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WWE Brand Split Breakdown: Week of 8/22/16 by Mike Holland

Last week the breakdown pulled even with the string of so-so shows leading into SummerSlam preventing either brand from gaining much traction in their pseudo-war. Sunday’s big event didn’t do much to help matters, resulting in a title changing hands ostensibly due to injury and a new Universal champion being crowned only to hand it over due to the same issue Monday evening. Short of Brock Lesnar’s odd MMA-style beatdown of Randy Orton and a five-star affair between John Cena and AJ Styles, there just wasn’t as much buzz as we might have hoped coming out of the weekend. Maybe it had something to do with the five hour runtime? Just a thought. In any case, while The Beast got the duke Sunday by laying out both Smackdown representative Orton and his storyline boss Shane McMahon, it remained to be seen if his show would do the same. Let’s get to the details.

Monday Night Raw

Overview: It was a tough moment for many fans this week as the open brought us the old reliable ring full of stars who would be vying for the suddenly vacated championship of Finn Balor. Much in the same way our emotions were pulled in many directions when Daniel Bryan captured gold only to hand it over due to injury, any positive thoughts of WWE potentially heading in a different direction were somewhat muted when a tournament to crown a replacement featured some all-too-familiar names. One good thing about this week’s show? There seemed to be a lot more wrestling. We also got the long-awaited debut of an extremely popular NXT superstar (more on that later), a teased retirement by a legendary tag team (more on that too), and a disturbing intro to this week’s Braun Strowman squash match. That’s a lot of show to be packed into three hours.

Best Match: Following the overly long and confusing promo to open the show, the action started immediately with Seth Rollins squaring off against Sami Zayn. Zayn, a crowd favorite who couldn’t even find his way onto the main SummerSlam card, proved just how valuable a cog he is becoming in the WWE machine by putting on a great show against Sunday’s loser in Rollins, who always seems to deliver no matter where he’s placed on the card. There were quite a few things to like in this match, starting with WWE keeping the Kevin Owens/Zayn feud in the forefront with KO’s distraction allowing the heel Rollins to land some cheap shots early. Zayn did a great job selling a leg injury (almost a lost art in wrestling at this point), and that was all the more meaningful due to Balor’s injury at Seth’s hands the evening before. Zayn was booked solidly in a losing effort, but took some big strides in showing he is more than capable of delivering at a main event level. Given WWE’s ongoing challenges with getting Roman Reigns over, those noises should hopefully not fall upon deaf ears.

Worst Match: It seems hardly a week goes by where the Women’s Division doesn’t get mentioned in this space, and that’s unfortunate, because the talent level overall has never been higher. Those scales tip to the blue side of the ledger, though, and it didn’t help Raw’s chances that Sasha Banks lost her belt back to former titleholder Charlotte rather unceremoniously due to injury. Charlotte’s promos are still really rough, but you have to give credit where it’s due: she is more than capable of holding her own in the ring. The same unfortunately cannot be said for Dana Brooke, who is effective as Charlotte’s valet but needs some grooming inside the squared circle. Nowhere was that more evident than Monday, where she was used to lay the groundwork for new roster member Bayley’s rise to the top. Bayley did a decent enough job, but wasn’t able to carry this short match, and frankly it just looked ugly at times. It has to be frustrating to keep getting close to a real revolution only to take a few steps back at the precipice. Looking forward to Charlotte/Bayley though.

Best Non-Wrestling Segment: I thought the work Finn Balor did at the top of the show was second to none. Balor really did an excellent job in his match with Rollins at SummerSlam, using his distinct style well against his opponent and getting the crowd emotionally invested in the outcome of it. His entrance (particularly for those who’d never seen it before) was notable and felt different. Balor obviously took a nasty hit or two during the match, but his capturing of the new Universal Championship seemed to signal a changing of the guard that was a relief. Through no fault of his own, however, it wasn’t to be, and the poignant and melancholy sight of another fallen fan favorite handing over the gold to his corporate bosses could have been the stuff of nightmares. Instead, Finn somehow made it fun. He actually looked joyful as he thanked people and reminded us that he would be even more driven upon his return. I can’t say I adored the rest of the segment, which was overstuffed and illogical, but it gets the nod from me due to the stellar work of the man who would be Demon King. You have to be excited about what the future holds for this guy. He carried himself like a champion, briefly but boldly.

