WWE Brand Split Breakdown: Week of 9/5/16 by Mike Holland

I begin this week’s edition of the Breakdown with an apology and a confession to my loyal readers here at TJR. Firstly, I beg forgiveness for being later than usual with getting this to you. Secondly, while I could blame both fantasy football and work ventures for my tardiness, the reality is there was a much bigger factor at play: Both shows were pretty horrendous this week. I don’t know if it was WWE’s fear of competition on Mondays due to college football and the impending pro schedule, the lack of alacrity involved now that PPV numbers aren’t nearly as important, or something else entirely, but both of the offerings struggled to find their rhythm and it showed. As always, there were bright spots and some very good matches, which of course I’ll do my best to highlight in the space below. But this may have been the first time we as viewers really “felt” the side effects of this split, and those labor pains were not in any way pleasant. Let’s get started.

Monday Night Raw

Overview: What a difference a week makes. Fresh off one of their biggest cliffhangers ever, as Triple H returned to literally hand Raw’s new Universal Title to Kevin Owens in a huge four-way dance, Raw had plenty of buzz swirling in regards to how the situation would be explained this week. In typical maddening opposite day fashion, very few of those answers were actually forthcoming. Raw instead focused on having the Stephanie McMahon/Mick Foley pairing explored to a large degree, as well as giving Owens his first battle with an old rival. By the time we reached the third hour, it felt like creative itself had given up on this show. An unfortunate setback at a critical time when the WWE’s Monday brand will start facing its stiffest competition in terms of viewing.

Best Match: Let me say from the jump that Monday Night Raw had only two very good wrestling segments to speak of in my view, and both of them involved top level talent. Seth Rollins began his long road back toward face popularity with a solid promo segment where he and Owens ran down each other with entertaining precision, and then furthered it another mile or two with a game performance against a very solid and willing partner in Owens’s frequent tag team partner Chris Jericho. (Jericho also coined the line of the night when he referred accurately to KO as being the longest reigning Universal champion. Nobody else in WWE is capable of the hilarity of the master.) It would take a very good match to best those two, and perhaps not surprisingly we got it courtesy of the aforementioned champ himself, Kevin Owens, in a non-title match set up at the very beginning of the night.

The deal was that Owens’s celebration (insisted on by Stephanie, continuing the idea that she’s very much aware of what her husband is up to) was crashed by Rollins, who was “suspended” by the boss after things got physical. That allowed Foley to step in and not only reverse the decision but give the Architect a title shot at Clash of Champions. One majorly positive thing for Raw is that Mick always does a solid job whenever called upon in a television capacity. He’s incredibly underrated in terms of delivering the material, something plenty of other folks on the roster could learn from. Owens didn’t appreciate Foley’s meddling and told him so backstage, which caused Mick to make both matches mentioned above. Owens’s opponent? Naturally, none other than Sami Zayn, who despite wrestling Owens forty-five times or so in this company manages to keep it fresh. Part of the story was Zayn selling injuries, which he’s become majorly proficient at. Owens won to back up his status as champ, but this is a feud worth continuing no matter how long it goes. Hard to imagine two guys that play off of each other better. Joy to watch.

Worst Match: Readers who check this space weekly know I’m pot committed to landing the ongoing snorefest between former Prime Time partners Titus O’Neil and Darren Young in this space until it’s mercifully ended, and this week is no exception. In his quest to make Darren great again, life coach and unhinged psychopath Bob Backlund landed his charge the super exciting and headline-making responsibility of wrestling Jinder Mahal. Mahal proved little challenge to Young and essentially existed as an opportunity for O’Neil to vacate the announcing table and wander half a mile to the ring to face off with him for what feels like the seventieth week in a row. Let’s leave aside that O’Neil is absolutely flat-out awful on the microphone. Listening to him discuss a match is like having your best friend do Lamaze exercises in your ear while eating a burlap sack of marbles. The bigger story is that Darren, who’s in theory supposed to be getting the push here, keeps coming up short in staredowns with Titus. This was a stalemate, but it’s hard to fathom greatness returning when the best DY can go is throw footwear at O’Neil. Make us interested again! Now there’s a challenge.

Best Non-Wrestling Segment: As mentioned before, I must give Raw credit in that even though they completely avoided the elephant of Triple H in the room (that’s not a nose joke, I swear! he appeared not at all and no explanation was offered regarding his actions except in a heelish way by Owens) they still managed to give us some authoritarian controversy in the interplay between GM Mick Foley and commish Stephanie McMahon. Foley, understandably hurt by what happened the week prior, questioned Stephanie about her knowledge of events. Steph denied it but things got even testier when Owens’s victory celebration was unsurprisingly marred by outsiders. This led to an in-ring tug of war of wills between the two bosses, with things being extended to a second backstage segment where Stephanie laid the hammer down a bit before siding with Foley against KO and Jericho, seemingly ending the hostility. Foley comes across as so genuine that even the most cynical viewer must feel the glimmer of possibility that Stephanie is telling the truth, and that’s no small feat. If this was done in order to promote the Holy Foley show on the Network, I don’t care in the slightest. I’m just delighted to have a great and genuine storyteller back on my TV.

