The Brand Extension: Success Or Failure"
May 3, 2005 by Jack Malone
It is over three years since the night that changed the course of WWE forever and people are still debating as to whether the brand extension was a good idea or not. Some feel it really helped out, allowing more talent to shine through. Some feel it's had its time and the brands need to merge once again. Some even feel that the whole thing was a complete waste of time, which really did nothing for the progress of WWE. Who is right" This column is a brief history of the highs and lows that have occurred ever since that memorable night back in March 2002, a comparison of RAW and SmackDown! and an insight into a possible future.
The original idea of the brand extension was to allow younger talent to develop, more talent to be pushed to the main event scene and the majority of WWE's growing roster to be granted ample TV time. This made sense at the time, because ever since the invasion had ended, there had been a severe competition for air time between the older more established talent and the newer talent from WCW/ECW.
It was March 25th 2002. As RAW kicked off, a level of tension was present, one that could not be created by any normal edition of a wrestling show. The fans knew that they were about to witness history as it unfolded before them. The draft itself had only been announced a week prior to the event, but had been rumoured for months, so both casual fans and Internet "smarks" were well aware of what they were about to see. Throughout the show, Vince McMahon and Ric Flair (heads of RAW and SmackDown! respectively) selected ten wrestlers each to appear exclusively on their brand. Flair's immediate line-up contained the likes of Undertaker, Kane, nWo, Rob Van Dam, Booker T, Lesnar and Big Show; whilst Vince McMahon steered towards The Rock, Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, Edge, Jericho and Hogan.
Yet there were several questionable decisions. Firstly, two strong tag teams were split up in the form of the Dudleys and the APA. Plus, the Hardys were drafted to RAW, away from the tag titles, which rested on SmackDown's Billy and Chuck. For a start, the tag team division had been all but killed off. Secondly, the Intercontinental, European and Hardcore Titles were placed on RAW; whilst SmackDown! held only the more gimmicky attractions in the tag team and cruiserweight titles. It was decided at this point that the then Undisputed Title and Womens' Title would be joint property, in that the current holder of each belt would be able to appear on both brands to defend the championship.
So a whole week passed. After one final joint edition of SmackDown!, the future of WWE got underway. The first edition of the new look RAW was downright impressive. It had a real "brand new show" feel to it and did exactly what was promised, then and in the coming weeks. RVD and the re-signed Eddie Gurrearo feuded over the intercontinental strap. Regal fought to retain his European Title. Several lower mid-carders locked in battles over the hardcore title, whilst sidelining the 24-7 rule, adding a lot of prestige to the previously mis-used title. Plus, the acquisition of Stone Cold Steve Austin really gave RAW a boost.
As for SmackDown!, well sadly, it wasn't quite as impressive as RAW. It still felt somewhat similar to the show we had been watching prior to the split, just without some of the more established names that appeared before. The tag team titles were not worth a whole lot, lacking the real competitive division that surrounded them before. However, the cruiserweight division did receive a considerable boost, as the likes of Hurricane, Kidman, Tajiri and Noble received considerable airtime to compete with one another. As for the main event, well the highlight was the Edge/Kurt Angle feud, which marked not only the loss of Angle's hair, but the first signs of real star potential from Edge. The show missed out however, from the lack of an upper mid-card belt. A lot of guys with plenty of potential were stuck going nowhere as a result.
So, in all this excitement, how did the multi-brand titles stand" Well, as a result of the new attention being granted to the mid-card, the Undisputed Title became less considered. Title changes became somewhat meaningless, because the belt was being tossed around between various people who WWE wanted to appear on both shows. Triple H dropped the belt after a month to Hogan, who lost it the next month in an awful match to The Undertaker, who then dropped it after two months to The Rock, who lost it after just a month to the new talent Brock Lesnar. Until Lesnar, had any of these guys really required the belt" Hogan was too old. Undertaker was the type of heel who didn't need to hold the title.
The Rock was a mere transition champion. Yet Brock Lesnar was the first sign of success fro the brand extension. After just five months, he had displayed some amazing ability and impressed many fans. So when he won the belt for the first time, fans were willing to accept him. Had the shows still been joint, would Lesnar have risen so quickly" Most likely not. This was evidently a positive result for the future of WWE.
