World Wrestling Entertainment pressed the figurative reset button in early 2016. What began as a simple enough storyline involving a feud between a father and son unofficially kicked off what the WWE is referring to as its “New Era.” While it is true that the WWE has a history of attempting to get trademarks and brand names over with fans -- how do you all feel about the phrase “WWE Universe” these days? -- the New Era is not just new in name only. The New Era has, thus far, brought with it multiple massive changes that will affect everything from cable broadcasts to special events featured on the WWE Network to what has been the company’s developmental brand. It is a new day indeed for the WWE, and we aren’t referring to the beloved trio that did well to turn a terrible gimmick into a group adored by fans.
The WWE has seemingly been chasing its own tail and going in circles since the spring of 2001 when the promotion purchased World Championship Wrestling and ended the so-called “Monday Night Wars.” Pro wrestling in North America has never been as popular as it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and nothing the WWE has done over the 15 years has generated business as “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Rock, Mick Foley and Triple H did during that time. This New Era that the WWE embraced is, in some ways, an attempt to correct all the WWE got wrong following the death of WCW. Fans everywhere have to hope mistakes made in the past won’t be repeated this time around.
15 Brand Split
Without question, the biggest change of the New Era to hit the WWE has to be the brand split that will separate the rosters featured on episodes of Raw and SmackDown. WWE fans saw this movie play out last decade. It did not end well. Fans received SmackDown with open arms and accepted it as the “wrestling show” during the early days of the experiment, but it did not take long to see that Raw was the mothership and the television darling of the company.
SmackDown became superfluous by the end of the brand split, so much so that fans did not even need to watch the show to keep up with WWE storylines. That cannot happen this time around if SmackDown is to truly compete with Raw for longer than a few months. Perhaps the biggest task of the New Era is to make SmackDown as vital and as important as Raw in the eyes of casual WWE viewers. Best of luck.
14 Separate Pay-Per-Views
The brand split separating the Raw and SmackDown rosters in July 2016 is about more than just the cable shows. It has been learned that the WWE is planning on running separate pay-per-view events for the two rosters similar to what occurred during the company’s original brand split.
While the four biggest shows of the year will be “co-branded” and include members of both rosters, there will be occasions when a Raw and SmackDown pay-per-view will occur in the same month. This idea ultimately flopped the first time around,and the WWE abandoned it after learning that wrestling fans were only willing and/or able to spend so much money on the product per month and per year. Our advice to those of you who don’t want to miss any of these shows: Now is as good a time as ever to give the WWE Network a try for a month or so.
13 Authority is Gone, Kinda/Sorta
Ever since WWE Chairman Vince McMahon explained that “Bret screwed Bret” following the events of the infamous “Montreal Screwjob,” the WWE has repeatedly gone back to storylines that featured heel authority figures. That is technically no longer the case thanks to the New Era.
While Stephanie McMahon remains the figurehead of the Raw roster, the faction “The Authority” that included McMahon, Triple H and others no longer has complete storyline control of WWE shows. There is some hope that the WWE is putting the played-out idea of the heel authority figure on the shelf for now, as Stephanie is not alone in running Raw alongside babyface Mick Foley. While we have to assume that it will only be a matter of time before history again repeats itself, we should all enjoy the disappearance of a heel authority figure while we can. Maybe we’ll get lucky and the New Era will prove to be new.
12 Cruiserweight Classic
Not every massive change affecting the WWE during the New Era involves the main roster. This one involves a tournament featured on the WWE Network. The Cruiserweight Classic is a competition that showcases competitors currently not signed long-term to the WWE and thus it theoretically has presented those wrestlers with opportunities to impress WWE scouts and others within the company.
Such a tournament would be exciting on its own. The WWE also took steps to separate the Cruiserweight Classic from its other products. Wrestlers are instructed to shake hands before a fight. Both men are then presented in the center of the ring for the traditional hand-raise after a match, similar to what is seen in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and other legitimate fighting promotions. The Cruiserweight Classic may not lead to massive changes existing on WWE programming past this tournament, but is nevertheless a breath of fresh air for those with access to the WWE Network.
