The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of WrestlingInc or its staff
Payback, coming one week after SummerSlam, was a fairly interesting show from WWE. Since it mainly relied on fallout from SummerSlam, or matches that were built on television but kept off SummerSlam, it actually had a surprisingly well-built card despite the six day build. The matches on the show were really nothing special, only one match would I say was notably good and most of them were pretty forgettable. That being said, the finishes on this show were pretty notable as WWE did do a lot of story building with the finishes, particularly in the main event, the Lee vs Orton match, the women's tag title match, and the Mysterios vs Rollins and Murphy. The finishes appearing to have some real consequences, as well as a brief running time, made Payback a solid show despite mostly meh matches.
The Fiend vs Braun Strowman vs Roman Reigns: *3/4
The Fiend and Strowman basically had a repeat of their not-very-good SummerSlam match, only this time nobody bought any of the near falls or cared all that much about what they were doing, since it was clear whatever they did, it was just to set-up whatever was happening with Reigns. So they did the exploding ring-bit, something that I kind of find overdone after the original spot, but it was whatever because it was just about Reigns coming in and winning the title.
Reigns is clearly a heel, which is obviously a big change for him. As a heel, he won't be battling the idea that he was a face that fans resented for being pushed too hard, which is huge for him. Outside of that, Reigns' success is going to come from his ability to both become more charismatic as a heel, and to be a more interesting character. As a heel aligned with Paul Heyman, he is the most interesting he has been since he arrived with The Shield, so that is currently taken care of. Whether or not he unlocks that special level of charisma the biggest star in the company needs to have will remain to be seen. Things look promising right now, but WWE has been trying in vain for years to get Reigns over to a certain level, and it is going to take me a while at this point to believe that Reigns is going to get to that level.
Keith Lee vs Randy Orton: **¾
They kept this match pretty short, shorter than most people would have expected. That was wise because Lee still has issues with his selling and you don't want to expose him right now. Protecting someone is not just about who wins and who loses, it is about not putting them in positions to fail or be exposed. So the match wasn't really amazing, but Orton but over Lee clean as a bedsheet, and despite issues with his ring attire and entrance music, it is clear WWE values Lee as a potential top star. Really, with a win over Orton, Lee should be the next challenger for Drew McIntyre's WWE Championship, although they shot a big angle for Orton vs McIntyre on RAW.
Easily the best match on the show. Rey, Rollins and Murphy are all great workers and did a great job tonight. Dominick really isn't, but there is a certain charm that you get when watching a wrestler who is just starting out and shows clear star potential, similar to the Young Lion's in NJPW. The key spot, with Rollins demanding that Murphy "kick him in the head" with Rey then reversing the spot and causing Murphy to kick Rollins, was a really smart spot that led to the finish. Nice to see Dominick win with the finisher his father made popular in WWE.
The work here was bad; Jax was just awkward in the match and the psychology was a disaster. The story is that Bayley and Banks are sinister heels who have finagled their way into retaining their titles. So they face two obvious heels teaming up in a heel vs heel match? Nia Jax is supposed to be the babyface? It was a real problem, and if it had been Asuka and Baszler instead it would have been so much better, because Asuka is a clear babyface and obviously a much better wrestler.
That being said, the finish to this match was really good. First, it made Baszler look like a superstar and a deadly submission expert by getting both of her opponents in submission holds. Then, having Bayley tap while Banks did not, is a perfect touch for how WWE is trying to tell the Banks vs Bayley story, by having Bayley not carry her weight in the team. For that, I can deal with a lousy match and the nonsensical pairing of Baszler and Jax, because the real story here is the Banks and Bayley relationship, and WWE nailed that part tonight.
Big E vs Sheamus: **¾
This wasn't a bad match, but it felt like a mistake in how it was put together. The idea is to push Big E as a new singles star and to have him unlock something new that will propel him to singles success. So the match was a typical WWE match, with a heel dominating the match for 90% of it, and Big E rallying at the end to win it. The work wasn't bad, but if you are trying to push Big E as kind of a new character and someone who is motivated to be great, he should have squashed Sheamus in a few minutes. Big E managing to beat Sheamus in a basic, 10 minute match, doesn't really say anything new for his character. If he had annihilated Sheamus it would really send the message that Big E is a new player, and people better watch out for him.
Bobby Lashley vs Apollo Crews: ***
This was pretty good. Crews isn't really any better than he was a few years ago, but now it feels like he has a lot of confidence, which likely comes from being pushed and on television each week. Lashley was really good in this match, mainly due to his expressions and physical charisma. I also like that someone has a deadly full nelson that is protected in finishes.
Matt Riddle vs Baron Corbin: **
This was similar to the Big E/Sheamus match, where they are trying to get someone over, but they can't resist the standard WWE pattern of having the heel dominate the match. It isn't as bad, since WWE is trying to just get Riddle over to the audience as opposed to changing the way they feel about an established wrestler, but again, Riddle would be a bigger star if he rolled right over Corbin instead of doing a long match. The work was not as good as the Big E and Sheamus match, but at least Riddle went over. I'd hope he would move on, but clearly they are going forward with another match.
New Japan Summer Struggle Review
Like most wrestling companies, New Japan hasn't quite figured out exactly what to do with wrestling during the period of Covid-19. The company didn't run shows for months, and when they returned it was with empty arena shows that felt like they were being filmed in an empty warehouse. Thanks to Japan handling the virus much better than the US, NJPW is able to run in front of fans, but due to strict virus restrictions, fans are encouraged not to yell or chant anything. This leads to shows that have fans, but lack the noise you expect from wrestling shows.
