We're just a few hours from WWE Payback, and I have to say, I think this has potential to be a memorable card, even though it will be the first time since the TLC event in December 2012 that the WWE Championship isn't defended at a PPV.
The event comes from CM Punk's hometown of Chicago, but don't expect to see the Second City Superstar in attendance. He'll be across town cheering on the Chicago Blackhawks. I'd still expect plenty of fans chanting his name though, especially during segments featuring the Authority and any dull moments during the show.
WWE will be working hard to avoid dull moments, especially since the Superstars won't want to be outshined by the NXT Takeover event that took place on the WWE Network Thursday.
Pre-show Hair vs. Mask: Hornswoggle vs. El Torito
I'll admit, the "Wee"-LC match they had at last month's Extreme Rules actually wasn't horrible, but I still have no desire to see this. Whatever.
WINNER: El Torito
Fate of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship featuring Daniel Bryan, Brie Bella and Stephanie McMahon
Quick recap: Bryan had neck surgery and is missing time, so Stephanie wants him to reliquish the WWE Championship. But she refuses to strip him of the title and make him a martyr; instead, she wants to emasculate him by having him turn it over. Bryan said he would be willing to do so, except it would undo everything he's done the past few months. So instead, Stephanie told Bryan he's got until Payback to make the right decision and turn over the championship, otherwise, she fires his wife, Brie Bella, who put her hands on Stephanie a few weeks back. Got all that?
OK, depending on what rumors you believe, Bryan could be back as soon as the Money in the Bank pay-per-view next month. If that's the case, he probably refuses to turn over the titles here. If not, he'll likely relinquish the title to keep his wife's job. There is another rumor that Brie might be retiring from the WWE – she said in a recent interview she wants to be a mother now that her and Bryan are married – and this could be a way to write her off (and it's not like people have never been storyline fired in WWE only to return to in short order. Hey John Cena, how's it going?).
This should be an excellent segment, if only because of how good Stephanie has been at heeling it up and how strongly the crowd will react to Bryan. This is a classic rock and a hard place situation for Bryan. It really all hinges on how soon Bryan can return to defend the championships. If I'm WWE, I'd rather play it safe and have Bryan get well rather than rush him back. Besides, his return from a neck injury to reclaim the title would be a great story.
RESULT: Bryan relinquishes the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
Intercontinental Championship: Bad News Barrett (c) vs. Rob Van Dam
Some fans seem to be really down on this, less than thrilled with Rob Van Dam getting a title shot over younger fan-favorites like a Dolph Ziggler, for example. But this is being done to build Barrett as a strong IC champ with a victory over an established veteran. Nothing wrong with that. Save Ziggler for when you actually want to change the title.
WINNER: And STILL Intercontinental Champion, Bad News Barrett
United States Championship: Sheamus (c) vs. Cesaro w/ Paul Heyman
It's going to be hard to beat the Shield vs. Evolution match, but if there is anything on this card that could steal the show, this could be it. Sheamus and Cesaro have worked two strong, hard-hitting matches on Main Event and Raw, and this should get more time than both of those. Expect the crowd to be very pro-Cesaro, even if Heyman cuts a scathing promo on the Chicago crowd (which he did the last time WWE was in Chicago post-Punk too). Cesaro, I think, was supposed to win the Intercontinental Championship last month, but when the script leaked, they changed the plan and put the title on Barrett instead. Rather than have him challenge Barrett, they shifted his focus to the U.S. title. Sheamus is just a transitional champion to put him over. With that said, I wouldn't be shocked if they stretched this one out just a bit and had Sheamus go over here, only for Cesaro to win a rematch on Raw or something. The end game is putting the belt on Cesaro, so that's the pick here.
WINNER: And NEW United States Champion, Cesaro
Divas Championship: Paige (c) vs. Alicia Fox
Fox has been on fire as of late with her "crazy" character, and I wouldn't mind seeing her get a run with the title, although I'd hate to see Paige get the run pulled out from under her this early in her push. With that said, Alicia is a far more interesting character right now. I'm really torn here. I can't help but think Alicia is actually getting ready to leave (if you recall, she "quit" during the Raw post-show after her first bout of televised crazy) and they just kept her around a few weeks longer because her antics got over. If they wanted to put the title on her, they might've convinced her to stick around a bit longer, but I think it's likely she's putting over Paige on her way out the door.
WINNER: And STILL Divas Champion, Paige
Big E vs. Rusev
Does the winner of this match get their full name back? Usually I like hoss fights like this between the former Big E Langston and Alexander Rusev, but both guys are pretty green, so this has potential to be a disaster. Hopefully, it's booked to be pretty short, but hard-hitting, and it'll be fine. Remember when Big E was being touted as a major player? So much for that. Now he's just being fed to Rusev. The only silver lining here is that there have been rumors of WWE forming a new Nation of Domination stable as a result of Rusev crushing so many black Superstars since his debut. As long as they don't call themselves the "New Nation" (the kiss of death in wrestling is the "new" anything), the idea of a stable made of all-black wrestlers – and book them as babyfaces, not heels like the original NoD – could be a moneymaker. More on that in a future column. Back to this match, it's pretty clear to be Rusev wins, unless WWE wants a no decision here to actually turn this into a multi-month feud.
