Most agree that after a few weeks of the post-brand split WWE that Raw’s been superior to SmackDown Live. Given the nature of the draft, with Raw receiving three picks for every two SmackDown had, and WWE’s not-so-subtle favoritism toward the flagship show, that’s not exactly a shock.
That said, SmackDown hasn’t been all bad. Guys like Dolph Ziggler and Bray Wyatt have flourished in elevated roles. Along with that, promising youngsters like American Alpha, Apollo Crews and Baron Corbin have received a greater share of the spotlight than they likely would on Raw.
But there’s still work to be done to get SmackDown on equal footing with Raw. One man who can help in that regard is Alberto Del Rio and that’s something that the WWE appears to realize. At least if Tuesday’s show is any indication.
Del Rio squared off with Randy Orton on the latest episode of SmackDown. That’s a match which, in the not so distant past, could’ve headlined pay-per-view cards. The two Superstars, after all, have combined for 16 world championship reigns. In 2016, however, it’s not quite at that level.
Del Rio’s WWE return started off strong, with a clean victory over John Cena. It wouldn’t take long for his momentum to stagnate, though. In the months since returning, Del Rio’s lost a rivalry to Kalisto and served as Roman Reigns’ punching bag in the League of Nations.
It wasn’t that long ago that Del Rio was seen as a star in the WWE. He earned numerous championships and high-profile wins against the likes of John Cena and CM Punk. Near the end of his first WWE tenure, he seemed to lose direction. As noted, not much has changed in his second go-round with the pro wrestling mogul.
But the WWE took a small step toward rectifying that during Del Rio’s SmackDown match with Orton. The two Superstars had an entertaining, back-and-forth clash. Del Rio, somewhat surprisingly, dominated much of the action. Eventually, he’d snap and pummel Orton’s bad shoulder with chair shots.
The end result was still what many expected from the moment the match was announced. Orton stood tall after felling Del Rio with an RKO. That’s fine, Orton has a showdown with Brock Lesnar on the horizon. He needs to head into it looking strong, and besting a former champion in Del Rio is a smart way to do it.
The important thing, for Del Rio at least, is that he came out of the match looking dangerous.
Who are the stars on SmackDown? John Cena and Orton, of course. But those two are at a point in their careers where they won’t be every-week presences. Beyond them, the top names are Ziggler, Wyatt, Dean Ambrose and AJ Styles. That’s a good core, but not enough to carry the brand. That’s where Del Rio should come in.
At present, Del Rio’s one of the only other legitimate title contenders on the blue brand. Sure, Corbin and Crews can get there, but few see them as legitimate foes for Ambrose, Ziggler or whoever might be WWE Champion right now. With the right booking, Del Rio can be.
Del Rio’s one of the strongest in-ring workers in the company. He’s got a good, and frankly hate-able look, and cuts a decent promo. He showed against Orton that he could conceivably go toe-to-toe with the best in the business. On SmackDown, the well of championship contenders will eventually dry out and Del Rio could be the WWE’s ace in the hole.
At 39, Del Rio might not be long for professional wrestling. In this interview with SB Nation, he said he expects to go for another three to five years. The WWE may have bungled his first stint, but it’s got more than enough time to salvage the second. And, for the sake of SmackDown, it almost has to.