WWE Gets a Makeover
While I've been thinking a ton about the Draft over the past several weeks, I decided to wait until after RAW to put the final polish on this long-simmering column. Rambling for 1500 words, without knowing the GMs, without knowing the precise ground rules, and hell, without knowing who the WWE Champion might be.... well, that didn't seem to be an adviseable way to go about this piece.
But now, all those final pieces are in place, we know all the dynamics at work, and from there we can take weeks worth of reflection and contemplation about the Draft, and funnel it into the right kinds of discussions.
First, the rules of the Draft:
RAW gets the first pick, and every other round, gets an extra pick. This is in deference to RAW having to fill 3 hours per week, versus SD's 2.
The overwhelming majority of tag teams and singles-with-seconds (e.g. Miz with Lana) will count as one single draft pick, unless one side specifically ONLY WANTS one member of a team. The New Day and Social Outcasts will count as single units, despite having 3 guys each. Oddly, the Wyatts are all classified as singles wrestlers. Gallows & Anderson are a team, but AJ Styles does not come with them.
As far as part time special attractions, Brock Lesnar is on the list of draft eligible performers. But the Undertaker and The Rock are not.
No announcers/interviewers/TV personalities are included in the Draft this time around.
There will be 6 picks allowed off the NXT roster, first come first served (not 3 for each brand).
Additionally, RAW has been gifted exclusive rights to a new Cruiserweight Division, which could/should have an impact on draft choices.
We also now know that Mick Foley will be the week-in/week-out General Managaer of RAW, while Daniel Bryan will handle those duties for SmackDown. This will allow the McMahons to fade back a little bit, as part time performers. Last night on RAW, a backstage confrontation between Bryan and Foley actually did a great job of establishing the foundation for each of them to truly want to top the other one: they were similar in so many trailblazing ways, but Mick feels he did it first, which should count for something, but instead of being grateful for Mick's groundwork, Bryan feels he can improve upon Foley's accomplishments.... things got all salty, and they finally just realized "Hey, we never did cross paths in the ring, and now, we never will, so THIS is the way we compete to decide who's the best."
You could, conceivably, have Steph looking over Mick's shoulder all the time, offering him "helpful suggestions," too, adding in a dynamic where Mick's constantly doubting himself or changing plans mid-stream because of one week's worth of ratings/reviews. Meantime, Bryan should be free and clear to implement his vision, with Shane remaining hands-off unless something really creates a disconnect with fans.
It all adds up to RAW being the sensible place to favor older, established veterans, while SD plays the underdog role of making new stars out of younger talents.
But counter-intuitively, all signs point to John Cena making the move to SD. He's the ultimate older, established vet, but with age comes injury, and WWE is drastically reducing Cena's schedule. He'll still do TV every week, but short of major markets and foreign tours, he'll do very few house shows. Because of this, Cena may not be the A-Number-1 Workhorse and Face of the Company, which allows him to go to SD and bring his gravitas and star power to raise the brand's profile before people catch on to the fact that he's officially in his declining years.
That said, nobody has been as vigilant and generous as Cena when it comes to helping to make new stars. Outside of a small pocket of Internet Wankers who think they know how wrestling works, but really don't, it's plain as day to see that Cena has done great work in "making" guys. Sure, maybe Cena ultimately wins the feud, but that has nothing to do with taking a guy who as at THIS level to begin with, and then having him end at THAT level.
So that trick that Cena first pulled way back with Edge, and which he's kept pulling when paired up with adequately talented performers like Kevin Owens and AJ Styles (and in a totally different way, what he's now doing for Enzo & Cass), I think we can safely assume that Cena's up for a few more of those. For that reason, I'm sure he embraces the idea of working on SD, if that is, indeed, what happens.
Where Cena ends up is almost a bigger issue than where the WWE Champion winds up. That's because it's all but etched in stone that WWE will be splitting the WWE Title, and each brand will have it's own champion (likely reverting to the old nomenclature: one is the WWE Champion and the other is the World Champion). Despite the wonky finish of last night's RAW, Dean Ambrose is still the Champ, but honestly, with a Triple Threat looming on Sunday, before either brand actually runs a show with its new, exclusive roster, it's VERY likely that at least 2 men will have a legit claim to be champion.
So going out of your way to pick Ambrose isn't necessarily anything, but maybe trying to make sure you get 2 out of Ambrose/Rollins/Reigns, and you probably start next week with one of the half-champions, and we're well on our way to double belts.
Up until late last week, I had Brock Lesnar right there with Cena and the three possible champs, as the top 5 on the board. But WWE has already pulled all advertising that would indicate Lesnar is appearing on tonight's SD, as originally planned. And while Lesnar/Orton at SummerSlam is still on, WWE may downplay Lesnar's badassery: if Lesnar can't beat his drug test rap, he no longer holds a UFC win over Mark Hunt (it is wiped off the books), so he's not really as bad-ass anymore, and plus, if WWE keep Lesnar on a low profile, they can always give him his 30 day suspension, retroactive to June 28 or something like that, and bring him back on August 1 to do the build to SummerSlam.
