The heads of the wrestling universe may have been turned one week earlier as AEW’s blockbuster Wembley show made history but a WWE Premium Live Event is always a way to grab fans’ attention.
In the confines of the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, that’s exactly what the sports entertainment juggernaut set out to do.
Fighting indifference and a potential burnout from big wrestling events, it wasn’t just rival promotions that WWE had to contend with heading in to Payback.
With no sign of Roman Reigns or any hint of The Bloodline’s usual drama and PLE dominance, this was a chance for others to stand up and fill the void.
A talk-show, four championship matches and a special guest host promised to turn a second tier show into something memorable. Andy Spoors picks out the biggest talking points from Payback…
Originally announced to be appearing at WWE’s upcoming event in India, the timing of John Cena’s return to WWE is impeccable.
With the ongoing Hollywood strikes affecting the movie industry, the proclaimed G.O.A.T. of the company has some spare time on his hands.
Returning home, Cena is now afforded a raucous reception whenever and wherever he appears. Gone are the days of split audiences that took so much joy in shouting “Let’s go Cena/Cena sucks!”.
One day before the event, the leader of the Cenation appointed himself the special guest host of Payback.
From past experience, that hosting role has normally stretched to an in-ring promo, backstage skit or two and that’s about it.
Here, Cena made his presence known by inserting himself into the match between The Miz and LA Knight.
The latter is by far and away one of the most popular in WWE right now, his “YEAH!” catchphrase echoing around the audience every time his music hits.
It was a smart move by the company to throw him into a hot feud. Any worry of Cena’s presence overshadowing either participant quickly dissolved.
Sure he got involved where needed, but seeing Knight stand up to an overzealous Cena trying to stop a disqualification added some needed tension.
It also sets up a potential match between the pair down the road.
We now know Cena will be on SmackDown for the next eight weeks or so and with a whole host of potential dream matches, fans can look forward to some entertaining back and forths between Knight and the future hall of famer.
Now that’s something we can see…
There’s Your Lemonade!
Much was made about the decision not to find a spot on the SummerSlam card for Becky Lynch vs Trish Stratus.
The pair have been locked in a rivalry for what feels like months.
Although it was never officially announced for that particular PLE, Triple H was forced to comment on it’s omission in the SummerSlam post event press conference.
“Sometimes, those decisions aren’t going to make everybody happy,” he said. “Sometimes, people are going to have to take the lemons and make lemonade.”
His answer was spread over social media and Lynch herself seemed to take umbrage in a tongue and cheek way, drinking lemonade and creating t-shirts adorned with lemons.
If the comments from Triple H may have sounded harsh or dismissive, they certainly had the desired effect as at Payback and inside a steel cage, Lynch and Stratus put on an incredible match.
With no championship gold on the line and opening the show, both Superstars seemed intent on silencing any critics.
It’s something Hall of Fame entrant Trish Stratus has done throughout her career: a trailblazer during a time when women’s matches were treated as nothing more than an afterthought, toilet break or even worse degraded with bikini contests or mud bath fights.
Returning from retirement, Stratus has nothing to prove to anyone.
She elevated the women’s division long ago alongside the likes of Lita, Victoria and Mickey James (and so many others).
No-one can ever accuse the Canadian of phoning it in or returning for financial gain, after delivering what could be the best match of her career to date.
Playing a perfect heel, Trish kept Lynch on her toes with various attempts at escaping the cage early.
But after the opening stages of the match progressed, the welts from flying face first into the link fencing soon appeared.
At this stage of her career, Stratus simply did not have to put her body through that kind of punishment.
Pictures taken after the match highlighting just how much damage had been done to her forehead, arms, elbows and back.
If anyone ever doubted the ability of Lynch or Stratus in delivering a match of the year contender, the pair answered in the best way possible.
As The Man once again had her hand raised in victory, it will be an interesting dilemma on how to use Becky moving forward.
It feels like she is deliberately being kept away from the title scene on Raw in order to give some depth to the women’s roster.
An intriguing rivalry with NXT Champion Tiffany Stratton looks to be next, giving not only the black and gold brand but Stratton herself some well deserved shine on the main roster.
Judgement Day Stand Tall
Their faces adorned the promotional artwork for Payback, so it felt right that the members of the Judgement Day featured across the PLE.
With Rhea Ripley successful in her title defence against a game Raquel Rodriguez, it felt like the pressure was always on Damian Priest and Finn Balor to deliver during their match with WWE Tag Team Champions Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens.
Since winning the titles on the first night of WrestleMania 39 in LA, the reign of Owens and Zayn has felt disjointed and never quite living up to what can only be described as a magical moment in the pair’s careers.
And a lack of credible opponents and injuries have halted the momentum gained inside SoFi Stadium.
In Balor & Priest, the champions finally found a team raring to go and stand toe to toe for the titles.
A lot of the build up focussed on the disharmony between the Judgement Day, but when the bell rang Zayn and Owens reminded the world why they are considered two of the best in the business.
Spilling out of the ring and around the arena, the WWE Universe lapped up every moment of this No DQ match.
Breaking tables, wearing Pittsburgh Penguin hockey jerseys and even the rare sight of blood made this tag match an absolute spectacle.
A number of pin falls that on any other night would have claimed victory were broken up by the other members of the Judgement Day, from Dirty Dom Mysterio to wannabe member JD McDonaugh.
Each one of them showed why Judgement Day has evolved into one of the most dominant factions in the company right now.
The numbers game would eventually catch up with Zayn and Owens as Mysterio blasted Zayn with Priest’s Money In The Bank contract to set up a hard fought pinfall for the challengers.
The image of all four official members of Judgement Day standing draped in championships will live long in the memory, as will this fantastic match.
Gaining the Grayson Waller Rub
The inclusion of a chat show segment on a PLE, raised some eyebrows and criticism that the show had been booked like one of WWE’s weekly episodic programmes.
When all was said and done, it would provide a huge amount of intrigue and a shocking announcement.
Grayson Waller hasn’t been on the main roster for too long, but with the time he has received the Aussie has stepped up to any task given.
A huge spot with John Cena at Money In The Bank in London, a match against Edge and here a chat show with Cody Rhodes: Nothing seems to faze the 33 year old Aussie.
His usual snarky remarks towards his guests were evident here but the momentum shifted as Rhodes put Waller in his place while promising a huge announcement.
The revelation? The return of Jey Uso to Monday Night Raw and away from his family feud over on SmackDown.
Belittling Raw’s latest Superstar signing, Waller received a superkick for his troubles as the WWE Universe began to speculate what the ramifications of Jey being free on Monday night’s could be.
Will Rhodes move to SmackDown? Does this bring us one step closer to The American Nightmare vs Tribal Chief part two? Can Jey really make it on his own? Will The Bloodline saga come to an end soon?
We will all just have to keep watching to find out the answer to all those questions as WWE battles against the usual slump in viewing and ratings the back half of the year tends to bring.