Hell in a Cell is upon us and the SmackDown brand hopes it will be a memorable show that lives up to the history of the match concept. It’s a loaded show, with a lot of big matches to enjoy and titles on the line. It’s not a make or break show and SmackDown isn’t in any danger of going back to being pre-taped, but it’s worth pointing out that the show has been in a bit of a ratings slide lately. So has Raw, but it’s football season so that’s at least a reasonable excuse for the Monday Night Show. What’s SmackDown’s competition? Baseball?
(I just checked…it is baseball, and apparently American Horror Story is still a thing? Those were the top two shows on Tuesday this week; SmackDown was number three)
So while it’s not make it or break it time, it’s not ridiculous to say the blue show needs a big PPV. And yet…do they?
Last week we looked back at the history of WWE’s brand-split and a few of you pointed out in the comments that the two shows have slowly morphed into two halves of the same coin. There aren’t specific identities to them; they’re just Red WWE and Blue WWE. As a result, fans without the desire to watch six hours of wrestling between Monday and Wednesday might opt to skip one of the shows. After all, it’s basically the same show just with different actors playing the same roles. Contract signings go awry, tag teams wrestle in singles matches, all the women are shoved into a single storyline, etc. It’s all the same and after a while it all kind of runs together.
What if there was another way?
Near the end of the third century, the massive Roman Empire had become too big for its own good. Invasions and attacks from outside forces (like the Parthians) were poking a million little holes in the balloon. Unrest within the Empire was also spreading; taxes were high, many regions were suffering economic depression, food was not abundant and the people believed the Emperor had forgotten about them.
Emperor Diocletian decided to split the Empire into two segments. One would be ruled from Rome and the other from Byzantium. Diocletian ruled as “Augustus” (a made-up title he stylized for himself, named after the first Roman Emperor) and appointed Galerius to be “Caesar” over his half of the Empire. Meanwhile, the western half was ruled by Maximian (who ruled as “Augustus”) and the western “Caesar” named Constantius (whose son Constantine would soon rise to power and reunite the Empire, but forget that part because it ruins my illustration).
The WWE is too big for its own good, and the Emperor of the company is growing increasingly older and out of touch. That’s a cliché, sure, but it’s rooted in truth.
Back when the WWF first bought WCW (for like the cost of a used PSVita), Shane McMahon had a vision for a new Wrestling Empire. You will recall that Shane was later announced as the on-screen owner of WCW. That was a storyline title, but if Shane had gotten his way, it would have been legitimate.
A year before that, Shane suggested that Vince purchase ECW and let him run it as sort of a training ground for the day when he would take over the company the way Vince took it over from his dad. This was before Triple H married Stephanie and basically supplanted Shane as heir-apparent. Vince chose to let ECW die on the vine so he could scoop up the remains for next to nothing. It just so happened that it went out of business right was WCW folding as well. Lucky Vince!
After WCW was acquired, Shane returned to his idea to run a separate (but non-competitive) wrestling show. He wanted a show that could run live on Tuesdays in a city separate from SmackDown (which would be taping on the same day), never to cross paths with the WWF. The two companies would coordinate touring schedules and PPV calendars to ensure no cannibalizing occurred, but for all intents and purposes, WCW would be its own separate promotion with a different McMahon helming the ship.
Things went south when the trial balloon known as Booker T. vs Buff Bagwell ended up being filled with lead, so Vince nixed all the plans to relaunch WCW and instead went with the InVasion storyline. When that happened, all the WCW and ECW talent that had been brought over came under the oversight of the WWF creative team, chaired by Vince McMahon himself. Nothing gets decided unless he agrees to it.
You know what happened next.
A year later, a watered down version of Shane’s vision was introduced, known as the brand-split. The WCW brand was eliminated, as was the idea of a new weekly show. Instead the roster was split down the middle with Raw getting one half and SmackDown getting the other. And for a time the two brands were pretty distinct. Paul Heyman was the first head of SmackDown and even though Vince retained all final decisions, for the most part he let Heyman run the show his way. Under Heyman, SmackDown became the place to watch wrestling. The so-called SmackDown Six was the big attraction in the undercard, and the main-event scene was exciting too, with Brock Lesnar and The Undertaker topping the marquee.