I dunno, just spitballing, but I know without Brock present in the arena tonight, it would ring hollow to put him up there in that first 5. [DIGRESSION: in a lot of ways, I've started trying to think in groupings of 5, since with RAW's extra pick, that's really the best way to delineate a "round." RAW then SD is technically "round 1," then SD then RAW with a bonus pick for RAW is technically "round 2." But really, that whole progression of RAW, SD, SD, RAW, RAW -- or maybe RAW/SD/RAW/SD/RAW, if they don't "snake" the picks -- is one unit of the Draft, if you ask me.]
While Cruiserweights will be exclusive to RAW, it's been made clear that both brands will have women and tag teams. WHat is NOT at all clear is whether they'll each have a Women's Champ and a Tag Team Champ. I desperately hope not, and instead, we reprise the very earliest days of the original brand split where each show had a dedicated roster of its own teams and women, but the champion was allowed to appear on both shows (any time a champion loses they/she revert back to the brand that originally drafted them). There's enough depth for 3 compelling and viable feuds in each division (1 for the title, 1 exclusive to RAW, 1 exclusive to SD), but adding second titles, you would require at least 4 simultaneous TV-worthy feuds in each division (1 for the title and 1 secondary, on both shows). And I just don't see pulling that off.
On the other hand, I'm very much in favor of one show getting the IC and the other getting the US, and keeping those titles brand-exclusive. Unlike teams and women, there isn't a stigma of "oh, it's its own separate thing" limiting the number of participants when it comes to singles wrestling. Plenty of warm bodies and roster depth to have one set of 4-6 main event players at the world title level, with another 10-12 in the mix for TV time and a secondary title, before the drop off to the curtain jerkers.
We've gone on long enough without discussing NXT. Even before WWE made it official that there would be 6 picks made from NXT, it's been a poorly kept secret that WWE was ready for Finn Balor to get called up to the main roster.
Over the past several weeks, NXT has "used up" Balor (title loss to Samoa Joe, then "Demon" Balor lost for the first time in the rematch against Joe, just last week, Balor did the honors for Shinsuke Nakamura), so clearly, his time is now. If they give him the full "Demon" entrance, I can see it going over like gangbusters even if Bryan "reaches" for Balor with a top 10 pick. Regular, everyday Balor ain't gonna be quite the same deal, though I'm sure he wouldn't get shat upon, either, if he's a higher-than-sensible pick.
Surprisingly, NXT had a sudden change of heart with American Alpha, who appeared set to win the tag team titles at last month's Takeover. But they didn't. And they lost a 3 falls rematch to the Revival, and now, they're doing the honors for The Authors of Pain. So, ummmm, they need somewhere to go and start over. Instant tag title contenders. Just hope the main roster "Universe" can appreciate Jordan and Gable for what they are, and not go overboard with the Kurt Angle crap (which the NXT fans briefly did, before they realized that Jordan and Gable are extremely awesome; I'm already salivating for Jordan/Lesnar, and Gable has such a wide variety of skills that he reminds me of Owen Hart).
That leaves 4 more picks from NXT. In terms of sheer, unadulterated high ceiling performers who would instantly fit into WWE's main event, you're next guy would HAVE to be Shinsuke Nakamura.... problem is, they already set his NXT Brooklyn program, and he's facing Samoa Joe for the NXT Title. It's not a problem to stick around NXT after your main roster debut to finish up a program, but to have it be such a huge, high profile match (18,000 in the same venue as SummerSlam), and for it to be REQUIRED to be a loss? That's just a sloppy mess. There's no precedent, really (no, not even Kevin Owens, who had to lose the NXT Title in decided non-spectacular fashion, in front of 2000 fans at Full Sail, after his call-up), and while work-arounds are possible, why not wait until you can bring in Shinsuke WITHOUT a momentum killing major match in front of him?
A good guess might be that one or two women get poached from NXT. Bayley was the one that got left behind last summer, and would get over huge with the main roster audience. But again, she's in a "chase" position for Brooklyn, and challenging Asuka for the Women's Title is once again a hindrance to any main roster operations. A unique opportunity could exist, however, if BOTH Bayley and Asuka get drafted. If an only if that happens, I would sign off on there being two women's titles in WWE, with the title being "drafted" and renamed along with them. In so doing, NXT Brooklyn would feature a match for a WWE Title and you WOULDN'T already know who has to win, which would jsut make it electric. [Also, NXT can run a tourney to crown their new champ, as they are slowly rebuilding the division, thanks to massive improvements by Alexa Bliss as a top heel, with Carmella really coming along on the babyface side, and Nia Jax as a very credible threat at all times; Liv Morgan and Peyton Royce are slowly showing TV-ready skills, and soon-to-debut Ember Moon should catch on quickly.]
