Payback… is a bitch. At least, that’s how the saying goes. This year’s show was shuffled to be the post-WrestleMania pay-per-view, much like Backlash and Extreme Rules. However, 2016’s Payback featured a card that, on paper, looked to be WrestleMania level, especially with the introduction of new faces.

The pre-show featured two matches – as seems to becoming the norm – as the in-ring action kicked off with Baron Corbin and his new brown trousers!

Baron Corbin vs. Dolph Ziggler
The best part of these pre-shows is that Mauro Ranallo is getting some live experience! Standard Ziggler fare early on, with his “I’ll run at you and jump almost over you before punching” attack in the corner.

A second attempt at the same spot saw Ziggler get dropped throat-first across the top rope, as Corbin controlled the early portion of the match, at least until Ziggler grabbed a sleeperhold, following up with a Famouser for a two-count. Corbin regained the advantage outside by throwing Ziggler with an Alley-Oop into the ring post, but Corbin took way too much time getting back inside, and fell to a quick schoolboy roll-up from Ziggler.

If they were going for “Corbin’s a rookie, and wasted too much time when he had the match won”, it was a decent story to tell, but the win does nothing for Ziggler. **¼

United States Championship: Kalisto (c) vs. Ryback
Ryback must be feeling a little flush, as he’s had a weightlifting belt made with “the Pre-Show Stopper” written on the back of it. He’s just a regular Heart-ache Kid, isn’t he?

Ryback cheapshots Kalisto at the bell, and is almost immediately met with chants of “Goldberg” and “You Can’t Wrestle”. Either that, or the Chicago crowd were aiming that at referee John Cone. Kalisto drops Ryback with a corkscrew plancha to the floor in the opening minutes, but Ryback retaliates by shoving the champion into the turnbuckles during a wheelbarrow bulldog attempt.

Kalisto switched a quebrada (can’t call it a Lionsault!) into a tornado DDT after being caught by Ryback, following up with a DDT off the top-rope onto the apron on Ryback. The story turned to “Ryback can kick out of any of Kalisto’s flashy moves”, but Kalisto kept on coming, scoring a near-fall from a roll-up after a Salida del Sol attempt was blocked. Then Ryback just squashed him with a spinebuster.

Ryback got caught as he went up for a big splash, but ended up fighting off Kalisto and delivering a military press slam after jumping off the middle rope… before whiffing on the big splash and eating a Salida del Sol for the win. Great pre-show match, and a lot better than their WrestleMania outing. ***½

The main show kicked off with the New Day, with Kofi Kingston holding onto the last giant Booty-O as if it were his newborn child (congratulations, by the way…), leading us into:

WWE Tag Team Championship Number One Contendership Tournament Final: Enzo Amore & Colin Cassady vs. The Vaudevillains
Unfortunately, the main show was marred in the opening moments, and it wasn’t because of Enzo’s lederhosen-inspired outfit, or their promo stuffed with references to Hey Arnold! Early in the match, after having pulled off some spots working off of a knuckle-lock, and some double-team stuff with Big Cass, Simon Gotch threw Enzo to the outside, under the bottom rope. Amore took an ugly bump, with his arm catching the rope, causing his head to snap back hard on canvas. Enzo was out cold pretty much instantly, and the match was (eventually) thrown out as medical staff came out to attend.

As WWE showed a tonne of replays, my initial thoughts were that this could well have fallen into the same realms as the incident that led to Perro Aguayo Jr’s passing last year. Thankfully, as I write this, Enzo’s been discharged from hospital – but that was scary as hell.

And not to sound heartless, WWE moved on quickly to a long – but good – video package chronicling the Sami Zayn/Kevin Owens feud.

Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn
Zayn got the sing-a-long entrance in Chicago, and immediately threw Owens to the outside and met him with a tope con hilo as they started out at a fast clip. Owens tossed Zayn into the ring steps twice after catching him with a knee on the apron, as Zayn’s early flurry of offence passed.

