|Flair fucked up as GM of RAW|
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Let me explain why the 2002 WWE Brand Extension was doomed from the start.
This is a topic that many writers have discussed, dissected and examined from just about all angles. If not for the Invasion the year before, this would probably be fantasy booked the most. Splitting up the roster into two separate entities, with trades and the possibility of free agents? Message board from those days must be a mess of draft probabilities and suggestions on what music to download from Napster.
So in the interest of fairness this is going to be less of a condemnation on the idea of a brand extension, but more towards the end result of the initial “WWE Draft” that took place in March with Vince McMahon in charge of the Smackdown roster, and Ric Flair in charge of RAW. This graphic shows the results, in the order they were “drafted” starting from left to right. Vince won the coin toss and selected The Rock first, Flair went with Undertaker, and so on.
*The nWo plus Billy and Chuck were selected as teams. As a result, RAW made 28 picks and Smackdown made 29*
Since McMahon had the first pick, let’s examine the Smackdown roster:
Best Pick: Kurt Angle
Sometimes, it’s about investing in the future over the instant results. While The Rock practically named the damn show, it was Angle who ended up doing the heavy lifting. 2002-2005 saw Angle reach new heights as a performer in and out of the ring, winning the Undisputed Title and main eventing WrestleMania with it. Feuds with Edge, Rey Mysterio, Chris Benoit, and Eddie Guerrero stole shows and thrilled fans.
Sleeper Pick: Edge (7th pick)
The 2001 King of the Ring winner was beginning to gain traction as a singles star, but needed more of a platform to showcase his skills. Besides the aforementioned feud with Kurt Angle, he teamed with Rey Mysterio and ended up involved in arguably the best tag match WWE ever had against Angle and Benoit. His initial Smackdown run became a launch point of sorts to becoming a legitimate world title contender in the years that followed.
Top-heavy, but incredibly diverse, it isn’t surprise that Smackdown was regarded as a better brand from jump. The core of what became known as the Smackdown Six, plus the mega star power of Hulk Hogan and The Rock to start off helped bring in and maintain viewers after the draft when other pieces started to be added and/or taken away.
Moving on to RAW:
Good God, Ric! What the hell happened?
Considering the duration and success, it’s hard to argue against Trish Stratus as the best draft pick for RAW. Injuries and bad management led to various top picks being unavailable, creating the eventual HHH takeover from late 2002 all the way until McMahon “shook things up” in 2008. Stratus turned from valet, to champion, to one of the most iconic female wrestlers in WWE history.
One of the bigger surprises looking back at this was the amount of guys still working matches in WWE over 14 years later. 10 guys will have had a match on WWE programming this year, which is either a testament to their durability or a critique of how wholly inadequate the WWE has been in making stars. Another surprise was just how easy it was to see someone like Paul Heyman lead the charge to make Smackdown a superior product when you look at the two rosters they started with. Making people watch the future still is a winning formula, as seen with the difference in optimism between those watching NXT to those seeing the main product.
RAW was old from the start with this Brand Extension, and looking back it’s no surprise it turned into a boring product. 2016 provides a fresh start, and hopefully the failures of the past lead them to making both rosters exciting to watch. This time, there’s no Stone Cold to quickly forgive a bad start.