Payback airs tonight on the WWE Network, and is being billed as the first major event of the “New Era.”
WWE World Heavyweight Championship: Roman Reigns (c) vs. AJ Styles
The main event perhaps best epitomizes what the “New Era” may entail – establishment versus independents. Reigns has been finding his way as the official face of the company for about a month, while embracing the jeers of the WWE Universe with a slightly smug swagger. An outside observer might view Reigns as a champion grown in a sterile environment – the bloodline, professional football player, has only ever wrestled in a WWE/developmental ring. Combine this with the swoonworthy looks and the marketing department of a publicly traded company, and you have a relatively young guy (not yet 31) who can parade around on talk shows in a suit and ponytail, carrying the belt with the giant company logo.
Compare and contrast to beloved Internet darling and independent “journeyman” AJ Styles. This list of indy titles, awards, and 5-star matches he’s accumulated in a 14-year career has made him one of the most respected wrestlers alive. However, he’s a 38-year old who has gotten called “rookie” on an uncomfortably regular basis. And, there will be ~18,000 people in attendance whose emotions would range from “not that upset” to “over-the-moon ecstatic” if he finds a way to win the strap tonight.
That dichotomy is only half the bout. Lurking ringside will undoubtedly be the Gallows and Machine Gun, fresh off demolishing the Usos in a fashion not often seen since the APA vs. Public Enemy. I think it’s widely expected that some form of “Club” will result from this match – Gallows, Anderson, and AJ Styles? Or, Gallows, Anderson, and Finn Balor? Or, Gallows, Anderson… and Roman Reigns? The “New Era” will almost certainly commence with the dawning of a new super stable.
Prediction: Roman Reigns retains, and Gallows and Gun align with the Roman Empire.
Mr. McMahon’s Decision
Wrestlemania was a month ago, so for now let’s move on from the storyline hole of Shane McMahon running Raw despite losing the stipulated match to the Undertaker. Deal? Deal.
We’ll see Vince McMahon in the ring with Shane and Stephanie McMahon, and the Chairman will decide who’s calling the shots on television going forward. There’s speculation that this may result in a new Brand Split, perhaps with Shane McMahon running Raw and Stephanie running Smackdown. The move could give an additional goose to the New Era, allowing two set touring brands and additional roster space to accommodate the rising stars of NXT. Big Shooter & Co, on the most recent Chad Dukes Wrestling Show, discussed a scenario in which Shane McMahon uses Raw to elevate the “new faces,” while Stephanie rallies the troops pushed aside (e.g. Stardust, Sandow, Swagger, et al) to instigate the WWE’s very own Civil War.
Prediction: Shane gets Raw, Steph gets Smackdown. This time, we’ll forgo the aborted love storyline. Internet fans eventually decide this waters down the product, calls for Brand Rejunction.
Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens
No titles, just ill will. Whenever Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens get together in a combat environment, the world benefits. I like how the WWE has been playing up the long-running feud between these seasoned vets. Much like acknowledging the success of Gallows and Anderson in New Japan, pointing out that Owens and Zayn have a history that precedes their time in NXT shows a willingness to stick a toe outside the WWE sandbox. It’s a good start.
Sami Zayn has had some mixed success since returning to the main roster earlier this year. While he’s had a couple of recent wins involving the disbanding League of Nations, his rivalry with Owens has been a tad one-sided. Owens often seemed to get the upper hand in their exchanges, and leaves Zayn a broken mess more times than not. One of their two NXT matches in early 2015 ended with a ref stoppage; their rematch a month later appeared to be heading in that direction before a debuting Samoa Joe intervened.
Score-settling aside, one could make an argument for both men desperately needing a win. I worry that Sami is another beat down away from permanently joining Neville on the lovable underdog section of the roster, while Owens needs a big win to stay afloat while waiting for his shot at the crown.
Prediction – My head says multiple Pop-Up Power Bombs, but my heart says Zayn squeaks out a win in the Match of the Night. I’ll go with my heart, though it’s probably clogged up all to hell, so who knows.
WWE Women’s Championship: Charlotte (c) vs. Natalya
Twenty-three months ago, at the OG-Triple-OG NXT Takeover, Charlotte defeated Natalya to win the NXT Women’s Championship in a match which also featured Ric Flair and Bret Hart at ringside. The “New Era” for the women’s division continues tonight. Free from the confines of the “Divas Revolution,” two of the WWE’s best women’s wrestlers will hopefully set the bar for the rest of the roster for 2016.
Natalya earned this rematch with a DQ win over Charlotte a few weeks ago on RAW, but lost four other televised one-on-one matches to the champ in 2016 alone. Twice by submission. I would love to see Natalya win one for Tyson Kidd and the cats, but I suspect this feud is merely a bridge for Charlotte to enter a nice summer-long feud with Sasha Banks.
Prediction – Charlotte retains.
WWE Tag Team Championship #1 Contender’s Tournament Final: Enzo & Cass vs. The Vaudevillains
Who doesn’t love a good tournament? Further, how can one not love a tournament that’s hosted by the reigning, defending, most entertaining act in the WWE? There’s nothing the New Day can’t do right now. They’re promoting a fictional breakfast product while resting on their laurels as the other WWE tag teams fight for the privilege to get a rub from their immense popularity.
Enzo & Cass and the Vaudevillains are examples of the unique tag teams from NXT. While they’re just the tip of the iceberg in terms of talent, they take the cake in terms of character. Enzo’s mic work against the Dudleys in April was phenomenal (#lazyeye), and I hope I’m not mistaken when I think that the post-Post-Wrestlemania crowds are warming up to them. The Vaudevillans, in the meantime, are struggling to get a reaction. It’s an act that was over with the friendlies at Full Sale, but the WWE Universe seems a bit baffled by the Artiste and the Gentleman Bruiser.
This has match of the night potential, especially as far as entertainment value goes. The New Day will very likely be doing commentary. Enzo will riff on Gotch and English pre-match. Cass will throw (relatively) smaller men about the ring. Ultimately, I think we can look forward to the Vaudevillains serving as foils to the New Day through the summer.
Prediction: English and Gotch, courtesy of the Whirling Dervish.
Also on the card…
– WWE Intercontinental Championship: The Miz (c) vs. Cesaro – Maryse has really pushed the Miz’s movie star gimmick into overdrive. Thus, I’d look for the Professional to have to chase the strap a bit longer. Prediction: Cesaro picks up a non-pinfall/submission victory.
– Chris Jericho vs. Dean Ambrose – Two guys with no other dance partners for the night will make the best of their situation. Prediction: Y2J picks up another big event W.
– WWE United States Championship: Kalisto (c) vs. Ryabck – Two words: Poor Kalisto. Prediction: The Big Guy picks up his second single’s title, and looks ahead to the return of someone his own size.
– Baron Corbin vs. Dolph Ziggler – Ziggler getting the wood shampoo at every turn might suggest a change of fortunes, but the Lone Wolf is simply on a roll. I don’t see how that can be stopped, nor should it be. Prediction: Baron Corbin with the End of Days