WWE heads for California on Sunday night for the first pay-per-view event since Wrestlemania as its stars prepare for Payback.
In what’s likely to be the night’s main event, Roman Reigns will make his in-ring return to take on the monstrous Braun Strowman, who has been dominating screens and rings alike over the last few weeks.
Reigns, WWE’s undisputed future leader in the eyes of many, was written off television in an injury storyline featuring Strowman in a recent episode of Raw that saw his opponent for this weekend overturn an ambulance he was in. Reigns’ absence from programming had been sadly extended after that owing to the passing of his brother, former WWE star Rosey. Now, though, he appears to be returning with a vengeance to topple the behemoth who has been built up to almost unstoppable levels.
Elsewhere, some of Raw’s recent programming has left some feeling a little unsatisfied in the sense that there’s so much still up in the air. The recent Superstar Shake-up doesn’t appear to have been long-term in its planning – two of Payback’s key matches feature superstars competing inter-brand with talent from Smackdown Live.
Bray Wyatt of Raw tackles Randy Orton, WWE Champion on Smackdown for example. It makes sense despite the draft in so much as Wyatt is ‘owed’ a rematch against Orton for the championship he lost to the Viper at Wrestlemania, so you can understand why brand red is pitted against brand blue – except for the fact that there has been no promotion of this match from WWE as a Championship bout.
It’s similar for Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens of Raw and Smackdown respectively; the two meet again after the latter downed the former at Mania for the United States Championship, while this one is for the gold. Jericho looks almost certain to be leaving WWE for a spell after the next week or two for a lengthy tour with his band Fozzy, so the outcome of this one looks to be a forgone conclusion – though, as ever, you never quite know for sure.
Meanwhile, the rest of the card boasts plenty of interesting action; The Hardy Boys will put their tag-team titles on the line for the first time since their spine-tingling return at Wrestlemania as they defend against Sheamus and Cesaro. The pairings have squared off against one another in respective singles action on Raw recently and have some great chemistry. You get the feeling that WWE is waiting to do something very special with the Hardys in the not too distant future, but this feud has been good to watch all the same.
Some of the best wrestling action in recent weeks has been provided by Raw’s Cruiserweight division – on Sunday at Payback, Champion Neville goes up against Austin Aries as the two continue their rivalry. A great match between them at Wrestlemania saw Neville come out on top, so will this be the night for veteran star Aries? It will no-doubt take another stellar in-ring encounter for us to have our answer.
A personal highlight for me in the Superstar Shake-up saw the multi-talented Alexa Bliss make the move over to Monday nights. She’s wasted little time getting into the Raw Women’s Championship picture and takes on current incumbent Bayley on Sunday. Bliss’ strong in-ring talents are surpassed further by her ability on the mic and she looks a good bet to usurp the champ this weekend. Will this finally be the night we see Sasha Banks turn the knife on good friend Bayley? The teasing of this heel turn has been delightfully teased across the last couple of months in one of Raw’s better, long-running stories – personally I think Banks will be a great hate figure for the WWE Universe such is her swag and arrogance.
Another standout match that should be a cert to keep the attention of viewers is Seth Rollins against Samoa Joe. Rollins looks to be edging to somewhere near his best again following recent time out and fans have been waiting a while to see Joe in his first sustained feud since his ascension to the main roster from NXT. Rollins can pick up the win in this one without really causing hired assassin Joe any real harm – the former Impact Wrestling Star is all about inflicting pain and punishment wherever he goes rather than tending to a win-loss record, and I’d expect Rollins to sustain a decent beating on route to victory Sunday night.
Another star really still waiting to find his calling on raw in the post-Mania season is Finn Balor, who returned in Orlando for the Raw after Mania after a spell out with a serious knee injury. This weekend he’s a guest on Miz TV which features on the Payback pre-show – as does a bout between Enzo & Cass and Gallows & Anderson. Whether a feud with Miz is really what awaits the first Universal champion remains to be seen but, whatever it is, it can’t come soon enough.
Enzo Amore & Big Cass vs Luke Gallows & Karl Anderson (Tag Team match)
Kevin Owens vs Chris Jericho (United States Championship)
The Hardy Boyz vs Cesaro & Sheamus (Raw Tag Team Championship)
Randy Orton vs Bray Wyatt (House of Horrors match)
Neville vs Austin Aries (Crusierweight Championship)
Roman Reigns vs Braun Strowman
Seth Rollins vs Samoa Joe
Bayley vs Alexa Bliss (Raw Women’s Championship)