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‘Shake-up’ Breakdown

Grading the ‘Raw’ and ‘SmackDown’ post-‘WrestleMania’ roster moves, from Kevin Owens and Samoa Joe to Zack Ryder and R-Truth

A collage of WWE personalities on an orange background WWE/Ringer illustration

In the words of Bob Seger, “Shakedown / Breakdown / Takedown / Everybody wants into the crowded line.” Or in the case of WWE’s hotly tipped Superstar Shake-up—wrestling’s answer to annual trade-deadline frenzies, though it proceeds more like a round-the-clock NFL draft—everybody wants into the other show’s already overstuffed locker room.

After 48 hours of surprise gate crashes, dramatic video-package announcements, and nominally acknowledged personnel nudges, Raw GM Kurt Angle and his newbie SmackDown counterpart Paige found themselves sorting through remarkably altered rosters. And WWE audiences have begun the familiar process of readying for new faces, feuds, and storylines that will define Mondays and Tuesdays from now until basically WrestleMania 35. (Though with dual-branded PPVs from here on out, they won’t be as siloed as they’ve been in years past.)

To help parse through the particulars, we’ve evaluated how well the competing programs fared by assigning scientifically sound letter grades to each show’s individual pickups and overall prospects. Though as Seger also cautioned, “No matter how the race is run / It always ends the same.” It’s unclear if he was referring to the inevitable end of the brand split, but for now, let’s go with it.

Raw Acquisitions

Jinder Mahal

This made all the sense in the world until it didn’t. WWE doubled down on the so-called Jinder Mahal Experiment (a loaded assignation then as now) at WrestleMania with his U.S. Championship win over Randy Orton, Bobby Roode (more on him below), and Rusev. And on Monday, Mahal kicked off the Shake-up in earnest, interrupting Kurt Angle and bragging about his supposed superiority to everyone on SmackDown and Raw. Fans were less than thrilled—which conceivably means, given Mahal’s role as an unambiguous heel, that everything was going as planned. Nor was it shocking that Angle would force Mahal to back up his braggadocio by defending the title where he stood. Slightly less predictable was such a worthy opponent in Jeff Hardy, whom he lost to straightaway. This could merely be table setting for Mahal’s triumphant second run as U.S. champ after he faces Hardy in Saudi Arabia at April 27’s Greatest Royal Rumble. Or maybe it’s a redux of Zack Ryder’s short-lived crowning Mania moment in 2016. Even if he doesn’t reclaim the belt, that’s doubtful. Mahal’s a big dude who has played perfectly into the mold he’s been cast in. Whether as backstage reclamation project, living embodiment of the modern troll-heel archetype, or rasping on-screen villain, the Maharaja has made an impression and is here to stay.

Roster-Addition Grade: B+

Bobby Roode

If Mahal was made to look like Zack Ryder circa Mania 32, then Bobby Roode had to overcome the “Rey Mysterio at no. 30” slot to culminate this week’s Raw. When Angle announced that Braun Strowman, Bobby Lashley, Seth Rollins and Finn Bálor, and A Mystery Partner would take on The Miz (in his Raw sendoff), Curtis Axel and Bo Dallas, and new Raw recruits Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, it seemed like a big moment for a big star. Instead, it was Roode—not, say, Rusev or even Randy Orton—who answered the bell. Enthusiasm for the reveal was understandably tame. Still, Roode looks fiddle-fit for a man on the wrong side of 40, and has yet to arrive at his true destiny: One last tear as a world-class heel. Now that would be glorious.

Roster-Addition Grade: B

Riott Squad

Nothing about this gang’s gimmick really gels. Liv Morgan has her Harley Quinn vibe, leader Ruby Riott plays the superkicking outcast, and Sarah Logan is trying very hard to make this Encino Woman schtick happen. It’s absolutely unclear why these women roll together, and as evidenced during their beatdown of Sasha Banks and Bayley, their actual tandem ring work is really rough. Ruby’s, and by extension her Squad’s, punk-by-numbers entrance theme is CFO$’s most mailed-in effort of the year. That’s not their fault, nor is their having been contrived as a stable, but time’s running out for Riott (who somehow scored a SmackDown Women’s Championship bout back at Fastlane) and her crew to come through.

