That’s what made 2016’s Payback so good, in my opinion. Though hampered by a terrifying injury early on, the pay-per-view managed to deliver fantastic matches that made stars out of its performers.
Enzo & Cass vs. The Vaudvillains
The New Day opened the show to a massive ovation from the Chicago crowd. They announced they would be sitting ringside for the finals of the tag team tournament.
The Vaudvillains started off strong against Enzo and Cass, wearing down Enzo before he tagged Cass in. Enzo and Cass utilized classic tag strategy, wearing down Gotch before Aiden English tagged in and turned the tide, throwing Enzo right out of the ring.
But Enzo hit his head on the ropes, sustaining a very real, very scary injury and forcing the stop of the match.
This was one of the most terrifying moments I’ve ever witnessed live. Enzo was later announced as suffering from a concussion and no neck injuries, but the worry on the faces of all teams involved was clear as day.
Get well soon, Enzo. We’re rooting for you.
Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn
Sami Zayn started off strong, passionately going after Owens with aerial might. Owens, however, fought back with vigor, throwing Zayn out of the ring. Setting Zayn up on the steel steps, Owens kicked him square in the face before returning the action to the ring.
Owens continued dishing punishment, bouncing Zayn off the top rope before going for a failed cover. The two exchanged elbows and clotheslines in the center of the ring before Zayn hit a second clothesline, driving Owens into the turnbuckle and dishing out punishment with a Blue Thunder Bomb.
Owens fought back with a brutal neckbreaker and a frog splash from the top rope. He didn’t stop there, driving Zayn into the corner with canonballs. He went for the Pop-up Powerbomb, but Zayn reversed it. Owens responded with a clothesline.
The two went for right hands, hitting each other in tandem before Zayn went for a rollup. He went for a move from the ropes, but Owens caught him and threw him into a backbreaker. The two battled on the ring apron, and Zayn hit Owens with a back body drop. Zayn followed it with a running DDT through the second rope.
But back in the ring, Owens caught Zayn with a Pop-up Powerbomb for the win. But that wasn’t enough for the prizefighter, who threw Zayn out of the ring and demanded that Byron Saxton join him, demanding that he ask him about beating Sami.
Mic in hand, Owens furiously declared that he was the better man and declared his intentions on reclaiming the Intercontinental Championship.
This match was a brilliantly executed technical showing and storytelling clinic. Owens and Zayn absolutely shone, bringing the Chicago crowd back to life after a legitimately scary end to the opening match of the night. And Owens’ monologue at the match’s finish was a work of art.
The Miz vs. Cesaro (Intercontinental Championship match)
With Owens on commentary and still ranting and raving about Sami Zayn, Cesaro started off strong against the Miz, showing off his incredible athleticism, hitting Miz with a vertical suplex and swinging backbreaker.
Cesaro continued dominating until Maryse interfered, allowing the Miz to take control. He targeted the Swiss Superman’s injured shoulder and locked in a brutal chokehold. But Cesaro powered out, reversing it into a vertical suplex before taking Miz to uppercut city. He hit a suplex over the ropes from the apron on the Miz and then a tilt-a-whirl. He nearly had him pinned, but Miz got his foot on the ropes.
Miz hit the Skull-Crushing Finale, but even that couldn’t keep Cesaro down.
At ringside, Zayn came flying back into action, attacking Owens as Cesaro took Miz swinging TWENTY TIMES. He locked him into a crossface, and Miz tapped, but the ref was distracted by Zayn and Owens. Miz caught Cesaro with his tights to retain.
Owens threw Cesaro, Miz and Zayn out of the ring and held the title high to close the segment.
Fatal Four Way? I’m game. Also, Owens should commentate forever.
Dean Ambrose vs. Chris Jericho
Ambrose stared Jericho down fearlessly before going right after him, slapping him across the chest. Incensed, Jericho retreated from the ring and Ambrose went right after him, hitting him with a flying crossbody and clothesline outside the ring.
Jericho crawled to the ref desperately, declaring Ambrose was, “killing him,” before hitting Ambrose with a running dropkick and sending him out of the ring. Pulling Ambrose back in, Jericho punched and twisted his foot on Ambrose’s face. He locked in a chokehold and then hit a dropkick.
Ambrose reversed a running bulldog, sending Jericho into the turnbuckle and then hitting a tornado DDT. Jericho looked for the Walls of Jericho, but Ambrose reversed it, hitting a swinging neckbreaker and running bulldog. Ambrose went for a flying elbow off the top rope, but Jericho caught him, locking in the Walls, but Ambrose powered to the ropes.
Furious, Jericho kicked him into the ropes, but Ambrose sent him into the announce table with a suicide dive, but was launched into the timekeeping area by Jericho., and just beat the countout. A furious Jericho went for the Codebreaker, but Ambrose reversed into a clothesline, returning to the top ropes and hitting a flying elbow. Jericho still didn’t fall.
He locked in the Walls of Jericho, but Ambrose reversed it into a rollup. An infuriated Jericho hit a backbreaker, taunting Ambrose viciously. Ambrose fought back, hitting Dirty Deeds for the pinfall. A peeved Chris Jericho threw a fit at ringside, but Ambrose celebrated nonetheless.
This match was fantastic, full of great spots and spot-on performances from both men despite little to no decent story buildup. Ambrose looked like the star he is, and the win was vastly encouraging in regards to how WWE views him. His character shone through every move he made and every look he sent towards Jericho.
Backstage, AJ Styles declared to Mauro Ranallo that he would be beating Roman Reigns on his own.
Charlotte vs. Natalya (WWE Women’s Championship match)
With her uncle in her corner, Natalya once again took on Charlotte, immediately going after the champion with confidence. As Charlotte showboated, Natalya looked to lock in the Sharpshooter…twice. The crowd cheered for Sasha, and Charlotte taunted Nattie with it, driving her into the mat with her knees.