In this period however, both shows themselves began to suffer. RAW slid downhill at a drastic rate, following several failed angles. Flair turning heel on Austin was too predictable and completely unnecessary at such an early stage. Wrestlers hopped too and from the now bandwagon every few weeks, reducing the credibility of the group to zero, until eventually, it disintegrated mid-angle. Booking was downright awful! The loss of Stone Cold Steve Austin was yet another huge blow. SmackDown! couldn't have been thought of as a lot better, but showed signs of improvement.
After Austin's departure, Flair was removed as head of RAW and two new general managers were appointed, one for each show. It was this that first brought the brand competition to life. Bischoff was announced as the new face of RAW, whilst Stephanie McMahon returned to lead SmackDown! Bischoff was an immediate success, breathing new life into the heel GM role. He played a character that intended to turn RAW around and the fans bought into it very well. Stephanie however, was a great deal weaker in terms of character. She played a face, yet the authority she showed was never as believable as a stronger character's could have been. Yet when it was announced that the GMs could now sign one another's talent, the shows became gripping once again. Each week, fans saw superstars leaping between brands and GMs fighting to hold on to their top stars. This was real edge of the seat stuff, with a real feel of not knowing who will be next. Although it did take away from the idea of RAW and SmackDown! being separate entities, it provided a lot of entertainment, which was important at that very point.
RAW gained Triple H, Jericho and a returning Benoit and SmackDown! gained Undertaker, Gurrearo and Lesnar. Benoit went on to defect back to SmackDown!, taking the intercontinental belt with him. Yet RVD quickly took this back to RAW at Summerslam. The Un-Americans joined RAW and brought the tag titles with them. It was also announced that the women's title would now be exclusive property of RAW. These fast-paced changes were somewhat confusing to any average fan who attempted to keep up, but overall they proved successful and helped to balance out the roster. However, it was evident that RAW now had access to all of the major titles, giving it a distinct advantage in terms of drawing.
As the Undisputed Title scene continued to suffer, WWE made another decision, this time to split the belt between both shows. Lesnar brought the WWE Title to SmackDown!, then the world title was introduced on RAW. This sudden change opened up a whole new window of opportunity for the creation of stars on both shows simultaneously. Yet, it was in the following six months that the two brands truly separated in terms of class. Heyman was appointed head booker of SmackDown! and took his brand on to thrive, whilst RAW became a constant tedium, failing to capitalise on the potential it had.
You see, RAW became the "Triple H show". Bischoff handed the world title to him and from there, the rest of the roster was buried. This wasn't immediate however; September saw a half-decent feud in RVD/HHH for the title. This culminated in Flair joining forces with Triple H and helping him regain the title. Yet this lead to the infamous Katy Vick angle. This really was wrestling entertainment at it's worst. From there, WWE quickly moved on and brought Shawn Michaels back to centre stage for a month long reign, but the belt was back on Triple H by the end of the year. During this time, WWE managed to remove the hardcore, European and Intercontinental titles, with a new "one show one belt" policy. This went on to prove a failure. The only good thing RAW really offered in this period was the new and innovative elimination chamber, yet this wasn't enough to compete with SmackDown! The tag team division also continued to suffer, with the Hardys undergoing a somewhat non-descript split. WWE was forced to re-unite the Dudleys at Survivor Series, though their face run which followed was somewhat stale to say the least.
At the same time, SmackDown! was absolutely sensational. It really felt like the way WWF used to be, before the invasion. We had a psychological battle between Lesnar and Taker, culminating in an excellent hell in a cell match, in which Lesnar went over clean. On the side, SmackDown! developed it's own tag division, which saw Eddie, Chavo, Mysterio, Edge, Angle and Benoit providing fantastic matches each and every week, almost carrying the brand.
