The upcoming WWE brand split creating unique rosters for both Raw and SmackDown has created a great anticipation for the potential it has. WWE’s prior experiment of having a draft to create two brands in 2002 ultimately failed, but it did have some good elements during the early years. Both shows had completely different atmospheres with each roster providing a culture change for fans. Raw featured more talking and traditional sports entertainment storylines. SmackDown provided better old school pro wrestling of great matches and simple stories, but implemented new in-ring styles. The differences gave both brands the platform to allow performers to shine.
Some of the wrestlers benefited big time from the massive change. The women’s divisions on Raw and SmackDown were completely different giving both the in-ring performers and eye candy chances to succeed. The Cruiserweight division was back and dazzling fans with surefire exciting matches. Steve Austin and The Rock were on their way out of the company, also creating new positions to open up at the top of the cards. The landscape changed and WWE gave their performers the opportunity to take control of their career. Splitting the roster in half forces you to create new top level talent and we’re looking at the names who excelled. These were the top fifteen wrestlers to thrive following the original brand split.
15 Shawn Michaels
One of the biggest stars of the 90s made his return shortly after the original brand split. We saw Shawn Michaels return in the summer of 2002 and instantly become a huge star once again. Michaels retired in 1998 with a severe back injury but found his way back in WWE as a member of the New World Order before feuding with Triple H. The separate brands helped Michaels find a role as the top face on Raw.
No one else stood a fair chance against Triple H aside from Michaels and the two feuded on and off for years. Michaels delivered classic matches and added to his already rich legacy in the squared circle. If he returned before the brand split, Michaels could have been lost in the shuffle behind some of the other top faces. A combination of less main eventers on Raw and guys like Steve Austin and The Rock leaving the company made Michaels a bigger star than expected during his second tenure in WWE.
14 Rob Van Dam
RVD's exciting in-ring style made him one of thew most popular during the 2000s on WWE television. The ECW legend made his debut during the Invasion storyline, but became an important part of the brand split. Van Dam made his home on Raw after the original draft and held the Intercontinental Championship on many occasions. Midcard titles are extremely significant during a brand split and a credible talent like RVD helped make the belt matter.
Fans absolutely adored Van Dam and many still argue that he should have defeated Triple H to become the World Champion in 2002. RVD would lose his only singles title shot against Triple H and return to the midcard picture. The popularity wasn’t for nothing as Van Dam was arguably the most beloved star on Raw for the first few years following the brand extension. RVD was also involved in the first big inter-promotional match against Chris Benoit at Summerslam 2002 winning the IC Title and bringing it to Raw.
13 The Hurricane
Gregory Helms found his greatest success playing The Hurricane character in the WWE. The brand extension allowed him to thrive on both brands at different points in the first few years. Helms was the Cruiserweight Champion on SmackDown and had a very entertaining feud against Jamie Noble. The prospect of trades are a very fun facet of the brand split and that came into play when he was traded to Raw and everything took off for him.
The humor and charm of the superhero persona was perfectly used on Raw. Hurricane somehow had a short feud with The Rock and it was highly entertaining. Helms pulled off the biggest upset victory of his career over Rock thanks to the help of Steve Austin and it was a high point in his career. The rest of Hurricane’s time on Raw would feature various tag team runs and consistent television time as a comedic source of entertainment. Helms never achieved main event fame but he accomplished a lot more than expected due to the brand split.
The brand extension giving us two separate rosters meant many prospects in the WWE development would receive a chance on television. Batista was called up to play the Deacon bodyguard for Reverend Devon following the Dudley brothers splitting up in the draft. Batista's initial work did not show much promise, but a move to Raw gave his career the spark it needed. Batista became the fourth member of Evolution with Triple H, Ric Flair and Randy Orton.
The knowledge that comes from working with two legends and another promising star helped Batista take his game to the next level. WWE made him a main eventer within a few years and showed enough faith to have him win the World Championship in the main event of WrestleMania 21. Batista has to be considered one of the most successful performers of the past fifteen years and the structure of the product during the brand split allowed him the opportunity to break out.