BONUS PREDICTION: This card feels like it has enough room to add one more 7-minute match. If so, my guess is Jack Swagger challenges Adam Rose again, and loses again, like he did on Smackdown. The other possibility is Summer Rae vs. Layla, with Fandango as the guest referee, but I think they'll hang onto that one for next month.
Last Man Standing match: Bray Wyatt vs. John Cena
Like Cena himself, I'm not sure if there is a more divisive feud in WWE right now than this one. Some people have loved it. Some have hated it. I'm sort of indifferent. I've been on board with the results of both matches they've had – Cena winning at WrestleMania and Wyatt at Extreme Rules – but the matches themselves have been a bit clunky and, at times, boring.
Both guys have had excellent promos along the way, so long as Cena isn't going DX circa 2006 and Photo-shopping things. Unlike a lot of "meta fans," I'm an ardent supporter of Cena and I don't think the Wyatt gimmick has the long-term potential many do (and I certainly don't think he can be a babyface on the level of the Undertaker like some pro wrestling pundits), although I do think the man behind the gimmick, Windham Rotunda, is doing an excellent job with it.
I've read at least a few scenarios where they do a double turn with Wyatt and Cena at Payback. Chicago, home of the PPV and one of the most ornery crowds in the WWE Universe, is home of arguably the most famous double turn in WWE history between Bret Hart and Stone Cold Steve Austin back at WrestleMania 13. Last year's Payback also saw a double turn between Dolph Ziggler and Alberto Del Rio, both of whom are floundering in the mid-card now.
I don't think we'll get one here -- Wyatt clearly established himself as a heel when he tried to attack Jerry Lawler on Raw this past week, so even if crowds continue to cheer him, his actions show he's no babyface.
And while the Chicago crowd will certainly be in favor of Wyatt here, that'll just play into the storyline of Wyatt converting Cena "fans" into his followers (in reality, most of them were people who would boo Cena anyway). And that's why I think it's imperative that Wyatt go over here, ending the feud, at least for a little while, and seemingly having "The Whole World In His Hands" – or at least the whole AllState Arena.
I fully suspect Luke Harper and Erick Rowan as well as the Usos to get involved in this match, since they haven't been booked for the show, and the Last Man Standing stipulation allows for plenty of outside interference – if even that just means the Usos chase the Wyatt Family from ringside and allow this to become a 1-on-1 affair.
So when Wyatt does finally find a way to keep Cena down, it will be a big deal because he did it on his own (the biggest complaint about last month's match was that Cena essentially had all three members of the family beat before "Little Johnny" distracted him).
Wyatt needs to win here, even if he uses dubious means to do so, or else he becomes just another guy that Cena has overcome.
WINNER: Bray Wyatt
Six-man No Holds Barred Elimination tag match: The Shield (Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns) vs. Evolution (Triple H, Randy Orton, Batista)
Evolution finally got the better of the Shield at the end of Monday's Raw, after the Shield had seemingly gotten one over on them at every turn. That type of booking typically would indicate the Shield going over here. Add to that rumors of Batista taking a hiatus from WWE to promote his movie before returning prior to SummerSlam, and it seems Evolution is primed for a breakup following Payback.
As much as I love what the Shield is doing right now as a team, I don't know what else is left for them There isn't another 3-man group of top-level guys for them to feud with after Evolution (short of resuming a feud with the Wyatt, but they are likely continuing their story with Cena). And with the Money in the Bank PPV on the horizon, it would make sense to put at least one of them in the MITB match itself.
There is an easy set-up for this where Triple H on Raw announces they'll be in an MITB qualifying match in the main event of Raw, against each other. Because if he can't beat them, he might as well force them to tear each other apart.
The other option, of course, is to have major swerve and one of the Shield members turn and join the Authority at Payback. One of the main flaws with the stipulation of a "No Holds Barred Elimination Tag match" is that there is nothing to prevent eliminated members returning to the fray. What if, in the waning moments of the match, everyone comes back in, but just when the Shield appears on the verge of winning, Dean Ambrose attacks Roman Reigns, for example, allowing Triple H the victory.
WWE hasn't closed a PPV with a shocking swerve in quite some time, and there has been no signs of dissent within the Shield in months, so having one of the members turn would certainly be stunning. Ambrose would be the least shocking, since he's a bit of a natural heel, but Rollins and especially Reigns turning heel could be jaw-dropping.
Honestly, I think there is a lot of money in a Reigns heel run, especially if Daniel Bryan is going to be out for an extended period of time and they need to crown a new champion. He could carry the title with the backing of the Authority and it wouldn't make it feel like a too much, too soon title reign (no pun intended) like if he won it as a babyface.
But perhaps I'm overthinking all of this. More than likely, this match is just another showcase for Triple H, Orton and Batista to put over the Shield, with the elimination format there to let Reigns to have another dominant performance like at Survivor Series and the Royal Rumble.
Still, I can't shake the feeling that even though the Shield is going to get made to look like a million bucks, ultimately, the bad guys here get their Payback.
WINNERS: Evolution (Sole survivor, Triple H)