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WWE Brand Split Breakdown: Week of 8/15/16 by Mike Holland

Last week it was Smackdown Live that proved to be the superior of WWE’s two shows, both of which suffered mightily from absences of some of their top talent. Everyone was back on hand this week, so how did that impact your viewing pleasure Monday and Tuesday night? Did Monday Night Raw recover from its stumble, or was it another example of Smackdown dominance? Those questions and more will be answered in this week’s Brand Split Breakdown, where we go through what worked and what didn’t before rendering judgment. Let’s get started!

Monday Night Raw

Overview: Raw’s job this week was fairly simple: to set the stage for Sunday’s two big matches from this brand, those being the christening of the new WWE Universal Champion between Seth Rollins and Finn Balor, and the US Title showdown between Rusev and Roman Reigns. From that perspective, they were highly successful. Both of those matches had plenty of time and build Monday, and both stories were told effectively. There will naturally be questions about whether unveiling Balor’s “Demon King” persona on a regular Raw was a wise choice, but as a vehicle to whet your appetite for SummerSlam it would be hard to think of something more appropriate. One other big positive? This week’s show was wrestling heavy, with nine matches broken up over the three hours. That means less painfully awkward backstage segments! All in all, a solid rebound from last week.

Best Match: Much has been made about showcasing a match right before the match will be on PPV, and rightly so, but with the Network equaling less concern over buy rates, it’s a trend that has been occurring more and more. Based on the amount of time creative has spent on it, and the fact that Rusev has closed Raw two weeks in a row, it’s clear that the WWE is trying hard to push the United States title as more than a secondary belt. It’s also been a very good location to stash Roman Reigns in order to avoid some of the obvious backlash that’s occurred since his return from suspension. This decision was incredibly easy, as Raw had plenty of one-sided contests this week, but I liked everything about this matchup. Rusev, furious about his ruined wedding recreation last week, demanded something be done and was “rewarded” with this match to close the show. He took advantage of a battered Reigns (courtesy of their brawl backstage earlier in the evening) and was booked very strongly before Reigns managed his classic comeback and got the victory. Because the Title was not on the line, it was perhaps predictable that Roman would win, but it does raise questions about how Sunday’s contest will go. And that’s the whole point. Solid work.

Worst Match: I’m not sure where WWE is headed with the Bob Backlund angle, but it’s done little to get fans any more emotionally invested in Darren Young. Considering that the tagline is making him great again, they are rapidly running out of time. I’d settle for making him relevant again. This week brought a temporary reunion of the Prime Time Players, which made little to zero sense considering they were feuding last week. WWE tried to explain it away with a backstage segment, but it felt forced and unnatural to me. Backlund apparently agreed that a match with The Shining Stars (remember them?!) would be the cure for all ills. Young accidentally ran into O’Neil, which caused Titus to drop him with the Clash of the Titus and walk off. This would have been a great way for this feud to start in the first place, but its timing and placement couldn’t have been more off. Zero heat for anything here. One of the most important things the brand split has to do is find a way to tell riveting secondary stories. Didn’t happen here.

Best Non-Wrestling Segment: As mentioned above, we were told that Seth Rollins would be calling out the Demon King Monday, and after a bunch of silly segments where he scoured the backstage area trying to find him, Mick Foley and Stephanie McMahon pointed out that the best place to call out a wrestler would be the one place Rollins apparently hadn’t considered: the ring. While that setup needed some work, the payoff was pretty good. Rollins called Balor a coward in a promo that held up despite a little bit of (mostly) not-shown fan interference, and then we got spooky video effects with the emergence of Balor’s Demon King persona. The two exchanged a few shots and Balor nailed a suicide dive that looked great. That led to Rollins making his escape in a well-done cowardly heel reversal while fans feasted their eyes on what they’re going to see Sunday. This showdown needed some juice after last week’s awkwardness, and we sure got it.

Worst Non-Wrestling Segment: The world seems divided into those who are loving the ongoing Heath Slater drama, and those that would rather watch static. You can count me among the latter. Slater lacks the chops to pull off any kind of honest angle here, and nobody regards him as a prized free agent after a year of being booked as an ongoing comedy segment. That leads to a strange environment where he thinks he’s way better than he is and is wasting our time as viewers being bandied between two shows that don’t need him. Brock Lesnar appearances are relatively rare on Raw, and his segment Monday promised to be white hot as he and Heyman responded to each guy landing their finisher on the other’s program two weeks ago. What we got was a complete waste as Slater interrupted, blathered on about nothing in particular for too long, and was decimated by Brock. Why did this happen? I have no idea. If it’s comedy, it wasn’t funny. If it’s drama, it wasn’t dramatic in the least. We knew Lesnar could squash Slater. Does that mean he’ll squash Orton? Not so much. I would hope you could find something better for The Beast Incarnate to do on weeks where he’s actually present.

“WTF?” Moment: All this discourse about the Divas Revolution is fantastic, but the brand split hasn’t done them any favors. While Nia Jax is crushing no-name opposition, new champion Sasha Banks is left to not even have a match and be reduced to commentary during challenger Charlotte’s extremely one-sided battle with Alicia Fox. The tease was that Charlotte had dumped Dana Brooke earlier, but Brooke was really still in league with Charlotte. Since the commentary desk is now all the way up the ramp, it’s painfully awkward when someone has to march down to the ring when summoned. And I’m not really sure what the whole Brooke angle was about since she’s banned from their Slam match anyway. There have to be better ways to use the talent in this division. Find them quickly.

