WWE Payback 2014: Grading Each Superstar's Performance at Event
As much as any match succeeds or fails based on the combined efforts of the performers involved, it is the individual performances that help to define the overall show and create memories that will live on in the weeks, months and years that follow.
Sunday night at Payback, fans had the privilege of watching some of the greatest Superstars in WWE history turn in outstanding performances while the young men and women who will carry the company into the future proved themselves capable of doing so.
The Shield, the Wyatt Family, Rusev, Cesaro and Sheamus established themselves as not only the future of the industry but also as the present, while Triple H, Randy Orton, Batista and John Cena continued to etch legacies for themselves that will one day land them in the WWE Hall of Fame.
With Payback in the books and the company looking forward to June 29 and Money in the Bank, recap Sunday's show one more time by taking a look at the individual report cards for the Superstars and Divas who worked to make the show one of the finest of 2014.
United States Champion Sheamus
The United States champion got Sunday's event kicked off and was greeted by a largely negative reaction courtesy of the vocal, passionate Chicago fans.
He did everything in his power to get those people on his side during his championship defense against the surging Cesaro. His performance, like his career to this point, was stellar, yet understated. He did a lot very well, including selling Cesaro's vicious uppercuts and forearms, before mounting his trademark comeback and nearly scoring the victory with White Noise.
The finish of the match, an inside cradle that caught the challenger off-guard, helped make Sheamus look like a resilient, resourceful and alert champion and was completely unexpected.
For the Celtic Warrior, it was yet another great performance by a Superstar likely to be remembered in years to come as one of the most underrated and underappreciated stars of his era. Behind the smiling and the awful Irish jokester facade is a talented wrestler capable of delivering consistently great matches.
Sunday night, fans bore witness to another fine example of that.
Cesaro was the clear fan favorite as he entered the Allstate Arena for his United States Championship match against Sheamus.
On the biggest roll of his career and with Paul Heyman by his side, Cesaro had emerged as the favorite to take the title from the Celtic Warrior and continue his push up the ladder in World Wrestling Entertainment.
True to his style, Cesaro wore Sheamus down with a flurry of hard forearms to the face and uppercuts that would have left a lesser competitor lying in a heap. His Cesaro Swing should have set him up to accomplish his goal of capturing the title, but an unexpected inside cradle put an end to his quest to wrest the title from his new-found rival.
Cesaro has been one of the best workers on the planet thus far in 2014. His matches with former heavyweight champions such as John Cena, Randy Orton, Dolph Ziggler and Rob Van Dam have demonstrated that much, and Sunday's war with Sheamus only continued to add to that reputation.
He may not have won, and he may have had better matches over the past six months, but that does not change the quality of his performance. It was another fine performance from a guy who, even at 75 percent of what he is capable of, is better than most of the roster.
Cody Rhodes and Goldust
Cody Rhodes delivered his finest performance of 2014 Sunday night, as he showed great determination in trying to end his losing streak and pick up a major victory.
The second-generation Superstar was incredibly energetic as he received the hot tag and went to work on knocking off the overconfident RybAxel. His offense was crisp, save for a sloppy moonsault, and the crowd responded to the pure emotion shown by the former Intercontinental and Tag Team champion.
His two failed attempts at the Disaster Kick told the story of the match and resulted in a hot ending to a match far better than it had any right being.
Goldust, the respected pro whose resume speaks for itself, was also quite good, as he played the sympathetic babyface-in-peril role to a tee.
The post-match promo in which a dejected Rhodes essentially split from his brother was a fine, logical step in the story the company is trying to tell, but it leaves both men with no real clear direction outside of an almost guaranteed singles match between them at some point down the road.
A fine performance by a duo that many considered the best tag team in wrestling as late as last December.
Ryback and Curtis Axel
So boring and irrelevant were Ryback and Curtis Axel as 2014 approached that the two former "Heyman Guys" likely could have gone away and never come back again and fans would have never known the difference.
