s Champion. It’s rare for a title of prominence to change hands before a major pay-per-view, so Banks taking the gold made for a surprising and emotional moment on the brand. The Club laid out the New Day, staking claim for the Tag Team Titles at SummerSlam. Nia Jax and Braun Strowman destroyed enhancement talent.
So, in the week since the draft, we’ve seen a mediocre pay-per-view followed by an incredible Monday Night RAW episode – an episode with purpose written all over it. Will SmackDown’s first post-draft show see the same purpose and resolve? We’ll find out soon enough. But I’m already looking forward to it.