11 Cruiserweight Division
It does not seem like it was all that long ago when “push the cruiserweights!” became the comedic rallying cry of WWE fans posting on Internet forums. Those of you who believed in that mantra with all of your hearts should love this part of the New Era.
It was announced on the July 18 edition of Raw that the WWE will once again feature a cruiserweight division as part of its main roster. A cruiserweight division adds the possibility for numerous interesting matches and also feuds over a championship that otherwise would not have happened during shows that air on the USA Network. With that said, the WWE did not necessarily flatter cruiserweight wrestlers following the announcement of the original brand split in 2002. In fact, cruiserweight performers were often buried in favor of bigger wrestlers. That cannot happen this time around if the cruiserweight division is to be taken seriously and accepted by fans.
10 Relationship with the UFC
Those of us who do not work for either the WWE or the UFC know little about this part of the New Era. It’s no secret that the two companies agreed to terms on a deal that allowed WWE performer Brock Lesnar to fight against Mark Hunt at UFC 200. It has since been speculated that Paige VanZant could play a role at a WWE show in the future.
Remember, also, that Ronda Rousey once tossed Triple H while inside of the ring at a WrestleMania. Rousey is a known fan of pro wrestling and of the WWE. She attended WWE shows before she was ever invited to participate in an angle, an angle that, for what it’s worth, still has not completely played out in the WWE Universe. Is the relationship between the WWE and UFC over now that Lesnar fought at UFC 200 or was that only the start of a beautiful friendship? Fans should hope for the latter.
9 SmackDown Live
The biggest single entity affected by all that has occurred during the New Era would have to be SmackDown and the team that works on that show. SmackDown has moved over to Tuesday nights. Like Raw, SmackDown will also air live for the majority of shows unless otherwise indicated by the WWE.
This is a gamble that goes beyond what occurred during the original WWE brand split. Gone are the days of being able to read spoilers for SmackDown and then deciding if you want to watch. SmackDown is now a live program, one that will still be an hour shorter than every edition of Raw. One has to wonder if some WWE fans will choose to watch SmackDown Live over Raw, or if some wrestling fans will decide that watching a total of five hours of wrestling over two nights is too much for one to tackle. Whatever happens, making SmackDown live is a gamble, but one worth exploring at this point.
8 Dean Ambrose
Everything was lined up for a future program involving Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins feuding over the WWE Championship this coming summer. That changed, however, after Rollins won the title from Reigns, only for Rollins to then drop that championship to Dean Ambrose.
Ambrose being awarded with the opportunity to carry the ball for the WWE made more sense once it was learned that Reigns earned himself a 30-day ban for allegedly violating the company’s Wellness Policy. How long the WWE chooses to go with Ambrose as a top guy is unknown as of the posting of this piece, but it is a noticeable change in direction from the days when Ambrose was wrestling the likes of The Miz and Kevin Owens on a weekly basis. Ambrose is over with pockets of fans, probably because he is a unique wrestler and character. The WWE could do worse than having Ambrose lead the SmackDown brand.
7 Seth Rollins
Either something changed with a few WWE storylines, or certain people within the company do not watch shows that air on the WWE Network. Seth Rollins was set to make his return to the WWE following WrestleMania of this year and following a serious knee injury that he suffered in November 2015.
In anticipation of that return, the WWE Network ran a show that featured Rollins training in order to get back into the ring. This, in the past, would have been an easy way to make Rollins a babyface, as the company should have known that Rollins was going to draw a big pop with any audience upon his immediate return. That is exactly what happened when Rollins attacked Roman Reigns at the end of the Extreme Rules show. Rollins’ run as a babyface did not even last 24 hours, however, as Rollins cut a promo on the fans and turned heel the very next night. We don’t get it either, fellow wrestling fans.
6 A.J. Styles
It is understandable if you forgot that A.J. Styles appearing at the 2016 Royal Rumble and becoming one of the top acts on the WWE main roster presented a preview of what was to come during the New Era. It was, after all, only a couple of years ago when even the thought of the WWE pushing a Total Nonstop Action Wrestling performer such as Styles in main event roles would have been nothing short of ridiculous.