Zayn found himself bouncing off the ropes when Owens dumped him onto the top strand with a suplex, before following-up with a back senton for a near-fall. Sami’s response to that was to fire back with way-more-than-ten punches in the corner, then capitalising with a Blue Thunder Bomb for a two-count. Owens blocked an attempt to repeat the move, but eventually took it again for another near-fall, before blasting Zayn with a pump-handle neckbreaker for another count of two.

Owens went up top with a frog splash for (yep) a two-count, and then the tempo went up with a bunch of cannonballs in the corner, before Zayn dropkicked his way away from a pop-up powerbomb, only for his release belly-to-back suplex to be replied to with a stiff clothesline from Owens.

Zayn wheelbarrowed out of a pop-up powerbomb for a near-fall, but an effort at a tornado DDT ended in Owens turning it into a backbreaker. Owens’ effort at a powerbomb on the apron was blocked, as Zayn turned it into a back body drop (just had to get that one in!), following up with the diving-through-the-corner DDT! In the end, that wasn’t enough as Zayn walked into a superkick in the ring, before catching a pop-up powerbomb as Owens took the win in a fantastic outing for both men… but then again, we expected no less! ****

Post-match, Kevin Owens ordered Byron Saxton away from the announce table – albeit only so he could cut a promo, saying that he’d focus on regaining the Intercontinental title. Owens then invited himself onto commentary.

Intercontinental Championship: The Miz (c) vs. Cesaro
Cesaro’s James Bond-style intro is certainly impressive… but good Lord, they need to get rid of that hideous theme music. Cesaro borrows a page out of the Will Ospreay playbook with some repeated kip-ups to get out of an early wrist-lock from the Miz, before nailing a gutwrench for a near-fall.

The real story of this match was Kevin Owens on commentary, providing his typical acerbic comments on the match and his commentary partners. Inside the ring, Cesaro and Miz put on a decent match, with the champion targetting Cesaro’s taped-up shoulder, before dragging Cesaro down to the mat with a sleeperhold. Cesaro somehow switched things up and powered the sleeperhold into a suplex.

Repeated European uppercuts sent Miz into the corner, rounding off with a running dropkick for a near-fall, with Miz rolling out of the ring for respite. That didn’t last long, as Cesaro hit a deadlift suplex on Miz, bringing him into the ring the hard way for another near-fall. Miz thought he’d blocked a Giant Swing, but ended up falling into a pop-up European uppercut, but Cesaro ended up missing a shoulder block and hit the ringpost. Miz tried to capitalise with the Skull Crushing Finale, but Cesaro kicked out at two, and that was the cue for Sami Zayn to return to the scene, diving over the commentary table and unload on Owens.

The fighting duo somehow distracted the referee as Cesaro pulled off the Giant Swing, going for twenty swings before going for the Crossface. Owens and Zayn started fighting on the apron, distracting the referee again as Miz tapped… and in the aftermath of that, Cesaro knocked Owens off the apron, before being rolled-up by Miz for the win. Good match, at least until the really screwy finish ***½

Post-match, everyone fought everyone, and it looks like they’re going for a four-way feud for the Intercontinental title. As long as we don’t get endless four-ways, this could be a good little storyline to take us up to SummerSlam (I know, I know… WWE and long-term booking mix like oil and water these days!)

Chris Jericho vs. Dean Ambrose
During Jericho’s introductions, they cycle through the foreign announce teams that didn’t quite make it to ringside, including – yes – Funaki in a suit!

Ambrose started off by lighting up Jericho with chops, before powdering and leading Ambrose on a lap around the ring. Jericho then tried to stall by crawling up to the referee for protection, but if that was meant to get a heel reaction, it didn’t really work… although Jericho holding Ambrose in a rear chinlock did stir up the dualling chants.

Jericho stumbled out of the corner to take a tornado DDT for a near-fall, before drilling Ambrose with back elbows and a double axe-handle off the top rope, but ended up being spun out of a Walls of Jericho attempt. Ambrose’s effort at a double axe-handle saw him caught by Jericho, who went for the Walls again, but Ambrose made the ropes.

