How The 2016 Brand Split Made SmackDown WWE’s A-Show

SmackDown 2016

In 2018, WWE and FOX came to an agreement that would see FOX acquire the TV rights to SmackDown Live in a deal worth around $1 billion across five years. But how did SmackDown suddenly become so important?

Since the death of the original brand split in 2011, SmackDown had gradually become less and less important to WWE fans and seemingly the company itself. Monday Night Raw was the A-Show, owing much to history and legacy but SmackDown began to feel like an after-thought.

The show rarely featured any real storyline progression, and while it was perfectly fine as a television program, there wasn’t a huge incentive for fans to tune in. AEW is currently navigating similarly difficult waters with Dynamite and Rampage.

It was clear that a shake-up was needed, and it arrived via an unexpected source.

Laying The Ground Work

Shane McMahon

The pre-WrestleMania 32 return of Shane McMahon as a panic button opponent for The Undertaker had paid off not only in heavily bolstering ‘Mania 32 ticket sales, but in fan belief that things could change within the product.

The sentiment surrounding Shane’s return promo, where he highlighted real issues with struggling ratings and general repetitiveness instilled a hope in fans that WWE could be more than what it was. Green shoots of recovery appeared post-WrestleMania, with an influx of new talent and Shane McMahon running the show in storyline.

AJ Styles was in the main event six months into his run. Seth Rollins was back. Dean Ambrose (now Jon Moxley) was WWE Champion. The likes of Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, and Cesaro were receiving renewed opportunities. The Miz and Rusev were highlighting mid card titles. The New Day were making the tag titles important again. And veterans like Chris Jericho and John Cena were in career best form.

But for all this new talent to receive the spotlight they’d earned, brand split 2.0 was in order.

After months of squabbling, an agreement was made between Shane and Stephanie McMahon (along with their chosen GM’s Daniel Bryan and Mick Foley) to split Raw and SmackDown once again to decide which was the superior show in WWE.

While SmackDown was certainly the less fashionable brand at this point, it wasn’t beyond rehabilitation and if the talent split was done correctly, it was believed that the show could thrive once again. Thankfully, that’s exactly what happened.

The July 19th 2016 WWE Draft was telling in that SmackDown got some top names, in Dean Ambrose, John Cena, AJ Styles, Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton in particular, but they also filled out their roster with a number of underutilised stars. After all, Raw had to fill three hours with as many ‘known names’ as possible, due to it’s A-Show status.

A Dean Ambrose title retention over Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns at Battleground later that same week elevated SmackDown somewhat, and gave small glimpse into the future. The WWE Champion would be placed firmly on Tuesday nights, SmackDown’s new live time slot, which in of itself was another win for the show in that it was no longer taped ahead of broadcast.

However, these were temporary wins for the show. Raw would soon have it’s own World Champion, and the novelty of a live SmackDown every week would soon wear off.

For SmackDown Live (as it had been rebranded) to succeed, it needed to be good. In fact, it needed to be REALLY good. In many ways, SmackDown in 2016 found itself in much a similar position to SmackDown in 2002 at the time of the original brand split.

14 years previously following the purchases of WCW and ECW, WWE was left with an incredibly deep talent pool, but with no clear strategy to let that talent shine. Enter the brand split, and one Paul Heyman.

SmackDown Live Goes Back To The Future

Shane and Daniel Bryan

Once WWE calmed down and decided where they wanted everyone to go in 2002, SmackDown found itself with a roster more than capable of becoming the A-Show, and creative director Paul Heyman knew it.

Exposed to the tools he wished he’d had in ECW, Paul Heyman crafted one of the more critically acclaimed eras of WWE by virtue of ‘The SmackDown Six’.

Made up of Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, Edge, Rey Mysterio, and Eddie and Chavo Guerrero, Heyman built a tag team scene that not only highlighted under-showcased performers, but let them thrive.

