With WWE’s annual draft wrapping up on Raw, the company is now building up to the back end of the year leading into Survivor Series and the Royal Rumble — and subsequently the Road to WrestleMania.
Every draft WWE has done, dating back to its very first brand split when Vince McMahon and Ric Flair divided the roster in half, has always sported various measures of intrigue. We ask questions ranging from the simple, “where is so and so going?” or “will the champions flip shows and take the belts with them?”… Or “will we see fresh blood injected into the programs?” That’s something WWE has seemingly attempted to do over the last year by stepping to the side of their tried and true methods and have at least attempted to utilize different people; made all the easier now with a trimmed down roster. This draft gave us a little of everything, although it’s anyone’s guess how it’ll affect the overall presentation of the shows.
These drafts, as tired as they can be sometimes once you’ve seen a handful, do tend to renew some measure of hope in WWE working toward better writing and better presentation of itself and its roster. However as we saw in this installment, one of the failures of their drafts is their ignorant picks that telegraph their booking moves as we saw especially this year with the women and specifically the Smackdown Women’s title. Nonetheless, they tell us roughly where the company plans to chart the coming months.
Last Friday on Smackdown night one of the draft began with the obvious — Roman Reigns is staying on Smackdown, as did the Usos as of Monday’s Raw to keep the the Bloodline intact which was an intensely obvious yet intelligent move. However, the flip-flopping of women’s champions and the all-too standard faux dramatics of champion swapping or stable breaking (i.e. New Day) befuddles and confounds even though you should expect it by this point.
A positive coming out of Friday though on the Smackdown side was bringing over Drew McIntyre to the show from Raw to presumably renew his rivalry with Reigns dating back to last fall. Not much else from the first night really jumps out to you, other than Jeff Hardy shifting to Fridays and Hit Row coming over from NXT (with the North American title in tow). Happy Corbin and Moss, and this feels odd to say, staying put is probably smart to allow them develop the gimmick and see how far they can take it within familiar surroundings. Longevity is always the question, but Corbin has shown he can make most things work even if he’s not a personal favourite. The rest of Smackdown’s Friday picks were underwhelming aside from Toni Storm. Considering their booking, the Mansoor, Ali, Mace and Gulak picks seem weird considering how they’ve been presented, although Mansoor and Ali could be a good, entertaining option opposite the Usos. Otherwise, I’m not sure how we’re supposed to react to Naomi being picked high at this point when her booking always seems to undercut her momentum, and Aliyah is a fresh face that has yet to break out even on NXT, but at least she has a blank canvas to work with.
Beyond the aforementioned Usos, the first major pick for Smackdown on Monday also likely gave away the result of the women’s triple threat for the Smackdown Women’s title with both Bianca Belair and Becky Lynch being drafted to Raw Monday night. Sasha Banks taking the title in Saudi Arabia seems like an inevitability, with the only question remaining whom from Raw takes Charlotte’s belt. Judging from the rest of Raw’s picks for the Friday show, some of the choices made last week seem to make a little more sense with multiple fresh tag teams joining New Day and Ali/Mansoor on Friday. The big highlight of Smackdown’s picks Monday has to be the women moving over to the brand with Shayna Baszler, Natalya, Xia Li and Shotzi Blackheart calling the blue brand home now. This presupposes the company is looking to inject some freshness into the division. Much like Friday’s half of the Smackdown picks, I’m not sure what to make of Ricochet, Sami Zayn, Cesaro, Ridge Holland, Jinder Mahal and Sheamus being selected. Of these, in addition to perhaps Drew and Jeff Hardy coming over, I can see Cesaro and Sheamus being put opposite Reigns perhaps in a babyface role to tide Reigns’ reign over until the New Year especially with Edge, Seth Rollins and Finn Balor being moved to Raw.
Overall, it’s difficult to judge what the plans are for Smackdown. Keeping Reigns at the top feels critical and inevitable now and he should go over Brock Lesnar in Saudi Arabia. After that, I’d expect him to run through the upper tiered wrestlers being moved over with a focus on McIntyre as his chief rival for the duration of the year. As previously said, beyond that is anyone’s guess and depends on what they’re planning for WrestleMania. As for the other male roster moves, I’m guessing with Shinsuke Nakamura staying in the fold as IC champion he’ll be the centrepiece for a midcard that is bringing over the likes of Ricochet, perhaps Sheamus and Jeff Hardy, and I’d argue Cesaro as well. The real wins for the draft are the tag team and women’s divisions which are concretely stronger than Raw’s for now, however Raw has its centrepiece feud already in place with Lynch and Belair on Raw now, with new faces coming into the forefront buoyed by people looking for a chance to shine like Liv Morgan, Zelina Vega and Tegan Nox.
