New on Sports Illustrated: Key Takeaways From WWE's 'Payback': Roman Reigns Becomes New Universal Champion

August 31, 2020 at 09:32AM

For the first time since October 2018, Roman Reigns is WWE's Universal Champion.

Roman Reigns pinned Braun Strowman in the main event of Payback to become the new Universal Champion, capping off a successful WWE pay per view that felt more like the second part of SummerSlam.

Taking place only a week after SummerSlam, this show

continued the top stories from last week, as well as added more clarity to the future of WWE. Keith Lee delivered the most significant win of his career in a dominating performance against Randy Orton, Big E took a big step toward becoming one of WWE’s building blocks in his victory against Sheamus, and Shayna Baszler starred in her tag title win with Nia Jax against Sasha Banks and Bayley.

Three titles changed hands in all at Payback, with Bobby Lashley opening the card by defeating Apollo Crews to become the new United States champ. Matt Riddle was also given a main roster moment with a win against Baron Corbin, though the post-match beatdown from Corbin means their program is extending beyond tonight. The father-son duo of Rey and Dominik Mysterio also teamed up to finally earn revenge on Seth Rollins. Though the card clocked in at under three hours, it served its purpose in advancing key storylines and helping create new stars.

The pressing question of whether Roman Reigns is a heel still remains unanswered. Yes, Reigns hit Bray Wyatt with a low blow, but that was only making use of the no holds barred stipulation. Reigns showed off his new opportunistic mentality, signing the contract to enter the match after Strowman and Wyatt had already wrestled for over 10 minutes. Now, for the first time since October of 2018, Reigns is WWE’s Universal Champion.

Here are the results:

— Ruby Riott and Liv Morgan defeated Billie Kay and Peyton Royce on the pre-show

— Bobby Lashley defeated Apollo Crews to become the new United States Champion

— Big E defeated Sheamus

— Matt Riddle defeated King Corbin

— Shayna Baszler and Nia Jax defeated Sasha Banks and Bayley to become the new Women’s Tag Team Champions

— Keith Lee defeated Randy Orton

— Rey and Dominik Mysterio defeated Seth Rollins and Buddy Murphy

— Roman Reigns won the Universal Championship in a triple threat against The Fiend and Braun Strowman

****

And here are my takeaways:

Roman Reigns is the new Universal Champion.

The main event match was not without its holes. How could Reigns sign the contract for a title match after the bout had already started? The answer to that question is likely his association with new advocate Paul Heyman, who is fulfilling his role by ensuring Reigns gets what he deserves.

Despite some foul language to the referee following a chair shot on Strowman, I am still hesitant to believe Vince McMahon is ready to go all-in on Reigns as a villain in an era without live crowds, though it does appear headed in that direction. But Reigns has been placed in a position over the past week where he is the most widely discussed person in all of wrestling, so the current method is working.

As for Bray Wyatt and Braun Strowman, they worked their best match together yet at Payback. It made more sense than the Swamp Fight, and was flat out more entertaining than their battles at Money in the Bank and SummerSlam. WWE gave viewers an extra treat with a broken ring, which took place following the two monsters hitting the mat after a superplex.

For the second straight Sunday, the main event ended with Strowman looking up at the lights while taking the pin. Wyatt and Strowman, along with Alexa Bliss, still have a lot more of their story to tell, but adding Reigns into the mix has really livened up the title picture.

****

Shayna Baszler reintroduced herself to the WWE with a brilliant performance in her tag team match with Nia Jax against Sasha Banks and Bayley.

Banks and Bayley have helped define WWE programming over the summer, starring across the three brands. Their tag team title run was magnificent and accomplished so many of the goals they had when first winning the belts in February of 2019. Banks and Bayley did a tremendous job of infusing excitement into the product at a time when it was in desperate need of it. Though WrestleMania is still months away, they are laying the groundwork for a main event match next April. That match has the potential to be an all-time WrestleMania moment, especially with the work they have already put into their story. So it was especially meaningful to see Banks and Bayley put Baszler in a position to shine at Payback, as the product only benefits by highlighting Baszler, who is enormously talented and very believable as a submission specialist.

