WWE Ruthless Aggression (Episode 5): Raw vs. SmackDown Report by Josh Lopez
The following is a transcript of WWE Network’s newest series, “WWE Ruthless Aggression.” Please share some of your favorite Ruthless Aggression moments in the comment section. We’ll be highlighting certain comments made by the superstars, producers, and executives from that era and fan perspective from the current members of the WWE Roster.
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Description: WWE’s first-ever brand extension divides its roster and sparks civil war between Raw and SmackDown. As competition heats up between brands, Eddie Guerrero, JBL, Edge and others showcase Ruthless Aggression as they capitalize on their newfound opportunity to become stars.
Vince McMahon: Sometimes it’s important for business and sometimes in life to take a half step back. That’s what we decided to do when we started this brand extension as we call it now. You must be looking at me like I have two heads now. Sometimes I guess I do. But to hear someone say, wait a minute, let me get this straight, you intentionally took a half step back, yes, we did. And it’s important to do so you can take two, three, five, ten, a hundred forward. On occasion, you have to take a half step back. It takes a while to build stars. It takes a while to build back up. But a little bit of lady luck riding on our shoulders, we’ll get back to the promise land. Questions? Hopefully we’ll have some answers.
The Competitive Edge
Michael Rapaport: By 2002, nearly a year after acquiring WCW, WWE had finally become the destination for fans to witness the dream matches they hoped to see during The Monday Night War.
Hulk Hogan: Had their hand raised victory. They were the single wrestling company that dominated the whole world.
Michael Rapaport: With WCW now firmly in the past, WWE forged ahead. Even though WrestleMania continued to break attendance records, the fire that fueled the Monday Night Wars was extinguished. So how do you keep your competitive edge?
Bruce Prichard: Every week you’re trying to come up with something different and something new, trying to produce four hours of television on different networks. And you have to retell the story of, okay, on SmackDown I’ve got to retell what happened on Monday Night Raw. On Raw, I’ve got to retell what happened last week on SmackDown, to further those stories. And it was the same talent. Things were almost on auto pilot in a lot of respects.
Paul Heyman: What’s the first thing they teach you when you play chess? Look at the whole board, not the individual pieces. If you are booking sports entertainment for tomorrow, you are screwed. The concept is this is what’s getting me by today. What’s my main event in 18 months?
JBL: You had guys like Brock Lesnar. We had possibly the greatest roster of all-time at that point. From the low card to the mid card to the main guys, I mean there was a massive influx of talent.
Michael Rapaport: But that created another issue.
Bruce Prichard: We had a large assembly of talent with a lot of young guys. How are these guys ever going to get better? How were they ever going to be able to breakthrough if they don’t have an opportunity?
Matt Hardy: I was like hungry, super hungry and just wanted an opportunity.
Christian: I just wanted to get an opportunity. I remember it very much feeling like a competition from within at that point.
Brian Gewirtz: For a lot of the people, you know, kind of bubbling underneath the surface, yeah, there’s a lot of uncertainty in terms of great competition, yay. Oh, I might not be on TV next week.
JBL: When you have one roster, you can’t really push other people except your main guys, you burn through story lines and story arcs at light speed.
Michael Rapaport: With young talent chomping at the bit and two prime time shows to fill, the decision was made to hold the first ever brand extension draft.
The WWE Brand Extension
Paul Heyman: You now had a competitive edge for Raw and a competitive edge for SmackDown. And you had people on Raw that wanted to beat SmackDown and you had people on SmackDown that wanted to beat Raw. So by the very nature of the passion of the people involved, you no longer had complacency, you had hunger. You had people with a voracious appetite to compete against each other.
Adam Cole: I certainly was someone who was very curious how legitimate this was going to be. Would guys on Raw stay on Raw? Would guys on SmackDown stay on SmackDown?
Becky Lynch: Back home I didn’t have cable, but we would get Sky Sports and they showed SmackDown. I do remember not being happy about the brand split because I could only watch SmackDown. There was still people that I wanted to see, but I wasn’t able to see them because they were on Raw.
Brian Gewirtz: You’re going to ask, where are the people I like? How come they’re not on the show that i’m used to seeing them on? We’ll have our Raw Roster. We’ll have our SmackDown Roster. In the long run, it will be better.
Bubba Ray Dudley: Just presented great opportunities for the talent. To go out there and do what they do best which is entertain.
The Miz: I was excited. This is something new, something different that WWE hasn’t done before.
Seth Rollins: You get to see kind of how the shows on SmackDown sort of develop their own identities around these characters. How was it going to play out, I had no idea.
