10/17/2017 0 Comments
by Chris Foss
Almost exactly twenty years ago, on October 5, 1997, the struggling World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) aired a pay-per-view called Badd Blood. That night the company tried out a new match format: Hell in a Cell (HIC). The gimmick consists of lowering a cage around a wrestling ring and locking two opponents inside. Unlike the “cage match” that had long been standard in pro wrestling, the cell also had a roof, the idea being that a wrestler could not escape their opponent, and thus the match would have to have a decision. The match promised, and delivered, on what would become the WWF’s trademark for years to come—a new level of brutality with in-ring objects and copious amounts of ketchup (err…blood) spilled. But this anniversary provides the opportunity to show that HIC also inaugurated a new level of athleticism in pro wrestling. This athleticism helped propel the WWF, however scripted in its outcomes and melodramatic in its pageantry, toward the status it enjoys now where mainstream sports websites regularly report on its major events. Such status came at a cost, however.
Pro wrestling once occupied a niche in the world of the sports fan, because like real sports, wrestling targeted primarily middle-aged men and their children as their main demographic. Before the 1980s, local wrestling circuits of varying qualities reigned. With the consolidation of most of professional wrestling into the WWF, however, its connection with sports dissolved, as owner Vince McMahon rebranded the product as “sports entertainment”. With this move, the company all but admitted that wrestling was scripted (not that people didn’t really know it already). In-ring interviews, backstage promos, outsized personalities and in-ring costumes, and increasingly scantily clad women all came to dominate wrestling. On the other hand, many of the matches from 1985 until 1997 were--by today’s standards particularly—almost unwatchable. There’s a lot of grappling and prolonged sleeper holds and in some of the matches the arena is so dead that you can audibly hear the wrestlers “calling spots”—i.e. talking about what they’re going to do next to get to the scripted outcome.
That started to change with Hell in a Cell. The WWF had struggled for a number of years after the loss of its big box office draw, Hulk Hogan (Terry Bollea), to rival World Championship Wrestling (WCW), an attempt by Atlanta Hawks owner and media mogul Ted Turner to become the new king of wrestling. By 1997, Turner was winning—he had the big stars, and WCW outranked WWF in the TV ratings every week during the “Monday Night War” between their respective programs, Monday Nitro and Raw is War. The WWF countered by pushing WCW castoff Stone Cold Steve Austin (Steve Williams) as its edgy new star. But by October, Austin was in limbo after a neck injury suffered at an earlier pay-per-view put his career temporarily in doubt. Another path to success and recognition for the WWF presented itself with the HIC that would cap off the aptly-named Badd Blood event.
The match capped off a feud between two of the WWF’s veteran stars: Undertaker (Mark Calloway), a surprisingly nimble 7-footer; and Shawn Michaels (Michael Hickenbottom), a much smaller, spry wrestler who resembled pro wrestling’s forthcoming new era. Michaels had already participated in many of the company’s (few) exciting matches over the years. He eschewed traditional grappling for running and death-defying leaps: appropriately enough, at Wrestlemania X in 1994, he participated in the first Ladder Match. When you combined Michaels and Undertaker in big main events with big guys like Diesel (Kevin Nash) or grapplers like Bret Hart (one of the few wrestlers not to adopt a ring name), the matches tended to be snooze-fests. (Whoever thought it was a good idea to have Michaels and Hart have a 60-minute long match at Wrestlemania XII in 1996?) But bring together the company’s most athletic little guy and its most athletic big guy, put a cell over the ring, and you had the makings of a classic.
Back to HIC: The script utilized the “no-holds-barred” format to have the wrestlers ram each other into the poles and stairs around the ring, and into the cage itself. The ketchup came out for Michaels, and “terrified” of the Undertaker, he fled the cage at one point, only to be caught—and then the real athleticism began, with the wrestlers climbing and descending the cage, and even performing moves on its roof. The scene was capped off with the Undertaker knocking Michaels off the side of the cage into the announcer table directly below—probably about a ten-foot drop. The match ends improbably Michaels nonetheless gaining the win after interference from—you guessed it—the Undertaker’s long-lost brother, Kane, returning from “hell”. Violence plus athleticism plus melodrama = the new winning formula for the WWF.
Ironically, neither Michaels nor Undertaker would become synonymous with the new “Attitude” era. Undertaker, despite his cool character, never excelled in the personality department, and was injury-prone. Michaels went into semi-retirement after sustaining a back injury in the follow-up match against Undertaker at the Royal Rumble the following January. Steve Austin, meanwhile, returned from his own injury to become the face of the company as it overtook and eventually purchased WCW. His matches and those of the stable of wrestlers who would follow in his image—particularly former University of Miami football star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson—would likewise combine violence, melodrama, and athleticism in a fast-paced package which expertly targeted wrestling’s increasingly younger (but still almost exclusively male) audience. Increasing numbers of “real” athletes—including Olympic gold medal wrestler Kurt Angle and UFC fighter Brock Lesnar—joined the company in succeeding years. And HIC was one of many match formats that pushed the envelope of what wrestlers could do.
On June 28, 1998, the WWF broadcast an even more famous Hell in a Cell match, pitting Undertaker against Mankind (Mick Foley), a journeyman wrestler known for his willingness to perform risky in-ring stunts. On this night, Foley was thrown off the top of the cell by the Undertaker, and later “choke-slammed” through the cage into the ring below, and performed other grisly stunts involving barbed wire and thumb tacks. The match launched Foley into superstardom, and he would eventually do other Hell in a Cell matches with similarly brutal results. The injuries he sustained in these and other matches, however, forced him to retire from wrestling.
But at least Foley isn’t dead—yet. The 1997 HIC came the day after one of the first premature deaths of a prominent wrestler, Brian Pillman, who died of a heart attack after a period of cocaine and human growth hormone usage. The show went on, rewritten to accommodate Pillman’s now-permanent absence. Steroids and drugs taken to deal with the very real rigors of this fake sport have since claimed many wrestlers. Sports outlets have been there to cover the WWF/WWE both in the ring and out, and the out-of-the-ring coverage has seemed to overshadow the highlights within the squared circle. The 2005 death of Eddie Guererro after years of alcohol and painkiller abuse, and Chris Benoit’s 2007 murder-suicide following years of concussions and depression saw the company lose two top athletes and put wrestling in the wrong sort of spotlight. After Benoit’s rampage, WWE cleaned up its on-screen image and pivoted back toward somewhat more family-friendly programming, although HIC has remained, and even has an annual pay-per-view named after it.
Twenty years on, Hell in a Cell’s legacy is inextricably linked with attitudes regarding pro wrestling’s athleticism and sport-like qualities, in both good and bad ways. It dawned a new era by highlighting what wrestlers could do with their bodies beyond grappling and sleeper-holds. At the same time, the unrestrained format of the match highlights the very real brutality of pro wrestling, one that’s always been there since it descended from real Greco-Roman wrestling. HIC propelled WWF/E to new heights, but also put a negative spotlight on the company that it has been unable to totally shake. It’s shown us that while pro wrestling may not be truly a sport, it is worthy of being debated and judged by sports fans. Above all, while the outcomes may be scripted, Hell in a Cell shows that wrestling is real.