Roster-Addition Grade: C

Natalya

The Queen of Hearts was brought aboard to complement Ronda Rousey in an inevitable tag-team match to continue the Rowdy one’s steady indoctrination. Nattie submitted Absolution member Mandy Rose, got blindsided by Sonya Deville, and then got bailed out by Rousey. I’d bet the farm that Natalya’s preying on Rousey’s goodwill before stabbing her in the back and instigating a singles feud heading into SummerSlam. Nattie’s not likely to sniff gold again soon, but she’s a rock-solid choice to make Rousey shine.

Roster-Addition Grade: B

Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn

They got fired from SmackDown, were forced to fight for a lone roster spot, fell short, and then … got transferred to Raw in the Shake-up by Stephanie McMahon to spite Angle?? It was a lackluster twist, storywise, but Zayn and Owens are automatically WWE’s hottest heel twosome. (We’ll file Dolph Ziggler and Drew McIntyre under “pending” for now.) Their competitive re-debut in the aforementioned Raw main event was a touch chaotic, but they are such a cut above at all the little things that make for big entertainment (see: Monday’s brief but totally at-ease backstage bit) that it’s impossible to keep them down. This is a great clean slate for KO and Zayn after that months-long commitment to making Shane McMahon look good, and a massive leap forward for Raw’s charisma quotient, which lived and died in recent weeks by Paul Heyman’s appearance schedule. United or at odds, bickering in the hallways or cannonballing and Blue Thundering their way across four corners, these two are one huge reason to watch.

Roster-Addition Grade: A+

Dolph Ziggler and Drew McIntyre

While Jinder Mahal will carry on his uphill struggle for respect, his one-time 3MB teammate and fellow jobber deluxe Drew McIntyre was received like a conquering god. True, McIntyre was originally on a far more credible trajectory than Jinder before being thanklessly diverted into enhancement hell. But Drew also refurbished himself in TNA and the indies over the past few years. Yet there’s something about being put through that NXT career-laundering machine that keeps all of its recruits surfacing with a whole new sheen. McIntyre was NXT champ for a few months prior to sustaining an injury and going dark all winter. And when he came outta nowhere (h/t to Randy Orton) on Raw during Dolph Ziggler’s “I’m back” promo, it felt for an instant like Shawn Michaels and Diesel crawled out of a time machine from 1994. This is a smart reset for Ziggler, who can maybe ditch the needle-scratching backstage cue and relocate his mojo, as when he was packaged with Big E and AJ Lee in 2013. And as soon as McIntyre reasserts himself as a main-roster presence, Vince McMahon will remember why he used to call this guy the “Chosen One.”

Roster-Addition Grade: A

Baron Corbin

Social media was not kind to Baron Corbin on Monday. To be fair, the “lone wolf” has yet to distinguish himself from the pack. The former U.S. Champion and Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal winner (which, up until Matt Hardy this year, was tantamount to a booby prize) comes across as simultaneously humorless and unmenacing. He moves well and could project a darker aura with some adjustments to his metal-bar-bouncer aesthetic and more of a silent-assassin mode. As it stands, the Corbin character is kind of just a dick, and a limp one at that. He’s not, as one especially unsparing Twitter user suggested in a riff on Corbin’s finishing move, “the end of ratings,” but his new Raw tenure has to be the start of something if Corbin’s ever going to work.

