The dust had barely settled from Battleground, the most recent World Wrestling Entertainment pay-per-view (just this past July 25, Malaysian time, on the WWE Network), when its two principal shows, Raw and Smackdown, delivered their first post-brand extension episodes on consecutive nights and made a considerable impact.
Wrestling fans are no strangers to the brand extension concept, which saw the overall WWE roster of wrestlers being “drafted” exclusively to either show.
Raw ended up with the likes of Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, Brock Lesnar, the New Day, Golden Truth, Charlotte and Sasha Banks while Dean Ambrose, John Cena, Bray Wyatt, Becky Lynch, Natalya and Dolph Ziggler are among those drafted to Smackdown.
The brand extension means that Raw and Smackdown are no longer complementary, and no longer share ... well, 99% of the roster. They will now compete to outdo one another, in both quality and ratings, under the stewardship of different teams. Stephanie McMahon leads the Raw charge as its commissioner, with Mick Foley as general manager.
Shane McMahon will lay the Smackdown as its commish, while – Yes! Yes! Yes! – Daniel Bryan is the GM. (As expected, the audience response when Bryan was named GM last week was simply deafening.)
So what do we get on the “brand extended” shows, and spinning off from them?
New announce teams!
Raw has Michael Cole, Byron Saxton and Corey Graves calling the action, while Smackdown features John “Bradshaw” Layfield, Mauro Ranallo and former original Nexus member David Otunga (did you know – he’s married to singer Jennifer Hudson, and is a Harvard Law graduate?).
New opening themes!
Smackdown’s is Take A Chance by CFO$ and Raw has Enemies by Shinedown.
A free agent!
After the draft, observers noted that one guy didn’t get drafted to either show: Heath Slater. The former Social Outcast now bills himself as “the hottest free agent in sports entertainment” and the fans seem to be getting behind him. Only ... as he was celebrating a win over a ham-and-egger (read: jabroni) on Smackdown, he got gored by Rhyno in mid-celebration. But as he tweeted after the collision, he’s still standing. Later, Slater!
Opportunity! (Pronounced ‘opper-toonie-tea’ like Russell Crowe said it in Cinderella Man. Just because.)
Like Rhyno’s return showed, the brand extension has also led to opportunities for both veterans now on the indie circuit, and up-and-coming grapplers from NXT.
One of the “old-timers” set to make a return is ... Shelton Benjamin! After a six-year absence from the company, the former Team Angle and World’s Greatest Tag Team member will be bringing his mad skills, intensity and determination to Smackdown.
NXT stars who got the main roster(s) call-up include: Finn Balor and Nia Jax to Raw and American Alpha, Alexa Bliss, Mojo Rawley and Carmelia to Smackdown. Balor showed his mettle by powering his way to a SummerSlam main event spot on his Raw debut! Bad news for Hugger fans, Bayley’s appearance at Battleground was a one-time deal to hug it out with Sasha Banks when the Boss took on Charlotte and Dana Brooke.
True enough, a new top title has been created for Raw, now that Dean Ambrose took the World Heavyweight Championship to Smackdown. It’s going to be called the WWE Universal Championship. What, no WWE Paramount Championship, or WWE 20th Century Fox Championship? Does Disney want a piece of the action? Maybe the best fit would be the WWE DreamWorks Championship. Because, you know, dreams ... and hard work.
And true to form, Stephanie showed, er, preferential treatment (must avoid the f-word, favouritism – oops) in letting Seth Rollins automatically qualify as a contender for the Universal title. The other wannabe champions had to fight in two Fatal Four-Way matches, followed by one singles match with the winner facing Rollins at SummerSlam. In spectacular form, that winner turned out to be Balor.
Over on Smackdown, the stage is set for a new Women’s title to be created with a big roster of talent like Becky, Natalya, Eva Marie, Carmelia, Alexa, etc. Time will tell if the Commish and GM decide on that, or WWE figures out some convincing way to have titles challenged for across the two shows.
The SummerSlam card is already taking shape post-Battleground and post-brand extension. So far, we’ve got Rollins vs Balor for the Universal belt, Dean Ambrose vs Dolph Ziggler for the World Heavyweight title, and Randy Orton vs Brock Lesnar ... er, just because. Look for that on Monday, Aug 22 on the WWE Network.
Because of the brand extension, September will see two pay-per-views – Backlash on Sept 11 will be a Smackdown-branded event, while Clash Of Champions on Sept 25 is a Raw exclusive.
Both the first New Era episodes of Raw and Smackdown had PPV-level cards. The big tournament on Raw was accompanied by a Women’s Championship match. And not to be outdone, Smackdown the following night saw a Six Pack Challenge to determine the No. 1 contender for Dean Ambrose’s World Heavyweight title.
Eventually, Ziggler took the honours and had an intense staredown with Ambrose to end the show.
Raw has also announced an exclusive Cruiserweight division (possibly a response to the headway being made by Lucha Underground?) so expect some eye-popping, high-flying moves when that gets going.
If WWE’s creative team can keep up the level of intensity from these debut episodes, fans will be assured of an exciting time ahead. Raw GM Foley has likened the competition to the Monday Night Wars of the 1990s. Although the battle isn’t a head-to-head clash, and WWE already owns everything, the coming months are still going to be fun and the Dwaynester now finally has compelling reasons to set his PVR for Smackdown too.
Which leaves us with just one question: he hasn’t officially retired, so ... where in Death Valley is The Undertaker? Watch this space. Or keep looking over your shoulder.
WWE shows are available on Astro Supersport 3 (Ch 816/834 HD) and the WWE Network (Ch 820/840 HD). Dwayne A. Rules writes a monthly column on sports entertainment that appears in Star2 (print) on the third Thursday of every month.