If the RAW following WrestleMania was disappointing, the SmackDown that followed held promise. The show kicked off (again) with WWE Head of Creative (for now) Triple H entering the ring to let us know that the WWE Draft is coming…soon.
Triple H did not initially provide a date for the Draft; that announcement would come on the Friday, April 15 edition of SmackDown…with the event now scheduled across the April 28 edition of SmackDown and May 1 RAW. This year’s Draft arrives after a gap year in 2022, which makes sense since during Vince McMahon’s walkabout a host of NXT wrestlers were called up, and previously released talent were hired.
Following a company wide email from Vince McMahon stating that Triple H will be solely in charge of creative going forward, it looks like this year’s WWE Draft may well be transformative. Vince’s sudden departure last summer left a host of unresolved plots and characters made in his image. To this point, Triple H has had to reconcile his own vision for WWE programming with that of the old boss, who became the new boss again when Vince returned in January and will retain a corporate leadership position once WWE’s sale to Endeavor presumably concludes. While Vince’s influence is unlikely to vanish as long as he’s alive, it looks like this year’s Draft is set to wipe WWE’s on-air slate clean and provide a set of character, storyline and championship reboots.
The WWE Draft was first held in 2002 as a way of refreshing its mostly exclusive RAW and SmackDown talent rosters. It has gone through a host of name changes but the premise has remained mostly the same.
In 2002, following the death of WWE’s real competition in WCW and ECW, WWE opted to split its’ roster into two ‘brands’ each styled after one of WWE’s flagship broadcasts, with talent being made exclusive to the brand to which they were assigned. WWE’s first Draft saw single WWE men’s and women’s champions ineligible to be drafted since they were to defend their titles on both brands. Other champions were eligible to be drafted (and over time, each brand got its’ own champ). The roster would be divided by various means, ranging from a ‘draft lottery’ where higher profile wrestlers would be announced, a series of alternating picks by competitive kayfabe ‘owners’ or ‘senior executives’ or General Managers’, or by ‘trades’ between them. The best versions of the Draft are anchored by on-screen authority figures like Vince McMahon and Ric Flair, Eric Bischoff and Paul Heyman or Shane and Stephanie McMahon. I generally have little use for the conceit, but the Draft gave these characters something to do and often played off real-life enmity.
The WWE Draft is solid in theory but often sloppy in execution. The premise of a professional sports draft is to distribute new players between teams that legitimately compete against each other in a single league in a somewhat equitable manner. Each team has a distinct owner unless the whole enterprise is a solely-owned vanity project like the XFL or a failing enterprise without enough suckers to pay franchise fees like the Canadian Football League. In pro wrestling, each wrestler is an independent contracting entity. The WWE Draft sets the ‘league’ in which they perform but it is still every man or woman for themselves.
The WWE Draft isn’t the only time wrestlers can change brands, which can make things messy. Sometimes it’s a matter of necessity, like when a headliner gets injured or a personality conflict backstage surfaces, as happened when AJ Styles refused to work with Paul Heyman when the latter recommended ending the Good Brothers’ contracts. I understand adjustments need to happen throughout the year, but they should be done with more backstory than Rey Mysterio’s, for example, who petitioned Triple H to be moved to SmackDown in order to avoid confrontations with his son Dominik and slow the build to this year’s WrestleMania match. They’re still fighting across Raw and SmackDown, hopefully leading to a Lucha de Apuestas hair vs. mask match in the near future. After that, hopefully, they each go to their own corner on a different brand.
WWE has never settled on the ‘rules’ for the Draft. In some years, each wrestler is truly on their own, subject to being moved regardless of affiliation as part of a tag team, stable or faction. I like this premise best since it introduces an element of risk to the entire roster and provides more narrative consistency.
Some years see champions protected by their current brands, while other years will see titlists switch brands mid-run, as happened with John Cena and Batista in 2005 (Cena and Batista would cohabitate on Raw, briefly). More recently, WWE has taken the lazy way out, for example having then-tag champs the New Day and Street Profits just swap belts backstage, all friendly. In 2019 Becky Lynch and Charlotte did a similar switch with a bit more acrimony-it made for a more engaging segment and prefigured another chapter in their rivalry.