Worst Non-Wrestling Segment: This is the landslide decision of this young column’s lifespan. No stranger to being called out for its inane silliness and complete inability to let either group play to their decidedly varied strengths, the New Day versus Gallows & Anderson feud has given us some pretty bad moments since its inception. While New Day gets somewhat of a pass due to the inherent goofiness of their gimmick and the extent with which they celebrate it, G&A have been reduced to comedic clown bit players with little to show for it. Last week’s introduction of Dana Brooke as a potential partner was abandoned this week in favor of what might have on paper been a very funny idea: Gallows and Anderson’s imagining of what New Day would be like once they reach retirement age.

Unfortunately, paper doesn’t always translate to finished product, and this badly needed some editing and a run-through or two before the real thing. The wrestler/actors employed to portray Old Day were suitably hammy, but there wasn’t nearly enough scenery for them to chew to keep us interested for long. As with most New Day segments lately, it ran way long, and by the time they chased their tormentors from the ring in order to engage the fraudulent senior citizens in a dance-off and a brief altercation, we were well past the point of no return. Clearly someone thinks this stuff is funny week after week. They also probably enjoyed American Pie 4. I’m going to dare to be sour.

“WTF?” Moment: Aside from the head-scratching decision to put The Shining Stars over Enzo & Cass, this one was also incredibly easy to pinpoint. News that former Women’s Champion Sasha Banks would be returning from injury sooner than expected quickly snowballed into having her appear on Monday, ostensibly to deliver some ominious announcement mentioned by the announce team early and played up a bit as likely a negative thing until she finally came out to speak to the crowd. Banks, created as an over-the-top heel persona, is another of those special cases where the performer is so likable that you pretty much have to abandon your plans and let nature take its course. She is a huge fan favorite, and that’s a major reason why this segment fell so flat. Banks seemed to be teasing retirement due to her injury when she was interrupted by Brooke, after which she said the real “bad news” was for Charlotte in regards to their match at Clash of Champions. Comparisons to Daniel Bryan’s heartfelt speech notwithstanding, this was just poor writing all around. Glorifying Stephanie and giving details about how hard it is for girls to chase their dreams doesn’t sound like anything Banks’s character would really say. This should have been another building block in the revolution. Instead it was a hollow wall and made Sasha look bad. Unfortunate.

Smackdown Live

Overview: Smackdown’s task this week was both simple and two-pronged: Set the stage for their first big pay-per-view in Sunday’s Backlash event, and overcome some of the bad taste left from Monday’s morass. They finished the evening zero for two on that score. While AJ Styles and Dean Ambrose finished the night with another intense staredown in the ring (capped off by a lowblow on the champion by Styles, further cementing his commitment to nailing high heel status), the road there was odd indeed. Styles had several backstage segments belittling random WWE employees (the kind of stuff that could get someone like Del Rio fired, whoops!) while Ambrose behaved like a loony toon in very much the same fashion except everyone smiled instead of running away. We did get at least a passing glimpse of each of the scheduled matches this weekend, but the only big news came with the tag team tournament implications involving The Usos finally making their long-awaited heel turn and “taking out” American Alpha.

Best Match: My take on the show before a pay-per-view is to sell us on its importance, and precious few of Smackdown’s offerings did that. One that did so (and rather effectively, I might add) was the battle for the newly-minted Women’s Title. While Raw’s division boasts quite a few excellent workers and was bolstered by Bayley’s arrival, I actually prefer the mix on the blue brand. After an early promo segment fell flat (how many times can they write really idiotic high school putdowns for the women to say to each other and not realize how demeaning and annoying it is?) they cleaned things up nicely with all six women competing in a three-on-three tag match heading into Backlash. While that does follow the somewhat brutal trend of giving us what we’re going to say shortly anyway, there was enough individual talent in this contest to make it feel different. Each competitor had a chance to shine, and that makes total sense going into a match where everyone is supposed to have a legitimate chance to win. I particularly liked the ending, where newcomer Carmella took advantage of Alexa Bliss’s offense to slap her finisher on rival Nikki Bella in order to secure the victory. Expect those two to continue their feud coming out of this weekend’s festivities. High energy and fun, which is the whole point.

Worst Match: Bear in mind Smackdown suffered mightily this week in that they only had four actual matches on the card, and since much of the non-wrestling stuff didn’t work very well, they had a similar outcome as Monday’s show with long stretches of stuff that made you want to tune out. More concerningly for the blue brand, they need juice to sell you on caring about Backlash, so it couldn’t have come at a worse time. Fans were reasonably pumped for American Alpha’s showdown with The Usos, with the winner set to do battle against the victor of The Hype Bros and Heath Slater/Rhyno for the new tag belts. They did get that showdown and the result they wanted, as Alpha went over The Brothers Uso in very short order after surviving a sneak attack to start the match. That was then discarded in favor of a faux injury angle where they took out Gable in order to remove them from the tournament and get back in themselves. It’s all well and good for storyline purposes, but it was a bit of a letdown and not much of a match at all.

