On the 19th July 2016, WWE officially split their roster in two. Raw and SmackDown became completely separate brands, and with that from my point of view came a lot of optimism. The roster had been constantly expanding with talent, and it was becoming nearly impossible to feature everyone who needed it in only one show’s worth of storylines. But one year on, it feels like an appropriate time to take stock of the last twelve months. Who has really benefited from the draft and had a good year? Whose spot on the card is worse off now that it was? Here I go through every single person either drafted last summer or currently on the roster, and give my take on how their year has gone.
SmackDown’s perennial jobber, whether he’s in a team or by himself. As part of the Vaudevillains with Simon Gotch, English was one half of probably the lowest rated team in WWE in terms of how they’ve been presented. Losing to the Hype Bros and Breezango last year probably put them below The Ascension. Since Gotch’s release disbanded the team, English has still been jobbing, just on his own. He has at least reverted to his old singing gimmick though, which has some potential to be entertaining, it just remains to be seen how far he can go with it.
AJ has proven to be WWE’s MVP in his entire time with the company, but the draft allowed him to hit new heights. He was already the best worker WWE had, but the draft gave him the opportunity to prove that he can carry a show, and become the face of a brand. He took the WWE Championship from an ailing Dean Ambrose last year, created some real magic with John Cena on the mic and in the ring, and even pulled one of the best matches at Wrestlemania this year out of Shane McMahon. In fact, I can’t remember him having a bad match. He is now your United States Champion, and if he really does bring back the weekly open challenge it could be the perfect platform for him. Kevin Owens is in his immediate future, with teases already in place for future contests against John Cena and Shinsuke Nakamura. It has been a constant stream of momentum for AJ over the last 12 months, and it doesn’t look like slowing down any time soon.
Alberto Del Rio
It seems crazy now to think that Del Rio was drafted last July ahead of six future champions, a future Money In The Bank holder and Braun Strowman. The 4-time WWE Champion had been spinning his wheels since the dissolution of the League of Nations, and was unhappy backstage. He only made a couple of appearances after being drafted to SmackDown, failing to win a battle royal and losing to John Cena, before he was suspended for a wellness policy violation and ultimately released in September.
In terms of perception, I think Alexa Bliss is one of the most improved superstars of the last 12 months – certainly the most improved of the female superstars. She has gone from being called up as part of the draft and making her debut on the main roster, to being a 3-time Women’s Champion, the only woman to hold both the Raw and SmackDown titles, and one of the best mic workers they have. She is yet to have that standout match that a handful of her colleagues can lay claim to, and so much emphasis on the mic will inevitably lead to the occasional bad segment, but when Bliss’ character is given the chance to shine through she really thrives. She wasn’t even at the top of the NXT women’s division a year ago, behind Bayley and Asuka, but she has become one of my favourite parts of WWE programming.
This is a weird one to judge. Fox has been on our screens regularly, but very rarely has that involved working a match. She has made two PPV appearances, including last year’s Survivor Series where her involvement in the match did more to highlight how thin the Raw women’s division was at the time than it did to elevate Fox. She has since been in storylines with Cedric Alexander and Noam Dar, which was good in that it gave the Cruiserweights a storyline rather than just randomly having matches, but was bad in that it was bad. The storyline has done nothing to really help anyone involved. It – and especially Fox since she hasn’t been in practically any of the matches – has just kind of been there.
Another one of the NXT call-ups last July, Gable and Jordan arrived on the main roster with a lot of fanfare, and a lot of hype. SmackDown GM Daniel Bryan upon drafting them called the duo the best tag team in the world, and though it hasn’t always been their fault, they haven’t lived up to that billing. They have shown in matches with the Wyatt Family and The Usos that when they are given an opportunity to, they can deliver high quality matches with ease. But during their reign as SmackDown Tag Team Champions they suffered badly from a lack of credible challengers. That meant the fans, and eventually WWE, lost interest in them. Now with Jason Jordan being announced as Kurt Angle’s illegitimate son, American Alpha appear to have disbanded. Personally I think that’s a great shame, as they never hit the heights they were capabale of on the main roster, and I think WWE’s tag division as a whole is weaker for it – despite them having an underwhwelming year.
It looked for a little while like the draft might just be the opportunity Crews had badly needed since his main roster debut the night after Wrestlemania 32. On the first post-draft SmackDown, Crews won a battle royal to earn entry to the number one contender’s six-pack challenge for Dean Ambrose’s WWE Championship. Though he was unsuccessful, he did end up challenging for a title at SummerSlam, losing to The Miz in an Intercontinental Championship match. He was used to turn Dolph Ziggler heel, then he disappeared for weeks until he was moved to Raw. There is something of a renewed spotlight – if not yet a successful one – on him now as part of Titus Worldwide. Titus might be a decent mouthpiece for him, but we’ll have to wait and see where Crews fits in to the Raw brand as part of this alliance.
