The first WWE brand split began shortly after Wrestlemania in 2002 and ended in 2011. For the uninitiated, the brand split—or “brand extension,” as WWE calls it—saw WWE divide its TV programming, Raw and Smackdown, into two separate, competing brands complete with performers and storylines unique to each show. At first a success, the brand split had run its course by the early 2010s. Raw once again returned to its position as the flagship show, and Smackdown became a solid wrestling show that you never ever had to watch.
While the brand split may have been divisive—sorry—for many WWE fans, the last few years have seen calls for its return. The emergence of NXT not just as a developmental program for the company’s newly signed talent, but also a full-on brand of its own, has been the main talking point in the discussion of bringing the brand split back. Simply put, WWE is stacked with talent, and it seems every few weeks it’s signing another heralded or up-and-coming star from the independent or international circuits. So, when the company announced it was moving Smackdown to Tuesday, where it would air live on the USA Network starting July 19—keep an eye out for LaToya Ferguson’s review—many fans started to fantasy-book all the various scenarios, good and bad, that could come with a brand extension.
Well, the official day of the draft is almost upon us, so of course we had no choice but to sift through the WWE roster and run our own combine of sorts. By examining a plethora of attributes—from ability in-ring and on the mic to proven championship-holding potential, previous angles and storylines, and everything else you can think of—we’ve come up with our own ranking of WWE’s superstars. If you’re Stephanie or Shane McMahon and wondering just who to take next in the draft, this list will tell you: The A.V. Club’s official WWE Brand Extension Fantasy Draft Rankings.
(For the purpose of keeping things neat and tidy, tag teams have been grouped together, though single stars within a stable have been highlighted as needed. Furthermore, these rankings were determined before WWE announced on Sunday night that six NXT superstars would be included in the draft.)
1. Seth Rollins
While the guy sitting at No. 2 on this list might have a bit of an issue with the ranking, it’s hard to deny that Seth Rollins is the future of this company. Before his knee injury, he carried WWE through tumultuous and creatively stagnant times, proving himself as a viable champion. He’s beyond skilled on the mic—look at how he turns this crowd on him after he returns to a pure babyface ovation—and, as his return has proved, is capable of being both a vicious heel and a singular babyface. There’s hardly a wrestler on the roster as dynamic and compelling as Seth Rollins. All hail Crossfit Jesus.
2. Kevin Owens
The only guy who could really challenge Rollins for that top spot is a French Canadian. Owens is no slouch, and could easily slot into the No. 1 spot in the draft. After proving himself time and again on the indies, he took NXT by storm and rocketed to the main roster, where he beat John Cena in his first match (and lost the rematches because John Cena). We used “dynamic” to describe Seth Rollins, but the same can be said of Owens. He’s the type of guy who can do anything he’s asked and more. He’s funny, engaging, and angry on the mic. His in-ring capabilities go beyond his body type. This is a guy who bleeds professional wrestling, who’s dedicated to making every single moment in and around the ring part of the show. He has it all, and he has a bright future in WWE.
3. Sasha Banks
She’s the future of the women’s division, plain and simple. While Charlotte has proved herself to be an invaluable asset as a heel champion, it’s Sasha who has the most potential. She’s got the look, the moveset, the merch, and the passion. She’s beloved by men, women, and children of all ages. She’s money in WWE’s pocket, but she’s also a potentially disruptive force. Her promo from Raw the other week is a perfect example of how Sasha is destined to not only take over the women’s division in storyline, but also change the perception of women’s wrestling within the company.
4. Bray Wyatt
If there’s anyone who could potentially benefit the most from a brand extension, it might be Bray Wyatt. The Wyatt Family leader is the closest thing WWE has to another Undertaker, someone who fills the requirements of the supernatural gimmick while appealing to all kinds of fans. Nobody has had a more tumultuous time in WWE as of late, but the ceiling for Bray Wyatt is practically nonexistent. When Wyatt stared down Triple H only a few months ago, patting the WWE Championship with a nod of “I’m coming for this,” it lit the crowd on fire. That shows how much the crowd wants to cheer for this guy and is an example of how his Destroyer Of Worlds attitude could be just the type of chaos WWE needs in a main-eventer.
