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WWE Brand Split Breakdown: Week of 8/29/16 by Mike Holland

Both Monday Night Raw and Smackdown Live had big things in store this week, with the recently-vacated Universal Title being decided first and the follow-up to Talking Smack’s confrontation between GM Daniel Bryan and Intercontinental Champion The Miz airing on Tuesday. Both of those major stories would bring plenty of juice to the forefront of both shows, but would that initial momentum be enough to carry the week? With the cruiserweights due imminently to Raw and Backlash quickly approaching on the Smackdown side, we’ve reached a critical time for both brands to right the course of recent weeks and bring the ship back around. Who would accomplish this feat? And would either brand figure out how not to stall the excitement with endless promo time? Only one way to discover those answers. Let’s dig in!

Monday Night Raw

Overview: As mentioned above, Monday Night Raw being a draw this week was as much of a sure thing as you can get in the modern era. There was relatively little competition with football not being in season yet, and we were guaranteed to see the crowning of a brand new champion amongst the group of Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, Kevin Owens, and Big Cass. While the abrupt reign and departure of Finn Balor due to injury was a crucial blow toward Raw distinguishing itself from the blue brand, the right combination of solid ring work and buzz could go a long way toward regaining a potential lost foothold. There was also the small issue of building around the main event this week, as previous weeks had found a bit too much time in between, resulting in significant lag. Whether creative could counteract those issues and preserve what was expected to be a very solid match was the giant question going in.

Best Match: Well, this one’s likely not too hard to guess. The decision to turn the four-way battle into an elimination-style match prior to Monday’s Raw was a smart one, as it gave all four men more opportunity to shine and allowed for a longer contest to close the show. The match itself was pretty solid, with newcomer Big Cass being booked pretty strongly early against all odds. Once he was out of the game, however, things got very interesting. The remaining trio dodged finisher after finisher through a series of false finishes only to have one of the more unexpected endings in recent memory. Triple H, pretty much invisible from WWE programming since the Shane vs. Stephanie storyline, made his return and laid out Reigns with a Pedigree, allowing Rollins to roll him into the ring and eliminate him. That made the crowd happy, as Reigns had been booed as usual throughout the match. It also seemed to indicate a reunion of sorts for the Corporate Authority, as Commissioner Stephanie had indicated to Seth in an earlier backstage segment that he was going to have a good night.

Creative opted for the swerve, though, and Trips laid out Rollins with the same move before allowing a shocked Owens to score the pinfall and get his hand raised as new champion to close the show. While I certainly have some objections to the way this played out (which I’ll save until after the bell, so read on), there can be NO objection to the idea that this finally got people talking about Raw. It also opened up a slew of interesting possibilities in order to get the average viewer to set their eyeballs back to the product next week, from Owens’ interplay with his new savior to what it means to GM Mick Foley to whether Seth Rollins finally becomes a face after much rumor and speculation. You can’t close every week with a shocking moment, but this was a great example of how to get people buzzing about the product. In addition, all four guys looked like viable contenders before Owens won. You have to be thrilled for a guy built like KO being the representative of the newest big belt in WWE. How times have changed.

Worst Match: What’s worse than two more squash matches featuring Braun Strowman and Nia Jax? Well, if you’re talking about Monday Night Raw, it’s usually having to watch former teammates Darren Young and Titus O’Neil keep their rivalry going. The ex-Prime Time Players have frequently tried without success to make us care about either or both of them, and another installment of the snorefest was on tap this week, breaking up what was overall a pretty solid show when it came to actual wrestling. It wasn’t worse than Titus’s garbled blather last week, I’ll grant you, but that’s only because he did very little talking. Once again he pilloried Young pillar to post before Darren picked up the win out of nowhere, and once again O’Neil freaked out and left both Young and his mentor battered in the middle of the ring. Wake me when this gets interesting?

