WWE Brand Split Breakdown: Week of 9/26/16 by Mike Holland

Howdy friends and neighbors, and welcome to another edition of the Brand Split Breakdown here at TJR. If you’re new to the column, it is the one and only place to get immediate reaction to who won the war between Raw and Smackdown each and every week. WWE has heavily invested in the concept that both the red and blue brands are attempting to outdo each other each time around, but things seem to have tipped heavily in the favor of Tuesday’s show of late. Both shows featured a title defense, but one was decidedly better than the other this week. Which was it? Let’s take a clip trip and discover!

Monday Night Raw

Overview: Let’s cut straight to the quick, Monday Night Raw had its work cut out for it this week. Fresh off Sunday’s first Raw PPV, Clash of Champions, the red brand had its toughest challenge before the night even began as it faced competition from the first Presidential Debate between candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. That showdown actually felt a hell of a lot like a wrestling match in itself, now that I think of it. WWE clearly had that in mind when they stacked the deck in the first hour, giving us two championship rematches with both new United States champion Roman Reigns and reigning champs The New Day putting their respective titles on the line against their challengers from just 24 hours before. Did the powers that be give up on the rest of the show knowing they had little chance of retaining eyeballs, or was it just another example of three hours being a tad too much for the current roster as it stands? Let’s dig into the highs and lows.

Best Match: As mentioned, Monday Night Raw did the unthinkable and opened its show with an actual wrestling match. Those moments are few and far between in these days of over-hyping and underdelivering, so it’s always a welcome development. While Roman Reigns winning the US Title was a surprise to many (not to your humble narrator, mind you, as I expected as much and said so in TJR’s very excellent Clash of Champions preview piece), it’s clear his beef with Rusev is meant to continue as the two went right back at it at the top of the show. While I acknowledge the minor but very legitimate gripe that it’s beyond doubtful that Reigns would lose the belt the very night after winning it, it didn’t take away from another chapter in their very solid series of matches since Roman was unceremoniously booted from the Universal Title picture.

One of the knocks on Roman has been his ability to sell the offense of his opponent, and it’s sort of understandable in that since his debut with the bigs the WWE has really pushed him as the comic book superhuman heir apparent to John Cena. Leopards have a difficult time changing their spots, and it’s true in wrestling as well. It’s also had quite a bit to do with the reactions to Reigns in my view. It’s tougher and tougher to support an overwhelming favorite these days. This match allowed Rusev to dominate much of the action, a smart play if the feud is to continue. Reigns came back at the end before the rather lame double countout finish (to be expected I suppose), but the action was solid enough and very physical indeed. Reigns also showed a bit of range at the end, losing it and taking out his frustrations on the Bulgarian Brute with the help of a steel chair. These two men are clearly slated to settle their differences inside the cage at Hell in a Cell. In the meantime, don’t let all the boos overtake the story they are effectively telling.

Worst Match: If you felt cheated, irritated, annoyed, or fill in your own negative reaction adjective here as it pertained to the final match of the Best of Seven between Cesaro and Sheamus, you’re not alone. Things were so bad on social media that the normally on-point Mick Foley took to Facebook to blast the furor and support the ending. It felt pretty forced all the way around, and reinforced the idea that the whole thing was a waste of time and talent. While I’m on record saying it actually produced some very solid moments, I agree that the vague stakes didn’t help. This last point seems especially notable given Monday’s show, where Foley called both men to the ring and stated that since they both “won,” they’d both be getting a shot at Raw’s Tag Team Titles…together. Huh?

After a backstage vignette where Mick chewed some more scenery and broke out his super emotional voice he now calls upon once per episode, the two men came out and put their differences aside to defeat..some random jobbers. Oh, the excitement. Had they immediately faced TND, this would have had a shot at making coherent sense. Instead, New Day successfully defended their titles against Gallows and Anderson for the one billionth time. Given that Cesaro & Sheamus are likely faces, they are stuck behind TND and Enzo & Cass on that side of the ledger. What was the payoff for all of this build again? I forgot.

Best Non-Wrestling Segment: Not much saved the slide to hell that accompanied hours two and particularly three, but Chris Jericho can nearly always be relied upon to bring the funny and pull some yeoman’s effort as he did here. Jericho had a Highlight Reel segment to keep the animus between Universal Champion Kevin Owens and former handpicked Authority titleholder Seth Rollins going, and did not disappoint in the slightest. Jericho and Owens remain money together, and I particularly enjoyed KO making mention of Rollins’s propensity to injure his opponents and springboarding that into how good he is for injuring Rollins. (Rollins, who underwent X-rays earlier in the day, was reduced to approaching the ring and being held back by security.) Playing off stuff in the headlines is a smart business decision and allowed two of the funniest guys in the WWE right now to continue doing just that. It’s slightly disarming that the heels are funnier than the faces at the moment, but such is life I guess.

