Produced By: WWE
Date: May 1 2016
Location: Allstate Arena, Rosemont, Illinois, USA
The first PPV event after WrestleMania 32 was eagerly anticipated, largely due to the wealth of fresh talent and matches that the show would provide, especially in contrast to the usual formula of the post-WM event hosting Mania rematches. In addition, the event would apparently confirm who would be in charge of Raw after confusion concerning this situation.
Before the event began, the Kick-off Show hosted two matches, the first being Dolph Ziggler vs. Baron Corbin. Corbin debuted officially by winning the Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WM 32 and has steamrolled through talent ever since, having targeted Ziggler in particular over the preceding four weeks. The logical assumption was that this match would give Ziggler a chance to display his array of skills but would ultimately succumb to the domination of the newcomer.
But whilst the match was watchable and Corbin did look impressive (in particular with a backwards toss sending Dolph into the ring post), Baron’s milking of his control over Ziggler to the crowd led to his unexpected downfall: as he did at Extreme Rules 2015, Dolph surprisingly scored the win over his more powerful rival with a roll-up. I foresee a rematch, possibly as soon as Raw, where Baron evens the score; on the surface, it was a questionable result for the promising new monster, especially since he had previously been on a long unbeaten run in NXT.
The other Kick-Off bout was between Kalisto and Ryback for the United States Title. This one was a Mania rematch, and one that few were looking forward to, after their lukewarm mini-feud prior to WM 32. Fortunately, spectators were in for a surprise, as the Big Guy and the luchador delivered a really entertaining battle. Their chemistry was great considering the size and style differences, and such big moves as an insane twisting corkscrew to the floor by Kalisto, a middle rope military press slam and a sweet sequence that led to Kalisto’s match-winning Salida Del Sol ensured that this was a memorable Kick-Off Show match.
Kalisto’s win was also a surprise, and it should hopefully (and finally) lead to a renewed push for the Lucha Dragon. But the best part to me was Ryback’s hilarious trolling of CM Punk. Punk left WWE under a black cloud in 2014, and he had particularly criticised Ryback for accidentally injuring him during their previous meetings in WWE. In Punk’s hometown of Chicago, where Punk chants at Ryback were likely, the Big Guy didn’t shy away; by mimicking Punk’s entrance moves, he dropped something of a pipe bomb of his own (and if that didn’t, then his weightlifting belt saying “The Pre-Showstopper”, shortly after an interview where he claimed that performing on the pre-show was a let-down for him, definitely made a statement). If WWE knew how to properly use Ryback as a villain, they could have a brilliant bad guy on their hands.
Payback began proper with a New Day promo prior to the final of a tag team contender’s tournament pitting new NXT call-ups Enzo Amore and Colin “Big Cass” Cassady against The Vaudevillains combo of Simon Gotch and Aiden English. Enzo and Cass’s own promo (replete with references to Hey Arnold!, which got a kick out of this one-time Football Head viewer) raised the roof as always, but the atmosphere soon took a big dip due to a frightening moment. Moments into this contest, Gotch whipped Enzo hard into the ropes which looked innocuous at first, but Enzo’s head whacking the middle rope led his skull to bounce hard off the canvas, dropping onto the ringside floor in one sequence.
At first, it looked like a brutal-looking yet safe spot, but when the EMTs stopped the match and Cass looked distraught, it was clear that this wasn’t planned, and the look of sheer concern on the announcer’s faces (as the cameras stayed away from the injured Enzo) had many fearing a potentially life-changing happening for Amore. Later on the broadcast, it was revealed that Enzo had suffered a severe concussion and, crucially, was moving his extremities and was eventually discharged from hospital. It looks like Enzo might have a significant time out hurt but, considering what could have been the fallout of Enzo’s nasty-looking fall, the consequences could have been far worse. The outcome of the match wasn’t announced (one would assume New Day vs. Vaudevillains happens at Extreme Rules; bear in mind this match was to determine the contenders), although Enzo’s health obviously took priority here. A dangerous reminder that pro wrestling might look flawlessly executed at best, but serious accidents can occur on the simplest of spots.