Since then, they have worked to develop chemistry as a team, and with every passing match, they improve as a unit. The dynamic they have between them, with Axel working a more technical-based offense and Ryback coming in to deliver pain and punishment courtesy of his raw power, works extremely well and has led to very solid outings for the team.
Sunday at Payback, they competed in a match that was thrown onto the card at the last minute but still managed to keep the crowd entertained en route to a quality win over the former tag team champions, Cody Rhodes and Goldust.
Ryback in particular was impressive, as he twice caught Rhodes in midair off of Disaster Kick attempts and planted him with signature moves. The Shellshock following the second attempt was phenomenal and led to a heated finish that helped elevate the match beyond typical Raw fare.
Grade: B-, if only because the match likely would not have been as good without the Rhodes brothers to work off of
Sunday night, Big E was asked to forge the fact that he was a former NXT and Intercontinental champion and focus his attention on putting the massive Rusev over in the strongest fashion possible.
He did that by establishing himself early, then essentially becoming a rag doll for the Bulgarian Brute later on.
E stood toe-to-toe with the physically imposing Rusev, firing away with rights and lefts about the body before delivering a spear through the ropes and to the arena floor. Commentators Michael Cole, JBL and Jerry Lawler did a fine job of putting over E's early-match onslaught, and the crowd gave the spear spot the recognition it deserved.
From there on out, E proved his worth to the company by letting Rusev hit all of his signature offense before tapping out to the dreaded Accolade.
E has proven throughout his young WWE career that he is a phenomenal athlete with unmatched strength. He works hard, fights harder and has a knack for getting fans into the action, even if they were not invested to begin with.
Allowing him to inject his character with some of the natural charisma found at his Twitter account may be that one remaining ingredient that helps him to the next level in WWE.
For Rusev, the objective Sunday night was simple: prove you can take a beating as well as you can give one.
While he still managed to dominate the majority of his bout against Big E, he was forced to withstand an early onslaught in order to slow the match down and physically pick his opponent apart. With Lana ordering him on from ringside, he locked in the vaunted Accolade and scored the most impressive victory of his main roster career.
More importantly, the Chicago crowd's reaction to the Bulgarian Brute indicated the act may finally be striking a chord with the WWE Universe, something that will make expanding and evolving his character significantly easier in the future.
Bo Dallas' current character was built out of the NXT Universe's refusal to accept him as the generic, white-bread babyface that WWE positioned him as a few years back.
Who could have ever imagined that he would one day debut on the main roster as the motivational leader of the Bo-lievers and be on the receiving end of a positive reaction from the hardcore Chicago fans?
At Payback, the third-generation star was slated to face Kofi Kingston in an unadvertised bonus match when Kane's pyro exploded and the Devil's Favorite Demon made his way to the ring. Dallas watched as Kane pummeled Kingston and left him lying there following a chokeslam and a Tombstone piledriver.
Dallas, the delusional self-help guru that he thinks he is, entered the ring and imparted some words of encouragement to his would-be opponent.
"Don't worry, you'll be back on your feet in no time. All you have to do is Bo-lieve," he told an unconscious Kofi before exiting the squared circle to a pocket of audible "Bo-lieve" chants.
Had you asked most NXT fans whether Dallas or Adam Rose would get over with the fans of Raw and SmackDown, most would have pointed at Rose. While that character is absolutely over the top in terms of his goofiness, Dallas' is more subdued and works on a level that Rose's clearly has not.
It should be interesting to see if Dallas is able to build off of the momentum he has right now by recruiting new fans or if there is indeed a cap to the level of success he is capable of achieving as a main roster star.
Kofi Kingston has lasted as long as he has in World Wrestling Entertainment because he is an electrifying performer capable of executing feats of tremendous athleticism. He is also an extremely likable young man and as such, is capable of generating great sympathy thanks to his outstanding selling.
