Now that the WWE brands are actively competing with each other, and with the emphasis very much on how well the company is utilizing its talents to put on a great show and future proof of the product, it’s time to start reviewing just how well the talent is faring in this new era.
And so begins TPB’s Brand Wars series.
The rules are simple: Each week, TPB will decide which talents flourished, and which talents floundered. The brand with the most flourishers (or with the fewest flounderers if it’s a really bad week) will be declared the winner. In the coming weeks, don’t be too outraged if Finn Balor and Dean Ambrose are regularly topping lists. Anybody maintaining a high quality of performance doesn’t need mentioning, this is about the people who are stepping up their game, or beginning to slip to the bottom of the deck.
5. Flourished: Cesaro (+1 for Raw)
It was a masterstroke on WWE’s part to give a half kayfabe, half realistic reason for the “Swiss Superman’s” low standing in the draft pick. Are you going to go clamoring after a guy with a shoulder that is barely staying in its socket? It lessens the sour taste in the WWE Universe’s mouth, and shows that, behind-the-scenes Cesaro, has not been forgotten. It also came as a huge relief when Cesaro, was put into a singles match with a decent worker in Sheamus, with a decent time limit, and with free rein to bask in the spotlight for a bit. It certainly makes a huge change to Cesaro waiting for his turn to perform 47 European uppercuts in succession, before inevitably being knocked out of the ring and losing whatever 19-man ladder match he’d been shoehorned into that week. It hasn’t worked out so well for Sheamus, but he has been plummeting at free-fall speed for months now anyway, so he isn’t worth mentioning on this list. With the U.S. Championship picture fully cast for the next few weeks, we mustn’t expect a meteoric ascension from Cesaro, but a steady program with Sheamus ought to slowly rebuild his stock.
5. Floundered: Braun Strowman (-1 for Raw)
Strowman gave short, violent shrift to another local competitor. Squash matches aren’t a bad thing per se, but only if the guy doing the squashes is interesting enough to pique the curiosity of the fans. Unfortunately, Strowman just isn’t cutting it in that department. The biggest issue is that, unlike Nia Jax, he isn’t new to mainstream WWE fans, who have already seen him lose matches, and his moveset. Mainstream WWE fans have also seen cookie-cutter big guys flatten jobbers, pin them and shout “arghhh!” a 1000 times before. What they haven’t seen is any particular versatility in his move-set, as we saw with Brock Lesnar, or a marketable personality, as we saw with Goldberg and Ryback. It’s saying something when the jobbers you’re squashing are becoming a bigger online hit, and deemed more worthy of a push, than you are.
4. Flourished: Roman Reigns (+2 for Raw)
Roman Reigns has been hanging on to his spot by the skin of his teeth ever since the WWE suddenly realized that he was being booed into oblivion everywhere he went. Violating the wellness policy in the middle of a huge storyline didn’t do him any favors, either. However, he seems to have narrowly avoided being summarily disowned and thrown into the trash in the same way that, say, Sheamus has. It is a masterstroke to put him in the U.S. title picture with Rusev; not only does it show that “The Guy” is still bringing his game and hunting different gold, it is also impossible, surely, to cheer for Rusev, whose anti-USA gimmick is the oldest heat-generating trick in the book.
4. Floundered: The Club (-2 for Raw)
Will The Club ever win a match? They were mentioned on last week’s list in a positive light because of their impressive beatdown on The New Day. They were also, for once, dominant, coming out on top in a 2-on-3 fight. Cut to this week, and they cleanly lost a match, in a very short amount of time, to the guys they’re presumably going to be facing at SummerSlam. If The Club can cleanly lose to The New Day, then what in the hell gives them the right to remain in the tag team title picture? And what exactly is going to be different when they square off at the end of the month? Sure, they scored another beatdown on The New Day after the match, but the point of a beatdown is that it leaves you wondering who will come out on top on a bell-to-bell basis, and we already know now that it’s The New Day.
3. Flourished: Titus O’Neil (+3 for Raw)
The former Florida Gator showed some promising signs when he was put into a program against Rusev for the U.S. Championship. But for whatever reason, that run as cut short in favor of Zack Ryder’s latest failed attempt to save his career. He has been in dire need of something to even do, and putting him into a feud with Darren Young might turn out to be just what he needs. Darren Young’s return started out all guns blazing when he immediately found himself in the running for The Miz’s IC title, but with the awesome one now on SmackDown and the U.S. title firmly in the sights of Roman Reigns, placing him into a feud with a “former friend” in Titus might just be a fun little run to play around with. Sure, a showdown between the Prime Time Players isn’t exactly going to scale the heights of the breakdown of The Shield, but it’s a match between good workers and entertaining personalities.
