We are just weeks away from Survivor Series, where the superstars of Raw and SmackDown Live will clash for the first time since the brand extension draft all the way back in July.
With all the brand warfare that’s going on at the moment, it encourages a lot of discussion about which show has actually been better since things got underway during the summer - not just in terms of which show has the best wrestlers, booking, management and all that good stuff, but most importantly which show has kept its promise in stating that the brand extension would provide its talent with a previously unheard of sense of opportunity.
Theoretically, after all, the smaller rosters on each brand would prevent the company from pulling out the same old stops, that would typically see the same faces get pushed to the moon while other, equally gifted stars would wallow in obscurity in the mid-card at best.
If we weren’t seeing anything new and exciting, there’d be nothing stopping us from switching the channel and tuning into the opposing brand later instead. As such, the WWE have gone down the desired route of pushing stars that previously went undervalued and it’s resulted in a lot of different faces being at the helm of their respective divisions.
So the important question is this: who has benefitted the most from the brand extension? Let’s look at the top fifteen WWE Superstars who’ve had the best experience thus far.
16 Honorable Mention - Finn Bálor
Though being stricken with a debilitating injury in the midst of the biggest match of your career doesn’t exactly feel like a stroke of luck, Finn Bálor’s debut month on the main roster beforehand had been everything the fans hoped for and more after his time on NXT.
He was the fifth overall draft pick, a distinction that instantly put his name atop the line-up on Raw and his immediate push over some of the brand’s biggest names in favor of a WWE Universal Championship opportunity, and subsequent victory at SummerSlam against Seth Rollins, proved that the efforts Finn had put into the NXT brand were not in vain.
Naturally, the injury sustained during that match completely derailed plans that would likely have made Bálor the biggest star in the WWE, but it goes without saying that when the man returns next year, there’ll be a spot in the main event picture with his name written on it. That level of job security proves Bálor as one of the brand extension’s MVPs thus far.
15 James Ellsworth
If not for the return of the squash match concept to Monday Night Raw – to help build up members of the roster without sacrificing vital employees in the process – it’s safe to say that James Ellsworth’s name would be unbeknownst to anybody in the WWE Universe.
He struck a chord when he made his first appearance against Braun Strowman on Raw and ever since proclaiming that “any man with two hands has a fighting chance,” he’s been considered somewhat of a darling with a large portion of the fanbase.
Ellsworth’s physique might prevent him from ever being taken seriously, which means his role in the company might be short-lived if he loses his buzz any time soon, but there’s no doubting that the last few months have been the greatest of Ellsworth’s career to date.
No platform other than the brand extension would likely have given a jobber such as James Ellsworth the chance to become a huge star under the WWE umbrella and play a pivotal part in the WWE World Championship picture on SmackDown Live, which makes him one of the most positively affected athletes by the brand split.
As the brand extension’s final overall draft pick, Carmella’s potential as a member of the SmackDown roster was definitely in question as a result of her seemingly low priority.
“The Princess of Staten Island” had been impressive as a solo artist since her separation from Enzo Amore and Big Cass back in April, but weekly live television is a whole other kettle of fish. Carmella hasn’t let the pressure get to her, however, instead becoming one of SmackDown’s first standout female heels as a result of her heated rivalry with Nikki Bella.
Her character work has been exemplary and it could definitely be rewarded in the near future with an opportunity at the SmackDown Women’s Championship. Out of all the NXT’s call-ups this year, Carmella was probably expected to make the smallest splash in the WWE pool, but her work since SummerSlam has definitely blown that assumption right out of the water.
13 Braun Strowman
Braun Strowman’s separation from The Wyatt Family in July definitely brought this man’s future into question. He relies on his strength and power to get himself over and he’s quite good in that role due to his enormous stature, but without a strong talker like Bray Wyatt leading the way, it was unknown how he’d cope by himself.
Expectations were definitely exceeded, however, considering Strowman has made a fairly impressive name for himself ever since – laying waste to local talent each and every week and posing himself as one of the most ferocious individuals on the roster.
He’s just now getting into his stride and even has a huge match alongside Raw’s top stars coming up at Survivor Series, so it goes without saying that Strowman’s independent start has been successful. Fans may not be ecstatic over him being placed into huge matches so soon, but given a little work, the behemoth could actually be in with a chance to hit it big on Raw.
12 Alexa Bliss
Being drafted to SmackDown Live from NXT, Alexa Bliss had to make a serious impact in order to be taken seriously on the main roster – especially given her status as one of the shortest women in WWE history. Over the last month, Bliss has done just that in her efforts to carry the SmackDown Women’s Championship picture alone while Becky Lynch recovered from an impromptu surgery that forced their No Mercy encounter to be postponed.
In that time, Bliss has emerged as a tremendous heel, belittling Becky every week for being too much of a coward to face her and it’s been a treat to watch in the champion’s absence. Bliss plays the mean girl with such conviction that she genuinely comes across as your typical high school bully and she backs that up with her equally impressive in-ring skillset.
Up until last month, it was believed that Becky’s championship reign would be a lengthy one to do justice to the new title’s image, but given Alexa’s recent surge of momentum, she could definitely be next in line to carry the gold with pride on Tuesday nights.