Big E being drafted to Raw as WWE champion is bittersweet with him being removed from New Day once again. Similarly to Smackdown, some teams shifted over and with RK-Bro staying put I’d imagine it’s a matter of time before the Street Profits wrest the belts from Orton and Riddle. Otherwise, the roster adds the Mysterios, Alpha Academy, Apollo Crews and Azeez, and those are complemented with Roode and Ziggler, and the reformed Hurt Business featuring Shelton Benjamin and Cedric Alexander. Although it isn’t bad, the clear-cut alphas of the division are the Street Profits and they should get the titles as soon as possible.
As a whole the roster comes off as more balanced than Smackdown’s although lacking someone like Reigns who’s established and clearly the top dog, whereas Big E is still a project with the title and he’s now been surrounded with a great cast of upper midcarders/main eventers who can challenge him as well as Damian Priest for the United States title. Those fresh matches potentially with Edge, Rollins, Balor, Keith Lee, Karrion Kross, Kevin Owens, potentially AJ Styles and Bobby Lashley can circulate the main event scene while some of those names can veer into the U.S. title picture to offset new arrivals like Austin Theory and Gable Stevenson (who frankly hopefully ends up teaming with Chad Gable… Gable & Gable is money and you know it). The Raw roster seems less focused on youth and more on established names presumably to offset lowering average TV viewership.
In comparison to Smackdown, the drafting of Becky Lynch is the equivalent of Roman being on Smackdown — she’s the lynchpin in this division and can work opposite the women on the roster while those outside her sphere will still have the tag titles for what that’s worth at this point to vie for. Perhaps Bayley ends up on the roster when she returns, but for now expect Lynch to be the central figure on Raw once the title pictures are sorted out between her and Charlotte.
I wouldn’t say either show is particularly better off than the other now, whereas previously it felt like every resource (in terms of “manpower”) was funneled into Smackdown. They’re more balanced now and have their strengths over the other. Neither is gamebreaking yet, and both drew from NXT to alleviate some backlog there to allow that show’s projects to develop at their own pace or quickly in line with their skill level in the case of Bron (“Not a Steiner”) Breakker who’ll be NXT champion before too long, and if not then likely the North American champion.
While some drafts have been one sided, this feels like it benefits both shows. However, precedent should also give pause to any out of the way fantasy booking regarding people who have been underutilized in the past. There’s still little substance to the belief that drafting high automatically means someone like Ricochet or Naomi will be put to work in a meaningful way. And because of that, while there were quite a few good moves, it’s best to wait and see how these moves shape up on Mondays and Fridays, because history has too often shown our hopes to be misplaced.
Roman Reigns-Finn Balor Fallout
Where the “wait and see how it plays out” approach to viewing doesn’t apply is the now-concluded Balor and Reigns feud that culminated in the first main roster loss for the Demon persona last weekend which notoriously ended with the ropes snapping under the weight of Demon Balor’s sheer dark dominance of the soon-to-deposed Tribal Chief.
The problem now with the dust settled is last week’s ending to Balor and Reigns’ match factually capped off their feud and certainly won’t have an actual follow up now, which clearly positions the loss by Demon Balor as a cheap service to Reigns’ dominance. It’s clearer now the only reason Demon Balor was put opposite Reigns was to serve Roman’s title run and the illusion of his being top dog when the execution of the ending utterly betrayed the depiction WWE management wanted to put forth. To execute that ending the way it was fully protects Balor at the detriment of Reigns when it should have been a physical affair that ended in Reigns simply winning a hard fought match. That was the way to build up both in that match, not pull overbooked hyper-theatrics to protect Finn while also giving Reigns an annoying god complex.
With Balor moving over to Raw, Reigns’ next date is with Lesnar and if Reigns also beats Lesnar (maybe Lesnar will F-5 him, break the ring, the posts will topple over and strike Brock in the head thereby knocking him out so Reigns can pin him. Could happen…) then we veer over to the refreshed main event landscape on Smackdown where it feels as though there will be a number of challengers to put in front of Reigns, yet none you can conceivably say will defeat him. And if WWE does the standard Survivor Series brand split matchups, then one could assume we’ll see Big E and Reigns for sure, although there are better bookings you could do like putting the Bloodline against the New Day with an additional partner for each in a traditional Survivor Series matchup. Regardless, the title picture looks uneventful on Smackdown, which is what I was concerned about after last weekend. It truly feels like Reigns is going to be in a holding pattern until we know who his journey leads him to on the Road to WrestleMania.