When the WWE announced that it was splitting up its roster earlier this year, many wrestling fans were concerned that we would see something similar to the previous brand split that was in place from 2002 to 2011. Since the new brand split was put in place in July of this year, there’s certainly been a big change in WWE programming. Granted, if we’re all being honest with ourselves, there has still been the usual ups and downs that come with Raw and Smackdown, but there has definitely been a freshness to a lot of what we’ve seen.
The problem of Raw being an hour too long still hasn’t gone away (and it looks like it won’t be going away anytime soon), but the WWE has moved to make a lot of changes that have actually changed both Raw and Smackdown for the better. In a move that seems very non-WWE in recent years, the company actually seems to have gotten a lot of things right over the past few months. There’s still plenty of problems that need ironing out, and it also remains to be seen just how long the WWE can keep the current sense of freshness and intrigue to its onscreen product, but many have seen the brand split as having made the WWE product far more engaging, especially when it comes to tuning into Smackdown (a show so often positioned as the unimportant B show that it was largely filled with just re-runs of Raw’s happenings). So, let’s take a look and see what the WWE has managed to get right in the two months since they put their current brand split in place.
15. The Cruiserweight Classic
To many wrestling fans, the Cruiserweight Classic has been the very best tournament to come along in wrestling for a very long time. What the WWE managed to do with the CWC was that it made every single talent involved feel unique. It put on fantastic matches that actually had an overall narrative to them, and it treated each performer as a genuinely big deal whether they lost in the first round or went on to win the whole thing. Obviously, certain talents were given more of a spotlight than others (that’s always the case with a tournament setting), but you just need to see how important the CWC made TJ Perkins feel in merely a matter of weeks. Considering this is a performer who had spent years spinning his wheels and going nowhere in TNA, Perkins now has audiences well and truly invested in him and his rags-to-riches story. Of course, having Mauro Ranallo calling the shows didn’t exactly harm the CWC, and Ranallo’s teaming up with Daniel Bryan made for an excellent partnership, with Ranallo bringing his years of match-calling expertise, whilst Bryan offered the insight of a veteran performer who had actually been in the ring with many of the talents on the show. All of this, complete with the time that the performers were given to actually put on their matches and get crowds into what they were doing, made for the Cruiserweight Classic becoming one of the best things seen in wrestling for many a year.
14. Squash Matches
For longtime wrestling fans, one of the staples of the product in decades gone by was the “squash match” (a local wrestler getting decimated by a performer on the roster in order to showcase said roster talent’s moveset and persona). Since the rise of the Attitude Era, the concept of the squash match seemed to vanish from our TV screens, which in itself was a double-edged sword. Having no squash matches allowed main roster talent to get on TV in the spot that would’ve gone to a local performer. It also meant that you had to have somebody from your main roster lose a match, which would, in turn, create the wrestler to lose value in the eyes of the audience. Since the brand split, however, the WWE has brought back the concept of the squash match, most notably feeding jobbers to Braun Strowman, Nia Jax, and Bo Dallas. Both Strowman and Jax are new in terms of being solo main roster talent, so these matches allow them to exhibit their characters and moves in order for audiences to see what they’re all about. As for Bo, the squash match concept has been used to get over his new serious persona after having spent his recent time in the comedy stable of the Social Outcasts. Squash matches are great for the business in how they allow a performer to show a crowd what they’re about, and they also mean that less main roster talent lose matches, which doesn’t devalue certain talent who may be harmed by too many TV losses.
13. Turning The Usos Heel
While the WWE seems ever-stubborn in their refusal to listen to their audience and turn Roman Reigns heel, they’ve at least given us a heel turn for Roman’s cousins, Jey and Jimmy Uso. Over the past few years, the Usos have put on some phenomenal matches at certain points with incredible talent in the ring, but their characters have become stale as well. In the days where an all-singing, insta-happy babyface act is the last thing that the majority of the WWE Universe wants to see, the Usos have seen their stock among fans drop massively over the past year or two, even more-so since they were regularly seen at the side of the always-booed Reigns. The WWE must be commended, though, for actually seeing that the Usos’ shtick was not gauging any reaction, and the recent heel team for the brothers was much, much needed. With American Alpha’s rise to the main roster proving to be the catalyst for this change of attitude, the heel turn of the Usos was perfectly executed. Credit must go to Jey and Jimmy themselves in how they embraced this new outlook for their characters. Their entrance is now all-business, their attire has changed, the paint has gone, and their in-ring demeanour and moveset has also been tweaked to show a new viciousness. This also now sets the stage perfectly for what should be a fantastic feud between the babyface American Alpha tandem and the now-nefarious Usos.