5. The New Day
There’s a reason Xavier Woods, Big E, and Kofi Kingston are on their way to the record books as the longest reigning tag team champions of all time. They managed to get a silly act over by being themselves, and they haven’t looked back since. New Day is three distinct personalities all working in unison toward a bonkers creative vision. These guys are the epitome of “sports entertainment”; they make you want to wear a phallic, glowing unicorn horn on your head and scream things like “BOOTY.” If that’s not professional wrestling at its finest, we don’t know what is.
With apologies to the current champions being pushed down this list, the Swiss Superman is primed for a big run post-brand extension. He’s been hovering around the main-event scene for some time now, but WWE has always seemed hesitant to pull the trigger. There have been rumblings that the higher-ups think he can’t cut it as a main-eventer, but the last few months have proved that to be untrue. Few guys have the in-ring capabilities of Cesaro, whose supernatural predilection for all sorts of submissions, grapples, and high-flying moves make him a consistently entertaining performer. The guy does springboard uppercuts in a suit! It’s beautiful, and the brand extension should push Cesaro to the next level.
7. Dean Ambrose
Perhaps one of the more puzzling wrestlers on the roster, it’s hard to tell just what kind of potential Dean Ambrose has. He doesn’t have the in-ring abilities of Rollins, or the physique and magnetism of Roman Reigns. Yet he’s proven to be more than capable as the WWE Champion and the perfect medium between his former Shield brethren. He’s perhaps the closest thing WWE has to a pure babyface on the singles roster. For that alone he deserves this spot, but arguments for putting him both higher and lower could be made.
8. John Cena
Who knows how many years Cena has left—it’s professional wrestling, so probably a lot, in some form or another—but you just can’t leave The Face That Runs The Place on the table in a WWE draft. One of the greatest of all time (sorry, you “Cena sucks” chanters), Cena has proven time and again that nobody understands WWE’s version of wrestling quite like he does. He’s been a part of numerous match-of-the-year candidates for a few years in a row, and his polarizing status within the fandom makes him a draw.
9. Brock Lesnar
Honestly, we’re not exactly sure where Brock Lesnar deserves to go in the draft. He’s a part-time guy so that decreases his value, but he’s also the closest thing WWE has to a “real” fighter. His success in UFC translates to added value in WWE, where the company continually tries to sell the legitimacy of their fights and feuds. Brock Lesnar can make a feud for Summerslam important without even showing up on Raw. He’s important beyond the world of WWE, and that matters. Plus, he comes with Paul Heyman.
10. Roman Reigns
A 30-day suspension for violating WWE’s wellness policy may be the best thing that ever happened to Roman Reigns. Not only does it take away the pressure of being the next John Cena—being the face of the company outside the ring, not just being a champion who beats everyone—but it also allows him to, hopefully, lean into his heel tendencies when he returns. Everything about Reigns is the kind of hateable that heels live for: He’s so good-looking you want to punch him in the face, he walks slowly to the ring, he takes himself too seriously, and he could probably kill you in real life with a single punch. If Reigns can escape the bad booking, he’s more than capable of becoming something special for WWE.
Somebody needs to take the leash off Rusev and let the man run wild. Nobody has spun more gold out of the shit he’s been given than Rusev. Hell, he made a ridiculous and often sexist feud somewhat compelling by throwing fish at his ex-girlfriend Lana (they’ve since reunited) and naming a pitiful dog “Dog Ziggler.” More recently, he taunted Titus O’Neil’s kids and sarcastically screamed “Happy Father’s Day!” after he destroyed their father in the ring. Rusev understands this business. Now WWE just needs to let him shine.
12. Enzo and Cass
Some wondered if Enzo and Cass’ gimmick could translate to the main roster. Only a few months later, and they’re the most popular tag team on the roster along with New Day, and they’re fighting alongside John Cena at Battleground. It’s clear that WWE sees big money with these guys, and how could they not? Enzo is everything you want in a sports entertainer—brash, funny, a great look, and a clear passion for the business—and Cass could be just the Big Man to replace the old guard.