Smackdown Live

Overview: Tuesday’s show also had two major jobs to do, which were to get us ready for Dean Ambrose’s World Title defense against Dolph Ziggler and add to the ongoing John Cena/Aj Styles feud, which took a backseat last week with both talents off the show. Those objectives were both met and bookended this week’s episode, with Ziggler and Ambrose opening on Miz TV while Cena closed things out with a renewed rivalry against the since-suspended Alberto Del Rio while AJ provided ringside commentary. While all of that was solid, the in between had some issues and reinforced Smackdown’s major problem. With only two hours and less talent brought in from the draft, they have yet to find their footing and build solid secondary feuds. Decent but not memorable overall.

Best Match: John Cena, like him or despise him, can certainly wrestle. The match to close out Smackdown was further evidence of that, and I liked that it finally gave Alberto Del Rio something useful to do. If anyone needed a reboot, it’s Del Rio, and the flashback showing him answering Cena’s US Open challenge underlined that point all the more. It’s unfortunate that Del Rio was suspended following this encounter, because it’s the best week he’s had in a while. He had a solid bitchy promo segment with AJ and delivered the goods in this match with Cena. It was well-crafted and exactly what you’d expect, solid work from solid hands. It also had just enough of Styles getting involved, keeping the focus on Sunday without having him wrestle. Strong way to end the evening.

Worst Match: Equally easy to decide, the neverending angle that is Eva Marie’s first Smackdown Live match took another turn for the boring Tuesday. Booked in a match against Naomi, Eva Marie got her normal bellowing ring entrance before the disembodied voice told us she had a flight delay and wouldn’t be available. Then the women that actually got something to do this week were interrupted during their tag match by Eva, who was chased down to ringside by Naomi in order to allow Becky to force Natalya to tap. Got all of that? Bottom line is we’re still “waiting” for Eva’s debut and caring less and less. As for Naomi, all she had to show for her new fancy ring entrance (very Y2J-esque, loved it!) was a big bag of nothing but wasted time.

Best Non-Wrestling Segment: Miz TV exists as a chance to remind us how annoying the current reigning Intercontinental champion is, which isn’t really necessary. But it’s usually pretty fun. The average segment consists of someone coming down ostensibly to talk to Miz and laying him out instead, but they took a break from it this week in order to allow Ambrose and Ziggler to have another stand-off. It’s been interesting to watch Dolph’s slight heel turn throughout this build, and he did some really strong work this week. Following Ambrose’s normal rantings, Ziggler took his promo to another level, bringing some serious intensity and volume into his voice. Unlike John Cena’s serious promo voice, it didn’t feel forced and added another level to the goings-on. Then he blasted the champ with a superkick truly OUT OF NOWHERE and things got very real very fast. Loved every bit of it. If we’re going to believe Dolph can win the title, he has to be presented well. He elevated his mic work and this was my favorite segment of the entire show. Well done by all involved. Even the Miz.

Worst Non-Wrestling Segment: A hearty congratulations to Heath Slater, who manages to nab this award by being in both of the worst non-wrestling segments on WWE television this week. Slater finally did the unthinkable and got a victory, albeit in pretty lame fashion when Randy Orton (who had set up the match in the opening promo) failed to follow the referee’s instruction and was disqualified. So both guys who are wrestling each other Sunday showed us how tough they are by beating up the One Man Band? Okay. Slater was all set to sign his contract when he mistakenly said mean things to Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon (like calling them their counterparts from Raw–perish the thought!) and it was taken away before he could sign. So the good guys are jerks whose word means nothing and Slater will be featured again next week? I think I’d rather have a concussion myself.

“WTF?” Moment: Much has been made early on of Bray Wyatt and Erick Rowan being on the same show, and already we’re being teased with Wyatt Family breakups again. Bray came down to ringside with the rocking chair in order to watch his family member wrestle Dean Ambrose, and Rowan actually did a serviceable job, putting on one of his best matches since he and Harper looked to have a serious shot to unseat the New Day as tag champions. After Ambrose got the victory, Bray took Rowan’s mask and left it on his chair, symbolically implying that he was done with the big man. How many times do we have to watch this unit get hot only to be dissembled? And please tell me we won’t find Rowan solving Rubik’s cubes in record time next week.

The Verdict

This was a tough week to call, as I enjoyed both main events and thought the brands evenly matched in terms of building SummerSlam’s contests. At the end of the day, though, I’ll take Monday Night Raw. Sami Zayn returned to do battle with Sheamus, Kevin Owens and Big Cass had a very good one-on-one encounter, and that closing match featuring Reigns and Rusev was a thing of beauty for anyone with an open mind.

Therefore, we are back at a stalemate with Raw and Smackdown deadlocked, 2-2. Who will gain the advantage after Sunday’s big show? You’ll have to check this space to find out.

After the Bell: Plenty of buzz has surrounded which talents the WWE will be bringing in to buttress their split rosters, and early returns have been mixed to say the least. With rumors of low-ball money, some of the names of the past that we’ve heard have seemingly found better things to do. There have also been unfortunate developments like the Shelton Benjamin situation, a name we’re rightly excited about sidelined due to injury just as he was to return. That has a lot to do with why the potential of Goldberg showing up at SummerSlam in some capacity have caught on like wildfire. A Goldberg redo with Lesnar would be a fantastic thing, potentially erasing the long memories of wrestling fans all over the globe and providing the WWE with a big name to help market the product. It could, however, also end up like Sting: a great idea on paper that never translates due to the passing of time and age. I would be less concerned with Goldberg than I would with how WWE handles the guys who will be in the locker room each and every week. It is those guys and gals that are the future of wrestling. Goldberg is great for a video game promotion, but buyer beware.

That’s all for this week. Thanks for checking out the Brand Split Breakdown! As always, leave YOUR thoughts and opinions on what the highlights and lowlights of WWE programming were this week and I’ll catch you next week after SummerSlam is done.

Twitter: @DharmanRockwell