Monday, May 1, 2017

YOU DESERVE IT *clap clap clapclapclap*: WWE Payback Review

STOP IT HE'S ALREADY D... oh, you actually want him to get mashed into paste, I get it
Photo Credit:
Lord help me, I'm back on my bullshit again. TH style. Let's do this.

  • Chris Jericho recaptured the United States Championship by tapping out Kevin Owens with the Walls of Jericho
  • Austin Aries defeated Neville by disqualification when Neville throttled the referee while in the Last Chancery. Aries did not win the Cruiserweight Championship.
  • The Hardy Boys retained the RAW Tag Team Championships over Cesaro and Sheamus when Jeff Swanton-bombed Sheamus while Sheamus was pinning the non-legal Matt.
  • After the match, Cesaro and Sheamus blindsided the Hardys.
  • Alexa Bliss defeated Bayley to win the RAW Women's Championship with a DDT.
  • Seth Rollins pinned Samoa Joe while locked in the Coqina Clutch.
  • Bray Wyatt defeated Randy Orton in the House of Horrors match thanks to direct interference from Jinder Mahal and the Singh Brothers.
  • Braun Strowman pinned Roman Reigns after two running powerslams in the main event. After the match, Strowman continued his assault on his fallen foe.

General Observations:
  • Fatherhood required that I miss out on the pre-show, so I didn't see Miz TV or the 29,308,430th match between The Club and Enzo Amore and Big Cass. Sorry (not sorry).
  • Thought I had during the intro, I was really hoping that Roman Reigns showed up in a neckbrace, a la Bobby Heenan.
  • Another thought I had during the intro, man, the "retribution" theme was really on point for an event called Payback this year. It's almost as if Vince McMahon and his crack writing team actually had a simultaneous moment of clarity. My guess is they all took DMT right after Mania and went on a spirit quest.
  • Whether you're a fan of Chris Jericho's run this time or not, you can't say he doesn't have a sense of humor. Having his light-up scarf look like a fancier version of the replacement jacket Dean Ambrose gifted him on RAW last week was a classic nod.
  • Kevin Owens' Tron made him look ominous as the "Face of America." I would love to believe it's some kind of jab at Donald Trump, but any hope for political activism in a company run by a proud Trump supporter whose wife is one of his cabinet members is purely coincidental.
  • "[Jericho]'s put Canada on the map." What, does Booker T have some kind of heat with Bret Hart that is unknown to the public at-large?
  • When Jericho bumped hard on the ringpost near the end of the match, I audibly gasped because the only other septuagenarian who'd take that bump is Terry Funk... what, Jericho's not even 50 yet? Well blow me down.
  • Jericho's next feud will be with a jealous Danny Rand. Y2J destroyed The Hand pretty good... hey wait, where are you going, I'm just getting started.
  • I still don't know what Owens' brand status is after the match last night. I was under the impression that he would go back to RAW if he lost, but apparently, Jericho's status was the only thing up in the air. I guess tonight's episode will clear that up?
  • All I have in my notes for the start of the second match is "Shut up, Booker." It's the second of such notes I've written but not the last. Seriously, who thought bringing him back as even a temporary replacement was a good idea?
  • On the other side of the coin, Corey Graves saved what was a vanilla opening to the Cruiserweight Championship match between Neville and Austin Aries by noting his history with the current Champ and saying he begged him to let loose the dark side he's embraced now. It's one of the many differences that make Graves better than not only the dregs like Booker and JBL, but the passable options like Nigel McGuinness and Byron Saxton at color commentary.
  • All of Aries' big comebacks and even some of his bumps looked like he was clearing them by the skin of his teeth, which is actually endearing when he's working as the underdog. The gap between his persona and the way he works is as big as the Pacific Ocean, and he's not nearly as valuable as a prick heel character for him to abandon working such a pure babyface style in the ring.
  • Neville's push has gotten to the point where he kinda has to do the demonstrative crowd-taunting he did before Aries' big comeback. Running roughshod over everyone else would be putting it lightly, wouldn't it.
