WWEs annual Superstar Shakeup is in the books. And Smackdown won.
It's really that simple this year. Usually, both Raw and Smackdown land superstars who will benefit their shows. Last year's shakeup, for instance, brought Dean Ambrose and Alexa Bliss to Raw, and Shinsuke Nakamura and Charlotte to Smackdown. The event had a balancing effect on both rosters, addressing the weaknesses in parts of their cards without undermining the strengths in others.
This year's shakeup, however, really didn't do much for Raw.
Stephanie McMahon's brand lost its two best talkers in The Miz and Samoa Joe. It lost its best woman wrestler in Asuka. And it lost maybe its most purely popular star in Jeff Hardy. Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens somewhat make up for losing The Miz's obnoxiousness, but their act is lukewarm and their matches have been forgettable. The Riott Squad will give Sasha Banks and Bayley some cannon fodder for a few months, but the Ronda Rousey show Raw remains. And Lashley steps into Hardy's "popular in 2007" shoes, but he's no charismatic enigma. Well, I suppose his eyebrows are an enigma.
Smackdown, meanwhile, gains not just The Miz, but maybe the most anticipated feud in WWE when he faces the man he's been mocking in and out of the ring for two years, Daniel Bryan. Speaking of Bryan, he and Joe are part of what could be a new
Smackdown Six: Six internet darlings who can anchor the middle and top of the card with reliably good matches. Sure, Joe's lost a step, but he'll be more than game against the other five: Bryan, AJ Styles, a newly rejuvenated heel Shinsuke Nakamura, Rusev and the best of them all, fellow new arrival and former NXT Champion Andrade Cien Almas.
Asuka's move to Shane McMahon's brand opens up a rematch with Charlotte that she'll likely win to set up a rubber match (and hopefully with a better finish than their anticlimax at WrestleMania). But all of the Empress's opponents on Smackdown are enticing: A veritable horror movie against the overmatched Carmella, a hip attack showdown with Naomi, and my most anticipated women's match in all of WWE, Becky Lynch. And with the Iconics replacing the Riott Squad as the mean girls of Smackdown, it'll be fun watching Lynch and Charlotte team with Asuka and try to handle her loud personality.
It's too bad WWE is doing away with brand-exclusive pay-per-view events, because the new Smackdown could put on a killer card: Styles vs. Almas and Lynch vs Asuka in a pair of match-of-the-year-candidate main events, Bryan vs. Nakamura in an
actual dream match that hasn't happened yet, The Bar vs. The Bludgeon Brothers in an absolute slugfest, and, uh, something for Randy Orton.
The only real stinker on the Smackdown side of the shakeup is Big Cass. He did need the change of scenery coming off his injury and the disgraced exit of his former partner, Enzo, but no one needed Cass's first opponent back to be the newly cleared Bryan. Even if Cass is just a short detour on Bryan's path to demolishing The Miz, or even The Miz's new bodyguard, the better person for the part would have been Drew McIntyre. The former NXT Champion would have far better matches with Bryan, and after his career-reinventing work on the independent scene and NXT, he's earned the spotlight.
That McIntyre instead returned as bodyguard to
Dolph Ziggler, a random lifeline to the stalest act in the company, almost suggests Raw went out of its way to botch this year's Superstar Shakeup.
But who cares? The next year of Smackdown is going to rule.
20. Raw Women's Champion Charlotte vs. Bayley, Raw (Feb. 13). Her fortunes may have dimmed since, but Bayley's first WWE championship victory was the kind of feel-good moment that reminded us how winsome her character can be when she overcomes the odds. The ever-improving Charlotte was game for this TV epic, and its stock rose weeks later at Fastlane when Bayley handed Charlotte her first PPV loss, bucking the trend of dethroning "The Queen" on TV only to promptly lose the title back to her.
19. Seth Rollins vs. The Miz vs. Finn Balor, Raw (May 2). The Miz is magic. Put him in a multi-man match and it overachieves (see: his fatal four-way against Cesaro, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn last year). This Raw main event was no exception, mixing the Intercontinental Champion's chickenshit ways with Balor and Rollins' athleticism to edge-of-your-seat effect.
18. NXT World Champion Bobby Roode vs. Shinsuke Nakamura, NXT TakeOver: Orlando. Roode's NXT Championship run was almost as miraculous as it was, yes, glorious. Two of the best examples were his overperforming pair of matches with Nakamura. (And if you thought he was too prone to autopilot during his own NXT Championship reign, "The Artist's" lifeless Smackdown run has put things in perspective.) With relentless old-school limb work and a nail-biter of a finish, the second match between Roode and Nakamura is the superior one.
