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WWE Brand Split Breakdown: Week of 10/17/16 by Mike Holland

After a week where the Brand Split Breakdown suffered more computer issues than Julian Assange, we’ve returned with another full dose of the best and worst of this week’s WWE eyeball war. Things were interesting to say the least heading into this week’s programming, as Raw was built around one of the more heralded returns in professional wrestling history while Smackdown took the opposite tack and centered their program around a championship match for the very surprising cult favorite James Ellsworth. With the news broken last week that Survivor Series would have an even bigger feel with brand-on-brand action, we simply couldn’t be at a different place for both red and blue. That differentiation is a good thing.

Monday Night Raw

Overview: Let’s face it, Monday’s show will always be about the closing segment; Goldberg making his return to Monday Night Raw felt like a huge moment both because it quite literally was and because the WWE set their full marketing machine on making it one. To their credit, it felt different from most of what Raw has been about even prior to the brand split. Unfortunately, it’s likely that has as much to do with Goldberg’s presentation and goals as it does their attempts to make it Trump yuge. More on that after the bell. The rest of the evening reminded us of what we’re likely to get with the always-interesting Hell in a Cell matches and teased even more friction between Superfriends Chris Jericho and Universal champion Kevin Owens.

Best Match: Well, it wasn’t close. One of Raw’s more irritating tendencies even before the brands broke up was starting the show with a long promo segment, and this week continued the trend. Not sure how creative consistently misses that cramming lots of dialogue in the very beginning of an already more-than-three-hour overstuffed show could have the opposite effect of its intention, but there it is. The best thing about this week’s opening JeriKO segment was that it led to the always-exciting prospect of Seth Rollins doing battle with Jericho himself as the first match on Raw. Every time Jericho steps into the ring these days I am equal parts excited to witness his efforts and concerned about who will fill the void when his Fozzy schedule resumes. As for Rollins, the sillier aspects of his post-Authority character appear to be behind him and he’s always proven a capable hand in the squared circle.

The match itself played up the previously mentioned aspects of the lover’s quarrel brewing between the two besties, as Owens ignored Jericho’s request to stay backstage and wandered down to ringside (complete with theme music blaring) to see the festivities for himself. The match had been pretty back and forth to that point, with Jericho controlling the action for decent stretches of time. It looked like the Walls would claim Seth as a victim, particularly with KO pulling the bottom rope tantalizingly out of reach, but predictably he ended up causing more distraction to Jericho en route to being finished off with the Pedigree and left for dead by his buddy again. Not much to complain about when these two do battle, but it’s been stuck in neutral for several weeks now.

Worst Match: If one of your wildest dreams is to witness the bottom tier of the Raw roster face off against each other in a six-man tag match, the genie hooked you up this week. Also, thanks for reading, Teddy Long! I’ve run down everything that’s wrong about the new Titus O’Neil character for the past few reviews, but there’s always space for more. At its core, taking a guy that looks bigger and meaner than everyone and having his gimmick be his new character that always loses makes zero sense and is a waste of time. He teamed with the Jobbing Stars to make the tired triumvirate of “he’s still on the roster?!” Mark Henry and the karaoke kings Golden Truth. Rather than describe the match, I’ll just tell you it was caused when the Stars ripped off Cryme Tyme’s history of selling dubious backstage merchandise of questionable origin. Want some positives? It was short, and Mark Henry got to win once this calendar year. I liked him far better when he was evil and not retiring.

Best Non-Wrestling Segment: The last segment of the show was the one guaranteed to get the most buzz Tuesday morning, and it certainly helped Raw’s ratings as Goldberg got the star treatment coming down to the ring to speak with Michael Cole. There was plenty to like about this going in, as Brock Lesnar’s mouthpiece Paul Heyman had appeared via satellite previously to let Goldberg know in no uncertain terms he should not take his client up on his offer. Heyman didn’t do much here, but he didn’t have to, and not having him face down Goldie without Lesnar to back him up made sense. They built it up throughout the evening showing various vignettes from Goldberg’s history, and had pretty much the entire locker room standing in the hallways while he made the trek out to the ring in an homage to WCW’s unique presentation of his character. It was all as well done as you’d expect for something meant to get people talking.

The promo from Goldberg himself more than made up for the lack of polish after so much time away with its honest emotion. To watch a guy his size take more than a minute to gather himself is pretty special, even more so with his wife and young son at ringside. Goldberg teased not accepting for a minute (not that anyone bought it) before saying Lesnar would be next and would also be last. Pretty effective tagline. While this whole situation might have been built around an attempt to sell a video game, Goldberg’s motives seemed even more obvious: he was entirely focused on interacting with the young fans around ringside and seemed more taken with that than advancing the angle he was scripted to. Honest moments don’t happen often in wrestling. This was one.

