At Tuesday night’s WWE draft, the roster was split between its two main shows, Monday-night Raw and Tuesday’s SmackDown Live. Production-wise, the show was a success: WWE treated it like a real sports event and charted the course for a new (hopefully long-standing) era in the world of fake fisticuffs. WWE tried to make it feel like a real sport — with Stephanie McMahon and Mick Foley drafting for Raw, against Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan for Smackdown — so let’s play along and pick out the winners and losers.
Just look at the rosters. They announced before the draft that Raw would get three picks for every two Smackdown picks because the show is three hours long to Smackdown’s two, so we knew the balance was going to be off. But just eyeballing the division, the talent level imbalance skews even more in Raw’s favor. They not only have the ready-made headliners — Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, Brock Lesnar — but a near-monopoly on people who are ready to take a leap: The New Day, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Enzo & Big Cass, Finn Bálor. With the exception of Dean Ambrose and Bray Wyatt (and AJ Styles, but he’s no youngster), Smackdown looks more like the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royale than a full-on promotion.
Winner/Loser: The ‘Raw’ Women’s Division/The ‘Smackdown’ Women’s Division
Women’s wrestling in WWE has had a big year, with the blue-chip call-ups like Charlotte, Sasha Banks, and Becky Lynch being given the opportunity to shine. Ghettoizing them into a show-specific product wouldn’t be a good look, but as it stands, there’s not enough of a women’s roster to separate into two divisions and maintain the presplit intrigue. Raw got stacked with women’s champ Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Paige, and Nia Jax, and Smackdown got Lynch (who is insanely over and very good), Natalya, and, well, huh. I think Alexa Bliss and Carmella have huge potential, but they’ll need time to find their footing. It’ll be asking a lot of those on the roster to keep the momentum going with limited help, and a lot of the audience to stay interested during Lynch-Natalya Round 83.
Probably a Loser: The Cruiserweight Division on ‘Raw’
Speaking of ghettoizing. Listen, I’m excited for cruiserweight action on the main roster. The Cruiserweight Classic on the WWE Network just started, and it’s already been a minor revelation. But that’s the point — WWE has never done right by its cruiserweights in the past, and its first sign of success is only now getting its footing. On the plus side, Raw drafted a handful of ready-made cruiserweight stars — Finn Bálor, Neville, Enzo Amore — who can elevate themselves and the division at the same time. On the downside, fans will be complaining that those guys will be trapped in the CW division when they should be headlining the show.
Winner/Winner: Seth Rollins/Dean Ambrose
Speaking of headliners. Nobody came out of the draft looking better than Rollins and Ambrose, because for all they’ve meant to the WWE over the past year, it was invigorating to see them picked ahead of the John Cenas and Randy Ortons of the world, an implicit acknowledgement by WWE that the torch had officially been passed.
At last month’s Money in the Bank show, Rollins, fresh from a long stint on the DL, reclaimed the WWE Championship from Roman Reigns, then lost it to Ambrose, who had won an "anytime, anywhere" title shot earlier that same night. It was a fun story, but really it was about instituting Ambrose and Rollins as the two faces of the company heading into the draft. For Raw and (more importantly) Smackdown to appear as legitimate rivals, they both have to have a legitimate headliner. The big takeaway from the draft is that WWE knows these are the top guys.
Charlotte has been the WWE Women’s Champion for almost a year (she actually was the Divas Champion until WrestleMania, when the division was thankfully renamed) and a standard bearer in the company, unrivaled by anyone this side of Brock Lesnar or Steve Austin. She’s only been wrestling for four years, which is an insane learning curve, and her real-time development is almost more interesting than whatever angle she’s involved in. I’m a longtime Paige stan and a Sasha Banks truther, but it’s impossible to deny what Charlotte has meant to women’s wrestling in her short career, and even harder to deny that she deserved to be the no. 3 pick.
Winner: Finn Bálor
Just like Rollins, Ambrose, and Charlotte, the Bálor pick was a statement by WWE. (I mean, this is scripted, so everything is a statement by WWE, but you get the point.) Finn has caught the imagination of the NXT audience in his time there, and while he hasn’t exactly made a leap in terms of interview charisma, he’s got more upside in the stuff he does well than most wrestlers do in the total package. Whether they stick him in the cruiserweight division or drop him right into the upper-midcard, Finn looks poised to get another opportunity to succeed.
After losing Bálor, Nia Jax, American Alpha, Alexa Bliss, Mojo Rawley, and Carmella, NXT has lost half of the top-10 performers from its last PPV. And who knows how much longer some of their other big stars — Asuka, Shinsuke Nakamura, Samoa Joe, Bayley — will stay in the minors. It could be time for a complete revamp of the NXT roster, but I have more faith in NXT to keep quality high than I do in the WWE to make Smackdown matter.
Loser: Roman Reigns
For the golden child of WWE to go from champion to an apparent PED suspension and semi-story-line-pariah in the span of a couple of weeks is bad enough; slipping Laremy Tunsil–style into the second round while his former running buddies Rollins and Ambrose went 1–2 was a slap in the face. And when the crowd erupted into boos at the very mention of his name? That was just brutal.
He’s in the main event at this Sunday’s Battleground PPV — his first appearance postsuspension — so it’s safe to assume Reigns will get a chance to reclaim the top spot, but getting drafted sixth is a lot to swallow.
I loved the confidence of Stephanie McMahon taking Roman and Brock Lesnar back to back for Raw. I mean, sure, Brock flunked a drug test before UFC 200, and only wrestles 10 shows a year for you. And sure, Roman got pinged by the wellness policy (which never caught a whiff of anything on Brock, apparently) and missed 30 days during one of your most important stretches. But what the hell, let’s roll the dice. After all, she’s her father’s daughter.
