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Posted in: Just Business
Just Business: Payback 2017 - The Performance Art Review
By Samuel 'Plan
May 3, 2017 - 9:55:27 PM

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Just Business: Payback 2017 - The Performance Art Review


“What breaks you can also be what makes you,” was the line used in Payback’s opening montage this last Sunday, and it certainly proved to be a fitting one. Brand exclusive pay-per-views, for some time, have felt like a platform pointing to one of the weakest aspects of any Brand Extension – shallower talent pools. There has been more than one stinker when it comes to both Team Red and Blue’s one-show shows. Payback 2017, however, was, to my mind, the best yet; and its success hinged primarily on the smaller scale a Brand Exclusive pay-per-view necessitates. What threatens to break any Extension, therefore, became what made Payback 2017.

Of course, other elements helped contribute. To my mind, Payback was very much a show that cleansed the palette on almost every level. That the matches were sure to so consciously account for the storylines that built towards them, for instance, was deeply refreshing to see. That very few finishing moves were even hit throughout the night, let alone kicked out of, proved a most welcome touch. That the Universal Champion was absent, thereby necessitating a story-driven main event with a difference, was also a help, as was the fact that there were no indulgent match run-times either. I even found there to be positives in the viscera of the House of Horrors match; another instance of the developing trend of what we might term “post-truth wrestling,” that was really afforded momentum by the sudden arrival of Broken Matt Hardy in TNA.

But here to focus on my three favourite talking points, as ever, my name is Samuel ‘Plan and this is the Performance Art Review of Payback 2017.

A Farewell to Arms

Time and again, the ruination of friendship and brotherhood has proven a powerful foundation for storylines in WWE – from Hart vs. Hart, to Punk vs. Heyman right through to the fratricide of The Shield, and Payback 2017 started in sizzling form with the latest entry into the library: the Kevin Owens / Chris Jericho WrestleMania rematch.

This was unlike any other Kevin Owens match to date. The Prizefighter, whom I prefer to refer to as the Bounty Hunter of WWE, is a man who seeks to make his brand the most valuable in WWE so that he might provide for his family by devaluing the brands of those around him. When wrestling Cesaro, he would try to prove himself the better athlete. When wrestling Ziggler, he would try to prove himself the better showman. When wrestling Ambrose, he would try to prove himself the more unhinged. But in this instance, opposite Jericho, there was no such verbal beat downs; curious by its absence was the usual cut-throat manner in which Owens so regularly attempts to delegitimise the brand of his opponent.

This was really the key to the subtext of the bout: contrary to normalcy, it was the absence of personal attacks that betrayed how deeply personal an issue this was for Owens. This wasn’t about undermining the Brand of Jericho, as much as it was about simply beating up the man. In such an interpretation, Owens’ newest pay-per-view outing was really his most honest yet, and a moment of great character development where the man behind the mission was laid bare for the world to see.

That same character development was furthered by Owens’ failure, and true to the theme of the show, outlined in my introduction, it was the move that helped make Kevin Owens the US Champion at WrestleMania that proved the breaking of his reign here at Payback: the one finger rope break. In a moment that reminded very much of the transformative conclusion to the stunning Nakamura / Roode encounter in San Antonio, the manner in which the action escalated toward greater urgency following the rope break took this curtain jerk to an entirely fresh level, lifting it to the status of one of the best pay-per-view openers we have seen in a very long time and enabling a surprising result that served a purpose in driving the ongoing storyline forward.

Not to take away from the manner in which the entire bout was wrestled, as the latest chapter in the Owens / Jericho affair stands also as an excellent example of sequel wrestling that demonstrated the perfect degree of familiarity between competitors, while referring back to the established in-ring canon specific to the feud.

While it would eventually prove to be a match more relevant to Smackdown Live than to Monday Night Raw, it seems only fitting that a partnership so integral to Monday Night Raw’s early days in the Second Extension be given such a fitting send off in the opening salvo of the best one-show show yet.

The Advent of Post-Truth Wrestling

I for one enjoyed the House of Horrors for what it was. Where I always felt the Final Deletion saga that so obviously inspired it possessed a certain denigrating tone, the House of Horrors deployed a sense of visual and audible horror instead, which helped ensure it never came off to quite the same degree as something of a joke – at least to me.

This is not to pretend like the concept was not a flawed one. Utilising Randy Orton in such a theatrical element of the show, whose acting skills are not among the best on the roster, was perhaps a poor idea. Parts of the gimmick itself – a tractor driving itself; dolls hanging from a roof; a house bathed in red light – felt like the realisation of a poor and clichéd understanding of horror cinema. So too were there clear incongruities in the fiction – Orton arriving in a limousine, or the front door of a house Orton was invited into being locked. It seemed self-evident that the concept required a little more forethought too, with obvious pragmatic stumbling blocks presented by basing it in a house in the middle of nowhere but wanting to end it in the ring in the arena.

