The WWE has produced a litany of head-scratching moments throughout its rocky (no pun intended) history: Mae Young giving birth to a hand on live television, Kurt Angle shooting the Big Show with tranquilizer darts, and Triple H committing necrophilia on another man’s dead wife. You read that last one correctly.
Through all the horseshit—figurative and literal—Vince McMahon is still able to provide the WWE Universe with memorable moments that keep us coming back for more. For every punted infant (I’m looking at you, Snitsky) there’s The Shield duking it out in a triple threat match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship; For every Natalya farting angle, there’s Brock Lesnar conquering The Undertaker’s undefeated streak at Wrestlemania 30. As a fan, you brush aside the silly and revel in the great.
Last week, the WWE had a golden opportunity to do something extraordinary as it held its second ever brand-split draft. Essentially, superstars would be selected to exclusively join the company’s main shows, Raw and Smackdown. Instead of creating one of those heart-stopping moments that the WWE Universe craves so much, the draft was forgettable. It failed to inject life into a product that has grown stale over the past few months despite the powers at be promising a new era filled with new superstars and new matches.
It’s verging on cliché for wrestling nerds (a group I proudly consider myself to be apart of) to hate on the WWE, but in the case of the draft, I have no choice but to chug my cup of haterade. It’s not because I didn’t see the return of former greats like Kurt Angle or Bill Goldberg; There were just several things about the draft process and selections that didn’t make sense. Because of this, I’ve got beef with the WWE and I’m calling them out.
Here are six things about the WWE Draft that were just plain Hornswoggle silly.
1) Raw made more picks in each round than Smackdown
If you’re holding a draft that’s meant to create a sense of parity and competition between teams—or in this case, two brands—then you’d assume the selection process would be fair. All parties involved have equal opportunity to obtain cream of the crop talent.
Apparently, the WWE isn’t familiar with this ideology, as it awarded Raw three picks for every two Smackdown picks. Two major problems with this: 1) It allowed the Red Brand to rake in more of the company’s top superstars, and 2) It inherently sent a very troubling message: that Raw is a more important brand than Smackdown.
Sure, Raw is WWE’s flagship show, but if you’re trying to convince people that the two brands are equally exciting and that, as Vince McMahon stated, both are fighting for higher TV ratings, merchandise sales, and live event ticket sales, you can’t provide one of them with any clear advantages. That’s like giving one of your children more birthday gifts than the other. Even if your 6-year-old daughter is your kindred spirit and your hyper aggressive 11-year-old son is certifiably insane, you still have keep the allusion that you love your kids equally.
Vince, we know Raw is your baby but don’t leave Smackdown in the dumpster.
2) The “underdog show” gets John Cena and Randy Orton
Shane McMahon sold Smackdown as the “underdog show,” a declaration that broke kayfabe (what’s fiction and/or scripted) since Raw is the undisputed flagship brand—and Vince’s dearly beloved, as we’ve already established—and its ratings have far exceeded Smackdown’s for over a decade. Shortly thereafter, Shane announced that Daniel Bryan, one of the biggest underdog’s in WWE history, would be the show’s general manager.
Bringing the Yes Movement to the Blue Brand only validated its underdog status further and teased a Smackdown that would perhaps resemble the early 2000s incarnation of the product when in-ring ability and putting on the best match of the night were emphasized over everything. Presumably, that meant Smackdown would draft the David’s instead of the Goliath’s, right? Guys like Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, and Daniel Bryan who have wrestled all over the world for years and scratched and clawed their way to reach the WWE.
Nope. Shane and Bryan selected John Cena with their third pick and Randy Orton with their fourth pick. Between the two, Cena and Orton have amassed 38 championships (including 27 WWE/World Heavyweight titles) and are still without question two prominent faces of the company. They rarely lose clean—especially Cena—and have gained the ire from fans for continuously dominating the product even though their gimmicks grew old nearly a decade ago.
Cena and Orton are not underdogs. They’re the heavy favorites. They’ve been afforded every opportunity, all the brass rings that Vinny Mac has in his pockets. Most superstars never come close to reaching their status. That’s why aligning the two with a brand that takes pride in being the underdog doesn’t make sense.
3) Major NXT superstars were left undrafted
As part of the draft stipulations, six NXT—WWE’s developmental promotion—superstars total were allowed to be selected by Raw and Smackdown. Among the NXT call-ups: Finn Balor (Raw), American Alpha (Smackdown), Nia Jax (Raw), Alexa Bliss (Smackdown), Mojo Rawley (Smackdown), and Carmella (Smackdown).
Balor is certainly the biggest name on the list, and his debut has been highly anticipated for months. American Alpha are former NXT tag champs and Jax is truly a new (and refreshing) breed of Diva women’s wrestler due to her size and sheer dominance.
While all are great additions to the main roster, if Raw and Smackdown were serious about raiding NXT for its best talent, Shinsuke Nakamura, Samoa Joe, and Bayley wouldn’t have been left behind—Bayley in particular. She’s put on A+ matches in NXT for more than a year (including her classic 30-minute Ironwoman match at NXTTakeover: Respect), and she’s arguably the most over superstar in the promotion. You’d want her to be the face of your brand’s women’s division.