Throw in Brock Lesnar as WWE Champion, legends like The Rock, Hulk Hogan, and The Undertaker being willing to do the work for the brand, and other underused acts like Matt Hardy, The World’s Greatest Tag Team and a young John Cena among on the rise, SmackDown was, at least for a time, the home of WWE’s best weekly television.

Something which only became more apparent as Raw struggled to find an identity and produced some of the most derided WWE angles in modern history. Think Katie Vick, ‘Hot Lesbian Action,’ and Triple H being awarded the World Heavyweight Championship before running through the entire roster.

2016’s SmackDown followed much in the same vein as in 2002. Raw was spearheaded by tired authority storylines that had plagued the company forever, with familiar names such as Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns remaining on top.

Even the elevation of names such as Kevin Owens and Finn Balor into the main event were marred by unfortunate injuries and bad booking, and the promise of a Cruiserweight division never really got off the ground. Names like Sami Zayn, Cesaro, and The Good Brothers grew stagnant from the exciting directions they’d experienced earlier in the year.

And while Chris Jericho was in career form, Braun Strowman was on the rise and Sasha Banks and Charlotte Flair were raising the game and delivering the goods in the women’s division, these too would be squandered over time.

Raw’s mostly strong start pre-SummerSlam quickly faltered by the time their first brand exclusive PPV ‘Clash of Champions’ rolled around in September.

Like in 2002, Raw had become stale. SmackDown was lucky enough to not have these limitations, and was all the better for it. By contrast, SmackDown was fresh and exciting.

The Land Of Opportunity

AJ Styles WWE Champion

Branded the ‘Land of Opportunity’, SmackDown followed the same vision Shane had laid out on Raw when he returned to the company.

Without the burden of Raw’s restraints, SmackDown doubled down on bringing fresh and new action to Tuesday nights, and promised to give new faces the opportunity to succeed. And that promise was kept.

From night one, SmackDown Live delivered on it’s new mantra. Career nearly-man Dolph Ziggler became number one contender to WWE Champion Dean Ambrose, in a nice surprise for a talent that many felt had bene under-utilised. The likes of American Alpha, Alexa Bliss, and Carmella were exciting NXT call-ups. Even undrafted Heath Slater began his road towards a contract that would become one of the more heartwarming stories of the year.

It wasn’t an immediate headline grabber, like Raw’s Women’s Title change and Finn Balor’s massive debut win, but SmackDown showed a level of care and attention to detail that laid the groundwork for the month’s to come.

Shane and Daniel Bryan stayed out the way too, letting their wrestlers do the talking, and the wrestling, without shoddy authoritative clichés bogging down what was meant to be a fresh programme, which it was.

SmackDown didn’t experience RAW’s post-SummerSlam drop-off either, it only grew on it’s humble and effective beginnings as the fall grew closer.

Similarly to how Paul Heyman grew SmackDown through consistency and layered yet simple storytelling in 2002, Head Writer Ryan Ward was doing much of the same with SmackDown in 2016. Just as he’d done previously with his highly acclaimed work in NXT, where he’d moulded the show into the black and gold brand that punched above it’s weight.

While Raw presented mostly lacklustre cards, Backlash and No Mercy were two objective triumphs for SmackDown during the age of two pay-per-views a month.

The stories of Becky Lynch and Heath Slater and Rhyno were paid off by having fan favourites capture the newly created SmackDown Women’s and Tag Team Championships at Backlash, rewarding audiences with fresh faced victories as the show became to take it’s full form after a patient two-month build.

AJ Styles was elevated after his SummerSlam triumph against John Cena (who followed in the same vein as your ’02 legends by taking the loss for the newcomer), by defeating Dean Ambrose for the WWE Championship, capping off arguably the best ‘first year in WWE’ since Kurt Angle in 2000.

The improbable nature of AJ Styles succeeding in WWE seems weird now considering how successful he has been since 2016, but it was very much in doubt at the time.

The biggest success story though, laid with The Miz and Dolph Ziggler, as the most decidedly WWE pairing in history, came together to work magic on two separate occasions.