Charlotte exited from the ring, slapping Nattie and strutting with confidence. Back in the ring, Natalya hit Charlotte with a German Suplex and then hit a dropkick to the face, stunning Charlotte. The champ, however, responded with a strike to the knees, working Natalya’s legs and taunting Bret Hart.
Charlotte worked Natalya’s leg cruelly before Natalya reversed it into an armbar. Charlotte wormed out, suplexing Nattie into the ropes. Charlotte climbed to the top rope, and Nattie pushed her out of the ring, buying recovery time. Charlotte looked for a powerbomb into the apron, but Natalya reversed it into a semi-huricarana.
Back in the ring, Charlotte caught Nattie with a boot to the face as an increasingly worried Ric looked on. She looked for the Figure Four, but Natalya responded with a clothesline, looking for the Sharpshooter, but Charlotte reversed it into the Natural Selection. Nattie kicked out. Charlotte hit a moonsault from the top rope. Nattie kicked out.
Charlotte locked int he Figure Four, but a defiant Nattie refused to tap, reversing it. Charlotte broke it with the ropes, and locked int he Sharpshooter. The bell rang though Nattie never tapped, and the two furious Harts locked in the Sharpshooter on the Flairs in the ring. Chicago Screwjob, I guess?
The ending was wholly unnecessary and was a bit of an insult to the women, as if they couldn’t carry an original storyline, but the match itself was excellent. Natalya’s defiance was engaging and wonderful to see, and Charlotte’s heel work was sharp and well-executed.
Vince was greeted with a healthy chorus of CM Punk chants, which made me smile for once. To his credit, Vince ran with it. He discussed the Attitude Era and said that RAW needed something new, someone with vision. He brought Stephanie out to the ring to massive boos, and Vince called the crowd animals.
Stephanie touted those who debuted under her tenure on top, including the Shield and the Horsewomen. She lauded the WWE Network and said she always did what’s best for business, calling Shane mysoginistic and weak and reminding Vince of Shane’s WrestleMania loss.
Shane didn’t take so well to that, entering to applause and cheers. He pointed out various news headlines praising his tenure leading RAW and implored Vince to listen to the WWE Universe.
Vince, naturally, didn’t, putting both Stephanie and Shane in charge of RAW…together.
The two siblings shook hands and left the ring. Oh boy, oh boy. This will be interesting.
Roman Reigns vs. AJ Styles (WWE World Heavyweight Championship match)
As expected, boos reigned supreme for the current WWE World Heavyweight Champion as he faced off against AJ Styles, who was given a hero’s welcome.
AJ went after Roman immediately, but was just shoved back. He went for a headlock,a nd was shoved off. AJ then began targeting Roman’s legs, kicking and striking his hamstrings, sending him out of the ring with arm drags.
Styles slid out of the ring, daring Reigns to join him, baiting him into a clever attack in the ring before Reigns caught him with a shoulder tackle. Styles targeted Reigns’ legs again, but Reigns responded with blows to the back, utilizing his raw power. Styles went to gain momentum, but Reigns hit him with a wicked clothesline, powerbombing him into the center of the mat.
Reigns loaded the Superman Punch, but Styles caught him with a pelee kick. He lifted Reigns onto his shoulders and hit a backbreaker, locking in the Calf Crusher, but Reigns made it to the ropes. Reigns rolled out of the ring, and Styles hit the Phenomenal Forearm out of the ring and into the table.
Reigns was counted out, and Styles won the match, but Reigns retained his title. Unhappy, Shane emerged, restarting the match with no countouts.
Styles brought Reigns back into the ring, hitting him with a pelee kick. He hit a 450 splash, but Reigns got his knees up, almost getting the three-count. Styles went for another splash, but Reigns caught him in the ribs. The official called for DQ, claiming Reigns had hit a low blow, but Stephanie emerged, declaring the match No DQ.
The pair brawled at ringside, with Reigns sending Styles into the steps and barricade and into the crowd. But Styles sent him right back into ringside with a forearm and running knee to the neck. Int he ring, Reigns hit the Superman Punch mid-air, but Styles kicked out. Furious, Reigns tried again, setting Styles up for the Spear, but Gallows and Anderson pulled Styles out and went after Reigns, hitting the Boot of Doom on Reigns.
Styles dragged himself back in the ring, hitting the Phenomenal Forearm, but Reigns got his feet on the ropes, and the Usos emerged, attacking Anderson and Gallows. Reigns pushed Styles out of the ring, and he took out all four men. Reigns flew out of the ring, but Styles caught him by surprise, hitting a splash back in the ring, but Reigns kicked out.
Reigns caught Styles with the Spear and retained clean.
But, backstage, the McMahons already set up an Extreme Rules rematch, with Extreme Rules stipulations.
Okay, okay, I’ll go ahead and say it: Reigns was excellent. He wrestling the infuriating strong style (not the Shinsuke kind) that made him look infuriatingly invincible. The ending was ridiculous, however. How in the world does it make sense for Roman to kick out of everything Styles has but for Styles to fall to a single spear?
That being said, Styles was beyond belief in this match, performing wonderfully. The crowd ate up every incredibly athletic feat he pulled off, truly believing for a moment that Styles was actually walking away WWE World Heavyweight Champion. He wasn’t just phenomenal, he was spectacular.
The best thing WWE can do is fully turn Reigns into a heel. They absolutely cannot claim to be in a new era if they’re going to continue pushing Reigns as a babyface or even a tweener.
Styles will have his chance. Of that I am sure. And I am willing to endure a Reigns….reign if it means getting there someday.
All in all, Payback was a great night of wrestling. But only time will tell if WWE is truly heading into a new era.