The idea of ‘payback’ is the basis of every bit of business worth money since the industry began: the notion that people will pay to see the hero finally take down the villain.
In the old days, (before the pervasiveness of wrestling in popular culture and the need to up the ante made overbooking, gimmicks and stunts practically mandatory), feuds were built on delayed gratification: the babyface’s revenge would be put off over and over and over until finally he’d get his hands on the heel properly.
Now, there’s a reason why some arguably more famous feuds haven’t been included in this article. For example, everyone remembers Bruno Sammartino and Larry Zybysko’s legendary grudge of 1980 - but forgets that the cage match to blow off the feud was a scientifically wrestled bout won by Sammartino walking out through the cage door. Talk about an anti-climax.
Similarly, Matt Hardy’s dramatic showdown with Edge in 2005 was in a brilliant two-man Money In The Bank ladder match... that was buried on free television, in the middle of a Monday Night RAW dominated by an amazing Iron Man match between Kurt Angle and Shawn Michaels.
Satisfaction is the essence of payback. Sure, it’s good theatre to see a match full of blood and thunder, and a clean pinfall is still a benchmark for drawing a line under a feud - but payback needs to be sweet: for the babyface, and for the crowd.
Here’s ten of the sweetest examples in WWE history...
10. Waking Up The Dead
“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” - Confucius
Post-1998, you can’t be a main event babyface in the WWF/E if you’ve not feuded with the boss. In late 2003 the Undertaker (in his mortal, badass biker gimmick) was robbed of an almost certain victory over Brock Lesnar at the No Mercy pay-per-view when Vince McMahon interfered. The following week, the Undertaker was placed into an ‘impossible’ handicap match against Lesnar and the Big Show by incoming heel Smackdown manager Paul Heyman, with the gloating stipulation that if he won - hah! - then he could choose his own match.
Naturally, being a WWE babyface in peril, the Undertaker beat the odds, and in one of the most memorable segments in Smackdown history, collapsed on the ramp after the match and taunted by McMahon, the Undertaker named his match: Buried Alive, at Survivor Series… against McMahon himself.
The match itself was, as expected, a ten-minute, one-sided beatdown in which McMahon bladed early and bled heavily. About to bury his hated enemy alive, the Undertaker was assaulted by Kane, who threw his brother into the grave, allowing McMahon to dump a load of soil into it to get the win.
That booked the Undertaker off television for a number of months. In early 2004 however, ominous vignettes and weird happenings heralded the return of the Dead Man: the real deal, magical powers and all, which culminated in a match with Kane at WrestleMania XX.
The action itself may have taken around as long as the entrances did, but it was faster and more intense than you'd expect from the brothers, and extended the Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak to twelve-nil. However, what made it so special was the crowd’s delirious response to seeing the Undertaker, back in black (so to speak), and Kane’s manic, disbelieving response to seeing his brother back from the grave once more.
Selling fear and loathing like they were paying his mama’s medical bills, Kane’s performance was the cornerstone of the match. The outcome may have been a foregone conclusion, but thanks to his completely unselfish heeling about, we were treated to a deeply satisfying ending to the latest feud between the two colossi.