Talking Smack And The Reinvention Of The Miz

The Miz berates Daniel Bryan

Another primary reason SmackDown Live succeeded and resonated so much with audiences was Talking Smack.

The Network exclusive post-SmackDown talk show essentially acted as SmackDown’s chilled out third hour. It was used as a platform for talent to openly express themselves and flex their creative muscles in ways the restrictions of WWE TV wouldn’t usually let them.

Although what truly cemented the show’s cult status was The Miz’ infamous rant against Daniel Bryan.

Criticised for being a lazy worker, The Miz highlighted how important he’d been as Intercontinental Champion, and how his style of wrestling wouldn’t land him in early retirement like Bryan.

The promo was delivered unscripted, with the kind of raw passion and emotion that made it instantly memorable, and in one fell swoop, legitimised the ‘Land of Opportunity’ concept SmackDown had been pushing, made Talking Smack appointment viewing, and reinvigorated both The Miz and the Intercontinental Championship.

Everything SmackDown touched turned to gold at this point, and most importantly, they followed up on it too.

The Miz’ rant was the talk of the show the following week just as it had been on social media, and became an increasingly rare occasion where the desires of the audience met with WWE’s booking plans. The work Miz and Ziggler later pulled off in their Backlash and No Mercy matches was elevated as a result, with fan and company coming together for the unlikeliest of storylines.

With the unfortunate exception of Dean Ambrose, who continued his fall from grace after losing the WWE Championship to AJ Styles, everybody on SmackDown began to feel refreshed.

Removed from the shadow of the Four Horsewomen on Raw, Alexa Bliss and Carmella began to shine on the blue brand. While the heartwarming Heath Slater story continued for months, and gave fans an enjoyable tag title run with Rhyno.

American Alpha might have been somewhat under-utilised, but at least it came with the positive of The Usos receiving a long overdue heel run that would set them up as WWE’s top team for years to come.

The Viper Meets The Eater Of World’s

Randy Orton stands with The Wyatt Family

Most striking though was The Wyatt Family and Randy Orton, who came together beautifully with SmackDown once again embracing simplicity for success.

The Wyatt’s had been spinning their wheels for years at this point, breaking up and coming back together on multiple occasions, without ever embracing new members. The cult never grew, and lost it’s influence as a result.

Similarly, Randy Orton had been stagnant for over a year, even counting in a near year-long absence during what was an injury ridden 2015 for WWE. Putting the two together was an unexpected yet welcome twist, as it killed two birds with one stone.

The Wyatt’s had a big name recruit to finally legitimise Wyatt’s claims, and Randy Orton became re-energised by having something new and interesting to work with. Which as evidenced by the RK-Bro storyline over the last year, is the best use of Randy Orton.

Plus the added layer of Luke Harper’s suspicions of Randy Orton’s allegiances provided what was (at first at least) an extremely interesting long-term storyline.

SmackDown Live was doing the best with what it had, and was excelling in putting almost everybody in the exact position they needed to be in, and in turn, fans started to gravitate more to the blue brand.

Which became important as Survivor Series rolled around.

Brand Supremacy

Sami Zayn Mick Foley

The problem with WWE’s annual Survivor Series ‘Battle for Brand Supremacy’ is that there is very little reason for fans to care.

There is never anything to differentiate Raw or SmackDown with each other, they are carbon copies of the other with different rosters. In 2016 though, with the new brand split still very much in it’s infancy, fans did care.

In the months since the draft, SmackDown had stood out ahead of Raw as the definitively better show, and that was reflected in fan response ahead of Survivor Series. SmackDown was the babyface product, as it subverted the usual WWE trope of making the company itself the villain, as was frustratingly still the case on Raw.

Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan waved the flag of opportunity on SmackDown, and wrestlers were taking the chance to succeed. This in turn inspired fans to watch those they believed were being under-utilised on RAW, and hope for a move to SmackDown.

And in another rare case of WWE listening to it’s fanbase, WWE implemented this call into storylines before, and after Survivor Series, in what was another huge victory for SmackDown.