It was not, though, a match without an upside. As mentioned, the viscera with which the affair was produced was its greatest facet. The competitors were audibly feral, creating a sense of the House bringing out the worst animalism of them both, and the visuals were possessed of a dark, muddied palette that lent a sticky and stale air of grime. Nor should the darkness of some of the action itself be underestimated; the most striking moment for me coming when Orton looked set to crack Wyatt’s skull open, quite literally, with the use of a blunt instrument.

This was, ultimately, a flawed idea, and a silly one. But it was fully committed to, and while I wasn’t sold on the cinematic-style production, there was enough creativity in tone for me to happily sit through the piece and find myself more than willing to sit through another in future. I do believe it’s quite possible we might have to.

The House of Horrors, love it or hate it, was simply the latest example in a newly emergent genre in pro wrestling that the industry has flirted with intermittently over the years. Like the Final Deletion and the Wyatt Compound encounter; like the Boiler Room Brawls of by-gone ages, and the Dungeon Match from the summer of 1998; these fantastical, heavily-stylised efforts that border on low-budget cinema and engage in gleefully straining the suspension of disbelief until breaking point may yet become a more frequent addition to the world’s foremost pro wrestling product because of the eagerness with which such productions were consumed by the popular audience in the last couple of years.

With a Bray / Bálor feud now looming, this post-truth wrestling, utterly unconcerned with its own ridiculousness, might show up again sooner rather than later, so we might best get used to it.

The Spirit of the Hitman

I think the reason I enjoyed Payback 2017 so much, and the reason I felt it watched so strongly as a show, was because of how old school it was in its sensibility. I mentioned in the introduction how there were very few finishing moves even hit throughout the night’s myriad matches, let alone kicked out of. This might read as a pedantic observation, but it helped ensure the action remained focussed more on context than on content and, frankly, that’s not something we see enough of in WWE…

…though we do see it some. One defining aspect of WWE’s newest Era, named by myself as the Renaissance, has been the conflicting in-ring philosophies in play. On the one hand, championed by John Cena the most I would argue, you have the hyperactivity of the modern age that focuses on packing in as much false finish and big move offence as possible, peaking early and maintaining that peak for as long as possible. On the other, championed by the Shield alumni the most I would argue, you have the older school story-telling approach of Eras past, that burns slowly and builds toward an immersive climax, using small touches and a more holistic mastery of the art form to accomplish something great. In short, the conflict is populist wrestling vs. cerebral wrestling.

At Payback 2017, cerebral wrestling won out, with the already covered US Championship match setting the trend early.

Neville, true to recent form, threatened to steal the show with another masterful performance in defence of his championship against a similarly accomplished Austin Aeries; manipulation of both pace and body language in that one was insanely good.

Bayley showed off her best trait by working with Alexa Bliss in the confines of what the more limited challenger could do between the ropes to create a simplistic piece of work that followed the structuralist method of the later 1980s to craft the best main roster women’s match thus far this year. It wasn’t what they did but how and why and when they did it that mattered.

And Seth Rollins and Samoa Joe wrestled in fitting line with the former’s WrestleMania match, utilising the refrain of the injured knee to further extend a long-running character and narrative arc, as well as to create another sublime slice of psychologically driven old school in-ring action. Best of all was Rollins’ decision to deploy an ode to a famous Hitman finish, rolling Joe up out of his finishing submission for a surprise victory in a moment that perfectly encapsulated why I am such a fan of the Architect: he references where pro wrestling has been while building upon it to take pro wrestling (in WWE at least) somewhere new.

The famously cerebral storytelling spirit of the Hitman loomed large over Payback 2017 in its entirety in fact, as fans were provided a card of nuanced matches, brimming with small touches, all of which are well placed to stand the test of time and ensure last Sunday’s show will be as enjoyable to re-watch in the future as it was to watch on the night.

In Closing

Elsewhere on the card, we got a main event judged perfectly in every regard. Roman Reigns was allowed to show some much needed vulnerability in a far more human performance than that which we normally witness from the Big Dog, while Braun Strowman’s ascension continued not only via a swift and convincing victory, but via a performance that saw him both out-muscle and out-wrestle the former Hound of Justice.

Even the Monday Night Raw Tag Team Championship Match between the Hardy Boys and Cesaro and Sheamus held up its end of the collective bargain. Though it might have followed the normal, fairly cut and dry formula most main roster tag bouts follow, it was in its conclusion that it contributed most. It is likely most viewers saw the heel turn of the spurned challengers coming, but it was tantalising all the same, marking the second pay-per-view in a row where Team Red has shaken up its tag ranks to create intrigue in the month the come. It might even refresh Cesaro, to see the Swiss Superman turn evil for the first time in almost three and a half years.

After last Sunday and the best brand exclusive pay-per-view yet, I am left feeling very positive about where Monday Night Raw is going. I have been a declared member of Team Red since day one, and right now it’s a good team to be on, with a product that’s moving sensibly toward its next event that, for once, feels like it may carry a series of gimmick matches fully justified by organic story growth…if current form is maintained.

But what were your thoughts about last Sunday’s special event, and the Raw that followed? Be sure to let me know in the comments below, or by adding / following me on social media via any of the links in this column!

Thanks for reading.

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