WWE faced a difficult situation with an injured Champion and repeats in most of the main event slots going into Payback. There were no crazy storyline swerves or desperately booked matches to compensate. Instead, Payback featured a card full of strong matches and two main events that were a couple of the most violent that WWE has featured in years. Violence for its own sake does little, but these matches used it to effectively put over the intensity of the feuds. The result was a shockingly strong event that exceeded everyone’s expectations.
Evolution def. The Shield in a No Disqualification, Elimination Tag Team match
After a brawl opened the show’s main event, the teams decided to tag in and out of the no DQ match. HHH and Roman Reigns squared off, and Reigns startled HHH when he put him down with a shoulder block. Evolution took its time, though, and isolated individual members of The Shield. In particular, Dean Ambrose had a lengthy stretch in the ring with HHH, Randy Orton, and Batista. When Ambrose finally did reach Reigns, he nearly took out Batista with a Superman Punch until HHH broke up the pin as the referee very nearly counted three. The match went into the crowd and the production area where Seth Rollins tried to jump off of a table onto HHH, but instead caught a face full of a monitor that HHH picked up. Evolution regrouped at ringside and teamed up to hit a triple powerbomb on Reigns through the Spanish announce table. Rollins and Ambrose tried to rally back with versions of suicide dives, but with Reigns taken out, Evolution was able to gang up on them. Ambrose got a belly-to-back suplex through a chair and Rollins got a Pedigree onto another chair. They isolated Reigns back in the ring, removed his flack jacket, and lashed him with kendo sticks to provide a gruesome and memorable image that bordered on torture. Reigns suddenly exploded for one last Superman Punch on Orton but promptly got some chair shots from HHH for his efforts. When Ambrose tried to put together a rally, Orton hit him with a hangman’s DDT off of a lighting board. As Evolution continued their beating, Rollins climbed to the top of the lower tier of the Titantron- about 10-15’ in the air- and hit a splash on the whole group. Rollins made it back to the ring and ate a spear from Batista, but another spear from Reigns let Rollins pin Batista for the first elimination. Orton quickly hit Rollins with the RKO only to see Reigns break up the pin and Ambrose hit him with Dirty Deeds on a chair to take him out, as well. HHH made his way back to the ring and hit Ambrose with a low blow. Orton slid a sledgehammer to HHH. He managed to hit Ambrose with it, but Rollins nailed him with a flying knee to set up for Reigns’s spear to finish the match with The Shield fully intact. The match had a very unique pace in that the wrestled for a very long time before the rapid eliminations. The slow development built tension for what felt like an inevitable Shield comeback. When Rollins turned the tide with his splash, it was a cathartic release and the rest of the match felt like a celebration. It was a well-earned win for The Shield, but was nonetheless surprising in how decisively they beat some of the top heels in the business.
John Cena def. Bray Wyatt in a Last Man Standing match
The Usos came to ringside to even the sides against Erick Rowan and Luke Harper. Wyatt controlled the early portion of the match when he used his size to overpower Cena, although there were no moments that seemed like possible ten counts. After a Cena leg drop, they exchanged very sudden finishers. Cena got up after Sister Abigail’s Kiss and Wyatt popped into his crab walk to break the count. From there, the bystanders got involved. Harper flew through the ropes for a suicide dive and one of the Usos hit a corkscrew moonsault onto the group on the floor. Wyatt emerged from the fracas with a chair that he used to batter Cena. When he recovered, Cena got his hands on a chair and grounded Wyatt for a seven count while he retrieved a table. He was not able to take advantage of it because Wyatt quickly suplexed Cena through the table. Wyatt clocked Cena with ring steps and conducted the fans in a chorus of “Whole World in His Hands” from atop the steps while Cena struggled to his feet. Cena eventually did recover and hit Wyatt with the same ring steps. Wyatt staggered to the floor and Cena threw the steps from the ring to Wyatt on the floor for a huge bump. Wyatt somehow not only got back to his feet but also hit Cena with Sister Abigail’s Kiss outside the ring. Cena tried to answer with a powerbomb outside and Wyatt countered with a back body drop onto another set of ring steps and a senton splash on Cena’s chest. When it looked like Wyatt was closing in on a win, Cena hit an AA on the floor. Harper and Rowan rushed back out to assault Cena and help Wyatt to his feet. The Usos also came to the ring and another brawl broke out. The highlight of that fight was an inside-out superplex that put Harper and one of the Usos through two tables on the floor. After the others wore themselves out, Wyatt recovered and plowed Cena through the barricade near the timekeeper’s area. Cena and Wyatt continued to brawl into the crowd and near the production area. Cena lifted Wyatt on top of a large case and hit an AA through another case. He tipped over a third case on top of Wyatt to block him and kept Wyatt down for ten to win the match.