Hopes were high for Sami Zayn to move to SmackDown ,after his meaningful appearances on Raw dwindled in the autumn, with an Intercontinental Championship match against The Miz at Survivor Series giving hope to this idea.

More exciting for SmackDown and damning for Raw however, was the hope that the ENTIRE cruiserweight division would switch brands by way of Kalisto dethroning Brian Kendrick as Cruiserweight Champion.

One must only listen to the reaction Sami Zayn received in a promo battle with Mick Foley in December as an example of fans’ preference for SmackDown, as they rejoiced at the idea that he could be traded, and while neither this or the Cruiserweight division moving shows would materialise, it remained a huge indicator of where audience allegiances lied.

As the year came to a close, SmackDown was still delivering in spades, with an underrated TLC PPV closing out the year for the blue brand with another strong outing that saw The Wyatt’s capture the tag team titles and Alexa Bliss capture the SmackDown Women’s Championship, rewarding two of the show’s main success stories since the summer.

Meanwhile, Baron Corbin and Kalisto produced a low-key banger of Chairs Match, The Miz and Dolph Ziggler concluded their rivalry in a strong Ladder Match worthy of the feud, while AJ Styles and Dean Ambrose’s TLC main event lived up to the PPV name, despite James Ellsworth’a involvment finish.

The weekly programming closed out the year with the ‘Wild Card Finals’ event that saw American Alpha capture tag gold in their main roster highlight, furthering the Wyatt’s dissension storyline that until this point was still fascinating, and John Cena returned to set up another AJ Styles match at the Royal Rumble.

Nothing Lasts Forever

Jinder Mahal Thumb

The show was still going strong, but the wheels began to fall off by the time WrestleMania 33 grew closer, and SmackDown began to betray it’s own premise. Ironically coinciding with a shift in Head Writer, as Ryan Ward was replaced, the show began to resemble something similar to Monday nights.

The Wyatt’s breakup seemed to be headed in the direction of a Luke Harper babyface run, only to turn into a vehicle for another main event stint for Randy Orton, while the tag division stopped being showcased as much the moment Gable and Jordon captured the gold.

The elevation of Orton, Shane, and Cena over the likes of Harper, American Alpha, and others were a betrayal of the idea that made SmackDown different in the first place, as it began to fumble storylines ahead of WrestleMania 33.

There were highlights such as Bray Wyatt winning the WWE Championship inside Elimination Chamber, and the rise of Naomi, but they became more of an exception than the rule.

If the Road to WrestleMania 33 was the beginning of the end for SmackDown Live, the aftermath was the confirmation that the great show it had once been, was gone.

The show was dominated by the build to the Randy Orton/Bray Wyatt ‘House of Horrors’ match at Payback, as the feud became a parody of it’s own potential. New pairings such as AJ Styles and Kevin Owens failed to deliver, while WWE fumbled new brand arrivals like Sami Zayn, Charlotte Flair, and ready made superstar Shinsuke Nakamura.

SmackDown Live had lost everything that made it stand out, and became just another WWE show in the process.

Arguably the biggest piece of proof that SmackDown’s golden period was over, came when Jinder Mahal became WWE Champion. While the victory did promote a new star, a SmackDown staple as discussed above, it was so left-field and seemingly poorly thought-out it was quickly rejected by fans.



The legacy of SmackDown Live is twofold.

WWE NEEDED to make SmackDown destination television in 2016 to sell the idea of the brand split, and they absolutely accomplished that goal. For a time, SmackDown Live was the most consistently acclaimed main roster WWE TV show in over a decade, and revitalised a brand that had long since been considered forgotten.

It’s also not beyond the pale to suggest that without this revival WWE doesn’t land it’s monster deal with FOX for the blue brand. FOX took an interest in WWE during 2017, while SmackDown’s rise was still fresh. The deal between the two sides was completed and announced in June 2018, before beginning in October the following year.

The 2016 WWE Draft and the subsequent SmackDown revival deserve every last bit of credit that they get.