11 John Cena
Although he hasn’t been around the entire time, John Cena’s work ethic since the brand extension kicked off has been on a whole other level – which is saying a lot.
The man’s new part-time schedule has allowed him to cherry-pick the dates in which he participates on the SmackDown roster, but when he does, he brings a fire out in himself and his opponents that elevates the flow of the product tremendously.
His promo and in-ring work have been so good that a lot of fans are open to the possibility of seeing him win the WWE World Championship once again, this time tying the historic record held by “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair – a prospect that once said would have caused widespread exasperation among fans who didn’t think Cena deserved such a high honor.
This time, however, it’s not only a welcome prospect, but a lot of fans have encouraged the possibility of seeing Cena proudly proclaim for the sixteenth time that “the champ is here.”
The much more condensed rosters between each brand has allowed Charlotte to maintain her role as the top female within the WWE over the last few months and although she’s had her ups and downs, it looks like that won’t be changing any time soon.
She’s lost the WWE Women’s Championship to Sasha Banks twice at this point – both times on Monday Night Raw – but she’s made short work of reclaiming her thrown on both occasions by defeating “The Boss” to recapture the gold at the following pay-per-view.
Charlotte’s rivalry with Sasha Banks may seem far from over, but it’s unlikely that the title will be solely passed around between the two of them any further, which means it’s time for the second-generational champion to move onto something else – namely a feud with Bayley.
This could be the start of a reign stretching all the way to WrestleMania and, if so, Charlotte’s impeccable heel persona is going to take her to Orlando without a hitch.
9 Sasha Banks
Upon being drafted to Raw, it was just a matter of time before Sasha Banks captured the WWE Women’s Championship and she did just that on her first night. Fans had been clamoring for “The Boss” to receive a title opportunity for months and her eventual crowning moment ended up surpassing all expectations in one of 2016's best feel-good moments.
Health scares and other deciding factors saw her drop the title at SummerSlam, win it back again last month and surprisingly drop it again at Hell in a Cell, but regardless of the hot potato-esque treatment of the title, Sasha has still been involved in some incredible ground-breaking moments with regards to the progression of women’s wrestling within WWE.
Taking part in the WWE’s first women’s pay-per-view main event, inside the Hell in a Cell structure – another first – has etched Sasha Banks name in the record books and she will forever be known for her innovative and boundary-pushing approach to her wrestling career.
Provided her health stays on the up and up, there’s no reason to doubt that this is just the beginning for Sasha Banks and that she has plenty more “first time ever” moments to accomplish before she eventually hangs up her boots.
8 Brian Kendrick
After putting up a valiant effort in the Cruiserweight Classic, fans were elated to hear that Brian Kendrick’s talents would be harnessed by Monday Night Raw in its attempt to establish a brand-exclusive cruiserweight division with some of the CWC’s finest athletes.
Once arriving on the scene, Kendrick immediately presented himself as the most emotionally driven star in the purple branch of the roster, showcasing great heart in his matches despite his status as a heel – with every encounter proving to be pivotal on Kendrick’s journey to redemption after a rather humble career between the ropes left him wanting more.
The so-called “man with a plan” has had his performances rewarded in the form of the Cruiserweight Championship and despite TJ Perkins’ fantastic work since the inception of the CWC, there couldn’t be a more deserving titleholder than The Brian Kendrick. He’s had his career turned around by the brand extension and it’s only just getting started.
7 Becky Lynch
Despite being called up alongside Charlotte and Sasha Banks in 2015, there’s always been a sense that Becky Lynch was the odd one out in The Four Horsewomen.
Charlotte was pushed to the moon immediately upon her debut on the main roster, Sasha Banks quickly became the fan favorite with a powerful presence as a result of her immense fan support, and Bayley went on to became the top woman on NXT for quite some time before joining Banks and Flair on Monday Night Raw.
Aside from being the only one drafted to SmackDown, Becky Lynch felt like the odd one out because she was chosen to play the lesser role prior to the brand split, given her lengthy spells as Charlotte’s sidekick and the dark horse in the WrestleMania triple threat.
It wasn’t until she arrived on SmackDown that she emerged from her shell and took on her rightful role as the face of the women’s division, knocking off the remainder of the roster in a huge six-pack challenge to become the inaugural SmackDown Women’s Champion.
She’s definitely earned the position and although her reign has been somewhat cheapened by her unfortunate medical issues, Becky is still the top woman on Tuesday nights.
6 Heath Slater
If there's anyone that's changed under the new regime, it’s Heath Slater.
For years, “The One Man Band” had been struggling to connect and get on a solid roll within the WWE, bouncing around factions like 3MB and The Social Outcasts without so much as a glimmer of direction coming out of it for him, but the way he’s been handled since the draft has made Heath Slater look like a brand new WWE Superstar.
He went undrafted when the brand split took place and would show up on both Raw and SmackDown Live in search of a contract as a result. His gutsy confrontations with the likes of Brock Lesnar and Randy Orton made Slater an unlikely underdog, but the fans ate it up and he now carries the SmackDown Tag Team Championships with Rhyno because of it.
