On March 18th, 2002, Linda McMahon proposed something radically different on-air: a WWE draft and brand split.
The idea was introduced to alleviate the issues of a packed roster and to emulate the competition the company no longer had after its mass acquisition of talent from the former World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) promotions.
But did the brand splits offer more bang for the buck, or did it just dilute their product? Those involved share the reasonings behind the fateful decision behind one of their most debatable moves.
The Story Behind the First WWE Draft
The March 18th, 2002 broadcast for WWF Raw began with Linda McMahon appearing behind a desk. Viewers were unprepared for the historic announcement she was about to deliver.
“We are proposing a brand extension under the World Wrestling Federation corporate umbrella, in which Ric Flair would have 100% control and authority over WWF Raw, and Vince McMahon would have 100% control and authority over Smackdown.”
The draft would occur one week later, on March 25th, 2002, and the only two superstars not eligible were Triple H and Jazz- the company’s heavyweight champions at the time.
With the Monday Night Wars over, Vince McMahon wanted to reinvigorate his company by pitting both of his shows against one another.
On the Something to Wrestle With Podcast, host Conrad Thompson asked Bruce Prichard about the split and draft process and how the writing teams would prepare. Prichard was an executive and producer for the company at the time.
“It was Vince’s idealistic world of, ‘We’ll split the crews, you go do Smackdown, and you do Raw.'”
Prichard continued, “The only flaw with that was we were all in the same room. We all had the same meetings. We were all asked for the same input, and we all went to produce the same shows together. You tell me the differences now, other than the commentators being at ringside for Smackdown and on a platform for Raw.”
In the book WWE 50, Stephanie McMahon told a story about how one head writer may have spied on a production meeting for the other.
“When Paul Heyman was the lead writer of Smackdown, he had listened in to one of the Raw writing team’s conference calls. He [later] vehemently denied that it was him.”
Whether or not Heyman did it on purpose, there was a sense of rivalry between the wrestlers as well as the head writers.
What were the thought processes behind selections and wrestlers’ reactions in the first WWE draft?
Vince McMahon walked to the podium representing Smackdown in the first WWF draft and selected The Rock. The Rock came out, and a graphic of his accolades was displayed on-screen, comparable to what a fan would see during the NFL draft.
On his podcast, Bruce Prichard explained the reasoning for the first pick.
“There was nobody else. When you look at that roster, who the hell would you pick for Smackdown? It had to be The Rock. Start off with a bang. We wanted to be as official as, you know, a real draft. We got stats on everybody,” Prichard noted.
Prichard further stated that two different shows’ benefits were “just getting the brand split and allowing more people time that wasn’t available beforehand.”
The rest of the picks went as follows:
Kurt Angle was arguably the best pick taken that night as Angle stepped in and took the spotlight with The Rock soon heading to Hollywood. From his feud with Brock Lesnar, which culminated at WrestleMania 21, he became a prime-time player in singles and tag team action. Angle turned it into a place where stars could grow.
For example, John Cena made his debut on Smackdown in 2002 against Angle. Cena would become a staple there and was drafted to Raw in 2005, soon after his rapper gimmick was behind him. Angle elevated one of this company’s greatest superstars.
Splitting Up The Dudley Boyz
An iconic tag team was split into back-to-back picks in the seventh round. Bubba Ray Dudley was drafted to Raw, while D-Von went to Smackdown. The camera panned to the tag team as they shook hands and hugged before Bubba left the locker room.
When Conrad asked who greenlit the idea of a single’s run between The Dudley Boyz, Prichard offered his two cents.
“I did for one. I thought that both would prosper as singles.
“I thought D-Von in a tag team relied on Bubba, and I thought D-Von cut some d*** good promos; I was definitely under the belief that they’d be better on their own.
“We had the preacher gimmick, and that was something that D-Von was comfortable with. But, obviously, it didn’t work.”
Prichard would then confess that D-Von was the draft’s most significant “bust” after failing to get his gimmick over.
So how come the nWo stayed together in the draft, but the Dudleys split?
Bruce Prichard opened up about WWE’s decision to keep the nWo intact during the WWE draft.
How did Hulk Hogan feel about being picked in the fourth round of the first WWE draft?
When asked about whether Hulk Hogan had a decision on his landing spot, he knew his calling card.
“He’s one of the ones that knew ahead of time, but I don’t think he cared where he went,” Prichard admitted.
The WWE Draft and Brand Split Process
From a superstar’s perspective, Brian Myers, formerly known as Curt Hawkins, gave insight on the WWE draft process and brand split in an interview with Wrestling Shoot Clips.