The only mistake that was made during this time was the torturous Dawn Marie/Torrie Wilson/Al Wilson saga, but this was still nothing compared to RAW's necrophilia. Just before the end of the year, we saw Heyman turn on Lesnar and hatch a plot to keep the title off Lesnar for good, plus the introduction of Haas and Benjamin, the hottest tag team seen in ages.
So, as 2003 began, we lead up to the first Wrestlemania since the brands became two - Wrestlemania 19. The main event of Lesnar/Angle stemmed from an amazing and compelling feud, perfectly booked from start to finish, with Lesnar winning the rumble and getting revenge on Heyman respectively.
SmackDown! also produced a strong cruiserweight match in Matt Hardy/Mysterio and a historical yet surprisingly entertaining fight between Hogan and McMahon, plus a fairly strong tag title match. RAW did provide us with one memorable feud in the form of HBK/Jericho, yet the world title picture was awful. The HHH/Booker feud became built essentially around racism. This would have been ok, had Booker gone on to prove that HHH was wrong, but he didn't. HHH picked up the victory, literally saying that he was right about Booker all along; this wasn't a good move at all. RVD and Kane were left off the card altogether to make room for a ridiculous filler in the shape of a catfight. RAW however did maintain a certain level of attention, with the returns of Stone Cold and The Rock. The Rock was playing a heel for the first time in around four years and doing an excellent job of it, whilst Austin played his classic face role just as well as ever. The two of them feuded and this lead to a final showdown at Mania, their third match at the event.
After Wrestlemania, WWE started to truly recognise the unbalance they had created. The introduction of brand exclusive PPVs brought about the opportunity for both brands to run separately, yet it did cause the departure of the ever-popular King of the Ring. Heyman was removed from the head of booking position (a few weeks prior to Mania in fact) and RAW was soon granted a little more attention. With Kurt Angle and Edge out injured, SmackDown! had lost two of it's main stars and couldn't re-gain the level of excellency it had obtained before Mania. Lesnar feuded with John Cena and Big Show, but it was at this point that Lesnar started to lose his popularity. Ever since winning back the belt at Wrestlemania, he'd been made to look less dominant and more of a people man. There is nothing wrong with this type of face champion usually, except it didn't suit Lesnar. The return of Angle saw the two become good friends and whilst this was entertaining, it still just wasn't Lesnar. It wasn't until after Angle stole the title in a triple threat match that Lesnar joined forces with Vince McMahon in a shocking heel turn. At first it looked as if, this would lead to the return of the original monster heel Lesnar, but did it" Time would tell.
So what became of RAW throughout these months" Well, it was the start of RAW's re-building time, with slightly improved booking over before. Yet sadly, the belt remained around Triple H for a further six months after Wrestlemania. He defeated Kevin Nash in a hell in a cell match, which really wasn't anything to remember. Yet the intercontinental title was brought back, which could be considered the first step to righting some wrongs.
Christian, Booker T and RVD all held the title within the first six months of its return; but to Booker and RVD, this was a major step down. After competing for the world title just a matter of months ago, it was a shock to see both shoved down the rankings, since this really wasn't the idea of the brand extension.
But the highlight of the post-Wrestlemania RAW episodes was the debut of Goldberg. He made a huge impact straight off, defeating The Rock, Christian, Jericho and finally taking the world title off Triple H. Goldberg was truly being made to look dominant, the way Lesnar should have been. With Stone Cold back on the injured list, Goldberg had to be pushed as the top face and throughout his title reign. The other history-changing moment of this time was the un-masking of Kane; something that fans had been waiting to see for years. This breathed new life into the Kane character, granting him a new psycho heel gimmick, which brought new levels of sadism to the show. It was expected that a Goldberg/Kane feud was being set up, but this never really got off the ground. It was eventually Triple H who took back the belt. This was one of WWE's most questionable decisions since the split, why was Triple H champ once again" Wasn't it time for Jericho or Kane to shine" Apparently not. The thing which was able to spice up RAW a lot was Austin being introduced as new co-GM, making for a long and meaningful power struggle.
