The final pay-per-view event of the WWE's Thunderdome era is upon us. The digital fan experience started inside the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida, in August 2020, moved to Tropicana Field in Tampa and eventually landed at the Yuengling Center in Tampa once the MLB season started. The digital fan experience carried WWE through the last year, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel. By mid-July, WWE will return to its seemingly endless touring schedule, traveling throughout the United States with full arenas of fans in attendance.
But first, there's the matter of Hell in a Cell.
No one would blame you for looking past Hell in a Cell and on towards the endless potential and intrigue of Money in the Bank, in a packed arena no less. Or further on, towards SummerSlam at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas in August.
But there's a lot to like about Sunday's card, even though WWE threw a wrench by announcing, then moving, a Hell in a Cell match. Initially scheduled for the Hell in a Cell card, Roman Reigns faced Rey Mysterio on SmackDown instead of the pay-per-view -- a bit of a head-scratcher, considering the father-son dynamic of the story, and Sunday being Father's Day in the United States. It was a fresh and intriguing match, as Mysterio and Reigns had never gone one-on-one on any stage, and Mysterio in a world title match is never too bad of an idea.
But it did come together at a blisteringly quick pace, and likely too much so. Reigns had attacked Mysterio's son Dominik twice, including a powerbomb that sent the younger Mysterio flying out of the ring, but no matter how strong the familial bonds, a Hell in a Cell world title match based off a couple weeks of conflict seems like blowing things out of proportion. It was a good match, albeit one with little doubt as to the outcome. Considerably more time was dedicated to the conflict bouncing Jey Uso between his brother Jimmy and Reigns than the match in the leadup to Hell in a Cell.
A quick glance at the six matches currently announced for the card might make you feel like there won't be many significant consequences tied to the outcomes at Hell in a Cell. For the most part, you'd probably be right -- but it's where you'd be wrong that makes Hell in a Cell more than a little bit intriguing.
Hell in a Cell match for the WWE championship: Bobby Lashley (c) vs. Drew McIntyre
One year out from their first clash in WWE, Drew McIntyre and Bobby Lashley are set to settle the score, once and for all, inside of the Hell in a Cell cage. And unlike some matches that feel shoehorned into the match type that's advertised as the pay-per-view name, a brutally physical blowoff to this rivalry feels well earned.
What's working: Long-term storytelling hasn't been WWE's forte of late, but this rivalry has been right on the money. One year ago this week, then-WWE champion McIntyre successfully defended the WWE championship against Lashley at Backlash. There was a tag-team match the following night with the title on the line, but the conflict was then left to simmer on the back burner.
Lashley wrested the WWE title from McIntyre via The Miz cashing in the Money in the Bank briefcase. At WrestleMania 37, Lashley's credibility as a champion was cemented as he defeated McIntyre decisively. The previously unflappable McIntyre has grown more and more desperate by the week, through disqualifications and detours, and the tension only grew in May in a tremendous triple threat title match between Lashley, McIntyre and the now released Braun Strowman.
Now he gets his final chance at Lashley's title. The Hell in a Cell is the perfect setting. The last title shot stipulation feel earned. And now we wait to see how it plays out.
What's not working: The biggest mistake surrounding this story doesn't directly tie to Lashley or McIntyre at all. The mind-numbingly short-sighted dissolution of The Hurt Business is the only real stain upon this story. For the third or fourth time in his WWE career, Cedric Alexander started to get considerable momentum built up behind him, and teaming with Shelton Benjamin did wonders for both of them. MVP gave all four members of The Hurt Business gravitas, and their work together was a big reason why Lashley had the credibility to become a great WWE champion in a short window.
But in a matter of a couple weeks, the quartet of The Hurt Business was dissolved, Alexander and Benjamin lost the Raw tag team championships in the midst of pre-WrestleMania and then the tag team itself imploded. For a company that struggles mightily to organically elevate new, young talent, it was incredibly disappointing.
While it was a destructive decision in the long-term, in the short-term, it may have benefitted this particular story by painting Lashley as a champion caught up in the trappings of being "the guy" and losing focus on what got him to the top.
How it plays out: It's too close to call, which is great news when you're talking about a centerpiece match on a card. Lashley could successfully defend his title, carry his reign into SummerSlam and beyond, and continue to elevate himself. McIntyre would have to start from square one, and digging deeper into his desperation could reveal some intriguing layers.
McIntyre could also take advantage of Lashley's complacency, regain the WWE championship once more, and hold onto that title for an extended stretch. That would likely include one more match with Lashley beyond Hell in a Cell. If the past is any indication, that could only mean good things.
Forced to a decision, I believe McIntyre regains the title following the best match to date involving him and Lashley.
Raw women's championship: Rhea Ripley (c) vs. Charlotte Flair
Speaking of matches that would've been fit for Hell in a Cell, look no further than Rhea Ripley's Raw women's championship defense against Charlotte Flair.
What's working: It's been a long, slow burn between Ripley and Flair. They didn't get the big blowoff match in front of a massive crowd at WrestleMania 36, and were forced to settle for the scaled down Performance Center showcase.
