WWE set the stage to usher in a new era of wrestling with Payback. Instead, we got some sensational wrestling paired with underwhelming storylines, to make for an unfortunately mediocre show.
Simply (and harshly) put, it was the Mass Effect 3 of wrestling pay-per-views - so much substance and promise of greater things, which was never delivered upon and kind of ruined by the end.
The red carpet of opportunity was laid out before creative to really break some ground and mix things up. They had done so well to create intrigue and get the world talking about what could happen, which led to a few simple but exciting questions:
- Will we see a return of the WWE brand split from 2002?
- Will Bullet Club formally reunite?
- Will we see Finn Balor debut?
- Will Roman Reigns turn heel?
Every single one of these questions can be answered with a resounding "no." Immaterial of the truly great wrestling (which I'll go into), the safest and most underwhelming choices were made for an all round forgettable show.
But before I go on, we've got to talk about the one unforgettably terrifying part of the show. The tag-team no.1 contenders match was called off abruptly due to an injury to fan favourite Enzo Amore.
When opposing tag team member Simon Gotch threw him out of the ring, his head bounced off the second rope and hit heavily onto the apron, instantly knocking him out.
It was a scary sight that dominated the social conversation surrounding Payback. Since the incident, WWE have confirmed the diagnosis as a concussion, which in the grand scheme of what it could have been (broken neck) is great news. However, it's another injured performer that I wish a speedy recovery for.
Right! Let's unpack this in order, with a quick thought on each.
Baron Corbin vs Dolph Ziggler
Putting this on the pre-show really killed off the importance of Baron Corbin as WWE's new monster heel - a role the he played extremely well during the match by toying with Dolph. What was even frustrating, though, is killing all of Baron's momentum by having him lose the match.
In the first of a few nonsensical decisions for Payback, Dolph Ziggler (who currently has no storyline to fulfil or progress into) scored the victory in what was being called a "rookie mistake" by Baron. The common sense option was to have Corbin completely destroy him and continue his build as a formidable character, but where do they go with him now? I mean granted, he will probably defeat him at Extreme Rules, but his credibility is gone - like a new Rusev but buried much faster.
Kalisto vs Ryback - United States Championship
Out of all the matches, this was the most surprisingly great. It seemed like they received a new lease of energy after their dull Wrestlemania 32 bout, putting on a great display.
Ryback trolled the Chicago audience by mocking CM Punk, which was amazing to see (it's clear he's having so much more fun as a heel). The in-ring story was not the generic "David vs Goliath" affair, led to Kalisto actually looking like a formidable champion. And minus a couple of botches, the moves and near pinfalls made for a gripping competition. Kudos to both men.
Enzo Amore & Big Cass vs The Vaudevillains
As this led to a no-contest, there isn't really much to say about this contest that wasn't already said above... Only things were the New Day and Enzo's promo, leading to some memorable quotes like:
"If my aunt had hair on her back, she'd be my uncle."
Sami Zayn vs Kevin Owens
These guys were in a really tough spot, needing to get the crowd back after witnessing such an eye-opening injury. They didn't just get their attention back, but they knocked it out the park.
Following a great video package, what followed was quite easily the match of the night... If you've seen these two fight before in NXT or before, you're probably not surprised with the calibre of this contest. But to newcomers, both competitors worked well in really making this fight look personal.
Shout out to the terrible commentary: calling incorrect moves and meaninglessly talking over each other throughout this stellar match.
The Miz vs Cesaro - Intercontinental Championship
This was clearly a set up to a Fatal Four Way between Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, The Miz and Cesaro for the belt at Extreme Rules. But for just a scene setter, it was a fun one to watch.
I'm a little gutted this Cesaro push didn't result in the belt, but the way it was done worked well to introduce all these volatile elements together and build excitement for the incoming match up. Kevin Owens has been built to look like an absolutely dominant monster throughout these two matches - a legit superstar that I can't wait to see grow throughout 2016.
Shout out to Kevin Owens doing commentary better than the actual commentators, burning both Byron Saxton and Michael Cole repeatedly.
Chris Jericho vs Dean Ambrose
The chaos of the last two matches was going to be a tough act to follow, but Jericho and Ambrose told a good story of two evenly matched opponents struggling to overcome.
Finally, Ambrose got his victory! He desperately needed a win to restore credibility after his string of losses, and WWE have listened. Great spots include Dean posing with his foot on Jericho with muscles flexed in the same style as heel Y2J, and the slow struggle towards a Dirty Deeds at the end.
Charlotte vs Natalya - Women's Championship
Get ready, folks. Here comes another boneheaded decision by WWE creative. The elements were here to create an amazing match, and the in ring work excelled to that point. Natalya played the gutsy face against the female extension of the dirtiest player in the game.
The result up to the last moments was an amazing competition... But then history became more important than the present day, as the Montreal Screw Job was reprised. Such a cheap ploy took all the momentum away from the competitors and killed what was a great match. Not every story can be a rewrite of an old one, surely!
And I get the lead up to the stereo sharpshooters from Natalya and Bret Hart, but there were plenty more ways to get to this point.
Vince McMahon decides who will control Raw
Ready for another daft decision? Dragging up more McMahon family drama in a near-30-minute promo, which slowed down Payback to a halt, Vince announced who would be running Raw. Will he usher in a new era with Shane, or bring back The Authority with Stephanie? Will he split the brands and give each child control of one? Will we see Triple H come and start the inevitable feud leading up to Summerslam?
Absolutely none of that happened, and Vinnie Mac gave both of them control over Raw... Expect plenty more 20-minute brother v daughter promos boring you to tears. Here was an opportunity to really do something groundbreaking and they went with a safe decision, probably through trying to swerve the crowd by doing something different to what was expected.
But that's not what a wrestling fan wants in 2016. Of course, we want to be surprised, but we want to be listened to as well. I think Vince summed up the real problem perfectly when he said: "I don't listen to anybody except me."
Roman Reigns vs AJ Styles - WWE World Heavyweight Championship
So here we are - the main event - the match which has caused the most intrigue. Unfortunately, this will be the one to cause the most underwhelming disappointment too.
And don't get me wrong, the problem was not with the wrestling itself. Reigns and AJ showed so much in-ring chemistry, it could have been one of the best matches in a long while. Styles proved he belongs in the spotlight at the top, and Reigns' almost Lesnar-esque strong style was in full form here. Plus that Phenomenal Forearm through the announcer's table was a thing of pure beauty.
Then shenanigans began... The match ended in count out with AJ winning, but Shane restarted the match with no count outs. After this, Reigns punched Styles straight in the crotch for the DQ, and then Stephanie followed the formula by restarting the match with no disqualification stipulation.
So now, the stage was set for the new era. Will we see something groundbreaking? Will Bullet Club help AJ win? Will Bullet Club turn on him in favour of a debuting Finn Balor? Will they even turn on the New Japan brethren for the Roman Empire, completing the heel turn?
Once again, none of that happened. Bullet Club's interference was stopped by The Usos to set up their feud, Reigns won clean, and the show closed out with Shane & Stephanie confirming a rematch at Extreme Rules under the stipulation shared by the name.
I wouldn't say it was overbooking because that level of chaos was warmly welcomed by the Chicago crowd, but to have all that lead to that ending? We all knew AJ wasn't going to win it, but this match deserved a lot more of a controversial finish.
And this match summed up the flavour of Payback - great wrestling marred by bad storytelling. If this is what we can expect from this so-called "new era," then I'm a bit nervous for it...