WWE Payback - Not that Kind of Horrible follow @Bigvinvader
This is gonna be a different sort of write-up, and I’m going to take the unpopular opinion and spend most of my space praising Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton’s controversial House of Horrors match. But before all of that, a few notes on Payback as a whole.
The show had a lot of promise going in, despite its clearly transitional nature. The fact that several of the competitors were to immediately be split between brands the following day looked to bring several long-running storylines to satisfying conclusions. Beyond that, all but two of the matches promised to be very solid affairs, and Owens/Jericho, Rollins/Samoa Joe, and Aries/Neville looked to be very good. Only the House of Horrors match and Roman Reigns vs. Braun Strowman held little promise, and both of those actually exceeded my expectations.
In execution, the show delivered on many of its promises, and there were even a number of positive surprises along the way that served to spice things up a bit as well. Overall, Payback was one of the better WWE PPV’s this year, with a number of very good matches, some very stiff and believable ring work, and some very crowd-pleasing conclusions and twists. No match was truly bad (at least in my opinion), and even the midcard and less-anticipated bouts proved worth their time on the show. The finishes left a lot to be desired at times, but I’ll get into that later.
Now on to the meat of this column…
The House of Horrors match raised so, so many questions, and seemed destined to be an enormous failure. The fact that nobody had any clue as to what such a stipulation would entail until the week of the show did it no favors, nor did the ultimate news that the match was to be partially pre-taped. People have soured on the Randy Orton-Bray Wyatt feud, but it’s stayed interesting to me. This is the first time that Randy Orton has actually captured my attention as a wrestling fan, and the story has been building since last fall which is impressive in this day and age. Things took an undeniably ridiculous turn with the desecration of Sister Abigail’s ashes, but that absurdity is part and parcel of wrestling. Hell, I even liked the insect projections at WrestleMania.
But even I was skeptical going into the House of Horrors. I shouldn’t have been, given my love of horror and wrestling, and as the video package unreeled before the match, I realized that there was potential for the HOH to be legitimately creepy, something that would easily hold my interest. In fact, just like a good horror movie, going into this one knowing nothing about the match, save the background storyline, proved to be a huge help. Flat out, I thought that the pre-taped portion of the match was a fun, unique, and somewhat startling exercise in atmosphere. Sure, it was ridiculous, and a little cheesy, but there were some undeniable touches of legitimately disturbing effects, and the flat-out brawling style the two wrestlers adopted perfectly suited the stipulation.
Things got off to a strange, nearly disheartening start, as Orton showed up to Bray’s rural shack in a limo. I was expecting more of a Gothic mansion, not a ramshackle farmhouse (on the outside, at least). Then, in one of a few missteps, a tractor started up and drove itself, unmanned, in front of Randy. This really bugged me the first time I watched the match, since it was so stupid in effect, and the only supernatural element in the match. Second time around, I was more insulted and confused by the fact that the tractor was driving itself backwards. Still not sure why that’s where my feelings stand. Regardless, it was all uphill from there.
Despite the exterior looking like an Ohio farmhouse, the interior of Bray’s house was a bit more contemporary. What we got was a fully-furnished house with some undeniably subtle touches of squalor, which, for the most part, were not the hackneyed attempts at horror movie scenery I expected. Instead there were cobwebs in the corners of rooms, lamps with tilted shades casting queasy yellow light, and couches and chairs covered in white shrouds like they hadn’t been used in months. Of course, there were shots of hooks and sickles and such things, but they really could have been anywhere in the house. The overall impression at this point was of a semi-rural crank house. Somewhere people lived and did hard drugs in semi-squalor while still functioning enough to prevent things from falling into complete disrepair. But there was still the sense that things had gone very poorly, that there was a definite turn to something darker, more sinister and violent. Hence the ensuing brawl.
It gave not only an insight into Bray’s world, but also peeled back the curtain to reveal some vulnerability. What if he isn’t a supernatural cult leader, but a delusional, paranoid, drugged-out freak living in the recesses of middle America and casting his influence over similarly-afflicted individuals? Hell, even take the drugs out of the equation and you still have a compelling, if unlikely, character profile. The attention to detail, and I mean beyond the hokey mutilated dolls, painted symbols and stick effigies, really drove the overall atmospheric effect home. The house itself was well-enough maintained, but certain things were off. The cobwebs in the corners, the drywall ripped away to reveal brick in the hallway, the exposed wires in the walls, the streaks and stains marking the wallpaper in the kitchen and doll room. In the kitchen, there was an outlet stripped of its faceplate, and a sink full of dirty dishes. The fridge was smeared with a greasy, charcoal-like substance, bizarre messages written on its surface. There was dust and grime on the tacky linoleum floor tiles, and the oven had an honest-to-god streak of grease dripping down its door. That was real work put in, and the whole thing added up to a uniquely unsettling atmosphere that has rarely been touched upon in the world of pro wrestling.