Best Non-Wrestling Segment: In a related note, The Usos owed us a bit of an explanation for their sudden decision to go all Rambo on Steiner Brothers Lite, and they provided it loudly to Renee Young during a bit teaser for Smackdown’s post show Talking Smack, which has the distinction of being one of the very few things the blue brand has soundly distinguished themselves from Monday night’s show with. Talking Smack has had some big moments, and The Usos took it upon themselves to provide some illumination as to their motives when they crashed Young’s party and told the fans that they felt abandoned and hurt and were now out for themselves. It’s typical heel stuff, and The Usos only seemed to half-believe it at first until they really got into it, but it’s effective and emotional and gives the brothers some sorely lacking dimension and perspective. Smart way to reintroduce them.

Worst Non-Wrestling Segment: Last week, you might recall that Demon Kane once again resurfaced following some MIA weeks to hand a chokeslam to some poor guy who called himself The Milkman with little to no explanation in a segment that actually made AJ Styles completely lost for words on guest commentary. Since it’s wrestling, we had another oddball vignette in that vein this week. Fandango was without his tag partner Tyler Breeze, thus depriving us of seeing what’s developed into a strange but productive relationship indeed, and therefore decided to engage a random “fan” in some dancing. She was apparently too skilled for his liking, so after kicking her out of the ring and seeing Kane emerge, he encouraged the Big Red Machine to dance as well. You can guess how that worked out. What’s with using random people in goofy roles to remind us Kane exists? It’s the worst kind of filler. You couldn’t book a match here?

“WTF?” Moment: One of the bigger crimes heading into Backlash has been the tepid build for what should be the second-biggest match on the card, namely Randy Orton and Bray Wyatt. Orton got slapped around by Brock which dampened his momentum in a hurry and made a Smackdown top talent look weak, and Wyatt has said a whole lot of random nothingness from the friendly confines of his Bartles & Jaymes rocking chair accompanied by Studio 54’s smoke machine purchased from Ebay. Following Bray’s latest entertaining but incoherent babble, Orton delivered his response. It sounded somewhat like one of Aesop’s fables garbled through a fortune cookie. My favorite part is that he delivered it in his normal intense deadpan style when you know he had to be questioning whoever wrote it for him. Things got so bad The Viper took to social media to defend himself against some less than impressed members of the Universe. Defensive, perhaps? Might want to consider having these guys wrestle someone on the show next go round.

The Verdict: I puzzled over this week’s verdict for a while, and then came upon the only logical conclusion after a very subpar week for the WWE: Everybody loses. If you and I had to suffer through some of this stuff, neither brand should be rewarded for their trouble (or lack thereof).

Neither Raw nor Smackdown scores a point this week, so the score is 4-2-1 in favor of the Raw brand. Here’s hoping they get the ship righted next week.

After the Bell: Things continue to remain interesting in regards to the ongoing rumor of a Brock Lesnar vs. Goldberg showdown, potentially at next year’s seminal WrestleMania event. While the sex appeal of that match is not in doubt, it remains to be seen whether all this flash leads to any real build. WWE clearly is in favor of the idea, going out of their way to build bridges to a talent who spent most of his time working for the competition and has been very vocal regarding his issues with Titan Tower both during his time on their payroll and following it. Perhaps they see Goldberg as one of the few poker chips they have left to cash in in the quest to build Lesnar as the ultimate fighting monster, or they want to engage in a trip through wrestling’s time machine to get a mulligan on how things went down the first time these two behemoths locked horns. In any case, it exposes one of WWE’s biggest flaws with the current product: Despite the talent pool never being deeper and the possibilities never more limitless, they continue to want to firmly press the rewind button and focus on the moneymakers of the past.

For guys like Rock and Austin, it’s understandable. They were enormous draws in their time and carried the company through its most successful time ever. Whatever they would want to do in whatever capacity they’d wish to do it would be of supreme interest to Vince and his inner circle, which is why Rock has appeared at so many WMs and Austin continues to get the podcast calls even when critical of the current product, normally a big WWE no-no. That doesn’t mean other big names of the era would have the same reaction, however. The result of the actual match is even less of a sure thing. One need look no further than the return of Sting to see how WWE is more than capable of butchering a gimme putt. The end result is that they may want to be careful what they wish for, even though they likely won’t. The lure of selling an extra couple tickets is too high.

The irony of this is that a major competitor of the WWE in UFC (whether WWE acknowledges it or not, there’s no question they compete for some of the same dollars) is faced with a similar situation as they get ready for tomorrow’s debut of wrestling standout CM Punk. Punk got the opportunity based on name recognition, just as Goldberg likely would if he so chooses to sign the dotted line, and just as many people are playing wait and see for the outcome as excited to watch the actual event itself. It’s a reality every company has to face, the balance of building new stars and allowing fans to get another glimpse of former favorites. It does have to be a balance, though, and many talent rightly feel they get pushed aside in a moment’s notice to make room for an act of yesteryear. When all the cards have been played, there’s no place to go. That could be the very stark reality WWE faces on the road they currently travel, and it’s much closer than it appears in the mirror.

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!