17. Elimination Chamber: WWE World Champion John Cena vs. AJ Styles vs. Bray Wyatt vs. Baron Corbin vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. Dean Ambrose. It would end with a spectacularly crappy series against Randy Orton, but Wyatt's long-awaited first championship reign began rather well. He authoritatively pinned the two previous champions, Cena and Styles, in a match that also saw Corbin re-established as a legitimate upper-card threat. "The Lone Wolf" would fizzle out, too, but we'll always have Elimination Chamber.
16. Roman Reigns vs. Finn Balor, Raw (May 15). These two have a hell of a pay-per-view main event in them. Two of the slickest and best-looking wrestlers in WWE (in both senses of the word, if the signs they inspire are any indication), Reigns and Balor match up about as perfectly as the Big Dog did with AJ Styles. The commentary teased a fun story about Balor's technique making him as dangerous a striker as the more powerful Reigns, but I suppose we'll have to wait until that pay-per-view rubber match to get the whole thing.
15. Aleister Black vs. The Velveteen Dream, NXT TakeOver: War Games. Black has made a name for himself with some of the crispest striking in WWE today, but his best match of 2017 was all about old-school storytelling. All Velveteen Dream wanted was for Black to say his name, and his provocative Rick Rude-style tights set a tone that pulled you in. Dream did more than sell his desperation, though, not only hanging with Black but earning credible near falls after a fluid DDT variation and other offense. By the time of the Black Mass, Brooklyn was saying Dream's name — and, in a perfectly simple conclusion to the story, so was Black.
14. Raw Tag Team Champions Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins vs. The Bar, No Mercy. This will always be known as the match where Cesaro impacted his front teeth on a slingshot by Ambrose, but gutted out the next 15 minutes of action anyways. Though that did elevate the match, so did the elite chemistry between these two teams of veterans, which has culminated in some of the freshest double-team finisher sequences in wrestling.
13. Johnny Gargano vs. Andrade "Cien" Almas, NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn III. This was a match about two superstars trying to rebound, and after about 15 minutes of lightning-quick action, there was no doubt both will be just fine. In storyline terms, of course, Gargano wasn't fine: One of the most inventive finishes of the year saw him distracted by a DIY T-shirt tossed at him by Almas' manager, Zelina Vega, allowing her man to capitalize as thoughts of Gargano's betrayal by former tag partner Tommaso Ciampa consumed him. But Gargano would recover, winning a fun fatal fourway on the last NXT show of the year to earn a shot at the NXT Champion at January's TakeOver Philadelpha: Almas.
12. Cesaro vs. WWE Intercontinental Champion Roman Reigns, Raw (Dec. 11). Giving Reigns the Intercontinental Title has brilliantly put him in position to deliver week after week of "fighting champion" defenses on free TV, and this barn burner with Cesaro topped them all. A nonstop barrage of power moves and dynamic strikes by two unnaturally mobile heavyweights, it reaffirmed Reigns' ability to his doubters and Cesaro's singles prospects to his believers.
11. Roman Reigns vs. Braun Strowman, Payback. Strowman's improbable growth into one of WWE's best acts owes much to Reigns, whose low regard among fans and terrific selling and timing abilities make him the big man's best possible wrestling dummy. I just hope to god he's not finished with Reigns yet.
10. WWE United Kingdom Champion Pete Dunne vs. Tyler Bate, NXT (Dec. 22). I try to avoid including the same match twice on lists like these, but Dunne and Bate gave me no choice. The third and final 2017 match between the U.K. stars once again seamlessly mixed World of Sport joint work and modern high-flying, but the intimate venue of Full Sail University paid a whole new level of attention. Look no further than their gasps when Dunne gruesomely stomps on Bate's braced arm. However, as the show's main event, the match went a bit further into overkill territory than its predecessors, and you could tell by how quiet the crowd fell.
9. Smackdown Tag Team Champions The New Day vs. The Usos, SummerSlam. The New Day had established itself as WWE's biggest tag team by the time it moved to Smackdown this year, but its feud with The Usos established the team as one of WWE's best. The increasing use of the dynamic Xavier Woods, who can smack you with elbows as well as he can flip off the ropes, surely helped. But the big assist for The New Day's strong 2017, which would see them credibly challenge The Shield at Survivor Series, was The Usos. Their show-stealing openers with The New Day at SummerSlam and Hell in a Cell may have elevated the longest-reigning tag champions in company history, but they also proved that Jimmy and Jey are the best in WWE.
