With the WWE’s annual Hell in a Cell PPV only a week away, and given my recent post about the decline in HIAC, I thought now would be a good time to revisit some of classic Cell bouts from the past. For the old school fans, this will provide a welcome trip down memory lane, as many of the posts on this blog do. But for newer fans, I hope this will help show them why I (and many other fans) used to be so enthusiastic about the famous over-sized cage, and maybe encourage them to seek out more of the same. This is in no way meant to be a definitive list of the best, just three of my personal favourites from over the years. With that said, lets get this nostalgia fuelled epic underway!
The Original – The Undertaker Vs Shawn Michaels, Bad Blood 1997
For me, it is fitting that the first ever Hell in Cell match was contested by two of the finest workers ever in WWE, and it appropriately set the precedent very high for every subsequent Cell bout. It was intended to bring a decisive outcome to Taker’s feud with HBK, which began when Michaels cost the Deadman the WWF Championship in the main event of Summerslam 1997. They had already had a very entertaining brawl at Ground Zero in September ‘97, which ended in a no-contest after interference from Rick Rude, the use of brass knucks and a shit-ton of ref bumps. Although it was initially ambiguous if Michael’s actions at Summerslam were intentional or accident, HBK clarified this in the build up to Bad Blood by viciously busting Taker open with a chair after a match. To settle the score, a roofed caged (devised by Jim Cornette) was created, the aim of which was to keep everyone else out and maximise the potential for brutality.
The Undertaker and HBK certainly live up to that potential too; within minutes of the opening bell the fast paced action has spilled outside the ring, and both men utilise the giant to cage to their advantage. Michaels is showier, climbing the cell to deliver a flurry of punches, or using it for leverage to drop an elbow. Undertaker is much more blunt, body-slamming HBK into it, or ramming him headfirst against the mesh. They brawl back and forth some more, inside and outside the ring, and trade some of their signature moves; much like their legendary Mania matches, the timing and selling of every exchange is spot on. A chair is introduced by Michaels (to Takers back) and a camera man gets wiped out by a flying HBK; Michaels even pulls off a rarely seen piledriver on the steel steps. After a little while, they manage to escape the cage, thanks to the ineffective Commissioner Slaughter, and Taker busts HBK open by catapulting him into the mesh. Shawn then scores a low blow and tries to get away from the Phenom by climbing to the Cell roof. Unfortunately for HBK, he soon learns that there is frequently only one way down from the Cell….
Although Michaels bump may not seem such a big deal to a generation weaned on TLC/MITB matches, it was the most dangerous drop done in the company up to that point, and not something the ’97 audience was accustomed to seeing. It took real guts by Shawn to do and they so skilfully built the tension up to it too, it makes a great example of a match with one massive bump being more exciting than most bouts that feature dozens. Undertaker stays in control of the match afterwards, and seems to be wrapping things up nicely, with a chokeslam off the top turnbuckle, followed by a stiff unprotected chair-shot to the head, fitting revenge for Summerslam. But just as The Deadman signals for the Tombstone piledriver, the lights go out; seconds later Kane, who had been spoken of by Taker and Paul Bearer for months, makes his debut. The Big Red Machine tears off the Cell door and lays out Taker with a Tombstone of his own, allowing a bloody, battered Michaels to crawl over for the pin.
An electric and engaging match from the first moments, it delivers a proficiently told story through brutal, thrilling action and doesn’t let up until the closing bell. Widely considered the greatest cage match ever of any variety, and one of the best WWE matches of all time (tellingly, it was the last WWF/E match to be awarded 5 stars by Dave Meltzer until Cena/Punk MITB 2011), it left a hell of legacy for the HIAC gimmick to try and follow. And boy did some people try hard…..
