The WWE begins a new era in its storied history Tuesday night with its brand extension draft on Smackdown. Breaking the rosters into two separate, unique groups–with one on Raw and the other on Smackdown–fosters competition among the wrestlers in WWE unlike ever before. WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross, who worked directly with Vince McMahon during his time with the company, offers a unique behind-the-curtain perspective of what to expect from the brand extension and its overall effect on every wrestler in WWE.
Ross has been following the product closely despite a very active schedule. He covers a lot of ground with Terri Runnels on the latest episode of his podcast, The Ross Report, and he will be part of the NWA Legends Fan Fest in Charlotte, North Carolina this August. Ross’s “Ringside Show” also returns to Baltimore this September 23rd alongside special guest Jim Cornette.
In an exclusive to Sports Illustrated, Ross discusses the keys to success for WWE’s brand extension, touches on where certain talents should be drafted, and explains the depth of planning involved in the draft.
• THE REASON BEHIND THE DRAFT: Vince McMahon has always thrived off competition, and the brand extension is McMahon’s way of creating old school competition for his wrestlers
Ross: Once you exclude John Cena and Brock Lesnar, you’ve got a whole lot of really good talents–a lot of them who are hovering in the same time zone. You’ve got a whole bunch of talent who is really similar and that’s the next wave of main-eventers. These rosters will deliver the next five-to-ten WrestleMania main events. Guys like [Shinsuke] Nakamura and [Finn] Balor are included in that group–they’ve got a lot of ability and provide depth. When ‘Stone Cold’ [Steve Austin] went down, if we hadn’t had the depth from The Rock, then WWE wouldn’t have kept the momentum it was building. There are a lot of really talented wrestlers in WWE that are ready and poised to go to the next level, and there is going to be a lot of competition between now and WrestleMania. These guys smile and pat each other on the back and they’re all buddies, but this is a very competitive world where the higher up the ladder they go, the more money they make–and they’re here for the money. There is nothing wrong with that, and if they weren’t here for the money, you’d want to check their pulse. WWE, either inadvertently or intentionally, has created a very prominent bottleneck of competition. Guys are going to be elbowing and pushing and shoving to get through the bottleneck out to the other side. In the WWE’s vernacular, you want to be above the titles–you want to be a star, and the stars are the ones with the best bookings, who get the most opportunities, and make the most money. Those are cold, hard facts. Right now, all bets are off. Take Lesnar and Cena out of the equation, and there are a lot of interchangeable parts–but that’s not a bad thing. Now, as they are reassembled, we’ll see who can break loose, and that’s what will be the most interesting for fans to watch.
• THE CENATION: Changing from Thursday to Tuesday night for Smackdown is a monumental task, which makes the presence of John Cena on Smackdown a must
Ross: It would certainly be advantageous for Smackdown to have John Cena. You’re trying to start a new time and new live format on a new day in Tuesday, so having Cena would bring in a certain segment of the audience with him. But if you exclude Cena and Lesnar from the roster as it stands, then you find yourself casting an ensemble cast.
• QUOTE THE SHIELD... NO MORE: It is not imperative to keep the men who comprised The Shield–WWE champion Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns–together on the same roster
Ross: I would not base my draft on keeping The Shield together or not. If it happens that all three guys end up on the same roster, that would be great, but I wouldn’t go miles out of my way to make that happen. If it’s part of a bigger picture idea, then it would be nice if you could facilitate it. They always have good matches and put together good storylines, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to do it. If keeping them together didn’t cripple the rest of the things I was trying to do, then that would be great.
• FUTURE IMPLICATIONS: The draft will have a considerable impact on the booking of WrestleMania 33
Ross: A large part of the draft should have elements to game-plan in a very big picture sense for WrestleMania 33. The draft will show us how WrestleMania is being planned to some degree. Both brands need to be well-represented at WrestleMania, and you want to show a successful brand separation. One way you can put a cap on that is at WrestleMania 33 and have both brands to contribute compelling main events to WrestleMania.
