Last July’s WWE Brand Extension was a necessary move. Between the company’s successful, ongoing raid of the indies and the seemingly evergreen quality of WWE mainstays, their roster had become just too bloated for one set of storylines. Sure, splitting the roster into two may have created uneven shows in terms of raw star power, but that’s partly by design: With more time to showcase their talents and develop compelling stories, maybe formerly underutilized talents would finally have their moment in the sun and truly shine.
That’s exactly what we’re seeing on Smackdown Live. The same cannot be said for Raw, which in comparison seems to fall victim to the same booking traps that have plagued WWE for years, and can be a slog to get through despite being jam-packed with some of the best talent in the company. We’re now mere weeks away from the first WrestleMania of the rebooted brand split–how is Smackdown doing so much more with so much less?
Meet the new champ, same as the old champ
On Raw, Kevin Owens has anchored the show for the better part of eight months. The second-ever (and longest reigning!) Universal Champion has rightfully been a focal point of the show, especially since his slow-burn storyline with Chris Jericho caught on like wildfire with the fans.
In years past, this would mean that, naturally, a hot feud such as this one would be the main event of WrestleMania, returning stars be damned. Everyone may remember WrestleMania X-8 for The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan, but it did not close that show–Triple H vs. Chris Jericho, two full-time wrestlers, and their fight over the WWE Championship did.
Compare that to this year. Yes, the Universal Championship will ostensibly be headlining this year’s ‘Mania, but the title has been taken off of full-timer Owens and instead given to Goldberg, so that he can defend against the most infamous part-timer of all, Brock Lesnar.
Now, there is nothing wrong with having a larger-than-life dream match like Goldberg vs. Lesnar. In fact, those types of matches are often the selling point of the event for a lot of viewers. However, it doesn’t seem to make any sense why such a marquee matchup needs the Universal Championship at all–the matchup sells itself, while the fact that it’s for the title is almost an afterthought. The company clearly trusts in Owens to be a major player for years to come–why not use this opportunity to cement that on the Grandest Stage of Them All? Would Austin or The Rock be half as big if they squabbled over the Intercontinental Championship in the middle of the WrestleMania XV card while, I don’t know, Macho Man and Roddy Piper took top billing?
Over on Smackdown Live, in comparison, a surprisingly deep, long, coherent storyline will culminate in a clash for the WWE Championship. Okay, so Randy Orton’s turn against Bray when he set the Wyatt Family compound ablaze seemed a little out of the blue, but regardless, the company seems intent on finally pulling the trigger on Wyatt, the ostensible heir to the throne of resident paranormal Superstar once The Undertaker takes his last ride. Much like Owens vs. Jericho, the Bray Wyatt vs. Randy Orton feud has been the centerpiece for the show for several months, so it is only logical it should be the brand’s main event for WrestleMania.
The only part-timer match currently slated for WrestleMania on the blue brand seems to be (this is heavily rumored and has been hinted at on television but not cemented, so if you don’t want to see it skip this spoiler paragraph) AJ Styles vs. Shane McMahon, but that seems more like a situation where AJ Styles has been a huge part of Smackdown‘s success and they wanted to give him a marquee match even if he didn’t fit into the title picture right now. And in WWE’s mind, a match with Shane McMahon is up there with vying for a world title.
Nowhere is it more apparent that Raw‘s roster was set up to succeed far more than the other side than the women’s division. The Four Horsewomen are the cornerstones of the newly reinvigorated division, and three of them are on team red, as well as she-Braun Nia Jax, and prototype Vince McMahon pet project Dana Brooke. The top of Raw‘s women’s division is dominated by fan favorites Bayley, Sasha Banks and Charlotte.
Yet somehow, it’s nowhere near as interesting as Smackdown‘s women’s division, which in comparison seems like it was haphazardly thrown together. Alexa Bliss has been a revelation on the main roster; I’ve been a huge fan of hers since her NXT debut, but even her most ardent followers must feel surprised at her positioning at the top of the card. Naomi has gotten a chance to shine (or is it glow?) in a thinned-out roster, while Nikki Bella provides enough star power to hold the rest of the division together.
In the case of the women’s divisions, the main difference is Smackdown is willing to–perhaps out of necessity–try new things, while Raw simply relies on what has worked in the past. Even when Smackdown does bring back legends, they are used in vastly different ways than on on Raw–can you imagine a returning legend being the sidekick/insurance policy of a twentysomething rookie who has been on the main roster for all of six months on Raw? That’s exactly what we have gotten with Alexa Bliss and Mickie James, and it’s been a joy to watch.
Less is more
Perhaps this is the most salient point. Raw has most of the heavy-hitters–the types of guys (and gals) you’d imagine would be on programs and WrestleMania posters. Wrestlers like Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, and Bayley are undeniably the future of the company, and they are all on Raw. That’s not to say there aren’t bona fide stars on the blue brand–anyone who doesn’t consider AJ Styles, John Cena and Nikki Bella as such would be crazy. It’s just that there are far fewer of them, which means Smackdown has to take more chances with wrestlers who have traditionally been lower card talent.
And what a job they are doing: The Miz is experiencing a damn career renaissance. Never has The Miz been so captivating on the mic; he’s had the skill for many years now, but he hasn’t been given compelling source material since he was WWE Champion in 2011. Baron Corbin was a nobody, a mean big guy stereotype, who has come into his own as a fun character and a competent wrestler. His match with Dean Ambrose at WrestleMania, if given the right stipulation, could easily steal the show.
It almost feels frivolous to even complain about WWE these days. If you had told me seven years ago that Kevin Owens, Samoa Joe, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose and AJ Styles would all be prominent characters on WWE programming, I probably would have 1) made a snarky joke about the new names they were given, and 2) eked out a “yeah, right” while going back to complain about the latest Raw guest host setting up John Cena vs. Randy Orton part 457. But while both shows–especially Smackdown, but there’s certainly good on Raw too–are moving in the right direction and have been for quite some time, there’s clearly room for improvement, especially when it comes to ridding the company of its more tired tropes.
And besides, what kind of wrestling fan would I be if I didn’t find something to complain about?