It was an incredible match that was all of the things that their cage match last month was not. It was hard-hitting and straightforward instead of cluttered with clumsy stories about philosophies. They used the stipulation to highlight their toughness and resiliency instead of letting the rules get in the way of the wrestling. Most importantly, they both came out of the match looking great- Wyatt went toe-to-toe with Cena in his type of match and established his bona fides with some crazy bumps. For all of the weaknesses in the Wyatt-Cena feud, this match went back to basics for two tough athletes and redeemed a lot of the wasted time.
Daniel Bryan refused to surrender the WWE World Heavyweight Title
When Stephanie McMahon once again asked Bryan to relinquish his title or face Brie Bella’s termination, Bryan told her that this situation gave her an opportunity to finally do what the fans want and side with him. He seemed uncomfortable when the fans started to chant loudly for CM Punk, but Stephanie put those chants definitively to rest when she said that it meant that the fans wanted Bryan to quit like Punk. Stephanie prepared to fire Brie and Brie cut her off and quit instead. Brie then slapped Stephanie in the face and the shocked executive scampered away from the ring while Brie and Bryan led “Yes” chants for the fans. On one hand, it was not a particularly thrilling segment and did not add much to the event. On the other hand, I am sure the fan reaction showed how much they wanted to see the champion and it would have diminished Payback to leave him out of it altogether. It was the kind segment that fit on a strong show but would have made a bad show worse.
Sheamus def. Cesaro to remain U.S. Champion
The opening match of Payback lived up to the European reputations of its participants- stiff from beginning to end. Sheamus started with a powerslam and an extra long series of forearm smashes. Cesaro responded with a European uppercut, a double-underhook suplex, and a superplex from the apron. Sheamus responded with three knee drops from the second rope to Cesaro’s shoulder for a near fall, but Cesaro quickly fought back with a flying uppercut from the second rope. He followed it with a judo throw into another huge uppercut for a two count of his own. He almost won again with a German suplex. He tried to hit Sheamus with the Neutralizer after the cover, but Sheamus countered for White Noise and another two count. When Sheamus locked Cesaro in the Cloverleaf, Cesaro got to the ropes and responded with an inverted Olympic slam to get even closer to the win. At Paul Heyman’s instruction, Cesaro gave Sheamus one of the longest Big Swings to date, but as soon as he finished, Sheamus rolled him into an inside cradle for a surprising three count. It was a very fun, back-and-forth match that could have easily gone much longer. I especially liked the finish because it keeps the developing Cesaro looking strong and did not allow the lukewarm fans to turn on Sheamus during a rally.
Bad News Barrett def. Rob Van Dam to remain Intercontinental Champion
Barrett vowed to be the one to put “Old Yeller” down to ensure that Van Dam will not receive any more paychecks after Payback. Van Dam got off to a quick start to the match with kicks from a variety of angles. He added a spinning legdrop from the apron to the barricade. Barrett finally got his own offense rolling when he caught Van Dam’s attempt at a head scissors and answered with a big kick to the gut. Van Dam rallied back with a spinning heel kick and Rolling Thunder to prepare for the Five Star Frogsplash, which Barrett was able to avoid. He tried the Bullhammer, but Van Dam ducked and rolled him up with a body scissors for a two count. Barrett chased Van Dam out of the ring and whiffed on another Bullhammer to squarely hit the ring post. Van Dam reentered the ring with a float-over DDT, but Barrett got his knees up when Van Dam tried a split-legged moonsault. Barrett got back to his feet and connected with the Bullhammer on his third try to win the match. Both men have wrestled better matches, though this one was solid and came off better since Barrett’s gimmick has improved so much. I liked the piece in which Barrett hurt his elbow on the post to jeopardize his finisher; I only wish it had happened earlier so it could have been a bigger part of the match.