Styles quickly adapted to the WWE style of working matches and cutting promos, and he may end up earning WWE Match of the Year honors when all is said and done. Wrestling fans should hope that Styles being somewhat of a revelation during his first six months in the WWE will lead to similar workers receiving contract offers. For all we know, the WWE signing Styles could be the best thing to come out of this New Era.
5 Mauro Ranallo
An announce team can make or break a wrestling show. The WWE changed gears and went in a different direction in early 2016 when the company named Mauro Ranallo as the lead announcer for its SmackDown show. Ranallo’s resume is impressive and includes the play-by-play man calling mixed martial arts events, boxing matches and professional wrestling shows.
Ranallo, unsurprisingly, has been a hit among fans and among viewers, and he obviously impressed at least a few powerful individuals within the WWE. The company currently has Ranallo and Daniel Bryan serving as the announcers for the Cruiserweight Classic that is airing on the WWE Network. We’d like to see Corey Graves receive a call-up from the NXT brand to the main roster and to the SmackDown show. The duo of Ranallo and Graves could make for the top announce team in all of the WWE, as long as the two were allowed to be themselves during shows.
4 Mick Foley
Perhaps we all should have known that Mick Foley would make a return to WWE programming during the New Era. Foley and his family members are scheduled to be stars of a reality television program that will air on the WWE Network. It would, thus, make sense that the WWE would want to push Foley on a show watched by millions of viewers and by people who have not yet subscribed to the WWE Network.
It was announced on July 18th that Foley will serve as the on-screen General Manager of Raw. Foley was presented as a babyface, but he is, in storyline, working underneath Stephanie McMahon. We have to assume there will eventually come a time when some sort of split happens. Until that portion of the story plays out, though, fans can enjoy watching the Hardcore Legend play the role as the authority figure of Raw. Just don’t have Foley turn heel, guys. Nobody needs to see that.
3 Daniel Bryan
One of the saddest events of the WWE year occurred in February when Daniel Bryan, the ultimate underdog who became a fan-favorite and World Champion, announced on an edition of Raw that he had to retire as a worker due to issues caused by the concussions he suffered during his wrestling career.
After several months away from the company and from WWE programming, Bryan returned as an announcer for the Cruiserweight Classic. On July 18th, Shane McMahon announced that Bryan will serve as the on-screen General Manager of the SmackDown brand. Adding Bryan as a character and a storyline authority figure is yet another step in the right direction, as it is a step away from the heel boss that first debuted on WWE television roughly two decades ago. Bryan shined as an announcer during the first episode of the Cruiserweight Classic. We expect that Bryan will be a hit on future editions of SmackDown.
2 Dismantling of NXT
NXT became far more than just a developmental brand over the past few years. It evolved into the WWE’s version of an independent promotion. During that time, NXT featured popular wrestlers such as the trio who went on to form The Shield, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Finn Balor, Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Bayley, American Alpha and others.
Part of the WWE’s shift in direction involved massive changes hitting NXT. Balor, Bayley and American Alpha all lost their NXT championships, and their days as part of the NXT touring brand are clearly numbered. Do not, however, automatically assume that NXT is in danger of becoming just another show underneath the WWE umbrella. Samoa Joe, Shinsuke Nakamura and Asuka are just a few wrestlers ready to carry the NXT ball past July 2016. We also do not know who the WWE will sign for the NXT brand over the next 12 months.
1 Return of Shane McMahon
All would do well to remember that much of what we are seeing in the WWE today is a direct result of Shane McMahon making a return to WWE programming and McMahon being so well-received by fans. There was no indication during McMahon’s first few weeks back in the company that he was going be any sort of on-air authority figure. Any hope that McMahon would stick around for the long-term were seemingly dashed when he lost to The Undertaker at WrestleMania 32.
Vince McMahon nevertheless allowed Shane to run Raw in storyline following WrestleMania and the rest is history. Shane and Stephanie McMahon are now involved in a feud that features Shane running SmackDown and Stephanie running Raw. Who would have guessed back on January 1st of this year that Shane-O-Mac would return to the WWE and be an over babyface in the summer of 2016? Not many. It turns out that anything can, in fact, happen in the WWE.