Welcome back to Brand Warfare, where we put Raw and Smackdown Live’s weekly shows head-to-head and compare them over a few standardized categories, in order to determine who’s really winning this new version of the brand split. This week, Raw was in hard-sell mode for the upcoming Hell in a Cell PPV, and also had Brock Lesnar in the house to promote his eventual match with Goldberg, while Smackdown, having lots of free time until their next PPV, went with a featured match of AJ Styles facing Dean Ambrose, with a potential title shot on the line, and James Ellsworth lurking in the background. Which brand reigned supreme? Let’s take a closer look.
Opening Segment – Raw
This week, Raw went with the tried-and-true method of sticking Chris Jericho out there to talk about his List, except this time, someone had committed the ultimate crime, and stolen it! Of course, it was Seth Rollins, and things proceeded from there, with Jericho threatening to walk out of his scheduled main event match that evening if the List was not returned. This was the usual great work from Jericho, and the only negative thing we’d have to say about it is that it was completely pointless. Seth Rollins is not facing Chris Jericho in one week at Hell in a Cell, in fact, Jericho doesn’t currently have a match booked for the PPV. No, Seth Rollins is actually facing the Universal Champion, Kevin Owens, whose position on Raw currently seems to revolve around being Chris Jericho’s whiny sidekick, making him the fifth-most important person in this feud over his Universal title. Sixth if we count the List.
Opening Segment – Smackdown
Smackdown didn’t waste any time (which is generally a theme for the blue brand), eschewing even an opening title sequence to get right into a No DQ match between Bray Wyatt and Kane, which saw Luke Harper interfere at the midway point, but then seem content to just hang around ringside during a match where he could just keep interfering without penalty, until the finish, when Randy Orton ran out to even the odds…and turned on Kane. Well, we’re pretty sure absolutely nobody saw that coming, but has Orton really aligned with the Wyatt Family, or is it just a mind game? We’re not sure where this is going, and we’re not entirely pleased about a future full of potential PPV matches involving Kane, but the storyline possibilities are endless, and the fact that Bray might have actually successfully managed to brainwash a Superstar for once, let alone someone at the level of Orton, is something we can get behind. Although we do question Orton’s ability to grow a suitable beard.
Low Point – Raw
We’re not going to take the cheap way out like many people seem to be doing and say “roughly 95% of the show”, because that’s unfair and probably not entirely true. It definitely was not a strong show, especially for one that was supposed to be dedicated to selling the Raw-exclusive PPV that is happening this Sunday. But to us, Raw really hit rock bottom when they sent Brock Lesnar, Minnesota native, former University of Minnesota graduate and briefly a member of the Minnesota Vikings, out with his advocate Paul Heyman, wearing a special “Suplex City” t-shirt done in Minnesota Viking colors, and attempted to exhort the Minnesota crowd to chant for Goldberg, the opponent of Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series. The fact that they even managed to get a weak “Goldberg” chant is a testament to the abilities of Heyman, and we were entirely unsurprised when news came out the next day that Vince McMahon was so unhappy at “those goddamned fans” (yes, how dare they have strong opinions that aren’t the same as a senile 70-year-old) that he pulled the plug on the segment in mid-stream, leaving Heyman and Lesnar to awkwardly leave the ring to the cheers of an adoring crowd.
Low Point – Smackdown
It’s almost unfair to give the show a true low point, and we know that there has to be a low team on the totem pole, but we’re so tired of watching The Ascension spend their WWE career as jobbers. They’ve got a unique look, could make for some interesting storyline possibilities, and aren’t terrible wrestlers, but they’ve been buried from jump, and it doesn’t look like that’s ever going to change. That said, even the alleged “worst” match on Smackdown still wasn’t bad, and actually had a purpose, as the winners became part of the Smackdown team for the 10-team Survivor Series match. Giving what would normally be a filler match even a small reason for existing actually does help make a difference (compare this to Raw’s decision to continue throwing Golden Truth and The Shining Stars on TV for matches that don’t particularly have a point other than “we’ve got three hours”).
Have Some Squash!
For the first time in a long time, there were no true enhancement talent matches on either Raw or Smackdown this week. Granted, there weren’t many actual matches between both shows, but we were spared the destruction of any local talent for at least a week. Coincidentally, we’ve started wondering where the heck Nia Jax has disappeared to, but we suspect WWE being forced to delay the feud between Charlotte and Sasha thanks to the brief concerns over Sasha’s back injury has played into both her absence and the fact that Bayley continues to mess around with the comically inept Dana Brooke on a weekly basis. As for matches between contracted talent that ended up being little more than squashes, Bo Dallas’ odd push continues, as WWE took all the necessary steps to rebuild Curtis Axel into a fiery babyface only to have him slip on a banana peel against Dallas and lose, and as we mentioned, The Ascension continue to be the saddest Road Warriors homage since Heidenreich (but at least he actually won the tag team titles), but with a PPV to sell and a Smackdown that doesn’t have any wrestlers to waste, it was a week full of Superstar-on-Superstar matches for both brands.
Authority Figure Watch
A lot has already been made of Mick Foley’s rant against Charlotte and Sasha taking part in Hell in a Cell, and we’re going to add to it. We understand what Foley was going for, but his words might have had a little more weight if he hadn’t been so excited to make the match just a week ago, and spent the days since heavily promoting the match on social media. Foley’s crisis of conscience about Hell in a Cell has been an angle WWE has used before, as recently as last year, and part of us is just tired of hearing it, especially when combined with the growing sentiment that Foley’s incredible over-protectiveness of female wrestlers does sometimes border on creepy. We’re sure that’s not the intent, but it is becoming the perception. Foley’s issues, however, also overshadowed the fact that Stephanie McMahon continues to be unbearable, inserting herself into the opening segment simply to add her strident voice to the conversation, rather than provide anything worthwhile. We’re pretty sure Jericho, Owens, and Rollins could have done the segment without her involvement and everything would have gone exactly the same, but we can see how that wouldn’t have allowed her to exert her authority over every wrestler she comes across.
