Grading the 2018 Superstar Shake-up, one year later
The Superstar Shake-up has become a crucial moment in WWE’s calendar year since the 2016 Brand Extension. The gist of it is, instead of a full draft, Raw and SmackDown shuffle several Superstars between their rosters in the wake of each WrestleMania to revitalize competition, give talent a chance to develop and maybe add a little extra oomph to their shows where required. Next week will be the third Shake-up in the company’s history, so before the shifts are made and the deals are signed, we thought we’d take a look back at the 2018 edition and grade the moves made by Raw and SmackDown management. Let’s see how things … shook out, shall we?
STRATEGY: With a main-event scene that seemed firmly set in stone — Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Brock Lesnar, Finn Bálor and Braun Strowman — Stephanie McMahon and Kurt Angle’s strategy was to bring over one or two big names, back them up with reliable hands and use the rest of their picks to stock young talent that they could develop down the line.
THE GOOD: Is it strange to say the undisputed winner of the 2018 Superstar Shake-up was Baron Corbin? The Lone Wolf had been treading water as a beatable bully even before he was shuttled over from SmackDown LIVE, and he seemed destined for a similar fate on Raw. But his appointment to the post of Constable reinvigorated his career and opened the door for the former United States Champion to reinvent himself as the show’s most loathed, non-McMahon antagonist since 2010-era Michael Cole. Hate on him all you want — and it’s clear you hate him pretty substantially — but he went from six-foot-eight also-ran to the guy who retired Kurt Angle in the span of a year. That’s pretty remarkable.
A step or two below Corbin is Drew McIntyre, who came in from NXT as the muscle to SmackDown acquisition Dolph Ziggler and ended up breaking out as a punisher in his own right, though he stalled his own momentum on more than one occasion by forming superteams to fight The Shield. McIntyre has proven every inch the player that he worked to remake himself as, all he’s lacking is a signature victory to take him to the next level.
THE BAD: What was setting up to be Raw’s masterstrokes in the Shake-up ended up collapsing when both of Team Red’s big-name acquisitions — Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn — suffered injuries that put them out of action for the better part of a year. (Owens has since resurfaced on SmackDown LIVE; Zayn just came back and his destination is as yet unclear.) Bringing over Breezango and The Ascension was a smart play to get the viral cache of “The Fashion Files” on Raw, but the beloved spinoff’s inexplicable shuttering left both teams adrift.
There were, objectively, a few moves that didn't pan out as expected. Zack Ryder infamously didn’t have a match on Raw until the New Year’s Eve episode. Mike Kanellis ended up getting traded away from Raw entirely. Jinder Mahal, coming off a career year on SmackDown, lost the United States Title immediately upon coming to Raw and got lost in the shuffle quickly thereafter. Same for Mojo Rawley, who beat up a cheeseburger and promptly went quiet. To their credit, all four of those Superstars ended up turning a corner eventually — Ryder just won the Raw Tag Team Titles with Curt Hawkins; Kanellis is doing excellent work on 205 Live; Jinder made a very entertaining run in the Mixed Match Challenge and Mojo is set to re-emerge any second — but it’s safe to say none will be looking back on 2018 as a career year.
THE MIDDLE: Natalya and The Riott Squad worked great as low-risk, high-reward picks; The Queen of Harts helped bring Ronda Rousey along and Liv Morgan and Sarah Logan have begun to develop into legitimate players. But Rousey’s singular dominance and the brief return of The Bella Twins meant all four of those women could only climb so high. Faced with a similarly crowded Universal and Intercontinental Title picture, Bobby Roode & Chad Gable didn’t quite break through as singles stars, though they eventually found success as a pair, winning the Raw Tag Team Championships and proving to be able foils for the revitalized Revival.
There’s also one Superstar whose time on Raw ended up somewhat unfinished: Dolph Ziggler seemed to make a great leap forward with McIntyre at his side, riding the partnership to a Raw Tag Team Championship reign and a stint as Intercontinental Champion that saw him defend the title in its first pay-per-view main event in 17 years. Unfortunately, the alliance dissolved, and McIntyre sent The Showoff packing on New Year’s Eve. Ziggler resurfaced briefly in the Royal Rumble Match, but otherwise hasn’t been seen since.
THE STRATEGY: Coming off its reboot in 2016 and 2017, SmackDown LIVE decided to make the leap in 2018 by trading almost all of their projects for proven stars to complement an established, veteran core of AJ Styles, Randy Orton and a back-in-action Daniel Bryan. They chose wisely, and much like the show itself, this analysis will be much shorter than Raw.
THE GOOD: The Miz, Jeff Hardy, Samoa Joe, Asuka, R-Truth and The Bar were the big-ticket picks in the 2018 Shake-up, and not one of them disappointed down the stretch. Not only did each of them end up winning titles on Team Blue (in Hardy’s case, he actually took one with him as he was the United States Champion when he made the leap), but crucially, they all managed to progress up the ladder as the year went on. Joe and Hardy in particular did what most of Raw’s picks could not and maneuvered themselves into the mix for a World Championship, while Asuka was the only female pick on either brand to win a Women’s Championship.
Elsewhere, Mandy Rose & Sonya Deville didn’t win championships, but they did end up challenging for several: The pair competed for the WWE Women’s Tag Team Championships as “Fire and Desire” and Mandy notched an upset victory over Asuka that earned her a SmackDown Women’s Championship opportunity at WWE Fastlane. Given that they were more or less fliers after Absolution broke up and Paige retired, we’d call that a win.
THE BAD: As tightly-run as the SmackDown ship is, sometimes you can’t account for bad luck. The Team Blue Shake-up picks who didn’t pan out were mainly confined to two tag teams — SAnitY and Luke Gallows & Karl Anderson — who had the misfortune of being in the same division as The New Day, The Bar, The Usos and The Bludgeon Brothers. Safe to say everyone expected more there, but rest assured the result is less a reflection on their talent than the embarrassment of riches in that locker room. It’s a good problem to have, but it can be a problem nonetheless.
THE MIDDLE: Few Superstars had a higher ceiling than NXT recruits Andrade and Zelina Vega, but the pair’s momentum didn’t quite translate from the black-and-gold brand to SmackDown in the way several expected it to. Of course, the right opponent does wonders, and the return of Rey Mysterio gave the former NXT Champion a hot rivalry that boosted his star immensely in a short period of time. That said, Andrade hasn’t really gotten a chance to show what he can do in a bout where Mysterio isn’t involved. Perhaps, as ever, 2019 will be a fresh start.