But over time, Vince kept disagreeing with little decisions Heyman would make, while also raiding Heyman’s roster for whatever popular superstar he’d built up recently to help the flailing Raw. Vince always saw Raw as the flagship show of the company, which is why he was happy letting Heyman run the blue show. But eventually the meddling let to conflict and the conflict led to Heyman’s ouster. Because at the end of the day, Vince is Emperor and he retains final authority over all.
Now we have a new brand-split, and the distinct identity that SmackDown of old had managed for itself is a thing of the past. The only difference, other than the color scheme, between the shows are the rosters, and it seems like talent moves around so freely neither show is allowed to develop a reliable cast. In the final years of the first brand-split SmackDown was the Undertaker’s show and Raw belonged to Cena. Both guys were so ubiquitous to their respective shows they helped to anchor them and give them a distinct personality. Who is the firm foundation of SmackDown today? Who is a featured player that you would say “I can’t see him on Raw next year.”
There isn’t one. And it’s because Vince has no portion control. He has this nice big steak that’s far too big for one meal, so he cuts it in half and tells himself “this, with a side of ketchup, will be my lunch tomorrow!” And then, after eating the first half he stares at the wrapped up second half and says “screw it, I want the other half too!” He has all these great players on SmackDown and if he wants to use them on Raw he’s going to do it. He has them, he’s going to use them. There’s no willpower. There’s no sacrificing for the greater good. It’s all about the short-term satisfaction.
Which is why the Empire needs to split.
Not a hard split. No one is talking about trust-busting. This is a soft-split. This is Vince saying (to Triple H or Shane) “here are two dozen performers and a Tuesday night timeslot. See what you can do with it.”
And if you think that’s crazy, consider that he did exactly that with NXT. He gave Triple H the power to run the show as he saw fit without any outside interference. Whomever Triple H wanted to win a title, it was his call not Vince’s. The only power Vince retained was calling up talent to the main-roster. But even then Triple H managed to keep Asuka on Wednesday nights for a good six months more than Vince wanted. He has retained control over NXT and for the most part, NXT has thrived as an alternative to WWE. It’s still under the WWE umbrella and it gets to reap the benefits of WWE’s incredible production values and history, but from a booking perspective, it’s all on its own.
SmackDown would do very well under such a scenario.
It would require a one-time act of detachment from Vince, but once the band-aid was off, he’d be forced to play with only the talent he had at his disposal on Raw, while SmackDown—whether run by Triple H or Shane—worked with its roster. No more midnight raids because Vince had a crazy idea to make Jason Jordan the black Jon Snow. No more pushing Jinder Mahal down everyone’s throat because he had a crazy idea to catfish the India market for half a year. He would have no say on the decisions made on the blue show. SmackDown would be free to forge its own identity, and the new head man (Triple H or Shane) would have to sink or swim on his own without Vince there to take a headbutt and pop a rating.
Working out the logistics (touring, PPV calendar) would be an initial headache, but it can be done. Once it happened you could have the closest thing to a true Wrestling rivalry in the twenty-first century. No wrestling promotion is going to rise up to challenge Vince’s Empire, but he can create his own competition—true competition—and use it to fuel a renewed creative spark on his end.
In a lot of ways it would be like the reverse of what happened with the NFL. You’d be taking a single organization with token divisions and splitting them into two truly distinct but related entities. The NFL and AFL were entirely distinct for years, yet still met at the SuperBowl multiple times before they merged into one company. Imagine a separate PPV schedule for Raw and SmackDown that offered truly unique shows, and then once or twice a year (the Rumble, WrestleMania, maybe Survivor Series) the two sides would have inter-promotional matches. We have those now, but there’s no mystique to them since it’s just guys on one side wrestling guys on the other with the likelihood that some of those on opposite sides will be on the same brand within a few months anyway. If the rosters were kept completely separate, you’d see identities of the shows form and it would be a legitimately special occasion when someone from team red finally clashed with someone from team blue.
I’m not calling for an actual split of WWE. I’m saying maybe Vince could pull a Diocletian and give up power over half his Empire for the good of the whole. He’s not going to live forever (insert joke here because of course he’s going to outlive all of us); it would be nice if some real experience was given to whoever it is who will replace him one day.
What do you think, Cagesiders? Do you think WWE overall would profit from a soft-split, a semi-independence of SmackDown from Raw? Nevermind working out the logistics; do you think you’d be more inclined to watch both Raw and SmackDown if they were truly unique with two different head honchos calling the shots? Let us know in the comments below.
As always, I’m Matthew Martin: I love WWE but everything sucks and I’m never watching it again.
See you next Monday.