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A Brief History of Hell: The Evolution of WWE Hell in a Cell

October is here again, and with it comes the sixth installment of the WWE’s annual Hell in a Cell pay per view.

In a PG era where everything has been pretty much done to death already, the Hell in a Cell concept may not quite be the grand spectacle McMahon & Co. would have you believe. Sure, it’s something a little different than your standard marquee matchup, but we’ve all seen it before, and seen it without the kind of limitations necessitated by the company’s family-friendly product.

Though it wasn’t always that way. Yes folks, there was once a time when the words Hell in a Cell were synonymous with violence and bloodshed on altogether unprecedented scale.

Origins
As a concept, Hell in a Cell owes much to the imagination of booker, manager and overly-opinionated shoot interview regular, JIm Cornette. Devised by Cornette (then a member of the WWF’s creative team) as a modern hybrid of WCW’s famous War Games structure and the kind of steel cages once employed by the Memphis territory, the first Hell in a Cell match promised blood, brutality and carnage, yet delivered so much more.

Badd Blood – 1997
The Hell in a Cell match made its debut on October 5, 1997 at the Kiel Center in St. Louis, Missouri. The event? In Your House: Badd Blood. The competitors? None other than certified legends Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker.

HBK and The Phenom had been at war since that year’s Summerslam, when Michaels – as special guest referee – inadvertently cost ‘Taker the WWF Championship by drilling him with a steel chair intended for challenger Bret Hart.

Between that night and this, the two had squared off at September’s In Your House: Ground Zero event, in a match which ended in a no contest when both men decided to pummel the official. The only way to settle their differences, it seemed, was to get inside a demonic steel structure and beat the hell out of one another.

And oh, did they ever.

That first match was everything fans hoped it would be, and then some. The two WWF mainstays went at it in a wild, barbaric and bloody brawl that ended only when Kane made his debut in spectacular fashion and cost his brother the match.

The standard was set. ‘Taker and Michaels had not only given fans an insane match, they’d ultimately given Hell in a Cell a reputation as the match of choice for ending the most heated and violent of rivalries.

‘He’s broken in half!’
Such was the case when The Undertaker returned to the structure at the following year’s King of the Ring to do battle with long-time rival Mankind. If the Undertaker created the cell’s reputation as the WWF’s most brutal match with Shawn Michaels, he firmly cemented it in a now legendary stunt-fest with Foley.

Whilst this one may have lacked the drama and intensity of the aforementioned Badd Blood match, it more than made up for it with sheer spectacle and OMG-factor. In scenes that would be replayed for years, ‘Taker launched Mankind from the top of the cage through the announce table, then drove him through the roof to the canvas and generally left Mrs. Foley’s Baby Boy in a physical wreck.

It’s fair to say that WWF fans had never seen anything like it before, and it seemed that nothing could tarnish Hell in a Cell’s status as the ultimate feud-ender.

Nothing that is, except the Big Boss Man.

The Boss Man Cometh
The Cell put in a few sporadic appearances throughout the remainder of 1998, mostly as the setting for Raw main events which all ended with the kind of chaotic non-finish so typical of the time. When it did make its pay per view return in 1999, the results were hardly spectacular.

First up, The Undertaker returned to the structure he’d made his home over the last two years to take on the Boss Man in a match which, whilst far from being completely terrible, was certainly a huge let down compared to previous ppv outings for both The Phenom and his steel playpen.

To make matters worse, Big Boss Man returned to the cell later that year in a match that is still regarded as one of history’s worst matches in both idea and execution.

Though not technically a straight Hell in the Cell encounter, the infamous Kennel from Hell match did at least feature the cell structure. Inside it, the Boss Man and Al Snow first had to escape from a traditional cage, then get out of the cell, all whilst avoiding the attack of supposedly rabid dogs. For their part, the dogs largely ignored the action and instead spent their time humping one another, peeing all over the place and defecating.