Michael Rapaport: Both brands enabled stars to shine. But one shocking change at the top threw gasoline on the competitive fire between Raw and SmackDown.
Drake Maverick: When he brought in Eric Bischoff to run Monday Night Raw, I was like, oh, this is different. Would you ever thought that would happen?
Ricochet: At first seeing him on it was a bit shocking. It was like whoa, this is weird.
Bruce Prichard: He had been our opposition for so many years. He was a natural adversary. And god forbid you put him in charge of your flagship show. How can that happen? You want a heel? There’s a heel.
Drake Maverick: Eric Bischoff created something defeated the WWE for 83 Weeks, which is unheard of.
Eric Bischoff: I pretty much assumed my career in sports entertainment was over given the nature of the competitive relationship I had with WWE for such a long time. Phone rings. Hey, pal. Vince McMahon here. I went whoa. A couple of them were defintiely not happy to see me. And there were a couple that were indifferent. The most famous one was Booker T. It was so real. It was so organic. It was so cool. I wanted to go back. I wanted to get back into the business and I wanted the opportunity to come and work for WWE and to work with Vince McMahon.
Hulk Hogan: When Eric first came to WWE and I saw him on TV, I mean I was just grinning from ear to ear because he’s my boy, man. I love Eric to death. He had such a back story coming in. It helped the WWE storylines.
Stephanie McMahon: At that point in time, I went on to become the general manager of SmackDown. And I think that I was able to help in terms of the character and the story.
Michael Rapaport: New rosters and on-screen authority figures added new life to WWE programming. But behind the scenes, Raw and SmackDown continued to evolve.
Behind The Scenes Dynamic and Trades
Brian Gewirtz: I think we made a mistake in splitting up the rosters at first because I think they were imbalanced. Vince seeing the dynamic and like maybe we imbalanced this a little too much and we need to change it. Raw wasn’t as entertaining as it could be, so it needed a little bit of a shake up.
Paul Heyman: We were in uncharted waters. So we had to figure out as we were going along.
Bruce Prichard: Paul Heyman was in charge of SmackDown while Brian Gewirtz was in charge of Raw. And we would have real life negotiations in the writers room.
Paul Heyman: SmackDown had Jericho and The UnAmericans. I proposed a trade.
Brian Gewirtz: These UnAmericans are the hottest heels in the universe. I would be foolish to trade them to you, but I’m willing to do it for the betterment of the show. Really selling it to me. We did not have anyone who could host a talk show segment and be that kind of character. I’m like all right, you know what, throw in Chris Jericho and then we’ll talk.
Paul Heyman: And my eye was on Guerrero. The behind scenes laughter at my proposal could be heard across the street. I knew this was the deal of the millennium for SmackDown and no one else saw it.
Brian Gewirtz: Obviously, it’s not a question of a handshake deal. And hey, Vince, we made a trade. You did what? You’ve got to sell it to him. And Vince, you know saw a lot of value in The UnAmericans and saw a lot of value in Jericho being on Raw as well. And I think both shows benefited from it.
Vince McMahon: In order to create interest in both brands, it’s important that you have all sorts of crossover and stealing of talent and that sort of stuff. Actually no different than to a certain extent was back when WCW was popular.
Michael Rapaport: By September 2002, the WWE Championship could only be found on the blue brand. So Raw looked to the past to even the playing field.
Vince McMahon: As time goes on, this brand separation is going to be really good for us. We have had some stutter starts, you know, with it to a certain extent. But now with Steph and Bischoff juxtaposed, it looks like it’s going to work.
Michael Rapaport: Both brands were showcasing marquee talents. Internally the perception was that the two shows were far from equal.
The “B Show”
Bruce Prichard: General perception, SmackDown was the B-Show and Raw was A. I don’t agree with it, but that’s what it was.
Eric Bischoff: Not because anybody did anything wrong. It’s just human nature. The second man on the moon wasn’t nearly as celebrated as the first man on the moon. They both got to the moon.
Brian Gewirtz: It’s one that’s live. SmackDown, even though we didn’t say taped, you know, everyone knows it was taped. I mean he’ll deny it until he’s blue in the face, but Vince’s focus was on Raw.
Paul Heyman: SmackDown was Raw’s bitch. My goal was to make Raw, SmackDown’s bitch. Make Raw The B-Show. Make SmackDown the show to watch. And we were going to do everything we could to make that happen.
Kurt Angle: SmackDown was special because it was more of a wrestling show. We had some great individuals.
Seth Rollins: I was all about wrestling. The guys who were on SmackDown doing their thing, Rey, Eddie, Edge.
Edge: And having that opportunity week in and week out with different combination of us to just go out there and have no real handcuffs. Here’s 25 minutes, carte blanche.