Worst Non-Wrestling Segment: It’s not even close this week, as we got another chapter in the story that nobody on the planet cares about: Titus O’Neil’s feud with former partner Darren Young. O’Neil absolutely butchered his promo where he tried in vain to relate the story of how the breakup of the Prime Time Players was the best day in his life. Eventually and mercifully, it was Young’s manager Bob Backlund who came out to answer the challenge of O’Neil. We were briefly treated to the endlessly excellent sight of Mr. Backlund dressed in formal wear and applying a chicken wing to Titus before reality won the day. I’m all for developing the second tier of the roster, but this was pretty much interminable. Access to a working microphone should only be granted to those who can use it.

“WTF?” Moment: I was really intrigued by the teaser leading up to Monday night’s show regarding the status of the Dudley Boys. Bubba and D-Von had both hinted at leaving the company on social media, making us speculate that perhaps they would be finished as a team. That was a notion blatantly pushed by WWE in recent weeks, as the legendary duo suffered communication issues over and over. The Dudleys did have their brief moment in the sun, but were interrupted in rather idiotic fashion by The Shooting Stars (no heat whatsoever) and then laid out by Gallows & Anderson (definite effective heat, but no reason to start this feud while The New Day are still champions). What made it worse was we learned after the show that no contracts were signed for whatever reason so this truly was the Dudleys’ (current) swan song. I admit to being a fan of this pair all the way back to their ECW days, but they played their roles like great soldiers helping the next generation come along and I can’t help but feel they deserved a better sendoff. You’re telling me there’s not room for them on the Raw roster right now? Odd indeed.

Smackdown Live

Overview: Smackdown’s story was a bit easier to tell this week, as John Cena’s leave of absence to film a second season of the horrid hot mess that is American Grit allows him to step out of the title picture and make way for his chief rival, AJ Styles, to feud with World champion Dean Ambrose. That is definitely a match most people are anticipating to say the least. Smackdown balanced a few things on the program, as they officially introduced their own tag team and women’s titles (fortunately not named the Galactic and Solar System belts) and started to put their first brand event, September’s Backlash, into a bit more focus. As builds go, it was pretty good. And, no worries: we got major developments on the Heath Slater front. And this time they didn’t even make fun of concussions!

Best Match: It might be Smackdown’s more limited roster that makes it obvious, but the last match on this brand has generally been the best and this week was not an exception. Smackdown has done a far better job overall at building their big match throughout the whole show, and that trend also continued Tuesday. AJ was in fine heel form, kicking off the show with digs at Cena and Ziggler and cementing his status as the main baddie on the blue brand. Really, he’s done remarkably well in this role since making the turn. That led to another dustup between the two during the title unveilings and a match to close the show. The stipulation was if Ziggler won AJ’s shot at Ambrose’s belt would turn into a triple threat. Ziggler was booked really well in a losing effort and both guys demonstrated their chops. Unbelievable to think Dolph was buried in the midcard a couple of months ago.

Worst Match: Lots of questions surrounded Nikki Bella’s return to the ring at SummerSlam, and most of them centered around how they would best incorporate her back into storylines as a heel character since she left firmly on the face side of the ledger. The answer came in the form of a random double turn prior to her scheduled match with Carmella. Nikki was being interviewed when Carmella attacked her from behind, not allowing the match to ever take place. It remains to be seen how WWE will book this program, and they could certainly give Carmella some motivation to do it, but it felt totally random and forced. If creative wanted to take this approach they should have just done it on Sunday. Carmella was brought to the brand as a face and never had a chance to explore it before being pushed to the side for a returning veteran. Nothing “new” about that. Disappointing.

