WWE's Weirdly Flat Draft Was Haunted by the Past
WWE wanted to do a NFL-style draft to kick off its recent brand split. Smackdown and Raw got their wrestlers, but a looming lawsuit made it too NFL-like for comfort.
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This article was originally published on VICE Sports U.S.
Taken in strictly kayfabe terms—that is, if we suspend our disbelief and pretend that pro wrestling is purely real instead of existing in the nether-realm between solid and air—Tuesday's Smackdown draft was a mixed bag. Some combination of a slightly too large roster and the demands of USA's programming overlords have forced WWE to embark upon a brand split, which WWE is still kind of struggling to figure out. Regardless, Smackdown is moving to Tuesday nights and is now live, making it ostensibly co-equal, if slightly shorter.
The build-up has been bland, but WWE pulled out a few stops on the Raw directly preceding the first live Smackdown. The announcement of Daniel Bryan's return as GM of Smackdown on Monday established a buzz to the proceedings that had disappeared from the McMahon-ified pie-chart fetishization that had defined the brand split to this point. Bryan's return brought a raucous, sustained pop from the crowd. He is, against all expectations, still the most popular man on the roster and because of that he is needed in some capacity, even though it clearly pains him that he can no longer return to the ring.
WWE tried to go for something resembling an NFL-style draft for this event, but even considering how slack and dull the NFL draft itself is, the pacing was weird for such a major event in WWE's history. In an actual sports draft, the waiting between picks, interminable as it can be in the moment, is the drama. WWE, by contrast, went from a measured pace with the first few high-profile picks—Raw's three to every two by Smackdown, due to the difference in show length—to a more rapid clip. By the time the picks rolled around to Sami Zayn and Bray Wyatt, even the McMahons and their GMs—Bryan for Smackdown and a startlingly hirsute Mick Foley for Raw—seemed bored, with one choice barely announced before the next pick followed on its heels, faster and faster, until the back half of the draft was shunted off to the WWE Network. If you've ever been there for the kicker-run portion at the end of a NFL fantasy draft, you are familiar with this level of excitement.
There had to be a spell to this, some sort of enchantment that forced the illusion of drama. There had to be a sense that the draft was not just a preview of match-ups but a preview of the stories that would make those match-ups pop. But, past those first eight or nine picks—all of which can be considered top choices for the world title or, in the case of the No. 3 pick, Charlotte, the dominant force in the women's division—there wasn't much new. To the extent that stories were even hinted at, they mostly involved ongoing matters: Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens in match No. 700 of their (quite good, but very well-worn) feud; A.J. Styles and John Cena; the possibility of Finn Balor reuniting with his Bullet Club mates from years ago. If you follow wrestling, exactly none of this was surprising.
All of which is to say that it was fine, if hardly the sort of electric start that this new era of co-equal shows deserved. Some of the picks were strange in purely storyline terms—separating Bray Wyatt from the Wyatt Family for the second time with no real drama, say, or Big Show being drafted before Cesaro. But most of all, they were unadorned. It felt weirdly offhand and flat.
Perhaps the strangest note of the night was Raw's back-to-back picks of Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar. Reigns, of course, is just wrapping up a suspension for a wellness violation; the rumor is PEDs of some sort, although we'll never know for sure. Lesnar topped off his triumphant return to UFC by being popped for a drug violation of his own after the decision had already been rendered, undoubtedly infuriating the McMahons insofar as it scuttled any real chance to reintroduce him as the unstoppable beast they want. The Lesnar news was compounded when UFC announced that he'd failed a second, day-of-competition test for PEDs.
It was an uncomfortable reminder of the bad old days of pro wrestling, and of just how ingrained steroid use is. Here you have two high-profile pro wrestlers, separated in age by a full decade, each trying to get that extra bit of mass or stamina that WWE demands of its top guys. Watching them go to one of the shows back to back was surreal—there was no mention of the scandals on-air, unlike weeks past, when Reigns' suspension became minor fodder for the current world title angle. Reigns and Lesnar were simply announced, without even an implied asterisk, as if this is how it has always been done and always, on some level, will be. Which, to be fair, is how it always has been done, and always will be.
There was another cloud over what should've been a triumphant night for WWE, though this one may have a silver lining. Fifty-one former WWE wrestlers are suing the company over the its alleged withholding of information on wrestling's contribution to traumatic brain injury. Unlike past class action attempts, this one is both large and specific, and the plaintiffs consist of higher-profile ex-workers than those in any prior suit—big names like Jimmy Snuka, Road Warrior Animal, and King Kong Bundy. At the heart of the suit seems to be WWE's insistence on employing wrestlers as independent contractors, a weasely way of getting out of all manner of employer responsibility, from health insurance to union rights to information sharing. That approach, quite predictably, led to a climate that kept the real risk of wrestling hidden.
It's far too early to break down the suit's chances, and not just because I'm not a lawyer. So much depends on where the case is tried and who tries it, although this one certainly feels more substantial than past lawsuits. Even if it's settled out of court, there's at least the chance that WWE offers a little more support to its wrestlers going forward, for fear of future suits in this vein.
If these seem like buzzkilling thoughts, then you're probably getting why the draft wound up being so meh. This was supposed to be the best of WWE's New Era. Instead, it was overshadowed by some of the worst aspects of WWE's past: drugs, concussions, and employee abuse. There's not a whole lot of sports entertainment in that.
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