WWE fans could have been forgiven for thinking something special was going to happen during or right after the main event of Sunday night's Hell in a Cell pay-per-view.
After all, the company had yanked its hottest commodity—Roman Reigns—off the show, instead giving away his title match against Rey Mysterio for free on Friday's SmackDown. No real reason was given for the shift except that the challenger just couldn't wait that long to get his hands on the champion.
But those fans who let the situation drum up some hype for Sunday night instead got nothing but a main event ending in a roll-up. A Hell in a Cell match to end a blood feud ending in a roll-up, at that.
If the goal with this booking is to convince fans WWE desperately needs part-time talent such as Brock Lesnar or John Cena, consider it mission accomplished.
Lesnar is the biggest name, of course. His going to SmackDown to feud with Reigns as Paul Heyman gets stuck in the middle has money written all over it. But a match with Bobby Lashley has been one of those dream matches fans have fantasy-booked for the better part of a decade, so it would be a ton of fun, too.
One problem: Are fans still supposed to believe Lashley is even a threat to Lesnar thanks to this type of booking?
Because Sunday night did some serious damage to that idea, never mind McIntyre's waning credibility. The two put on a fun big-hoss match as they have in the past and as anyone could have reasonably expected. But the finish—a distraction by MVP and some tights-pulling by Lashley on a roll-up—was an unmitigated disaster.
This was a Hell in a Cell and McIntyre's stipulation was if he lost, he would never be allowed to challenge The All Mighty again as long as he held the title. From Mankind off the top of the cell to a roll-up finish is, in a word, unfathomable.
One could argue it was a bit in character for both guys, maybe. McIntyre is too honorable to demand a stipulation such as—get this—no outside interferences. He's also...not wise for this, never mind opening the cage. Lashley, despite being physically imposing, still needs to cheat to win.
But the Scot has deflated like a balloon with a leak and no, a Money in the Bank win to revive him probably wouldn't work. Lashley, almost randomly promoted from the midcard to disrupt the main event scene, is stuck in this odd limbo between dominating but doing chicken-heel tactics.
Why bring all of this up about these two in particular? Because in tandem with this foolish finish, WWE hasn't done anything to build up credible challengers to Lashley's title otherwise.
There's not a single one most could name outside of a returning Lesnar or the like, which means that anything that isn't a part-timer returning will just feel like the midcard now occupies the main event scene—much like Sunday night's main event felt like a Raw main event.
Which leads to a tough ask: Should Lesnar come back, he's obviously winning a title, but who believably challenges him after that?
Maybe the simplest answer is the one that works best: It doesn't matter. Those sorts of vibes from WWE itself are infectious to fans, too. When a company takes its top act off a pay-per-view so that event feels like even more of a holding-pattern status than everything else right now, disinterest is the result.
And this picks on Sunday's main event a lot for good reason. But looking across the whole Reigns-less card, two matches were settled by a roll-up. Another had a disqualification. That's three of seven, two featuring titles and one in the main event. It was almost akin to watching an episode of Raw masked as a big event fans had to pay to see (or not, as one could argue this is just the state of PPVs from now on, which is a whole different problem).
If nothing else, a Lesnar return needs to happen just to prop up the rest of the rough edges on these PPV cards. It's clear WWE doesn't have a show-carrying draw not named Reigns, though that's a self-inflicted wound caused by derailing McIntyre right before WrestleMania 37 for no discernible reason.
With fans starting to return to arenas and SummerSlam looking like a huge ordeal, it needed to keep fans engaged, not apathetic. It needed meaningful stories and strong finishes. Momentum is a real thing in wrestling—historic runs for Daniel Bryan and Kofi Kingston, notably, don't happen without it.
WWE has stumbled into the opposite. And it will get a cheap pop in front of live crowds when Lesnar or others come back. But the decay of interest because of cards like the one offered Sunday night will pop up eventually regardless.
If Sunday night—and most of 2021—is a sign, this could just be how non-big PPVs will be moving forward for WWE. The only recourse, besides keeping top stars competing on the cards, is using a big return like Lesnar.
Until that comeback, presumably around SummerSlam time, it appears this is how WWE wants to handle the end of the so-called pandemic era before things get back to normal.