In addition, the creative aspect of NJPW has been probably the worst since Gedo took over booking duties in 2013. The heel turn of EVIL, who turned on Tetsuya Naito to join Bullet Club and stole the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship from Naito, has been poor. Matches, including the main event of this show, have been filled with interference and low-blow spots, spots that are the polar opposite of the general sporting culture that NJPW has cultivated.
On top of that, odd stipulation matches surrounding the KOPW Tournament have added an awkward, sports-entertainment feel to a promotion that prides itself on straight-forward action and storytelling through competition. The company has struggled to hit the right notes in the Covid-19 era.
Summer Struggle in Jingu, which took place in a baseball stadium and hosted nearly 5,000 fans, easily the biggest wrestling show since March, was more of a return to form for the company. The show clocked in at under three hours, and unlike many NJPW shows, did not feature any multi-man tag matches that could be easily skipped. The show was all action and contained some of the best matches of the Covid-19 era.
EVIL vs Tetsuya Naito: ***
This match started out being pretty good but then devolved into staples of this late-stage Bullet Club era, a million run-ins, referee bumps and low-blows. There are times in wrestling history, like in the Attitude Era and with the NWO, where that kind of stuff worked, but NJPW's resurgence has been built on straight-forward competition with honest and clean finishes. You can do those spots now and again, but when it becomes a staple of every match, especially every world championship match, it is a huge problem.
EVIL had a couple of good matches with Kazuchika Okada in 2017, beating him in the G1 and losing to him later in a world title match, but since then he really hasn't delivered in the main event. That isn't to say that EVIL is bad, it is just that the main event standard in NJPW is insanely high, and very few wrestlers are going to have the quality to reach that standard. Throw in the redundant run-ins and all the crap that has come with his heel turn, it just hasn't worked for him. I'm glad Naito regained the dual-titles, but more because it hopefully means EVIL won't be in the main event going forward.
Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kota Ibushi vs Zack Sabre Jr. and TAICHI: ***½
The current angle of Hiroshi Tanahashi being booked to be old and unable to reach his previous level, has been fascinating. How many legends would approve of being booked to be constantly reminded that they are beat-up and can't do the things they used to do, and pull it off well? Tanahashi has continuously failed to fend off ZSJ and TAICHI, who have benefited by being the team booked to put Tanahashi down. The final chapter will be with Ibushi, who will either carry Tanahashi back to greatness, or have to finish him off himself. Everyone is getting something from it, and it is all due to Tanahashi's selfless and realistic performance of the legend who is coming to grips with being past their prime.
Taiji Ishimori vs Hiromu Takahasi: ****¼
Easily one of the best matches of the Covid-19 era, this was just fantastic junior heavyweight wrestling. A true sprint, both men wrestled at an incredible pace and did a ton of different stuff in the match, with Ishimori also savvily working over Hiromu's arm to get the submission victory and win the title. Ishimori is the ideal junior heavyweight; he isn't just really good, he is flawless. Even the way he runs is just so fundamentally sound, he comes across like the perfect athlete. He will be a great champion, and Hiromu has really outgrown the title anyway and should be a heavyweight moving forward.
Minoru Suzuki vs Shingo Takagi: ****
Minoru Suzuki is only six months younger than Bill Goldberg, yet here he is, at 52, having a 20 minute classic in 90 degree heat. Takagi, with his physical style, is perfect for the Covid-19 era because you kind of appreciate his work more when there isn't a lot of noise and you can hear the impact of his offense. Suzuki with his great facial expressions and insane masochism, is great in any setting. This is just a match that is easy for anyone to appreciate.
Kazuchika Okada vs Toru Yano vs El Desperado vs SANADA: **
This was the KOPW 2020 final match, a tournament full of wacky stipulations and ended in a four-way. With Yano winning the title, it basically cements it as a comedy title, like NJPW's version of the 24/7 title. The fact that the penultimate match featured the best wrestler in the world just made things strange. I'm convinced Okada was just tired of having 30-minute epic main event matches all the time and just wants to spend time doing comedy matches. Is it the best use of his talents? No, but he is also so established that nothing can really hurt him so if he wants to do this wacky stuff for a little while, he can.
Yoshinobu Kanemaru vs Master Wato: **¼
I like Master Wato more than others, and a lot of his stuff does look pretty good, but there were some noticeable botches, including a terrible-looking power-bomb spot right before Kanemaru stole the match. Wato is a young guy trying to get over, so having him lose to a mid-card veteran heel is kind of strange because he is supposed to be on the way up. That being said, Wato really hasn't shown anything since coming back from excursion, so perhaps this will motivate him into a real storyline that might get him over.
Must Watch Matches
Katushiko Nakajima vs Kenoh: ****¼ - NOAH Departure Tag 1
Naomichi Marufuji vs Go Shiozaki: ****½ - NOAH Departure Tag 2
Marufuji vs Shiozaki is the best match of the Covid-19 era, and can currently be found on YouTube. Just a classic match, with Shiozaki defending the GHC World Heavyweight Championship against Marfuji, in a really intense, back-and-forth struggle for supremacy. Highly recommended and would probably be near five stars if it had a lively crowd.