Hell in a Cell — featuring the giant, five-ton cage that was built by mystic metalworkers and encloses the ring and the ringside floor — has a place in the history of WWE gimmick matches behind only the Royal Rumble. But for all the thrills the Rumble gins up with the constant anticipation of the next entrant, Hell in a Cell, with its guarantee of gruesome high spots, evokes something more primal, emotional, and chillingly physical. More than a carnival of forced anticipation, it can be the pinnacle of pro wrestling — wrathful combat distilled and amplified. The format was created by legendary manager and backstage operator Jim Cornette, inspired by his old-school experience with the NWA’s War Games and Memphis grudge matches.
So it’s a shame — and not much of a surprise — that the modern WWE has allowed Hell in a Cell to fall into dreary near-oblivion. Give Vince McMahon and WWE a simple, good idea, and watch them exploit it into gaudy obsolescence.
That’s not strictly an insult. McMahon’s company took a middling wrestler with a great look named Hulk Hogan and turned him into a multimedia star of the MTV generation. It took an also-ran named Steve Austin and made him into wrestling’s answer to late ’90s existential angst, an icon of personal volition in a disorderly world. McMahon took his father’s monthly pro wrestling show at MSG and refashioned it into a never-ending series of pay-per-view supercards that changed the business forever.
The machine — or monster — he created must be constantly fed, and so WWE’s storytelling became a hostage of the monthly grind, less a narrative arc than a shove forward to keep pace. And matches that were once used to bring a narrative to its climax — Hell in a Cell; Tables, Ladders, and Chairs bouts; Elimination Chamber — have been elevated to annual events, exchanging their story line logic for PPV branding opportunities.
This explains why the story has fallen by the wayside in the run-up to Sunday’s Hell in a Cell. For those who aren’t keeping up, here’s what won’t be featured: the WWE champion, Brock Lesnar, who’s working on a per-show basis for WWE, and whose presence has been apparently deemed unnecessary; the Rock, who made a surprise appearance at Raw a few weeks ago, but that was strictly a coincidence of scheduling; and John Cena versus Dean Ambrose, which was originally booked to open the show but happened instead last week on Raw. Sunday’s slate of matches isn’t bad at all, but it’s hard not to feel underwhelmed by the PPV card.
The problem isn’t just what’s missing from Hell in a Cell. It’s also that the planned matches feel somewhat lacking. Let’s go through the card and see what (the Hell) could have done better.
Dean Ambrose vs. Seth Rollins in a Hell in a Cell Match
This probably won’t be the main event, but I’ll mention it first because it’s the best thing WWE has going. Since Ambrose and Rollins debuted together two years ago, it was clear that they (and their partner, Roman Reigns, who’s sidelined with an injury) represented the future of the company. Their three-man unit, the Shield, was split up somewhat prematurely four months ago, only weeks after neck surgery forced Daniel Bryan to take an extended break. To help fill the vacuum, Reigns was pushed to the top of the babyface charts — with Ambrose trailing close behind — while Rollins was cast as one of the company’s biggest heels. When Reigns went down with a hernia last month, the Ambrose-Rollins feud was bumped to main-event status, and in recent weeks Ambrose has been unofficially anointed the new megastar-in-waiting, appropriating “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s shtick along with Reigns and Bryan’s spotlight.
Unlike Reigns, who played his emergent megastar role with humdrum, earnest monotony, Ambrose has taken the opportunity to inject his character with a little more personality, and he’s reaping the benefits. The Ambrose-Rollins feud gained so much steam that it was absorbed into the main event, as Cena demanded a shot at Rollins despite Ambrose’s months-old dibs. Thus was made the Cena-Ambrose match, which had a certain diabolical logic: Rollins is Triple H’s golden boy, so having Cena and Ambrose fight at Hell in a Cell for the right to face Rollins would wear them down for the main event. But when it was revealed that WWE planned to have the Cena-Ambrose loser take on Randy Orton, the writers had to reboot so Orton wouldn’t look like an also-ran.
All of these machinations have dulled the excitement over Ambrose’s match with Rollins. Their blood feud feels like one piece of a larger puzzle instead of the dramatic end of their rivalry. And the narrative stakes behind Ambrose-Rollins have been pushed deeper into the background by Mick Foley, who appeared on Raw on Monday to underscore the peril of the Hell in a Cell match. Not only will Ambrose and Rollins be putting their health and careers on the line, but the fans will expect the wrestlers to put on an inhuman classic. Ambrose and Rollins can’t just steal the show anymore; they are the show.
What the Hell would have been better? Give it some real stakes — make it for Rollins’s Money in the Bank briefcase. Or give it an old-school flourish, like a stipulation wherein the loser has to call the winner the better man. Or better yet, make the loser grant the winner one unconditional wish.
John Cena vs. Randy Orton in a Hell in a Cell Match for a Shot at Brock Lesnar’s WWE Championship
In a move to rekindle interest in this bout, Triple H announced that the winner would earn a title fight. Set aside that both of these guys probably were already in line to challenge Lesnar; this was obviously a move to rescue this matchup, which we’ve seen many times before,1 from perceived insignificance. If that didn’t quite do the job, Paul Heyman returned Monday to try to seal the deal.