In the space of just one year, Hell in a Cell had gone from the showcase of the most violent and awesome matches to, well, literal crap.

Yet all was not lost.

Hunter and Taker make it their own
Over the next several years, Hell in a Cell began to reestablish itself as the place to settle scores in the most violent way possible, thanks in no small part to the two men who hold the most wins between the steel, Triple H and Cell veteran, The Undertaker.

Every one of the eleven Hell in a Cell matches that took places between 2000 and 2008 featured either Hunter or The Phenom squaring off against a slew of opponents ranging from Shawn Michaels to Brock Lesnar via Jericho, Batista, and even the McMahons. In some cases, such as the six man WWF Championship cell match at Armageddon 2000, the two superstars both shared the cage the same time.

Along the way, the two tenured WWE superstars created a number of awesome matches. For Triple H, there was his February 2000 brawl against Cactus Jack (the first cell match since the aforementioned Kennel from Hell), his Vengeance ‘05 war with Batista, and even his Bad Blood 2004 encounter with Shawn Michaels which, admittedly, is something of an acquired taste.

For The Undertaker, we had his brutal No Mercy 2002 clash with Lesnar, a good brawl with Orton in 2005, and an absolutely awesome outing with rival Edge at the 2008 Survivor Series.

So it made sense when the two headliners found themselves at loggerheads in the early part of this decade, they finally met inside the cell at Wrestlemania 28. With Shawn Michaels as the referee, Hunter/Taker Hell in a Cell remains possibly one of the best, certainly one of the most memorable, WWE matches of the last several years.

Although by this time of course, Hell in a Cell had found a new life of its own.

A pay per view attraction
By 2009, the WWE brain trust had decided that many of their second-tier pay per views (ie: anything outside of the traditional Big Four) needed to have a gimmick. That gave us short-lived concepts such as Bragging Rights, but it also gave us events which continue on to this day, such as the Extreme Rules pay per view and, of course, an event built around the idea of the top stars duking it out inside the cell.

With the gimmick’s reputation for brutality firmly restored, the first Hell in a Cell pay per view took place on October 4, 2009, at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, and did its best to tarnish said reputation once again.

In the opening match, The Undertaker obliterated World Heavyweight Champion CM Punk in a very one-sided affair, all while mostly ignoring the cage structure. The night’s WWE Championship bout between Orton and Cena faired a little better, though the main event, pitting DX against Legacy members Cody Rhodes and Ted Dibiase Jr. failed to live up to their Summerslam 2009 outing, and again could have been exactly the same match without the cell.

Over the following four years, October’s Hell in a Cell pay per view continued to churn out a mixed bag of matches ranging from the sorely lackluster to the sublimely enjoyable. 2010 may have given us an entertaining clash between WWE Champion Randy Orton and Irishman Seamus, but it also gave us an appalling effort from Undertaker and Kane.

2011 gave us a couple of strong outings in the form of Orton/Henry and a tripple-threat between Cena, Punk and Del Rio, though as with DX/Legacy from 2009, neither match really benefited from the Hell in a Cell gimmick.

2012 gave us a memorable encounter between Punk and erstwhile Next Big Thing, Ryback. The two returned to the cell the following year, this time with Paul Heyman ‘tagging’ with Ryback in a handicap match which, once again,had no need for the cell. Luckily, Orton and Daniel Bryan came to the rescue with a fairly inspired bout.

All of which means that when it comes to match quality at Hell in a Cell 2014, what we’ll get is anybody’s guess. A wild, chaotic brawl between Ambrose and Rollins to rival HHH/Cactus Jack perhaps? Or something one small step away from Kennel from Hell? If history is anything to go by, it may just be that we get a little of both.

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Chris Skoyles

Chris Skoyles is a writer and wrestling fan from Wigan, England. Currently on a mission to watch and review every WWE ppv from Wrestlemania 1-30, you can read those reviews on the Retro Pro Wrestling blog, tweet him @Retropwrestling, or visit his personal site at www.chrisskoyles.com

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