Worst Non-Wrestling Segment: Remember all the buzz about Triple H interfering and costing Rollins and Reigns their shots at the Universal Championship? You might have thought something would happen in that vein last Sunday, but it wasn’t to be. The only development of that major storyline was after the show went off the air, when WWE cameras caught Stephanie McMahon meeting up with her husband and looking pleased. They are married after all, so I’m not sure how that’s news. I’m also unclear on why these two seemingly bright business executives didn’t expect to be filmed when they met in the parking garage, but hey. In any event, Mick Foley saw what we saw and was understandably looking for answers when he confronted Stephanie at Raw. Stephanie once again denied any wrongdoing and then unleashed a verbal torrent on Mick, claiming that he was accusing her of not knowing how to do her job. Since I don’t know what she actually does every week besides bad acting, she has a valid point I suppose. Foley ended up apologizing, and nothing of import happened. I’m already tired of the slow build McMahon segments, and they are wasting a popular character in the former Cactus Jack by making him a hackneyed milquetoast. Awful.

“WTF?” Moment: Sometimes I think WWE shoots itself in the foot on purpose, with some sadistic life mantra that even when they get it right it should still be wrong. Enzo and Cass were one of the hottest acts going when the draft occurred, and plenty of members of the WWE Universe salivated with the prospect of which brand they would go to and what it would mean for them. Of particular note was Big Cass, who actually used that momentum to propel himself into being a contender for the Universal Title (a mistake, to be sure, but it shows you the mentality of creative with him). Since those days of yore, the big plotline for E&C has been that they continue to come up on the short end of the stick against the Shining Stars, who are doing the worst job at selling timeshares since Glengarry Glen Ross. Alec Baldwin would have canned them long ago. This downslide continued Monday, as the boys interrupted the aforementioned segment to tell Jericho and Owens that they had been granted a match against them, which they promptly lost. This pair has gone from supernova hot to ice cold in no time flat and through no fault of their own. They are still majorly over with the live audience, but is WWE taking advantage of that momentum? You can’t teach that. But you could do it.

Smackdown Live

Overview: Not to be outdone by Raw’s title matches, Smackdown came up with a doozy of its own: WWE Champion AJ Styles defending his belt against one of the men involved in the upcoming Triple Threat match at No Mercy, former champ Dean Ambrose. Needless to say, that’s a big money match and ensured that plenty of pupils would be fixated on the goings on Tuesday. The other dominating action concerned setting up the undercard for early October’s pay-per-view, with Bray Wyatt/Randy Orton and Miz/Dolph Ziggler being at the forefront of those developments. The increased number of events has led to a bit of keeping up with the Joneses that has made storytelling a bit more challenging, but Smackdown has used its truncated couple of hours to produce more effective product overall. That theme would continue.

Best Match: Did I mention there was a World Title defense? While Smackdown was rather light on the wrestling this week overall, much as they were a couple of weeks ago in Philly, they saved the best for last. Both Ambrose and particularly Styles have put on some very good matches of late, and this one did not disappoint. Clearly the stage was being set for the three-way dance coming up shortly, and those seeds were further sown when the other guy in that match, John Cena, joined Smackdown’s commentary team ringside for this encounter. Cena did a reasonable job as usual pushing himself and his opponents for the match, and he’s very good at it. He came across as a bit more self-deferential than usual, which is fitting given the remarks of Ambrose lately and allowing for some doubt to be sprinkled in given that JC is actually losing clean lately. Shock of all shocks, what’s next?

The action in this match was solid on both sides, and Styles is just on a different level right now. I think he’s actually been WWE’s MVP for most of this year. The ending was predictable but well done, as Styles initiated contact with Cena at ringside. Cena irately got up onto the apron and “inadvertently” distracted the referee while Ambrose had AJ in a pinning predicament. Ambrose took out his frustration on Mr. American Grit, but that allowed Styles to get the pin and the win in one fell swoop. After the match, it was Cena’s turn to be booked like usual, demolishing both gentlemen with a couple of Attitude Adjustments and closing out the show holding Styles’s belt high. I love the friction between Cena and Ambrose, and everyone did their job solidly here. Hopefully this leads to Dean going full-fledged heel, as he’s gotten a bit stale since dropping the strap.

Worst Match: Keep in mind there were only three to choose from, and it certainly wasn’t going to be the last match. Rhyno & Heath Slater’s rise to the top has been as unlikely as it is entertaining, and their first big challenge coming from the newly-minted heel Usos makes sense. While I get the decision not to have them wrestle each other two-on-two, tossing the Ascension into the mix along with American Alpha just seemed muddled. Worse yet, AA’s booking has gone from questionable to highly head-scratching. These guys tore up NXT and had tons of energy around being drafted, and it’s drained down to near nil with this angle of Gable’s bum leg acting up. How many more times will he come to the ring and not be ready to go? It makes no sense. While Slater’s submission plants seeds of doubt about his title reign, Alpha looks like they can’t even win a match. Not sure where they are going with this but it’s high time to get there. Don’t think many Ascension Halloween costumes will be seen this year.