Apart from one horrible moment in the Tag Team Turmoil match at Elimination Chamber in February, there has been no point over the last year where I thought Konnor and Viktor were going to win a match. Even when they did. I think that says it all.
From day one on the main roster, Corbin has been called a future world champion. Now that claim looks closer to being a reality than ever, as Corbin is your current Mr Money in the Bank. It hasn’t just been a sudden jolt into the main event picture either. Corbin was made to look like the main danger in a triple threat match for the WWE Championship also featuring Dolph Ziggler and then-champion AJ Styles. He also had a cracking street fight with Dean Ambrose for the Intercontinental Championship that should have been on Wrestlemania, and a surprisingly good chairs match with Kalisto back at TLC. He has never really been a main focus of the blue brand, but he’s always been around and tends to deliver when called upon. As Mr Money in the Bank, he may be called upon more often than not in the near future.
It’s easy to forget Bayley wasn’t even part of the draft last year. It was a move that amazed many, but Bayley was instead called up a month later, the night after SummerSlam. For the few months after she debuted, Bayley may just have been the most popular superstar on Raw. And it all seemed set for a Bayley coronation at Wrestlemania. Instead, they pulled the trigger on Bayley early, and she became Raw Women’s Champion in February. Really, it was too early. A lot of critics online were saying it, and by the reactions Bayley has gotten in recent weeks that train of thought seems to have been proven true. She lost the title to Alexa Bliss fairly convincingly, and exactly how to regain her momentum isn’t clear right now. Similarly to American Alpha, her current issues are more down to WWE than her own ability, and she did make a huge splash in a short space of time. It’s just a case of what’s next for everyone’s favourite hugger.
The draft was supposed to be Becky’s big break out. Her break out from the shadow of Charlotte and Sasha Banks, and her chance to become the top performer on her show. That rung true initially, as Becky was far and away the most popular female superstar in the second half of 2016 on SmackDown, and she rightfully became the first SmackDown Women’s Champion. But since the turn of the year, she’s been spinning her wheels a bit, again overshadowed by the rise of Alexa Bliss. She remains popular, and WWE obviously trust her enough to put her in tables matches and ladder matches. But it seems right now that she might just be more suited to the number two babyface role as an extremely solid performer. I would love to be proven wrong on that one.
Teaming with Enzo Amore this time last year, the vocal duo were actually the second team drafted overall (behind then-champions The New Day). They were always popular, but looking back never really threatened to come close to gold until Wrestlemania 33. Cass feuded with Rusev at the end of 2016 in what was – putting it nicely – a terrible feud that should never have happened. More recently, Cass turned on Enzo in a really well done heel turn, squashed him as he should have at Great Balls of Fire, and seems headed for a SummerSlam match with Big Show. Because of his size there is potential there for Big Cass, but the last twelve months haven’t hit the heights he might in the future.
He has abs now. That’s his biggest achievement in a quiet year. His apparently scheduled match with Shaq at Wrestlemania never happened, and he was the victim of a superplex from Braun Strowman in a ring collapse spot in April. Those two seem to bring out good things in each other. Apart from his involvement on the side of the mystery attack angle with Enzo and Cass, he hasn’t been around too much else.
Wow, someone who’s done even less than Big Show in the last year. He actually turned on Curtis Axel last October, in a storyline so forgettable that even WWE forgot about it. He’s now part of the Miztourage, has grown out a proper beard and dresses like the fourth member of 3MB, which is actually still an improvement.
This is how you build someone up. Looking back on it, Braun is undoubtedly THE sleeper pick from the draft, being picked at a lowly 28th for Raw (48th overall, in the 10th round of picks). There were only eleven picks in the draft after him. He’d be a first round pick easily right now. Braun went from being a big guy in The Wyatt Family a year ago to possessing genuine star power right now. After the draft, Braun went nearly nine months without being pinned. He rolled through local competitors like they weren’t there, destroyed Sami Zayn with ease, then at the Royal Rumble set his sights on Roman Reigns. His attack on the “big dog” during the Universal Championship was both unexpected and extremely effective – a sign of things to come. Plus, in the Rumble match itself, Braun eliminated seven men, more than anyone else, and it took the combined efforts of multiple men to get him out. Him getting back to his feet after the ring imploded, standing tall amongst the carnage around him, may have been a better passing of the giant torch than any victory would have been for him. And at Great Balls of Fire, he walked away from attempted murder at the hands of, yet again, Roman Reigns. Braun and Reigns seem to have a magic between them when they face off against each other, and that coupled with Braun’s improvements in the ring have made it an incredibly impressive year for him. The only thing missing for him has been championship gold, though it surely won’t be long before that is remedied.
