Like it or not, the WWE brand split is upon us. WWE has announced Raw and SmackDown will be dividing back up into two separate entities, each with its own roster of wrestlers and unique storylines. In addition, SmackDown will be presented on an even plane with Monday Night Raw, and as such will be going live and moving to Tuesday nights on the USA Network.
As is tradition with WWE’s brand extensions, this new era will be kicked off with a draft lottery, which is set to take place on SmackDown’s first live show on July 19. The WWE Universe has always gotten a thrill out of drafting their own fantasy rosters because they know rosters are everything – the show featuring your favorite Superstars becomes the brand to which you’re most loyal, and brand loyalty makes for enthusiastic conversations among fans.
But SmackDown is in a unique position this year. As WWE prepares to make both brands equal priorities, the balance between established names and rising stars is the key to success if the company is to achieve that goal. SmackDown requires some of WWE’s biggest Superstars to lend the show credibility, but also plenty of fresh faces to provide those Superstars and the WWE Universe with exciting new rivalries and matches we’ve never seen before.
Let’s take a look at some WWE Superstars who could benefit the blue brand the most in the 2016 brand split and help it to reach its fullest potential in its attempt to compete with the nigh untouchable Monday Night Raw.
One of the many victims of the currently overcrowded Superstar roster, Kalisto has everything needed to become WWE’s next Rey Mysterio. Not only is Kalisto one of the company’s most athletically gifted wrestlers, the charismatic Superstar also helps WWE with the Latino demographic.
Few Superstars have had the impressive highlight reel of Kalisto. When he’s not being held back by his tag team partner Sin Cara, he’s regularly stealing the show. At the 2015 TLC pay-per-view, Kalisto landed a Salida del Sol on Jey Uso through a ladder in one of WWE’s craziest spots in years.
The real benefit to having Kalisto on SmackDown will be for what many WWE fans hope to be the return of the Cruiserweight Championship. It goes without saying that the masked sensation could be one of the greatest Cruiserweight Champions of all time and could be the face that revitalizes the division for a whole new era.
14 Alberto Del Rio
Speaking of the Latino demographic, Alberto Del Rio has always proven to be one of WWE’s biggest Mexican Superstars. Unfortunately, he was fired from the company in 2014 following a backstage controversy and hasn’t managed to pick up steam since his return last year.
His comeback consisted mostly of being a member of the League of Nations and being thrown in with Sheamus, Rusev and King Barrett, three men who also had recently lost all momentum. While the League disbanded months ago, Del Rio has yet to recover.
At one point in time, he was one of SmackDown’s biggest stars. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find any active Superstar who so quintessentially represents SmackDown as does Alberto Del Rio. While this is a new era and SmackDown deserves a fresh start, the brand split also should bring with it a touch of its past so we can be reminded subtly why two separate rosters have done such a great job in the past of making Superstars.
13 Dana Brooke
Dana Brooke really got the short end of the stick when she was called up to WWE’s main roster from NXT. Actually, she got the short end of it in NXT as well, what with her nagging injuries.
But her WWE stint looked promising upon her TV debut. She was being paired with Emma, a team that was working really well in NXT, but unfortunately, Emma suffered a back injury that put her out of action indefinitely and the angle was abruptly dropped. Now, Dana is Charlotte’s lackey and is portrayed as little more than a ringside annoyance.
Assuming Charlotte defends the Women’s Championship on both shows, Dana Brooke should remain solely a member of SmackDown. With the rosters split in half and Dana hopefully on her own (at least until Evil Emma returns), she will have plenty of time to work her way to the top of the women’s division.
12 Randy Orton
If SmackDown’s going to compete with Raw and be marketed as its equal, it’s going to need some big names. Randy Orton suffered an injury in October of 2015 and has been out of action ever since, but his return is going to be a big deal. What better way to make a statement about how seriously WWE is about promoting SmackDown as a top priority than having one of their biggest former World champions make an epic return to the blue brand?
There are a lot of newer, younger stars we’ve not had the pleasure of seeing Orton work with, which is something that hasn’t been the case in many years. It seemed Orton had wrestled everyone under the sun a hundred times, but there’s been a massive new wave of Superstars rise to prominence during his injury. Being one of SmackDown’s former big stars, Randy Orton lending his name value to the newly live Tuesday show seems like a perfect fit.
11 Dolph Ziggler
Another of SmackDown’s biggest stars from the past, two-time WWE World Heavyweight Champion Dolph Ziggler had one of the show’s more memorable moments when he was awarded his first World Championship by Vickie Guerrero and lost it moments later to Edge. Dolph and Vickie made quite the pair for better or worse (depending on whom you ask) and Dolph’s early momentum in WWE was established on SmackDown.
