After a decidedly lacklustre follow-up to WrestleMania 31 with last month’s Extreme Rules – which saw evaded stipulations in the Dolph Ziggler vs. Sheamus and John Cena vs. Rusev matches; a street fight between Dean Ambrose and Luke Harper that was entertaining in patches, but petered out after the duo returned from an extended car trip; a sluggish main event hampered by excessive outside interference; with only an excellent tag team title bout and a tumultuous battle between Roman Reigns and Big Show surpassing expectations – WWE put on a solid showing at Payback in Baltimore on Sunday night.
The two matches on the pre-show were throwaways at best. R-Truth defeated Stardust amid a half-hearted feud stemming from their participation in this year’s King of the Ring tournament, which only suggests that – just a few months after his acrimonious split from his brother and tag partner Goldust, and their exceedingly short-lived issue – WWE has even less in mind for Stardust than for a meandering R-Truth. A reversion to Cody Rhodes may be on the agenda. And in an apparently similar vein, Damien Sandow – who received one of WrestleMania 31’s biggest audience responses, turning on The Miz to wild cheers during the André the Giant Memorial Battle Royal – found himself reduced to posturing as the ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage alongside Curtis Axel’s Hulk Hogan, in a match which these minor powers lost to the dead-in-the-water team of The Ascension. The Ascension have been portrayed since their promotion from NXT as enfeebled Road-Warrior-cum-Ministry-of-Darkness rip-offs, and they have hardly managed to overcome this presentation by virtue of their slow-paced in-ring work.
Whatever, the first three matches on the card proper were strong, with the tag team title match once again arguably stealing the show. It has been hard to watch Dolph Ziggler lately without some sense of regret, because his career in WWE has been on a downward curve since the high of last November’s Survivor Series: all to do with inadequate booking, rather than Ziggler’s stellar performance levels and the degree of fan acclaim he continues to receive. Ziggler would benefit from a little more offense in general across his matches. Despite snatching the victory over Sheamus at Extreme Rules, the stipulation of the match was thoroughly abused as Sheamus was allowed to make Ziggler kiss his ‘arse’ without recourse: the commentators’ pronunciations of the word ‘arse’, all with excessive emphasis on the unfamiliar ‘r’, only adding to the frustration.
This feud has seemed intent on re-establishing Sheamus as a significant heel, more than serving as any sort of push for Ziggler. But for whatever reason – and it is not easy to explain, because he has an idiosyncratic look with his pale skin, ginger hair, and obnoxiously braided beard; his style in the ring is intensely physical, so that he appears eminently capable of delivering a vicious beating; he has a decent set of signature moves; and he is competent on the microphone; so perhaps it is nothing more than over-familiarity with the character – Sheamus struggles to become much more than a nondescript villain. Despite these concerns, it is unfair to take too much from Ziggler and Sheamus’s match on Sunday night, which was an engaging back-and-forth contest, surprisingly emphasised as Ziggler bled heavily from the forehead, with some well-executed near falls before Sheamus took the victory with a Brogue Kick.
The two out of three falls match for the WWE Tag Team Championships was fantastic. Tyson Kidd and Cesaro and The New Day offer two really exciting groupings: with all six participants, Natalya included, capable of excellent work in the ring, they are also good examples of teams and characters developing organically, as the effective marginalisation of all those involved – with Cesaro thrown into the tag scene after a stalled push following last year’s WrestleMania; and The New Day tossed together solely on the basis of their having nothing better to do and sharing a race – has allowed them the unfettered freedom to begin expressing themselves. Even Cesaro’s rare failure to lift Big E prior to the conclusion of the match didn’t matter: the sort of anodyne perfection which WWE often strives for is counter-productive, as the fans engage positively with flaws whenever a story is sufficiently well told. The finish to the match added another element to what should prove an ongoing feud, with Xavier Woods blindsiding both Cesaro and the referee to surreptitiously take the pinfall for his teammates.