As noted, the Draft is one case where having a clearly designed executive figurehead for each brand helps. Within the world of WWE, this creates the illusion of competition between brands and provides some meaning to the roster changes. Right now WWE leans on Adam Pearce to play the Executive role on both shows, which obviates the need for the Draft. With one figurehead there is no competition between brands. Pearce’s job necessarily means maintaining equity between Raw and Smackdown so both succeed. If one thrives at the other’s expense, Pearce is accountable for both. He is presumably free to move talent between brands as he sees fit in order to serve the best interests of WWE as a corporation. Having duelling on-air executives-especially corrupt scheming ones like Paul Heyman, Eric Bischoff or Stephanie McMahon leads one to imagine the Machiavellian joy they take out of building the superior roster and the consequences faced by the lesser evil before WWE’s Board or CEO.
I appreciate the timing of the upcoming Draft. The last few have taken place in the Fall, often weeks before the Survivor Series pay-per-view. Until the War Games match was featured this past year, the ongoing premise of Survivor Series was a battle of the brands. Leaving aside the fiction that a wrestler should care whether they fought on Raw or SmackDown (or NXT) when their paycheque reads ‘WWE’ these cards work when there is an actual separation between brands. Recent Survivor Series events would see each brand’s champions fight their counterparts, and mixed heel/face teams from each roster duking it out in elimination matches. It’s a fun concept but seriously undermined when it happens weeks after the roster is shuffled. Brand loyalty means little to talent who’ve just joined the locker room and less to fans who see feuds revisited within a matter of weeks of their Draft-driven conclusions. Shaking things up now makes more sense. Between WrestleMania and Backlash, we see the culmination of programs, leaving a bunch of the roster with nothing to do. Holding the Draft now allows new rivalries to grow in time for SummerSlam in August.
The reset imposed by the Draft also provides tag teams and factions a ‘velvet divorce’. It gives WWE license to test would-be breakout performers on their own while leaving the door open to a reunion if things don’t quite work out. It avoids ending every team with a Shawn Michaels-style betrayal or an awkward, unmentioned dissolution. WWE has foreshadowed that the Street Profits tag team is due for a break-up with the athletic and charismatic Montez Ford destined for great things.
The last Draft saw Big E separated from the New Day, leading to an Intercontinental and abbreviated Raw Championship run before he was folded back into the group. I hope Big E returns to the ring, and that his short first title reign was just a ‘starter’-with his return from injury and growing media presence outside of wrestling I’d actually argue that he would be a good candidate to end Roman’s reign, ahead of Cody Rhodes (more on that later).
Whether audiences or Creative accept these changes is a different story. Early drafts broke up the APA, giving us “Hardcore Bradshaw” and “Reverend D-Von”, who wound up forming a lower card random tag team with Ron “Farooq” Simmons. D-Von’s spiritual awakening did introduce us to Dave Bautista, who would later evolve into a World Champion, Guardian of the Galaxy and Bond Villain, so it wasn’t all bad.
Both teams would be reunited in short order and broken up years later when the characters involved were ready and more fully realized-Bradshaw would transition to the Vince-McMahon/JR Ewing lovechild JBL, while away from WWE Bubba Ray Dudley would tweak his character into Bully Ray-who would become TNA champion and is still wreaking havoc between Impact, the NWA and the independent scene.
As resets go, the Draft provides a pretty good backstory. Contrast that with WCW’s attempted reboot in its dying days. On April 10, 2000, WCW aired ‘The Night the World Would Change’ in an effort to catch up to the then-WWF’s ratings dominance. After poaching writer Vince Russo from the WWF a few months earlier, WCW brought former head Eric Bischoff back as well. The two set to doing what they did best; breaking the fourth wall and announcing that WCW would be starting fresh. All current champions were stripped of their titles, with tournaments to be held to crown new champions. Extant storylines were abandoned and Bischoff/Russo promised new ones with an emphasis on younger talent instead of the aging nWo or acts like Sting and Lex Luger…but this soon devolved into another tired war between factions: the New Blood-younger talent led by Russo vs. the Millionaires Club captained by Bischoff…only Russo switched sides and joined the old guard out of the gate. Worse, the young and hungry New Blood were portrayed as heels, and the aging Millionaires Club were supposed to be sympathetic (Note to self: do not use the word ‘Millionaire’ when playing for sympathy. It didn’t work for Hulk Hogan. Or Vince McMahon. Or Donald Trump. Or as of writing, grocery magnate Galen Weston. It’s just a bad look).
