WWE's Payback pay-per-view has come and gone and early indications are that it was one of, if not the, best event the company has put on this year.
John Cena defeated Ryback to retain his WWE title in the main event of the evening while Daniel Bryan, CM Punk and Chris Jericho ignited a hot crowd and stole the show. Alberto Del Rio captured the World title for a second time but it was former champion Dolph Ziggler who had the respect and adulation of the Chicago audience following the heavyweight title bout.
AJ Lee and Kaitlyn delivered the best Divas title match in ages while Curtis Axel continued his rise to Superstardom by capturing the Intercontinental Championship.
A hell of a pay-per-view from start to finish, this is the good, great and awesome from June 2013's WWE Payback.
Curtis Axel is champion!
The opening match of the evening may have started slow but by its conclusion, the crowd in Chicago erupted for one of the best finishes of the year and a new Intercontinental champion.
With Wade Barrett writhing in pain, his knee wrenched in The Miz's Figure Four leg lock, Curtis Axel slid into the ring and pinned Barrett's shoulders to the mat. The Miz was in shock, unaware that Axel had re-entered the ring as he attempted to submit the Intercontinental champion in the center of the squared circle. The look of shock on his face as Axel celebrated his first singles title win provided a priceless moment and really cemented the fact that the third-generation star had gotten one over on his two more experienced opponents.
What makes Axel's win even more special is the fact that he won the title that his late father, "Mr. Perfect" Curt Hennig, had revolutionized, and he did so on Father's Day. Like Axel or not, it was a special moment that he will remember the rest of his life, regardless of what heights he eventually does, or does not, reach.
John Cena vs. Ryback: Three Stages of Hell
The main event of WWE Payback featured John Cena defending his WWE title against Ryback in a Three Stages of Hell match.
The bout was every bit as chaotic as one would expect, especially when it came to the second and third falls. The tables match stipulation was used well but it was during the ambulance match fall that the match kicked into third gear, begging the question if it should not have just been an ambulance match from the beginning.
Cena and Ryback utilized the ambulance as a weapon to great success and delivered a brutal, punishing and vicious main event that brought a fitting end to their two-month rivalry.
The finish, which saw Cena deliver the Attitude Adjustment to Ryback through the roof of the ambulance, was absurd but provided a great visual.
Dean Ambrose out-thinks Kane
The finish of the United States title match was the best part of a solid, if unspectacular match.
With the fight spilling to the outside, Ambrose slapped Kane. The Big Red Monster became enraged and lost control of his emotions, eventually falling victim to a DDT on the arena floor. Ambrose rolled into the ring and the referee initiated a 10 count that would ultimately lead to a loss for Kane and a successful title defense for the breakout star of The Shield.
The finish, unpopular with fans in attendance, was brilliant in that it showed how far Ambrose thinks ahead of his opposition. He bated Kane into losing his temper, into not thinking rationally and as a result, he left himself open for the DDT that proved to be his downfall.
Daniel Bryan and Randy Orton fall short...again
The tag team title match at Payback was easily the second best match of the night, which should be no surprise. Nor should the fact that Daniel Bryan and Randy Orton once again fell in defeat at the hands of The Shield.
Bryan exploded into the match with tremendous energy and aggression, popping the Chicago crowd in the process. As he has in recent weeks, Bryan had no problem with dispatching of Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins by himself but, again, it was miscommunication with partner Orton that would prove to be the babyface's downfall.
The loss brings Daniel Bryan one step closer to a major singles push and should bring to a close the Team Hell No/Randy Orton chapter of The Shield's story.
AJ wins gold, crushes Kaitlyn
In the best Divas title match in years, AJ Lee and Kaitlyn delivered phenomenal performances and masterfully told a story that kept fans intrigued and entertained.
Kaitlyn, an emotional wreck following the revelation of her "secret admirer" on last week's Raw, allowed her feelings to get the best of her. Late in the bout, she delivered a hellish spear that knocked AJ unconscious. Instead of covering her for the win, she opted to lift the lifeless challenger's head off the mat and, mocking something from earlier in the match, blow her a kiss. When she finally did cover, AJ kicked out.
Moments later, Kaitlyn charged at AJ in the corner but connected head-first with the middle turnbuckle. AJ would apply the Black Widow and pick up the submission win, to the delight of the fans in Chicago, despite being the heel in the match.
Kaitlyn would spend the minutes immediately after the bout crying and needing to be consoled by fellow former Divas champion Layla before heading to the back.
The result of the match seems to indicate a new direction for the Kaitlyn character, who is emotionally drained and heading for a breakdown, not unlike the one AJ endured through most of 2012. Meanwhile, the new Divas champion has seen her hard work pay off and is now the unquestioned top female performer in World Wrestling Entertainment.
Alberto Del Rio defeated Dolph Ziggler for the World Heavyweight title on Sunday night but, more importantly than the match result was what happened over the course of the bout and immediately afterward.
Del Rio was so focused on winning back the World title, so obsessed with recapturing the title he unfairly lost the night after WrestleMania, that he targeted the head of his opponent, exploiting the very real concussion Ziggler had suffered over a month earlier. He was relentless, ruthless and merciless in his attack and it was the best heel performance of Del Rio's career.
Even though ADR entered the show as a babyface.
Conversely, Ziggler garnered fantastic sympathy and support from a crowd that was already cheering him to begin with but sided with him completely after buying into the story being told. He was the resilient champion, fighting through the potentially-life threatening injury in an attempt to retain the title he worked so hard to have the right to hold.
With each kick, the boos for Del Rio grew while the cheers for some sort of Buffalo Bills-esque comeback by Dolph increased.
But there was no comeback. Del Rio acknowledged the boos and seemed to take some sort of perverse joy in delivering each kick to Ziggler's head. The final one, a short side kick, would result in Del Rio's second World title reign and the most heat he has had in over a year.
As the fallen former champion rolled out of the ring, tears flowed freely down AJ's face while the Chicago audience showed their respect for Dolph, unleashing a loud "Ziggler" chant.
After the bout, Del Rio reappeared and pandered to the crowd. He said he did everything for the fans and wanted them to give it up for him as their new champion. It came across as insincere and disingenuous and, after his actions moments earlier, the Chicago fans in attendance rained down on him with a chorus of boos.
"Best in the World!", Match of the Year?
CM Punk made his return to WWE Sunday night in front of friends and family in Chicago and stood across the ring from one of the best workers in the history of the sport in Chris Jericho.
The match that resulted from the two extraordinary talents is a legitimate Match of the Year candidate and a phenomenal display of sports-entertainment at its very best. Punk and Jericho took control of both the match and the audience and had every fan in attendance eating out of the palms of their hands as they traded holds, counters and near-falls before Punk hoisted Jericho on his shoulders and delivered GTS not once, but twice before picking up the pin-fall victory.
The match had very little build behind it, outside of each man wanting to prove they were the best, but the performers told a tremendous story throughout and it added to what was already a phenomenal match in its own right.
Punk was the former WWE champion who had reigned for 434 days but a series of losses had made him question his ability. With every near-fall the referee counted, for every time he was unable to put Jericho away, he questioned himself more and more.
Y2J was the decorated star who had one thing left to accomplish: beat CM Punk. He pulled every move, hold and counter he had in his arsenal but he just could not overcome the will of Punk to prove he was the best.
This was a professional wrestling match that lacked any special gimmicks and was not the result of some contrived story from the creative team. It was a masterful work of art from two of the best in the business and featured a basic premise that every fan, young and old, can understand.
Sometimes simplicity is best. At Payback, it was the Best in the World.