Roster-Addition Grade: C

Breezango

I didn’t see it in the rearview, but Tyler Breeze and Fandango’s migration absolutely adds up. These two made SmackDown fun again, so much so that it became infectious and there was no more room to store further editions of Fashion Files. Raw is sometimes so preoccupied with making headlines that it forgets to be silly, and Breezango will solve that like a snap. But they’re terrific performers to boot. And I mean boot. SmackDown’s tag scene has been dominated by the three marquee acts—the Usos, New Day, and Bludgeon Brothers—while Raw literally handed out its belts to Braun Strowman and a 10-year-old at WrestleMania. (They quickly abdicated.) Even with Authors of Pain, The Deleters of Worlds (a.k.a Bray Wyatt and Matt Hardy), The Revival, and others making noise, Breezango have a real shot to regain momentum as fan favorites and necessary standard-bearers of quality control.

Roster-Addition Grade: B+

Chad Gable

The American Alpha alum has, without fanfare, done a whole lot better with less than his ex–dance partner Jason Jordan. Gable and temporary SmackDown tag accomplice Shelton Benjamin made for convincing bad guys despite being underwritten, and Chad is definitely ready to strike out on his own after so much seasoning. He’s got lots of upside as a petulant and entitled, but incredibly gifted, thorn in many a midcarder’s side. If he were half a foot taller he’d already be in the title picture, and yes, that’s a backhanded compliment—but it’s still a compliment. If they let him operate, he’ll be fun to watch.

Roster-Addition Grade: B

Mojo Rawley

Is Mojo a football player running drills inside a wrestling ring, or a sport entertainer with God-given gridiron explosiveness? Is there any scenario beyond reinvigorating his rivalry with Zack Ryder that feels well suited to his persona as constituted? Are you hyped yet?

Roster-Addition Grade: C

Zack Ryder

Never say never, but the Long Island bro’s brief boost as IC champ in ’16 will probably be the highest he climbs when it comes to titles. But he’s a hugely valuable reserve and has stuck around amid constant future-endeavor castoffs because he understands his role and the platform it provides for him to mount a broader pop-culture following. Plus, no male WWE stars this side of Dolph Ziggler sell better, which will come in handy as NXT newbies keep queuing up for a good look.

Roster-Addition Grade: B-

The Ascension

No one in 2017, on either show, was more open-minded than Konnor and Viktor, who accepted a comedy sidekick role beside Breezango if it meant the chance to occasionally run in for a SmackDown save or go viral helping their buddies play cops and jobbers. Alas, Tyler and Fandango stand a better chance at finding their Raw niche than The Ascension, who arguably might do well to dip back into NXT for a spell and come back as no-nonsense hellions rather than stay their current course—or lack thereof.

Roster-Addition Grade: C-

Mike Kanellis

If you can’t root for a guy who’s been so forthcoming about his addictions and efforts to get it together for himself and his family’s sake, then you’re probably one of those sadists yelling “You deserve it” when Roman Reigns gets stretchered out of an arena. Kanellis isn’t a game changer, but he’s a lot better than the opportunities he’s been afforded so far, and looking to better his life while putting sobriety and the very bodily harm that jeopardized it on the line—for our entertainment. Go, Mike, go.

Roster-Addition Grade: B

As for Those Who Stayed Put…

Margin minders including Alicia Fox, Curt Hawkins, Dana Brooke, Goldust, Mickie James, and—if we’re being truthful—Elias may have found new purpose starting anew in SmackDown’s “land of opportunity” (or handouts, per Samoa Joe). Also, Raw understandably clings to Roman Reigns, but color me taken aback that Seth Rollins didn’t bring his title and replenished reputation with him to Tuesday to give the B Show some Shield flair. For fans of Finn Bálor, Seth and Roman’s fast stance means the Demon has some serious maneuvering to do (a heel swerve couldn’t hurt) before becoming top dog.

