There's one really admirable thing the McMahons do, floating in a sea of court cases and ruthless talent raiding: they're willing to get hurt.
That's not to say they should get hurt, or that we should wish they get hurt. But it is to say that, ever since Vince McMahon became more open about his role as WWE's owner, he and his son Shane have been willing to take big bumps when necessary and sometimes even when not. Some of the lasting images from the 00s post-boom period are Vince McMahon bleeding profusely during a Wrestlemania XIX match with Hulk Hogan and the infamous match where Kurt Angle threw Shane McMahon very hard through a very real glass window.
Someone with access could do a fascinating analysis of why the McMahons love pro wrestlers enough to give their bodies to them but not enough to give them health insurance. Suffice it to say that Shane McMahon did the former in his main event Cell match with Kevin Owens on Sunday and that continued willingness at 47 years old, combined with Owens' unparalleled ability to come across as an asshole, made for one of the best three or four Hell in a Cell matches in history.
The bulk of the action wasn't inside the cage, but on top of it. Most Cell matches have a spell on top, a means of harking back to one of the most famous moments in WWE's history, Mankind repeatedly being thrown from the cage or falling through the top panels in his match with the Undertaker. Every Cell match since has teased uncontrollable, spontaneous moments of the Undertaker-Mankind sort; that classic serves as prelude and shadow to nearly 20 years of this specific type of match, revisiting it again and again.
Frankly, the tease rarely works. We know WWE is never going to let the sheer danger of that match happen again. The cages look to be reinforced compared to the old days, there's no blood—Hell in a Cell matches seem less dangerous than normal matches. Despite the spectacle, the big spots are obviously planned and gimmicked to be predictable, and the focus on the cage allows for "safe" action compared to the sometimes improvised, risk taking of the modern normal match. (Especially since many wrestlers work normal matches many times a week.)
Except here's Shane McMahon, the one guy who's not just willing to do stupid things from high places but won't be fired for it. So when a good third to half of the match took place on top of the cage, with Owens and McMahon throwing each other around, there was something nausea inducing about it. No rational person should have as much faith in the engineering capability of chain link fence welders as these two, but they did. The net effect was that it really did feel like something terrible might happen, and in that way only pro wrestling can evoke, you find yourself kind of hoping that something will happen which blurs your ability to tell whether the wrestlers are ok or not.
McMahon was happy to provide. He dove off the top of the Cell onto a prone Kevin Owens, who was draped unconscious across a table, only for Owens to be pulled away at the last moment by his kayfabe estranged (and real life best) friend Sami Zayn. Lots of bad things can be said about WWE's camerawork, but they nailed it here. Zayn pulls Owens away with the camera on him during the replay and, a split second later, McMahon crashes through a table, shoulder first, seemingly dropped from Heaven by an angry God.
Zayn showing up to turn heel by yanking Owens out of the way and subsequently placing his friend's arm over the kayfabe knocked out McMahon was the best WWE storytelling in a long while.
Zayn and Owens, in their past guises as El Generico and Kevin Steen, have a long history together. They came up in the indies together and had the same back and forth mix of betrayal and inspiring moments of togetherness. That went right through to NXT and the main WWE roster once they were called up.
What makes their relationship so compelling is that each approaches perfection in their assigned roles: Zayn is a great underdog babyface, while Owens is one of the best natural heels in the business (with his openness about how much he loves his real life family making him seem like even more of a jerk, somehow).
By interfering and insuring Owens won the match, Zayn has injected justifiable actions into a storyline. Wrestling stories usually work by wrestling logic. Two people want something, usually a title, they fight for a while, one person wins out, and they both move on. That's well and good for superheroes in an alternate wrestling universe, but it's not something that we tend to do in real life.
"…believing in your friends is such a relatable, human impulse…"
Zayn is doing something way more relatable: he just wants to help his friend. Because no matter what, through thick of thin, no matter how many fights, Zayn and Owens are friends. Weird friends, sure, maybe even unhealthy friends, but still friends. We get that. We have friends like that, people we'd do anything for and who we return to over years or decades. This feud/partnership between the two will be going 10 years from now and that's awesome.
It's reminiscent of one of pro wrestling's greatest friendship story arcs, the relationship between Lex Luger and Sting in the 1980s and 90s. There, too, was a continuous strings of betrayals and making up, of shared tag team title reigns and world title blood feuds. While they were very different characters from Zayn and Owens, they shared a comfort in their roles—Luger was never better than when he was a heel and Sting in his prime was one of the all-time great babyfaces. Just like Owens with Zayn, Luger would cross Sting over and over. There's a running gag that Sting was a dumb galoot who kept getting in bad situations because he could never say no. I've always preferred to think that Sting's heart was too big, that he felt too much, to turn down an opportunity to redeem others.
Zayn is the same way and because believing in your friends is such a relatable, human impulse, debate immediately broke out on Twitter over whether or not it was a heel turn at all. How could it be? He's just being a good friend and the millionaire son of a billionaire lost because of the follow through on that friendship. That kind of thing is awesome and, for all WWE's faults in the writing department, they really nail it when they get it right due to the prestige and exposure being in WWE brings.
The whole show was pretty good, bookended by two Hell in a Cell matches—the other, a tag team match between the New Day and the Usos, is only being short-shrifted by my word count and was every bit as good, if less portentous in story terms, as the main event. Baron Corbin won the United States title from AJ Styles with a really satisfying kick to the outside, which frees up Styles to feud with (or more likely be fed to) Jinder Mahal. Mahal, in turn, got a more or less clean win over Nakamura, leaving both men inexplicably in positions neither should be—Mahal as god-champion in an interminable run which is likely to last until Wrestlemania and Nakamura as nobody special with nobody to really feud with.
The Mahal-Nakamura stuff aside, Hell in a Cell did what I couldn't expect—it made me excited about Smackdown Live again. That show has been languishing for several months now, despite having a roster that arguably has a little more raw talent. With so many good matches and storylines popping up from Sunday, tonight's Smackdown has become must watch. That's good for us and for WWE.