It’s fitting that World Wrestling Entertainment would choose the name Payback for its latest pay-per-view event. It’s a title reminiscent of a nonsensical straight-to-DVD action flick; the kind of cinematic offering, in fact, that WWE Studios have been churning out for the past five years.
Yet, despite the combination of the show’s awful name and the uninspiring choice of main event, WWE Payback 2013 (available at WWEDVD.co.uk from 26 August 2013) is actually one of the company’s best events in quite some time. Yes, I was surprised too.
NOTE: Spoilers coming up. You’ve been warned.
A tidy, nicely-paced triple threat encounter kicks off the show – held before a raucous crowd in Chicago, Illinois – as Intercontinental champion Wade Barrett defends the gold against The Miz (who, implausibly, is still being marketed as a white-meat babyface) and the new “Paul Heyman Guy“, third-generation superstar Curtis Axel. Axel, who serves in the bout as a last-minute replacement for the concussed Fandango, bears the brunt of the crowd’s ‘Fandangoing’ in the early moments, but that’s nothing compared to the negative reactions hurled towards The Miz, who has to be the least-likeable good guy since ‘The Narcissist’ Lex Luger became ‘Made in the USA’.
But I digress. After a messy start featuring some stiff offence from Barrett, the three-way picks up momentum nicely and takes the crowd right along with it, concluding with excellent closing moments featuring some very close near falls. An inventive and opportunistic pinfall sees Axel claim victory and his first Intercontinental championship to a sizeable crowd reaction.
Seeing the third-generation star celebrate the win, fittingly on Fathers Day, and having his hand raised in victory to the modernised strains of Mr. Perfect‘s distinctive theme music is an emotional moment, and a nice nostalgic nod for long-time fans of the promotion. A top-notch opening match to get the crowd ready for the night ahead.
The second match on the card is that rarest of things in today’s WWE landscape – a Divas match with an actual storyline attached. Champion Kaitlyn, who has floundered for the duration of her reign with the gold due to a lack of both character development and viable challengers, finally receives an opportunity to compete in a match with a purpose, with challenger AJ Lee and sidekick Big E Langston playing mind games on the champion in the run up to the bout. And the result of WWE actually investing time in building some intrigue? Shock horror: it’s one of the finest Divas matches of the past few years.
While no in-ring masterpiece, Kaitlyn and Lee are given time to let their story breathe in the ring, as the champion – who has the clear strength advantage – struggles to overcome the dastardly challenger with the clear psychological edge. She doesn’t quite manage it, falling victim to Lee’s Black Widow submission after seemingly having the win in hand, and dropping her title in the process. It’s a good simple story, well told. At the end of the bout, Kaitlyn aims to evoke sympathy by breaking down in tears – but Chi-town is the wrong place for that. The crowd, loudly chanting “You tapped out” at the fallen Diva, cranks the jeers up a notch when fellow Diva Layla comes to ringside to comfort her despondent friend. Poor lass.
With two title changes in the first two matches, the odds are not in United States champion Dean Ambrose‘s favour as he takes on challenger Kane - especially coming just 48 hours after The Shield‘s first six-man loss on Smackdown. Ambrose manages to hang on to his gold, however, with a cheap count-out victory over ‘The Big Red Machine’ in a slow and methodical outing.
Things quicken dramatically next in the World title collision between challenger Alberto Del Rio and champion Dolph Ziggler, in a sublimely-booked match that will likely evoke fond memories of Bret Hart and Steve Austin‘s WrestleMania 13 classic for many. Ziggler (the heel), returning to action for the first time in five weeks after suffering a concussion, is immediately targeted from the outset by Del Rio (the babyface) in aggressive fashion. At first, its understandable – Ziggler did opportunistically ‘cash in’ his Money In The Bankbriefcase on an injured Del Rio, after all, to win the gold – but as the match progresses, Del Rio’s intensity increases … and things get very interesting.
As Del Rio relentlessly and viciously continues to kick Ziggler in the head, the champion attempts to pull off a gutsy comeback, but to no avail. With the boo’s raining down on Del Rio and the crowd firmly behind underdog Ziggler, the roles are officially reversed – and when Del Rio delivers one final blow to the champion’s cranium and lifts the gold once again, it’s clear that we are looking at a re-energised ADR and, mercilessly, the end of WWE’s experiment to try and position him as the “new Eddie”. Del Rio has always shone brightest as an arrogant heel, while fans have craved the opportunity to cheer Ziggler for a long time. Del Rio’s decisive and callous victory, and post-match celebration, should mark the start of a long run with the gold.