After sending out a tweet earlier in the afternoon that suggested the Authority was overstepping its boundaries in reference to Daniel Bryan's WWE World Heavyweight Championship ultimatum, he paid dearly at the hands of the Big Red Monster, Kane.
Kingston, true to form, took a violent beating and was left lying unconscious following a vicious chokeslam and Tombstone.
That he has so much goodwill built up with the WWE Universe only helped make Kingston perfect for the role of Kane's latest victim.
It should be interesting to see if Kingston enjoys a bit of a push from the ordeal, perhaps becoming the injured Bryan's surrogate of sorts, or if he simply plays punching bag for the Devil's Favorite Demon as early as Monday's Raw.
Grade: C, for taking his typically great bumps but doing nothing else of note
The Big Red Monster made his presence felt Sunday night by doing Stephanie McMahon's bidding once more. This time, he targeted Kofi Kingston, who paid dearly for voicing his opinion about the Daniel Bryan WWE Championship situation.
Kane destroyed Kingston and left him lying in a heap following his trademark chokeslam and Tombstone combination.
The segment did little of note other than serve as an introduction to Bo Dallas while also reminding fans that Kane is, in fact, the controlled muscle of Stephanie. With Bryan opting to hold onto the WWE title later in the show, one would assume he will be returning to the ring soon, and his first duty as champion will undoubtedly include defending against Kane.
Delivering a beatdown that showcases one's dominance is a suitable way to keep the fans interested in the character, even if its top rival is sidelined at the moment.
And even if fans had seen the segment 100 other times with 100 other victims and the same masked destroyer.
Grade: C-; been there, done that
Rob Van Dam
The more motivated Rob Van Dam is at this point in his career, the more likely fans are to witness a spirited, hard-fought match between him and whomever he is sharing the ring with.
Sunday night proved the exception to the rule.
Despite appearing motivated to have the best match possible, he and Intercontinental champion Bad News Barrett never fully clicked, and the result was a relatively average match that would have been right at home on Monday Night Raw or even Tuesday night's Main Event.
Van Dam worked hard, but his reliance on the same general move set that he has borrowed from for 15 years now has a tendency to limit the overall quality of his performances.
Watching Sunday's title bout, one could have easily sat with a checklist of RVD's signature and finishing moves and crossed them off one by one as he executed them.
That is not an indictment of Van Dam by any stretch of the imagine. The man is an all-time great, one of the leaders of the pro wrestling boom in the late 1990s that saw WWE, WCW and ECW enjoy tremendous success and the greatest star Paul Heyman's renegade promotion ever produced.
He has earned the right to lean heavily on the moves that got him to where he is today, not unlike recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Kiss would fall back on their greatest hits at a reunion concert.
There are drawbacks to taking that approach, however, as fans witnessed Sunday night.
Grade: C; an average grade for an average performance
Bad News Barrett
Intercontinental champion Bad News Barrett failed to maintain some of the momentum he gathered over the last month on Sunday night when he wrestled a fairly basic match against Rob Van Dam.
The pessimistic Brit worked hard and had the crowd behind him, despite his status as a heel, but he and his opponent never quite clicked, and the result was a disappointing effort by all involved.
Barrett is at the point in his push where the crowd reaction is there, but he still cannot afford a slipup. If any Superstar understands how quickly a push can be taken away, it is Barrett. He has watched main event runs disintegrate before his very eyes and thus, he understands how important it is to impress every time a performer has the opportunity to appear on television or pay-per-view.
Whether the disappointing performance can be attributed to a lack of chemistry between Barrett and Van Dam, a lack of effort from one or the other or simply an off night for both competitors is irrelevant. What was merely an OK match needed very much to be more, and it was not.
