Many fans who watched the WWE through the Ruthless Aggression Era fondly remember the initial brand split which began in 2002. With both WCW and ECW talent added to the WWE’s roster, the decision was made after WrestleMania X8 to take all the wrestlers and move half of them to Monday Night Raw and the other half to Friday Night SmackDown. This decision worked well for the first couple of years and allowed for first-time matches like Shawn Michaels and Kurt Angle to have a bigger impact, allowed more wrestlers to succeed, and was responsible for the legendary class from Ohio Valley Wrestling becoming the stars they are today. However, with a decline in star power, viewership, and general interest in the WWE, the company slowly but surely started rendering the brand split useless in the hopes of improving business.
Many fans initially preferred SmackDown to Raw for the first couple of years, but the WWE went out of their way to take talents from SmackDown and place them on Raw; effectively killing the feeling of competition. The two world championships, initially treated as equals, would establish a clear pecking order after 2009 with the WWE Championship at the top and the World Heavyweight Championship be damned. The concept of separate pay-per-views ended in 2007 and both brands would compete on the same show going forward. But the true death of the brand split emerged following the birth of the Raw Supershow. In 2011, the WWE decided to have SmackDown superstars wrestle on Raw; making SmackDown unnecessary for fans who weren’t interested in the World Heavyweight Championship; which was unofficially the Super Intercontinental Title at this point. The Raw Supershow unofficially killed the brand split and the unification of the WWE Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship was the final nail in the coffin until Shane and Stephanie McMahon announced the Brand Split’s return three years later.
With the revival of the brand split on the horizon, many fans were left with mixed feelings regarding its return. On one hand, you had the fans who thought anything would be better than this perpetual Authority stable running the product into the ground. They also believed two shows would give more wrestlers a chance to shine and the WWE could finally create new stars that they desperately needed. On the other hand, there were the skeptics, like me, who wondered how separating the writing teams which gave us such wonderful storylines as Hornswoggle as the anonymous Raw GM, Adam Rose vs. his bunny, and the Dolph Ziggler-Rusev-Lana love triangle would be capable of writing compelling television or creating stars when they couldn’t do right by their biggest stars in The Shield. Regardless of any fans feelings, the company was going to do this and it meant we all had to watch and wait.
The rules of the Brand Split came out just before the Draft took place and it was obvious who would be favored when selecting wrestlers. Somehow, the company rationalized the idea Raw needed 3 picks for every 2 that SmackDown got despite announcing the return of the Cruiserweight Division the night before. Then the actual draft occurred and Raw got every big name they could find with exception to John Cena, Randy Orton, and AJ Styles. This caused many fans to question the WWE’s commitment to making the two shows feel equal, but the fans would be in for a huge shock once the post-draft programming began.
Following Battleground, we saw the early stages of the two separate promotions with unique entrance sets, new theme songs, and even a few throwbacks like the colored ropes and the Raw commentary team off to the side of the entrance ramp as opposed to next to the ring. And to make things even better for fans, both shows managed to put out some good television with Raw going above and beyond and putting on what many herald as the best Raw of 2016 and one of the best Raws in years. The result of week one of the new brand split saw several major storylines come into focus for SummerSlam and the WWE looked like they were finally getting it together. Unfortunately, this is when reality set in and it became abundantly clear who this brand split was going to favor despite the one week of great programming from both shows.
Fans weren’t too keen on Dean Ambrose fighting Dolph Ziggler for the WWE Championship, but SmackDown’s writing was so good that many fans started to change their opinion on the match based on promos alone. Meanwhile, Raw’s top program, Seth Rollins vs. Finn Bálor, was starting to look worse as the weeks went on. This feeling wasn’t limited to the world championship scene as many fans noticed that SmackDown was a major improvement from years past while Raw was more of the same. Regardless of this, SummerSlam 2016 came and gone, but it was still too fresh to make a definitive judgment of the brand split, but Survivor Series would clearly show which program was capturing the appreciation and support from the fans.
It goes without saying that Raw was superior to SmackDown in the category of viewership and ratings. Raw was the flagship show that had been around for a much longer period of time while SmackDown underwent multiple changes that ultimately took their toll on the show’s viewership. Many would think that fans enjoyed Raw more, with the ratings and viewership so blatantly in their favor, but that theory fell flat on its face when you asked the viewers. To many, Raw was nowhere near SmackDown’s level despite Raw taking most of the big names.
As previously mentioned, SmackDown had Cena and Orton at their disposal, but Cena’s limited schedule and Orton’s run in the mid-card kept them from being the big focus of the show until 2017. SmackDown’s focus lied with new stars and underutilized talents of the past. Their first exclusive pay-per-view, Backlash, had some great wrestling and some solid stories being told. When compared to Raw’s first exclusive show, Clash of Champions, SmackDown was doing great while Raw was maintaining the status quo. SmackDown made AJ Styles, The Miz, Dolph Ziggler, Heath Slater, Rhyno, Becky Lynch, and Bray Wyatt much bigger deals than they ever were before while the only wrestlers who even partially benefited from their time on Raw were Kevin Owens, Sasha Banks, and Braun Strowman.