12. The Hottest Free Agent, Baby!
For many wrestling fans, Heath Slater has been a guilty pleasure for a long time. Post-Nexus, Slater’s “One Man Band”, then 3MB, and more recently the Social Outcasts, allowed Heath to really show how entertaining he can be. Regardless of where he was positioned on the card or how little TV time he was given over the past few years, Slater has always managed to make himself stand out. To steal a phrase from Jim Ross, Slater has been maximizing his minutes. It says a lot about how WWE values Heath Slater as a performer since he’s always trusted to work with the legends and returning names when they show up from time to time, and he’s also given some live TV time regardless of his ranking on the card. Since the brand split, Slater’s hottest free agent mantra has been hugely entertaining to see play out, with it also initially meaning that he was the only talent to be regularly allowed on both Raw and SmackDown each week. With the blue brand now his home, Slater’s recent work has been one of the most enjoyable things on WWE programming. His Tag Team Title run with Rhyno may not last all that long, but Heath has proved that a performer can get on the rise if allowed the chance.
11. In-Ring Interviews
Although there have been plenty of in-ring promos over the past few years, the brand split has seen WWE revert back to having post and pre-match interviews once again. Seeing the likes of Byron Saxton, Corey Graves and Renee Young grabbing a word with a superstar before or after their match just seems so fresh these days in a wrestling landscape that has been pretty monotonous for so many years. Not only does this feel fresh, it also allows performers to express more of their persona in front of a live crowd, which affords them the opportunity to make a mark on an audience. Of course, this may not always go as planned since a talent may crumble when handed a live mic, but at least it gives performers an opportunity to lean on a Graves or Young to help them out. It’s not exactly an overly-complicated concept, but using these in-ring interview spots before and after bouts is again a case of what was once old is now new again. Simply put, it feels fresh and different while also allowing superstars a chance to get their characters further established.
10. Promoting Corey Graves
While Corey Graves had quite the reputation as an NXT talent who was destined for the main roster, his transition to becoming an announcer has been fantastic to see. Simply put, along with Mauro Ranallo, Corey Graves is the very best broadcaster that the WWE has right now. It was a sad day when Graves had to call time on his in-ring career due to concussion issues, but he took to the announcing gig like a duck to water. During his time in NXT, the Savior of Misbehavior has stood out alongside the likes of Rich Brennan, Byron Saxton, Alex Riley, and Tom Phillips, and many have compared his heel shtick to a Jesse Ventura or even a Bobby Heenan. Granted, Graves still has a way to go to reach the heights of either of those iconic announcing names, but he’s certainly on the right track. After many have clamored for it for the past couple of years, the brand split has seen Graves called up to the main roster and placed on Raw as part of an announce team alongside Saxton and Michael Cole. No matter what the actual Raw product has been like since the brand split (which, let’s face it, has been a mixed bag) Graves has made the best of what he has had to call, managing to perfectly make calls seem important whilst also getting over the performers involved and additionally keeping his heel act on point.
The biggest problem of the previous WWE brand split was that the exclusivity of it became a non-factor nearly as soon as the split took place. Raw and Smackdown may have started off as separate entities (as was ECW at one point in time), but it didn’t take long before the lines were blurred and performers began appearing on both shows. SmackDown was firmly placed as the B show during all of this, but WWE so often took the easy way to out of certain problems that came up during this time. When a Raw talent was injured or suspended, they’d simply bring over a big name from SmackDown, in turn making what was special about SmackDown then seem less special. To be fair to WWE, this current roster split has been made to feel well and truly like we have two completely different brands. Bar one-off appearances on rival shows by Randy Orton and Brock Lesnar (something which made sense in the context of their feud), and we’ve seen no crossing of the battle lines by Raw or SmackdDown talents. Of course, this is still early days for the current WWE brand split, so it may only be a matter of weeks before we see Raw talent turning up on Smackdown and vice versa, but for now it’s a case of so far, so good for the WWE keeping their two brands feeling like two separate entities.