At the time, excluding Heath Slater from the draft seemed like a slap in the face after the man had remained loyal to the company for six years since the birth of The Nexus, but looking back now, it was the best thing that ever happened in this young man’s career.
5 Dolph Ziggler
When SmackDown Live was officially moved to Tuesday nights with an exclusive roster and new management, Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon marketed the show as a land of opportunity for those on the WWE payroll who otherwise wouldn’t have received it.
This proclamation was proven fruitful by the usage of stars like AJ Styles, The Miz, some of the brand's previously dwindling tag-teams and women’s wrestlers, as well as Dolph Ziggler.
The Show-Off has had a rocky career to say the least. His time in the company could be summed up by the term “always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” given that he’s gotten so close to the world championship on so many occasions without actually capturing it.
On SmackDown, however, he has been given a multitude of opportunities to strut his stuff, starting with a huge WWE World Championship match against Dean Ambrose at SummerSlam. Despite being a losing effort, it leaded nicely to a rivalry with The Miz that saw Ziggler become the Intercontinental Champion in one of 2016’s most exhilarating matches.
In previous years, Ziggler was typically booked as more of a background character, but this year he’s definitely found his home as a pivotal entity on the SmackDown roster.
4 Chris Jericho
For someone who’s been on the WWE scene for almost two decades, it’s amazing that Chris Jericho is still capable of reinventing himself with new catchphrases, character quirks and innovative ways of weaving a plot together in the squared circle, but Y2J makes it look easy.
In fact, the recently established List of Jericho, the transformation of simple phrases like “it” and “stupid idiot” into iconic catchphrases and consistently impeccable in-ring ability, has made a lot of fans look at Jericho’s current run as one of the very best of his entire career.
The man is one of the most over individuals on the Raw roster, having taken advantage of his relationship with Kevin Owens to get himself in the limelight on the flagship show, where he’s often treated with more popularity than the majority of the brand’s babyfaces.
Often times, when a WWE veteran returns to the company, many fans take issue if they don’t spend the majority of their time putting over some of the company’s brightest young prospects, but given the level of talent associated with Jericho’s performance this year – particularly over the last three months – it’s likely they’ll make an exception if Jericho once again finds himself on top of the WWE mountain.
3 The Miz
Heading into the debut of SmackDown Live on Tuesday nights, The Miz was probably the least likely in many fans’ eyes to make a significant impact on the brand.
His Intercontinental Championship reign hadn’t been much to write home about since capturing the gold after WrestleMania and many struggled to take him seriously – including Daniel Bryan, who admittedly drafted The Miz so SmackDown could have the belt.
Fast forward a few months and The Miz has become one of the most notable heels on the show, having utilized his animosity with Daniel Bryan to bring out some of the most passionate performances we’ve seen this year in all of WWE.
He may have lost his gold at No Mercy, but Miz continues to up his game each and every time he steps foot in the ring and it’s making the prospect of seeing him win the Holy Grail of sports entertainment a lot more likely under the brand extension.
Earlier this year, the concept of The Miz as WWE World Champion would leave an extremely bitter taste in a lot of fans’ mouths, but based on his extraordinary performance this fall, few would take much issue seeing it take place.
2 Kevin Owens
It took about a month for things to really get started for Kevin Owens after being drafted to Raw – in a lower spot than expected, much to Owens’ chagrin – but when things started taking off for The Prizefighter, the man never looked back.
In many ways, Finn Bálor’s devastating injury at SummerSlam was the best thing that ever happened to Kevin Owens, because it allowed him to capitalize and take Bálor’s spot as the new face of Monday Night Raw, and the second ever WWE Universal Champion in history.
He hasn’t disappointed, delivering impeccable promo and in-ring work every week, and as evidenced by his victories at Clash of Champions and Hell in a Cell, he is using his allegiance with Chris Jericho as a means of becoming one of the biggest heels in all of WWE.
At this point, it’s difficult to imagine Owens in any other position on the line-up and since issues with Rollins and Triple H’s betrayal have yet to be resolved, it looks like Kevin Owens might be on top for quite some time – something that not many fans will take issue with given the level of entertainment associated with Owens’ every match.
1 A.J. Styles
When it comes to debut years within WWE, A.J. Styles’ has been one of the all-time greats.
He received a number of championship opportunities against Roman Reigns following WrestleMania – at which he had an excellent match with Chris Jericho that nicely book-ended their rivalry – and even engaged in a history-making feud with John Cena.
But it wasn’t until he joined the ranks of SmackDown Live that The Phenomenal One started living up to the name and became the top dog in the WWE. His clean victory over John Cena at SummerSlam still stands as one of the biggest achievements of the man’s storied career, but it was his win over Dean Ambrose for the WWE World Championship at Backlash that cemented A.J. Styles as the leading man on the blue brand.
Despite the shady antics he's utilized along the way, Styles is arguably the best athlete in all of WWE and he most certainly stands as one of the company’s finest heels.
If there’s anybody that the brand extension was tailor-made for, it’s A.J. Styles.