What Happened at Superstar Shakeup?

The WWE's talent draft delivered more questions than answers

sasha banks mobile hero imaeg 1080x1168 0
Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

Because of the WWE’s long-standing tradition of obscuring backstage politics for the sake of kayfabe, the mysteries of what really happens behind the scenes at WWE have spawned conspiracy theories. Some believe a brewing factional war between those loyal to WWE executive vice president of talent Paul Levesque (aka Triple H) and those loyal to his father-in-law, CEO Vince McMahon, is what explains several of the company’s more unintelligible decisions as of late, while others question McMahon’s ability to unilaterally call the shots of his billion-dollar company as he advances in age. Nonetheless, this week’s Superstar Shakeup proved baffling for analysts and fans alike, who were floored by some of the decrees within the main roster and the developmental brand, NXT—making it hard to predict the future direction of the separate brands within the company.

The tradition of the goofily named Superstar Shakeup—essentially a yearly draft that applies to all talent in WWE—began in 2002 when WWE split its roster in two (into Raw and Smackdown). The brands were temporarily reunited after WWE’s experimental offshoot ECW was disbanded in 2010 and then split again in 2016. The drafting procedure allows WWE to maintain two different rosters—giving greater allure to crossover events like Survivor Series—but the line between the shows has recently begun to blur. Characters from each program increasingly make surprise runs on the other, and performers from NXT (which is creatively helmed by Levesque) and the cruiserweight show, 205 Live, have begun making occasional appearances on both Raw and Smackdown. Former NXT performers like Tyler Breeze have also recently been spotted back in NXT in excellent and rare prestige matches. Additionally, the newly minted women’s tag team belts are defended across the brands.

Quite frankly, Raw and Smackdown don’t exactly have distinctly different aesthetics and the shows are largely indistinguishable from each other, rosters aside. While NXT has a more sports-like presentation, usually eschewing the variety-show aspects of the main roster in favor of in-ring action, it also remains much more low-profile in terms of mainstream appeal.

With all that in mind, some of the decisions made in this year’s Shakeup were patently absurd, revitalizing wild conspiracy theories about the covert motivations behind some of the more baffling choices. The tag team comprising Raymond Rowe and Hanson (FKA War Machine in NJPW, redubbed War Raiders in NXT) were called up to Raw on Monday and given new names: They’re now known as Erik and Ivar individually and the Viking Experience as a team. Appearing on TV without the NXT tag belts, which they currently hold, the new name and continuity issues of the unfortunate change became the biggest wrestling news item of last week. Meanwhile, former NXT women’s champion Kairi Sane (FKA Kairi Hojo) was called up to Smackdown as a tag team partner for Asuka (FKA Kana). While the two are undeniable talents and clearly share an affinity for one another, the pairing remains questionable, as Kairi had already found herself a perfect tag partner in fellow puroresu legend Io Shirai down in NXT.

A handful of other main roster talent shifted around as well, with some decisions more confusing than others: Bayley, for example, appears to have been split up from her partner Sasha Banks only two days after the two dropped their tag titles—further feeding the fires of gossip about Banks asking for her release. The teams of Sanity and the Riott Squad also appear to have been disbanded.

The whole situation raises more existential questions about why anyone even bothers with the charade of the shakeup in the first place, especially as the boundaries between the brands are becoming more porous by the minute (see: Becky Lynch holding both women’s titles at the moment, thus appearing on more than one show). On the one hand, it seems a bit farfetched to think that McMahon who ultimately has the last say on every single thing in WWE—would use the event as a way to undermine the talent of his own company for the sake of demonstrating power over his subordinates.

On the other hand, Triple H has hinted for a while that NXT no longer functions as the minor league of WWE and is now a unique show within that universe, suggesting that some talent will remain in NXT more permanently and are stars in their own right. But has anyone let McMahon know this? Each time wrestlers are drafted from NXT to one of the bigger shows, it seems there’s some kind of attempt to destabilize their popularity: through a name change, a bizarre new pairing, the splitting up of beloved teams or other inscrutable shenanigans (e.g., the immediate squashing of EC3). Whether McMahon sees his meddling as his last gasp at control before his much-anticipated retirement, and whether he and his loyal cohort are purposely sabotaging his son-in-law’s efforts, is sort of unclear. Similarly plausible is that McMahon is simply out of touch with what works and what doesn’t in 2019.

Discerning what the Superstar Shakeup means is basically an impossible task. What seems clear is that at least two solutions are evident: 1) Give each show a more distinct tone and mood so that talent moving from one brand to the other is exciting and meaningful rather than banal and incomprehensible, or 2) Do away with the separate brands (at least on the main roster).

Knowing WWE, neither of these potential fixes will be implemented—at least for a while.

Did you like this article?
Thumbs Up
Thumbs Down