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The brand split has only been active for a couple weeks, but already we can see the shifting of the gears in the WWE machine. While the main event picture has seen two fresher names challenge for the respective world championships (Finn Balor and Dolph Ziggler) the undercard, those wrestling outside of the main event, will likely define the success of the brand extension. The guys who were (or on their way to becoming) big stars before the draft are still going to be big stars after the draft; so the real opportunity with the brand split is going to be in the mid-card for guys and girls who may not have gotten the same chances under the old-formula.
The most successful aspect of the brand split so far has been to me, has been the chances for more people to try and get over. On an episode of Monday Night RAW, a greater array of talent is getting a shot to work matches and programs than previously. On the last two episodes of RAW, Darren Young and Titus O'Neil, two guys who were largely forgotten until recently, have gotten the chance to have matches, tell a story and work a program. So far the matches have not been very good and it is unclear where the story is headed, but the important thing is that they are getting the opportunity to try and become stars; at least more so than previously.
I have been arguing for the case of opening more roster spaces for talent for a while, but typically I have been pining for those spaces to be opened up by releasing talent that have proven to lack the ability to really get over on the main roster. Instead, they have effectively done that by splitting the brands up, which as mentioned above, has given more spots to different talent. With NXT rapidly acquiring more and more talent from the independents, guys from NXT need to be called up and given a chance on the main roster and that has been what WWE has done, calling up wrestlers like Balor, Enzo and Cass, American Alpha, Alexa Bliss and even Eva Marie, and giving them TV time and at least a shot at getting over with the live audience.
Another thing I have liked so far has been the increased focus on the United States Championship on RAW. Now, WWE has a ton invested in Roman Reigns and any storyline that involves him is going to warrant a lot of TV time, but it is still nice to see the United States Championship actually taken seriously like it deserves to be. I was a big fan of RAW's ending last week, with it closing with an impromptu championship match and continuing the feud between Rusev and Reigns. You can't watch that finish and think that the United States Championship is worthless, which unfortunately has been the prevailing opinion of it for far too much of the last decade.
The big mistake I think WWE is making when it comes to the undercard is introducing new championships. With RAW in possession of both the Tag Team Championships and the Women's Championship, WWE finds it necessary to create the Tag and Women's championships for SmackDown. A big problem with this is that when RAW drafted both the Women's and Tag Team Championships, they also took a bulk of the talent in those divisions with them. RAW took Charlotte and Sasha Banks, the top two talents in the Women's division and the duo that is likely going to define women's wrestling in WWE over the next couple years, and also had Paige and Alicia Fox, a reliable veteran that can at least work an okay match. In the tag ranks they took the New Day, by far the most popular team in the company, as well as Anderson and Gallows, Enzo and Cass and the Dudley Boyz.
SmackDown, mainly because RAW got three draft picks for every 2 that SmackDown received, doesn't have nearly the depth. For women they have Becky Lynch and Natayla, who are both good, but the rest of the roster is filled with wrestlers who are not exactly known for having good matches (Naomi, Alexa Bliss, Eva Marie and Carmella). That is far from a compelling division, and outside of Becky Lynch vs Natalya (and maybe a match with Naomi) can you count on any of those women to be solid in their roles? The tag team division on SmackDown is even worse, outside of American Alpha and The Usos the roster is The Ascension, Tyler Breeze and Fandango, The Hype Bros and The Vaudevillians. Talk about a roster of guys made to look like bums over the last several months! I think it's going to be incredibly difficult to build a reputable division with that amount of talent. There is plenty of enough depth to have good women and tag team divisions right now on the main roster if you combined them, but splitting them into two separate divisions is really stretching the roster thin.
Lastly, WWE looks primed to introduce the cruiserweight division as an exclusive division to RAW, which is interesting because of how WWE has tried to create two divisions for each brand. The cruiserweight division gives me great anxiety, because I'm afraid WWE is going to screw it up. Getting top talent is not going to be a problem for the company, just take the big names off of the Cruiserweight Classic and put them into the division. Zack Sabre Jr., Kota Ibushi, Akira Tozawa, Mascara Dorada, Cedric Alexander, Jack Gallagher, Drew Gulak, Tomaso Ciampa, Johnny Gargano and Rich Swann would make a heck of a division. Through in some of the less-heralded guys who were impressive in the CWC (Alejandro Saez, Raul Mendoza, Jason Lee, Fabian Aichner, etc.) and then the veterans like Tajiri and Brian Kendrick and the division could rival prime WCW as the best junior-heavyweight division in American wrestling history.
The problem with the cruiserweight division is that in the past WWE has never been able to prove that they can competently book one. In the past, WWE rarely gave the cruiserweights solid storylines, and often pigeon-holed them into roles as cruiserweights and cruiserweights only. I'd hate to see a guy as talented as Ibushi or Sabre Jr. getting squashed by the likes of Braun Strowman. I also fear that talent that should be elevated to a greater status will be held back and stuck in the cruiserweight division because they are "too small" a ridiculously outdated philosophy in wrestling that has only led to booking mistakes.
For now, the main event stars in WWE are going to remain the same, and guys like Sami Zayn and Finn Balor are probably going to crack the main event with two world titles involved. But the real strength of the brand split is going to come from the undercard and what previously irrelevant talents are going to break through and connect with the main audience. As long as WWE consistently gives those guys the opportunity to try and get over, at least a couple of them are going to really succeed. At the same time WWE is going to have to work to cover up some of their past mistakes in booking people to look bad. Nobody cares about most of the tag teams on SmackDown not because they are untalented, but because they have been booked to look like complete jokes up until the brand split. The same can be said for some of the women and undercard wrestlers that are just now getting a chance to shine. It will be a delicate balance that WWE will have to manage if they truly want to foster growth in the company.
Must Watch Matches:
Jimmy Kagetora and Jimmy Susumu vs Naruki Doi and YASSHI-****1/4-Dragon Gate Kobe Pro Wrestling Festival 2016
Akira Tozawa, Masato Yoshino and T-Hawk vs Dragon Kid, CIMA and Peter Kaasa vs BxB Hulk, Flamita and Kzy-****1/4-Dragon Gate Kobe Pro Wrestling Festival 2016
Shingo Takagi vs YAMATO-****1/2-Dragon Gate Kobe Pro Wrestling Festival 2016 (Note: Dragon Gate's annual Kobe World Hall show was arguably the best pro wrestling show of 2016).
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Naomichi Marufuji-****1/4-NJPW G1 Climax Tag 13
Tomohiro Ishii vs Kazuchika Okada-*****-NJPW G1 Climax Tag 13 (Note: This was the first five star match of 2016).
Cedric Alexander vs Kota Ibushi-****1/2WWE CWC Day Five