Before the days of themed pay per views like Extreme Rules, Money in The Bank and Hell in a Cell, the so–called “Big 4” PPVs tried to cement recurring gimmick matches of their own. The Royal Rumble obviously hosts the Royal Rumble match; the Survivor Series’ staple has always been elimination tag team matches; while Wrestlemania has dabbled with multi-person ladder matches and battle royals. What about Summerslam though? Well on 8 separate occasions a cage of some description has housed a match at the ‘hottest event of the summer’. However today we shall remember the cage used for two consecutive years, at the 1998 and 1999 instalments of the August PPV; The Lion’s Den.
One can’t say these matches are fondly remembered, because they are barely remembered at all. Having said that, I’ve stopped short of including this post in our ‘Well That Didn’t Work’ series because – quite frankly – they did work, to a point.
So for those that don’t know – or don’t remember – what is a Lion’s Den match? Given that the match is named after Ken Shamrock’s MMA training school, you would be correct in assuming that he and the sport of Mixed Martial Arts are closely linked to it. A Lion’s Den match is essentially a professional wrestling match fought inside an MMA cage… and featuring Ken Shamrock. Rather than an octagon – as used in UFC – WWE’s cage was smaller and looked a bit like a giant colander. Still, the design of the cage was effective enough to communicate that we wouldn’t be seeing an ordinary wrestling match. The relatively small dimensions meant that the referee could not fit in the cage with the wrestlers, so had to patrol an elevated lip surrounding the fence; not your average cage match setup.
Like most things that yield sequels, if you are interested in watching a Lion’s Den match then I urge you to watch the original first; from Summerslam 1998. The match was used as a fitting way to end Shamrock’s feud with Owen Hart. The pair had been feuding all summer after Owen had turned on Shamrock to join The Nation, breaking the ankle of ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Man’ in the process. At the July PPV, Fully Loaded, Owen cheated in order to defeat Shamrock in a Dungeon Match – which was a submission match fought inside the infamous Hart Family Dungeon. This led to Shamrock challenging Owen to “enter his world” and fight inside the Lion’s Den at Summerslam. Owen accepted and enlisted Dan ‘The Beast’ Severn – who served as the special guest referee in the Dungeon Match – to train him.
With Summerslam being held in Madison Square Garden, the set was typically small. Thus, there was no room for a wrestling ring and an entirely separate Lion’s Den cage. The solution was to house the cage downstairs, in MSG’s theatre. Complete with smaller crowd of rabid fans and unique layout, the inaugural Lion’s Den match felt more like an event in its own right, rather than a mere gimmick match on a PPV undercard.
Having learned their lesson from the dreadful Brawl For All tournament, the Lion’s Den match between Shamrock and Owen was entirely worked – not that a shoot was ever on the cards anyway. For that reason, the match does take a minute or two to get your head around. As a fan of both WWE and UFC, it just feels weird to watch a wrestling match inside a structure far closer to an octagon than a wrestling ring. Both Shamrock and Owen whiped each other across the canvas, only to meet steel instead of springy ropes. Once you accept the lack of ropes you can enjoy a really good match. There was an emphasis on throws and submissions, with both men using the cage for leverage on more than one occasion. The use of this unique environment seemed to justify the gimmick; otherwise they could have just had a regular match. Ultimately Shamrock escaped a Sharpshooter and applied his ankle lock submission to win the match, and the feud.
By no means was this match a 5 star classic, but it was a very good 10 minute bout with a gimmick worthy of revisiting; and revisit it WWE did.
The second Lion’s Den match occurred on the June 7th 1999 episode of Raw. Once again it featured Ken Shamrock, only this time he faced his boss; Mr McMahon. This match came about after Stone Cold – who was CEO at the time, apparently – granted Shamrock, and the other Union members, one request each. Shamrock’s wish was to face his boss in his signature match. As was prone to happen when Vince was booked in a match, what we got was more of an angle than a match. As Vince locked himself in the cage, Jeff Jarrett attacked Shamrock with a guitar. With Kenny KO’d, Vince dragged him inside the cage and pinned him. As an aside, this was the same episode of Raw which saw Vince reveal himself as ‘The Higher Power’ and Test asked Stephanie out on a date. I wonder how that ended up…?
Apparently starting a new tradition, Lion’s Den match number three took place a year after the first, at Summerslam 1999. Unfortunately it was inferior to the original in almost every way. For starters – due the space permitted by the larger venue – the cage was situated in the main arena, adjacent to the main set. Doesn’t sound like a big deal, but at this point in time this space was usually reserved for a paddling pool filled with chocolate pudding… and Miss Kitty; not the best location for a serious cage match. Secondly, it was a weapon’s Lion’s Den match; as if one gimmick wasn’t enough. Thirdly, and not to be too harsh, Shamrock’s opponent was Steve Blackman. A decent worker in his day, but he was no Owen Hart. Ultimately the match fell flat. Unlike the first bout it featured very little that could not have been achieved in a regular match, never mind a cage match. Shamrock won, in a fashion a little too convincing for a PPV match.
Sadly, as Ken Shamrock left WWE in late 1999, so did the Lion’s Den match. At the time this was entirely understandable. WWE did not have anyone else whom it could logically book in such a bout. Much as the casket match is The Undertaker’s signature match, the Lion’s Den was Shamrock’s. However, it is somewhat disappointing that we have not seen this gimmick resurrected at some point over the last sixteen years. In 1999 Shamrock stood alone as the only wrestler in WWE that could pull off an MMA inspired match, but over the years we have seen other performers enter WWE whom fans could potentially take seriously in a Lion’s Den match. Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, William Regal, Taz, Vladimir Kozlov, Alberto Del Rio, Sylvester Terkay, CM Punk and Rusev all either had the gimmick, the background or both to be convincing in such a match.
There’s also WWE’s other former UFC Champion; Brock Lesnar. This Sunday he will do battle with MMA fan The Undertaker in a singles match at Summerslam. While this rematch from Wrestlemania 30 will likely do big business for WWE, I can’t help but feel that there is a wealth of gimmick matches these men could have together instead. If Lesnar vs. The Undertaker continues beyond Summerslam – and I think it will – then the smart money is probably on a rematch at Hell in a Cell. However, the pair have already had a match inside the cell – Lesnar won to retain the WWE Title at No Mercy 2002 – so maybe, just maybe, we have not seen the last of that Lion’s Den after all…