‘The Wrestling Hipster’ is a column dedicated to a deeper, enlightened perspective on professional wrestling for people who think having an opinion about pro wrestling makes you deeper and enlightened. If you’re one of those people who reads the italicized disclaimer, the column is unnecessarily confrontational on purpose to make people who don’t read italicized disclaimers mad. Do not take his seriously, but obey every word I type.
Hell in a Cell, by definition, is garbage.
It’s a cage match, but the cage is very tall and farther away from the ring than usual. That eliminates a lot of what works about cage matches. You don’t have any of the “escape the cage” drama or the big jumping-off-the-top Jimmy Snuka tribute spots. You can’t casually grab your opponent by the back of the head, run him toward the cage wall and make him jump into it and bounce off. You have to physically leave the ring, walk to a spot that isn’t obstructed by ring steps or debris, and whip them there. Weapons are allowed to increase drama, but the cage is supposed to be a weapon. You’ve got a large, flat surface that cuts people if they touch it and kayfabe hurts them like being hit in the forehead with a pipe. Why do you need a kendo stick all of a sudden?
That said, Hell in a Cell can be the best thing in the world. The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels proved it in the first-ever Hell in a Cell match at Badd Blood 1997. Michaels was physically destroyed, and only saved by a legitimately important moment in modern WWE history: the debut of Kane. Taker and Mankind set an impossibly high bar for drama and violence at King of the Ring ’98 in a match you might’ve seen in every highlight film or on every DVD release between 1998 and now. It gave gravity to the “demonic structure” and ensured that anyone who steps inside of it would be a changed man stepping out. If they stepped out at all.
Since 1998, WWE has worked diligently to soften the match and make it too commonplace to cause any excitement. Aside from a few exceptions — Undertaker vs. Brock Lesnar at No Mercy 2002, for example — Hell in a Cell matches are about SAYING a match was great instead of having great matches. Here are the five worst types of Hell in a Cell matches, because yes, “a really tall, sorta far away cage match” has its own observable sub-genrae.
1. The Regular Match
Example: Randy Orton vs. Mark Henry, Hell in a Cell 2011
This is the most common bad Hell in a Cell match, and the one you should expect from every Hell in a Cell going forward. It’s a regular match, surrounded by a cage. By placing the cage so far away from the ring and putting a roof on it, you’ve eliminated the cage drama … so if we’re wrestling in a TV-PG world, what’s going to happen? Guys are going to wrestle the exact same match they would without the cell, and maybe pepper in some Irish whips into the ring steps to make it feel “dangerous.”
Orton vs. Henry is probably the worst of this style. It has nothing to do with the cage. They wrestle a match they would’ve in the main event of Smackdown. It’s a perfectly cromulent match, but damn, did we need a side order of THE DEVIL’S FAVORITE LIFE-CHANGING AND SOUL-SPLINTERING STRUCTURE? It’s like watching a romantic comedy on your phone while a horror movie happens in the background.
2. The Big Visual
Example: Big Bossman vs. The Undertaker, WrestleMania XV
A violent cage match should feel visceral, and be filled with unforgettable images of violence. Faces being dragged across the fencing. Bodies smashing against metal. Desperation as the competitors try to survive the carnage and win the match. Instead of any of that, some Hell in a Cell matches come up with a cool visual — say, The Big Bossman being hung and murdered by a group of flying vampires — and kill time before killing time.
That leaves you with matches like Bossman and Undertaker at WrestleMania XV. This is the first notably “bad” Hell in a Cell match (aside from the cocktease Cell matches they’d occasionally do on Raw), because nothing happens. It’s not even the Regular Match. Bossman and Undertaker just punch each other until the finish, and then a hanging occurs. It’s not even a good visual. It’s a fat, swat team Peter Pan dangling above a ring and pretending to die. Another example of The Big Visual is Triple H vs. Chris Jericho at Judgment Day 2002. If you remember anything about this match other than “Triple H pedigrees Jericho on top of the Cell,” you’re a f*cking liar.
Triple H vs. Cactus Jack at No Way Out 2000 is a more complex version of The Big Visual, because it’s frankly a terrible match — certainly worse than their brutal, awesome street fight at Royal Rumble the month before — made memorable by a series of increasingly phony prop falls. The Cell has holes in the grating so people can climb it better. The Cell walls break away easily like in the video games. Instead of tearing away when someone goes through it, the roof now has a hinged door that swings down. When Foley falls through it and hits the mat, the mat’s rigged to break away and safely catch his fall. Yeah, those things are all wonderful for the performers, and no, I don’t want them to actually kill themselves, but you can’t evoke the brutal glory of King of the Ring ’98 and stuntman it up.