8. Daniel Bryan Back On TV
This one is kind of a mixed bag. Overall, it’s absolutely awesome to see Daniel Bryan back on WWE TV on a weekly basis, but there’s still that tinge of sadness that comes with seeing the former American Dragon on TV but not able to wrestle. Despite WWE management refusing to buy into it, Bryan managed to get himself over to a level not seen since the glory days of Stone Cold Steve Austin. Sure, guys like Brock Lesnar, John Cena and CM Punk have proved to be white-hot in the years since Austin was stomping mudholes and walking them dry, but Daniel Bryan’s rise to popularity saw the Washington native garner crowd reactions not seen since the Texas Rattlesnake was in his prime. It still brings a tear to the eye to think that Bryan had to call it a day when he’d finally reached the pinnacle of his profession, but it’s been a true highlight to see him on SmackDown each and every Tuesday night. Using Daniel Bryan as regularly as possible is a smart move from WWE since his presence always elicits a huge response from whatever crowd he’s in front of. It’s also just great to see Bryan on live TV, with there always a sense of mischief to the real-life Bryan Danielson as he handles all that comes with a live broadcast. Also, there’s always the hope that someday, somehow, somewhere, we’ll see Bryan competing in a WWE ring again.
7. Minimal Titantrons
For those with a good memory, you’ll remember the days when wrestlers simply just walked to the ring with minimal fanfare, before the addition of entrance music. Then came the introduction of a video wall showcasing the grappler’s “logo.” Then came full entrance videos showing said superstar in action, highlighting what they were all about. Over the past two decades, the Titantron itself has become a huge part of WWE programming. Since the brand split, though, the use of the Titantron has been tweaked. While the elaborate highlights-driven entrance videos are still present, they’re often shown out of the TV audience’s view as the TV cameras instead focus on a more minimalistic video wall that features revolving logos and changing colours. Initially, this may have seemed like a trip back to the dark ages for some, but, somewhat surprisingly, this new, stripped-back approach actually works really well. It may just be a temporary feeling, but the use of more simplistic entrance videos on the Titantron has brought a certain feeling of freshness to what we’ve seen lately. As the old saying goes, “What is old is now new again.”
6. The New Stage Set-Ups
Complementing the changing of the Titantron concept is how both Raw and SmackDown have altered their actual stage set-ups. Every few years, the WWE’s two main TV shows will usually change their layout and their stage design, and it was only right that they used the recent brand split as the perfect excuse to change things up again. Sure, many may pine for the classic SmackDown fist or the return of the Ovaltron, but the new design for these two shows feels like a genuine step in the right direction. With a tweaked entrance and stage, Raw and Smackdown now have a much more “big show” feel to them. The set-ups feel spacious, all-encompassing and more glamorous than what we’re used to seeing on the standard WWE programming. What was a little noticeable with the recent SmackDown-only Backlash PPV, however, is that the “big show” feel of Raw and SmackDown maybe left the PPV itself feeling a tad less special. How the WWE moves forward with all of this should be interesting to see, but for now at least Raw and Smackdown really do feel like big spectacles, which in turn make both shows feel more important.
5. Mauro Ranallo Calling PPVs
Pretty much a hundred percent of the WWE fanbase will all agree that the addition of Mauro Ranallo has been a masterstroke by the company. Not since the heyday of good ole Jim Ross have fans been treated to such an excellent commentator. With his years of calling professional sports, Ranallo brings a certain gravitas and expertise to everything that he calls. Many fans regularly moan about so many of the other WWE announcers. Michael Cole has been criticized for feeding too many company lines and being robotic. JBL is said to be all over the place when it comes to heels and faces, and he largely just spends his time doing a false “ha-ha” booming laugh. Fans even complain about Jerry Lawler, saying he should’ve been put into retirement many years ago. In the past six months or so, the WWE has made a change, though. The grating team of Cole and JBL have been broken up. Lawler has been moved to the Smackdown pre-show and Ranallo, Corey Graves, and David Otunga have been brought into main WWE programming. Yet, while Ranallo has been making Smackdown a must-see evemt since his debut, it’s the fact that he’s now calling PPVs that has many fans excited. Until the brand split, Mauro was only afforded pre-show spots when it came to PPVs, but now he gets to call the big show action and bring the legitimacy and expert match-calling that he’s loved for.