  • I've had my criticisms of how the cruiserweights wrestle and how that division shouldn't be indie faves and smaller dudes doing Cena/Punk tribute matches in main events, but god bless 'em, Aries and Neville got the crowd behind them. Maybe I'm the one who's wrong? Nah.
  • The finish, with Neville grabbing the ref and tossing him while locked in the Last Chancery, might have been a bit easier to swallow had it been within two weeks of Mania on 205 Live to set up this match. It's not that I hate the idea of prolonged feuds in WWE, but I'm wondering what new ground these two can cover in a third PPV/Network special match. Even a "Champ can lose his title on DQ/countout" feels a bit superfluous at this point.
  • Cesaro and Sheamus took turns doing the Scott Hall "arced point to your partner" pose before the Hardy Boys came out, and it gave me beautiful dreams of a Hoss World Order featuring them as the Outsiders, Braun Strowman as Hulk Hogan, and Michael Elgin terrorizing 205 Live.
  • I really dig seeing pin combos like the inside cradle and schoolboy used in non-flash scenarios, so Matt Hardy deliberately using the inside cradle early on in the match filled me with joy.
  • Of course, Cesaro had to win my love back right after, sliding to his knees and European uppercutting Matt on one of those telegraphed back body drop spots. To me, that was an even more impressive spot than when he got MAD air later on on the leg drop because the latter, you expect that from him. When Cesaro proves he still has surprises to show you, that's the impressive thing.
  • I seriously thought that Graves was doing a classic WWE oversell talking about Jeff Hardy losing a tooth on that Sheamus kick, but then I saw a gap where a tooth had once been, and well, it just goes to show no one is immune from being unable to completely pull a punch (or a kick in this case).
  • Of course, Graves and Michael Cole ran with the missing tooth angle, because they're good announcers. When it was Booker's turn to chime in, he totally ignored the vibe set by the other two and went into some overheated, rehearsed sports-world cliche. Christ, I can't wait for... wait, who's he replacing? DAVID OTUNGA? Fuck.
  • Sometimes, it takes a slow-motion replay to appreciate the sheer beauty made flesh that is Cesaro doing the springboard corkscrew European uppercut. Thank God the production truck decided that was important at this show, because, spoiler alert, it's important every time Cesaro does it.
  • Graves, while Cesaro was swinging Matt: "He's gonna think he's in a different universe after this." Foreshadowing, Graves has it.
  • Cesaro and Sheamus as best friends bonding over their size and ability to clubber people was a great feelgood angle for awhile, but face it, their true calling has always been as the RAW tag team division bullies. It feels like that beatdown on the Hardys was supposed to be The Revival's spot had Dash Wilder not had his jaw wired shut, but they'll GO HARD ALL DAY ALL NIGHT for a long time in the future and in parallel with my Large Adult European Sons. This turn is the one the world has needed for awhile now.
  • Graves and Cole remarking about how no one was having more fun than the Hindi announce team was cute and all, but I just kept wishing if we could get those guys to sub in for Booker T on the English feed, even if they just kept speaking Hindi.
  • The RAW Women's Championship match between Bayley and Alexa Bliss opened with Bliss going to the ropes and then chiding Bayley for pursuing her, which was just peak brat. God, when her ring work catches up with her character chops, Bliss is gonna be the GOAT.
  • Graves either indirectly addressed why WWE has people lose in their hometown most of the time, or he did so as a response to that criticism. Either way, it's great to put a narrative spin on what appears to be one of McMahon's biggest neuroses.
  • Meanwhile, Bliss' ring gear seemed to be patterned after the Iron Man armor suit. It's not the first time Bliss has co-opted a comic character for aesthetic, but Bayley has also famously donned those colors and patterns, most notably for the Iron Woman match vs. Sasha Banks at NXT Takeover: Respect. I wonder if it was just a coincidence or if it was a subtle way of reinforcing the feud.
  • Bliss just came out of nowhere with This Elbow Murks Nazis, and I realized that while Nikki Bella was inactive, the Misawa Aura has to inhabit some member of the WWE women's roster.
  • Of all the people who've tried to do a Macho Man tribute elbow, Bayley revealed her's was the best approximation last night, even better than Shawn Michaels'. I will take no responses at this time to that statement.