As fate would have it, an injury plagued Ziggler’s second title reign, forcing it to end abruptly and he’s struggled ever since to progress back into the main event scene. If anyone’s in need of a change of scenery it’s Dolph Ziggler, and this new and exciting relaunch of SmackDown is just the place for him. The worst case scenario is that he fails to regain his former glory, but even then he’ll have more freedom to work with any of a slew of new Superstars.
10 Baron Corbin
One of the rising stars Dolph Ziggler has already been working with is someone who could use the new live SmackDown as a unique kick-start to his career. Baron Corbin has a lot of things working against him; he’s big, has a biker-style personality, sports a mean mug and isn’t the most athletic Superstar on the roster. It’s the formula for a WWE star whom the fans might never embrace in 2016 unless a drastically different path is taken with Corbin.
Fortunately for him, Baron Corbin has the advantage of years of similar failed experiments before him. WWE has all the knowledge they need to make sure he doesn’t end up as another Roman Reigns, because no matter how hard the company tries with Reigns, the audience just won’t swallow that pill. With SmackDown getting a facelift, though, Baron Corbin has the future in his hands and as long as WWE doesn’t try to manipulate the audience’s organic reaction to him, it should all work out in his favor.
9 Mauro Ranallo
If past WWE drafts are any indication, wrestlers are not the only personalities available for being shifted around once the brand split goes live. In 2008, the longtime Raw commentary coupling of Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler was broken up with Jim Ross moving to SmackDown in order to give the show some credibility. While Monday Night Raw’s current commentary table has been in major need of restructuring for a long time, one thing a new, modern SmackDown does not need is the loss of one of the company’s freshest voices, Mauro Ranallo.
Ranallo, a renowned sports broadcaster, has been a natural fit on Thursday nights and one of the few redeeming qualities of SmackDown in its current state. His professionalism is offset by Jerry Lawler’s casual color heel personality, though no one knows if Lawler will even return to the table following his recent suspension. Nonetheless, Mauro Ranallo has become the new voice of SmackDown and it’s too soon for him to be removed from a job he’s nailed so directly.
If there is to be a Cruiserweight division, as many in the WWE Universe are hoping, then it will likely take formation on SmackDown where WWE’s version of the Cruiserweight Championship has its roots. And if there is to be a reinstating of the Cruiserweight Championship, then Neville must absolutely be a part of it.
The “New Sensation” made a name for himself in NXT as one of the longest-reigning NXT Champions in history and became known for one of the most athletic and acrobatic styles WWE has ever seen. But everyone saw the elephant in the room – Neville was going nowhere once he made it to the main roster because he’s just not what Vince McMahon looks for in a successful Superstar.
That’s something that may never change, but there was once a place for guys like Neville on WWE’s main roster. That place was the revered Cruiserweight division; a division where small, more athletic stars could steal the show and prove that the WWE Universe doesn’t care only about size.
No, Neville’s not going to be featured in a World title program anytime soon. But he’s the type of Cruiserweight an entire division can be built around.
7 Apollo Crews
Much like Baron Corbin, Apollo Crews is a delicate brand. The size, the goofy smile – fans are going to get sick of that shtick fast. Right now it’s all wine and roses because he’s new and the WWE Universe has been clamoring for fresh faces for a long, long time. But let’s face it: the shelf life is short on the Apollo Crews label.
But SmackDown is being revolutionized, or at least that’s what WWE would have us believe. Yes, there’s a draft happening and both Raw and SmackDown will have their own rosters, but for the first few months, all eyes are going to be on SmackDown as fans watch WWE succeed or fail at presenting it as Raw’s legitimate equal. It’s going to have to be a well-prepared mixture of Superstars both established and green because unseen rivalries will be the bread and butter of the brand split.
Apollo Crews will never be one of those big men accused of not being athletic, but he can’t smile like that forever. SmackDown will be the blank canvas on which he can develop a character with depth and history.
6 Chris Jericho
Chris Jericho’s been all around the world and has a career spanning the better part of three decades. When considering his accomplishments, it’s sort of poetic when you realize these last two years have seen some of the best work of his career.
While WWE has been fumbling with trying to make its main event scene work, Chris Jericho has been making stars for the company whom we can only hope it’ll know how to keep relevant in the long term. He’s worked programs with The New Day and the Wyatt Family, and perhaps his biggest success story has been his most recent rival, Dean Ambrose.
With nothing to lose, Jericho has let loose and is being the best Jericho WWE needs him to be. He’s quietly become one of the midcard’s biggest assets because if Chris Jericho cares this much about defeating this guy, it must be a big deal, right?