Best Non-Wrestling Segment: The story of Heath Slater has been a long and winding tale, and as readers of this space know I haven’t enjoyed quite a bit of it. This week’s adventures, though, were quite good. Slater confronted Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon about their lack of a contract following last week’s big win and was given an opportunity to participate in the tournament to crown new tag team champions, with the catch being that he would have to find a partner first. That sort of thing is generally comic vignette gold, and so it was this time around, with Slater being rebuffed by The Miz and a typically stellar stoic Arn Anderson cameo before finding his oddball partner in Rhyno. Slater seems at his best when he’s got a partner in his corner, so here’s hoping this storyline wraps up soon and gives him a chance to back it up in the ring.

Worst Non-Wrestling Segment: If you were wondering what to make of Randy Orton’s bloodied finish Sunday, you’re not alone. Clearly this was a big focal point, and you can imagine the anticipation of what The Viper would say by the time Smackdown rolled around to his introduction. That anticipation turned to confusion as Orton essentially said he’d get his revenge only to be interrupted by Bray Wyatt and his light tricks. While it was a well-known rumor that Orton and Wyatt were planned to have a program, creative seems even more all over the place with Bray’s character since he was shipped to Smackdown. His teased break with Erick Rowan wasn’t addressed, and he made his usual cryptic remarks before disappearing. Wyatt is always a welcome sight, but this felt like unfinished business more than solid work. Wyatt keeps attempting to be menacing but rarely wins a damn thing. Let’s hope this has better times ahead.

“WTF?” Moment: Speaking of the Lesnar match, if you found his post-destruction layout of Shane McMahon a bit out of place, I can’t really blame you. That led to an awkward backstage segment this week where Shane questioned whether his sister Stephanie truly felt she had punished Brock by levying a $500 fine on him. You get the sense that WWE was trying to play this up so it felt real, but it really came across as silly. They’ve storyline suspended people before for doing the same thing, so we didn’t need Shane to point out the inconsistency. There are some real issues right now in how the authority figures are being portrayed week to week. I expect it will eventually come down to the sibling battle that led to this whole thing in the first place, but hopefully we’re not venturing into some kind of Shane vs. Lesnar match. There’s simply no reason to do it when much more viable and watchable opportunities exist.

The Verdict

Both shows had some things going for them this week, but I felt Monday Night Raw gained a distinct advantage with the amount of solid wrestling they featured. In addition to the Zayn/Rollins match, we got Kevin Owens against Neville (very good), Chris Jericho versus Roman Reigns (solid as expected), and Big Cass facing Rusev (goofy finish but effective enough). That’s a healthy dose of talent fighting in one evening, and the stakes were high with the vacated belt to start the show. Smackdown gets some points for telling a solid title story of their own, but didn’t have enough juice to compete this week. My unscientific tally awards the point to Raw and gives them a 3-2 advantage in the battle of the brands.

After the Bell: One of the few big wins coming out of Smackdown’s side of the ledger overall since the split is the fact that they are presenting their after-show, Talking Smack, as a must-see each week. That’s critical, because as the shorter of the two shows, there are definitely angles and stories to explore outside of the lines. It also makes the show feel different, which is supposed to be the point after all. I know it sounds like a bad AMC knockoff, but believe me, there’s some good stuff here. That was especially true this Tuesday, when Intercontinental champion The Miz made a “surprise” appearance during a discussion with Daniel Bryan and delivered his best promo of all time. Miz is often comically goofy on the microphone, but this felt very heated and real and exploited the history between the two men effectively. As a viewer, you really bought that both men felt the way they did. Bryan walking off and the show ending early added to the genius of this segment.

Part of me really wishes this was on the show proper, but I got the sense it was a nod to the more hardcore wrestling fan who would tune in to something like that on the Network and would likely get more out of the segment and its references. I personally think the content of this was less important than the delivery, and I was impressed. Wrestling is at its best when it plays to your emotions, and this hit all the right buttons. Regardless of whether Daniel Bryan ever wrestles again, his legend is clear and obvious. His willingness to put even his greatest passions out there for public critique and discussion proves his point that he truly and deeply loves the business. I close this week’s installment with a truly wonderful example of emotion in wrestling. More of this please!