Best Non-Wrestling Segment: One of WWE’s biggest challenges has been getting folks to successfully transition their success from NXT into the main event spotlight of their big programs. Handing Balor the Universal Title with wins over Reigns and Rollins was an excellent start, and Raw has an advantage on the women’s side of the roster as well with the fact that Bayley was introduced essentially as a replacement to the injured Sasha Banks. Whether that unfairly impacts Sasha’s standing remains to be seen (let’s hope not), but Bayley has always gotten a fantastic crowd reaction and it was good to see that translating well on Monday. Her backstage interaction with The New Day was perfect for all involved. Over-the-top? Most definitely. And totally appropriate for all of their respective characters. I also liked that it found a way to incorporate Gallows & Anderson along with fellow NXT alumnus Dana Brooke, giving her something to do besides get berated by Charlotte (for a minute, anyway). The match was fun and that’s what Bayley has been all about. Not everything has to be super serious. Wrestling has always been at its best when it incorporates a bunch of different human emotions. I thought this was a terrific beginning.

Worst Non-Wrestling Segment: Unfortunately for the aforementioned Gallows & Anderson, things weren’t so rosy for them this week. Fresh off the endless string of largely unfunny promos where the formerly feared duo portrayed doctors trying to get at the testicles of the New Day members (that looks as bad writing it out as it was experiencing it), G&A were back. You can be happy that they discarded the medical gimmick, but don’t worry as they are now in the retirement home business. Other than an excuse to play up the odd Dudley Boyz angle last week and give Dana Brooke an opportunity to don a rubber glove (I’ll let you do the joke for that setup), I’m not quite sure what the point was. It likely goes without saying that the former Balor Club members lost another match, right? Any impetus they had from their heralded entrance right to the main roster from Japan has been frittered away at this juncture. At least DX’s recycled material is getting some airing. WWE is a green company, after all. Putrid.

“WTF?” Moment: In a week pretty stuffed with solid action for Raw (Chris Jericho went over Neville in an unsurprisingly solid match, and Sheamus took a 2-0 lead over Cesaro with a well-worked injury angle), a major component in the show managed to fall flat for me in the most unexpected of ways. WWE had told us that Brock Lesnar’s advocate Paul Heyman was being summoned to the ring to meet with Stephanie and discuss an “apology” for the position Stephanie was put in following Lesnar’s attack on her brother Shane at the end of SummerSlam. This had all the makings of an excellent segment, as Stephanie and Heyman’s rumored occasional backstage heat have translated very well when placing the two of them in the same ring for a segment. Heyman, always money on the mic, seemed a bit flustered when fans grew weary of discovering the point and started chanting for “ECW” and “CM Punk.” (Never a good sign during a talking segment.)

While I give Stephanie credit for her solid ad-lib dismissal of the ECW reference, everything else that followed was strange. Heyman started counting off single dollar bills to pay for Lesnar’s fine, Steph got offended, Heyman apologized as he said he was going to do, and Stephanie accepted it and stomped off while Paul had a look on his face that reminded me of Seinfeld’s Newman eyeing up that warm apple pie. What was the point? Who knows? I’m not sure if this didn’t come across the way they had planned or was just poorly conceived, but it was a waste of a couple of very good talkers and a big disappointment on an otherwise stacked show.

Smackdown Live

Overview: Smackdown also had a multi-pronged attack this week, as they had to set up each and every match for this month’s Backlash event as well as further advancing the tag team tournament to crown the brand’s first champions. With all of that said, though, it was the promised showdown between Miz and Daniel Bryan that seemed to garner the most attention. That sort of visceral and viral reaction is exactly the kind of catnip the blue brand needs, as everything from Shelton Benjamin’s injury to Alberto Del Rio’s suspension have seen them spinning their wheels a bit. Other than watching the electric Dean Ambrose as World champion, what’s been the main reason to tune in? Or, to pose another question: Could WWE successfully follow up a scripted segment that seemed all too real with some further blurring of the lines? They definitely had a tall order Tuesday night.