Jax’s power also added to the match, but this was Baszler’s chance to shine. She has struggled to find any real direction since losing to Becky Lynch at WrestleMania, but hopefully, that changes after this performance. The finish was incredibly creative, with Baszler locking her Kirifuda Clutch submission chokehold—using a combination of her own arm and Banks’ arm, while also having Banks in a Muta Lock—to force Bayley to tap.

The story can go in multiple directions from here. Banks no longer has a belt, while Bayley still holds the SmackDown title–and WWE is playing up the disharmony between Baszler and Jax, so this program is far from finished.

****

A star was made as Keith Lee picked up the biggest win of his career with a victory against Randy Orton.

Lee, looking more comfortable in his signature shorts/tights, made surprisingly short work of Orton. Just before the seven-minute mark, Lee hit a Spirit Bomb on Orton for the victory. This wasn’t treated as a fluke or a shock for Lee, but rather as a statement.

To Orton’s credit, his reactions made the defeat look that much more painful and harrowing. As much as Orton has been the star of the show recently, he put the full spotlight on Lee in this match.

Lee’s win also adds another layer to the WWE title picture. Does Orton defeat Drew McIntyre for the belt, then get challenged by Lee? Or is Lee the number one contender after defeating Orton? McIntyre-Lee would also be a dynamic and entertaining match.

****

Rey and Dominik Mysterio starred for a second straight week, this time earning their first-ever tag win in a highly entertaining bout against Seth Rollins and Buddy Murphy.

Redemption for the Mysterios was the right finish. Rollins inadvertently took a kick to the face from Murphy, then Dominik hit a 619 and frog splash on Murphy for the win. This was an excellent installment in their ongoing story. And with the Street Profits always in need of more compelling opponents for their Raw Tag Titles, a program with the Mysterios could be fantastic.

****

The opening match of the card saw Bobby Lashley defeat Apollo Crews to become the new United States Champion. It has certainly taken enough time, but WWE is finally presenting Lashley in the right manner.

Lashley is one of the most powerful, dominant individuals in all of wrestling. Presenting Lashley as “The CEO of The Hurt Business” is a legitimate and compelling way to showcase his work, and pairing him with MVP has been a phenomenal move. Crews also played his role extremely well, serving as the underdog and taking Lashley’s punishment in a believable fashion.

My sole complaint with this match was the aftermath. Crews tapped out to Full Lashley, a fitting name for his Full Nelson, but despite submitting due to the excruciating pain, he was back on his feet almost immediately to attack Lashley after the bell. This is another program that will continue. Lashley makes a great choice for U.S. champ and Crews continues to get meaningful minutes on the card, but I hope that Lashley never strays too far from the WWE Championship picture.

****

On the subject of a future WWE Champion, Big E proved again that he has all the tools necessary to be the face of the company and wear its most prestigious title.

Big E worked a classic babyface match against Sheamus, overcoming an in-match knee injury to defeat his opponent. The program with Sheamus is just the beginning of Big E’s singles push. In addition to bringing an element of excitement to his matches and interviews, Big E also showed off fire and passion in his comeback against Sheamus.

A fan favorite, Big E would benefit immensely from a live crowd in his push to the top of the card. He would make a perfect fit for winner of January’s Royal Rumble match, and a live crowd would explode during a world title win for E at WrestleMania.

****

This felt more like the second night of SummerSlam than it did its own standalone show. The biggest takeaway from the night is Reigns reclaiming the Universal Championship, which is quickly becoming one of WWE’s biggest storylines of the year.

The victory by Keith Lee will also help define this show. Lee has the potential to add an entirely new element into the title picture on Raw, especially with the potential of a McIntyre-Lee match. WWE should not get itself in the habit of airing back-to-back pay per views on consecutive weekends, but Payback was a very entertaining show.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.

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