Daniel Bryan’s appearance last week on Monday Night Raw is the perfect encapsulation of what we get every year following Wrestlemania: what should be excellent shows and amazing feuds translating into more great pay per views never works out and we’re left looking at what could’ve been as we have to settle for less.
It was admittedly emotional watching Bryan have to vacate his Intercontinental Championship while talking about recovering from yet another injury that will sideline him for months and possibly permanently.
We saw him get one of the all time great Wrestlemania moments… and then have to feud with Kane again before getting injured. Meanwhile, The Shield and Evolution stole the show every night and Bryan was left behind. We never got the “Summer of Bryan” like we all hoped for, much like CM Punk’s amazing run as WWE Champion as he turned heel and somehow kept putting on amazing matches show after show as the best champion the company has had in the past decade.
We were hoping for something similar as Bryan won the IC title at Wrestlemania. With the card so stacked with talent thanks to the unprecedented success of NXT call-ups, Bryan was set for one heck of a run as part of an incredibly strong triumvirate of individual champs:
US Champ – John Cena
IC Champ – Daniel Bryan
WWE Champ – Seth Rollins
Instead, the IC title is now open and there’s no direction for it to go. It took Bryan a little longer than most prognosticators thought when he previously missed time due to injury. It’s highly unlikely that Bryan will be back for the Money in the Bank pay per view, but he might make it back for SummerSlam. IF he comes back. Because while the WWE may be loaded with talent, the new matching up against the old, and solid matches across the card on every show, the company still needs direction and a tone needs to be set by the guys who hold the titles and defend their honor every night.
The WWE universe misses Daniel Bryan. And if he never comes back, a new leader much emerge or the waste will look clearer and clearer every week.
In the great tradition begun by our legendary WWE writer Brandon Troy, our Payback preview goes from the matches we barely care about to the ones we’re most excited about. So let’s take a look and see if Payback can put the WWE on the rebound.
Naomi & Tamina vs. The Bella Twins
Sure Wrestlemania marked the end of AJ Lee’s time with the company, but the Divas division still seemed to be in good hands with the Bella Twins looking better than ever, Paige turning face and getting some new energy, and Naomi on the verge of a big move herself. But quite frankly, Naomi’s heel turn has done nothing but bring the division down and even the re-emergence of Tamina Snuka hasn’t pumped up her profile any.
She’s basically trying to do what AJ did in that she turned heel and then brought on a bodyguard. But AJ had charisma, mic skills, and an amazing repertoire of moves that made every appearance must-watch to the WWE universe. Naomi has none of that. She’s much better at playing the victim and hard-worker than the villain. The Bellas’ sudden face turn also means that Paige is suddenly going to be on the same side as the twin nemeses she faced at Wrestlemania. Her return could not come quick enough. Since Naomi’s turn, the Divas Division has become the wasteland that everyone yawns at. Nothing more than a chance to get some food or go to the bathroom.
Prediction: Naomi & Tamina win, which leads to… who cares. The Divas division has sunk to a new low lately. I’ll probably use this time to reminisce with my friend Jordan who’s moving to San Francisco shortly after we watch this PPV together.
United States Championship Match
“I Quit” Match
John Cena (c) vs. Rusev
Let’s get one thing straight: John Cena doesn’t owe a loss to Rusev. Maybe in the past it was a great idea for Cena to put someone over by taking a major loss at a major PPV. But as I’ve said since very early on about Rusev, his gimmick is worn out. I didn’t say “character,” I said gimmick. Because Rusev has no character. He’s a one-trick pony. The only thing that’s changed about Rusev is his opponents. Otherwise, he’s the same guy. Nothing interesting ever happens to him.
Case and point: The only new thing that’s happened with his character since he premiered on the WWE main roster over a year ago is that now he’s in a semi-feud with Lana. She grabs too much attention, sometimes loses focus on the match, and he banishes her backstage.
That’s why I’m shocked that in some of the professional wrestling publications I read, I keep seeing the same thing: “Why Cena Must Lose to Rusev at Fastlane/Wrestlemania/Extreme Rules/Payback.” They all argue that he needs to lose to put Rusev over.
Over to what? He hasn’t done anything to prove that he’s top-of-the-card material. He’s not Brock Lesnar where he can get away with having no mic skills because he also isn’t that great a performer. People forget that until he feuded with Cena, his matches were virtually unwatchable. They still are! The WWE grossly over-estimated how well that Russian Chain Match would go over, not realizing that it takes a very specific type of performer, matchup, chemistry, and story to make a match like that work and it fell flat on it’s face, just like Rusev is right now.
Prediction: Cena wins. He has to. Because something different has to happen to get Rusev a character that elicits more than a nationalistic reaction.
The Meta Powers (Curtis Axel & Macho Mandow) vs. The Ascension
Speaking of handling things poorly, I’m glad to see the WWE fix what they got so wrong with Curtis Axel. Right before Wrestlemania, Axel was over. I don’t know how he did it or who thought it would work, but harping on the fact that he was never officially eliminated from the Royal Rumble (as an official entrant, he was knocked out by Erick Rowan, who then unofficially took his place) and then going around acting like Hulk Hogan and starting a #Axelmania movement somehow got over with the crowd.