  • Bayley getting set off by Bliss slapping her in the face was kind of a new wrinkle, or at least one that hasn't been shown outside of teases in NXT. It suits her childlike character well without dampening her natural innocence, or at least what is left of it after the wringer RAW's creative staff has put her through.
  • Bliss won with a DDT. Somewhere at the Broken Skull Ranch, a bald man in a goatee took a swig of beer with a tear in his eye at the beauty he had just beheld.
  • All the goodwill from the match dissipated in the aether when Cole breathlessly proclaimed that Bliss made history by being the first woman to hold both the RAW and Smackdown Women's Championships. Keep manufacturing hollow history, goons.
  • Of course Randy Orton showed up to the House of Horrors with pants on. Of course.
  • The moment the Ghost Tractor started running, I pretty much considered what I was about to watch was a Hydrox version of The Final Deletion.
  • That being said, the match had some pretty gnarly moments in it, so at least the people laying it out at least tried to put a different skin on it. Orton going through drywall and getting a fridge tossed him were a nice change from the Christian feud in 2011, where he maybe took one bump total during the whole series of matches.
  • For the record, that house is for sale. Only $211 a month for a 30 year mortgage? Who cares if it makes the cabin from Evil Dead look like Burns Manor? That's a steal!
  • Of course, taking a break right in the middle of a match that a restless crowd had to strain to watch on the Tron had to bode well for the interstitial match, right? Right? Bueller?
  • Seth Rollins worked really loose in this match, which was a shame because he was really bringing it while working underneath and keeping the pace. Having strikes that look like they won't hurt a daisy brings down match quality.
  • Rollins leaping from the top right into the arms of Samoa Joe was one of the worst examples of the "Flying Nothing into an Obvious Counter" I've seen in recent memory.
  • Honestly, the Rollins/Joe match wasn't that bad, but it was the weakest on a strong card and damaged by being in between two halves of House of Horrors. Speaking of which...
  • I have footage of how Orton got back to the arena.
  • God, the arena portion of House of Horrors was so fucking boring until the Singhs and Jinder Mahal showed up. Like dreadfully life-shortening in the way most uninspired Randy Orton main events have been since the dawn of his career.
  • I still can't believe the Michaels-I Love God movie stars Brett Dalton, best known as Grant Ward from the severely slept-upon Agents of SHIELD. I really hope the end is a swerve and it shows how Michaels is and has always been a member of HYDRA.
  • I would be happy if the "Star-Spangled Banner" were replaced as the National Anthem with a video recap of Braun Strowman destroying Reigns in the ambulance. Wouldn't you?
  • Reigns did not show up in a neckbrace, but his shoulder and arm were all bandaged up, so my fetish for wrestlers working in various medical accouterments was sated.
  • I know I've been hard on Booker this review, but that dude fucking deserves it. Him describing the action in the ring between Reigns and Strowman managed to be accurate and still miss the whole oeuvre of the story. Christ, the only announcers in history worse than him are JBL and Mark Madden.
  • The best visual in this match saw Strowman kick out of Reigns covering him by laying on him back-down and causing him to land right in standing position. Of all the ways to convey Strowman's indestructibility in kicking out, that was one of the most creative. Creativity and surprise seemed to be a trend on this show.
  • Strowman's counter to the first Superman punch, just sticking his big honkin' foot up there for Reigns to run into, was just so cool to watch as it happened.
  • Reigns kicking out so feebly on the first powerslam was surprising but it worked with him eating the second powerslam and losing. Say what you want about him, but he has held up his end on this feud so far.
  • I literally gasped when the crowd started chanting "YOU DESERVE IT" to Reigns getting his ass kicked after the match. Nothing has encapsulated the relationship between the mouthy fans at WWE live events and the people McMahon decides to push to the top of the show than Reigns' arc between WrestleMania and last night. Nothing.