3. Floundered: American Alpha (-3 for SmackDown)
It’s about time we got to some SmackDown Superstars. Unfortunately, the blue brand is kicking off its contribution to the Brand Wars with a fairly nasty loss in TPB’s eyes. It isn’t actually a poor performance that has earned American Alpha a negative spot on this list (their debut as highly impressive, as they bounded onto the scene and put on a highly entertaining, competitive display with The Vaudevillains). The issue is, The Vaudevillains have been booked into the sewers, and the rest of the tag team division on SmackDown actually ranks even lower in terms of credibility. As such, AA’s push may have been completely killed off before it has even started. There’s an easy win over The Ascension and BreezeAngo to go before American Alpha has absolutely no place to go. There still isn’t even a title for them to go after.
2. Flourished: Dean Ambrose (+4 for SmackDown)
“The Lunatic Fringe” is not maintaining the high quality of his work – he’s attaching stronger rocket boosters to it with each passing week. His promo work with Dolph Ziggler was an example of how he can get pretty nasty to almost anybody, but also still remain over with the crowd. Couple that with his professed admiration of the show-off, as well as his heroism in attempting to save him from a beatdown at the hands of The Wyatt Family, and we have one of the most well rounded “tweener” figures since Stone Cold Steve Austin. Ambrose is compelling viewing even when he isn’t wrestling. He is a rare one who can maintain his authority at the top without having to walk the walk every week.
2. Floundered: Eva Marie (-4 for SmackDown)
Whoever is booking SmackDown right now ought to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. With Raw’s women constantly making up for years of stagnation within the division and re-energizing women’s wrestling, there really is no excuse at all for SmackDown to fail quite so astoundingly, astonishingly, uncompromisingly appallingly. Eva Marie already has a lot of heat for her shortcomings in a wrestling ring. We all know that the WWE likes to troll its fans occasionally, but centering Eva’s gimmick around the fact that she literally cannot wrestle is a step too far. It still isn’t entirely clear whether or not this was a work – and maybe that’s a good thing. But if it was, then it was a complete slap in the face to everybody watching. The choice between Natalya and Eva was a hard one, but Natalya has been running in and ruining matches for quite some time, now. Eva Marie doesn’t even have the confidence of the WWE audience, and booking her to literally not bother wrestling is generating all the wrong kind of heat.
1. Flourished: Dolph Ziggler (+5 for SmackDown)
For a company that gets things so wrong on so many occasions, the WWE sure is capable of getting things right – to perfection. Dolph Ziggler’s one-man mutiny on this week’s SmackDown was an example of that. Whether it was on the mic, backstage or in the ring, “The Showoff” did not disappoint when he finally got his opportunity to, well, show off. His “screw the world” anger on the mic, and his willingness to bend the rules and unleash a vicious streak on Bray Wyatt was electrifying. Not only that, it was character development at its finest. We didn’t endure endless promo cutting and wooden speeches. Ziggler talked the talk, and by the end of the night he had walked the walk. Ziggler’s resurgence has also been helped in no small part by Dean Ambrose, whose laid back dismissal of Ziggler’s abilities was a perfect foil to his eager-to-please tenacity.
1. Floundered: Heath Slater (-5 for Raw and SmackDown)
Hey, WWE, do you remember when the fans were screaming for Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, Dean Ambrose and Dolph Ziggler to be treated as serious competitors, and you did and it worked out really well? Maybe you could do that for Heath Slater as well, because, while you’re having a hoot having Mick Foley, Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan defecate on him every time he shows up, everyone else just thinks that you’re being a bit of a jerk for no reason. WWE’s programming is not scripted months in advance. Indeed, the formats are known to change hours before the shows go to air if a wrestler’s stock is rising or falling at a certain rate. Everyone absolutely hated the bloated and insignificant Rhyno breaking him in half out of nowhere, and nobody was particularly elated to see Jinder Mahal return to the company at Slater’s expense. The WWE fans love nothing more than a guy who works his ass off and turns every crappy card he’s dealt into a royal flush, and they hate nothing more than seeing that guy being humiliated. What started out as an exciting return when he first showed up last week on Raw has turned into what the fans can only assume is Heath Slater’s latest run of five second failures.
It’s been a bad week. SmackDown comes in at -3 points, while Raw skyrockets ahead with a whopping -2 points. Oh dear. Raw wins, but it is a pyrrhic victory: pound for pound, SmackDown was actually the better show this week for its top card and the efforts of Ziggler, Ambrose, Wyatt, Cena and Styles. Raw only comes out on top because of a well developed mid-card, women’s and tag team division that actually produces matches and feuds worth watching. It screwed up for being long winded and lacking in stacked competition, but didn’t blithely drop quite as much of its talent into the gutter as SmackDown.
Meanwhile, the likes of Jericho, Owens, Zayn, Banks, Charlotte and Balor continued to deliver the goods. But both shows need to work on having more wrestling matches (it literally happened last week on Raw; it isn’t beyond their capabilities) of a decent length, and way less superfluous talking. The trouble is, Raw has the muscle to do it. SmackDown has yet to address a single one of the concerns that had doomed it to fail from the moment the draft finished.