WWE Payback 2014 was a celebration of the company's future, of the young, the talented and the hardworking—even if the ceremony surrounding Bray Wyatt puttered out at the end.
A pay-per-view in its infancy provided a wealth of standout matches, several of which featured the next generation of marquee names. Rusev and Big E crashed into each other. Paige employed nastiness and grit to retain her title. The Shield capped off the night in impressive fashion.
Payback's final image is rich with symbolism.
Triple H, a WWE headliner for years, lay unmoving in the middle of the ring. The Shield, a trio of wrestlers only 18 months removed from their debut, stood around him triumphant. Roman Reigns, who many envision as a future centerpiece for the company, pressed his boot onto Triple H's chest.
The Shield not only scored its second win against Evolution (31 world titles between them), but the group did so without suffering a single elimination.
In a bout just as frenetic and thrilling as their Extreme Rules encounter, The Shield played the part of the unstoppable force. It didn't matter that Evolution powerbombed Reigns through the announce table or that they whipped him with kendo sticks. It didn't matter that Triple H nailed Seth Rollins with a piece of metal or cracked Dean Ambrose in the jaw with a sledgehammer.
The Hounds of Justice continued to rise.
It's hard to get a more clear sign that the torch has been passed. Randy Orton and Batista, who were just in WrestleMania's main event, lost. The men who beat them stood tall as the cameras went off, having swept their series with Evolution.
Add that instant classic to The Shield's extensive collection of them.
In The Shield vs. Evolution matches, they've done a nice job not only with match quality, but telling a story during the match #WWEPayback— Greg Parks (@gregmparks) June 2, 2014
Payback did more than highlight those black-clad gentlemen. The show also produced Rusev's best WWE work to date.
Big E wasn't going to be one of Rusev's easy victims. He matched power with The Bulgarian Brute for the most part.
Spearing Rusev off the apron into the barricade was the clear highlight to a short, effective contest.
The bout flashed both Big E's potential and Rusev's ability to thrive in a non-squash match. Just the fact that Lana's monster was on the pay-per-view while former world champs Alberto Del Rio and Big Show didn't get onscreen is a statement in itself.
WWE has showcased Paige plenty since her debut, too.
She has yet to miss a pay-per-view since winning the Divas title. Aksana, Tamina Snuka and Alicia Fox have all fallen thanks to her.
Her latest defense was unfortunately placed in the palate-cleanser role. Paige vs. Alicia Fox came after the intense John Cena vs. Wyatt Last Man Standing match and before the six-man main event.
With little time to work with, Paige still showed off aggression one doesn't often see in the Divas division.
The Anti-Diva smashed Fox into the barricade, and the two brawled on the outside. She survived Fox's haymakers and added a submission victory to her ever-improving resume.
Paige has the potential to be the future of the division, and WWE continues to build toward that possibility. Giving her title matches on pay-per-views, which makes her look gutsy and powerful in the process, is smart. WWE can't rely on those wrestlers already residing on the highest rungs.
It has to elevate Paige, Rusev and The Shield to that level.
Payback nailed that task to varying degrees with those stars. What the event did or didn't do for Wyatt will be one of the most talked-about subjects coming out of the show.
All the future-building WWE did in Chicago will go unnoticed by many. The frustration over WWE's stubbornness is sure to cloud some folks' vision.
Having Cena win was a mistake.
After a feud that lasted almost six months, Wyatt has but one victory to show for it. His win at Extreme Rules is one riddled with asterisks as well.
It took Erick Rowan and Luke Harper waving steel chairs and climbing into the cage to beat Cena. It took a choir boy with a demonic voice for Cena to lose. On top of that, Wyatt won by escape, not pinfall.
After battling Wyatt for all this time, Cena has very few scars.
The war hasn't changed him, hasn't affected his loss column and has rarely had him seek medical attention. These are all flaws in a rivalry that should have made The Eater of Worlds look hauntingly dangerous as he entered WWE's top tier.
WWE didn't fail with Wyatt, though. The company hit some home runs with him at Payback even if it whiffed badly on the final at-bat.
His match with Cena was one of his finest efforts. Too many items on his resume prior to that bout have been underwhelming.
A tepid match against Kane at last year's SummerSlam and a few solid outings against Kofi Kingston preceded two disappointing bouts against Cena. Their WrestleMania clash had some intriguing story elements, including Wyatt begging Cena to hit him with a chair.
Other matches outshined it, though. That was even more true at Extreme Rules, where Cena and Wyatt's collision in a steel cage dragged on and suffered from trying too hard to protect Cena. The WeeLC match on the pre-show was more entertaining.
So far, it's Wyatt's Royal Rumble classic against Bryan that has been his magnum opus.
One could argue, though, that it was Bryan who led him to that masterpiece. Bryan has established himself as a wrestler capable of bringing out his opponent's best a la Shawn Michaels. This performance opposite Cena helps dispel the idea that Wyatt was "carried."
Shoving aside the decision to have Wyatt go 1-2 against Cena in their series, one sees the positive. Wyatt and Cena put on one of the most thrilling Last Man Standing matches ever.
The brutality built over time. The Usos and The Wyatt Family contributed high spots aplenty. The crux of the match was the electricity between Wyatt and Cena.
WWE let the two foes go at it more than before, and the result was an enthralling performance by both men. Wyatt not only looked like a star in this battle, but he played the part of madman, beast and warrior in what will surely be in the running for Match of the Year.
That alone benefits Wyatt hugely.
WWE chose to let other up-and-comers get outright victories. Wyatt's moral one is still plenty valuable.