This Sunday at Hell in a Cell, Bayley’s main roster run reaches its peak. Defending her SmackDown Women’s Title against Sasha Banks, Bayley enters the event’s iconic structure for the first time in her career. This moment is the result of a year’s story, the conclusive chapter of a career transformation. It’s a main event match in a main event setting. Two famed foes finally meeting in one of 2020’s most anticipated matches, two history-makers desperate to make magic once more.

In many ways, that all feels rather fitting. Upon arrival, Bayley and Banks seemed destined for a moment such as this. The endgame always seemed inevitable, with their NXT triumphs setting the table for its eventual sequel. WrestleMania seemed set in stone for that sight but in truth, much more has changed than the event playing host. Years ago, these women seemed cemented in their roles, but circumstance required change, this environment demanded evolution. In hindsight, that challenge could’ve prevented this Sunday from ever even taking place.

Though it’s a distant memory now, a heel turn for Bayley once seemed nonsensical. The ultimate protagonist in her NXT glory days, Bayley’s main roster struggles could only diminish her so much. Even with the hurdles she’d encountered along the way, Bayley was one of the women’s division’s most recognizable characters, popular among fans and reliable in-ring. Bayley’s path hadn’t been perfect, but her position was still one of the division’s strongest, established as an almost throwback hero, quickly becoming a rare constant.

That trajectory wasn’t anything to dismiss and while in her prior presentation, Bayley’s ceiling had been capped, her consistency commanded respect. In hindsight though, it was Bayley’s return to the spotlight that sparked change. After two years as a supporting player, Bayley became SmackDown Women’s Champion, cashing in her Money in the Bank briefcase almost immediately. That feat was admirable in itself, a credit to Bayley’s increasing ability to maximize her minutes outside of title scenes and marquee matches.

Bayley had always been most at home inside the ropes, constantly progressing and amplifying others along the way. That had only become more pronounced though, and Bayley returned to the championship ranks at the peak of her physical powers. Unfortunately, the expanded role exposed other flaws, with Bayley’s renowned presentation steadily losing its shape. Bayley was a pure protagonist relying on a creative team seemingly unable to portray pure protagonists, swiftly taking the shine off Bayley’s re-emergence. Before long, Bayley seemed stalled once more.

Without the aforementioned creative team’s trust, that very well could’ve been the end of Bayley’s time as a leading lady. Without Bayley’s ability to adapt, that could’ve confirmed her for a career in the tier below, preparing others for their own ascension. Thankfully, quite the opposite took place, as Bayley’s character strayed into shades of gray before eventually, starting a new journey altogether. There was intrigue surrounding a more dubious Bayley, suddenly questionable in her tactics, morally skewed but yet, somehow shielded by delusion.

It was still safe in some ways though, with Bayley only ever an angle away from a return to her roots. That was a pivotal step forward but that’s all it was, a mere step towards the place that Bayley now calls home. The biggest step came when Bayley almost completely left her past behind, striving to find the look and feel that her heel turn would be forever tied to. That step ensured that there was no turning back, no simple rewind button to fix any missteps.

Instead, Bayley was committed to a fresh chapter, dedicated to a different direction. That set the tone for what’s followed since, which simply put, has been a year of leading the blue brand’s female ranks. Now the longest reigning SmackDown Women’s Champion, Bayley is undeniable as the division’s central villain, an unmatched antagonist. Initially, Bayley’s challenge was making the heel turn work, but it’s since become the defining portion of her main roster run. Beyond that, it’s even beginning to threaten Bayley’s seemingly unattainable NXT heights.

This hasn’t been smooth sailing though and suggesting as such would actually understate the achievement. Bayley didn’t find herself as a heel immediately and she’s struggled for fitting foes along the way. To begin with, Bayley became a subdued, almost bitter persona, altered by the pitfalls of her prior approach. That slant was logical but proved limiting, with Bayley’s muted emoting naturally making her more of a backdrop than the lead. That character required a subtlety that just didn’t suit the setting, especially in such a major role.

It didn’t help that Bayley’s early opposition was in her own transition either, with a lengthy Lacey Evans programme proving damaging to both parties. Bayley left that rivalry needing a jolt, still champion but somewhat aimless both in direction as well as presentation. Once again though, Bayley was willing to adjust and even more importantly, able to also. As her reign began to flourish, Bayley was provided with an organic path to evolve, ramping up the arrogance and steadily finding herself as an obnoxious, intolerable titleholder.

That was quite the departure from Bayley’s past, requiring a confidence that as a character at least, she once seemed devoid of. If her starting point was logical, this adaptation only accelerated along its route, earning Bayley renewed faith as champion. Considering the perception surrounding Bayley as a protagonist, it was staggering to see her eventual comfort as a villain. Once deemed unconfident or even incapable as a promo, Bayley was now throwing herself into weekly talking segments, emphatic in her smugness.

Bayley had become a magnificent villain, keeping her momentum moving through on-air highs and lows. In truth, Bayley’s match catalogue as champion has been capped by circumstance, with her title matches often hindered for the sake of PPV balance. That’s a frustrating reality of this reign but it’s a compliment to Bayley that overall, it’s a footnote of this run. It’s in complete contrast to Bayley’s once consensus strengths and weaknesses too, with her now undeniable versatility suddenly stealing the show.

To me, the story of this Sunday’s match is encapsulated by Bayley’s status. It shouldn’t be a surprise that these two women are here, but it can be a surprise to see Bayley’s individual path. This isn’t the rematch that fans dreamed of, it’s a new match, a progressing character clash built on Bayley’s transformation. The SmackDown Women’s Champion dared to be great and through sheer commitment to that cause, Bayley enters Hell in a Cell secure in a position that once seemed unfathomable.

Bayley didn’t need to take this risk for a wonderful career, but in order to reach and even exceed her ceiling, this leap of faith was unavoidable. Thankfully, Bayley embraced that challenge and as a result, the clash with Banks is now here after all. In fact, this match may now be bigger than ever before. If so, the credit should of course be shared, but if it truly feels different to you, if it truly feels fresh, that’s a nod to Bayley.

Hell in a Cell signifies the outcome of Bayley’s commitment, willingly fixing what in the grand scheme of things, was barely broken.

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