There are a lot of variables that go into this brand selection, but it needs to be asked: are you doing it for your ideal roster or are you doing it for television purposes? If you’re doing it for TV, you need to make sure you have an ample amount of sizzle to supplement your steak. If you’re doing it for the wrestling–what happens from bell to bell–then you draft differently. I get the sense that they won’t do it that way, nor should they. You want charisma and sizzle on your roster, and hopefully you’re smart enough to draft enough guys who can wrestle and work who can be paired up with guys on the roster. This is not just a random thing–every selection should be pivotal and have significant meaning.
• THE RETURN OF TWO CHAMPIONS: In order to make each brand unique, having two world heavyweight champions is a necessity
Ross: If you want each brand to be separate, you need each to have its own world heavyweight champion. If you want to be unique and run two different promotions, then both promotions need to have their own champion. To me, it’s a no-brainer.
• WILL THE GMs BE PAUL HEYMAN AND DANIEL BRYAN?: The two General Managers will provide an antagonist voice on Raw and a protagonist on Smackdown
Ross: I’m in a place where the authority figure scenario really needs to be revisited. With Shane [McMahon] on Smackdown, it’s going to take on a little bit different of a look, which I like. The fact that they’re adding general managers means they are adding two more TV characters. If the TV characters are produced efficiently and effectively, it will be good for the show. Of course you hope the selections that are made for these two different brands are placed there with some degree of chemistry in mind so that you don’t have a roster of left-handed guys, so to speak. But if the general manager role is cast correctly, it can be a real nice addition.
• MAKING THE BRANDS DIFFERENT IS ESSENTIAL: The importance of making each brand different is extremely important, but not as difficult as you might believe
Ross: There are endless ways to make the shows unique. You can do it in a variety of ways from a technical standpoint: the look of the show, the texture, the graphics, the colors that are used, the lighting, camera placement–there are a ton of ways to look different from the night before. The overall ring product needs to be fundamentally sound. Whichever brand has the most athletically oriented in-ring presentation is going to have a leg up. A lot of fans are looking forward to a more athletic, reality-based promotion and we’ll see if either Raw or Smackdown provide that.
• THE DEPTH OF THE WOMEN’S ROSTER: The presence of the women on both Raw and Smackdown will indicate how much depth the WWE believes it has in the female roster
Ross: If you have any depth, you have women on both Mondays and Tuesdays. If they don’t think they have enough depth right now, you have to keep them on one brand. It would be best to have women on both brands, no question.
• CHANGE FOR CHANGES’ SAKE: Broadcast teams should not be changed
Ross: The only reason you would change [Michael] Cole and Mauro [Ranallo] is if you want a change. I don’t see what you’d get by flipping them. Mauro is becoming closely identified with Smackdown, and Cole has been on Raw for so many years now that that’s his show. Cole is in a position somewhat like I was when I got moved from Raw to Smackdown [in 2008], that he’ll only be moved for the sake of change. I’m not looking for change for the sake of change, I think there should be a good reason for it–so why would you want to change Mauro and Cole? I’d leave them right where they are. As far as their color analysts are concerned, I like Cole and JBL together, and I like Mauro and Lawler together. I just need to become more comfortable with what role Byron Saxton is fulfilling as the third guy–and I like Byron, as a matter of fact. Unless the change is for a positive reason, I wouldn’t change them on this go-round.
• FIXING PAST MISTAKES: The WWE needs to improve from prior drafts, particularly in the fashion the rosters are built
Ross: I would hope the overall corporate vision of the brand separation is to create two different perspectives, two different presentations of the genre. There are plenty of ways to produce a wrestling show other than what the WWE is doing, so there are a lot of right ways to get something done. I hope they pick out one of those right ways and adapt that into the personality of Smackdown.
Smackdown needs to be different because it’s going to be live, which adds another element to the Smackdown team, which is going to be good for them. The way the roster is put together is really how you should book your brand. You can’t say, ‘The Smackdown brand is going to be about high-flying, and Cruiserweight type matches’ until you have the roster in front of you. And that’s when the smart bookers in the territory days–which equate to the writing team nowadays–take advantage of who you’ve got and play to those individual strengths. It’s really not that complicated. You’ve got to make sure you have your talents match up favorably with others on the roster so you can provide that great in-ring product that the audience demands to see.