Ambrose replied by throwing Jericho to the outside, and connecting with a tope into the German announce table. An attempt to hit Jericho’s own move on the table failed, with Jericho slingshotting Ambrose into the timekeeper. No matter what they did, the crowd just didn’t seem to be able to buy Ambrose as a threat here, and a flying elbow to Jericho’s head didn’t change things aside from getting another near-fall.

Another Walls of Jericho attempt saw Ambrose in the middle of the ring, as Jericho cranked up the pressure, but Ambrose caught Jericho’s Lionsault, and eventually built his way up to the Dirty Deeds for the win. That seemed fairly abrupt – nothing wrong with the match, but it can’t be a shock that a guy (Ambrose) who’s become famous for barely winning on pay-per-view struggled to get any reactions. **¾

Post-match, Jericho reignited his WCW heel turn by throwing the announcers’ scripts all over the place… apparently this is the end of his latest WWE run. See you in the first three of the 2017 Royal Rumble, Chris!

Sasha Banks was then shown speaking to Shane McMahon just before the next match… Apollo Crews had been shown in a similar spot with Stephanie earlier in the show.

WWE Womens’ Championship: Charlotte (c) vs. Natalya
After the reported airport incident in Boston, Ric was at least able to walk down the ring for this one, even if it did seem like he were trying to do the Bushwhacker dance to Charlotte’s ring music. Natalya got a good pop, but the cheer of the night was saved for Bret Hart, who was making his first appearance in WWE since his battle with prostate cancer.

A lot of the focus was on Bret and Ric at ringside, but early on a lot of this felt clunky and slow-motion. Natalya slowed down a whip off the ropes to try a Sharpshooter on Charlotte, who rolled to the floor to taunt Bret. Unfortunately, the by-the-numbers start to this match led to loud “We Want Sasha” chants… perhaps it was a bad idea to show her on the big screens, eh?

Charlotte took the Ric Flair bump in the turnbuckle (albeit at close range), but rebounded and started dropping knees on Natalya’s leg. This match is starting to get boring, as Charlotte rigidly stuck to the formula of “move – taunt – move – taunt – move – taunt”, with the Chicago crowd then turning their attention to chanting for Bayley. At this point, I’m almost begging for Rebel vs. Shelley Martinez… at least being entertainingly bad was entertaining!

Charlotte suplexed Natalya into the ropes, then was propelled to the floor by Natalya as she’d gone up for a moonsault. In attempting to break the count, Natalya tried for a baseball slide dropkick, but was caught by Charlotte… who awkwardly took a ‘rana in the general direction of the ring steps. Back in the ring, Natalya’s effort at a discus clothesline was met by a big boot by Charlotte for a near-fall, before being slapped out of a Figure Eight.

Natalya nailed a discus clothesline for a two-count, before being slapped out of a Sharpshooter by Charlotte, who followed up with the Natural Selection snapmare/DDT for a near-fall. Then this match really went south, after Natalya reversed a Figure Eight… Charlotte went for the Sharpshooter, and then Charles Robinson went for the bell as they redid the Montreal Finish. In 2016.

In 2016… they’re still doing Montreal?! Nineteen years later. Sure, they had Bret and Natalya lock in stereo Sharpshooters, but this was what they had Bret fly in for? To re-do Montreal? The match itself was just about passable, thanks in no small part to Charlotte’s impersonation of a WWE 2K video game tutorial (“move – taunt – move – taunt” ad nauseum), but this would have been a horrible finish no matter who, what, where or when it was done *¾

That was followed up with the Vince McMahon segment, and Vince got greeted with CM Punk chants. Well, what did you expect in Chicago? All of this is building up “who should run Raw – Stephanie or Shane?”. Predictably, Stephanie gets the Roman Reigns booing track for her speech, as she apparently took credit for the formation of the WWE Network. I look forward to that being used incorrectly in future trials! The music guys missed their cue for Shane’s music, and we get a similar speech, albeit with cheers.