11 Torrie Wilson
Raw and SmackDown presented different approaches to each show’s use of the female performers following the brand split. Raw was all about the competition with Trish Stratus, Victoria, Jazz and Molly having hard fought matches every week. SmackDown featured the eye candy with silly gimmicks like bikini contests, Thanksgiving gravy fights and bra & panty matches. Torrie Wilson became a huge star for the company thanks to the SmackDown brand showcasing her beauty on a weekly basis.
Wilson dominated the women’s division by winning just about every contest and portraying the top female face on the show. Playboy reached out to Torrie following her newfound stardom on WWE television thanks to the brand split. Many of the women preferred to showcase their athleticism by having credible matches, but Wilson definitely benefited from the eye candy side of the WWE. Torrie wasn’t much of a wrestler but she became one of the most popular wrestling stars following the brand extension.
10 John Cena
The original brand split started with a blast and SmackDown started with a bang. The show saw new pushes, fresh feuds and debuting talents arriving on the scene. John Cena was among the new faces making his WWE debut just one month after the draft. The memorable moment featured Cena challenging Kurt Angle and pushing him to the limit. It showed us Cena would be a player and, fourteen years later, we can confirm he’s one of the best of all time.
The rise Cena saw him become the first “SmackDown-made” star of the brand split era. It gave him a chance to debut and grow as a performer. Cena blossomed into a main event ready star on the SmackDown brand before making the move to Raw. That was around the time things went sour for SmackDown and the brand extension started to lose any credibility. SmackDown definitely turned into a secondary brand as Cena’s presence was that important.
It was obvious that WWE wanted Edge to become a singles star despite the success of his tag team with Christian. His prototypical look of a main eventer helped Edge get the opportunity to excel as one of the rising stars on SmackDown. The early days gave us the “SmackDown Six” featuring Edge, Rey Mysterio, Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, Chavo Guerrero and Eddie Guerrero having spectacular matches every week. Edge’s bitter rivalry with Eddie Guerrero was arguably the first big feud on SmackDown and made the television show must-watch.
The prior era of combined rosters saw Edge flounder amongst tough competition but the brand split allowed him the freedom to grow as a singles star. Edge would become one of the biggest stars in the era of the brand split as a heel on SmackDown with multiple World Title reigns years later. If not for the brand extension, Edge would have likely remained in the midcard for years but he took advantage of the new climate and became a Hall of Famer.
8 Rey Mysterio
The timing of Rey Mysterio’s WWE debut was absolutely perfect. Contract restrictions saw him miss the WCW invasion following the purchase of the company. Mysterio can only succeed as a face and WCW was portrayed as heels during the invasion. WWE signed him about a year later in 2002 to become the face of SmackDown’s Cruiserweight division. Mysterio became one of the greatest WWE free agent signings of all time.
SmackDown’s reputation for being the work rate show made Mysterio’s size less of an issue and allowed him to have stellar matches. His mask generated lots of money in merchandise among the younger audience and Mysterio tapped into the Latino viewer. SmackDown became one of the most watched television shows in Latino households and it showed just how important representation was. Mysterio would have likely flopped debuting in the pre-split WWE world due to his size but SmackDown creating a new atmosphere in WWE gave us the gift of watching him perform at a high level.
7 Trish Stratus
Trish Stratus’s aspirations were to become a credible and respected in-ring performer despite WWE using her as eye candy during her first few years in the company. The brand split caused a change in the Divas division. There were still gimmick matches but the women were at least given a fair chance to perform most weeks. Trish instantly helped give the title value by becoming the face of the female wrestlers. Stratus had impressive matches against Victoria, Lita, Jazz and many others.
The career of Trish may not have met the same trajectory without the brand split shaking things up. WWE didn’t believe in many of the other women on the roster, so Stratus’ desire to make the division a respectable outlet of competition was huge for the progress. Trish went on to have the greatest women’s wrestling career in the WWE and remains an important person in the history of WWE following her retirement.
6 Brock Lesnar
WWE went all in on Brock Lesnar and made him the youngest World Champion in company history at the time, just four months into his debut. Lesnar defeated The Rock at SummerSlam 2002 to win the title and defected to SmackDown to become the first brand-exclusive champion. This made him the face of the show and it helped establish SmackDown as the show for young, hungry wrestlers. Lesnar made great strides in becoming a top star in the industry on SmackDown thanks to a feud with The Undertaker.