Best Non-Wrestling Segment: This was actually my favorite moment of either show, and it’s perhaps not surprising that it featured someone doing his best work in a long time, The Miz. Miz has been a giant reason Smackdown has fared so well in this brand split divide despite having far less talent, as he’s used the real estate to his advantage and become the monster heel he never had the opportunity to when bigger names held him down week to week. We’ve not seen this kind of stuff from Miz since he was World champion, and it’s been beyond enjoyable. His run-ins with Daniel Bryan have caused plenty of buzz even if they’ve been a bit puzzling considering D-Bry’s inactive status, and his feud with Dolph Ziggler over the former’s Intercontinental Championship has made that secondary title feel even more special and elevated Ziggler back to the playmaker he was before Baron Corbin entered the scene.

Given that Smackdown emanated from Cleveland this week, it was to be expected that hometown boy the Miz would be playing a major part in the proceedings. Miz worked his role to a tee, ramping up the local crowd with sports references before going on the heel attack and berating the city and its denizens. He then attacked Dolph’s parents with a tirade as they sat at ringside, which brought Ziggler out. What followed boiled down to Dolph taking Miz’s bait and putting his career on the line for one last shot at the I-C title. Dolph, who’s been guilty more than once of overdoing it big time, felt honest here, and things got very emotional, particularly with both guy’s folks right in the thick of things. I’m a sucker for career matches even though they’re rarely on the level, and this is why. Try watching this clip and not feeling something. It’s impossible. Solid, solid work.

Worst Non-Wrestling Segment: The Curt Hawkins stuff has already reached its peak, and nothing’s really happened. Hawkins’s character is bad enough, some weird takeoff of Chuck Norris facts that continues Vince McMahon’s trend of coming upon things that were hot on the Internet a couple of years ago and trying to pretend it’s what’s cool with the kids these days. He’s barely wrestled since all the segments trumpeting his return, and the video packages are the height of the bad kind of weird with odd poses and over-the-top goofy delivery. Now we find out that Hawkins has a major announcement for us next week. I hope it’s that they are scrapping this idea and going with something else entirely. There’s still time to can Mojo Rawley and reunite Hawkins with former partner Zack Ryder. If you’re not going to have much wrestling, at least make this stuff better please.The Curt Hawkins stuff has already reached its peak, and nothing’s really happened. Hawkins’s character is bad enough, some weird takeoff of Chuck Norris facts that continues Vince McMahon’s trend of coming upon things that were hot on the Internet a couple of years ago and trying to pretend it’s what’s cool with the kids these days. He’s barely wrestled since all the segments trumpeting his return, and the video packages are the height of the bad kind of weird with odd poses and over-the-top goofy delivery. Now we find out that Hawkins has a major announcement for us next week. I hope it’s that they are scrapping this idea and going with something else entirely. There’s still time to can Mojo Rawley and reunite Hawkins with former partner Zack Ryder. If you’re not going to have much wrestling, at least make this stuff better please.

“WTF?” Moment: Speaking of really bad backstage skits, what in the world was going on with Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton this week? I don’t know if describing it will really do it justice, but Orton called out Bray at the top of the show, saying he was afraid of him. Wyatt came on the Titantron and babbled incoherently, oops I mean cut a promo, and told Randy he had left him clues in order for Orton to find him before the sands in the hourglass ran out. It was like a local theater production of Wizard of Oz mixed with an episode of CSI. This led to multiple Erick Rowan sightings as Orton bungled his way through the backstage area like it was a haunted house, complete with scrawled messages in red lipstick and a cut-out of Randy with the eyes removed. It was like the Wyatt/Reigns feud except even less compelling somehow.

If you’re wondering what the payoff was, eventually Orton clawed his way to Wyatt’s smoke machine room and snuck up behind him. Even with the element of surprise, though, Wyatt landed a shot and ran away. Orton did what any of us would do in that situation and donned the sheep mask before sitting in Bray’s chair and singing to himself. Then we got Spike Jonze video edits and Bray Wyatt showed up in the chair as if nothing had happened. At least when Matt Hardy is doing this stuff it’s somewhat entertaining. This was inscrutable nonsense, as unfortunately most of what WWE has done with a very unique character in Wyatt has been. Total fail.

The Verdict: This was one of the bigger blowouts for me since I began this column, as Smackdown won decidedly this week on the strength of the best promo segment of the week and the best match of the week during a two hours that went by in a flash even with the cryptic video vignettes. While SD was a bit short on wrestling, they were able to tell longer stories due to that and I think it helped them majorly. Raw had a good first hour and then went right off the cliff, earning every bit of their historically low rating. It looked like they knew what they were in for and called it quits. Smackdown has become a powerhouse on my scorecard, broadening their lead to a solid 6-3-1. It seems even wider a gap than that, frankly.

After the Bell

Sometimes it’s easier to show it than say it. I think Raw’s creative team needs a visit from the closer himself, Mr. Alec Baldwin. Enjoy.

That’s all for this week. I hope you enjoyed reading the rundown on the winners and losers of the split. As always, feel free to give me your thoughts on the matter in the space below or shoot me a tweet @DharmanRockwell where the snark spins 24/7. Also don’t forget the Main Event Madness podcast every Thursday night at 8 PM where I’ll delve deeper into what worked for me and what made me wish I’d gone to bed early. Thanks for reading.