Heading into Payback, all eyes were on one moment – the return of CM Punk in front of his hometown crowd in Chicago, Illinois. Punk, who always elicits ear-splitting reactions from his faithful Chi-town fans, faces off against Chris Jericho for what seems like the umpteenth time – with this bout, once again, being based around which competitior can call themselves the “Best in the World”. Didn’t the two already cover this, at length, going into WrestleMania 28?
Tenuous feud aside, when it comes to in-ring action on the night, Punk and Jericho deliver … in spades. Despite the commentators playing up Punk’s “ring rust” (he’s only been out of action for six weeks) from the outset, the pair engage in a typically strong bout filled with near falls and memorable moments, including a stunning mid-air Codebreaker that is sure to be played on highlight reels for years to come. As with so many WWE matches these days, the presence of Paul Heyman on the outside of the ring adds to the drama in the squared circle, as does the incredibly one-sided crowd, all of whom wait on Punk’s every move and watch on in disbelief when it appears that the ‘Straight Edge Superstar’ is about to tap out. He doesn’t, and eventually manages to polish Y2J off with an emphatic win and an impressive return, which subtly sows the seeds for a babyface turn and the breakdown of the relationship with Heyman. A fine match, this one’s made all the sweeter for the incredibly vocal crowd and Jericho getting the opportunity to return to his heelish ways … even if it is for one night only.
Serving as the buffer between two epic matches is a successful tag team title defence by champions Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins, who see off the wild card tandem of Daniel Bryan and Randy Orton in a passable doubles affair. The Chicago crowd is firmly behind Punk’s fellow ROH alumni Bryan, but not so much for his partner – Orton’s tired routine is met with boo’s and, even worse, “RVD” chants, after the crowd learned of Rob Van Dam‘s impending WWE return. Orton, not to be perturbed, does the unthinkable and actually busts out a new move in this match – a variation of an overhead suplex – but even that’s not enough to save the day, as Rollins ultimately pins Bryan in the bout’s chaotic closing moments. Not to worry: Bryan’s had enough of wearing doubles gold, anyway.
After six varied matches and three title changes, it’s time for the main event. The match you’ve all been waiting for? Maybe not.
WWE’s decision to place John Cena and Ryback in a ‘Three Stages of Hell’ contest sounded awful on paper … in reality, it could have been a whole lot worse, but no amount of stipulations and hype can mask the lack of chemistry between the two heavyweights as they square off yet again.
Match one of three is a 30-man lumberjack match – a stipulation which Michael Cole, on commentary, does his very best to make sound dangerous. The presence of the WWE superstars surrounding the ring leads to a few fun moments, including a somewhat implausible multi-man tumble when Cena takes to the air from the top turnbuckle, but is only memorable really for being the only time that you’ll ever seen Jinder Mahal in a WWE PPV main event. Unsurprisingly, Ryback picks up the first fall, leading to the champion being at a 1-0 disadvantage.
Cena brings the score to 1-1 within moments thanks to a win in a short and uneventful tables match, leading to the inevitable ambulance match upon which much of the pre-show hype had hinged. After brawling up the ramp and using the ambulance itself as a weapon – dismantling sections of the vehicle’s bodywork – Cena and Ryback climb on top of the ambulance, which leads nicely to a match-winning Attitude Adjustment from Cena through the vehicle’s roof. It’s a nice spot, and one that is replayed ad nauseum throughout the event’s closing moments, but it’s also typical of so many of Cena’s other main event clashes over the past decade – a a flashy, gimmicked spot with no real substance. Oh well, that’s the champ for you.
WWE Payback 2013 may not have had the most tantalising of cards on paper – but when it comes to in-ring action, it’s certainly worthy of a place in your collection. CM Punk and Chris Jericho’s sterling effort is a fine outing for both men, Curtis Axel’s first Intercontinental title win is a feel-good moment for fans of yesteryear, and Del Rio and Ziggler do a terrific job of switching roles through the simplest of stories. Helped along tremendously by the vocal and passionate Chicago crowd, Payback 2013 really makes you appreciate the difference that fan interaction can make to a show. Even one that is headlined by Ryback.