When the WWE decided to split Raw and Smackdown Live into two separate brands again in July of last year, it initially appeared Smackdown had well and truly received a raw deal (pun intended) in terms of star power and potential. With an extra hour, an added Cruiserweight division, the biggest call up and mega-push of all time in Finn Balor, two picks to each of Smackdown’s one, and more name value outside of John Cena and Randy Orton in general, Monday Night Raw looked like it had everything necessary to succeed. But it didn’t.
While almost every single Raw-branded Pay-Per-View fell into a pit of mediocrity, Smackdown Live ascended. On the back of, predominantly, sensible booking and character development, stellar in-ring work and the elevation of new and stagnant talent the blue brand began delivering on a regular basis. It’s not been perfect, but it’s been a hell of a lot better than Raw.
When the recent Superstar Shake-Up rolled around, then, it was a genuine concern that Smackdown Live would this time be raided and left struggling. After the first night, fans would have been justified in finding these fears realised. The show lost Dean Ambrose (and the Intercontinental Championship with him), The Miz, Bray Wyatt and Alexa Bliss, all cornerstones of the brand over the last year, amongst others. When the smoke settled and Smackdown Live’s trades came in the next night, however, this all changed. Whilst losing the above talent certainly wasn’t ideal, the show has still well and truly won the Superstar Shake-Up – and it isn’t even close.
1. Charlotte Flair
Charlotte Flair moving to Tuesday nights was a move everyone saw coming and was completely telegraphed in her week-to-week booking – because it makes perfect sense. The Queen is a once in a lifetime talent who will, barring any disasters, go down as the greatest female performer of all time until she decides to allow someone to unseat her. She had the best 2016 of any performer on the main roster male or female, aside from AJ Styles and potentially The Miz, and made history with her feud with Sasha Banks in particular. Whilst the hot-potato with the Raw Women’s Championship divided many, what it established was the level of competition at such a high level and went a long way to build one of the best feuds of the year.
In early 2017, Flair’s booking became erratic with her Pay-Per-View winning streak being broken a month too early en route to her putting over the remaining Raw talent on her way out. Now on the blue brand, Charlotte has a fresh chance at domination in a better rounded division. Feuds with Naomi and Carmella would be fresh and new. A rekindling with Becky Lynch would be welcome, and Smackdown Live may afford Charlotte and Natalya the time to follow up their classic 2014 NXT encounter that Raw decided to overbook into oblivion last year. Charlotte Flair has transcended gender to become one of the most intriguing performers in any division and she now calls Tuesday night’s home.
2. Not Losing AJ Styles
When the Shake-Up was announced, AJ Styles moving to Raw seemed like a lock. The Phenomenal One is beyond a shadow of a doubt the best wrestler in the world, so moving him over to what WWE considers to be its premier show seemed like an easy decision. Moving Ambrose in his place and allowing AJ to remain on Smackdown Live has, with no disrespect meant to Ambrose whatsoever, benefited Smackdown greatly. The face turn is now firmly en route; after all, there was only so long anyone could cheer against a performer so talented and entertaining. If you weren’t convinced of his greatness, he pulled a match many considered to be the best of WrestleMania 33 out of Shane McMahon, with almost no bells and whistles whatsoever. Fresh matches await with new recruits Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, and there’s a certain rematch from New Japan just waiting tantalisingly on the horizon…
3. Shinsuke Nakamura
Okay, technically Nakamura debuted on Smackdown Live the week before the Shake-Up. But this addition essentially established Tuesday as his home, and no switch being made the following week was the perfect choice. Smackdown no longer being a taped show meant that not all call ups and surprises were made on the Raw after WrestleMania, and Nakamura may have benefited from this more than anyone else. His debut and interruption of The Miz was as close to perfect as you can get – it’s just a shame there will be no subsequent feud with Miz moving over to Raw the next week.
That being said, Dolph Ziggler is an excellent first feud for the King of Strong Style and the list of potential opponents after that is mouth-watering. Owens, Corbin, Orton and Cena (you know it will happen and you know it will be stunning) would be first-time affairs with show-stealing potential on any card. A rematch with Zayn from his NXT debut would be highly anticipated and the talk of a Wrestle Kingdom 10 return with AJ Styles could legitimately main event any WWE Pay-Per-View if the company allowed it to. The most important thing about Nakamura is that there is literally no one else like him anywhere on the planet – and there never has been – and now if you want to watch him, you need to check out Smackdown Live.
4. A Stable World Championship
One thing Smackdown Live did have over Raw after the Draft last year was a World Championship with recognisable name value, and one that didn’t look like a rejected idea for a children’s toy. Not only has this remained on the brand, but its holder will actually appear on the weekly show. Whilst Lesnar beating Goldberg for Raw’s Universal Championship was certainly the correct decision at WrestleMania, that match should never have been for the belt in the first place. Lesnar’s dates will be all over the place for the foreseeable future, whilst Smackdown has a reinvigorated Randy Orton at the helm with a whole host of potential challengers, most of which present fresh matches and feuds. Immediately, Smackdown Live has more of a direction and focus and doesn’t have to worry about meandering storylines, undercard feuds having to close out shows and a missing World Champion whose face could appear on the side of a milk carton.