Nakamura has, as wrestling mastermind Jim Cornette would phrase it, an uncanny magnetism that few professional wrestlers possess, and everything he’s done for the company has been gold (see: his debut match with Sammy Zayn at NXT Takeover: Dallas). Surely, the commissioners and general managers would view Nakamura as a future star.
I understand that WWE didn’t want to deplete NXT of all its firepower, but the simple solution would be to just have them appear on a main roster show and NXT. A brand split prevents overworking and overexposure.
Not drafting NXT’s top talent delegitimized the draft process. Pick the best of what’s available and settle for nothing less. If you’re trying to build the best brands possible, you have to go all in. Instead, the WWE folded.
4) We'll get match-ups and rivalries we've already seen
Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn were drafted to Raw. John Cena and AJ Styles were drafted to Smackdown. Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins were drafted to Raw. Dean Ambrose and Bray Wyatt were drafted to Smackdown. These pairings sound familiar?
Each one represents a month(s)-long feud that has already played out on WWE programming. If we’re supposed to believe that the WWE is introducing a new era (filled with fresh faces and matches), how can they expect to deliver when our future is inevitably John Cena vs. Randy Orton, bouts we’ve seen countless times?
The saving grace for Raw is that the line between their midcarders (i.e. second-tier talent) and main eventers isn’t clear. Rollins, Reigns, Zayn, Owens, Cesaro, Rusev, Balor, and Jericho can all conceivably compete for the Universal Title. Aside from Jericho, Cesaro is the longest-tenured wrestler out of the bunch who debuted in 2012. We haven’t yet grown tired of these guys and there’s plenty more for them to do in terms of feuding and developing into stars.
Meanwhile, Smackdown has Cena, Orton, Styles, Wyatt, and Ambrose. Cena’s experienced a much-needed rebirth in the upper-midcard scene, so he should stay right there. Orton drew “boring” and “CM Punk” chants when he was last champion. Fans don’t want him (or Cena) anywhere near the company’s top belt, which leaves Styles, Wyatt, and Ambrose in the main event picture. Sure, Cena and Orton can help put these guys over but we’ve seen Cena vs. Bray and Cena vs. Styles before. Who else on the Smackdown roster can legitimately challenge any of the big five? Baron Corbin? Not ready yet. Dolph Ziggler? Maybe, but as WWE has shown, they don’t trust Ziggles enough to carry the company in that way (even though they did just make him the number one contender for the WWE World Heavyweight Title at SummerSlam). Apollo Crews has all the tools to make a main event star, but he’s still a bit green—particularly on the mic—and his run on the main roster has been underwhelming thus far.
The WWE should have sprinkled the veterans and the young guns more evenly across each brand to create more opportunities and storyline angles where the up-and-comers challenge the vets and knock them off. That’s how you groom and develop talent.
5) WWE putting the most over tag teams and women on the same show
Perhaps this is more of a “to be determined” deal than a non-sensical decision, but it’s still worth noting that the WWE has loaded the top women and tag teams in the company on one show. Sasha Banks (the new Women’s Champion) and Charlotte are on Raw; so are the New Day (the Tag Team Champions), Enzo and Cass, and the Club. The women’s and tag team divisions will be electric on Monday nights, but what exactly does this mean for Smackdown? What will Becky Lynch and American Alpha be competing for—new belts? Time will tell.
For now, WWE needs to make sure that the women and tag teams on Smackdown don’t slide into irrelevancy.
6) Owens and Cesaro dropping so low
Baron Corbin, Becky Lynch, The Miz are just three of the 17 WWE superstars who were selected in the draft before Kevin Owens, one of the most versatile, maniacal dudes in the wrestling business. Some would call him one of the company’s best heels. I’d call him the best.
To his detriment, perhaps, Owens doesn’t fit the chiseled, statuesque look that Vince McMahon dreams about in his wildest fantasies. Owens would make a fantastic WWE Champion. Let’s hope his place in the draft doesn’t represent how the WWE truly values him.
Meanwhile, Cesaro—a remarkable in-ring talent—was picked 28th in the draft. The King of Swing is pound-for-pound the strongest dude in the promotion (save for perhaps Brock Lesnar); technically, he’s as sound as they come; his springboard uppercut is a thing of beauty; and the Cesaro Swing and over-the-apron suplex are two of the most physically impressive moves ever executed in a wrestling ring. He’s even got an entire section (the “Cesaro section”) dedicated to his fans.
The Swiss Superman is way over with the WWE Universe, but it’s unclear exactly how his boss feels about him. Vince McMahon once said on the Stone Cold Podcast that Cesaro doesn’t connect with the fans. He lacks an “it” factor. A little over a week ago, Cesaro was outspoken during a candid backstage promo about his place in the company, expressing that falling was an personal insult. He believes he deserves to be in the squared circle competing for the company’s most prestigious belts (not watching pay-per-views like Battleground from home). The man is dead right.
What’s the significance of Kevin Owens and Cesaro falling so low in the draft? Well, if we regard the draft order as a representation of the how the WWE values its talent in relation to one another, then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if Owens and Cesaro remain in midcard pergatory. And that’s a shame: They’re two of the best wrestlers and sports-entertainers in the world. Let’s hope the WWE is able to realize before it’s too late.