Worst Non-Wrestling Segment: I dream of a world where I don’t have to endure Roman Reigns and Rusev segments every week, and then I’m jolted to the sad reality that that is a world far, far away from this one. It’s nothing against either the Bulgarian Brute or the United States champion themselves, really, it’s just that they’ve been fighting for months over things like wedding cake and destination wedding photos. Hardly the stuff of legend, and combined with the notable fact that they’ve been having Roman act like a heel while not wanting fans to boo him is head-scratching to put it mildly. We got another dose Monday evening, with Rusev coming out to show us his extended family in a series of clips that he introduced rather hilariously, only for Roman to appear and interrupt. Reigns got the bad side of the exchange, taking a slap from Lana and a solid superkick from Rusev himself before getting trapped in the Accolade. I’d rather be in it myself than see any more of this poorly done treacly nonsense.

“WTF?” Moment: While I fully confess to being super excited over the prospect of Women’s Champion Sasha Banks defending her title against Charlotte within the unfriendly confines of HIAC, one of the more unfortunate side effects of that has been the utter eradication of the momentum for former NXT standout Bayley. While both Banks and Charlotte sat down with Lita and did an admirable job getting the juices flowing for their big battle (Charlotte in particular owned her character and really raised the stakes), Bayley came fresh off a week where she was sneak attacked and left laying by Dana Brooke and smack dab into a loss in an oddly short match with Charlotte’s second that saw her head hit the turnbuckle. I assume that program is to continue, but I can’t help but place Bayley neck-and-neck with Enzo and Big Cass in the contest for most stalled passion. Why does the red brand insist on delighting in not giving the audience what they want to see and cheer? It’s frustrating and silly. Bayley deserves better, and so do we.

Smackdown Live

Overview: Where Raw’s red brand has generally focused on one big moment with time to tell a couple other big stories with their extra hour, Smackdown’s blue brand has found itself in the classic “blessing and a curse” situation simultaneously with having much longer stories week to week but abbreviated action inside the ring. This week was no different, as multiple leadins to AJ Styles defending his belt against the upstart Ellsworth seemed a far bigger focal point that anything else besides Randy Orton and Bray Wyatt’s parlor tricks. Unfortunately, John Cena’s absence does seem to take a toll on Tuesday nights in a major way.

Best Match: As I’ve stated many times in the BSB, the best feud in the WWE (and perhaps all of wrestling) in the past few months has unquestionably been The Miz and Dolph Ziggler. My fears that things were coming to a close with Ziggler winning the I-C Title and avoiding premature retirement appear to have been unfounded, as Smackdown has continued their trend of keeping things simmering by having Miz continue the battle in an effort to reclaim his perceived lost glory. I also confess a perverse pleasure of seeing the Spirit Squad be more than just a one-off appearance as they’ve remained by Miz’s side to torment the new champ. I never liked them the first time around, but they are just lame enough to be appreciated by me in retrospect.

That led to what in my mind was the best match of an admittedly below-average bunch, with Miz and the two Squadders taking on Ziggy Stardust and the Tag Team Champions Heath Slater and Rhyno, set up last week when the latter two saved Dolph from further nefarious beatings. (Rhyno has been comedy gold, incidentally; gotta love the understated stuff.) This match appeared to be about both continuing Miz’s attempt to regain the upper hand while positioning the Spirit Squad as title contenders, with distraction proving costly in the loss for the good guys. I can’t say the champs looked too great here, but Smackdown has proven a bit indifferent to their reign anyway. Good way to change up the plot but keep the actors the same.

Worst Match: Jack Swagger’s debut on Smackdown Live was supposed to feel like a big thing, despite the fact that it was hastily tossed together the day before on Raw and featured zero hype from a fanbase that’s used to seeing the big boy from Oklahoma job, job, job. His first major feud with Lone Wolf Baron Corbin provided at least the appearance of drama, as Corbin was presented as a coup for Smackdown’s leadership but hasn’t shown much worthy of that thought. Their match at No Mercy was decent but underwhelming, a portent perhaps of things to come. You’d imagine, then, that a rematch Tuesday might feature a get-even opportunity for Swags. Instead it was a brief battle with Corbin trouncing the former golden boy, another road trip to nowhere. Even with only two hours, there’s no excuse for tossing together matches just to pretend you’ve done your part. Not sure why they bothered bringing Swagger aboard. They could have used Kalisto for this.