Overall Raw Shake-up Grade: B

Smackdown Acquisitions

Samoa Joe

Raw may have held on to Rollins and Reigns, but SmackDown gets a major boost from Samoa Joe. The newly healthy heavyweight is among three men—and one of two now signed to SmackDown—squaring off against Rollins at Greatest Royal Rumble in an Intercontinental Championship ladder match. His busy docket also features a one-on-one with Reigns—who may well be Universal Champion by then if he topples Brock Lesnar at Greatest Rumble—at Backlash. With such a full Raw-centric dance card, he caught many off guard when his music hit on Tuesday. A fiery, breathless (and very sweaty and spit-spraying) promo ensued, and the people cheered (mostly). Not unlike the period between Fastlane and Mania, there’s plenty of logistics WWE needs to disentangle, but once Joe is done with his cross-brand commitments, he’s immediately one of the biggest stars on SmackDown, and, at 39 years old, somehow still hasn’t reached his limit of his upside.

Roster-Addition Grade: A-

Asuka

This was an easy read, but damn was it fun to watch the no-longer-undefeated Empress initiate the IIcoinics and form a formidable alliance with Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch. There’s no getting around what went down at Mania: Asuka took one for the team by absorbing an L against Charlotte, who was then vulnerable to attack by Billie Kay, Peyton Royce, and Money in the Bank briefcase holder (and now SmackDown Women’s Champion) Carmella. It was a worthy sacrifice for the greater good and gives SmackDown plenty of moving parts to pull from in 2018. And Asuka—one of the biggest potential stars in the company—will be there to benefit.

Roster-Addition Grade: A

Jeff Hardy

Might be time to update the enigmatic one’s rave-chic wardrobe and post-Headbangers theme, but other than that, the Jeff Hardy express has hardly skipped a track since coming back. (Except for injuries and arrests, but ya know.…) Moving him to SmackDown was functional—to get the U.S. title back on Tuesday—but it’s also safe to figure that Jeff and Matt wanted to brand themselves individually. So off to Tuesdays Jeff went, and down fell Shelton Benjamin. As to the imminent probability of him and Randy Orton—whom Hardy upstaged in his SmackDown debut—jumping headlong into a U.S. title program? Priceless.

Roster-Addition Grade: A-

Sonya Deville and Mandy Rose

Bad news for SmackDown fans: Now they’ll be subjected to Corey Graves’s creepy soliloquies about how Rose is “God’s gift.” Upside: Tuesday’s show got the way better wishbone tug from this ostensible Absolution-for–Riott Squad swap. It’ll be interesting to follow whether Paige offers her protégés any preferential treatment, but on their own, Deville and Rose can put Naomi and other mainstays without a proper angle on notice. However, Rose might be discomfited to discover how much closer Graves’s commentary table is to the ring compared with Raw.

Roster-Addition Grade: B

The Miz

Mike Mizanin continues to be WWE’s MVP, maneuvering from SmackDown to Raw and back, from contender to champion, from mentor to main attraction, and from extracurricular assignments (WWE Studios starring roles, promotional tours, etc.) to prominent story lines when other main eventers are in limbo. He’s the best, and he also is a legitimate option to gun for SmackDown’s WWE Championship when Styles, Nakamura, and Daniel Bryan aren’t chasing gold ahead of hallowed PPVs like SummerSlam and Survivor Series. Motivation certainly won’t be an issue. Like a more credentialed Heath Slater, Miz has kids to feed now. But regardless of reinventions, his impending feud with old foe Daniel Bryan will be the litmus test for whether Miz can truly headline in 2018.

Roster-Addition Grade: A

Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson

Merch be damned, it looks as if the “good brothers” won’t be formalizing their buddy Finn’s namesake club after all. Gallows and Anderson shared one thing in common with the bulk of Tuesday’s arrivals: a terse, pretaped routine rather than the chance to show up live and cause a scene. This prevailing conundrum was a huge mark against Shake-up’s cumulative, immediate SmackDown impact, although its talent haul was objectively a major score. As for Luke and Karl, the sky’s theoretically the limit, but so far as a unit in WWE, they’ve faced something of a stubborn ceiling.

