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Hell in a Cell missed one crucial element as the last PPV of the ThunderDome era

The Tribal Chief is a staple of the ThunderDome era and his absence was sorely missed.

Hell in a Cell was fine. Drew’s recap and rating tell no lies as the event fittingly capped off the ThunderDome PPV era. Well, almost fittingly. Two stories come to mind when reflecting on WWE’s last year: Roman Reigns and The Hurt Business. The latter is out of business since we can’t have good things, but the former is still the best WWE story in years. As the Thunderdome’s defining narrative, its absence was more than conspicuous and showed the seismic gap in quality between the Roman Reigns drama and everything else in WWE.

John Cena’s recent comments about the Tribal Chief using the Thunderdome to flourish come to mind. As said before, Raw and SmackDown occasionally feel like intimate plays. Ask any stage actor, and they’ll tell you the value of repetition, whether in front of an audience or behind closed doors. Through the reps, they find their characters, making each new performance better than the last. Reigns is genuinely working for the crowd at home since we’re all at home, putting an emphasis on facial expressions and mannerisms he may not have time to play with in front of a live crowd.

Understandably, there’s an instinct to play to the audience once they’re in the building and always go big. People in the nosebleeds need to feel the performance just as much as the lucky people with floor seats. It’s why WWE, and wrestling in general, goes for broad strokes like possibly flesh-eating zombies and characters with fundamental motivations. To that point, Cena’s comments hold even more weight when thinking of what an established character like Miz does vs. someone new like the Tribal Chief.

Reigns’ character is a staple of the ThunderDome and a result of it. The quiet menace, the ownership of an empty arena, and the Paul Heyman ad-libs are all part of the package that a live audience may not have patience for. Especially those first few crowds who painfully missed coming to live events. WWE’s ThunderDome, for all of its issues, gave Reigns, along with the Usos and Heyman, the freedom to just try some shit. To their credit, WWE as a whole experimented during this time—looking at you, Raw Underground—but when push came to shove, they stuck with their bread and butter.

And I get it. I think we all do, actually. WWE is a business first and foremost, so they will always do what is…best for business. But it makes last night’s (Sunday, June 20) Hell in a Cell feel like it’s operating on a completely different wavelength. Despite how good some of the matches were and the bits of intrigue they sowed, there’s nothing genuinely compelling about any of it.

Say what you will about whatever Alexa Bliss is doing right now—and we here have a lot to say—it is experimental. There is nothing else like it on TV. It takes wild swings and fully utilizes the ThunderDome as a storytelling device rather than a crutch. People often appreciate wild swings even if they don’t always connect. Those attempts break from the norm and elicit more excitement than wrestler A battling wrestler B for the fifth time in a month over God knows what.

We are so accustomed to learning the ins and outs of the game that when something different comes along, we want to see it play out, for better or worse. Alexa has that quality, just like Bray Wyatt before her. And Roman Reigns most certainly has that quality.

The Head of the Table’s hell in a cell match was about more than just a championship. A father wanted to defend his son from a villain who doesn’t see himself as such. The bad guy wanted nothing to do with it but did what he had to because of respect. The story intertwined the Uso drama without it feeling tacked on and played on the complexity of everyone involved.

Rey Mysterio knew he was going down, but he had to avenge his son. Reigns, also a dad, knew the outcome before he stepped into the ring and dished out a hell of a beating to a man a few days away from celebrating Father’s Day. When it was over, the only one left smiling was the Tribal Chief, as even Jimmy Uso and Heyman looked conflicted. Nevertheless, it did everything it needed to do while encapsulating the best of the ThunderDome in one match.

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