Lesnar's character was lacking early on, but the move to SmackDown was a huge benefit to his career. It made sense considering Paul Heyman served as the show’s lead writer and understood how to use him better than anyone else. Brock didn’t enjoy the traveling aspect of the wrestling business and left the company after two years but accomplished more than most during his run on SmackDown.
5 Triple H
This may be a controversial selection due to the polarizing response to how Triple H was used on Raw but you can’t argue that he was successful. Triple H dominated the main event scene and World Title picture for years on Raw following the brand split. Not only did the rosters split in half but Steve Austin walked out and The Rock started spending his time in Hollywood. This opened up the company to become Triple H’s playground.
Triple H defeated many of the top faces in peculiar booking decisions that left many wondering if he was using his position of power as Stephanie McMahon’s love interest to run Raw. Booker T, Rob Van Dam and Scott Steiner were just a few stars with momentum to fall in the era of The Game. We would see Triple H play the top star on Raw for years until John Cena made the jump from SmackDown in 2005.
It took a while, but JBL may have been the biggest success story thanks to the brand extension. Bradshaw was a tag team wrestler and midcarder for years in the WWE. The company tried pushing him as a singles star on Raw directly after the brand split and no one remembers it. Bradshaw joined forces with Steve Austin to feud against the New World Order but it was a disaster. The character change to JBL in 2004 was the moment things changed.
JBL played the wealthy evil villain that Vince McMahon loves because he can relate to it. This led to the shocking decision to put the WWE Championship on JBL. The SmackDown brand saw JBL main event shows for a full year and become one of the most successful heels of the time. Without the brand split, JBL’s career would be completely different. His Hall of Fame attributes and position in the WWE today may not exist if he didn’t get the chance to thrive on SmackDown in 2004.
3 Eddie Guerrero
The career of Eddie Guerrero drastically changed thanks to the brand split. Guerrero received the opportunity to showcase his unbelievable talent on the SmackDown brand. His classic matches against Edge, Chris Benoit and Kurt Angle improved his standing in the company. Guerrero was viewed as an undersized midcarder that could provide good matches before the draft, but the smaller roster gave him the chance to prove he was one of the best in the world.
Fans started to fall in love with the work of Eddie despite his heel character. You can’t fight the crowd and it led to a face turn for Guerrero that would give him the biggest break of his career. Guerrero defeated Brock Lesnar at No Way Out 2004 to become the WWE Champion and added a huge accomplishment to his legacy. Talent was implored to use the brand split to prove their worth and take their career to the next level. Guerrero didn’t waste the opportunity and turned his career into a legendary one.
2 Kurt Angle
Kurt Angle developed an aptitude for pro wrestling faster than anyone else and easily had the tools to become a top player. Angle's work was main event material but he always was secondary to Steve Austin, The Rock and Triple H. The brand split created an environment for him to move into a full-time main event role on SmackDown. Angle put out the best work of his career and was the absolute best performer in the business with the new importance.
SmackDown basically gave us a spectacular Angle match every PPV and most episodes of television. Angle pulled off must-see matches against Chris Benoit, Rey Mysterio, Brock Lesnar and countless others on the roster. WWE was able to put all of their trust into him. Angle deserves to enter the Hall of Fame one day and his time on SmackDown following the brand extension should be celebrated. The argument can easily be made that Kurt Angle was the MVP of the original brand split.
1 The Undertaker
The Undertaker was the person to thrive most during the brand split. Everyone adored and respected the work of The Undertaker in WWE for years before the draft took place but he was rarely a champion. Taker was viewed as the guy that didn’t need the title to be over and was positioned behind Steve Austin, The Rock and others. The brand split elevated his standing into becoming the top face on SmackDown.
Undertaker had a legendary feud against Brock Lesnar in the early years of the brand split and eventually became the most important face on SmackDown after John Cena left. We saw the majority of his World Title reigns come on the SmackDown show in another memorable feud in the brand’s history against Edge. The story between the two may have been the last great story on the show during the brand split. The Undertaker thrived at showcasing just how important of a performer he was to the company following the brand split.
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