Best Match: John Cena (while present for a dark match) was once again kept off WWE television as they continue along with the angle that Mr. Never Give Up will do just that, which frankly is silly. I’d much rather they went with an injury angle like usual, since any logic is removed by anyone who reads the dirt sheets anyway. Cena’s absence has allowed for face favorites like Dolph Ziggler and Dean Ambrose to shine, and that trend continued this week. Ambrose, fresh off the feud with Ziggler, has stepped right into what should be an excellent encounter with Cena’s former rival AJ Styles, and they’ve sold it pretty well the last few weeks. AJ has really grown into his heel role, and that’s a good thing to see, because the company has had major problems with that of late.

This week’s main event saw Ambrose taking on Baron Corbin, which was a big deal mainly in that Corbin’s gotten a complete cold shoulder since his strong push when joining the roster. In theory Corbin should be one of Smackdown’s biggest draws, but he didn’t even wrestle on SummerSlam since his match was cut and he’s barely been seen on Smackdown Live since the draft. Like him or not, management appears high on him, and his match with Ambrose didn’t disappoint as both men were booked pretty strongly. If you guessed that this match existed to set up another AJ/Dean showdown, you’re correct. While that in itself didn’t add anything particularly new to the story, I liked that Corbin was also involved and pretty hostile towards Styles. That’s exactly what I want to see in my top heel. Styles is having issues with anybody and everybody up and down the roster, as it should be. For Ambrose, it was more solid work. He’s amazingly been as unheralded with the title as he was without it.

Worst Match: Smackdown got the better of the haul when it came to the tag team side of things, and yet their tournament has felt a bit underwhelming to me so far. This week would set up the other semifinal match, and it featured Heath Slater and Rhyno taking on a team not seen or heard from since the nineties in the Headbangers. While I didn’t love that match, I give the Bangers credit in that they found some time machine where they have managed to look essentially exactly the same and did a reasonable job in a must-lose scenario. Plus, I love Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. So there’s that. The other quarter final match was actually worse, in which The Hype Bros took on the Vaudevillains. Remember when English and Gotch debuted and seemed like they could be a legitimate threat? Now they might as well be squash talent of their own. They did manage to get a backstage promo leading up to the match, but the entertaining duo got demolished by a team that looks so cartoonish to me as to be in another dimension entirely. How is the final not going to be American Alpha against The Usos? Rather anticlimactic.

Best Non-Wrestling Segment: Not surprisingly, this kicked off the show. The very first thing we saw made no real sense, as after the package rehashing Talking Smack, we cut to Commish Shane McMahon telling his general manager that he was wrong and should apologize to The Miz (while simultaneously saying he agreed with everything Bryan said). Got it? After that political discourse, Bryan agreed that he was wrong and would apologize while simultaneously questioning whether Shane should be the one to dispense that advice given his own participation in the Lesnar/Orton post-match finish. Not sure where any of that was supposed to be going except to potentially sow the seeds of distrust between them, but whatever.

Bryan never apologized to Miz, but it didn’t stop Miz from delivering another solid promo to start the show. While it felt a bit forced at times (and pretty repetitive of what he’d already said more effectively the week before), it continues to put an edge to his goofy character that is very needed. It also allowed for WWE to try some blatant misdirection, as they brought Dolph Ziggler down to the ring as Miz’s next big opponent. Ziggler gained some credibility in vying for Ambrose’s belt, and his promos in particular were quite good. That continued here, as he got in Miz’s face and essentially made him run off like a coward after telling us he’s not a coward. Maryse was also very good in an understated role in this segment. While I don’t think it effectively spun off from what we were promised, it was a hell of a job by both guys and set up their Backlash battle nicely. I’ll take this Miz every week from now on.
Worst Non-Wrestling Segment: Oh, poor Heath Slater. Given that his segments have been pretty popular (though not necessarily with yours truly), you’d think a week which saw him effectively team with Rhyno to advance in the tag tournament and his effort to secure a contract would be a good one indeed. Unfortunately, WWE’s creative team has yet to learn that less is generally more, and we were treated to an interview from Slater’s “house” conducted by a realistically-uncomfortable-looking Renee Young that included all of Vince McMahon’s favorite tropes: bodily noises, trailer parks, cheese in a can, and fat women. Not many would be able to do anything with this rejected-from-Mad-Magazine-level material, but Slater’s timing and delivery was off and the whole thing went on way too long. Amazing that all this time is being spent from someone Shane and Daniel don’t even “want” on the roster. I will give some points to Rhyno, who was the best thing about this segment. His facial reactions were great, and the part where he subtly pulls the plate of chow away from Heath’s missus is magnificent. How about another match instead of this? There’s a thought.

