In the latest episode of Ruthless Aggression on the WWE Network, we focused on the Brand Extension, which was one of the most iconic shows of that era.
To think of all of the superstars who had survived the Attitude Era amongst all of the new up and comers such as Brock Lesnar and Maven, all being drafted onto different brands.
The superstars themselves, apart from a very select few, had no idea where they were going. Tag teams would be split up, long term rivals separated – it was truly a revolutionary, but risky, idea.
WWE had always been a singular entity, and throughout the Attitude Era, everybody found their slot in the card. Guys like Val Venis, Kaientai, The Godfather etc. all found entertaining gimmicks to keep themselves relevant, but with the acquisition of ECW and then WCW in 2001, the roster had become oversaturated with new talent such as Booker T, RVD, DDP and Torrie Wilson and it was therefore much harder to guarantee your TV time.
Vince then came up with the idea to split Raw and SmackDown into two separate shows, and each superstar drafted to that show would be an exclusive talent who could not feature on the other.
Almost 20 years later, it’s obvious that the split wasn’t just a desirable choice, but a necessary one, and WWE has benefitted exponentially from the risk it took.
Who were the superstars who benefitted most from the Brand Extension, though? We will count down our top 10 for you below.
10. Rob Van Dam
Prior to the Invasion angle in WWE, not many of WWE’s audience could have told you who Rob Van Dam was. He had obviously been successful during his time with ECW, but this attracted a specific type of wrestling fan and definitely not the casuals that WWE did in its prime.
Fast forward to the end of his first run with WWE in 2007, and RVD had been involved in some of the most iconic moments of the Ruthless Aggression era.
He had that match with John Cena at One Night Stand 2006. He had won a Money In The Bank contract, and successfully cashed it in on Cena. He had been the ECW Heavyweight Champion, which was the one belt that had avoided him in the real run from the Philadelphia promotion. He is not only a Triple Crown winner, but a Grand Slam Champion in its original format. He is a guaranteed WWE Hall of Famer in the future.
Without the brand extension, RVD would have been relegated to a lifetime of mid-card mediocrity. Having his chance to shine, week in, week out gave the executives of the company belief that he could not only win Money In The Bank, but turn that into a successful title run.
One of the pioneers of the Women’s Revolution, Lita made her mark after the brand extension secured the Women’s Championship as a title exclusive to the Raw brand.
Of course, if the Women’s division had been featured on both brands, it may not have made a difference, as the entire locker room had to follow where that title was based, but the brand extension truly saw the beginning of women’s wrestling inside a WWE ring.
While the bra and panties matches were still prevalent, along with bikini contests and pillow fights, the brand extension allowed us to see Lita vs. Trish Stratus in the main event of Raw for the first time ever. This gave hope to today’s current superstars that if they joined the company, they wouldn’t be forced into sexist angles where they were sleeping with the boss, or having to show off their curves just to get TV time.
8. Trish Stratus
Trish had been involved in her fair share of storylines pre-brand extension, but like Lita, she managed to main event Raw for the first time ever once the lines had been drawn.
Trish’s success came from a hard work ethic and a willingness to get involved with storylines that others may not have been so enthusiastic about. She had been forced to strip and bark like a dog, was placed in romantic storylines with everybody from Jeff Hardy to Vince McMahon himself, and even kept herself visible to the fans by co-hosting the Excess show with Jonathan Coachman when she had an ankle injury.
Throughout all of this, Stratus proved herself to the company and went on to become a seven-time women’s champion.
Without the brand extension, I’m sure Stratus would have kept herself relevant regardless, but she definitely benefitted from more TV time on Raw.
7. Booker T
Booker T was arguably one of the most successful superstars throughout the entire Ruthless Aggression era. Despite only capturing one heavyweight championship during this time, his constant presence and ability to adapt kept him relevant throughout his tenure with the company.
As part of the WCW Invasion, Booker’s back was against the wall. He had come into the company at a time when not many other stars did, so when the fans were expecting the likes of Goldberg, Sting, Flair and the nWo, Booker T was arguably the largest name out of the bunch. This disappointed fans and led to the angle falling flat with fans very quickly.