I couldn’t believe when he started entering arenas and the WWE universe was adamantly with him on his goofy quest. He was totally over!
And then WWE squashed it. They brought out Hulk Hogan to put a beating on him. And I was so disappointed. Why would they kill that kind of momentum? Last year, Axel and Ryback quietly formed an underrated tag team that saw both guys significantly improve their in-ring skills. They both went from rare TV appearances to weekly competing with the best the tag team division had to offer. But Axel got hurt and Ryback found a personality that now sees him feuding with Bray Wyatt.
Thankfully, the WWE brilliantly found a way to put Axel back on the regular card and propel him and Damien Sandow beyond their current plateau by teaming them together. This is going to be one of the most entertaining tag teams to watch if the WWE sticks with it.
Prediction: Meta Powers win. Axel drops a boot and Sandow finishes with a flying elbow.
Ryback vs. Bray Wyatt
On the list of Bray Wyatt feuds, there have only been a few that didn’t act like they were or could ever be intimidated by his actions: Chris Jericho, Dean Ambrose (short-lived, but still), and now Ryback. I like the opportunity that Ryback’s been given here. Wyatt is obviously going to be main eventing soon when the WWE can find the right story for him. But there’s no telling if Ryback can climb the ladder again after feuding with John Cena and CM Punk for the WWE championship right out of the gate. This is definitely the way to show it.
Much like Ambrose, Ryback doesn’t care about “the new face of fear.” He just wants to fight. The reason this works for him is that Ryback can’t let Wyatt do all the talking, so he has to show more mic skills than he ever has before. And he’s getting good. In fact, he did something the other day that only the best WWE talkers can do. When being interviewed by Renee Young in the ring, he started talking about dealing with injuries and facing the fear of possibly having to retire as he made the connection to his feud with Wyatt. It wasn’t really working for the audience, who quickly started chants of “BOR-RING, BOR-RING!”
But with a few words, including a cue for his catchphrase, and a spike of intensity, the crowd was back on his side. It’s so hard to turn a crowd around like that. Cena is pretty much the only guy that gets the chance to do it on a regular basis, but it’s easier for him because he always has heat with the audience. Ryback doesn’t, but if that interview was any indication, he’ll get there.
Prediction: Wyatt wins a surprisingly entertaining match that shows that Ryback can hang with more versatile superstars.
Dolph Ziggler vs. Sheamus
Oh Dolph. What are we ever going to do with you? The Show-Off is once again in limbo with the WWE. What is his direction? What is he doing?
“Dunno. Let’s have him feud with Sheamus!”
“… but didn’t Sheamus just come back as a heel? You expect to keep heat on him if he loses to Dolph?”
“He’s not going to!”
“But he already has. He lost their match at Extreme Rules.”
“Sheamus got the last laugh, though, putting a beating on Zigman before he could kiss his arse.”
“Yeah, but Dolph now has to keep fighting him and keep losing because it’s the only logical direction you’ve given this feud.”
“We’ll make it up to him.”
“You’ve been saying that for three years now! Fans love this guy and you’re killing his character! He doesn’t have value unless he can get heat while he’s over!”
The only possible saving grace is for the WWE to instantly put both of these guys into the Intercontinental Championship picture. That way they can continue their feud, have matches with other contenders, and it remains fresh as they all chase a vacated championship. This is listed pretty high given the complete lack of stakes and the telegraphing of every moment in this story. But damn, both of these guys are the kind that play up to their competition and it’ll still be fun to watch.
Prediction: There’s no way Sheamus comes back and loses two straight PPV matches to Dolph, even if he was the one that walked away happy at Extreme Rules. Sadly, Sheamus steals this one as the feud continues.
King Barrett vs. Neville
How about Neville, man? You know, he had an amazing rivalry with Sami Zayn at NXT and I was definitely on Zayn’s side of that one, to the point where I was hoping that he’d be the one that got the call-up first. But Neville has literally flown out of the gate and put on some incredibly matches against top-notch competition, including a memorable run to the King of the Ring final against Wade Barrett.
Neville is in perfect position right now, playing with house money. It doesn’t matter whether he wins or loses. As long as he has enough satisfying victories, the crowd doesn’t care about the outcome. They just want to watch him perform.
Sadly, there’s one thing that hurts this matchup: We already saw it a week ago.
Remember when King of the Ring used to mean something? For a while it was a ceremonial title, until Paul Heyman added a stipulation ahead of Brock Lesnar’s tournament victory, that said that the King of the Ring would be entitled to a championship match. Now, it’s just there. It doesn’t have it’s own PPV. It started on Raw and ended on the WWE Network (wouldn’t it have worked better in reverse?), and the champ gets nothing but a title and an excuse to wear a crown.
Now we get a rematch? For what? And isn’t it strange that a PPV match means a little more than the King of the Ring final did because the winner would theoretically climb up the card?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m really looking forward to this matchup. It’s going to be really fun to watch. Barrett is game and Neville is on fire. The WWE just isn’t handling this situation well.
