As the WWE roster began to grow following the closure of ECW and WCW, there began to be nowhere for superstars to grow in the cramped landscape of the company. The solution to this problem came with the WWE Draft.
In 2002, WWE instituted their first brand expansion draft where they divided the roster between Raw and SmackDown. Both brands were able to use their superstars to carry the brand and gave them the opportunity to show their full potential. Each brand crafted its own identity that made them feel different from each other.
The brands struggled at the beginning to find who that identity and how to utilize their wrestlers. However once each one kicked into high gear, the shows became must see each week. Knowing that we will not see the same superstars every week on each show added to the appeal of them.
Storylines exclusive only to their brands and the rise of both the women’s division and the talents of the cruiserweights helped make the overall product stronger.
In this part of the series, we will delve into each brand and look at the good and bad that came from Raw and SmackDown and why these shows made the “Ruthless Aggression Era” such an important era in wrestling history.
In 2002, Monday Night Raw created moments that instantly captured the importance of the flagship show of WWE. Right from the beginning, Chairman Vince McMahon hired his former rival Eric Bischoff to be the General Manager of Raw.
From the jump, Bischoff brought the edginess that he used in WCW to make Raw a successful brand. During this time, the WWE Championship jumped from Raw and SmackDown. However, when Brock Lesnar became a SmackDown exclusive superstar, that left the flagship show of WWE without a World Champion.
So Eric Bischoff would name Triple H as the new World Heavyweight Champion. The World Heavyweight Championship would get mighty comfortable in the grasp of Triple H.
Some called it the “Reign of Terror.” It hurt the run of some of the future talents on Raw. Triple H would go on to win the World Heavyweight Championship four times in the course of three years. He would have a hold on the championship for a combined 616 days during the three year span.
During the reign, Triple H had groomed two future stars under his wing, Randy Orton and Batista. With Ric Flair, these four men formed the stable Evolution. They were able to dominate the scene on Raw and at one time, held every men’s championship on Raw.
However getting away from the men’s scene for a moment and Raw exclusively curated the women’s division. This time we give credit to the women who pioneered the way for the women’s division of today.
Women like: Trish Stratus, Lita, Jazz, Molly Holly, Victoria, Mickie James, Beth Phoenix and more. They tried to change the game by getting away from what the world saw as women in wrestling.
At the time, women were depicted as sexy figures, wearing gaudy apparel each and every week, not really needing any athleticism to connect to the crowd. These women showed their athleticism and charisma to show how they can stand out in WWE.
These women were some of the sparks that would lead to the Women’s Revolution we are seeing today. This would be the first era where two women became the main event of Raw with Trish Stratus and Lita fighting for the Women’s Championship. These women paved the way for women’s wrestling.
Going back to the main scene, Raw created and utilized the rise of Randy Orton and Batista, making them future World Champions, even ending the “Reign of Terror” on Raw. However, in 2005, WWE had a draft lottery. Where a stars from week to week would change shows. One of the biggest moves was sending World Champion Batista to SmackDown and bringing WWE Champion John Cena to Raw.
This move helped both men gain new rivalries and show more potential of the future of the company. Raw was heading towards a new direction, pushing John Cena towards his stardom that he would reach to. However, with the bringing in of John Cena, it gave the opportunity for stars like Edge, Rob Van Dam, Randy Orton and more to finally get a chance to be WWE Champion.
While Triple H was champion, it was hard to relinquish his grasp on the World Championship. However, Cena did not have a death grip as much as Triple H did. Yes, Cena was WWE Champion a ton during this era. However, as time passed by, we saw Cena grow as a performer to make him one of the greatest of all time.
Raw during this era was able to show adaptability and showcase talents of the future of the company on the flagship show. Raw has the top talent of the company and for the time transition to bring in new talent that are at the top of their game.
On the blue brand, SmackDown struggled to separate itself from Monday Night Raw. However, once wrestlers solely became exclusive on the SmackDown brand, stars became born. Upcoming talent used experienced veterans to gain their credibility and showcase their athletic ability with the biggest stars in the company.
Two divisions, the tag team and cruiserweight (exclusive to SmackDown), blossomed with the mix of seasoned veterans and the current superstars of the time.
The tag team division became must see television every week. The acclaimed “SmackDown Six” consisted of three teams: Los Guerreros (Eddie & Chavo Guerrero), Kurt Angle & Chris Benoit and Edge & Rey Mysterio.
Almost every star within these six individuals would go on to be future World Champions. What these individuals did to create the SmackDown tag team division became iconic for the future of tag team wrestling.
This paved the way for future tag teams to make their mark such as: The World’s Greatest Tag Team (Charlie Haas & Shelton Benjamin), Doug & Danny Basham, MNM (Joey Mercury & Johnny Nitro), Rey Mysterio & Eddie Guerrero, Paul London & Billy Kidman, and others.
Tag team wrestling had the ups and downs like many promotions have. However, the “SmackDown six” will be remembered as a chance where stars who finally was given the opportunity to shine on a big platform.
Another division that shined during this time was the cruiserweight division. The smaller guys in the land of the giants were finally given a chance to show their high flying and athletic abilitites on a big stage. The cruiserweights became instant fan favorites and gained instant credibility to show they belong at the big time.
Going back for a moment, towards the big years of WCW, the cruiserweight division were the workhorses of the company. However, they were never given chances to grow to be main eventers. In WWE, they grew to be main eventers and future world champions. The most famous cruiserweight out of this era was Rey Mysterio.
Rey Mysterio was the leader of the Cruiserweight division and brought the best out of the cruiserweights. Rey Mysterio would eventually move out of the Cruiserweight division and would become World Heavyweight Champion at WrestleMania 22.
Mysterio will always be one of the most popular wrestlers in WWE history and a lot of his popularity came from being in the Cruiserweight division.
On a side of the wrestling, there was one thing that WWE did for SmackDown gain their true identity was the iconic “SmackDown Fist.” In 2001, the Fist made its debut and during the “Ruthless Aggression Era” brought the identity to SmackDown that made it look different from Raw.
SmackDown helped also resurrect careers that we thought were not going anywhere. Careers of: Jeff Hardy, John Bradshaw Layfield, Mark Henry, The Undertaker, Edge, Chris Jericho and even Triple H were rejuvenated on the blue brand.
SmackDown was also the platform that brought new personas to stars like: Eddie Guerrero, CM Punk and The Undertaker. The lesser known stars became main event champions.
Overall, every week for 11 years was SmackDown versus Raw. Each brand strived to be better than the other. They even created video games with that same title where fans got to cross boundaries and promotions and have SmackDown and Raw battle for supremacy.
Today, WWE has split their brands again between Raw and SmackDown. However, in some eyes there is nothing stylistically that differentiates the two shows. There is no where near as much brand separation as they did in the “Ruthless Aggression Era.” This era in history brought us new stars and brought change to WWE that we will never see again.