I do think that AEW would benefit from its own draft…and it looks like with a new program on the horizon, they may try to go that route. I don’t know why they haven’t already-but for the fact that Ring of Honor has yet to get its own network TV show. In any case, Tony Khan has owned two wrestling companies for over a year now, each with its own intellectual property and history and champions. And yet the same talent migrates from one brand to the other without direction, with the effect that ROH’s champions become secondary players in AEW storylines. I had feared this outcome when Khan first bought ROH, but maybe finally a formal AEW/ROH roster shake-up and proper division will help each brand grow independently and give the more worker-friendly style of ROH its own profile. Not to harp on the issue, but two separate but equal promotions might also address the backstage issues that emerged last summer, giving CM Punk and the Elite their own spots, in environments that suit their respective views on the business and temperaments. I’m not suggesting that splitting talent up who can’t get along should be a reason to do business this way, but it would make the most of some pretty hefty contracts and more importantly, give purpose to a lot of current mid-card talent who seem lost when not featured on Dynamite.
As jarring as the Draft was, or as poorly as WCW’s reboot was handled, I’ve since seen the wisdom of the approach. At least the WWE Draft stops short of making it all about backstage personnel like Eric Bischoff and Vince Russo. When honored, the ‘competing brands’ format gives a semi-logical basis for roster changes and provides cover for an awful lot of retroactive continuity.
I hate to say it but resets like the Draft also allow WWE the opportunity to determine which talent are truly lost in the shuffle and to wish them well in their future endeavors. Since the beginning, each Draft has been followed by a succession of talent releases-they usually happen quarterly, but the Draft serves as an excuse for one of the bigger bloodlettings. This is controversial. Fans hate to see wrestlers lose their jobs and are quick to attack WWE for being a bunch of heartless corporate greed mongers (Evan Ginzburg gets a shout-out for that one). Fans are quick to point out cases where released wrestlers get themselves over organically or are hamstrung by awful storylines or poor creative that makes them look silly. I don’t disagree, to a point. I too hate to see anyone lose their job, especially in cases like during the COVID-19 pandemic when WWE released waves of wrestlers despite turning record profits-turning them out into a non-existent market while the world was on lockdown. As Carlito might say, “That’s not cool”.
But there’s a difference between that nightmare scenario and the normal course of the sports or entertainment business. WWE’s creative department fails many superstars…but if you look at where several have found themselves in similar positions on IMPACT, AEW or NJPW TV I’m not sure responsibility lies exclusively with WWE. We can think of examples where wrestlers turn even the dumbest gimmicks into successes, and cases where huge pushes fizzled because the performer just couldn’t make them work (*ahem* Lex Express). Not everyone is suited to the WWE machine, and in many cases, it can take time for performers to find themselves in different environments. I strongly believe that talent wins out; it may just need a different venue. For some, other American promotions, the Indie scene, Japan or Europe may provide better and more lucrative opportunities than occupying a roster spot for years on end.
Periodic roster updates give opportunities to new talent who would otherwise mature in NXT with no endgame in sight. It’s a shame that RAW and SmackDown fans barely got to see Undisputed Era. Now Roderick Strong is off injured, Kyle O’Reilly and Adam Cole are treading AEW waters, and Bobby Fish is off posting on InfoWars or something. They all deserved a shot at making it out of the farm league as a unit…and calling them up would have meant opening four spots. What could have been this generation’s Four Horsemen is a developmental-league afterthought.