Considering the tension between the two, it's wild to consider that the aforementioned match is still the only time they've gone one-on-one. The three triple threat matches they've been in together -- in November 2019 (with Sasha Banks), June 2020 (with Io Shirai) and last month at WrestleMania Backlash (with Asuka) -- have all been wildly entertaining.
And while most of the storytelling in the women's division on Raw has been a muddled mess, the big matches are working.
What's not working: Flair's string of losses heading into this match is puzzling. If she loses again, to Ripley, it seems like it subtracts from the value Ripley would gain from such a victory. If she wins and takes Ripley's title, how does that make Ripley look?
Involving Nikki Cross and trying to elevate her in the process is good in theory, but it hasn't really helped anyone involved very much in practice.
How it plays out: Ripley gets her big win and her revenge against Flair. Perhaps it happens in such a way that Flair lashes out and extends the rivalry into the summer.
Hell in a Cell match for the SmackDown women's championship: Bianca Belair (c) vs. Bayley
Following the post-WrestleMania disappearance of Sasha Banks, Bayley has stepped up as the first challenger to Belair's SmackDown women's championship.
What's working: Bayley feels locked in right now, both in and out of the ring. One of WWE's biggest struggles in recent years has been figuring out how to organically interweave different storylines and push everyone forward, while not falling into overused tropes. Bayley's "Ding Dong, Hello!" talk show has been an excellent device for doing so, benefitting both this storyline and others -- most recently between Cesaro and Seth Rollins.
It's ramped up the tension between Belair and Bayley, giving Bayley a platform to spread her wings and dig deep into her character. It's allowed Belair to lean into what she does best right now -- strong, confident and requiring only a few words to get her point across, while sitting under the learning tree with one of the most polished performers in the industry.
Belair will have a platform to show exactly where she stands in the WWE hierarchy inside Hell in a Cell, and just as Banks was a great dance partner at WrestleMania, it's hard to think of a much better foil than Bayley for a match of this magnitude.
What's not working: Was shifting this match into the Hell in a Cell structure a bit abrupt, just a few days out from the show? Probably. But generally speaking, there's not a lot to dislike here. SmackDown in general is on a nice run, and the build to this match has been consistent and entertaining. Anticipation for a great match at Hell in a Cell is also high.
How it plays out: Belair gets a win and strengthens her grip on the SmackDown women's championship. Bayley puts on a stellar performance and reminds everyone how good she is. With Banks' potential return hanging on the horizon, and an infusion of new potential challengers ahead at Money in the Bank, things are looking bright.
What do flickering lights, broken mirrors and a demonic doll named Lilly have to do with pro wrestling? More than you'd think!
What's working: Any reason to separate Shayna Baszler from Nia Jax and get her back on a path to a run at a singles title is good enough. Even if it has to involve the supernatural. And even though Baszler feels like a character that's far too serious for a story like this, serious characters often prove to be satisfying foils.
What's not working: Just as Bray Wyatt's "Fiend" persona struggled to gel with the rest of the WWE ecosystem for long stretches when forced outside of his bubble of fun and creativity, Bliss' turn inside the funhouse seems like it has a shelf life. The segments are fun and different, and offer Bliss a chance to sink her teeth into something new, but it's hard to project where she could go moving forward.
How it plays out: Expect some special effects, and some jump scares. Bliss hits a DDT and gets the pinfall, but the outcome of the match is secondary.
Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn
Like Batman and The Joker, Owens and Zayn are seemingly destined to be in each other's lives until the end of time, as their fighting is the only constant in front of a constantly shifting landscape.
What's working: Have you ever really seen a bad match between Owens and Zayn? They've been wrestling each other for two decades, and the only complaints typically stem from matches being too short, or comparing recent matches to the insanely high bar set by their earlier matches. Another pay-per-view match can only lead to good things.
What's not working: Their WrestleMania 37 match was only starting to get cooking when it ended in under 10 minutes. Owens has been trying to beat some sense into Zayn ever since, and they've seemingly been on a collision course towards tough love leading to Zayn spiraling and hitting rock bottom, followed by reconciliation and partnership. If that's not the destination, the last few months have been a lot of wheel spinning without actual progress.
How it plays out: Exactly as planned -- Owens wins again, Zayn completely crumbles, and eventually reaches out to his old friend with nowhere else to turn.
Seth Rollins vs. Cesaro
In two matches, totaling just over 24 minutes, Cesaro and Seth Rollins showcased what each of them does so well inside the ring. It instantly elevated Cesaro into a worthy title challenger, and led to more than a month of big moments that felt overdue for one of the most talented in-ring performers in the industry.
What's working: Cesaro and Rollins are magical in the ring together, and it's hard for them to have a bad match. They've reignited tensions over the last couple of weeks, and anticipation for this match is high.
What's not working: Cesaro being sidelined for a month in a shoulder sling following his loss to Roman Reigns at WrestleMania Backlash was tough to swallow, because of the momentum Cesaro was carrying into that match, and his performance against Reigns. It seems unlikely that Rollins will lose three straight matches to Cesaro as well, so Cesaro is likely to take another dip. Hopefully the quality of the match will at least partially balance that out.
How it plays out: Rollins gets off his losing streak, and likely cheats to do so. It wouldn't be surprising to see both of these guys in the Money in the Bank ladder match, and Cesaro would be a very interesting dark horse to hold the briefcase.