So SmackDown! pressed on with the Lesnar/Angle feud, with reversed roles from earlier in the year. Angle defeated Lesnar with a clean submission at Summerslam (something that doesn't usually happen to a monster heel). Lesnar did eventually regain the title in a five star ironman match, but after this he just wasn't the same. He became a stereotypical cowardly heel. The booking on SmackDown! became fairly lacklustre without Heyman leading the way. The tag titles switched to and fro between Los Gurrearos and The World's Greatest Tag Team (formerly Team Angle). Mysterio became the face of the cruiserweight division, being built way too far above the rest. The US Title was introduced, but wasted around the waste of Eddie Gurrearo, who was massively over as a face solos star, yet at the same time had tag team commitments and didn't need to be in two divisions. So the US belt was placed on Big Show, who barely defended it at all. This title had lost a lot of credibility within just six months. In October, Stephanie was finally removed as GM and Heyman brought in. This was an instant improvement. Heyman once again backed Lesnar and started to bring out the monster in him. Yet with Lesnar as the only major heel on the brand, SmackDown! was beginning to suffer from the "Triple H effect". So an army of lumbering hosses were placed as Lesnar's sidekicks, in a hope to build up some new heel names.
Matt Morgan and Nathan Jones had nothing to offer, especially Jones who had already proved that earlier in the year. A-Train was always a waste of space. Big Show was the only talent among them, but should have been defending his US Title. When Lesnar was made to tap out at Survivor Series, his last piece of monster momentum was gone. In the following weeks he defeated Benoit with a screwy finish, but just couldn't obtain the impact and attitude he had carried previously.
It was from here that things really started to change for the better and add some real good qualities to the brand extension. Randy Orton won the Intercontinental Title from Rob Van Dam at Armageddon. Chris Benoit won the royal rumble. Eddie Gurrearo took the WWE Title at No Way Out. John Cena won the US Title at Wrestlemania XX, the same event where Benoit went on to win the world title. Gurrearo defended his strap against the newly turned Angle in yet another great match. Wrestlemania was a good sign overall, with the cruiserweight, women's and tag titles all being defended in legitimate matches. The only downside here was that RVD and Booker T were holding the tag straps, meaning they had moved even further down the rankings. The brand split clearly had done nothing but harm for them at this point. The event also marked the return the Undertaker's deadman gimmick and the final match of both Goldberg and Brock Lesnar (both of whom quit after the event). The match was awful anyway, so the fans didn't feel as if they were missing much.
Immediately following Wrestlemania, Vince McMahon announced the draft lottery, where six superstars from each brand would switch. Potentially, this could have been great, but just became another missed opportunity. It did hold it's good points; Booker, RVD and the Dudleys were all moved to SmackDown!, where they were at first given a lot more attention than they were previously. However, the draft was used mainly to split a lot of strong tag teams and stables: WGTT, FBI, Jindrak/Cade, La Resistance, Tajiri's stable. Out of the lot, Shelton Benjamin was the only one who really benefited. Haas went on to be stuck jobbing, Palumbo and Stamboli were both soon released, Cade removed from TV, Durpree wasted, Tajiri pulled from the cruiserweight division, Sakoda released, Akio shoved onto Velocity and Grenier/Conway doing exactly what they were before. So in fairness, was there any point in the draft" The most noticeable changes were Edge to RAW, as he returned from year long injury, and Heyman to RAW, forcing him to quit his job. This was done only to make room for Angle to step up and take the GM role whilst he was injured.
So which brand thrived after Wrestlemania" Surprisingly, it was RAW. With the title finally off Triple H and on Benoit, we saw a real change in the direction of the show. Benoit was something fresh and exciting, whilst Triple H still kept up with things by feuding with Shawn Michaels once again. Orton defeated Foley after a brutal hardcore feud, adding another legend to his list. Batista also started to show sings of star potential.
The only real problem was that whatever Triple H was doing still managed to take priority over Benoit. WWE went wrong here, in that to make a star out of Benoit, they had to make him the focus of the show but failed to do so.