Brian Gewirtz: From a writing perspective, Eddie and Angle, you’re going to go three segments. Great, 1/3 of the show is written already.
Adam Cole: Every single week they were having these awesome athletic competitive, just amazing matches.
Bruce Prichard: SmackDown had the talent that could perform inside the ring. Raw was the entertainment show. Raw had the talent that cut great promos and were larger than life characters.
Mick Foley: I was kind of a Raw guy. I loved the idea that it was live. And every week there was a jolt of adrenaline that to me isn’t there on a taped show.
Ricochet: Raw had like more character and more sports entertainment based which is stuff that I really enjoyed.
Kofi Kingston: These guys are legit because they are all around really good entertainers in some way, shape or form.
Drew McIntyre: It’s the first time I remember thinking, you know, Raw has got all these huge superstars.
Michael Rapaport: Both Raw and SmackDown had established their identities. Kicking the brand rivalry into a new gear.
Paul Heyman: I informed Cole and Taz that they are going to go to war with Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler. If that meant taking pot shots at Ross and Lawler, take those pot shots.
Jerry Lawler: That was always Paul’s M.O. He was one of those guys that stirred the pot.
Brian Gewirtz: He lives for this shit basically.
Paul Heyman: It’s competition, here we go. Compete as I compete. Do as I do. We’re going to fight. One of us is going to lose. I don’t want to be the loser in this fight.
Shelton Benjamin: There was no question there was competition. We wanted to kill Raw in the ratings.
Christian: Both sides wanted to put on the best show and wanted to be a part of the best show.
Paul Heyman: The competition extends to main events, to who has the best matches, who sells the most live event tickets, who sells the most merchandise.
Bubba Ray Dudley: For the company, both shows did really well. But the boys, the wrestlers, the entertainers wanted to know what the gross was because if your gross was higher than the other show, then I guess your show was better.
The Big Show: It was an inner-company rivalry. Like if you were blue, your blood was blue. If you were red, your blood was red. The Raw group used to laugh at us, oh, SmackDown is The B Show. But we were the ones that were kicking the crap out of Raw in ratings.
Michael Rapaport: The so called B-Show continued to raise its game. And then shockingly, surpassed the Monday Night flagship show.
Kevin Owens: There was a clear different vibe between SmackDown and Raw at those times. Like I was preferring SmackDown to Raw.
Paul Heyman: There’s not a lot time to celebrate your victories around here because we had more programming coming up that week and more battles to fight.
Bubba Ray Dudley: SmackDown was knocking them dead. Strong storylines, great in-ring action. And it was definitively the better show.
Kevin Kelly: Why’s Raw sometimes very good and sometimes not so good, while SmackDown has been consistently been so good since the brand extension? Why do you think that’s been the case?
Vince McMahon: If that has been the case — and I think I’d agree with that. I don’t know whether or not it’s a second date thing or you settle down or the talent that’s involved or the writing teams or just what. But I would suggest that’s a pretty accurate description. Sometimes Raw is off the chart good. Sometimes it is off the chart bad and it’s like ugh. I wish they wouldn’t have done that.
Michael Rapaport: After a nine month hiatus, Stone Cold Steve Austin’s return brought a much needed boost to Monday Night Raw. By early 2003, the battle for brand supremacy raged on with both Raw and SmackDown proving to be worthy of A Show status.
Business Is Booming
Drew McIntyre: It’s just better for the product overall because now we have got a bunch of superstars the crowd wants to see. So the live attendance is up and the tv numbers are up, and it just works out for everybody.
Michael Rapaport: The combine success of both brands yielded unprecedented opportunities, including brand exclusive pay-per-views and live event touring.
Vince McMahon: We have separate live event touring here domestically. Since each brand is only doing one day of television, it allows us to tour on the international basis, where we find tremendous growth and tremendous opportunity. Our brand has always been considered a global brand in terms of its overall exposure. But at the same time we haven’t really capitalized on that exposure to the extent that we are doing now. This brand separation is working. It’s working big time and it will continue to work. Our brand has to recreate itself all over again year after. We have done that through the years. And this fresh pool of talent helps us do that.
Bruce Prichard: What we were doing was working. And the talent was reaping the rewards of that success.
Michael Rapaport: By late 2003, each brand had an established identity along with established stars. But for sustained success, new stars would have to step up and step into the spotlight.
Mark Henry: Everybody wanted to be the guy. And the brand split gave an opportunity for people to vie for that position.
JBL: You had guys like Eddie Guerrero who were coming along, who had been great stars, but had not been in a main event level. Eddie had the talent, had the talent years before. He was the same guy. But with the brand split, he got the opportunity.
