At Wrestlemania 18 (or Wrestlemania X-8), the WWF was at the midst of a decline in popularity. The buildup to the show featured some really bad storylines, such as Edge and Booker T, two very talented wrestlers, fighting over a role in a Japanese shampoo commercial, and Jericho, the WORLD CHAMPION, being Stephanie McMahon's lackey against HHH in a feud that had them run over HHH's dog. The show had Rock go over Hulk Hogan, Austin go over Scott Hall convincingly, Angle go over Kane, Undertaker go over Ric Flair, Edge go over Booker, RVD go over Regal, Jazz over Lita and Trish, and HHH defeat Jericho for the undisputed championship. Despite most of the booking decisions being good ones, the majority of the fans did not approve of HHH winning, and the ratings kept declining. Shortly after WM, the WWF implemented the brand split, which meant that Raw and Smackdown would each have seperate rosters. This was actually a good idea, as it spread the established stars like Rock, Austin, HHH, and Undertaker between both shows and would allow more younger talent to get main event opportunities. However, there was a problem...
One show was clearly better than the other! Smackdown clearly featured the superior in-ring product and allowed wrestlers like Edge, Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, Brock Lesnar, John Cena, and Chris Benoit to rise up the card, whereas Raw was more focused on the veteran talent while featuring matches that lasted 5 minutes or less and some really lame, boring, or offensive storylines (HLA, Katie Vick, NWO return, Test vs. Steiner, Kane vs. Shane McMahon, JR/King vs. Coach/Al Snow to name a few). This was the case throughout 2002 and 2003. Shortly after the brand split's implementation, the WWF changed their name to WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment. This was due to losing a lawsuit to the World Wildlife Fund, which also went by the WWF acronym. Despite losing their name, they're still allowed to show all the WWF logos on TV other than the Attitude era logo. In June 2002, Steve Austin walked out on the company after being booked to lose to Brock Lesnar in a King Of The Ring qualifier, because the match had no buildup and he felt that a match with Lesnar was a moneymaker and booking them in a TV match with no build was a big mistake, which it was. Austin would return in 2003 though, and put over The Rock at Wrestlemania in his last match.
In July 2002, HHH nd Brock Lesnar switched brands as HHH went to Raw and Lesnar went to Smackdown. Raw was clearly struggling prior to this move, but things were about to get worse while Smackdown would begin to put on some of the best programming in the show's history with the Smackdown Six (Edge, Eddie Guerrero, Chavo Guerrero, Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, Rey Mysterio) putting on some extraordinary bouts on PPV AND Smackdown. Raw was actually the best it was all year heading into Summerslam with a very good feud between HHH and the returning Shawn Michaels, which had Michaels winning at Summerslam. However, all momentum for Raw was lost for several months when HHH was handed the WCW world title from Eric Bischoff, which became Raw's world title. Outside of one month between Survivor Series and Armageddon, in which HHH lost the title to Shawn Michaels, HHH was champ for basically a whole year, as a heel! This alienated the fanbase, who were used to seeing shorter reigns in the Attitude era and long face reigns in the New Generation and Hulkamania eras. It's not like HHH's feuds were good in his reign either, as his feud with Kane was revolved around how Kane was a murderer because of drunk driving (the less said about this, the better), his feud with Scott Steiner was filled with bad matches and built up with lame competitions like posedowns, his feud with Booker T involved racist comments by HHH, his feud with Kevin Nash was VERY boring, and his feud with Goldberg was okay but featured weak matches. Goldberg dethroned HHH at Unforgiven 2003, but it was seen as a month too late by most fans. Goldberg's reign as champion was very mediocre, as he mainly wrestled midcarders like Jericho, Kane, and MARK HENRY while it was obvious that he was keeping the belt warm for HHH while he was filming a movie. HHH returned at Survivor Series 2002 for his rematch, with Goldberg retaining. HHH shouldn't have anymore opportunities, right? Wrong. HHH wins it back at Armageddon from Goldberg in a threeway with Kane.
Smackdown, however, was doing very well in 2003. Kurt Angle was the heel champ heading into 2003, and began feuding with Brock Lesnar, who turned face at Survivor Series after being screwed by Paul Heyman in a match with the Big Show. Angle psuedo-turned face after Survivor Series to challenge Big Show at Armageddon. He won, and on the next Smackdown, he revealed that Heyman was on his side all along. When Lesnar returned, he went after the WWE championship. Before their match against Wrestlemania, Angle broke his neck, but the match still happened. Lesnar won at WM in an excellent match. Contrary to HHH, Lesnar had a solid reign as champion, successfully defending for three months against the likes of John Cena and the Big Show before losing it back to Angle at Vengeance, except that Angle returned as a face. Upset after losing his title, Lesnar turned heel on the next Smackdown and had some vicious squash matches against the likes of Brian Kendrick, Paul London, and Zack Gowen heading into Summerslam. At Summerslam, Angle retained but lost it a few weeks later in a classic ironman match on Smackdown. Lesnar had another good reign as a heel champ, defending against the likes of Rey Mysterio and Chris Benoit before losing it to Eddie Guerrero at No Way Out 2003, which was a very special moment. The difference in the quality of Raw and Smackdown was like night and day!
