Earlier this month the credits rolled on WrestleMania 32 and a new year of wrestling began. Pro wrestling's Super Bowl finally answered the question of Roman Reigns with a deafening "we do what we want" from WWE. It was business as usual when the company's hand-picked future superstar stood victorious at the end of the night, much to the chagrin of fans. Also, Shane McMahon, infamous for performing incredibly dangerous stunts, performed an incredibly dangerous stunt. Here it is:
Once you're done wincing, you can get ready for this weekend's Payback. Taking place at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET on May 1 from Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois, it's the first major wrestling event since WrestleMania. It'll be available in the US on pay-per-view (PPV) for $60, but most people will be watching it on the WWE Network streaming service (like Netflix, but for all things WWE). If you're new to the Network, you'll get the first month -- Payback included -- for free.
And you should be watching Payback. WWE is calling it "the first PPV of a new era". Despite WWE's penchant for exaggeration, that doesn't feel untrue. The company has in the past been guilty of stagnation. The same overexposed wrestlers, the same tired storylines.
However, Payback looks like it's showcasing and actively trying to build new stars. Five of the eight matches at Payback feature cult favourites from WWE's minor leagues, NXT. The main event pits current champ Reigns against AJ Styles, one of the hottest stars from Japan, newly signed with WWE. If you're a long-time WWE fan, you'll know what a special moment this could be.
Welcome to the big leagues
WWE runs year round, but the weeks following WrestleMania are as close as it gets to a new season of TV, and with that comes a rush of fresh blood. Most of the names making waves -- and taking part in major storylines at Payback -- are fresh call-ups from NXT.
Even though it's ostensibly WWE's minor league, where talent is groomed for the main roster, for the past two years NXT has been, for my money, the most consistent wrestling on TV. What's more, NXT is winning the acclaim of a notoriously difficult-to-please fanbase.
While it may have started as a place where newbies learned the ropes, NXT has become a bastion of exemplary matches and storylines. It's become a trend setting program, reinvigorating women's wrestling for a mass audience, leading to WWE's "Divas Revolution" last year, and has introduced a new generation of fans to internet favourites and international stars from outside the WWE.
The problem is that when NXT performers are promoted to the main roster, they'll more often than not fall by the wayside. The notoriously hands-on management of CEO Vince McMahon is often cited as the root cause, as was reportedly the case with wrestling's Derek Zoolander, Tyler Breeze. Success in NXT did not spell success on the main roster, as the failed debuts and relative obscurity of half a dozen promoted NXT stars over the past 18 months can attest.
Now it looks as if WWE is finally capitalising on NXT's hard-earned reputation. To name but a few of the NXT stars given pride of place at Sunday's Payback: Jersey Shore gymrats Enzo and Cass face off against the old-timey Vaudevillains in the finals of a tag team tournament. Baron Corbin, best described as a "motorcycle werewolf", gets his first major WWE singles match on the main roster. Charlotte Flair, after a dominant streak in NXT, is now defending her title as the first WWE women's (previously known as "Divas") champion. It finally feels like the company is trying to make new stars, rather than break them.
The wide world of wrestling entertainment
WWE has a nasty habit of pretending wrestlers spring fully formed from somewhere right behind the curtain on the Raw stage immediately prior to debut, discounting (and outright ignoring) the years performers spend with other wrestling promotions. Part of this is financial -- by rebranding performers when they join WWE, the company keeps control of copyrights and merchandising. But it also plays into the convenient fiction that WWE is the be-all end-all of wrestling.
While NXT is, again, upsetting that long-standing tradition, so is an influx of stars from New Japan Pro Wrestling, arguably the world's second biggest wrestling organization. WWE has poached half a dozen top stars from the popular Japanese brand, and it's uncharacteristically giving them the royal treatment stateside.
Japanese pro wrestling is famous for something called "Strong Style". It incorporates far more physical strikes and mixed martial arts holds. In insider terms, it's "stiff" (hard contact) and designed to feel like a "shoot" (a real fight), as opposed to WWE's more orchestrated style. Now, Japan's masters of the art are shaking things up in WWE rings.
Poaching talent isn't anything new. What is a more recent development is using that talent's history to build storylines within WWE's fictional universe. AJ Styles has been positioned as a top star since his January debut, and is on Sunday headlining Payback -- thanks entirely to the reputation he built in Japan. The story going into the main event is built around the loyalties of Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson, two other recent New Japan imports, who fought alongside Styles in the villainous Bullet Club in Japan.
The lineup at Payback is a bold move from a company that needed to make one. Viewership for WWE's flagship weekly program Raw are have plummeted to record lows. WWE has often seemed to do things in spite of wrestling fans, rather than for them. But it looks like Payback is finally where WWE pays back the faithful.