Winner: Sami Zayn
When we all named our top-10 prospects on the site on Monday, nobody had Sami Zayn on the list. I was pretty shocked. Living in the shadow of Kevin Owens probably has a lot to do with it, as does the vanilla underdoggery of his character. But I still say he’s worth a flyer just for the opportunity to whip out El Generico someday.
Regardless, Raw had him ranked higher than a roundtable of smarks did, which is shocking. Steel yourself for the "Anybody but Zayn" movement in a year or two.
Loser: Kevin Owens
Owens slid to no. 18, setting him up as the aggrieved asshole who got picked after the enemy, Zayn, who he can’t help helping. When Owens tweeted, "Doesn’t matter what number I get drafted at, whichever brand I go to automatically becomes the best one," he was speaking the truth. But he still deserved to go in the top five.
Winner: Bray Wyatt
He’s needed a reboot for a while, and before he was injured in April, the crowd was about to force WWE to turn him babyface. Now, minus the backing (or dead weight) of the Wyatt Family, he might finally get a chance to shine on Smackdown. Like the Undertaker during the original brand split, Wyatt might be the anchor that the upstart brand needs.
Loser: Enzo & Big Cass
How two guys who could both be legitimate singles superstars and who are already the hottest tag team in the company drop to no. 20 — after Baron Corbin — is beyond me. The only good thing to come out of this pick was Shane McMahon’s reaction to not getting to pick them:
On a night that felt vibrant because WWE was churning out too much content to script and overproduce, Cesaro took the gold medal for seemingly unscripted honesty after he was drafted 28th:
He’ll probably be jobbing to Braun Strowman for the next three months for that.
Losers: The Old Guard
For all the work WWE does on a weekly basis trying to convince us that guys like Sheamus, Big Show, Dolph Ziggler, and Alberto Del Rio are headliner quality, the folks running Raw and Smackdown sure didn’t think so.
Winner: American Alpha
These two have been longtime favorites of the NXT roster, a World’s Greatest Tag Team 2.0, but even their most ardent supporters didn’t foresee them as the fourth team to come off the board — behind the New Day and Enzo & Big Cass — and the first team picked by the Smackdown brand. They’ll get the opportunity to back up that hype fighting The Usos and The Ascension every week.
Loser: The Tag Team Division
Much like the women’s division, the tag ranks just aren’t robust enough to be split in two (and heaven forbid they create a second set of tag titles). Despite the recent assemblage of makeshift teams like Breezango (who I like!) and Golden Truth, there’s just not enough top-tier talent to spread it out this far.
Winner: Stephanie McMahon
She baited her Smackdown competition into bad picks, and grabbed first-round talent in the second to fourth rounds. I mean, sure, she’s the Raw commissioner, and she was bound to walk away with a haul — but they made her look great in the process.
Loser: Shane McMahon
Losers: Mick Foley and Daniel Bryan
Both of these guys seemed to have found their second-act calling — Foley as a lovable reality-show dad and Bryan as a shockingly good color commentator on the Cruiserweight Classic — but now they’re dragged back in as the GMs of Raw and Smackdown, and into the shlock of WWE storylines for no reason other than their Q scores. The backstage-segment story line drama that was always his weak spot in Bryan’s career will be his full-time job, and Foley — one of the truly intelligent wrestlers of his generation — is being broadcast into living rooms everywhere as a cartoonish oaf.
Winner: Heath Slater
Going undrafted isn’t a good look for anybody, but if anybody can look better by showing ass, it’s Slater, who’s become an indispensible part of WWE over the past few years precisely because he gets heat like a top heel and never has to win a match. If the WWE can turn the former One Man Band and Social Outcast into something like Mr. Irrelevant (or, possibly better: The One Man Brand), that’s a gimmick that Slater can make gold from.
Winner: The Draft Center
For all the talk (my own included) of WWE trying to create its own competition (the kind they’ve missed since WCW went under) by building up Smackdown and separating the rosters, this was the closest I’ve felt to those old Monday Night Wars days in forever. With the WWE Network airing a live, SportsCenter-style Draft Center to review the picks at its roundtable and conduct interviews with the wrestlers after they were selected, I had two TVs on. It was more of a mute-button toggle than a real channel flip, but with two shows streaming live into my home, WWE felt vibrant for the first time in recent memory.
Loser: Brand T-shirts
Those Raw and Smackdown T-shirts they had all the talent wear after they were drafted are 10 years old and look even more tired than that. In kayfabe, why is anybody except for John Cena and maybe Apollo Crews excited to put one of those on? In the real world, it was an even lamer idea. If you want to mimic the real sports world, give them a branded ball cap and let them take it off after a photo or two.
Winner: Competitive Balance
After a screwy finish to their match the night before on Raw, Ambrose won the main event, beating Rollins cleanly to retain his title. Much like his surprise win at Money in the Bank, it had more to do with the big picture than personal victory. On Sunday, Ambrose defends the belt against Rollins and Reigns in a triple-threat match. Even if Ambrose drops the belt, he’ll still show up on Smackdown next Tuesday as a legit headliner. And if WWE can really make Smackdown viable, then Raw has competition, and almost every major era of wrestling has been driven by competition between companies or brands.
Tentative Winner: The Fans
If the competition is good — and moreover, if the competition is real — then the product will benefit, and the fans will be the real winners of all of this. Except …
Tentative Loser: The Fans
Now there’s five hours of must-watch live programming a week. Add in the rumors of twice-a-month PPVs, NXT, the Cruiserweight Classic, Lucha Underground, TNA, and every other wrestling show out there, and sheesh. I’m going to have to keep the double-screen experience going just to keep up with everything — and invest in a more comfortable couch.