For the most part, last week’s WWE Draft garnered less than favorable reactions. Many saw the night as a clear sign that WWE, entering into a New Era with a full brand extension, was just going to keep pumping out matches and segments that kept the status quo. Raw looked like the stronger show compared to Smackdown, and the lower rankings of certain superstars left a lot of fans feeling defeated. What so much of that criticism misses though—LaToya’s stellar review is one of the only ones to see the forest rather than the trees—is that the Draft is really only a small precursor of what’s to come. The real test began Sunday with Battleground, and extends all the way through Tuesday to the conclusion of the second Smackdown! Live. The real test is in how WWE handles the split over a period of weeks. If Battleground and tonight’s Raw is any indication, things are seriously looking up for WWE fans looking for meaningful change.
The ideal situation of the brand extension is embodied in the first brand split from 2002. While it was certainly shaky at times, and grew tiresome in later years, those first few months were engaging, fresh, and exciting because gone were the stories of petty feuds. Instead, WWE had its Raw and Smackdown GMs competing for ratings, for talent, for championships. That turned each show into a weekly competition between brands, GMs, and superstars. Part of what made Battleground so invigorating was the fact that it leaned into that kind of storytelling. When Ambrose retained the WWE Championship, the whole Smackdown roster came out to celebrate. That kind of loyalty and brand division is key to the success of the brand extension moving forward.
Thankfully, Battleground wasn’t an outlier, but rather a beginning. Raw gets off to a hot start that signals change and freshness immediately. There’s a new look to the set, with the announce team taking the old WCW/Eric Bischoff-run Raw spot, and the production team is even trying out a few new camera angles, including a great roaming camera that shoots under the bottom rope, and a moving aerial shot that works well to establish the atmosphere around the ring. Those are cosmetic changes though, and while they’re a nice touch, it’s all about the storytelling. If the storytelling remains the same, the brand extension is a failure.
So, how to start the New Era of Raw with something different? Well, how about having Stephanie McMahon and Mick Foley keep their opening promo to all of about eight minutes? And how about having them announce two Fatal Fourway matches with clear stakes? And how about coming up with a new title, with the admittedly goofy name of the WWE Universal Championship? And how about making sure Finn Balor, who makes his main roster debut in the first Fatal Fourway, looks like printed money with perfect abs? That’s how the show begins, and it’s electric. The best part though? The show is just getting started.
As fresh and exciting as the opening segment is, the real promise comes in the form of how the show is structured and how WWE tells its stories in the ring while setting up the future of the brand split. Raw really does everything it can tonight to show that the future is promising. The first Fatal Fourway match is the harbinger of things to come, a convergence of everything that could be good about the brand split. There’s Cole running down Balor’s resume and treating him like a star from the get-go. There’s Corey Graves immediately making a positive impact as part of the commentary team; so long, JBL! There’s Rusev and Owens having a suplex battle and working together to beat up Finn Balor. There’s fresh conflicts, and most importantly, a stellar debut from Balor. He comes in hot and never lets up, showing that WWE’s clear faith in him is more than warranted. The second Fatal Fourway doesn’t have quite the same star power, but it delivers just as well. Reigns gets the win, and the match does what it should: it’s a statement about what you can expect from Raw each and every week.
And sure enough, statements are made. It’s not just in the fresh feel of the Fatal Fourway matches, or in the fact that WWE actually runs pre-match ads for the debut of Nia Jax and return of Neville like its developmental brand NXT. It’s also in the actual makeup of the show. This is a Raw that had to deliver in order to make sure that fans could confidently tune into five hours of live WWE every week and not worry about their time being wasted. So, what does WWE do? They have Charlotte and Sasha Banks wrestle a 22-minute classic for the Women’s Championship that sees Sasha come out on top. You can criticize WWE for not waiting until Summerslam if you want, but to do so is to willing ignore how WWE and wrestling storytelling works in 2016. It’s about building to moments, to remaining unpredictable in an age where every smark with an internet connection thinks they’re above it all and smarter than everyone else. So, you’ll hear people whine about Sasha’s win not having the same impact as it would at Summerslam, but that’s simply not true. WWE is in total control over what moments matter, and tonight they made a statement that the signficant ones don’t just happen on PPVs.
It’s a statement in favor of actual women’s wrestling. It’s a statement about the future of the division, and the star power of Sasha Banks. If you watch that match, and Sasha’s emotional post-victory promo, and come away with cynicism and negativity, you’re watching the wrong product.
Giving Sasha Banks the title is almost an easy choice though; she was already well on her way to stardom. Giving Finn Balor the big win over Roman Reigns in the main event though? That may be the night’s ultimate sign that change is coming to WWE. The former Samoan Savior of the WWE taking two clean pins in back-to-back nights really is something else. What’s remarkable though is that this all makes so much sense, which normally isn’t WWE’s modus operandi. Giving Balor the win, and a huge spot at Summerslam with a match against Seth Rollins for the WWE Universal Championship, not only establishes Finn as an immediate kayfabe force on the roster, but it lets the audience know that the significant time investment necessitated by the brand split isn’t being taken lightly. Voices are being heard, wrestlers are being given opportunities, and the new guard is taking over. This is wrestling, so you never know how long it’s going to last, but professional wresting isn’t for the endlessly pessimistic. It’s for dreamers and optimists, like Sasha Banks. Keep Dreaming.
- Results: Finn Balor defeated Rusev, Cesaro, and Kevin Owens; Nia Jax defeated Britt Baker; Roman Reigns defeated Chris Jericho, Sheamus, and Sami Zayn; Neville defeated Curtis “Mr. Irrelevant” Axel; Sasha Banks defeated Charlotte (Women’s Championship match); Braun Strowman defeated James Ellsworth; Enzo and Cass defeated the Shining Stars; Finn Balor defeated Roman Reigns.
- I love the return of the jobber squash matches. It’s a nice change of pace, and does wonders for the debuting/green talent.
- One of the best things about 2002 Raw and Smackdown was the unpredictability. Random cage matches, weird tag pairings, titles changing hands, talent jumping ship and signing to the competing brand. It’ll take weeks to see if WWE can learn some valuable lessons from the original brand split, but this is undoubtedly a great start.
- The announce team needs to work on its talk about the other brand, but it’s nice to see Cole boasting about how hard it’ll be for Smackdown to top their show. That kind of inter-brand competition is going to be very important going forward.
- Enzo doing “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” is exactly what we all want out of Enzo.
- Sasha, please be careful on the suicide dives. We need you.
- How aggressive was that Women’s Championship match? It’s almost like if you give the division significant time and singles matches you’ll create something special. Also: Charlotte’s moonsault to the outside was something else.
- Kevin Owens after Rusev goes for a pin off the double team: “C’mon. I’m right here.”
- The short run with AJ Styles really did Gallows and Anderson some good heading into this split. They seem like a legitimate force, which was missing when they debuted.
- I was pretty sure Kofi Kingston died when Anderson threw him into the steps.
- The crowd was dead for the match, but Neville looked crisp as ever in his return to the ring.
- It looks like the Roman push is finally over. This is the time to let him lean into his natural role as a heel.
- Braun Strowman is embracing his inner Ragnar Lothbrok with the new look. That theme music is laughable though.