Grade: B-, if only for the entertaining promo prior to the match itself
Stephanie McMahon has been one of, if not the, best heel in World Wrestling Entertainment in 2014. Sunday night, she continued her hot streak by rolling into Chicago, insulting the fans and CM Punk and turning in a fine performance as she once attempted to make life miserable for WWE World Heavyweight champion Daniel Bryan.
She showed great control of the crowd as she taunted Bryan with threats to fire Brie, cut off a loud onslaught of "CM Punk" chants by reminding the audience that he quit and being the vindictive and vile businesswoman her father, one of the greatest heels in wrestling history, would be proud of.
The most buzzed-about moment from the entire segment was the slap Stephanie suffered at the hands of Brie. Stephanie sold the strike phenomenally, a look of disbelief on her face as she tucked tail and ran to the back.
Humiliated and disrespected, it should be interesting to see how she responds on Raw and in the weeks to come.
Grade: A, with the Punk insult cementing the grade
Daniel Bryan may be one of the best wrestlers on the planet, but his microphone skills have always been hit or miss. Sunday night, he proved that reputation correct by delivering a very generic response to Stephanie's threats to fire his wife and take his title.
In fact, nothing Bryan said was really that much different from his promo on last Monday's Raw. Sure, he pointed out the fact that his boss was summarily booed out of the building, but that was about as new as it got for the WWE World Heavyweight champion.
At some point, he took a backseat to the confrontation between wife Brie and Stephanie and watched with a smile on his face as the former Divas champion hauled off and slapped her former boss in the face. The chants of "Yes!" filled the arena and Bryan pointed skyward to end the segment.
There was very little for Bryan to do Sunday night other than be the centerpiece of what looks like a budding rivalry between Brie Bella and Stephanie McMahon. If that is the case, there are far worse ways to use the champion while he recovers from surgery.
Still, one would have expected more from him since his decision was one of the more prominent selling points for Sunday's broadcast.
Brie Bella has been little more than arm candy for Daniel Bryan over the last month, and the few opportunities she has had to be involved in promos or segments have not necessarily netted strong performances.
Sunday night, she hit the proverbial ball out of the park as she stood up to Stephanie McMahon, stood up for her man and quit rather than seeing her husband have to relinquish the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
Strong female characters have not necessarily been WWE's strong point from a creative perspective, but the segment involving Bella, McMahon and Bryan at Payback proved that when done correctly, it can be extremely effective.
Telling Stephanie off, quitting and slapping her former boss generated the loudest reaction Brie had ever experienced in her career with WWE and now sets up a scenario in which there is genuine interest in a potential match between the female performers.
If that were to happen, the heat would likely be off the charts thanks to the strong storytelling between them to this point.
John Cena never quite gets the credit he deserves for being the quality of performer that he is. A great "big match" worker, he delivered a Match of the Year candidate against Bray Wyatt at Payback, presumably ending the feud on the high note it so desperately needed.
Cena took big bumps and delivered several high spots as he and Wyatt worked to deliver the match that fans of their program deserved.
His displays of strength as he repeatedly leveled Wyatt with the Attitude Adjustment, then threw the ring steps at him were phenomenal and added to the story. No matter how beaten and battered he was, he dug down deep within himself and mustered the strength necessary to win the match.
Cena excels at matches in which he can be creative and devise spots that will elicit a specific reaction from the audience. He proved that again Sunday, crafting a match that delivered everything fans would want from a Last Man Standing match and then some.
The best performance from the leader of the Cenation thus far in 2014.
Bray Wyatt needed a career-defining performance as he entered the Allstate Arena in Chicago for Payback in the worst way.
Despite revolutionary promos that helped him achieve status as one of the best talkers in professional wrestling, his work with John Cena in the ring had been mediocre at best. Sunday night, he set out to change that, and did he ever.
Wyatt played the roles of ruthless attacker and pain-riddled punching bag to perfection as he and Cena fought all over the arena.
While many will argue that his loss in the match has led to him somehow being "buried" by Cena, that simply is not the case. The leader of the Wyatt Family overcame steel stairs being thrown into his face, multiple Attitude Adjustments and big bumps on the arena floor.