Paige def. Alicia Fox to remain Divas Champion
The women had the unenviable task of following the Last Man Standing match and the lackadaisical crowd reinforced that difficulty. Fox did some damage outside when she threw Paige off the ring steps to the floor and then into the barricade. She locked Paige in a submission hold with both of Paige’s arms wrapped around her own neck. Fox remained in control and tossed Paige between the ropes to the floor. Paige rallied behind a string of clotheslines and a back elbow. She quickly locked Fox in the PTO (which stands for “Paige Tap Out,” rather than “Paid Time Off,” though either one works) to win by submission. Naturally, Fox went berserk and threw a tantrum before she ran away from the ring. It was a fine match put in an impossible place on the card.
Rybaxel def. Rhodes Brothers
This match was a late addition to the card after the two teams sparred verbally through the last week. Cody Rhodes and Goldust motivated each other before the match and restored some of their diminished confidence. Despite a strong start for Rhodes, Rybaxel isolated Goldust and wore him down until he hit a sunset flip powrebomb to Axel and reached Rhodes for the tag. Ryback’s Meathook clothesline almost finished the match after Rhodes and Goldust inadvertently collided. Rhodes regrouped to hit Cross-Rhodes on Ryback, after which Axel made the save on a potential pin. Rhodes went for the Disaster Kick, but Ryback caught him on his shoulders and finished the match with Shell-Shocked. It was not the Rhodes Brothers’ best match, but it was solid, and it effectively told the story of their growing frustration through near misses. It was also interesting that Rhodes told Goldust after the match that Goldust needs a better partner. Leave it to the Rhodes family to salvage an angle that looked like it was headed for a predictably bland tag team split. The Brotherhood divide is now near the top of the list of storylines I am most interested to see develop on Raw.
Rusev def. Big E
Big E came out in a very cool white version of his singlet with red and blue accents to evoke even more “USA” chants from the fans. Rusev gave Big E a bit of his own medicine with a dangerous-looking release German suplex to start the match. While it briefly looked like Rusev might squash him, Big E responded with a side suplex when Rusev charged him and Big E impressively speared him off the apron to the floor. When the reentered the ring, Rusev sprung to his feet to deliver a leaping thrust kick as Big E came off the ropes. He put Big E in the Accolade and Big E could not power out. It was wise to keep the match short to protect two wrestlers who have not shown that they can put together entertaining matches for longer than a few minutes. It still receives a decent grade because the few big spots kept it entertaining, particularly the spear to the floor.
Kane took out Kofi Kingston
Kane came to the ring as Kingston and Bo Dallas prepared to wrestle. He came straight after Kingston and laid him out with a chokeslam and a Tombstone. After Kane left, Dallas told him that he could be back on his feet in no time if he believes. Michael Cole implied that Kane’s attack was a response to Kingston’s tweets that were critical of Stephanie McMahon. That version is less entertaining than the storyline in my head in which Kane has been doing Bray Wyatt’s bidding since last summer and this attack was done to protect Wyatt’s brother Dallas. If it was a one-off beating, it does not do much for me, but I would be more interested in a chance for Kingston to have a meaningful feud with someone like Kane.
Pre-show: El Torito def. Hornswoggle in a Hair vs. Mask Match
The rematch of the Wee-LC match from a month ago somehow lived up to its predecessor and remained incredibly fun. El Torito came to the ring with a shortened version of the tail that was ripped off by 3MB last week and wearing a replica Chicago Bulls #2/3 jersey. He put Hornswoggle in an airplane spin early and Hornswoggle struggled to regain his equilibrium. The action shifted outside as Los Matadores and 3MB exchanged aerial moves. As the bodies piled up, Drew McIntyre hit the crowd with a somersault plancha, Hornswoggle delivered his own between the two bottom ropes, and El Torito gave Heath Slater a hurricanrana off of the apron. Back in the ring, Hornswoggle countered a bronco buster with a powerbomb for a two count. He ripped El Torito’s mask off (to reveal another mask) and thought he had won the match, but El Torito quickly hit a moonsault for a three count. El Torito proceeded to messily shave his head for an exceedingly long time. It reminded me of Kurt Angle entering for his match at Wrestlemania XX while Victoria continued to shave Molly Holly’s head on the entrance ramp. While many of WWE’s attempts at humor are so repetitive that they become tired quickly, this humorous rivalry has remained funny.