4. Talking Smack
For what seems like years now, wrestling fans have been calling for some sort of post-show program, and now WWE has listened to those calls with the show, Talking Smack. Monday Night Raw may not have its own post-show analysis program (largely down to how the WWE Network tends to often premiere new material directly after Raw), but SmackDown certainly does and it’s pretty impressive. Hosted by the ever-great Renee Young, Talking Smack is the perfect way to handle a post-show broadcast. It features plenty of guests who have performed in the previous 2 hours of Smackdown, and feels as if some of the performers are allowed more freedom with a more relaxed tone. While it’s not a shoot-style format, it certainly feels more real than so much of what we see on WWE TV. The performers seem to have more creativity and freedom to get themselves over, and the Network-exclusive show has become nearly a must-see as SmackDown itself to some fans. What Talking Smack has done is brilliantly drum up a “you never know what you’ll see” vibe, which is something that made the then-WWF and WCW so popular during the heyday of the Monday Night Wars.
3. Heels Doing Heel Things
Ever since Hulk Hogan joined forces with Scott Hall and Kevin Nash to create the nWo, so much focus and attention has been given to being a “cool heel”. Performers realized that they could technically be a bad guy, but still be able to sell a boatload of merchandise by embarrassing babyfaces and popping the crowd and the boys in the back. While it’s not particularly a result of the brand split, one of the most pleasing aspects of recent WWE programming has been that heels have actually been doing heel acts. Standing loud and proud as the very best bad guys out there right now is the bromance of Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho. Rather than pandering for cheers or trying to outshine their opponents, Owens and Jericho have one thing on their minds: doing whatever they can to get crowds to boo them out of the building. In years gone by, it would’ve been easy for an Internet darling of a heel to embrace the “you deserve it” chants that Owens received after his Universal Championship win. Instead, KO turned this on its head (some would say rightly so), and pointed out how those chants were just the fans trying to make themselves part of the show. Rusev, AJ Styles and The Miz also deserve huge props for their work recently, too, with bad guys back to doing what bad guys do best: cheating to win, playing up as cowards, and being completely unlikeable.
2. The Rejuvenation Of The Miz
Since WrestleMania, The Miz has been on a role. The very night after WrestleMania, The Miz added his real-life wife, Maryse, to his side as he defeated Zack Ryder for the Intercontinental Championship. Since then, despite a brief hiatus to film the next Marine movie, Miz has been on fire. In recent years, The Miz has been portrayed as a total joke of a character, and his ill-fated babyface turn made him as bland and formulaic as an early-‘90s Virgil or Tito Santana. It was absolutely baffling to see where Miz was in comparison to the must-see heel act that progressed from US Champion to Mr. Money in the Bank to WWE World Champion to defeating John Cena in the main event of WrestleMania. Until recently, the idea of The Miz once again becoming a true main event talent seemed laughable, but Mike Mizanin’s work since this year’s WrestleMania has again highlighted just how great he can be when given the chance. The Miz has been untouchable since ‘Mania, and that was only further highlighted during his now-infamous Talking Smack appearance where he berated Daniel Bryan. And just like that, in a matter of months, The Miz has made himself a vital cog of WWE TV and someone who fans can now take seriously again should the WWE decide to push him back towards the World Title picture in the future.
1. New Champions
Since the brand split was put into place, the World Champions that we’ve seen are Dean Ambrose, Finn Balor, Kevin Owens, and AJ Styles (all performers who had never held a WWE World Title before). The reign of Dean Ambrose may not have exactly set the world on fire and Finn Balor may have sadly got injured and had to give up the Universal Title, but seeing Kevin Owens and AJ Styles as “the man” on their respective brands in something has brought a smile to many a wrestling fan. What’s been most enjoyable about all of this, though, is how the WWE has used AJ Styles. For anybody who has ever seen a single Styles match before his WWE debut, you knew instantly that this was a truly special talent. As ever, the question was whether the WWE would make the most of the Phenomenal One or whether he’d struggle to break past the midcard. Luckily, WWE seems completely sold on AJ, and rightly so. As the face of the Smackdown brand, Styles instantly brings a sense of importance to that show. Added to that, his work since arriving in the company at the Royal Rumble has been flawless, with his heel act now working brilliantly and him having put on absolute clinics against the likes of The New Day, Chris Jericho, Roman Reigns, John Cena, and Dean Ambrose.