“WTF?” Moment: You could very certainly make a case for the abrupt ending to the otherwise well-done Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton staredown, but I’ll give them a bit of a pass considering their actual storytelling during their build promo was well done on both sides. Wyatt is always a treat on the microphone, but Orton did a stellar job. I can’t say I really get this feud coming out of the Lesnar bloodbath, but let’s not look a gift viper in the mouth. No, the standout for this week was the very strange segment toward the end of the show when some random guy introduced himself in the ring, stripped to his unmentionables, and was chokeslammed by Kane. Even guest announcer Styles looked like he wanted to get an explanation. I don’t get what the Big Red Machine has against comedy since he’s participated in some of the most ridiculous angles ever, but I do appreciate him ending this oddball segue into the main event for the evening. Can’t wait to see Kane/Corbin in the battle of the shoulderblocks.

The Verdict: Since the inception of this column, it’s generally been pretty difficult selecting a winner. Not so this week, where Raw clearly and decisively took it down in just about every category. They definitely had a major advantage with the Universal Title being decided, but Triple H’s return and the ramifications involved created a buzz that hasn’t been seen much lately. Smackdown didn’t deliver on its biggest hype of the night, and generally faded into the background. Even the opportunity to watch AJ wrestle Apollo Crews fell a bit flat for me. They’ll have to do better leading into their first separated event. Raw takes their biggest lead yet, trumping Smackdown en route to a 4-2 lead.

After the Bell: As promised in the open, while I admire and applaud WWE’s interesting and buzzworthy way of ending Monday’s show, I’d be remiss not to discuss some of the things I didn’t like about it. The reintroduction of the Triple H character is fine, and there have been whispers of a Rollins/Trips showdown going back a long ways, but some of Kevin Owens’s credibility as a champion has to be diminished when he wins the title in this fashion. Considering it’s supposed to be the biggest title on the show (and second biggest overall given the World Title’s lineage) one would prefer it’s decided on its merits in the ring rather than being banded about with various hijinks and chicanery. Also, there’s the technical point that it’s the Pedigree and the Pedigree alone that is capable of beating anyone and everyone. (Granted, the one to Roman was delivered outside the ring, but you get the idea.) Triple H putting himself over at the expense of the talent is nothing new, and an unfortunate byproduct of telling a story at times, but it’s getting a bit ridiculous.

Interestingly, WWE appears to have capitulated to the calls of turning Seth Rollins face. He’s been cheered that way for a while now, but it’s mainly been because he’s usually in direct opposition to former Shield mate Roman Reigns. Since Reigns still has not made the obvious heel turn many have been calling for, it’s to be assumed Rollins fills the solid face role while Balor is out long term with injury that WWE was unlikely to place Sami Zayn or Cesaro in. This continues the mantra of WWE keeping their plans intact no matter the cost. We can only hope that Owens gets to add layers to his character in much the way Seth himself did, as he is the company’s best heel without question in my view. If this title becomes just another opportunity to turn the McMahon Empire into the focal point of the show, count me out. We’ll see what the coming weeks bring.

Thanks for reading this week’s breakdown and as always feel free to chime in with your thoughts on who won the week in the space below or via Twitter @DharmanRockwell.

We also get into it in depth each and every Thursday night on the Main Event Madness podcast, which can be found here. Tune in!