The much-anticipated Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn showdown took place before a slightly deflated audience due to Enzo’s injury, but the two men (who became friends in 2002, formed a team on the indies when Zayn was the masked El Generico and Owens was Kevin Steen, had a great rivalry in Ring Of Honor from 2009-10 which continued on and off until Zayn joined WWE in 2013, restarted on NXT in 2014-5, and hit the main roster beginning at Royal Rumble 2016) were up to the task and delivered a superb grudge match. Beginning with a rapid-fire slugfest, this featured loads of big moves, reversals, stiff shots (Owens’ face and nose were cut by the end) and false finishes, all in front of a red-hot crowd once the Enzo situation had died down a little.
Every big move imaginable was unleashed here, although one that stood out for me was a painful backdrop to Owens on the ring apron. Zayn hit a Blue Thunder Bomb and Owens nailed a frog splash, neither to any avail. In the end, Owens avoided a Helluva Kick with a superkick of his own followed by the match-winning Pop-Up Powerbomb. Afterwards, Owens verbally destroyed Byron Saxton on the microphone in a brilliant promo (he also humorously held the ropes for Byron and then walked away as he was about to oblige), before announcing that he would provide colour commentary on the Intercontinental Title match, given his desire to regain the IC gold.
The IC scrap pitted The Miz with his wife Maryse against Cesaro, now with a James Bond-meet-Superman entrance. Miz has been revitalised by the renewed emphasis on his delusional Hollywood hopes (his deliberately bad attempts to relive movie lines during his promos are really funny), but Cesaro had only recently returned from injury and is massively over with the fans right now. WWE therefore had to find a finish to keep momentum on both performers whilst also probably keeping the IC Title on Miz (since I couldn’t see a third IC Title change inside a month, at least at this time).
With Owens delivering one great line after another at the announcer’s booth, Miz and Cesaro had a good back-and-forth contest, before Zayn returned to attack Owens at ringside. Their brawl would ultimately affect the result, as a distracted referee didn’t see Miz tapping out To Cesaro’s crossface, and after Cesaro himself was distracted, a roll-up by Miz assisted by a handful of tights kept the gold around Miz’s waist. Post-match, a four-man brawl occurred, with Owens standing tall at the end. It looks like a four-way for the IC crown is approaching, and it’s anybody’s guess as to who would win that. So, WWE kind of achieved its goals to keep everyone strong, and Owens has the rare honour of stealing the show in a wrestling form and then stealing the show again on commentary.
Dean Ambrose vs. Chris Jericho was a match which on another card might have been amongst the best of the evening. Here, it was a pretty good match but one which couldn’t quite match the intensity of Zayn vs. Owens or the drama of the main event later in the evening. There isn’t much to say about this one which you wouldn’t normally say about an Ambrose or a Jericho match, other than to say that the two matched up well together and provided another fun match on a night stacked with enjoyable wrestling contests. Ambrose won with Dirty Deeds, having set it up Bret Hart-style with a slow, ground-based lock of the arms leading to the move itself (which I noticed immediately, but fans in Chicago only cottoned onto when the move was actually executed).
Unfortunately, this appears to have marked the end of Jericho’s current WWE run, which is disappointing after his heel antics had become a highlight of recent television shows, not to mention that there was still mileage in the Ambrose-Y2J feud. I’m sure he will return, possibly quite soon, but the recent improvements in the quality of WWE TV will take a bit of a hit without the self-proclaimed Best In The World At What He Does.
Charlotte vs. Natalya was enhanced by having both Ric Flair and Bret Hart at ringside, the latter in his first public appearance since being diagnosed with, and having been treated for, prostate cancer. The Women’s Title match wasn’t quite as good as their famous battle at NXT Takeover in 2014 or their recent Roadblock clash, but it was still a pretty good bout (no pun intended). Charlotte’s regular figure-four leglock didn’t win the match, but her mocking Sharpshooter did; however, it was not because Natalya submitted. but because referee Charles Robinson called the bell to perform the latest Screwjob on someone with a Hart connection.
Those who were outraged had to remember that this was designed primarily to set up a rematch, and that with Little Naitch as referee, a heel turn for the long-time neutral official is inevitable. That Bret participated in it was surprising given his one-time refusal to even consider a storyline with a Montreal connection (Google it if you don’t know what the significance of Montreal is), but he and Natalya did leave with their heads held high as they both performed Sharpshooters on the Flairs. The feud will continue probably until Extreme Rules, which for the long-neglected Natalya has to be a positive, even if ultimately she is unlikely to end Charlotte’s title reign.