To top it all off, he only lost when he was buried under hundreds of pounds of equipment, making it impossible to rise before the count of 10.
It was every bit the performance fans expected of him dating back to WrestleMania. While they may have been disappointed at that show and at Extreme Rules, Wyatt more than made up for it at Payback with one of the best matches of the year.
Early in her main roster career, Paige has seemingly found a formula she feels comfortable using. Unfortunately, she has leaned heavily on said formula too often, and as a result, many of her matches look and feel uniformed. Against Alicia Fox, said formula was on display once again.
The female version of John Cena, Paige took a beating for the majority of the match, then came back just in time to finish Fox off with the Scorpion Cross Lock for the submission win.
As she continued to adapt to the fast-paced nature of WWE television, it is OK that she utilizes that formula to her advantage. The longer she sticks around and the more she dips into that bag, however, the more she risks alienating the fans who watched her deliver stellar performances in NXT.
There was nothing wrong with Sunday's match, outside of a lack of time, but fans will expect more from Paige as each week passes. Failure to deliver will result in backlash.
In her first pay-per-view title bout in years, Alicia Fox showed great personality when she hit the ring. Unfortunately, a lack of time would severely limit the quality of her match with Paige, as well as any plans for a post-match meltdown.
Fox was her usual solid self between bells, but after tapping to the Scorpion Cross Lock, she simply ran to the back in an attempt to keep her cool.
The entire match was a letdown given the buzz that surrounded Fox's recent performances. Rather than seeing a grand culmination of the program, fans were left scratching their heads following another very basic, uneventful Divas title match.
Hopefully Fox has the opportunity to rebound on Raw.
Triple H, Randy Orton and Batista have been subjected to a ton of criticism throughout their careers. Some has been earned, while most was nonsensical rubbish from disillusioned fans tired of seeing the same guys at the top of the card.
How anyone can criticize them for their work in putting The Shield over the past two months is mind-boggling.
No overly blue tights can hide the fact that Evolution did about as much as possible to make sure fans recognized Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns as the future of professional wrestling. In the process, they turned in another great performance that is likely to be overlooked or swept under the carpet because of who they are.
Triple H in particular was absolutely phenomenal in the closing moments of the bout. Like a member of the old guard grasping to his spot, he held onto his trusty sledgehammer until the very end.
He was defiant as he was confronted by the three-on-one numbers disadvantage. A desperation shot to Ambrose opened him up for a knee to the head from Rollins, followed by the spear from Reigns. Lying unconscious at the feet of the victors as the show went off the air, Triple H had completed the greatest three-match stretch of his entire career.
This was a defining performance from all three Superstars and one that they should be incredibly proud of.
Grade: A, because the match itself was a step below Cena vs. Wyatt from earlier
The Shield has never been tested the way they were Sunday night at Payback. That they withstood the onslaught that they did from Evolution and still managed to fight back and emerge victorious added to their characters and proved they do not have to control the situation to come out on top.
Roman Reigns deserves credit for the violent assault he suffered at the hands of Triple H, Batista and Randy Orton.
His vest removed and his back exposed, he was the recipient of a violent cane attack that left welts and bruises all over his body. Never willing to give up and put his team at a disadvantage, however, he fought to preserve the numbers advantage, going as far as to recover in enough time to break up a pinfall attempt by Orton on Rollins following an RKO.
Speaking of Rollins, he again stole the spotlight with a breathtaking dive off the video screen and onto his opponents. That spot reignited the energy within The Shield and helped them mount a comeback.
Ambrose, the lunatic fringe of the group, exploded from out of nowhere to take the fight to Evolution and set up the dive by Rollins.
Sunday's match was the culmination of a hard push to the top of the company for The Shield, and the Hounds of Justice rewarded management's faith and belief in them with another phenomenal performance.