‘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.
3. The Corny Story Conceit
Example: CM Punk vs. Ryback in 2012 and 2013.
Sometimes “WRESTLERS LOCKED IN A CAGE WE SAY IS THE MOST VIOLENT PLACE WE HAVE” isn’t enough of a story. Sometimes you’ve got a cornball, soap opera narrative that takes precedent over the action and asserts itself whether anybody wants it or not. The storied rivalry (cough) between CM Punk and Ryback is an example of this. In 2012, Ryback was a babyface trying to end Punk’s long reign as WWE Champion. He has Punk up for Shell Shocked and it looks like it’s going to over, but suspiciously handsome referee Brad Maddox steps in, low blows him and fast-counts a Punk pinfall. Spoiler alert: it goes nowhere. Ryback gets IMMEDIATE comeuppance, tossing Maddox into the cage wall and chasing Punk to the roof to Shell Shock him there. Ryback murders Maddox on Raw, then spends the next several months stagnating and failing to do anything or go anywhere.
In 2012, allegiances had switched. Punk was now a beloved hero who wanted to violently murder former manager Paul Heyman for hitting him in the face with a ladder. Wrestlers get bent out of shape about shit, what can you say? To get Heyman, Punk had to wrestle a 2-on-1 handicap match against Heyman and Ryback, which was (surprise!) just another match against Ryback. WWE sure loves its handicap matches, doesn’t it? In the end, the idea was that Punk had to get Heyman locked inside a Cell to “get him,” after months of trying and failing despite them being co-workers and always traveling and wrestling in the same places. Here’s the final joke: he didn’t get him in the Cell. He got him outside of it, when Heyman got chased up onto the roof, where I guess he assumed he’d use his secret wing suit to leap off and fly to safety.
It could be argued that the first Hell in a Cell is an example of this, with Kane showing up, ripping off the cage door and tombstoning The Undertaker to give Shawn Michaels the win, but I’ll forgive it for going somewhere. Kane and Taker had a lengthy rivalry involving multiple WrestleMania matches. Punk went into an early retirement, and Ryback went into the trash can.
4. The One Where They Add Dogs
The Only Example, Thankfully: Al Snow vs. Big Bossman, Unforgiven 1999.
I know this isn’t considered a “Hell in a Cell” match, but it’s got Hell in the name (“Kennel From Hell”) and involves the Hell in a Cell cage, so I’m including it. I was at this show live, so I need to type some shit out for therapy.
If you’ve got a giant cage where weapons are legal and anything goes, that’s your gimmick match. You do not need to add a second cage INSIDE the bigger cage. You don’t need to make the cage out of bamboo and give it a giant door and call it a Punjabi Prison. You sure as hell don’t need to make DOGS ON LEASHES a hazard inside the cage, which is what happened when the Big Bossman kidnapped, killed, cooked and fed Al Snow’s dog to him. The feud demanded a dog-based payoff, so they created an inner moat of Rottweilers that were supposed to GNAW and TEAR AT THE FLESH of the competitors. If you’ve never seen it, the dogs never leave their leashes, are more concerned about each other than the wrestlers, and spend the entire match having sex and pissing everywhere. It’s one of the most embarrassing things in wrestling history in a walk, and the crowd sitting in stunned, facepalmed silence the entire time doesn’t help.
The lesson here: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And if you do fix it, do not use puddles of dog piss as your glue.
5. The Masturbation Fantasy
Example: Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels, Badd Blood 2004
As mentioned, sometimes it’s more important to say you were in an epic match than to have one.
Take Shawn Michaels and Triple H at Badd Blood 2004. It’s 47 goddamn minutes long, and about 3 of them are exciting. Here’s how the match goes: both guys are tired. One guy hits his finish. They lie on the ground. Cover, kickout. Lie on the ground. The other guy hits his finisher. Lie on the ground. Slow cover. Kickout. Lie on the ground. The announcers scream and scream and scream about these men putting their bodies on the line, but all I’m seeing is two wrestlers having a 20-minute match in 50, and (for lack of a better term) sucking their own dicks on the mat. GET UP. DO SOMETHING.
Triple H is the king of these matches. Why do you think his third match against Undertaker at WrestleMania had to be in a Hell in a Cell? Because PATHOS. It’s an Instagram filter for a wrestling match. You don’t have to do anything, you just have to act really tired, hit somebody with a sledgehammer every 11 minutes and look like your Grandma died the entire time. Wrestlers sleepwalking through big matches for the sake of having big matches is one of the worst things wrestling does, and Hell in a Cell is WWE’s biggest match in capital letters.