Best Non-Wrestling Segment: So help me, I actually appreciated the fact that this week they added a layer or two to the backstory between Carmella and Nikki Bella, another feud that’s been quietly simmering on the back burner while the bigger recipes get worked on. Carmella’s battle has been a largely physical one so far, and I don’t know that that has played to her strengths in NXT. She got a chance to tell a story on the microphone this week, and she did better than I expected with that responsibility. While the plot elements were the usual glib Total Divas jive, complete with John Cena references and video clips, Nikki’s response about how predictable and mean girl lame it was actually worked. It didn’t get physical but it didn’t have to. Carmella wants to embarrass Nikki and Nikki’s trying to rise above the snark. Far better than I would have imagined.

Worst Non-Wrestling Segment: I so badly want to tell you it was the continuing misuse of Natalya, who had to feel her stock dropping as she showed cat photos to Daniel Bryan. Yeah, that was a thing. I’m not sure if it’s punishment for the outspoken Uncle Bret (cause that’s definitely how WWE rolls) or not, but to think she’s right back where she was on a roster half as large is depressing. Any other week that would do it, but we got another taste of the Curt Hawkins hot mess. Hawkins came to the ring to finally make his debut against Apollo Crews, giving us his own facts as the intro before getting knocked down by a stiff punch and giving up on the match. By the time they figure out what they’re doing here, we won’t care. I already don’t.

“WTF?” Moment: At the risk of upsetting the reading audience, the whole James Ellsworth thing is just absolutely annoying to me and a waste of time better spent elsewhere. It’s dragged on way too long week after week, making World champion AJ Styles look largely lame for reasons unknown while giving in to the worst elements of the Dean Ambrose character. He’s like that kid in class who ate sugar for six hours straight, annoying the hell out of you in an attempt to both get attention and be humorous. Some of it works, a lot of it doesn’t, and I think it makes the blue brand look pretty bad. This week’s World Title match had one solid moment (an Ellsworth superkick) and a cool backstage segment where Ellsworth said his grandkids would be impressed someday. It’s a nice enough story, but it’s NXT level. This is supposed to be the big time, and this feels an awful lot like busy work. Solid David Otunga work at the announcing desk though. I especially liked when he said you know you’ve made it when you have your own T-shirt. Which explains why he hasn’t made it. Should have gone there, JBL.

Verdict: It’s hard to go against the brand that delivers the week’s best match, and things didn’t get any better for me than the Rollins vs. Jericho opener from Raw. Both shows were pretty pedestrian, but Raw finished strong with the much-anticipated Goldberg promo while Smackdown’s decision to spend time on the Ellsworth thing fell flat for me. Smackdown won last week but I felt Monday night was stronger here. Raw wins, but Smackdown maintains the overall BSB lead at 7-5-1.

After the Bell: Goldberg’s triumphant return marks the latest installment in something World Wrestling Entertainment has done all too frequently lately, in my view: allowing a WCW “character” back into the canon strictly for the money end of it. Make no mistake, WWE is all about the cash as any business is, and therefore won’t do much that doesn’t net them some profit, at least in the drawing board stage. That’s all well and good, but my feeling on Goldberg’s return is very similar to how I felt when Sting showed up after all those rumored times before. When WWE doesn’t take credit for developing the character, they don’t fully invest in the result. So even though the fans in attendance get a pretty spectacular moment, as happened in both times mentioned above, it lacks the needed emotional connection to make it truly great. Whether that’s intentional or more of a Freudian slip, I don’t know. But it’s all too apparent to me that the company cares more when it’s something they can say they built from the start.

Maybe I’m getting old, but I still feel we need more than just a moment to make something truly great. Unfortunately, many of the “this is awesome” chants are incorrect. I’m not trying to deprive anyone of their enjoyment, just stating the facts: overstatement, bombast, and short attention spans rule the day. We all valiantly DVR our way through the programs waiting for the big moment. The Goldberg thing was special, particularly when you understand the background and why he chose to come back now the way he did. He has something to prove that goes far beyond the single, likely questionable quality match that will arise from this moment. Should that lead to a bigger story to tell, so be it. I won’t complain about any event that causes people to watch, and early ratings indicate this accomplished that objective. Just like Sting, though, pardon me if I’m not surprised that we find ourselves unfulfilled when we reach the end of the road. It’s the order of the day in the WWE.

Looking for even more analysis on the winners and losers of the week? Best way to get it is to tune into the excellent Main Event Madness podcast every Thursday at 8 PM. Let your voice be heard in the space below or give me a shout on Twitter @DharmanRockwell.

Thanks for reading and see you back in the BSB next week!