Next up was a talking segment involving Vince, Shane and Stephanie McMahon to decide who will be running Raw. I’ll omit the drawn-out verbiage to summarise the story: Steph and HHH, as The Authority, have mainly been running the show for ages now, but Shane’s return changed things. Although Vince initially implied that Shane would only have to compete at WrestleMania in the Hell In A Cell match against The Undertaker to obtain power of Raw, the stipulation was later quietly modified to suggest that Shane had to win to receive this power. Shane lost, but Vince put him in charge anyway the night after Mania, and strangely Shane has been in charge of Raw since (to an admittedly positive response). Still, here Vince would finally decide who would truly run Raw: Shane or Stephanie?
As it turned out, to the sound of crickets, Vince decided that both McMahon siblings would run Raw, a storyline which I seem to remember occurring in 2008-9 … and 1999-2000 … and 2003 involving Eric Bischoff and Steve Austin (and later Mick Foley) … and – well, the point is that this is familiar territory, yet it feels a bit fresh because of Shane’s long absence. Expect this to be a bridge towards a bigger story, possibly a Triple H-Shane conflict for control (HHH has essentially lost his spot running Raw due to this plot development, so revenge is surely coming from HHH at a later date). This segment was underwhelming, then, but as a path towards a more important story in the near future, it served its purpose. It may have been better on Raw, though, rather than on PPV.
The main event was the unlikely square-off between Roman Reigns and AJ Styles for the WWE World Heavyweight Title. (Who could have imagined 12 months ago that AJ Styles would be main-eventing WWE supershows and Leicester City would be on the verge of winning the Premier League?) The build-up was focused on the WWE debut/return of Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows, formerly accomplices of AJ Styles in New Japan Pro Wrestling as part of the Bullet Club. While WWE could have done a better job of actually telling the WWE audience who the Bullet Club were and what they did, the message was clear that AJ’s friends may or may not have been in cahoots with the number one contender with the goal of helping him win the WWE Title. It set up an intriguing headline attraction: would AJ go heel or would the Club turn on him? Would Reigns finally turn heel for good? And who would leave Payback with the WWE Title?
Few discussed beforehand that this could potentially be a great match on its own merits, and that’s exactly what it was, although it had plenty of shenanigans: after a spectacular Phenomenal Forearm put Reigns through an announcer’s table, the bout ended by countout, only for Shane McMahon to restart it with no countouts. Ditto after an apparent Roman low blow led to a disqualification and a similar restart by Stephanie. Then Gallows and Anderson arrived to interfere, followed by Roman’s cousins The Usos (who unfortunately are now being booed similar to Reigns by association). Reigns shoved AJ onto the pile and then hit a great dive onto the interfering parties. Styles hit another Phenomenal Forearm which was prevented from sealing victory due to a ring break (despite it now being No DQ), followed by a spectacular 450 Splash for a heart-stopping near fall. Reigns intercepted another PF with a Superman Punch, and he avoided one more PF to hit the match-winning Spear. Afterwards, the McMahons agreed that there would be a Roman vs. AJ rematch under Extreme Rules at, erm, Extreme Rules.
Few could have seriously expected Styles to win the title here, given the strength of the Reigns push, but the “what if?” nature of the match and of Gallows and Anderson’s involvement created an intriguing run-in to what proved to be a great main event match. That there will be a rematch means that the storyline can continue, with further speculation that Styles could officially reform his Japan faction to try and help him become Champion. I won’t comment on the rumours surrounding where this could go, other than to note that Reigns vs. AJ and friends creates a lot of exciting potential scenarios, and at the very least we should be in for another fantastic match between these two on May 22.
Overall, then, Payback 2016 was a brilliant wrestling show. Besides the opener, which was hindered by Enzo’s injury, and the McMahon segment, everything was either good, very good or great, with Zayn vs. Owens and Reigns vs. Styles being the highlights of the show. Even the Kick-Off matches were decent (Ziggler vs. Corbin) and surprisingly exciting (Ryback vs. Kalisto). The depth of the WWE talent roster means that it’s almost impossible for there to be a poor PPV nowadays, at least from a wrestling standpoint. If this truly is the beginning of a new era, as WWE tried to make us believe via the promotion for this event, then it should be a fun time to be watching WWE.
Overall Rating: 8.5/10 – Excellent