Bray Wyatt and Ryback also put in a sound, hardworking performance, with some tough action outside the ring – most notably a senton splash from Wyatt from the ring apron onto the floor, which initially appeared to have injured Ryback’s ribs – and a considered finish as Wyatt hit his Sister Abigail after manoeuvring Ryack into an exposed turnbuckle. But moving on from this match, what may well prove the final act in the feud between John Cena and Rusev reminded of last year’s extended engagement between Cena and Wyatt. There too, after a promising beginning which focused on the coming together of different psychologies within the ring, the angle was overtaken by convoluted storytelling and an abundance of gimmicks: in Wyatt’s case involving a children’s choir, and steel cage and last man standing matches; in Rusev’s by the untimely breakdown in his relationship with Lana, and Payback’s ‘I Quit’ match following the Russian chain match at Extreme Rules.
Just as detrimentally, both feuds culminated with John Cena the decisive victor. In Rusev’s case, his loss on Sunday means that he comes away having suffered a 3-1 reverse, managing to take only the opening match in the series. It is already clear that shifting Cena from the immediate confines of the main event, and lavishing him with a revitalised United States Championship, will be insufficient if his stale character is to be made meaningful once again. After so long at the top of WWE, repeating the same babyface routine – jocular on the microphone, never-say-die and ultimately triumphant in the ring – at a different spot on the card is hardly enough. While Cena continues to receive momentary bursts of appreciation whenever his music hits, this owes more to his good works beyond wrestling, and to the legacy of his character – a legacy which now plays up the fun of his competing response, revelling in the fact that in the same moment a crowd can cheer ‘Let’s go Cena!’ and jeer ‘Cena sucks!’ – than to any consistent audience engagement with his matches. His reputation as a consistent prime-time performer within the squared circle ought to have taken a hit after three below-par bouts with Rusev. Questionable too is the extent of his willingness to put over emerging talent: while happy to do the job for the likes of The Rock and Brock Lesnar, Wyatt and Rusev have not been enhanced by their prolonged interactions with Cena.
Rusev for his part will now have to effectively start over, and build heat without Lana at his side. Whatever the course of Lana’s character from here on, from the perspective of a company desperately short of major heels, it made eminent sense to have Lana stick by her man. Her popularity with WWE’s male-dominated audience hardly needs to be explained; but she was capable as a heel manager, and she and Rusev would have been elevated had she, rather than embracing the fans, toyed with them only to redouble her efforts at the side of the Bulgaro-Russian.
Perhaps an impartial review of Cena vs. Rusev at Payback, in a match for the United States Championship, would herald a decent effort from both men. It was arguably their best encounter since Fastlane in February. However the match was marred throughout by the deep-throated referee Mike Chioda, who was required all too often to ask one of the two competitors ‘Do you quit?’. The audio was aggravating, and it prevented the match achieving any sort of flow. Then the ending was palpably absurd: with Cena passed out in The Accolade, the commentators emphasised again and again that the match could only end upon one man uttering the words ‘I quit’; only for Rusev to lose upon the word of Lana, who stated she was translating on Rusev’s behalf. There is famous precedent in WWE for a loss of consciousness to bring an end to a match which ostensibly requires the submission of one of the competitors; the match on Sunday was not explicitly designed to allow for intervention from the corner of either man; and most ridiculous of all, Rusev – who speaks the language fluently and had done so prior to the onset of the match – apparently forgot all of his English and could only mutter the damning words in his native tongue.
A brief women’s tag match between The Bella Twins and Naomi and Tamina ended with Naomi securing the pinfall for her team, as the Bellas transition back into fully-fledged faces. Then Wade Barrett and the man shorn of a forename, Neville, continued their sequence of matches: but this contest was poorer and with less at stake than on recent occasions across RAW and at King of the Ring. Barrett was willingly counted out, and sought to attack Neville after the match, only for Neville to turn the tables and land his impressive Red Arrow.
Payback’s main event proved a resounding success. In a Fatal 4-Way with Seth Rollins’ WWE World Heavyweight Championship on the line – and Rollins not obliged to be involved in the decision – all four competitors excelled. Kane was again at ringside, with his job as Authority Director of Operations at stake were Rollins to fail in retaining his title; but where the cage match between Rollins and Randy Orton at Extreme Rules was spoiled by the excessive antics of J&J Security, with the audience withholding their interest and awaiting the expected interaction between Rollins and Kane, this time Kane served a more functional purpose, taking bumps, interfering with one challenger only to allow the others some alone time in the ring, and generally aiding the flow of the match.
