The annual sports entertainment rite of passage known as the inaptly-named WWE Draft took place tonight (April 25, as I write this). The event fascinates me for reasons wholly unrelated to in-ring competition. For fans savvy enough to read between the lines, the Draft offers a rare opportunity to divine how the organization’s creative team perceives the ideal business model over the course of the next year or so.
I thought it might be fun to break out the almost-a-cliche “live blog” format (Bill Simmons would call it a “running diary”) for this evening’s festivities. Before I do that, indulge me the opportunity to provide my take on talent utilization within the company.
I think there’s been a concerted effort to maintain some semblance of balance between the Monday and Friday rosters up to now. Certainly, Raw is the flagship show by any objective measure, especially with Smackdown now on equal-basic-cable footing with the senior program. So, we’ve seen the braintrust make sure that Smackdown retains a modicum of the company’s most prominent superstars.
I think it’s time to move away from that model. The shows should still be considered equals canonically, but Smackdown should be left as a repository for up-and-comers and talented performers who are a half-step below main event level. In other words, while Cena, HHH, Randy Orton, et al, can remain on Raw, Smackdown should provide an opportunity for John Morrison, Dolph Ziggler, Wade Barrett and the like to feud over the World Heavyweight Title. Incidentally, that’s part of the reason I think The Miz may get moved to Smackdown. I’m still not sure the public perceives him at the level of the more established guys, performance notwithstanding.
Naturally, there still needs to be a good face / heel balance, and that’s one problem Raw has right now. The awkward and unfortunate R-Truth angle seems like a desperate attempt to churn out a much-needed heel on a roster that’s starving for them. The Draft may remedy that.
While I doubt Smackdown will be set up as a “AAA farm team,” I do think that a major heel may go to Raw (or a face will go to Smackdown) to balance the roster better. I also think there’s a decent chance there will be some kind of announcer transaction such that Michael Cole winds up only on one show. That may take place during the Supplemental Draft. Another interesting sub-plot: This is the first time I can remember that the World Title or WWE Title was vacant at the time of the draft. While I would normally think Miz might get moved over, that would also necessitate the WHT somehow wind up back on Raw. So, perhaps the Miz moving is unlikely after all.
But that’s just my two cents. Let’s see how things unfold tonight:
9:00 – We start off with a battle royale right off the bat. Sidebar: I’m really glad we don’t have that ECW knock-off brand in the mix anymore. It just made the draft needlessly complicated and, somehow, more predictable. I’m betting Raw wins just because I’m not sure Khali can be safely thrown over the top rope.
9:02 – Oops. There goes Khali. I’m off to a great start.
9:10 – They just reiterated the “both feet must touch the floor” rule. It occurs to me that NCAA wrestling champ Anthony Robles would be unbeatable in battles royale.
9:15 – Big Show and Kofi prevail, and John Cena is headed to Smackdown. I mean . . . this makes sense from a roster-balancing perspective, but . . . business-wise? Hard sell. The retirement of Edge leaves a gaping hole in the SD roster, and this almost guarantees that Cena will have the World Title (or WWE Title, if it switches this Sunday) for much of 2011-12. However, I’m not sure it helps guys like Christian, Alberto Del Rio, Jack Swagger, or Wade Barrett. More dominoes must fall for this to make sense.
9:20 – Cena just dropped a bunch of contrived science fiction (and Dennis Rodman) references before Miz thankfully interrupted. Something about that whole interview felt weird.
9:30 – I learned one thing from that R-Truth promo: Apparently, you can’t say “pissed” on WWE television anymore. Wait, I learned two things. Thing Two: The WWE censor is a little slow on the draw.
9:36 – I guess they’re calling Awesome Kong “Kharma.” She’ll be fantastic.
9:40 – Whatever you think of Michael Cole, he is an effective heel by almost any definition of the term. Well, except the literal one.
9:43 – Mysterio to Raw. I’ve been mostly indifferent to Rey for the past five years, and it doesn’t bother me that he’ll be lost in the shuffle over there. I feel like he switches rosters every year. There’s probably a reason for that.
9:44 – Jim Ross warming up. Didn’t need to see that.
9:48 – Cody Rhodes is odd. I’m on the fence about the new gimmick. Not sure if it’s getting over or not. I’m also not sure whether Kofi Kingston’s logo is racist:
9:54 – It doesn’t entirely make sense that members of a particular brand would celebrate a draft pick. Why would Cena be happy that Orton was coming over to his roster? Anyway, I’m overthinking this. Randy Orton is going to SD, which almost guarantees a heel turn. That’s probably a good thing in the long run.