The whole thing was so undeniably grimy and real, a visceral recreation of actual squalor and the sorts of conditions that can drive someone to violence, or at least the backdrop that it can play out against. Bray and Randy looked like they were legitimately fighting for their lives, using everything at hand—a lamp, a frying pan, even (ridiculously) the refrigerator—to ensure they made it out alive. In this way, the whole thing touched more closely on the real-world horrors of violence and crime than Bray’s usual supernatural shenanigans. There was no chance that the in-ring portion of the match could hold a candle to this in my mind as soon as the segment was over. It really was nothing but a brawl, almost entirely in Bray’s favor, as the home field advantage would suggest. If you showed this match to anyone unfamiliar with the storyline, and especially anyone who hates wrestling, it would look like two sweaty, heavily-tattooed men desperately beating the hell out of each other in a filthy house.
The audio was the only major mistake, after the tractor, in my opinion, since the whole thing was scored with a soundtrack giving the intimation that this was meant to be scary. It was the sort of cheap horror movie trick that the match itself stepped above. Also, in the doll room (which of course was way too over-the-top to be taken seriously), we got overdone crying and giggling noises from some sound library. Way too cheesy.
There was talk of this being a pale imitation of Delete or Decay, but I was reminded more of the first Boiler Room Brawl between Mankind and the Undertaker at SummerSlam 1996. Mankind was still a legitimately deranged, threatening heel, helping to revitalize the Undertaker’s career. He squeaked and squealed like a pig going to slaughter while he fought, and the match itself made perfect use of the squalid, dark and dusty boiler room as well as every dangerous object it contained. It wasn’t good wrestling, but it was a disturbing brawl that felt like two transients assaulting one another in a battle to the death. It’s still disturbing if you watch it now, removing the storyline and just letting the on-camera action take you away. At its best, this is what the HOH match did for me, and even on rewatch, it still has an undeniable power that could very well appeal to me alone.
So maybe this all has nothing to do with wrestling, or at the least, very little, but it was one of my favorite parts of the show, hands-down. And yes, I do realize that I could very well be the only person on Earth praising this match. I can live with that. It was WrestleCrap, for sure, but of the most entertaining variety, the sort that steps beyond wrestling itself into a bizarre world of its own. Either way, that’s enough over-analysis for today.
The Real World (Of Wrestling)
As I mentioned earlier, nearly every match was above average, and a few were pretty good. None were flat-out great however, and one of the biggest issues, one that’s been far too prevalent as of late, was the finishes in several of the bouts. So, instead of a breakdown of every match’s action, let’s focus on the finishes and see how those played out in terms of overall effectiveness.
First up was Jericho vs. Owens in a very good, very physical blow-off match. Well, it was supposed to be the blow-off. Jericho is touring with his band, Fozzy, starting this week, so it seemed a lock for KO to retain and end their feud. And it looked to be the case, with a repeat of the finger-on-the-ropes spot from WM 34. That is, until Jericho started to target his hand and fingers, crushing them between the ring and steel steps. Owens tapped to the Walls of Jericho when his finger was too weak to catch the rope. This one took me by surprise, even with the last-minute rumors that Jericho would win back the United States title. Regardless of my disappointment, the match was very engaging, and by the crowd’s massive response, having Jericho get one more major win in before his hiatus was the right call. And Owens won back the title on Tuesday night’s SmackDown, settling matters once and for all.
Neville vs. Austin Aries, in a rematch for the CruiserWeight championship had what was likely the most controversial finish of the evening. Their WM 34 match was fantastic but didn’t deserve the pre-show treatment. Given time on the main card, the two proved that they could absolutely deliver and engage the crowd, and in my opinion, Austin Aries was the MVP of the night for his fantastic ring work at Payback. They were given the right amount of time to work, and every move looked crisp and believable, with Aries maintaining the upper hand for most of the match. The problematic finish came with Aries locking in the Last Chancery, and Neville, desperate to retain his title, pulling the ref’s shirt. So it all ended with a very anticlimactic, inconclusive disqualification finish. People were pissed, but I was actually fine with this one, mainly because it should lead to another fantastic rematch, and as good as Aries was, it still isn’t time to strip Neville of the championship.