5. Elevated Stars for a Fresh World Title Picture
Following on from the above, Smackdown Live doesn’t necessarily have an established main event scene in terms of sheer star power – and the show has the tools to use that to its advantage. Outside of Orton and Cena, the performers who could headline a show don’t have a vast back catalogue of main event or championship picture performances. Owens obviously had his run with the Universal Championship, and Styles made Tuesday’s his personal playground, but the likes of Zayn, Corbin, Luke Harper, Nakamura, Ziggler and Jinder Mahal (more on that later) can all be elevated if booked correctly to create a whole new main event picture. There is no air of familiarity on Smackdown, which lends itself to an intriguing future. Former NXT writer Ryan Ward was moved up to Smackdown last year and, as per recent reports, is still working Tuesdays. The man was at the helm of sensible, episodic, long-term storylines on NXT and if this continues to be carried over onto Smackdown then any of the above can succeed.
6. Rusev – or “The Miz and Bray Wyatt Effect”
No two performers benefited more from the 2016 Draft than The Miz and Bray Wyatt. Love them or hate them they were for the most part booked strongly, featured prominently and excelled on Smackdown Live. Miz made the Intercontinental Championship relevant for the first time in years, had one of the feuds of 2016 with Dolph Ziggler and became one of the hottest acts in the entire company. Wyatt finally became a believable main event star, won his first WWE Championship and became a focus of the show in the long-term feud with Randy Orton, regardless of how you feel that feud was booked and appears to be about to conclude.
Both men will be missed and only time will tell if Raw has any clue what to do with them. One man that could, potentially, benefit on Smackdown the exact same way as these two men is Rusev. The man is clearly talented but has been left to meander ever since being fed to John Cena at WrestleMania 31, save for one or two brighter moments. With the time that was afforded Miz and Wyatt, the same writing and booking team behind him, and the benefit of a blank slate, there’s no reason he can’t find similar levels of success. He doesn’t have to become the face of the brand but he does have the perfect chance to reinvigorate his career and become believable and successful once again.
7. New Day – The Boost the Tag Division Needs
The Smackdown Tag Team Championships were the only belts in the company not defended at WrestleMania 33. That in itself says a lot about the state of the division prior to the Shake-Up. Despite American Alpha and The Usos having excellent matches on the weekly show, the division just wasn’t well rounded enough throughout 2016 and into early 2017. The addition of The New Day changes all of that. Some of the shine may have faded, but the group is still as over as almost anyone on the roster.
They’re believable in a major role and a merchandise mover so strong WWE sells unicorn horns and cereal boxes to grown adults. Their in-ring work is somewhat underrated because of how good they are on the mic, so the extra focus will still translate to interesting feuds in terms of match quality and not just disappear between the ropes. It remains to be seen what will happen with other teams on the brand. Smackdown Live still needs one or two more to really thrive, but the division could not have received a bigger boost than The New Day.
8. Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn – Fight Forever
When the Draft occurred last year, it seemed to make no sense to keep Owens and Zayn together. After all, they tore up the main roster on Raw with the continuation of their epic NXT feud and Zayn finally vanquished his foe at Battleground last year. What followed saw the two men falling victim to Raw’s three hour format, and they continued to face off in further matches when they should have been kept apart.
Now on Smackdown Live, it’s a case of the best of both worlds. Owens’ reaction when Zayn walked down the ramp on Smackdown was priceless but, with one less hour to work with, the two don’t have to be face to face as often. When the feud is reignited, it can be of major consequence. As noted above, the Tag Team Division is still in need of a little help and an odd-ball tandem of Owens and Zayn would make for excellent television ala Tommy Dreamer and Raven in ECW. That in itself could set up a future feud to ensure that the two men will indeed “fight forever.”
9. Jinder Mahal… Apparently
Jinder Mahal becoming the Number 1 Contender to Randy Orton’s WWE Championship was… bold. Whilst it may not be a choice many want, or one that appears to be in any way merited given that the former 3MB member has literally never had a good match in the company, it is what this act represents that is so important. If Jinder Mahal can be elevated to main event status, then so can any single performer on that brand.
It remains to be seen whether or not the company is actually taking Mahal seriously or if this is just similar to R-Truth receiving his one and only main event at Capitol Punishment 2011. However, it is certainly an unexpected step. If Mahal can ascend so high so quickly, then why can’t Baron Corbin or Luke Harper? Why can’t Sami Zayn finally become an established main event performer? Mahal himself may seemingly make no sense, but he could simply be the first in a line of fresh faces. Either that or we have another case of the KISS Demon in WCW being contractually obliged one Pay-Per-View main event match…
Over the last year Smackdown Live has consistently delivered where it initially appeared it couldn’t, churning out entertaining Pay-Per-Views, elevating new stars and truly giving its roster a chance to shine. So long as these tropes don’t change in the post Shake-Up era then there’s no reason the brand can’t continue to succeed. With some of the hottest acts in the company, fresh matches on the horizon, reinvigorated title pictures and divisions across the board and a world where even Jinder Mahal can be given a chance, Smackdown Live is clearly still the dominant brand in WWE – and it will be for some time to come.
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