10:00 – We’re an hour in, and we’ve only seen three draft picks. At least they were arguably consequential.
10:05 – I probably enjoy Cole’s act more than most folks do, but even I think this segment is a waste of time.
10:10 – Longest segment of the night. Unreal. I loved J. R. nodding as if he (or anyone else) knows what a “country whipping” match is.
10:11 – “Birth-a-tainment.”
10:12 – The Miz guarantees the cancellation of Raw within a month should he happen to be drafted to Smackdown. Perfect.
10:16 – If there were any remaining doubt about the heel turn, Randy Orton’s new beard should erase it. Scraggly beard growth is straight out of the Heel Turn 101 syllabus.
10:21 – C. M. Punk = “The most important man on television.”
10:25 – I don’t know if he shares any scenes with the Rock, but, if so, Fast Five may expose Vin Diesel as being (fast) five feet tall.
10:28 – When they announce picks during a break, that’s probably a good sign that they’re not going to make much difference. Mark Henry and Sin Cara head over to Smackdown.
10:35 – The Big Show goes back to Raw. He’s another guy who seems to change rosters annually. They never know quite what to do with him, but his history and size make him someone they can plug into a main event at almost any time.
10:36 – Alberto Del Rio switching over to Raw means either he’s going to win the World Title and take it with him, or he’s going to be buried in the mid-card. This Sunday just became pivotal for his career.
10:52 – Hmmm . . . Punk, Miz, Del Rio, Christian, Cena . . . and Mark Henry. I wonder who’s taking the fall in this match.
11:15 – Wrong again. John Cena takes the fall, as The Miz gets an assist from Mizark. The final draft pick is . . . John Cena. Ugh.
Even by the loose standards of pro wrestling logic, Cena being drafted to Smackdown and back again seems silly. Dumb swerve aside, keeping Cena on Raw makes obvious sense. Here’s the rundown of people who did switch sides:
To Raw: Rey Mysterio, The Big Show, Alberto Del Rio.
To Smackdown: Randy Orton, Mark Henry, Sin Cara.
What’s the net result? Since Christian is the only competitor in either major championship match still on the Smackdown roster, it seems like a fait accompli that he’ll win the World Heavyweight Title on Sunday. With Del Rio now on Raw, the Mark Henry heel turn makes it seem like they’ll position Henry as the first feud for Christian during his time as champion, elevating Henry to the top heel spot on Smackdown until Orton turns or Barrett is ready. By that time, the Undertaker may be back, leading to a top-level feud for that roster.
I think Big Show and Mysterio coming over to Raw won’t matter in the long run. They’re the two classic examples of “I know we can do something with these guys, but I don’t know what.” Maybe they’ll pair them up as a big man / little man tag team and have them win the titles.
It’s interesting to me that WWE creative did everything they could to ensure that Mysterio and Sin Cara wouldn’t be on the same roster. That seems like a missed opportunity for an old high-flyer vs. new high-flyer angle. Maybe the twenty-first century version of Mysterio (stockier, a half-step slower) wanted nothing to do with Sin Cara. Who knows.
The most interesting question in the wake of Monday night’s draft is what will become of Alberto Del Rio. He was a very promising newcomer just a few months ago. He won the Royal Rumble and seemed destined for a reign as World Champion. Some in the WWE power structure reportedly lost faith in Del Rio during the run-up to Wrestlemania. The WHT match shifted to the opener, although how much that had to due with Edge’s health (or confidence in Del Rio) is uncertain.
Del Rio now finds himself in a stacked heel deck on Raw. The Miz is the WWE champion. C. M. Punk is a top-level heel. Sheamus is the U. S. Champion. R-Truth is getting a push as a newly-minted heel with this current angle. Dolph Ziggler has a ton of potential and is a quality worker. Del Rio, formidable on Smackdown, would be rated—at best—third on the mic among that group. He can hold his own with any of them as a worker, but he doesn’t stand so far above the group that a push would be self-evident.
As I said above, this will go one of two ways: Either Del Rio will continued to get pushed as a star (which I absolutely believe he could be), or he’ll get muddled in the mid-card and possibly feud with someone like Daniel Bryan.* That’s why Sunday now seems hugely important, rather than merely one of a series of title shots Del Rio will have in his career.
The other thing that strikes me about this whole process is that not much changed. Yes, there will be some new faces on both shows, but this seemed more like a “let’s move a couple of guys around to keep things fresh and get some new feuds” night rather than a “let’s change the overall direction of both shows” night. Granted, there’s still the Supplemental Draft coming up at noon on Tuesday, but I doubt Primo or David Hart Smith switching brands will be enough to change the overall impression of the 2011 draft as a revision rather than a revolution.