However, despite seeing the likes of DDP, Chris Kanyon, Mike Awesome, Sean O’Haire and Justin Credible all fall to the wayside, Booker was getting involved in memorable angles with Goldust, Stone Cold Steve Austin and Triple H.
Booker kept himself busy winning the Intercontinental Championship, the United States Championship and the Tag Team Championships before finally winning King of the Ring and subsequently tasting glory at the top of the mountain, winning the World Heavyweight Championship in 2006, leading to a fantastic feud with Batista, which spilled over into real-life after the SummerSlam 2006 pay-per-view.
Booker was undoubtedly one of the people who benefitted the most from the brand extension, as it gave him more time to shine on TV with some of the greatest performers of the generation. Without it, he may have fallen off just like his Alliance compatriots.
When Batista was promoted to the main roster from OVW, we saw him with D’Von Dudley as Deacon Batista, who went around with a collection box around his neck. Needless to say, the gimmick did not go down well with fans, or Batista himself.
Following that, Batista was given the opportunity to join up with Triple H, Ric Flair, and Randy Orton in the Evolution stable, but was hampered with a long term injury before he could really sink his teeth into the role.
Had the brand extension not already been a thing when Batista first got his main roster debut, we may not have even seen that push. If the brand extension doesn’t happen, the Dudleyz don’t break up, and D’Von doesn’t have to reinvent himself. The roster on both brands would have seen the likes of Triple H, Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho, Hollywood Hulk Hogan, The Undertaker and Brock Lesnar at the top of the show, so where would Batista have fit in?
Maybe he would have stayed down in OVW to train for longer, and if so, misses his push with Evolution. Then he could have just been relegated to a sea of big meaty men slapping meat, feuding with somebody like Test.
Without the brand extension, WWE would not have needed the rush of the OVW class of 2002 to rise to prominence so quickly, and Batista may not have been heading into the WWE Hall of Fame.
5. Triple H
It’s undeniable that regardless of the brand extension, Triple H would have been one of the top guys in the company. He had been since the late 90s and was already a five-time WWE Champion prior to the 2002 draft lottery, and was the Champion heading into the draft.
His staying power had been proven and he had shown the ability to work as both heel and face by this point.
However, Triple H undeniably benefitted from the brand split between Raw and SmackDown. In the Evolution episode of Ruthless Aggression, it was made clear that Vince McMahon was not a huge fan of stables at this point. If the brand extension doesn’t happen, Evolution might not have happened. Without Evolution, does Triple H maintain that level of relevancy? He wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be the champion of a brand for such an extended period of time without the split, that’s for sure.
I think people underestimate the struggle of how much TV time a wrestler can get. Even a top star such as Triple H cannot stay in the title picture for the best part of two years on a singular show like he did on Raw. You would have to consider the other top stars of the time. If Triple H did stay in that position, we don’t have the rise of Brock Lesnar, or Eddie Guerrero – and Hogan doesn’t become champion again.
There are so many storylines we would have missed if WWE had been forced to keep Triple H at the head of both SmackDown and Raw. It’s just not feasible to see him having as much success as he turned out to have.
4. Eddie Guerrero
Can you imagine today if Eddie had not had the chance to be a WWE Champion? I certainly can’t.
Eddie returned to WWE just after the brand split had happened, and was immediately shoved into the mid-card of an unbalanced Raw. Raw had the likes of The Undertaker, the nWo, Stone Cold Steve Austin and the WWE Champion Triple H/Hulk Hogan floating between brands.
Despite entering into a feud with Stone Cold, Guerrero never got the chance to have a match with the Rattlesnake as Austin departed the company in 2002 over losing to Brock Lesnar on and episode of Monday Night Raw. It’s clear WWE wanted to push Latino Heat, but couldn’t find a viable way to do so on Raw, so in August, they switched him to SmackDown.
This was the best move of Eddie’s career, and he became synonymous with the SmackDown brand, staying there until his untimely passing in 2005.
Eddie was a respected member of the locker room, had undeniable charisma as both a heel and face, and had the ability to put on a five star match. All in all, he was just what SmackDown needed.
At No Way Out 2004, Eddie became just the third man to defeat Brock Lesnar in one on one competition by pinfall to win the WWE Championship, which he would hold until he lost to JBL at the Great American Bash.