The Orton-Cena title unification match late last year was openly billed as their last. Even if we didn’t buy it then, it’s OK to complain about it now.
Whereas Heyman had in previous months been used to remind people of Lesnar’s looming presence, more recently the manager has been kept off TV to avoid calling attention to Lesnar’s absence. It’s difficult to remember the last PPV when the championship wasn’t a major story line element. There have been a bunch of PPVs when the title wasn’t defended — including WrestleMania I — but the champion was still performing in the main event. Even when Ric Flair jumped ship to the WWF on the eve of the 1991 Great American Bash, WCW had a match for the vacated title between Barry Windham and Lex Luger. To completely disregard Lesnar’s existence would have been hard for fans to stomach. Heyman’s return was a good gesture in this direction, and his eating an RKO from Orton2 saved an otherwise toothless promo meant to build the match. But no amount of Heyman speechifying can turn this retread into a special attraction.
A move that has been immortalized in a series of brilliant animated Vines.
What the Hell would have been better? Forget the future title shot — make this match for the interim WWE championship. There’s a long-standing wrestling “rule” that titles have to be defended every 30 days, and even though every rule in wrestling is made to be broken (or disregarded by the next booker), it feels odd to ignore it. If the rumor that Lesnar won’t wrestle again until January turns out to be true, an interim champ seems like a logical plot contrivance. It would also serve as an additional point of conflict between Heyman and Triple H and make WWE feel slightly like UFC, which was partly the goal of rehiring Lesnar in the first place.
Sheamus vs. the Miz for the United States Championship
I don’t think it’s radical to say that the Miz — and more importantly, his “stunt double,” Damien Mizdow (né Sandow) — has been one of the highlights of WWE television over the last couple of months. Miz, returning from filming a forgettable WWE movie, transformed into an egotistical Hollywood caricature and brought on Sandow as his stunt double. They evolved into a full-fledged team act, with them dressing alike and Sandow pantomiming the Miz’s moves from outside the ring. Just when it seemed like fans were getting too invested in Mizdow and that WWE would have to rein in the character, it doubled down and turned it into a story line where the understudy grows more popular than the star (but Miz is too oblivious to see it). Sheamus, with his cartoon gruffness, is probably their perfect foil, but no amount of inspired comedy can elevate Miz-Sheamus above midcard status.
What the Hell would have been better? Mizdow pinned Sheamus in a tag match Monday (leading to one of the most hilarious postfight reactions in recent memory). Why not have Sheamus say that earned Mizdow a shot at the belt, and insert him into the match? That takes him out of his role as Miz’s troublemaking second and puts him in the position of having to consider going into business for himself. Imagine if Mizdow pins Sheamus for the belt, and he and Miz passive-aggressively fight over who gets to hold it for the next month, leading to a breakup feud?
Dolph Ziggler vs. Cesaro for the Intercontinental Championship
Around the time of Night of Champions, Ziggler and Sheamus teamed up against their respective NoC opponents, Miz and Cesaro, and in the course of the match, the feuds flopped. It was an uncharacteristically clever way for WWE to shuffle the deck. After that, there was a great triple threat between Ziggler, Miz, and Cesaro, but WWE did little to build the story behind that match or why the various participants wanted to beat the snot out of each other. Sunday’s bout wasn’t even confirmed by the end of this week’s Raw. The lack of narrative pales in comparison to non-title feuds of yore, like Tully Blanchard–Magnum T.A. or Randy Savage–Ricky Steamboat. But even without the storytelling, Ziggler and Cesaro are as good as it gets in the ring. If WWE gives them 30 minutes on Sunday, it’ll be a classic. WWE won’t give it to them.
What the Hell would have been better? This sounds too obvious, but treat this feud like it matters. This is the most prestigious title being defended on this show, and two of WWE’s best wrestlers are fighting for it. Ziggler and Cesaro are huge favorites of both meta fans and live crowds — this match could be exactly as big a deal as WWE decided to make it. Unfortunately, it appears WWE decided to make it a third-tier afterthought.
Rusev vs. Big Show
Rusev has been running through everyone who’s been put in front of him; of late, his anti-American act has drawn the latent patriotism out of Mark Henry (whom Rusev squashed) and now Big Show, who is Henry’s buddy and erstwhile tag-team partner. On Monday’s Raw, Rusev threatened to disgrace an American flag (in retaliation for Big Show desecrating a Russian flag last month). This led to a fake member of the U.S. military charging the ring and getting head-kicked by Rusev, which led to Big Show getting really angry.
What the Hell would have been better? Unpopular opinion alert: I don’t mind this story line. This is one of the most meta feuds we’ve seen in a while. From Show and Henry’s uncertain friendship to WWE’s apology for the Russian flag incident being (apparently) completely a story line contrivance, they’ve been playing with a lot of nuance. Sure, for every bit of subtlety there’s a patriotic two-by-four (HOOOOOOO!) hitting you over the head, but it’s necessary. The question is whether nuance can survive a pinfall. If Big Show succumbs to Rusev’s finisher, the Accolade, and nothing comes of all the shades of gray (as will likely happen), then what was the point?