Photo Credit:
Match of the Night: Kevin Owens (c) vs. Chris Jericho, WWE United States Championship Match - I had to do a bit of sleeping on this choice, because the show had several solid-to-great matches. The Tag Team and Women's Championship matches and the main event all could have been here, but Owens vs. Jericho did it for me for the second pay-per-view in a row, which is impressive given that Jericho hadn't had a good match before Mania since Beast in the East. Maybe all that was missing was a visceral feud with a dude who could get really violent without (for the most part) needing to rely on complicated spots. Even then, the one really advanced spot they tried, the Owens neckbreaker on his knee that Jericho slightly mistimed, was forgivable thanks to the other stuff they succeeded at. Owens does have the reputation of being a MOVEZ guy, but he's always been at his best clubbing people he hates with varying levels of finesse. Of course, the Mania match was a near perfect expression of hatred bubbling over the cauldron into personification, so it would've been easy for them to backslide into doing the same match at Payback with the different result.

But they were able to build on the Mania match and progress the story even further. Owens was again channeling his inner Kevin Steen in regards to his violence levels, especially in the early stages of the match. The early onslaught, culminating with the big cannonball against the barricade, felt ROH/El Generico feud-levels of brutal, and even his stock chinlocks had an extra air of malicious intent behind them. It helped a great deal that Jericho found his ideal oeuvre as "stubborn but likable dad" as a babyface underdog. I won't say he wrestled the cleanest match, but his determination shone through at all the right spots to make the match good until the very end when they kicked it into overdrive.

But that finishing segment was just beautiful. Had it followed up Owens weaseling his way to winning like most expected after reprising his Mania "finger on the rope" spot (which in itself was a callback, MULTIPLE LEVELS OF CALLING BACK HERE), this match might not have resonated as much. But Jericho going apeshit and destroying the hand en route to a cathartic (if only temporary, tune in on Tuesday nights to find out when and to whom he's losing the title!) victory was perhaps the best bit of psychology to appear in a WWE match in ages. I'm so used to seeing wrestlers, whether WWE or in prestige indies, work over a body part out of some obligation to an old-school agent or what some smark on DVDVR thinks is good wrestling and then either abandoning it or not having it directly figure into the match finish that when it is pinpointed into the end of the match, it's refreshing. But it wasn't just working over a part for working it over's sake. Jericho saw the finger used against him again, the same finger he lovingly had painted for his then-friend, and he snapped. The damaged hand wouldn't let Owens do his signature moves or reach for the ropes the second time. Like, that is textbook wrestling storytelling, but it was layered in such a way to maximize the emotional payoff at the end. I can forgive a few missteps from Jericho or overambition from Owens if they can shoot an arrow right into my heart like that.

Overall Thoughts: WWE has such a great track record of producing post-Mania shows of high quality that no one should be surprised that Payback was as good as it was. However, the show was not only a tremendous spectacle of pro wrestling, both as visceral theater and grand spectacle, but it was a rare WWE show that was completely on-brand. Payback wasn't just an aggressive sounding name to slap onto a marquee, driven by corporate interests to drive up excitement. Well, it was, because the name predated any build for this particular show of the same name. However, the show's zeitgeist either promised one wrestler to get payback over another or it set up further revenge scenarios in the future. Of course, the most ominous retribution set-up was for Roman Reigns to slay the beast Braun Strowman.

Pro wrestling is built on delayed gratification for the benefit of selling more tickets, but some promoters don't know where to place said gratification. Few have mastered the art of temporary catharsis. If anyone thought that Strowman annihilating Reigns in the ring last night was the end of things, they have another thing coming. The Reigns revenge is coming, and it will come with a chorus of boos that make peak "CENA SUCKS" chants sound like whispers in the hall. Again, whether or not the mouthy anti-Reigns contingent likes it or not, RAW is going to be a passion play for Reigns as long as he keeps getting reactions and moving shirts. Whether or not the process will be artistically relevant is my concern, but a lot of those fears were allayed last night. Reigns is at his best in two distinct scenarios. One is when he's allowed to be the cocksure prick condescending to someone beneath him, like with the AJ Styles feud last year. Two is the rarer but sweeter version where he plays the vulnerable underdog against someone far more physically imposing than he is. It's what made the main event to WrestleMania 31 so great, and it's why he and Strowman have such great chemistry.