Y2J is perhaps the greatest Intercontinental Champion of all time, not just because he holds the record for most reigns, but because he still brags about it after such an illustrious career. He’s a wrestling genius and the SmackDown of the new era will thrive with him as part of it.
5 Tyler Breeze
Like Neville, Tyler Breeze was one of NXT’s biggest stars and everyone knew it would all come to a screeching halt once Vince McMahon got hold of him on the main roster. Mr. McMahon is a mastermind in a lot of ways, but he’s never seen the value in an effeminate heel like Tyler Breeze.
It’s difficult, then, to know the niche on Raw or SmackDown where the most success could be found by someone like Breeze, who’s currently part of Breezango, a hit-and-miss tag team with Fandango (yet another flamboyant heel mishandled by the machine). Can two vastly underrated stars with gimmicks that, at one point, were actually working with the fans, find more success together?
The brand split favors everyone on a roster this crowded, the Tyler Breeze’s of the world more than most. And if there’s any place Prince Pretty can prosper, whether part of Breezango or flying solo, it’s on a revitalized SmackDown in the new era.
4 Seth Rollins
You won’t find wrestling fans giving credit to WWE for much success during the PG era, but the one exception to that rule that almost everyone in the WWE Universe agrees on is The Shield.
The Shield was the most popular wrestling faction in years until they went separate ways in 2014, and the first breakout solo star was Seth Rollins. Rollins became the chosen “face of WWE” by Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, AKA the Authority, and saw a meteoric rise to the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. He could be the biggest new star of the last five years.
But he’s been consistently feuding with his former Shield brethren Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose ever since the Shield imploded, having countless matches with both of them. The only story left to tell in the Shield saga remains between Reigns and Ambrose, who up until recently shared an unbreakable friendship.
Seth Rollins, on the other hand, is ready to evolve. As one of the few stars an entire brand could be built around, he could be primed to become the face of the new SmackDown.
3 Sasha Banks
The shades, the swagger, the cockiness – how could a show named SmackDown not feature someone who calls herself “The Boss” as an exclusive?
With such an overcrowded roster, it says a lot about wrestling’s gender equality progress in 2016 that when searching top to bottom through the extensive list of incredibly talented WWE Superstars, the one name that might exude the attitude of a brand called SmackDown more than all the rest is that of a female.
Sasha Banks is one of the biggest wrestling stars in the world right now. Aside from the fact that she’s one of the more gifted technical female wrestlers WWE has ever seen, her character and charisma light the crowd on fire (and she’s got the good looks to complete the package). A WWE audience has never cared so much about women’s wrestling as when Sasha is in the ring telling them they should. Even WWE Hall of Famers Trish Stratus and Lita didn’t have the potential Banks has to reach megastar status, especially if she’s given the new live SmackDown to make her own.
2 John Cena
It’s been rumored since the announcement of the brand split that WWE has had John Cena in mind for SmackDown. If they truly plan to present SmackDown as Raw’s equal in every way, especially if Raw’s third hour is sticking around, then you could argue Cena is a necessity for SmackDown.
No one’s going to deny that John Cena, for better or for worse, is the biggest wrestling star in over fifteen years, and might just be the biggest of all time. In 2016 you’d be hard-pressed to find more people who know the names Hulk Hogan and Steve Austin than know the name John Cena.
Of course, it could be a double-edged sword. With SmackDown likely being the proving ground for a lot of new talent, Super Cena’s history of stopping all his younger opponents’ momentum in its tracks provides a lot to be concerned about. One can hope WWE can see the logic in keeping him reined in for the sake of creating new stars for the new era, but nothing is ever certain where WWE and John Cena are concerned.
1 Finn Balor
The debut of Finn Balor on the main roster has become such a mythical concept that it might be the most anticipated event in all of WWE. The longest-reigning NXT Champion in history has developed a monstrous following, especially for someone who hasn’t yet appeared on Raw or SmackDown. His first appearance on either show is going to be a huge deal and make highlight reels for years to come.
It stands to reason, then, that SmackDown would be the ideal place for this to happen. Even with all things equal between the two brands, Raw would still be seen as the higher priority for WWE because of its seniority, but the value provided by Finn Balor’s main roster debut is priceless and could be the most valuable asset SmackDown could possibly acquire.
The brand split comes with the added advantage of allowing WWE to play out the Bullet Club scenario in any way they see fit. Currently, the other former Club members (AJ Styles, Luke Gallows, and Karl Anderson) are playing heels in WWE and Finn Balor is unlikely to pass as an antagonist at his current level of popularity. Unless WWE is willing to pull the trigger on that, the Club can be kept on Raw while Finn Balor’s singles career gets plenty of time to blossom into what could be one of the defining eras in SmackDown’s history.