Did you feel underwhelmed by this year’s Hell in a Cell? Did the titular reference to literal damnation feel a little unearned in that endless slog of Randy Orton chair-shots? You’re not alone! Hell in a Cell matches used to epitomize the most brutally violent tendencies of television pro wrestling, but in modern times, all those battles are relegated to the history books. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s good that our superstars will still be walking in their 50s, but it does make us misty-eyed for that bygone era. We know so much more now, and that’s a blessing and a curse.
Thankfully, with the WWE network, all that bloody nostalgia is only a few clicks away! I went ahead and revisited six of the most notable Hell in a Cell matches of all time, and organized them into a brief viewing guide. So sit back, relax, and cringe all over again.
6. Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker – Badd Blood 1997
You don’t really need to watch this match. Sure it’s the first Hell in a Cell, the debut of Kane, 20 minutes of Michaels bumping like a dying bird, whatever. You don’t actually need to watch it. The top-of-the-cage stuff is fine, but essentially a prototype for later, for more resonant drama, and in 2014 it’s not exactly hard to find other great Taker matches that put over the Deadman as an unstoppable harbinger of doom.
Listen, I’m not saying it’s a bad match! It’s totally solid! Just, you know, not exactly required viewing. You should watch the last five minutes though, because old-mask Kane shows up and makes you remember an era where he wasn’t some horribly neutered Authority stand-in who’s lost every meaningful match he’s had since… I don’t remember when. Please WWE, bring back our Kane! As the first Cell match it certainly sets up the context of what we now expect from the stipulation, but stuff like this exists to be iterated upon.
5. Triple H vs. Undertaker – WrestleMania 28
How you feel about this match will always be tied to how you feel about Triple H in general.
If you, like me, grew up in the Attitude Era, you probably love Triple H and thought DX was the coolest thing ever. If you are a little bit older, you might regard him as an under-talented snake who clawed his way to the top through backstage politics, an archetypal superstar build, and a fortuitous marriage. Everything big and epic Trips does gets painted with the “UGH, HE’S JUST DOING IT TO WRITE HIMSELF INTO THE HISTORY BOOKS” brush, unless he’s losing to guys like Daniel Bryan and, (yeah,) Chris Benoit.
It probably doesn’t help that his two back-to-back Undertaker matches came in the WrestleManias after Shawn Michaels delivered on two absolute showstoppers (and two of my very favorite matches of all time), but I still think this gets a bit of a bad rap. Yes, it’s the WWE at its most self-involved, with all the melodrama and two-and-a-half kickouts, but there’s also a Sweet Chin Music into Pedigree nearfall. I don’t care who you are, a Sweet Chin Music into Pedigree nearfall is awesome. It’s one of those moments where you have to put aside all the things you think you know about the WWE, and instead focus on the product. If you pull that off, which admittedly isn’t easy for the average wrestling fan, you’ll find not only one of the best Hell in a Cells, but one of the best Streak matches ever.
4. Mankind vs. Undertaker – King of the Ring 1998
I think enough time has passed that we can finally call a spade a spade. Undertaker vs. Mankind, that unforgettable, era-defining clash that turned Mick Foley into a people’s hero, is one of the most overrated matches of all time.
To be fair, that’s not exactly their fault. The WWE legend-making machine has been on constant overdrive making sure we, the fans, remember the image of Mankind’s body busting through the top of the cage, a dislodged tooth hanging from the bottom of his nose. And yeah, that’s pretty freaking essential. It hits all those lofty “era-defining” requirements that tend to make wrestling incidents immortal.
But let’s be real. The rest of this match is kind of garbage. Some loose, dazed brawling, a misanthropic tombstone, and a lot of stunned silence. Everyone in the building is clearly concerned about Foley’s health, and legitimate “I really hope I didn’t just kill him” fears tend to impede momentum. Foley, for all his star-making sacrifice, is more or less braindead after he takes that second fall. It’s amazing he’s able to keep in character considering he was wading through a foggy concussion – he famously asked Undertaker after the match if he had used thumbtacks, to which Taker bewilderedly replied, “Look at your arm, Mick!” Foley looked down, and realized he was absolutely covered in them.
If you somehow haven’t seen this, go watch it. Right now. It’s easily the most famous, and most important match listed here, and it’s still one of the best five Cell matches of all time. But if you’re looking for anything more than those two big moments, the moments that Mick Foley brings up about once year ahead of a Hell in a Cell match, you won’t find much. In the grand tradition of Hogan vs. Andre, Michaels vs. Hart, and the entirety of Lex Luger’s career, historical significance doesn’t always translate to all-time greatness.
3. Undertaker vs. Edge – SummerSlam 2008
My dark horse top-5 choice, and perhaps my personal favorite of the many times Taker/Edge clashed in the ring. Hell in a Cell has meant progressively less in the PG era; we’re talking about something that earned its reputation from blood, gore, and horrifying bumps. There’s only so many ways you can make a steel cage look dangerous when you’re charging into it back-first. 2008’s SummerSlam arrived in the dying vestiges of the PG-13 era, and unsurprisingly, it’s the last time Hell in a Cell felt truly violent.
Edge is in full-on Brood mode here, making those marquee crazy eyes and putting a mostly-retired Mick Foley through a table. At the time, Edge was onscreen married to Vickie Guerrero, who was in a kayfabe wheelchair. Listen, if you’re in a wheelchair, you should never go into a wrestling ring with a heel. You’d think the world would’ve learned this by now, but nope, Guerrero gets dumped out like a fish by her now COMPLETELY INSANE husband. God, I miss Vickie already.
Anyway, this is one of those matches that probably infuriates a lot of wrestling purists. Every single memorable thing about it is a prop spot. Edge going through two tables! Undertaker getting his head smashed between chairs, busting open his neck! Edge spearing both of them through one of the walls, and then delivering a second spear through the announce table! Edge gets about 20 minutes of offense before Taker finally wakes up, counters the Old School, and kills him with a Tombstone, which inevitably summons a lot of moaning about “pacing.” But seriously, who cares?! It’s the returning phenom against the most evil man in the world! Edge tries to use all of his hokey TLC tricks to try and steal a win in Taker’s trademark format, and he almost does it before his luck runs out. Living proof that ring psychology is alive and well in the realm of ladder spots.
2. Cactus Jack vs. Triple H – No Way Out 2000
It’s funny that Mick Foley’s two most notable Hell in a Cell matches, the matches that made the stipulation legendary, ended with him putting someone else over. But maybe that’s the point. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone lose as effectively as Foley did in the cell. His bout with Triple H will always be my personal favorite because it eschews some of that horrified, accidental silence that plagued his aforementioned King of the Ring masochism. Trips and Cactus put on an actual show here; spots fuse together in natural order, and nobody starts climbing the cage until it makes sense. Eventually Cactus does find his body cascading through the top, but this time around he’s landing on a crash-pad. Basically, it’s a more tasteful, less accidental version of the Taker match, and a perfect way to send Foley into his first retirement.
1. Brock Lesnar vs. Undertaker – No Way Out 2002
This is your number one. It is not the most historically relevant or especially out-of-the-ordinary, but it’s easily the most fun. Undertaker gushes enough blood to make even the most resolute fan wince, with constant face-first slams into the steel. Heyman gets strangled, Tombstones get countered, and Brock Lesnar gets beaten to death with a cast. It’s every bit of the brutal, ugly mulching that Hell in a Cell is supposed to be, all without a moment of wasted motion. Two big angry men turning the mat red. Perfect.