The high point of the main event was undoubtedly the brief reunion of The Shield. Rollins, Dean Ambrose, and Roman Reigns teamed up once again in a concerted effort to take out Randy Orton, powerbombing him through one of the announce tables. Rollins cackled with glee, but Ambrose and Reigns were not apt to forget his recent misdeeds, and now they double-teamed first Rollins and then Kane, powerbombing Kane – at the second time of asking – through Rollins and the second announce table. The rebuild of Reigns continues apace, following his success over Big Show at Extreme Rules: a stupendous match which could have ended effectively as a double countout, but which in the end worked better with Reigns taking the clear-cut victory. The WWE audience are willing to slowly embrace Reigns again after a string of wholehearted performances. It was beneficial to see Reigns here smiling and relaxed alongside Ambrose: a show of personality, and allowing the fans to recall fondly the quality of his earlier work.
After Ambrose and Reigns, as the two men left standing, squared off in the ring, Rollins reentered in time to save his title – but had to be saved in turn by Kane, who dealt decisively with Rollins’ two former Shield allies. Orton managed to briefly shine, hitting a draping DDT and a couple of RKOs. But then he faltered upon Kane’s interference, and finally succumbed to Rollins, who covered to retain the World Heavyweight Championship after a Pedigree: seemingly his finishing move with the Curb Stomp forced out of action, and fittingly taken from his mentor Triple H.
The key with Rollins is that he has to be more than a cowardly heel. He must retain his natural edge, both as a personality and as a wrestler within the ring. It is crucial to tread that line: Rollins enjoying a degree of luck and favouritism, showing a strong instinct for self preservation which makes him inclined to shy away from the fight, but when things come to a crunch retaining his self belief and capable of a considerable viciousness. If Rollins is presented in this way, he will be allowed to fulfill his potential, and he can reign as a heel champion for the next year. J&J Security have served their purpose, and the Pedigree too should prove only a temporary recourse as Rollins forges his own strong identity.
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The RAW following Payback brought several intriguing developments. Rusev berated Lana in the ring and apparently concluded their split; and later in the show, Lana appeared to forge a fledgling relationship with Dolph Ziggler, kissing him twice in front of her irate former lover. With the WWE Intercontinental Championship, vacated last week by an injured Daniel Bryan, up for grabs at Elimination Chamber – which takes place on 31 May – and both Rusev and Ziggler involved, it is still possible that there will be a swerve, and that Lana and Rusev will realign. This would be barely sensible, given how their quarreling has resulted in Rusev’s failure to secure the equally prestigious, and presumably more personally desirable, United States Championship. On the other hand Lana could be using Ziggler to get back at Rusev; or her interest in the superstar, ever popular among the ladies, could be genuine. Certainly an extended partnership with Lana would be a boon for Ziggler.
Ahead of his title defence tonight versus Sami Zayn at NXT TakeOver, NXT Champion Kevin Owens emerged on RAW to offer an answer of sorts to John Cena’s routine open challenge. Refusing to fight Cena until a time of his choosing, Owens concluded the segment by surprising the United States Champion with a low kick and powerbomb. Triple H subsequently set a match between the two men for Elimination Chamber; and it is hard to see how the angle will be meaningfully concluded without Owens on top and making a bold step up to the main roster.
In the world title picture, Seth Rollins and Kane settled their differences for the time being, and the Authority turned its collective attention to the irrepressible Dean Ambrose. Ambrose ended RAW face down on the canvas, routed by the Authority and suffering the indignity of a Pedigree courtesy of Rollins; but he did enough to provoke a singles world title shot at Elimination Chamber. With that match, Cena vs. Owens, the Elimination Chamber match for the Intercontinental Championship, and a first-of-its-kind Elimination Chamber tag match for the Tag Team Championships, the card for the Network-only event is already enticing.