Instead, Triple H pretty much remained the franchise. When he eventually did gain his rematch with Benoit, the foucs was pretty much on Eugene costing Triple H the victory, so Benoit was still not put over as much as he could have been. At Vengeance, Orton dropped the IC belt after a seven month reign to Edge, who was still somewhat green after returning from injury. Straight after his big win, Edge started to lose the support of the fans; he just wasn't the same. However, Orton went on to win the world title the next month; yet another excellent result of the brand extension. The lowest point for RAW had to be the latest attempt at a soap opera angle, the Kane/Lita/Matt love triangle, but the worst of that was yet to come.
SmackDown! however, became a second rate show altogether show altogether.
With Angle in the GM role and Lesnar gone, there were no major heels to challenge Gurrearo for the belt. Booker T was the first to turn and step up, but his popularity remained, despite the recent actions. So in this time of need, WWE decided to move the spotlight onto none other than the APA's Bradshaw. Farooq was released and Bradshaw - now known as JBL - was made into the ultimate heel, with a Ted DiBiase style gimmick. This worked well, but all happened too soon. He was literally shoved down our throats, without giving us enough time to get to know his new character. This had always been one of the fears at the start of the brand split; that one brand would never have enough talent to hold up. At the new and frankly diabolical PPV, Great American Bash, WWE put all it's faith in Bradshaw by giving him the strap, a brave move all around. Meanwhile, Cena brought back some real credibility to the US Title, until eventually being stripped of it. At this point, Angle was removed as GM and returned to the active roster, so Theodore Long was brought in. Long played a face GM and did a much better job than Stephanie ever did. It took him a while to build up his popularity, but he did it, becoming arguably the best face head-of-show since Foley. However, it was also around this time that the cruiserweight belt was turned into a mere joke title. The belt was tossed between Jacqueline and Chavo Classic in a series of comedy plots, completely killing off the last bit of credibility the belt had.
However, this Wrestlemania-Summerslam time period offered a few noticeable observations. Firstly, a lot of new talent from OVW was starting to be
introduced: Eugene, Luther Reigns, Kenzo Suzuki, Mordecai etc. and shortly after this so to were the likes of Snitzky, Heidenreich (for a second chance), Carlito etc. At first, this appeared to be a great idea; giving these guys the chance they wouldn't have had before. Yet when you look at them, just how many of them were really talented enough to warrant a call up" Carlito and Eugene are the only ones who have really impressed and that is more on the mic than anything. Snitzky and Suzuki look hideous in the ring and were not ready, whilst Mordecai was simply scrapped altogether.
After Summerslam, things changed...a lot. RAW took the main event in a totally new direction, with Evolution turning on Randy Orton; something completely unexpected to happen so soon. Was it a good thing" Well, Orton's face run didn't really work out and Triple H had his precious World Title back around his waist within a month; something many were tired of seeing. Elsewhere, Edge continued to receive boos from the fans, despite playing the face and was eventually stripped of his title due to injury, allowing Jericho to step up once again. Jericho/Christian was something we'd seen before, but a ladder match made it a little more interesting. The awful Kane/Lita angle continued. After the unlikely couple were married, Matt was sidelined, causing Snitzky to step up and feud with Kane. Yes, things really were that bad. However, at the same time as all this, WWE pressed on with the RAW diva search. It was totally awful. Each week, twenty minutes of TV time was being wasted watching these girls trying to entertain. It didn't work at all and simply took away the time that would be given to the women's division, which suffered as a result. Yet about the most noticeable event in these months was Taboo Tuesday, the ridiculously named and innovative PPV, where the fans would get the chance to vote. What was really on offer" Other than deciding who wrestled in a few of the matches, the rest of the choices were ridiculous. The Kane/Snitzky match, bad enough already, was offered to us as one of three presentations: chair match, chain match or pipe match. It didn't even matter which one, because the chair was used regardless. The rest of the choices were similar, in that they made very little difference to anything. Overall, this event was a failure.
SmackDown! continued to push JBL as the champion, whilst he remained very green at this point. The rest of the show started to show some signs of improvement, with fresh new ideas arriving. The Dudleys, now a three-man heel stable, were a lot more interesting than before, helping Spike to retain the cruiserweight title. London and Kidman were allowed almost three months as tag champs, before finally being split. Cena and Booker feuded over the US Title in a best of five series. It looked as if SmackDown! were finally starting to respect the use of their undercard, but the JBL/Taker feud continued throughout all of this and really wasn't all that good.