On paper, it has been a very successful year for the Eater of Worlds. He was one of the two sole survivors for his team in the main Raw vs SmackDown match at Survivor Series last November. In December he won first title by becoming Tag Team Champion alongside Randy Orton and Luke Harper. He lasted until the final three competitors in the Royal Rumble match. He won the WWE Championship inside the Elimination Chamber, and defended it against both John Cena and AJ Styles two nights later. On top of that, he has defeated both Randy Orton and Seth Rollins multiple times. But there is something missing. Eccentric booking has meant Wyatt’s star isn’t shining much brighter than it was this time last year, and the supernatural stuff at Wrestlemania definitely did more to take away from his moment than it enhanced it. He seems to have become the guy who loses every big match (he has never won at Wrestlemania for example), and after four years of it his credibility has been hurt. After his recent wins I would expect to see him challenging for the Universal Championship again before the year is out, but that will probably still end up a case of “been there, done that” when he loses.
Up until a couple of months ago, Tyler Breeza and Fandango had been lowly jobbers who weren’t really doing much on SmackDown. Then, once the SmackDown Tag Team Championships were won by The Usos, they needed new challengers. So, Breezango’s act became overtly comical, and they were given the opportunity. And I have to say, so far they’ve taken it. They’ve gotten good reactions since their backstage skits started broadcasting, and although I doubted them at first they are really entertaining. These two are both talented, so it’s good to see them finally getting used after a low-key nine or ten months.
It has been a strange year for the Beast Incarnate, partially due to the rarity of his matches. He defeated Randy Orton by TKO at last year’s SummerSlam. He then lost to Goldberg in 86 seconds, and was eliminated in even less time by Goldberg in the Royal Rumble match. But he then concluded that rivalry by defeating Goldberg at Wrestlemania to become the Universal Champion, which he successfully defended against Samoa Joe at Great Balls of Fire. That’s some extreme highs and some extreme lows in the mix. So how do I rate it? His aura is still absolutely present, and his feuds with Goldberg and Samoa Joe have been two of the better pieces of storytelling WWE have delivered over the last year, so I think you have to look on the year as a good one for Brock. He isn’t necessarily much better off now than he was this time last year – he’s champion but we’ve also seen the beast is beatable – but his status is also matched by very few who step foot in a ring right now. His current contract expired in April though, so who knows what – or even if – I’ll be writing about him this time next year.
As the final pick of the 2016 draft, you could have been forgiven for having low expectation for Carmella. I’ll admit to being surprised she was picked at the time, thinking she could have benefited from an NXT title challenge. But up to the main roster she went, and I think it’s fair to say that she didn’t seem ready the first few months. She was placed into a feud with the returning Nikki Bella that really didn’t do her any favours, and stopped wrestling around the turn of the year as they focused on the characterisation of her budding relationship with James Ellsworth. However, kind of out of the blue, at Money in the Bank she became the first ever Ms Money in the Bank in controversial circumstances. And her promo as she opened SmackDown two nights later was excellent. She followed that up with winning the Money in the Bank ladder match again the following week, and she seems to have turned a corner. There could be big things in store for her in the next year, especially if they can reunite her with her also-heel boyfriend Big Cass.
The Queen of WWE walked into the draft as the Women’s Champion, and left a first round draft pick. A week later, she had lost her title too. But in the time since, she has competed in the first ever women’s Hell in a Cell and Money in the Bank matches, been in the longest ever WWE women’s match, captained her team to Survivor Series success, made it to 16-0 in singles matches on PPVs (before losing to Bayley), became a four-time champion and became the first woman ever to main event Raw, SmackDown and a PPV. She’s gone from Raw to SmackDown, heel to face, but she has proven that she is the best WWE has to offer right now.
Y2J had a new lease of life after the draft last year, going on one of the best runs of his career as one half of Jeri-Ko with Kevin Owens. The scarf, The List of Jericho, “it”, everything he did turned to gold. The unfortunate part about it was that it felt like he worked with Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins forever, so those matches did get a bit stale. But Jericho got two United States Championship runs out of it, completing his career set of titles, the second by defeating former best friend Kevin Owens who had turned on him in one of the segments of the year. The matches between Jericho and Owens were very cleverly put together, and when he inevitably returns they will surely pick up where they left off to eager anticipation.
Exist. Sell time-shares. Lose. Repeat.
Did you know: Curt Hawkins actually has won a match since returning to WWE in the immediate aftermath of the draft? He defeated Apollo Crews once. That’s about all there is to say, except perhaps his current run hit new heights in losing to Heath Slater at Great Balls of Fire with the finish not even shown on camera. Impressive stuff indeed.
He was nicknamed Mr Irrelevant as Raw’s final pick (the second last overall), and that lasted for about two weeks. That was still the most regularly Axel had been used until he became a member of the Miztourage, reuniting with former partner Bo Dallas.
That’s all for now, read on to parts 2 and 3 for my thoughts on the rest of the roster!