Bruce Prichard: We needed a star. And looking at Eddie Guerrero, he was the most loved in the dressing room. Very well respected. And the talent wanted Eddie to to be the lead. He jumped right up and grabbed the brass ring and pulled it down and then defied anybody to take it.
Batista: I feel like Eddie could probably control a crowd more than anybody that I have ever worked with. There was something about him that one could be so lovable. And the next second could be just so despicable. He could flip that switch like nobody I’ve ever seen.
Kurt Angle: He was energetic and vibrant. He was tuned in to the crowd and the crowd was tuned in to him. He’s one of those top three greatest of all time.
JBL: I remember the day Eddie won the championship from Brock Lesnar. When he hit that FrogSplash on Brock, the place just erupted. Eddie came out the next night and the place went ballistic and that’s when we knew this guy was something special.
Bruce Prichard: Part of it was looking to appeal to a new demographic. But Eddie wasn’t only that demo, man. He was the whole damn kit and caboodle. Hispanic, white, black, green, blue, did not matter. They loved Eddie Guerrero.
Michael Rapaport: Eddie Guerrero lied, cheated, and stole his way into the hearts of the entire WWE Universe. SmackDown was no longer just the wrestling show, but was also allowing personalities to shine. Some of which were completely unexpected.
The Rise Of JBL
JBL: I had a run as a tag team guy and a mid card guy at best. This was my opportunity as well.
Bruce Prichard: We took the human being, this extremely intelligent, financial wiz, loud mouth texan and put that on the screen.
JBL: I had been this beer drinking fun loving guy with Ron Simmons for so long that people just didn’t buy it.
Brian Gewirtz: There’s this underlying current with the audience basically going, I don’t know, Bradshaw as a main eventer? The APA guy? And Bradshaw heard all the criticisms and heard all the doubters and all the people going this ain’t gonna work. And he made it work. Oh, wait a minute. This is actually some good shit and I hate him and I’m going to boo him.
Bruce Prichard: There was no redeeming qualities at all about JBL. Everyone hated JBL.
JBL: I don’t know if you ever heard of JBL or if he had ever been created if not for the brand split. They needed somebody to step up against Eddie Guerrero. And I had an opportunity because of that brand split, that I don’t think I would’ve happened otherwise.
Michael Rapaport: Meanwhile, Raw was creating superstars of their own as Evolution’s Batista and Randy Orton began their ascension to to the top.
Capitalizing On Opportunity
Triple H: We set the table up well for them. We just gave them a platform of which to jump off.
Michael Rapaport: Raw would continue to push the entertainment envelope. But also broke down barriers with two women competing in the main event for the first time ever.
Bubba Ray Dudley: I can say definitively that Lita and Trish elevated the women’s division.
Lita: It was like excitement mixed with confidence. 50 percent was like, oh my god, I can’t believe this is happening. The other 50 percent was, damn right this is happening.
Michael Rapaport: Trish and Lita created a historic moment on Raw. While on SmackDown history was also being made. But eventually a rising star would set a whole new standard in WWE. Leading SmackDown’s new generation of superstars. John Cena’s Championship victory was another notch on SmackDown’s belt. And the successful creation of new stars on both brands opened doors for creative liberties.
Edge: Splitting the shows absolutely did give talent opportunity. I’d like to think at the end of the day, if you really have that talent, you’ll break through. But I think it made it easier for that to happen.
Michael Rapaport: Opportunity continued to present itself. And superstars continued to capitalize. That included the opportunity for reinvention. And the opportunity to reach new heights. The long list of newly minted stars were embraced by the WWE Universe, a direct result of the competition between two distinct brands, both working towards one common goal.
Bruce Prichard: It was a group effort to try and make things as best they could be. Yes, we had separate teams, but everybody worked together.
The Big Show: Sure, we’re competing. But there’s also a lot of trust in each other and there’s a lot of trust in what we are doing together as a team. It was some of the hardest working days i’ve ever had. Some of the hardest working tours. Some of the greatest fun ever in this business was during that time.
Batista: That Ruthless Aggression Era was SmackDown and Raw. It was just fun. There was so many talented guys. It was so much good entertainment. It was good storylines and programs. It was perfect.
Paul Heyman: I don’t know what WWE would have been like if we didn’t do a brand split. I know that we did it and we have benefited from it for years.
We get a teaser clip of Season 2 which will take place in the fall. It will touch on The Elimination Chamber, The Diva Search, Tough Enough, Money In The Bank, The Undertaker and OVW.
Checkout Episode 195 of The Hoots Podcast