Brie Bella vs. Nikki Bella; Loser Must Be the Winner’s Personal Assistant for 30 Days
This sibling rivalry was shaping up to be a minor epic. The Bellas’ feud seemed like it would harness both the marketing power of Total Divas and the viciousness of Missy Hyatt versus Baby Doll, with the proxy battle of their respective beaus, Bryan and Cena, hanging in the metaphorical balance. Then WWE overexposed it, dragging in Jerry “The King” Lawler and Jerry Springer, and what could have been a riveting blood feud became silly and shallow. Now Nikki and Brie are fighting over the exact wrong ’80s wrestling stipulation, and regardless of who emerges victorious from this match, nobody wins.
What the Hell would have been better? The more time these two spent in the ring together, the less significant the story line seemed. WWE should have gone the opposite way. It should have had Stephanie McMahon — as de facto head of the Divas division — make a Bella vs. Bella match for Hell in a Cell. Then McMahon could have banned Brie from Raw to keep the twins from hurting each other while letting Nikki parade with the Authority every week. Then have Brie show up the last Monday before Hell in a Cell and attack her sister. Voilà! We’re excited for the fight.
AJ Lee vs. Paige for the Divas Championship
They’ve been feuding for months, and they’re the two most compelling Divas WWE has had in a very long time, but I’m not sure what’s different from last month, other than that the title has switched hands and Paige is palling around with Alicia Fox. I’m torn here; it’s possible that AJ and Paige are constructing a singularly smart, compelling long-term feud, but they’re so far under the radar that it seems like even the announcers aren’t following the story. If WWE doesn’t seem to care about the rivalry, then why should fans?
What the Hell would have been better? Paige and Alicia were just announced as cast members for Season 3 of Total Divas, and AJ is the defiant Diva not letting the cameras into her life. Why not use that? Have them carry around a camera, crazily filming themselves auditioning for the show, except their segments are all obsessed with antagonizing and attacking AJ. Let the Divas explore their characters outside the ring.
Goldust and Stardust vs. the Usos for the Tag Team Championships
The Dust brothers won the title from the Usos last month. I thought they would have moved on. They did not.
What the Hell would have been better? Anything but the Usos. This spot should have been Rowan and Harper of the Wyatt family (they’re presently being set free from their cult obligations to find their own paths) or Big Show and Henry (they’re occupied by Rusev), and so the revelatory Rhodes brothers are stuck on the afterthought treadmill. Alas.
Alas. Hell in a Cell, the event that inspired the most awesome moment in WWE history, will probably inspire much eye rolling Sunday.
You know what the hell would have been great? If this weren’t the branded Hell in a Cell pay-per-view. If it were just another major event, and Ambrose and Cena were both gunning for Rollins. And Cena went to Triple H and said, hey, I’m your biggest star, I’m the main event, give me the match. And Ambrose said, maybe I’m a nobody, but I hate Seth Rollins, and if you’re just going to give us a regular match where you Authority jagoffs ruin everything, then don’t bother — but if you really want a special match, seeing as how Lesnar isn’t even available, then let me fight Rollins inside Hell in a Cell. And remember, we’re not expecting that, and neither is Triple H, so it sparks his interest. Triple H is on Rollins’s side, but he’s about what’s best for business, so he gives Ambrose the nod. Cena says wait a minute, I’ll go in the cell, too, and Triple H says yep, you will, but I’ll make it even worse: You get Orton. And Cena looks scared. And we have two matches we care about.
Or two matches that I would care about, anyway. Who knows if anybody agrees with me. If WWE had used that exact script, people would surely have found decent enough reasons to complain.
We’re in an unreal world in which feuds aren’t governed by the rules of conventional wrestling animus. Instead, they’re determined by a calendar of scheduled spectacle. If the matches seem more canned than in years past, maybe it’s because the schedule is gimmicked years in advance. If WWE bumped Cena-Ambrose from the card because everybody knew what was going to happen, then kudos. But if that’s the governing ethos, it might as well cancel the whole show, because many wrestling fans saw it coming a year away.
I’ll repeat it: Give Vince McMahon and WWE a small, good idea, and watch them exploit it into gaudy obsolescence. That really isn’t an insult. They took blue-collar brawling and turned it into mainstream serio-comic mythmaking. But mythmaking on that scale is a lot to live up to. On Sunday, they have to retrofit an epic card for Hell in a Cell’s weighty reputation for gruesome glory. Monday, when Foley appeared on Raw, the most poignant part wasn’t anything he said, but the limp in his gait, the real-life toll of putting himself through hell to make fans cheer. He gave his body to make himself a god.
On Sunday, Rollins and Ambrose and Cena and Orton and all the other folks on the roster have a chance to do the same. They have a lot to live up to. Here’s to hoping they will.