High drama, high emotion, high spots – HHH Vs Cactus Jack, No Way Out 2000
If you were to ask a group of wrestling fans which three names were most synonymous with the HIAC bout, 9 out of 10 times you’d get the same three names; HHH, The Undertaker and Mick Foley. Taker and HHH you can understand – The Game has featured in 9, whilst The Deadman has been in a whopping 12. But Mick Foley has only participated in 4, and two of these were on RAW is WAR during 1998, all but forgotten even by those with very good memories. Of the two that appeared on PPV though, both are bona-fide classics. Much has already been written of the infamous King of the Ring battle between Foley (as Mankind) and The Undertaker, and for me personally it hasn’t weathered the years so well. Whilst Mick’s jaw-dropping, death defying bumps are inarguably iconic moments in WWE history, the rest of the match desperately lacks, Taker barely able to hold things together after Foley is knocked silly. Retrospective knowledge of the extent of the injuries suffered by Foley, and the effect it had on his career and life, make it pretty uncomfortable viewing now too, even if it was a different story when I was 14 in 1998 (which it was; myself and my friends would have laughed off any concern we had for wrestlers well-being we had with the wilfully ignorant and naïve belief they knew how to bump without really hurting themselves).
But Mick’s war with HHH from No Way Out is another matter altogether; viewed now, it still holds ups as an excellent example of classic-formula HIAC. At the time, many felt that they would have a hard time following their legendary Street Fight from Royal Rumble the previous month; that bout had so far exceeded expectations, that there was an anticipation some believed couldn’t now be lived up to. So WWE and Foley decided to give it an extra emotional hook by having Cactus Jack declare it was his dream to main event Wrestlemania, and vowing to retire should he lose at No Way Out. At the time, it worked too because many fans were aware of Foleys catalogue of injuries, and his desire to go out on a high before his body gave up for him. With the legacy of the Rumble bout casting its shadow, and with a career changing outcome on the line, HHH and Foley would have to the extra mile to put on something worthy of the fans expectations.
They certainly tried their damndest too. The bout starts with Cactus in control, pounding on HHH with punches, a running forearm and smashing his head into the steel steps. He is soon outside the ring, looking for an exit to the Cell; in the early going, the story is that Cactus wants to take HHH up to the roof, presumably to throw him off. The Game take over soon though, and in brutal fashion; as Cactus is climbing into the ring with a chair, HHH sends him flying off the apron with a running knee, before whipping Cactus into the ring steps. And just to add emphasis, HHH then throws the steps at Cactus. Soon HHH is able to get a near fall when he drops Cactus with a chair shot, but Jack soon turns the table with a low blow, and scores a near-fall of his own with a double arm DDT on the chair. The momentum goes back and forth for a few minutes, with crowd heat building the whole time, before Cactus gets a massive pop by catapulting HHH from the stairs into the Cell wall, busting him open in the process. Cactus then tops it with an even bigger pop by jumping, steel chair in arm, from the second rope to a prone HHH on the floor.
They finally find a way out of the cage, when HHH dodges a flying set of steps, which plough through the mesh fence wall. Cactus send the Game through it too, and follows up with a piledriver on the announce table, which doesn’t break. Jack then brings out his old friend ‘Barbie’, the barbed-wire wrapped 2×4, and the wallops The Game in the head. Thanks to a temporary distraction from Stephanie, HHH is able to flee up to the Cell roof. Cactus tries to follow, but makes the mistake of throwing Barbie up first; HHH then uses it to cut Cactus off on his way, sending him plummeting through the announce table in stunning fashion. Amazingly Cactus is soon up and making his way to the roof again. He manages to get to the top, only to be met with more shots from the barbed wire bat. Cactus manages to regain control with a low blow, before lighting Barbie on fire. He hits HHH with a convincing a blow as you could manage with a burning bat, before signalling for a piledriver. This backfires spectacularly though, when HHH reverses and sends Cactus plunging through the roof to ring mat, which caves in on impact. HHH does a great job of selling shock, and the crowd breaks out into a Holy Shit chant. The Games climbs down into the ring, and it seems certain that all he has to do is pin Cactus; a deafening Foley chant begins, and Cactus manages to raise an arm to the biggest pop of his career. Despite getting to his feet, HHH soon finishes Cactus off with the Pedigree, to the dismay of the audience. They start cheering Foley again as he refuses medical treatment and as Cactus walks down the aisle (supposedly for the last time) the fans are on their feet clapping, some even in tears.