In terms of solid matches, The Hardys vs. Sheamus & Cesaro was a very good, very stiff tag team match with few surprises. At least regarding the finish. Both teams looked good and had chemistry in the ring, and both S&C’s beat down and the Hardys’ eventual comeback were exciting. During the course of the match, Jeff actually lost a tooth, and Matt was busted open over his eye, which started noticeably swelling. Of course, Matt and Jeff scored the win to huge applause, and the European odd couple shook their hands mid-ring. This was followed by another savage attack on the Hardys, a heel turn for Cesaro that was rumored in the days leading up to the PPV. Hopefully this new ruthless streak works as well for the Swiss performer as Neville’s own heel work has for him. Regardless, one of the better RAW tag title matches in some time.
Alexa Bliss vs. Bayley delivered on its promise of a very solid match, which was given just enough time to stretch out and go somewhere. I had no issue with the finish again, especially since Alexa captured the RAW Women’s Championship, making her the only person to have held both brand’s titles. She deserves the position at the top of the card, and is one of the best heels on either brand at the moment. The unpopular aspect of the finish came with Bayley losing in her hometown of San Jose, much like Sasha Banks losing to Charlotte at Hell in a Cell last year. It was controversial and unpopular, sure, but not unprecedented, and gives Bayley something to motivate her even harder in the coming weeks.
Following the House of Horrors was Seth Rollins vs. Samoa Joe, in what looked to be a fantastic grudge match given the very personal nature of their story. While their match at Payback was indeed solid, it fell short of my expectations, and there was yet another unsatisfactory finish hurting things even further. Both are world-class wrestlers, and Joe looked incredible in the ring as always, moving like someone half his size and age. Rollins managed to get a surprise win by reversing Joe’s Coqina Clutch into a sudden pinfall, which was certainly problematic. Joe is still fresh on the main roster and needs to look like a crushing, dominant heel. He was presented successfully up until this point, and frankly, Rollins’ babyface act is floundering. Joe should have won and destroyed Seth, establishing himself as one of RAW’s top heels. Hopefully this loss settles their issues and each man can move on.
I have very little to say on the finish to the in-ring portion of the House of Horrors match. Randy Orton looked to have it won when the Singh Brothers and Jinder Mahal ran in and beat him down. After a fantastic-looking powerslam from Jinder took Orton out, Bray scored the win. It was good to see that and all, but they really phoned that one in. At least Bray can move on now.
Braun Strowman and Roman Reigns put on a very respectable match that exceeded expectations. Both are relatively limited in-ring, but they do have some chemistry together. Best part of the match was how Roman got thrown around, looking far more like an underdog than the top dog. Braun winning was expected, and the right call, and the post-match assault which left Reigns (falsely) bloodied was a good way to build his eventual triumph. Not bad at all, although the fan reaction after the match really irritated me. Chants of “Thank you, Strowman!” were almost deafening. I’ve made my feelings clear on Reigns plenty of times here, and he sure as hell doesn’t deserve that. From a purely storyline standpoint, the crowd was cheering a man who beat Roman down after destroying him during the match. A man who smashed the already-injured Reigns with the ring steps to the point that he was coughing up blood. Again, that was all merely for the sake of the storyline, but you really get the sense that some of the more malicious basement-dwelling fans wouldn’t mind seeing that for real. It was kind of disturbing, like wondering what would happen when ECW’s bloodshed wouldn’t be enough for crowds.
Then again, this is coming from the guy who praised a wildly unpopular match for capturing the atmosphere of a fight to the death within a lookalike drug den. Wrestling is weird like that.
This was a really good show, very consistent and entertaining, especially from my own particular viewpoint. As I see it, none of the matches were bad, and several exceeded all expectations. Even with WWE continuing to screw up the finishes of major matches, they can’t take away the very compelling first portions of those contests. The talent on the roster is undeniable, and the storylines have been very compelling for the most part. On a whole, Payback was a very solid show, one of the company’s best of the year thus far.
I just want to fit in one more thing here regarding Kevin Owens’ position in the company. Last week there was news that Vince McMahon is fed up with Owens’ physique and wants him to wrestle in a full dress suit. This sounds more than a bit absurd, and looked to (hopefully) be false as Owens came out in his usual ring attire, albeit with longer gym shorts. Ditto for SmackDown the following Tuesday. Regardless, Vince’s prejudice towards the out-of-shape is well-documented, and I wouldn’t doubt that the rumored sentiments are true. I realize that wrestling is a very different world than any other, but this would certainly constitute harassment, if not discrimination in any other profession. Not to mention that Kevin Owens is an incredible all-around performer who can do more incredible things in the ring than Vince McMahon ever could in his days wrestling. Which, of course, came in his fifties. So that’s just one thing that got on my nerves this week.
Big Vin Vader covers wrestling for Pencilstorm. follow @bigvinvader