On Raw, HHH's reign after Armageddon was much better than his previous run, as he had some excellent matches with Shawn Michaels and the feud with Michaels and Chris Benoit, who won the Rumble and chose to challenge HHH, was very well done. At Wrestlemania, the unexpected happened as Benoit won the gold... while making HHH tap! Benoit and Eddie Guerrero celebrated in the ring together after the match, although nobody expected what was coming a few years later. Brock Lesnar, however, would leave WWE after this show, as he was burnt out from the schedule and wanted to try out for the Minnesota Vikings. It didn't work out, and Lesnar couldn't wrestle for any other company but WWE due to a ridiculously long no compete clause. Lesnar went to court over it and won, and Lesnar has barely been mentioned on WWE since. The main star WWE built up in 2002 and 2003 is gone...
After Wrestlemania, Raw and Smackdown switched places, as Raw was now the "wrestling" show with more structure and Smackdown was the "entertainment" show. Between March and August, Raw contained several excellent matches between Orton, Batista, Edge, Shelton Benjamin, Benoit, Flair, HHH, Jericho, Christian, and even Tajiri! Smackdown was full of terrible feuds for most of the year, such as Chavo/Jacqueline, Undertaker/Booker T, Undertaker/Dudleys, Undertaker/Heidenreich, Cena/Carlito (Jesus, Carlito's accomplice, stabbed Cena in a bar), and Dawn/Jackie/Haas, while the cruiserweight division, which was the staple of Smackdown throughout 2002-2003, was mainly relegated to Velocity while many of the cruisers were released in the summer of 2005 (the division was scrapped in 2007). On Raw, Benoit had an excellent title reign, defeating HHH and Michaels at Backlash in a rematch, Kane at Bad Blood, and HHH in rematches at Vengeance and on Raw in an ironman match, before losing to Orton at Summerslam. This was very interesting, as Orton was champ over HHH, who was also in Evolution. What happens? Orton turns face on the next Raw after being beat down by HHH, Flair, and Batista. Orton couldn't play a good face and wasn't good enough in the ring yet, so he lost it back to HHH at Unforgiven one month later. All the momentum over the last year went down the drain. For the rest of the year, Raw went back to being the entertainment show, along with Smackdown. At this time, both shows were full of some of the greenest OVW callups... the likes of Heidenreich, Snitsky, Kenzo Suzuki, Tyson Tomko, Sylvain Grenier, Rene Dupree, Matt Morgan, Luther Reigns, Orlando Jordan, and Chris Masters, the most of whom were roided up hosses (the majority of these people were either suspended for it or admitted their usage), filled out the midcard and hurt the in-ring product. In November 2004, the staple of Raw, the women's division, was dismantled as Jazz, Nidia, and Gail Kim were all released, and were replaced by the likes of Christy Hemme, Maria, and Candice Michelle, Lita got injured in January and didn't wrestle much at all afterwards until the summer of 2006, and in April, Molly Holly asked for her own release and Trish Stratus was out injured for several months and DIDN'T drop the title which meant no women's title to fight for. The women's division has yet to recover from all that. After the November releases, bra and panties matches, bikini contests, and pillow fights, which were always common on Smackdown with the likes of Torrie Wilson, Dawn Marie, Miss Jackie, and Sable, who were there for eye candy, on the show, would be more and more prevalent on Raw for several years.
On Smackdown, Eddie Guerrero was champ and doing well. After the draft, his next challenger was John Bradshaw Layfield, commonly known as JBL. This caused an outrage among fans as Bradshaw wasn't the best in the ring and before getting the big push, he was in the APA on Velocity. JBL also only wrestled one match before his match with Eddie at Judgment Day, against El Gran Luchadore, who was Paul London under a mask. Eddie retained, but by DQ, so the feud continued. The feud got worse, with Eddie continually getting arrested and even fainting during a match. At the next PPV, the Great American Bash, one of several weak PPV cards in 2004, JBL finally won the title from Eddie. The fans' reaction to JBL was still unsatisfactory until late in his reign, when his promo ability really started to shine and the way he was booked as champ really started to click. In early 2005, JBL feuded with John Cena, who was still very much over with the casual fans, was in the midst of being turned on by the "smarks". The feud was good and at WM Cena won the belt. Despite the internet fans preferring JBL at the time, Cena winning was definitely the right decision as he's the face of WWE today. Also, JBL's reign was one of the worst drawing power wise, but WWE didn't panic and take it off him too early, and they got rewarded in the process.
HHH, after winning the belt from Orton, continued to feud with Orton until the Rumble. During that time, Batista, who was in Evolution, was getting a HUGE push, and was being built up to feud with HHH. After the Rumble, Batista turned face by powerbombing HHH through a table. Batista and HHH squared off at Wrestlemania, with Batista coming the world champion on Raw. Batista and Cena were the champions at the end of this show, and they would both be the top babyfaces of their respective brands for the next three years.
While the WWE was on a decline business-wise throughout this period and the TV product was subpar for most of it, it did help create their big stars throughout the middle of the 21st century. On the flip-side, the end of it started the decline of women's, tag team, and cruiserweight wrestling in WWE, which is still occurring seven years later.