By the time the 2016 Survivor Series rolled around, fans were clearly on the side of the Blue Brand while fans continued to admonish Raw for their lack of creativity and underutilizing most of their roster. When the traditional Survivor Series tag team match was made and Team SmackDown invaded Raw, the fans attending Raw booed their own show in favor of SmackDown. And it became abundantly clear that after more than 10 weeks of WWE programming, SmackDown was hands down the superior program. Sadly, the Blue Brand’s time at the top would slowly descend into outright boredom by the time the Superstar Shakeup rolled around.
The beginning of 2017 was still looking bright for SmackDown with AJ Styles and John Cena having a match of the year contender for the WWE at the Royal Rumble, but Orton winning the Rumble match was the first wrong turn the company made. And to make matters worse, Cena, who had just won his 16th World Championship a month earlier, dropped the WWE Championship to Bray Wyatt after two weeks with the belt. And with Orton vs. Wyatt as the big match program for the show, things weren’t looking too good. In fact, most of SmackDown’s WrestleMania matches couldn’t even compare to Raw’s.
Raw was still the least popular program of the two, but their big match storylines had far more promise than a majority of the matches on the Blue Brand. Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens, two “friends” turned enemies were set to fight for the United States Championship, Austin Aries was challenging Neville for the Cruiserweight Championship, Brock Lesnar and Goldberg were looking to settle their feud in a bout for the Universal Championship, Seth Rollins was finally coming to blows with Triple H, and other matches on the show looked far more interesting than most of the matches for SmackDown. The buildup may have been superior to most of SmackDown’s programs, but the actual matches felt a lot more interesting on Raw’s side and this ultimately reflected people’s enjoyment of WrestleMania 33; with exception to the opening bout between Shane McMahon and AJ Styles.
The night after WrestleMania, Vince McMahon announced a Superstar Shakeup to take place the following week. This caused many fans to wonder whether SmackDown would lose all of its key players all in the hopes of improving Raw and their suspicions were confirmed. SmackDown lost Dean Ambrose, The Miz & Maryse, Bray Wyatt, Heath Slater, Rhyno, Alexa Bliss, and Mickie James to Raw whilst gaining Jinder Mahal, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Rusev, Charlotte, and The New Day; not exactly an even trade off. By the time the dust had settled following the Shakeup, it seemed like Raw made small gains while SmackDown suffered greatly.
On Raw’s side of things, Lesnar was the Universal Champion, but his schedule meant we wouldn’t be seen for months. Despite this, his feud with Samoa Joe is considered the best build up all year with many fans desperately hoping that Joe goes on to defeat Lesnar for the title. Braun Strowman and Roman Reigns were having some good matches, but Strowman’s injury kept him out of action for a while. Upon his return, the two had a match at GBOF that made both men look like absolute beasts. Alexa Bliss was involved in a dud of a segment in the “This Is Your Life” parody, but her mic skills and wrestling has been impressive as she clearly attempts to fill Charlotte’s role. The tag team division cooled off following the Hardy Boyz-Sheamus/Cesaro feud, but the inclusion of Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins may give this division some much-needed excitement.
On SmackDown’s side of things, the show isn’t looking as good nor is their upside any better. The Tag Team Division and the United States Championship picture may be the two most interesting aspects of SmackDown’s programming. Meanwhile, Naomi has begun to grow stale with a lack of competent opponents and solid title defenses while the rest of the division has done little to nothing of interest outside of their two Money in the Bank matches. Shinsuke Nakamura, one of the hottest acts in NJPW and NXT, quickly became just another guy after struggling to defeat Dolph Ziggler and having a horrible match against Baron Corbin. And perhaps the biggest WTF moment all year was the crowning of Jinder Mahal as the WWE Champion and the revival of the horrific stipulation known as the Punjabi Prison Match.
Battleground has come and gone and the opinion is damn near universal that it was one of the worst shows of the year. The brand that used to make top stars out of mid carders and deliver the best wrestling product on the main roster had now succumbed to horrible matches and boring storylines.
Heading into SummerSlam, the most interesting feuds and build up are easily coming from Monday Night Raw. The show may be long and filled with filler more often than not, but almost every Raw match at SummerSlam has promise while every SmackDown match is more of the same and a reminder of how far the brand has fallen.
And with a year of the brand split in the can, I can honestly say that SmackDown has totally lost any edge they had over Monday Night Raw. And while some fans can’t agree that Raw has been putting on the better programming, they all can admit that SmackDown has made some major regressions since a certain somebody became the head writer.
And if you still aren’t convinced that SmackDown ain’t what it used to be, then explain how John Cena vs. Shinsuke Nakamura, a first-time encounter and dream match, will be aired for free on SmackDown and the big match for SummerSlam will be a less interesting match with Mahal at the center of it all? Yeah, it might make that one episode of SmackDown interesting, but the last time a company wasted big matches like that was WCW Monday Nitro…and we all know what happened there.