13. AJ Styles
AJ Styles is doing some of the best work of his career in WWE right now; he’s slotted this low on the list because of his age and the fact that he’s still so new to WWE. That’s not a knock on him at all. Since he’s come to the company, he’s been a part of some of the best matches of the year, and he’s managed to not only prove he has the capability to be a main-event draw as a babyface but also work as a great heel against John Cena. It’s a shame his run didn’t happen 10 years ago, but at the same time, it feels like it was meant to happen now.
Charlotte has come a long way in a short amount of time. She didn’t take long to figure it out, as a flair shouldn’t. Rising above painful-to-watch storylines revolving around her father and dead brother, Charlotte has done more than enough to earn the Women’s Championship belt she has around her waist. She’s still figuring it out on the mic, but she’s got the in-ring ability to be a perfect foil to the rising babyface stars in Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and, one day, Bayley.
15. Sami Zayn
They say size doesn’t matter as much in the world of professional wrestling in 2016, and if that’s true, Sami Zayn has a bright future ahead of him. He’s destined to fight with Kevin Owens forever, and his role as the consistent underdog easily makes him one of WWE’s brightest rising stars, someone the crowd has no trouble getting behind. Plus, a few high-profile matches on the main roster have proven he’s got the goods to hang with the big guys.
16. Finn Bálor
There’s no doubt that WWE sees buckets of cash in the form of Finn Bálor. Sure, he hasn’t spent any time on the main roster yet, but it won’t be long before he’s bringing his abs and demonic entrance to Raw or Smackdown, showing everyone that one of NXT’s earliest high-profile signings lives up to the hype. Get used to Bálor. He’s going to be at the top of the card for a long time.
17. Becky Lynch
She’s not yet as established as Sasha Bank or Charlotte, but Becky Lynch is primed to be a babyface star for years to come. She’s the Sami Zayn of the women’s division: the perpetual underdog the crowd will always get behind.
Like Finn Bálor, when Bayley arrives on the main roster, it’s going to be mayhem. Her epic rivalry with Sasha Banks is some of the best storytelling WWE has ever seen, and her character, which is one of the few to never stray from pure positivity, makes her immensely likable. You can’t go to a WWE Live event without seeing young girls decked out in headbands and “I’m A Hugger” T-shirts. She’s the John Cena of the women’s division, destined to remain at the top, a hero for all ages, for years to come.
Neville’s still injured, and his TV absence may have some WWE fans forgetting about him, but the former NXT Champion is as dynamic as they come. He’s a living, breathing video game character, from the moveset down to the complete absence of body fat. It’s hard to slot him high in the draft rankings based on his stalled run on the main roster so far, but the brand split could put him in a great position when he returns from injury.
20. Randy Orton
Orton is similar to Cena and Styles in that his age precludes him from being a great draft pick—you always want to skew younger in a draft—but he’s coming off some of the best babyface work of his career, so he can hardly be written off. Plus, he’s returning to a big Summerslam match with Brock Lesnar. Few guys can be trusted with that position, but Orton certainly qualifies.
NXT gets short shrift here largely because so many of its superstars might not make it to the main roster and/or it’s unclear what kind of role they might have. Make no mistake, there’s plenty of potential in drafting American Alpha, Samoa Joe, Asuka, or Shinsuke Nakamura to either brand.
There are also plenty of performers stuck in the middle of the WWE pack that are doing good work and yet might not warrant a high spot in the draft. Someone like The Miz, who’s at his best when paired with real-life-wife Maryse and holding a title over everyone’s head, is worthy of a spot, but how high? Similarly, superstars like Paige, Dolph Ziggler, Zack Ryder, The Vaudevillains, Emma, or Kalisto all have tremendous skill and potential.
If anything, the sheer depth of talent in the Honorable Mentions is a sign of promising things to come. It suggests WWE certainly has the roster to pull off a brand extension. If the company can get its storytelling together, shine a light on the superstars who deserve it, and properly manage its seemingly endless amount of TV and WWE Network time, the wrestling world could be on the brink of something truly exciting.