A few weeks ago I mentioned that it was strange that WWE wasn’t doing much to build towards its impending brand extension draft. Sure, some former GMs were popping up here and there, but outside of that WWE hasn’t exactly been using Raw to establish some sort of creative direction. This week’s Raw does a lot to make me eat my words, not just by having Vince McMahon show up and announce who the Smackdown Commissioner will be—in, admittedly, the night’s worst segment by far—but also by having legit wrestling matches to highlight some underused talent, and using the commentary team to analyze potential picks. The upcoming draft is a chance for WWE to embrace the sports-leaning aspects of its storytelling, and this week’s Raw does just that, and is better off for it; no amount of McMahon bickering can take away from what the show gets right.

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The ideal situation coming off a brand extension is that a number of under-utilized superstars get a chance to shine. The whole reason people have been calling for another brand split is the fact that WWE boasts an deep, talented roster. The last few weeks have done little to highlight anyone outside the main event scene though. That changes this week, as more than a few midcard guys get some time to shine. First, there’s Darren Young, who finally makes his in-ring return (with Bob Backlund at ringside) during the opening match, a Battle Royal to determine the #1 Contender for the Intercontinental Championship. WWE completely fumbles his re-introduction to Raw by just having him unceremoniously slotted into this match, and it’s ridiculous that he wins basically by default after Apollo Crews eliminates himself along with Baron Corbin, but when Young is standing tall at the end of the match and Backlund is carrying him in his arms, all the problems seem to fade away. It’s too delightful a sight to be negative about.

Similarly, Zack Ryder continues to have a baffling year on the main roster. He challenges Rusev to a match for his United States Championship, but before Rusev can answer, Ryder is attacked by Sheamus. Then, Ryder loses his match to Sheamus and gets attacked post-match by Rusev. It’s not the best setup for a championship match at Battleground, but it does put Ryder in that enviable underdog position. He might not win at Battleground, but the feud should at least garner more sympathy for Ryder, a guy the crowd already wants to cheer for so badly. They only need the smallest of reasons to chant “WOO WOO WOO,” and a short feud with one of the few heels getting real heat could be good for him heading into the draft.

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Tonight’s Raw is filled with small moments like these, meant to give some TV time to superstars who normally don’t get too much, including Breezeango getting a win and looking great while doing it. You also have Heath Slater and Titus O’Neil having a fun little match in the middle of the show, allowing the Social Outcasts to show off their comedy stable gimmick a little more, and allowing Titus, in some half-decent trunks for once, to look like a complete beast. He spends the entire match throwing Heath Slater around the ring like he’s Kalisto, and it’s beautiful.

Speaking of Kalisto, the draft could be good for him. WWE keeps teasing splitting up tag teams, and while it’d be disappointing to see New Day or Enzo and Cass split up, someone like Kalisto, who shows again tonight that he’s a bonafide singles star stuck in a mediocre tag team, could benefit from a split. Even the commentary team points out that Kalisto is no slouch as a singles competitor, having won the United States Championship on his own this year. It’s one of the many times the commentary team treats the upcoming draft as a legitimately complex thing, with a number of variables effecting where a superstar could go in the draft. JBL, Michale Cole, and Byron Saxton spend time questioning whether drafting Brock Lesnar with a high pick would be smart when you take into consideration that he’s only a part-time guy. They say basically the same about Cena; sure, he’s been at the top for years, but with all his media appearances outside WWE, from movies to charity events and hosting the ESPYs, maybe he’s not the guy to build your brand around. It’s nice to see WWE leaning into the sports portion of “sports entertainment.” It adds some legitimacy to the draft while also contributing to an anything-can-happen atmosphere.

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Essentially, this is the kind of show WWE should have been doing for a few weeks now. There’s a ton of great wrestling peppered throughout the show. Cesaro and Kevin Owens have an incredible match that also serves as a great way to further tell the story of Owens and Sami Zayn. It’s scary to think that the story may be leading to them splitting up at the draft, but for now the layers continue to add fuel to their feud. Then, of course, there’s WWE’s version of TNA’s Final Deletion, and while it’s nowhere near as great as the Hardy vs. Hardy feud—the lack of build to the actual compound match is baffling, and the editing during the segment is way too choppy and disorienting—it’s a fun segment that treats the Wyatts like they should be, as a dominant force that you don’t want to fuck with. Again, that’s a big deal going into the draft. You want all of your talent looking like a million bucks.

Now, WWE, use that blatant ripoff segment as a learning opportunity: be unique, push the boundaries, let the superstars run with their ideas. If you do that, you just might pull off the brand extension.

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Stray observations

  • Results: Darren Young won the Battle Royal to determine the #1 Contender for the Intercontinental Championship; Breezeango defeated the Lucha Dragons; Kevin Owens defeated Cesaro; Titus O’Neil defeated Heath Slater; TNA defeated WWE; Enzo and Cass defeated Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson via DQ; Sasha Banks defeated Dana Brooke.
  • As usual there’s a great segment to talk about that just didn’t fit in above, so: how good was that Rollins-Ambrose segment? From the doctored interview footage to Seth’s mic skills to Ambrose actually being a relatable, fired-up dude, it was exactly what you want this build to be sans Roman Reigns. Plus, we get a title match next week (aka. WWE needs to split the title again?).
  • There’s not much to say about Sasha’s match with Dana. It was longer than I expected, but it’s still just WWE killing time until the title match with Charlotte.
  • Braun Strowman needs to get rid of that tanktop ASAP. Dude looks legit when he’s topless.
  • The Club’s “beat up John Cena” schtick remains delightful as ever.
  • For a brief second I thought Apollo Crews was going to win the Battle Royal, and I’m pretty sure I audibly sighed and shook my head at the thought.
  • From the music to the ring gear and their dynamic in the ring, I’m all in on Breezeango. Another team that could really benefit from the brand extension.
  • I love that the replays emphasized Cesaro getting hit with Owens’ neckbreaker on the knee, and then the surprise finish involved Owens targeting Cesaro’s neck.
  • There wasn’t a single dilapidated object in that New Day-Wyatt Family fight. How disappointing.
  • Who are your picks for the Raw and Smackdown GMs?
  • A relevant programming note, wrestling fans: next week you’re not only getting LaToya Ferguson covering the first live episode of Smackdown (with hopefully many more to come!), you’re also getting a comprehensive, and certainly divisive Brand Extension Fantasy Draft from yours truly. Wrestling is alive and well at The A.V. Club, so thanks for reading, sharing, and commenting every single week. Y’all are the best.

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