Sadly, SmackDown! also reverted to the same "reality TV" direction of RAW and introduced a new Tough Enough, which would work similarly to the diva search, with the fans watching each week and voting until we had a winner.
Potentially, this could have been very interesting but unfortunately, it relied more on comedy than actual wrestling. So this became yet another waste of airtime.
As we came to the end of the year, nothing changed all that much on SmackDown!, but RAW decided on a whole new angle. Triple H lost the world title as the result of a draw between his two opponents, so the title was vacated. This lead to a very well built elimination chamber match at the first PPV of the year - New Year's Revolution. Yet, the belt was merely put straight back around the waste of The Game, begging the question - what was the point of the angle" This PPV was awful in general, with one of the worst cards ever seen. JBL still clutched the WWE title, becoming more impressive on the mic but still lacking in the ring. WWE new they needed a change in the coming months and that is ultimately what we got.
Batista won the royal rumble, eliminating John Cena in a screwy finish.
Batista went on to take the World Title at Wrestlemania, whilst Cena took the WWE Title on the same show. This marked an incredible change in direction for WWE, something the fans had long been calling for. Yet another two guys were given the chance to step up, adding to the list of successes.
At the same time, there was a huge negative. All of the lower titles were being forgotten. The intercontinental title was around the waist of Shelton Benjamin, who did not defend it at Wrestlemania. The US Title was simply given to Orlando Jordan to further the WWE title feud. Both sets of tag titles were left on transition champions and once again not defended at Wrestlemania. The cruiserweight title changed hands on the SmackDown! prior to Wrestlemania. The only other title that was actually defended at Wrestlemania was the women's title, pitting Trish Stratus against the completely undeserving Christy Hemme. A godawful match all around.
Not a lot has changed since Wrestlemania, both brands are somewhat even right now. Bear in mind, I'm writing this before Backlash and should let you know that if Triple H regains the belt once again, that will be ridiculous.
Let me explain why:
Looking back on the column, a lot of points can be drawn out about whether the brand extension had indeed been the success it claimed to be. Firstly, we do have new stars in the way of Lesnar, Gurrearo, Benoit, JBL, Orton, Cena and Batista; that's a strong positive effect. Then look at it this way:
how many of those guys have really remained stars" Lesnar quit. Gurrearo is stuck in the tag ranks. Benoit has been made to look a lot weaker. Orton became unpopular as a face and had to turn heel once again, giving him hope.
As for the current champions, well who knows"
You see, the problem is that on RAW Triple H is always the focus of the show. No matter who is the champion, the show is always about him. Why exactly" He doesn't need to be at the top all the time, he's proved himself before. We don't always need an established name to carry the company, we need to make new ones. If WWE wishes to use the separate brands to create new stars, they need less Triple H. SmackDown! uses it's talent better, but does seem unable of keeping a clear main event scene. Yes, there have been successes on both shows, but look at the other end of the scale. Jericho, Kane, Booker T and Rob Van Dam; what has the split done for them" Nothing.
Of course, it's also meant a lot of new guys can be introduced, with varying results (just compare Carlito and Eugene to Mordecai and Suzuki). This is neither really a positive or a negative at this point - that remains to be seen. The main negatives of the brand extension have been the poor quality PPV cards and lack of talent to fill lower divisions. Guys like the Coach have been stepping up to PPV matches, just to add another match to the card.
There have been more transition champion than are countable. So in this area of things, the brand extension has really hindered. Does this mean it's negatives outweigh its positives"
No. You see, to conclude, without two separate brands, there wouldn't be nearly enough TV time to suit everyone. WWE knows this. Despite a lot of bad booking at times and wasted potentially, the split has to stay in order to keep all the talent satisfied. Ok, so far, the whole thing hasn't been a roaring success, but without it, who knows how bad WWE would be today.
by Jack Malone --- [View Jack Malone's Column Index]..
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