8. WWE Universal Champion Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar, WrestleMania 33. "Elegant" is the last word one would associate with either of these brutes. But their third match was just that, stringing together a captivating series of their biggest bombs and nothing else. Everything worked perfectly, starting with the camera shot of Lesnar boasting about his opening salvo of three German suplexes, only for Goldberg to storm into the frame with a blindsiding spear. And the turning point of the match, Lesnar's spear-avoiding leapfrog, was so improbably athletic for a man of his size, it was almost nightmarish. Name a better match with only four moves.
7. Finn Balor vs. AJ Styles, WWE TLC. Not only is "AJ Styles" a theme on this list, so is "last-minute AJ Styles substitutions that turn dreaded slogs into dream matches." This first one saw him finally face his Bullet Club predecessor, Balor, in a match as athletic and hard-hitting as they would have had in New Japan Pro Wrestling. Hopefully, their Bullet Club salute at the end suggests they'll meet again, and perhaps we'll even have some time to salivate beforehand.
6. Last woman standing: NXT Women's Champion Asuka vs. Nikki Cross, NXT (June 27). From a character standpoint, there might not have been a single better performance in WWE this year than Nikki Cross' against the dominant NXT Women's Champion. The Sanity member wrestled like someone truly out of her mind. She smiled through brutal kicks and weapon attacks, then goaded Asuka not to stay down so she could inflict even more punishment of her own. Asuka obliged, dialing up her fluid viciousness to defend her championship in what may be the most epic-feeling match of her WWE career.
5. WWE Universal Champion Brock Lesnar vs. WWE World Champion AJ Styles, Survivor Series. Wrestling fans rejoiced when WWE surprisingly switched the World Championship from Jinder Mahal to Styles a week ahead of Survivor Series' champion-vs.-champion match — and for good reason. I doubt Mahal could have delivered the kind of David-vs.-Goliath drama Styles did by throwing himself around the ring off Lesnar's suplexes, only to rally with a thrilling 450 splash and Calf Crusher. And, luckily, Lesnar was more inspired than he was against Samoa Joe and Braun Strowman. When he broke up Styles' submission by brutally dribbling his head into the mat, the former UFC Heavyweight Champion reminded us just how dangerous his matches can feel.
4. NXT Women's Champion Asuka vs. Ember Moon, NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn III. The final match of Asuka's instantly legendary NXT run was, fittingly, her best. Rematching from TakeOver: Orlando, "The Empress" and Ember Moon hit and wrenched each other even harder. After Asuka pushed the referee in Orlando to avoid Moon's Eclipse and retain her title, simply surviving the finisher to win cleanly in Brooklyn felt like a left turn. It's tough to tell where the story would have gone, though, as the collarbone injury Asuka sustained in this match moved up her promotion to WWE's main roster. I guess we'll just have to wait for Ember to join her.
3. NXT Tag Team Champions The Authors of Pain vs. DIY vs. The Revival, NXT TakeOver: Orlando. The work in this triple threat is as crisp, fast-paced and creative as you'd expect given what the three teams bring to the table: The horror movie power of the Authors, the breakneck strikes and dives of DIY, and the scheming limb work and rule-bending of The Revival. What made this match so great, though, was the two smaller teams trying to put aside their storied differences and align against the champions. They did so with a battery of mash-up double-teams that'd put down just about anyone, but the monsters still stood tall in the end.
2. WWE World Champion AJ Styles vs. John Cena, Royal Rumble. I wasn't hot on this match at first, as it felt too similar to their SummerSlam epic and, well, just about all of Cena's recent encounters with indie darlings like Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, etc. My second viewing was kinder to it, though. If nothing else, the match is great for Cena's two murderous lariats, the first that absolutely clobbers Styles and the second that barely misses him at full, uncompromising speed. It has the usual glut of 2.9 kickouts and despondent facial expressions, but Cena and Styles go all-out giving the now-16-time champion perhaps his hardest-fought victory ever.
1. WWE United Kingdom Champion Tyler Bate vs. Pete Dunne, NXT TakeOver: Chicago. Jim Ross isn't a great commentator. Between his Oklahoma cliches and his fixation on wrestlers' athletic histories, he can be a positively bad one. But I can't recall a match that's ever made Ross sound so inessential, so Mike Adamle, as Bate and Dunne's show stealer at TakeOver: Chicago. A thrilling fusion of hyper-technical European and heart-stopping U.S. styles, this match was its own pocket universe where no other titles and no other wrestlers mattered for 15 amazing minutes. Ross could only watch in awe right alongside us.
Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.