• A CHANGING OF THE GUARD: Wrestlers like AJ Styles and Bray Wyatt have limited opportunity to win the WWE heavyweight title, but that changes when the rosters are split and there are two world champions
Ross: I like Bray Wyatt, I like Kevin Owens, I like Sami Zayn. Balor is going to get up there, and Nakamura is a player. It’s the same opportunity for everyone on the roster. Everyone on the roster has the chance to get in the game in a more prominent way. If you look at the roster now and place it into two long columns horizontally, it’s pretty intimidating. But when you cut those rosters in half for two shows–also cutting in half the babyface roster and the heel roster–you’re subdividing the roster even more, and they’re not as vertically intimidating. You’re one of the 10-15 guys instead of 35-40 guys, and you’re also going to be on the roster with other people who know they have to turn it up and really maximize the minutes they get on television–and that helps to book at a higher level.
So it all comes down to, who is the best? Who’s going to connect to the audience in the most long-lasting way? It’s a unique business right now, and it’s a lot more competitive than people think. They’re first and foremost athletes, and they’re all very competitive. People don’t understand the competitive nature in the locker room in wrestling. That’s going to make the product a whole lot more interesting to watch.
• THE BEAST INCARNATE: Brock Lesnar will be drafted
Ross: I would draft Brock Lesnar first. If you don’t draft Brock Lesnar, and your competition does, how stupid does that make you look? I’d want to draft him in a heartbeat. I’m sure he’s getting a massive weekly check for his dates, so I doubt he has any buyer’s remorse based off the money he’s making for his dates. And for WWE, that’s smart–people are taking about him, and he’s their property. He’s going to be on WWE TV infinitely more than he’ll be on UFC’s television. It’s smart marketing, and Vince is the smartest marketer in the business and he’s not going to miss any opportunities. Brock is a once in a lifetime guy, and there has never been anyone like him–mentally or physically–until now.
[Editor’s note: The interview with Jim Ross took place before news of an alleged doping violation by Lesnar surfaced.]
• BROCK VS. JOE: The brand extension begins the build-up for the clash between Samoa Joe and Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 33
Ross: Here is the thing–you’re going to have Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania, and who is his opponent? You can’t wait until January to figure that out. So bring up Samoa Joe and get him hot. He hasn’t lost on television, and build up Samoa Joe-Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 33. Sign off on it, and then work backwards into it–that’s how you do it. You need to have confidence in the talents. But often times, there are people–a small minority–behind the scenes who’ll work just as diligently pleading their case on why it won’t work instead of finding ways to make Samoa Joe and Lesnar work. That’s very, very frustrating, and that’s part of the process as well.
• ONLY TIME WILL TELL: The draft will be deemed a success or failure by WrestleMania 33
Ross: We’ll know by WrestleMania if the draft was a success or a failure. There are a lot of ways to make this work, but the key to the draft and the whole product moving forward is the brands need to be as separate as possible. Those brands need to be as unique as they can, with a different mat cover, different ring rope colors, different camera placement, and one brand may have time limits and the other may not. This really gives them a good choice to brand themselves, but the worst mistake they could make is if the writing teams aren’t completely separate. You want it to be competitive, and give incentives to the writing teams–whoever delivers the best shows based on your numbers are in line for a little extra cheese on their Whopper.
It will be fun to see how this all shakes out. On the night of the draft, there are going to be a lot more people who are disappointed and disillusioned than happy. Everybody has a different take on who should be the number one pick and who should go where. But my point is that when you take out the top two guys, you’ve got a lot of goods–but it’s a lot of the same goods. As long as you are smart in how you draft, and you build some chemistry into your draft picks, you’ll know these guys will have good matches. Those who can book the most intriguing, compelling finishes–and not have to rely on a count-out or disqualification or other weaker-ending finishes–will be rewarded for that. I like when my hero wins, but I don’t want to feel frustration when my hero loses–I want to be angry. I don’t want a tie. I’d rather have a time limit draw than a disqualification or a count-out. In our PG-world, disqualifications are very watered down, and count-outs are even worse. At the end of the day, the brand that can deliver the best, most competitive wrestling matches will win the ratings.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.