In the end, the final decision is… booking by committee. To absolutely zero reaction, Vince decreed that both Shane and Steph are going to be running it, because a) that’s worked so well in the real world before and b) we can’t ever have enough of the McMahons on TV. Raw’s recent ratings are a testament to that!

WWE World Heavyweight Championship: AJ Styles vs. Roman Reigns (c)
Well, this is certainly surreal – AJ Styles in the main event of a WWE pay-per-view… and yes, Roman got booed long before his music hit. At least he’s stopped coming through the crowd, I guess?

Similar to Kalisto/Ryback in the pre-show, they start off with the little man/big man stuff, as Reigns tries to power out of simple things like a headlock takedown. When Reigns started using his size – such as a shoulder block that sent AJ out of the ring – he was met with resounding boos. AJ landed awkwardly on his neck from a clothesline, before a roll-up was broken up at two by Reigns so he could pull off the one-armed powerbomb. Reigns pulled up AJ for a sit-out powerbomb for another two-count.

AJ pulled off Hirooki Goto’s ushigoroshi (death valley driver over a knee) for a two-count, before catching Reigns in a Calf Crusher that Reigns breaks with the ropes before sliding outside the ring. AJ followed up in spectacular fashion, with the Phenomenal (springboard) forearm, crashing through the English announce table in the process. In the aftermath, AJ tries to hoist Reigns back in, but instead of breaking the count and going back out, AJ slides in and takes the win by count-out.

Cue some boos… and once Eden Stiles announces Reigns as still-the-champion, cue the music of Shane McMahon. Angle alert! This match is being restarted with no countouts. AJ rolls Reigns in and goes up top, only for Reigns to roll away from Styles, who follows up with a flurry of forearms and a Pele kick. Styles goes up top again, but AJ lands on the knees of Reigns with a 450 Splash, which gets the champion a two-count. AJ went up top again for a double axe-handle, but got punched in the midsection… that was sold as a low blow, and Reigns was disqualified for it. Can you see where we’re going here? Out comes Stephanie, who restarts the match with no disqualifications.

The third “match” started with AJ firing away with forearms, before being sent to the outside, where Reigns threw him into the crowd, because, reasons. Reigns went to join him, but got clotheslined back into the ringside area, clipping the Spanish announce table on his landing. Back in the ring, AJ went for the Phenomenal Forearm again and was met with a Superman punch for a near-fall (and a load of boos aimed at Reigns). A second Superman punch followed, and that was cue for… not-the-Bullet Club, as Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows, to shockingly-little reaction.

Reigns took the Boot of Doom (big boot from a Fireman’s carry) from the not-Bullet Club, and although AJ took his time getting up, he was able to connect with another Phenomenal Forearm, although Reigns got his foot on the ropes to break the count. The Usos came out to neutralise the not-Bullet Club, bringing them down to their level, with Roman Reigns deciding to toss AJ into the fighting tag teams to break them up. High spots galore followed – Reigns with a plancha to the crowd, before AJ came flying off the barricade with yet another Phenomenal Forearm.

After rolling in Reigns, Styles went up top again – but via a springboard 450 Splash – grabbing another near-fall, before Reigns fought out of a Styles Clash, only to drill Styles with a spear to retain the title. Take away the McMahon-induced non-finishes and restarts, this was actually a hell of a match – good carry job, AJ! ***¾

Of course, because the current top level storyline doesn’t directly involve a McMahon, we got Vince backstage afterwards with his offspring, booking AJ’s rematch: in three weeks’ time, at the Extreme Rules pay-per-view. In an Extreme Rules match. Something tells me that the smoke and mirrors of that match may take it down a notch compared to this outing.

From top to bottom, Payback was an outstanding event – with only one questionable match. However, the bigger issue here is the booking: yes, AJ vs. Reigns was a great match, but having the McMahons coming out to restart the match twice really overshadowed things. Add in the God-forsaken rehash of Montreal for the Womens’ title, and you were left with a night of fun wrestling that was almost ruined by needless booking. Still, good work from WWE – let’s see where things go in three weeks with their quick-turnaround to the Extreme Rules show.