But as an interstitial act in a greater story, last night's main event scratched an itch to satisfaction. It demonstrated three immeasurable truths. One, Braun Strowman is more leviathan than human, and that Brock Lesnar should not be able to toss him around with the ease that he has Randy Orton, John Cena, CM Punk, or any other non-mega-powered WWE wrestler he's faced since his return to form. Two, Roman Reigns is the Prince Who Was Promised, who still laid several direct hits on Strowman and was able to drum up enough hope for those who believe in him despite walking into battle with one functional arm. Three, the money match for Reigns at SummerSlam isn't Lesnar, but Strowman. So much of WWE's tunnel-visioned direction dictates that part-time wrestlers and superhuman legends are a must for a healthy narrative, but at the risk of speaking for people whom I know not, wrestling crowds just want to be told epic tales. Who the subjects are for these matter not. Whatever direction WWE decides to traverse from here until SummerSlam will not take away the shine of the main event.

The rest of the show was mostly full of hits from top to bottom with minor hiccups. The opening match, obviously, was wrestling comfort food. I could have done without the fuck finish in the Cruiserweight Championship match, not necessarily because I disagree with them on modern WWE pay-per-view events, but because for fuck's sake, does the world need a Neville/Austin Aries match that extends for a third pay-per-view? They got the match hot, and honestly, it was time for this feud to end, either with Neville escaping again to be felled by Gran Metallik or even Jack Gallagher at Extreme Rules or for Aries to take his spot as the grand conqueror. I mean, people like to fetishize Aries as a prick heel in character, but his work in the ring as a gutty everyman is up there on a tier below Sami Zayn and Bayley.

Speaking of Bayley, I hear rumblings of people getting dissatisfied with her work because she has more hiccups than anyone in the main narrative than maybe Charlotte, but what she has that Charlotte lacks is emotional continuity. She may not hit spots the most cleanly, but she'll glue them together as best she can. Alexa Bliss is the perfect foil for her because she's almost Bayley's mirror opposite. For as innocent and wholesome as Bayley can be at her best, Bliss is bratty and self-absorbed at hers, and it makes for a spectacle regardless of match quality. But Bayley's ability to work underneath Bliss' aggressive heeling forgives a lot of misgivings.

Another thing that absolves stupid ideas is outright kitsch. The House of Horrors match may have been poorly ideated and a cheap way of imitating the Final Deletion (even if the outside shot that Matt Hardy had input on it exists), but at least the off-arena portion of it was just so off-the-wall, bordering on self-parody that it could be admired on an ironic level. And ironic enjoyment is far better than no enjoyment at all. The match probably should have ended at the house, even if it robbed the audience of the Jinder Mahal interference that advanced his feud with Orton. Other than that run-in, the stuff that happened at the arena after Orton warp-piped his way behind Bray Wyatt was utterly boring.

The Samoa Joe/Seth Rollins match wasn't so much boring as much as it showed off how bad Rollins' offense was in that setting at least. I'm willing to chalk it up to a one-match bad performance, especially since he did so many other things well in terms of bumping and putting spots together. But man, the world already lived through a great in-ring martyr with no real impact offense in Dolph Ziggler, and Rollins' ceiling should be so much higher than that. It's conceivable that he has jitters from having so many of his other moves connecting with a little too much reality in the past and he's trying to work a little less snug. I'll be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in working through his shit, because as much as I've slagged him in the past, I really think he has a ceiling as Best Possible Jeff Hardy, which is really fuckin' high.

But the real Jeff Hardy was in the most notable match of the night for reasons that may have nothing to do with him. The Hardy Boys retained their Tag Championships over Cesaro and Sheamus (whom I have dubbed HOSS International, please update your spreadsheets accordingly), but not without catching them hands from the big lads afterwards. I mean, the match itself was tremendous, but with three all-time great workers in it and a Matt Hardy who can be really good when he wants to, it would've been an upset had it been anything less than replacement level. But the fact that the post-match beatdown got Cesaro booed by a post-YES! Movement WWE crowd is a small miracle. Then again, if anyone has more cultural cache with the smart-ass wrestling kids right now than Mr. Observer Most Underrated, it's gotta be Broken Matt, right?

Still, getting a WWE PPV crowd to boo the cultiest of cult favorites in Cesaro is just another remarkable thing to happen on an extraordinarily remarkable Titan event. If you haven't watched Payback yet, it's worth the free month on WWE Network,  post-live viewing, or pirating a stream of it. WWE's post-Mania event track record remains on a high level.