Over on Smackdown, we saw Daniel Bryan for maybe three minutes, once again being annoyed by Natalya before adding a stipulation to her upcoming match that evening. That was it. Seriously, Shane is winning this brand split in the public eye, and he doesn’t even show up most weeks. Coincidence?
The Main Event – Raw
Raw closed with the advertised Triple Threat match thanks to Jericho having recovered the List in the interim, and it was a fine TV match involving three of Raw’s best performers, which ended awkwardly and saw Seth Rollins pin both Jericho and his opponent for Hell in a Cell, Universal Champion Kevin Owens, at the exact same time, winning what was essentially a handicap match so convincingly that we entirely expected to hear John Cena’s music play after the three count. However, we’ll give points to Raw finally having Kevin Owens do what he should have been doing from the very start of this feud, shrugging off Seth Rollins and powerbombing him on the ring apron. You know, that thing he used to do which got him over as an incredible badass monster heel that people would probably pay money to see, which he suddenly stopped doing when he became Universal Champion and became content to hold the mic for Chris Jericho. So it was a hot ending to the show, but one that should have taken place several weeks ago.
The Main Event – Smackdown
In the final match of Smackdown, AJ Styles faced Dean Ambrose, and if Ambrose won, he would become #1 contender to the WWE World Title, which would seem to make the finish obvious. After all, WWE loves to lean on “*blank* has beaten the champion” as a way to start feuds, and in fact, on Raw, the Tag Team Champions and Universal Champion both lost non-title matches against their Hell in a Cell opponents, and the #1 contender to the Cruiserweight title was beaten by an unrelated opponent. But Smackdown went an entirely different way, as after a good match between Styles and Ambrose, the finish involved Styles trying to take out James Ellsworth, who had accompanied Ambrose to the ring. A fired-up Ellsworth then hit Styles with No Chin Music to a thunderous ovation…only to realize that he’d done it right it front of the referee. Ambrose was disqualified, meaning that shockingly, he won’t be #1 Contender. That may change down the road, because we’re not sure who Styles’ next opponent will be if it’s not Ambrose (and given the format of Survivor Series with its multiple inter-brand elimination matches, they might take a while to figure it out), but we have to give credit to Smackdown for not going with the obvious foregone conclusion and coming up with an inventive finish. Plus, there’s always a chance this was all part of Ellsworth’s secret master plan to get another title shot, which we are entirely in favor of.
Promo Of The Week
Rusev continues his streak of shockingly good mic work, this time in a pre-taped promo that had him at both his most aggressive, and his most babyface. If we didn’t know any better, watching that promo would have really got us believing that he’s a heroic figure defending the honor of his wife and family against an oafish brute who seems determined to ruin his life. And that’s not just because we don’t like Roman Reigns, it’s based on the content of Rusev’s impassioned speech. Making Rusev start talking more was both the best and worst thing WWE did with his character, because clearly he’s a great talker that has gotten better the more mic time he’s been given, but he’s also so good that it’s become nearly impossible for WWE to maintain his persona as an evil foreign heel who hates America and should be booed.
Match Of The Week
While both main events featured decent wrestling this week, we’re going to go off-book and recommend you check out Natalya vs Nikki Bella from Smackdown. Another match that should have been filler but actually had stakes, when it was announced that the winner would captain the Survivor Series female team for Smackdown, while the loser would not be on the team at all. While Nikki has never been a wrestler who can carry a match, she’s improved into a good enough wrestler and a savvy veteran who can raise her game to the level of her opponent, and Natalya is, after all, a Hart, with all that implies. Given enough time to show off (you can definitely see that the Smackdown women have been motivated to show up their Raw counterparts whenever they can), Nikki and Natalya put on a very good match with some unique submissions that was well worth the time invested.
Wrestler Of The Week
The Cruiserweight Division might be slow to catch on with the general public, but Brian Kendrick is doing his damnedest to make sure that he makes the most out of his last kick at the can. Putting him in the ring with an electric opponent like Rich Swann (who we’re also pleased to see getting some love from the audience) didn’t hurt, but Kendrick is also putting himself head-and-shoulders above the rest of his contemporaries in the division with his acting. Sure, it’s all a ploy to try and get the Cruiserweight title without expending too much effort, and nobody really believes that Kendrick won’t still be around after Sunday, win or lose, but he sells the desperation of his position so effectively that you want to believe he’s been reduced to begging TJ Perkins to take pity on him in order to finally reach that brass ring he might never get another opportunity to grab. It’s undercut slightly by Perkins having the emotional capacity of cardboard, but the combination of Kendrick’s in-ring performance and his work at trying to convince TJP to just let him win this one for old time’s sake makes him our MVP for the week.
Probably no shock here, because Raw was, by popular opinion, something resembling a dumpster fire (although that’s probably a little harsh, but it was definitely a bad show), while Smackdown was its usual breezy two hours of good wrestling in matches with stakes and decent storytelling that slowly built feuds towards eventual payoffs, with a couple neat surprises to open and close the show. Smackdown could have won this week’s Brand Warfare just by making sure they aired something resembling a wrestling program for two hours, but it’s nice that they decided to continue putting on good shows as well. We feel like we need to point out that while three hours is too long for a wrestling show, the real problem for Raw is that they’re not using the time they have effectively, airing throwaway matches with no stakes just to fill time. Meanwhile, Smackdown uses every inch of their two hours, making sure that if it goes on the air, it matters, even if it is just a match between The Hype Bros and The Ascension.