Roster-Addition Grade: B

The Bar (a.k.a Sheamus and Cesaro)

Maybe Sheamus’s reported spinal stenosis—the same broad, typically chronic condition suffered by everyone from retired WWE Hall of Famer Edge to Mets third baseman David Wright—doesn’t spell eminent retirement. If he keeps going, SmackDown immediately has a heel tag team that can hold their own against any pair on the show. If Sheamus quietly retires, SD still has Cesaro, who will slide right into an upper midcard already full of indie wrestling icons.

Roster-Addition Grade: B

Big Cass

WWE didn’t do Cass any favors by anticlimactically returning him from a lengthy injury hiatus via a backstage cameo alongside Daniel Bryan, a.k.a everyone in the world’s favorite human. The backlash when he later put a boot through Bryan’s face was instant and severe, but we can ignore the haters for now. To reference my Mahal sentiments: Isn’t that the idea? Cass was born to be booed in that ring, and he’s got the most natural New Yawk swagger since Bubba Ray Dudley. I confess pigeonholing Bryan into yet another Daniel vs. Goliath juxtaposition isn’t supercreative. Though if anything, Bryan’s looking out for the young stud by bringing him along for the Yes! Movement’s rejuvenated ride. Cass might not be a sure thing, but there’s every reason to go all in on each man having tasted top billing by this time next year.

Roster-Addition Grade: B+

R-Truth

If WWE.com says he’s on SmackDown, then he must be on SmackDown. Not even R-Truth is sure. Fun fact: You can shake things up by acquiring an autographed copy of the real-life Ron Killings’s latest CD for two dollars off original retail price.

Roster-Addition Grade: N/A

SAnitY

This NXT trio, as well as former NXT champ Andrade “Cien” Almas, were both back-doored into the Shake-up via video announcements, though there’s really little else to differentiate them from straightforward call-ups including SmackDown troublemakers IIconics and Raw additions Ember Moon and No Way Jose. Alas, WWE says they’re part of the Shake-up, so who are we to argue? Besides, there’s no contesting SAnitY leader Eric Young’s overdue shot at making serious cheddar. Before long, he’ll probably be left behind by Killian Dain and Alexander Wolfe like Paul Ellering standing lonesome on an entrance ramp as Authors of Pain empty the nest. But in the interim, as a functioning trio, they’re the mirror-image antagonists New Day has been waiting for.

Roster-Addition Grade: B

Andrade “Cien” Almas

WWE loves co-opting wrestlers’ multigenerational legacies, and there are shades of Alberto Del Rio’s backstory built into Almas’s pedigree. (Almas, real name Manuel Alfonso Andrade Oropeza, is the son and grandson of veteran lucha libre fighters.) But Almas, who is nearly cruiserweight in stature, is poised for loftier heights. Over the past year he’s reinvented himself into one of the most amazing all-around performers on the roster. How well he fares will also indicate when to bring up NXT’s Ricochet, whose transcendent ability and charisma likewise stands taller than his compact frame. Unavoidably, Almas will be also observed as a bellwether for WWE’s ability to break more Mexican talent through to its upper ranks. It’s a story to watch, and SmackDown has it.

Roster-Addition Grade: B+

As for Those Who Stayed Put…

Will Rusev ever really crush? Is Cena still technically a free agent? Randy Orton is probably happy to be rid of Mahal and can light it up with Hardy, but after a fairly humdrum 2017 (and ’18 so far), one more eventual beeline for the “A show” seems fair. Shelton Benjamin did good by Chad Gable, but he’s a retirement-age man without a plan in post-Shake-up land. Tye Dillinger needed a pick-me-up more than most, and R-Truth isn’t the answer. And with Asuka and Charlotte on the card, Naomi can kiss near-future title shots goodbye. What SmackDown does have going for it is a clear fearsome foursome in its main-event orbit: Styles, Nakamura, Joe, and Bryan. Not too shabby.

Overall Smackdown Shake-up Grade: A-