“You legit don’t know anything,” Myers explained.
“It’s exciting, and I think it’s another element that they’ve lost now without the two brands. So you’re losing out on something to look forward to every year that’s a dead-on fun show.”
When asked about his destination for the 2011 draft, Myers was in the dark. “They legit didn’t tell me.”
Wrestlers were told to find out when announcements were made on the website.
Brian also mentioned that the divas were often not pleased if their routines had to change when they were drafted to another brand.
The draft choices of superstars can affect the trajectory of their careers and their relationships on the road with friends.
For the 2002 WWF draft, Smackdown was headlined by The Rock, Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, Hulk Hogan, Edge, and Y2J, while Raw contained the Brothers of Destruction (Kane and Undertaker), the nWo, Rob Van Dam, and Brock Lesnar.
The Locker Rooms Became Legit Battlegrounds
The book WWE 50 described locker rooms becoming battlegrounds and superstars taking the split seriously.
“Many insiders say that the Smackdown roster took the competition to a greater level. After allegedly feeling like second-class citizens to the glitz, glamour, and pageantry of Raw’s live presentation, Smackdown superstars banded together. They vowed to produce a show that highlighted what they believed was their superior athleticism.”
The Smackdown Six
Paul Heyman, head writer of Smackdown at the time, gave fans a peek inside the curtain of what he experienced after suggesting those six names during a meeting while on the Talk is Jericho Podcast with Chris Jericho Edge.
“‘Give me Benoit and Guerrero,’ and everybody in the room laughed at me,” Heyman stated.
“To them, these were nWo’s whipping boys. Now I got Benoit and Guerrero on the show so that I can team Edge up with Rey. I can team up the Guerrero’s together, and I can make Benoit and Angle my shooter tag team that doesn’t belong.”
Heyman continued, “What this bought me was number one; Raw didn’t really have a tag team scene. Now Smackdown has three tag teams that are just balls to the wall, but this also buys me a chance for all these guys to the main event against each other.”
Heyman later explained his competitive nature saying, “Vince wanted competition, and I wanted to compete with Raw. I wanted to whip Raw’s a**. I wanted to make new stars.”
Edge added, “We took it as a gang mentality. We’re the show that can go, and we’ll show every week why we’re the show.”
Edge would get hurt with a neck injury but, upon return, would go to Raw.
“I remember when I came back from my neck injury, I went to Raw, and I did not want to,” Edge later admitted.
Chris Jericho even confessed he wanted to be on Smackdown at the time.
“I remember being on Raw and watching all you guys, and I want to be on those guys’ team. Ours was the talking show; our’s was the A show which meant talking, a lot of promos (and angles), and not a lot of wrestling.”
WWE Brand Splits in Later Years
The WWE brand split would happen multiple times and, in 2019, would be called the Superstar Shakeup. In addition, there was a “Wild-Card” rule where superstars could appear on whichever show they wished, which seemed like a ploy to better ratings.
Perhaps the biggest debut was in 2016 when Raw took Finn Bálor at #2.
At his final (at the time) NXT event, he addressed the rumors of a potential call-up in Louisville when someone shouted ‘draft’ in the audience.
“It feels like a draft in here,” he said while standing in a ring with Bayley, Jason Jordan, Chad Gable, and Shinsuke Nakamura.
“We don’t know what way the draft is working, whether people are going home. Whether people are coming to NXT. Whether people are going to Raw or Smackdown, but let me tell you one thing. Every single person that performed on this show tonight, someday, will be on WrestleMania.”
The night of his main roster debut, Finn won a Fatal-Four-Way match to advance to the main event and beat Roman Reigns.
At 2016’s SummerSlam, Finn Bálor defeated Seth Rollins to become the first Universal Champion but had to relinquish the title the next night due to injury.
Once Bálor returned, he faced off against the Miz and Seth Rollins to open up WrestleMania 34 in New Orleans. On that same show, Bayley was in the women’s battle Royal in the pre-show, and Nakamura faced off against AJ Styles for the WWE Championship.
At WrestleMania 38 in Dallas, Chad Gable opened the show in a tag team match. Jason Jordan is now a producer for WWE.
The draft creates new stars, opens a window to experiment on a few, and generates excitement for wrestlers and fans alike.
From the first 2002 draft to the superstar shakeup, careers have been made, and major stars and even legends have emerged. It’s been a move that’s changed an industry.
These stories may also interest you:
- WCW Monday Nitro: Behind the Curtain on Its Final Show
- 8 Tales from a Former WCW and Turner Corporate Employee
- Dark Secrets of WWE: From the Writer’s Room to the Ring
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