Prediction: Barrett HAS TO WIN. Otherwise, his King of the Ring victory means nothing.
Tag Team Championship Match
The New Day (Big E & Kofi Kingston) vs. Tyson Kidd & Cesaro
One thing I love about the WWE is adaptability. The WWE has plans for a superstar, tag team, or faction, and the fans force it in a completely different direction. Because in the reality era, fans determine direction as much as WWE brass does.
Look at Xavier Woods. As we saw in an amazing ESPN E:60 special, the man who was supposed to be a nerdy, nostalgic, pop culture-referencing fan favorite as he was in NXT has become the vocal leader of a heel faction known as The New Day, who themselves were supposed to be a spiritual, motivational group of good guys. They didn’t click, the audience rejected them. But as soon as that rejection became heat with chants of “New Day-sucks,” the WWE made them heels.
And what’s ironic is that the first peek we got of this group was Woods in a suit, spouting idealogical philosophies, and recruiting what looked like was going to be a heel group; something like Faarooq’s Nation of Domination. So it’s funny that they’ve come full circle to where they are now.
Now, their matches are better. It’s the same moves, but they’ve got heat; so much so that Tyson Kidd and Cesaro going from heels to faces felt seamless. And the two factions have been putting on some incredibly entertaining matches. Putting the belts on Big E and Kofi just made the audience hate them even more. So it’s been really fun watching these great matches… that have actual stakes!
And that’s what the WWE misses a lot of the time. We see it in other matches on this card. You’ve got great characters and fun matches, but if it doesn’t mean anything then what’s the point?
Prediction: Cesaro pokes his eye on one of Natalya’s spikes, which hinders him in the match. The Swiss Superman accidentally hits Kidd during the match and he falls into Natalya and he pokes his eye as well. Six eyes are better than two. The New Day wins.
WWE World Heavyweight Championship Match
Seth Rollins (c) vs. Roman Reigns vs. Dean Ambrose vs. Randy Orton
It’s hard to argue about the way that the WWE has handled the title picture leading up to Payback. The in-fighting with Kane representing The Authority makes Rollins have to fight looking over his shoulder. Putting the main event in the hands of the WWE universe with an app vote was an easy way to put Reigns in the main event. But then there’s the wild card: Dean Ambrose, who won his way into the main event with a surprise victory on Raw that had even the biggest WWE fans and insiders surprised.
I know I was.
Moments like that are exactly why we love to watch. You’re absolutely sure that there’s no way something awesome is going to happen because that’s just not how the world works… and then it does. And you go nuts.
Ambrose has definitely earned his way here. His feud for the IC title with Wade Barrett was halted by the WWE setting up a ladder match at Wrestlemania. Then he took a wicked head shot off a ladder when Luke Harper dropped him a long way during the match. That feud was going absolutely nowhere, and then Ziggler screwed him over during the King of the Ring tournament by attacking his opponent and thus eliminating Ambrose. We thought we were watching the next Ziggler, constantly wasting heat and talent with no direction. But here he is and he’s got his shot. There’s no way he wins after the way he got into this match, but this isn’t the end for him. Think about what’s coming up.
Elimination Chamber is two weeks from Sunday, a ridiculous turnaround for a PPV. The show in Corpus Christi, TX had been scheduled and many people had bought tickets with the understanding that the show wouldn’t be televised and here they get a present: There’s going to be a lot of titles on the line and it’s going to be something everyone’s talking about before and after because, for my money, it was a real shame that the Chamber was taken away this year. I LOVED the fact that that PPV was the one right before Wrestlemania.
Are you kidding me? Six guys go into a PPV with a last shot of main eventing Wrestlemania!? Yes, please! All of that!
This year, it’ll be a little unorthodox as it won’t be the WWE World Heavyweight Championship on the line, but the tag team titles AND Daniel Bryan’s vacated Intercontinental Championship. But what comes after that? Money in the Bank. And that’s where my predictions start.
Prediction: Seth Rollins will win this match. Kane will turn on him officially and find a way to influence the outcome, but will fail and Rollins will win anyway. It isn’t the time for Reigns, who doesn’t have a solid feud going right now, but the WWE is determined to keep him at the top of the card. He won’t win a title until he’s had a good story to go with it. Orton’s presence as a future Hall of Famer and superstar still at the top of his game brings legitimacy to this match. But Ambrose is the one who looks like he could be the one getting set up here because, to me, he’s the most interesting person on the roster to be the next Mr. Money in the Bank.
Rollins wins, and will likely maintain his title through Money in the Bank. But two months after that is SummerSlam, Brock Lesnar is coming back, and suddenly the only guys in the title picture are heels. So it feels like the Money in the Bank winner should be a face. Orton won it last year, and he’s already had multiple shots at the title. Reigns needs a story to win his first title, otherwise his championship reign won’t mean much. Ziggler isn’t in the running at the top of the card. But Ambrose is right there. “Mr. Money in the Bank” fits his personality better than anyone else in the company right now. “The lunatic fringe,” the agent of chaos getting that briefcase and hoarding it over The Authority every week?
THAT sounds like a lot of fun.
Photos courtesy WWE