There was a time when four words were the most exciting thing a professional wrestling audience could hear. A rivalry between two superstars would’ve been brewing for quite some time, gradually escalating in terms of personal issues and professional antagonism until one of the performers would spit out a challenge. “I want to fight you one more time,” they would say, “but this time it’s all going to be different.” The audience would take a sharp intake of breath, anticipating what would come next. Finally, those killer words would be delivered:
“We’re going to fight… inside Hell. In. A. Cell.”
The full stops are important. Hell in a Cell was a match that would come with emphasis. In those days, the notion of a match within ‘The Devil’s Playground’ was a truly thrilling one. Viewers would be guaranteed intensity, violence and almost certainly a good, old-fashioned crimson mask or two. It’s no coincidence that Triple H, one of the most proficient practitioners of the noughties pro wrestling bladejob, has appeared in nine Hell in a Cell bouts. Only The Undertaker can say he has competed in more.
Speaking of the Undertaker, he is responsible, of course, for one of the most iconic moments in wrestling history and one of the major reasons for the mystique of Hell in a Cell. Two decades ago, at King of the Ring 1998, he competed in the third ever Hell in a Cell match – he had also been in the first two, obviously – against the dependably insane Mick Foley, then going by the name of Mankind.
After a brief brawl on top of the chain link structure, Taker chucked Foley off the top of the cage, through a ringside announce table and the rest, as they say, is history. Jim Ross would deliver one of the most iconic pieces of commentary ever delivered and Foley would take another fall – yes, again – through the roof of the cell, disfiguring his face in the process when a rogue steel chair joined him on the way down.
It’s one of the most dangerous spectacles to ever take place in a wrestling ring. It made Hell in a Cell more than just a creative stipulation thought up by Jim Cornette and given a catchy name by Vince Russo. It made it iconic and synonymous with violence.
Nowadays, though, Hell in a Cell doesn’t have quite the same connotation of destruction that it once did. There are a number of reasons for this, so let’s talk about a few of them.
The banning of bladejobs in WWE is a good thing. In 2018, there’s little need for wrestlers to cut themselves open for the purposes of our entertainment. One look at the forehead of D-Von Dudley or Dusty Rhodes, before his sad death, shows exactly why this is probably a practice that should go the way of the dodo. Blood certainly has a place in creating wrestling drama, but there’s no reason it can’t be accomplished through stage blood. All it takes is a bit of ingenuity.
Hell in a Cell is the match that has been hit hardest by the PG era of WWE. The match is now no more brutal than a simple no disqualification bout, with wrestlers forced to get very creative in search of violent impact. In fact, it’s pushing wrestlers to take even more risks with table spots within the cramped ringside area and, for those with the surname McMahon and a death wish, leaping off the roof of the cell. As Hell in a Cell has moved into the PG era, it has become more dangerous for the performers and less exciting for those watching.
Put simply, Hell in a Cell doesn’t have much of a reason to exist in the PG wrestling world.
This one is the key. In the first five years of the Hell in a Cell gimmick, there were seven matches within the cell – including three in the summer of 1998 when they got a bit over-excited. In the last five years, there have been 12 matches inside the structure. In fact, of the 38 Hell in a Cell matches in WWE history, half of them have taken place since 2010 and 23 since the company’s product became officially rated PG in the summer of 2008.
Much of the blame for this can be laid at the door of the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view. The event debuted in 2009 with three cell matches and has since featured half of the cell matches contested in the history of WWE. The problem is that many of these matches had done nothing to merit the escalation of the feud into the Hell in a Cell stipulation. The surprise factor has gone. If two people are feuding at the top of the card on the way into the month of September or October, it’s pretty safe to assume that match will end up in the cell.
That’s not to say that these matches are necessarily bad. The last few years have delivered a succession of terrific Hell in a Cell bouts. Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose had a death-defying match in 2014, while the same card saw John Cena and Randy Orton destroy each other in one of the best of their many, many, many contests. The next year saw Roman Reigns and Bray Wyatt have a fun, weapons-filled battle and Brock Lesnar tear up the ring Tommaso Ciampa style en route to a win over The Undertaker. More recently, last year’s Hell in a Cell event featured a great match between The Usos and New Day over the SmackDown Tag Team Championships.
This year’s Hell in a Cell pay-per-view on Sunday night is set to feature two matches within the structure. First, Jeff Hardy and Randy Orton will go to war as their personal issues culminate in a match that, refreshingly, is happening without a title on the line. Then, Braun Strowman will finally cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase to take on Roman Reigns for the WWE Universal Championship. And also in the ring, as special guest referee, is Hell in a Cell legend Mick Foley. These are two bouts with real potential for chaos and carnage.
Hell in a Cell is still capable of producing a great match, but it doesn’t have its violent mystique any more. It’s just another stipulation in the WWE toolbox and one they pull out with too much uniformity for it to ever have any impact. It’s still possible to enjoy Hell in a Cell, but the chill down the spine that those four words once signalled is now more likely to elicit a shrug.
All photos courtesy of WWE.com