For current fans, this year’s Draft offers WWE the opportunity to book itself out of a pretty tight corner. Right now wrestlers seem free to switch shows as schedules dictate, and the two biggest prizes-the Undisputed Universal Championship and Tag Team Championships-have been consolidated to be defended on both programs. I run hot and cold on the unified champions. The traditionalist in me remembers frequent arguments in the old Apter magazines about whether to recognize ‘World Champions’ in multiple promotions when, as tough-as-nails veteran Matt Brock might say, “there’s only one world”. Of course, Matt would have taken this position long before the multiverse invaded movie theatres (and won an Oscar or two), and Forbidden Doors opened to their own pay-per-views. I like that Roman Reigns’ and the Usos’ reigns undo a few asterisks if we’re supposed to believe that a singular champion is the best in the world. The titles and the champions who hold them gain credibility when there are fewer prizes to fight for. When the WWE championship was first split between RAW and Smackdown I argued that dividing the title along those lines meant WWE had forfeited its claim to a world title in favour of two glorified television championships-which devalued the ‘legitimacy’ of the titles and acknowledged their status as props on a couple of TV shows.
I still side with the old school in this debate but can see that WWE’s roster is big enough to accommodate more than one top dog. The Bloodline’s primarily SmackDown-based dominance is an argument in favor of the second set of belts. While WWE seems bent on preserving Reigns as champ-certainly beyond Pedro Morale’s record, and maybe even Bob Backlund’s or Hulk Hogan’s longest reigns, it feels like Reigns has run out of credible in-house challengers. This leaves a bunch of superstars who deserve main event runs but who are left to fight over secondary belts currently held by Gunther (who looks like a lock to eclipse the Honky Tonk Man’s own Intercontinental Championship run) and Austin Theory.
Until Reigns beat Brock Lesnar for the RAW title at last year’s WrestleMania, having a different champion on each show established different dynamics for each broadcast. Reigns turned back all comers, while the likes of Lesnar, Drew McIntyre, Randy Orton, the Miz and Bobby Lashley helped get us through the pandemic. Lesnar and Orton have been in the title mix for decades but crowning returning talent like McIntyre and Lashley helped make them bigger stars, and both men were portrayed as world-beaters. More importantly, unlike Reigns who works sparingly, with the exception of Brock Lesnar all of the above have been fighting champions. It just makes for a more interesting TV show.
Truth be told at this stage of their careers, I don’t want to watch McIntyre or Lashley fight for a secondary belt. I want an epic Big E-style “big meaty men slapping meat” physical feud over the highest stakes in the game. I want McIntyre to get a title run in front of a live audience and for the nearly 50-year-old Lashley to go out on top. I’d love to see Orton figure in somehow since he’s a good physical matchup for both men and deserves a final run in the spotlight. I wouldn’t mind seeing a dark horse or two get a run, whether they turn out like JBL or Jack Swagger or Jinder Mahal (I still think the latter deserves more than his current lot). If Bray Wyatt comes back, he needs room to breathe in the main event as well; his personality and character work should be reflected on the card. Why would the “Eater of Worlds” waste time on the lower mid-card?
I want to see Lesnar and Lashley fully realize a program that was badly mishandled in 2022, leaving Lashley without his rightful WrestleMania opponent and Lesnar in a throwaway bout with Omos. If Big E is able to return, I want him to get a proper months-long title run; In fact, I think a story woven around his comeback would lead to a Hulk Hogan vs. Iron Sheik-level pop if he were the one to beat Roman Reigns. If you’ll permit some fantasy booking, you could sweeten the pot by having Big E take Cody’s place at a scheduled title shot, as Hulk Hogan did to Bob Backlund (and later, Bret Hart). This would set up months of title programs between Reigns, Big E and Rhodes-even more if Rhodes grows frustrated (like Backlund) and turns heel…or if you keep him face and match him up against Bray Wyatt whenever he comes back-the Billy Butcher to Rhodes’ Homelander. Gunther would fit nicely as well, or even Johnny Gargano if they were to position him as heir apparent to Daniel Bryan’s slightly unhinged underdog character. With one title to vie for, all of these wrestlers are left stagnant until there’s more movement up top or, as in McIntyre’s case, their contracts run out. It would be a shame for McIntyre to leave WWE for want of a better use of his talents.
All of which is to say, one of the biggest benefits of the upcoming Draft might be to separate the WWE’s top titles and give us what we, the fans, ultimately want: everything, everywhere, all at once.