Despite the fact WWE would soon poop all over this by having Foley unretire three weeks later, to the utter indignation of a lot of fans, at the time it was one of the most touching and heart-warming moments ever in wrestling; and regardless of the tainted ending, the content of the match is still excellent. Violent, shocking and gripping from bell to bell, it is a top-notch example of how to do Hell in Cell right.
The Bloodbath – Undertaker Vs Brock Lesnar, No Mercy 2002
My third match choice comes from late 2002, a period in WWE history which was a bit up and down, to say the least. RAW was being dominated by HHH in full-blown ego mode, who mercilessly trampled any start he came up against at this time (just ask RVD, Kane, Booker T etc.) in some diabolical angles, including the infamous Katie Vick storyline. On the other show, Smackdown, things were actually much brighter, with a reinvigorated tag team division headed up by Angle/Benoit and Edge/Mysterio combos, and the main events featuring WWE Champion Brock Lesnar and his primary challenger The Undertaker. They first clashed in a mediocre bout at Unforgiven, which finished with a lame double DQ, and saw Undertaker in ego-mode himself after the bell; face Undertaker dominated and pounded on monster heel Lesnar and tossed him through the entrance sign. Many were disappointed by Takers actions, expecting him to help Lesnar (WWE’s new chosen one) look impressive in his first title defence.
If was for this reason that some were dismayed when it was announced they would clash again at No Mercy; these feelings were further compounded when Lesnar (storyline) broke the Deadman’s hand, giving Lesnar a weakness to try an exploit, when in actuality he should have been able to beat Taker by his own merits on an even playing field. But most of these fears were dashed once the bout got underway. From the start, Lesnar takes the advantage over Undertaker, thanks to his superior agility and speed, wearing him down with forearms and knees. When Taker starts to fight back, Lesnar goes for the cast on the hand, attacking it in various ways. The Deadman manages to turn the tables and batter Lesnar with it instead, busting the young champ open. He holds the advantage by sending Lesnar into the cage, and grating his bloody face against the mesh. Taker allows himself to be distracted by Lesnar’s manager Heyman but Taker is able to gain a measure of revenge on him by booting the Cell wall into his face, before grabbing his tie and ramming his face over and over. The crowd goes wild for this, Heyman having been a very affective heel manager and mouthpiece for The Next Big Thing.
Unfortunately for Taker, this gives Lesnar time to recover, and he lobs Taker into the Cell repeatedly, before tying his hand to the mesh and smashing it with a chair. Lesnar continues the beat-down in the ring, and eventually removes the cast completely. Undertaker attempts a dive in desperation at Lesnar on the outside, but Lesnar dodges and Taker hits the steel. Brock follows up by using the steps as a battering ram into the Undertakers head, busting him wide open; indeed even by the standards of this blade-happy period, it is very graphic juice job. This manages to get the crowd even more solidly behind The Deadman, especially when he is able to turn the tables and stomp on Lesnar’s hand for payback. Lesnar goes for the F5 but Taker reveres it into a chokeslam for the near-fall. Brock dominates Undertaker back into a corner but when his guard is down, Taker manages to hit the Last Ride; Lesnar does make the ropes though, for a very unpopular near-fall. Undertaker then attempts a Tombstone but this is reversed by Lesnar into an F5 for the pin-fall, and Lesnar retains the title.
Even though it doesn’t feature any big bumps from the Cell, Undertaker and Lesnar proved that you can have an absorbing and exciting match without them. Through intense brawling, a super-heated crowd and much, much blood spilling, The Deadman and The Next Big Thing not only proved Lesnar was worthy of the top monster heel spot, but also did justice to the legacy and legend of WWE’s premier gimmick match.