If it were me, I'd try to use two NXT draft picks to send Apollo Crews and Baron Corbin BACK to NXT. In Crews' case, it's for his own good, to get more reps, because as explosively athletic as he is on high spots, he needs to tighten up the stuff in between (he was pretty badly exposed in that one match against Jericho where everything looked sloppy). In Corbin's case, it's because he bores me to tears, and needs to get the message that maybe this career isn't for him. Yes, it's true, I'm an asshole.
It's safe to assume tonight's SD won't encompass all 58 picks (52 specified draft eligible "units" according to WWE.com, plus the 6 NXT picks)... even if you run zero matches, and dedicate the entire two hours to draft picks, you gotta figure at least 15-20 minutes for an opening gab-fest with Shane/Steph/Bryan/Mick setting the stage and then revealing their first picks. From there, the next several picks would probably take 5 minutes to allow for a little mini-promo for everybody in the top 10. Then and only then could you get into more rapidfire picks, and even then, the pick has to get an entrance/appearance on the stage, so it'd still be hard to get it down to less than 90 seconds per pick.
That said, I have a hard time getting excited for a wrestling show with no wrestling, so even as exciting and riveting as the Draft is, we need to sneak in some mix of picks and action. What I would LOVE is if -- as part of that opening gabfest -- Shane and Steph agree that tonight's main event will pit the #1 Pick (RAW's) against #2 Pick (SD), because it's the last time they'll ever be on the same show. Maybe one or two other abbreviated "last chance to see" matches (last chance to see the Lucha Dragons as a team would be an obvious one), just to keep the draft picks from getting too tedious.
Do that, and honestly, can you envision squeezing in more than 20 picks tonight on TV? I can't.
WWE has already announced a "second screen experience" for tonight, where the pre-show panel will be analyzing the draft picks and getting follow-up interviews, so as not to gunk up SD with the #12 pick yammering on... obviously, a Supplemental Draft will be required, and while WWE has NOT announced it, a logical thing to do would be to just keep going with the final rapidfire rounds of the Draft over on the WWE Network, so that it's all done and finalized before we go to bed tonight.
Of course, WWE and logic? That's far from a safe bet, so who knows how they'll handle the back end of the Draft...
One thing we can look for is, whenever the Draft is done, both brands will start making free agent signings. Whether you suspend the Draft after 40 picks, and turn the rest into free agents, or you do all 58 picks, and use everybody up, it's the worst kept secret in wrestling that WWE is working to bring back some alumni to pad out the rosters with recognizable/over names. And also, to provide ultra-experienced talent to help the younger guys learn on the job.
Now, don't go getting your hopes up for Jeff Hardy or Kurt Angle or anyone like that. Yes, both have made noises about being interested in one last shot on the big stage, but that doesn't necessarily mean NOW. More like something closer to WrestleMania Season.
But Tajiri's already signed (after originally only doing a one-off contract for the Cruiserweight Classic, WWE decided to sign him to a full-time deal; Kota Ibushi has also signed a deal as of today, and others may follow given the need for cruisers). Carlito? MVP? Shelton Benjamin? Sure, why not, they'd be useful pieces! To a lesser degree, guys like Jimmy Yang and Curt Hawkins are also under consideration. Pretend to care! After Lucha Underground wraps up the filming of their third season, a LOT of their guys will be done, contractually, with the company, and WWE is said to be willing to negotiate early outs for some others; this might reunite them with Johnny Morrison, but better yet, would help populate that Cruiserweight Division.
And with that, I think I've said my piece. No, you will not get any "mock draft" out of me, because this isn't a real draft, it's a scripted endeavor meant to maximize utility for both brands, so.... yeah, it's not like this is a deal where the different parties have different needs, and a draft prognosticator can make a strong case for why Draftee X should go to Drater Y with Pick Z. I won't play that game with the WWE Draft.
That said, I do really appreciate the way announcers have been talking about the Draft on WWE TV. JBL, in particular, comes across as a football guy who has suffered many a draft, and understands the importance of a draft in real sports. But the entire crew has done a great job of trying to draw those parallels to how the draft will affect WWE, and it opens up the door for all kinds of cool stuff that I always mentioned back during the old split, but which could never happen, because IT WASN'T A REAL DRAFT. It was random-ass LOTTERY. Nobody picked anything, mysterious forces just assigned guys to different places, and magically, it usually worked out even in the end.
But this year, with a real draft, you really will see each brand implement a strategy (go young, as Bryan has suggested), or try to block the other side if their strategy is going well (don't let SD go TOO young!), you might have trades taking place, you could even conceivably have a performer who refuses to go to his assigned brand. The idea of the draft upending all current rates of compensation (if you take Kevin Owens #5, he's JUST the kind of guy who'd want a massive raise now that management has confirmed his status as a top player) could be kinda cool. Hold outs, contract renegotiation.... certainly not the kind of melodramatic nonsense you'd over-do, but one or two of the right guys with the right reasons could add to the legitimacy of the whole spectacle.
We live in interesting times, my friends. Should be interesting to see how WWE chooses to remake itself, effective tonight. Enjoy it, and be sure to come on back here around 10pm (eastern) for my full recap and analysis!