He was posthumously entered into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006 and his legacy lives on today through the likes of Rey Mysterio, Andrade and Sasha Banks, who all showcase some of Latino Heat in their arsenal today.
Edge had made a name for himself with tag team wrestling throughout the Attitude Era, teaming with kayfabe brother Christian until they disbanded in 2001. He won King of the Ring, establishing himself as a singles competitor, but very quickly slid down into the mid-card, feuding with Christian and Booker T, before being drafted to SmackDown.
He proceeded to build up some momentum in a rivalry with Kurt Angle, before teaming with the likes of Hulk Hogan and Rey Mysterio to capture the Tag Team Championships. However, following this, he was sidelined for over a year with a neck injury.
If the brand split hadn’t have happened, Edge would have likely come back from that injury in a crowded field. Evolution was in full swing, Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero had received their pushes, plus you still had the likes of Undertaker, Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho and Shawn Michaels to contend with.
With a crowded roster, maybe Edge’s insistence on not being a part of the first Money In The Bank ladder match would have meant somebody else took his place a lot easier. He then doesn’t go on to feud with John Cena, and can’t build himself up to be a main event player. He doesn’t take part in his live sex celebration. He doesn’t establish himself as the Rated-R Superstar.
Despite spending so much time on the Raw brand feuding for the WWE Championship and teaming as part of Rated RKO, Edge is one of those characters who is synonymous with SmackDown. During the Ruthless Aggression era, Edge forged himself as one of the best guys on that roster through the early days in 2003, before returning with the La Familia gimmick in 2007. Himself, Batista, The Undertaker, Eddie Guerrero and Booker T all made that brand what it is today.
John Bradshaw Layfield was a gimmick that was very tough to imagine would be successful. Bradshaw had gone from a beer swilling, cigar smoking mercenary for hire, to a financial genius Texan who rode in a limo and wore a cowboy hat. It was such a stark transition that most didn’t think it would be successful.
However, as the weeks went by, fans started to loathe JBL more and more. His arrogance and brashness set the fans off, and he went on to become one of the most successful heels of the Ruthless Aggression era.
On top of that, winning the WWE Championship from fan favourite Eddie Guerrero lavished even more heat on Layfield, who would becoming the longest reigning champion until John Cena beat him at WrestleMania 21.
Without the brand extension, WWE wouldn’t find the need for a new top star like they did on SmackDown. In the preceding two years, WWE had lost Stone Cold, The Rock, Brock Lesnar and Goldberg, which left a huge hole to fill. JBL was the one who profited off of WWE’s bad luck for losing so many big stars in such a short period of time.
While controversial, it’s without doubt that JBL was a huge success on the blue brand, and his feud with the brash upstart Cena went on to cement Cena’s legacy with the company.
1. John Cena
John Cena said himself that when he debuted with his Ruthless Aggression gimmick in 2002, he failed. He fell short of what he needed to do to establish a character, ending up being somebody who came out in trunks that matched the colours of the local sports team – hardly captivating stuff.
So where would John have ended up had the brand extension not taken place? Probably somewhere in the power lifting world in all honesty. As it was on SmackDown, John barely had enough time to pull a new character out of the bag before he was future endeavoured. While Cena had shown charisma in OVW during his days as The Prototype, that had not transitioned into his early days on the main roster.
Everybody thinks he seamlessly went from the contender who took Kurt Angle to the limit to the man we would call the Doctor of Thuganomics, but in reality, Cena only built on that momentum for a month before it started to plummet. He debuted in June, beat Chris Jericho in July, and by October he was feuding with Billy Kidman. It was not going well for Cena, but thankfully he had the opportunity to turn what little TV time he got into a successful gimmick soon after.
He eventually started building steam, and by WrestleMania XX in 2004, he was the United States Champion – and by WrestleMania 21, the WWE Champion. It was a monumental rise for somebody who had almost been cut within four months of his main roster debut.
If Cena hadn’t had the time to showcase those talents with rapping, he would have never become a 16-time champion, he would have never transitioned to the Hollywood superstar actor he is today, and most importantly of all, he would have never released the greatest rap album of a generation.
The author of this article can be found on Twitter @DRL_1990. Thanks so much for reading!