For all intents and purposes, WWE exited its “Thunderdome Era” last night. The “Hell In A Cell” pay-per-view was the last one that will take place in the company’s outsized and glorified TV studio, as next month’s “Money In The Bank” will take place in Fort Worth before a live crowd. There are still a few more Raws and Smackdowns that will take place in the Thunderdome, but they essentially will act as a runway to the company’s — and industry’s — return to a live crowd full-time.
It was curious that the last PPV to take place in that setting didn’t include Roman Reigns, the Thunderdome’s greatest creation, but that’s just how much FOX thinks of his drawing power that either WWE felt the need to placate their network masters by providing him on television Friday night — rather than Sunday on Peacock — or FOX demanded it. As I’ve said before, the pandemic and the Thunderdome setting allowed WWE to try a bunch of things it would not have considered at all under normal circumstances: cinematic matches, different effects, wild character swings, etc. It didn’t really matter whether all of them worked or didn’t work, as the story was that they tried.
While WWE will always tell you about the importance of the “WWE Universe” (the fans), and the company’s relationship with them, specifically those at the shows, is always a curious study. Sometimes it feels like WWE is purposely trying to stick it to them as Vince McMahon tries to prove he was right all along. Or WWE is actively afraid of them, and whenever possible will try to hide wrestlers from any adverse reaction, instead of just telling whatever story they have and letting the crowd make up its mind.
The best thing WWE got out of these past 16 months is Reigns. Not only did they get to press pause on his career when he took off the first half of the pandemic out of caution, but they were then able to reinvent him without worrying about past grievances from its fans. Reigns best exemplified how the fans and a company whose goal it is to entertain those fans could be at such odds, with McMahon repeatedly trying to make him the unquestioned star of the company while fans, meanwhile, made that nearly impossible by booing him out of the building at every opportunity. Had live shows continued uninterrupted, perhaps no gear change with Reigns would have ever worked in front of fans intent on making their point.
Without that, WWE has made Reigns the best thing going in wrestling right now. They were able to shape him, and he was able to shape himself, in whatever way they wanted. There may not be a more lethal moment of television than last Friday’s end of Smackdown when, after trucking Rey Mysterio, Reigns wished him a happy Father’s Day as Mysterio writhed around the mat in agony. That pretty much showcases all that Reigns has become.
But now WWE will lose that protective bubble. We got a brief glimpse of what live crowds might think at WrestleMania, where Reigns was booed not because the fans didn’t want to see him at all, but because he’s the top heel and biggest presence in the business. It was booing with the utmost respect, the fans happy to play their role instead of rebel against it (you can go dizzy studying wrestling crowd reactions and decoding what they mean, whether it’s a heel getting booed because he’s a heel or not liked, or faces getting booed, or heels so good they get cheered, etc, but that’s half the fun). Based on every site and tweet you see, this version of Reigns has been met with universal approval and acclaim.
Where WWE takes Reigns from here is a worry, simply because we know that McMahon is always desperate to see the top guy in the company be a face. Strangely, the latest and best example of that, John Cena, is being lined up to almost certainly be run over by Reigns at SummerSlam in Vegas in August, an event that the company is basically turning into WrestleMania XXXVII 2.0, with Allegiant Stadium fully filled (or close to it). Rumors of matches between The Rock and Brock Lesnar within the next year are too numerous to dismiss.
The fear is that the need to once again import Cena signals that WWE and McMahon don’t think the company has enough faces on a level high enough to run with the ultimate beast they’ve created in Reigns. And once he’s done with Cena, that feeling may grow to the point where they’ll think they have no choice but to turn Roman back from this heel persona. He’ll have to fill that side simply because he emptied it of anyone worthy of working with him while he’s a heel.
This blatantly isn’t true, and even with a modicum of work there are plenty of candidates that could be built up to face Reigns as the biggest shows in the coming year. Off the top of my head: Big E, Keith Lee (if he’s indeed still alive), and Drew McIntyre could fill that role. It’s up to WWE to do the work.
Flipping Roman back isn’t as turn-key as McMahon would like to think, either. While he certainly looks the part, he’s never had the charisma on the mic to be a sympathetic character. He’s far better as a dismissive ass-kicker, which is hard for any face to pull off unless they’re a once-in-a-lifetime talent like Steve Austin. You certainly don’t keep Paul Heyman as Reigns’ mouthpiece if he’s not a heel.
But we know Vince always wants to get back to the storyline that made him what he is. It’s his created star taking down the unbeatable beast — Hogan and Andre at Mania III. It’s what he wanted Reigns to be over Lesnar, and it never worked. When he didn’t have an Andre, he made himself or his underlings into the Andre, then set up Austin, and later Daniel Bryan, as the ones to overcome the threat.
Well, McMahon has got the unbeatable monster now, and because he hasn’t taken the time to create another Hogan character doesn’t mean he should lose out on the former.