It had to happen, at some point. WWE’s run of execrable to mediocre pay-per-views for the past six months, starting with WrestleMania and lasting through SummerSlam, mercifully ended on Sunday night. 2018’s Hell In A Cell was a fun, lively show, a stark contrast to the turgid slogs which have taken up so much of WWE’s calendar.
It came on the 20th anniversary of the famed second ever Hell in a Cell match, between The Undertaker and Mick Foley. You know the one, even if you’re not a wrestling fan: that match, with that bump and that call.
It’s probably the iconic moment in modern pro wrestling history, which also happens to be something that should never happen again. The Foley bump set an impossibly high standard as to what a Hell in a Cell match should be, and WWE’s been chasing the dragon ever since. But they’ve been chasing the dragon in a safe way, turning the Cell into a mini-brand. Each year there’s the PPV named after the match, which usually has two of those the Hell in a Cell matches. And they’re safe: the big spots are planned, there’s padding for the big bump, and the tables are made to collapse.
This should be made very clear: it should be that way. Mick Foley is extremely lucky he didn’t die, as he quite readily admitted in a remarkable combination spoken word/comedy set shown on the WWE Network after Sunday’s show. But there’s an uneasy tension between all of the breathless fawning by WWE’s commentary team over the always eminent danger of the Cell and the fact that it never really materializes.
This is why the first match, between Jeff Hardy and Randy Orton, was an all-timer. It was the right kind of gruesome, with the violence largely controlled for maximum effect. It felt dangerous like those old days of Foley and the others, without being as deadly.
Jeff Hardy is likely winding down his career. His brother, Matt, announced his retirement over the weekend, and Jeff is certainly in no better physical shape, just younger. But there’s no way he’s not going out without maximal bodily harm. He’s not wired for it, and against Orton—whose one top level skill is projecting menace and barely restrained anger—everyone was primed for something crazy or possibly stupid.
It didn’t disappoint. The two men used the cage to proper effect, bouncing one another off of it and ramping up to a crescendo. The spot of the entire night, not just the match, was pure body horror. Orton found a toolbox and grabbed a screwdriver. He went over to a prone Hardy and inserted it into the large gauge earring hole in his left ear. Then Orton twisted, or pretended to twist, stretching just enough that the rubberband of Jeff Hardy’s dangling earlobe looking to be twisted 180 degrees.
The crowd went nuts, gasping and shrieking. My daughter got up and screamed, declaring that she was going to throw up, while I laughed in delight. It was an old school freak show by two workers in the throes of their craft. And it didn’t stop there: Orton got a legit gash on his thigh at some point which looked gross, with a flap of meat hanging off of it, and Hardy wrapped the match up by crashing through a table after dangling from the ceiling of the cage. It was the best singles Cell match in ages and the most enjoyable Orton’s been in almost as long.
That set the tone for the entire night. Right after the opener, WWE did the right thing and had Becky Lynch beat Charlotte cleanly for the Smackdown Women’s title. They’re still positioning Charlotte as the babyface after their top notch match, with her trying to shake Lynch’s hand and Lynch stalking off (the crowd went wild for Lynch when this happened), but they’ve avoided turning her into Roman Reigns. It can’t be stressed enough how important that is: Charlotte as the unbeatable monster when everyone was clamoring for Lynch (and, earlier, Asuka) would be a death sentence.
One of the things which came through as the night wore on, especially in the tag match between Seth Rollins/Dean Ambrose and Dolph Ziggler/Drew McIntyre, was how much time the participants were granted. The typical WWE approach is to cram more and shorter matches into their PPVs, which always feels weird because their weekly shows are all commercials and angles. This has been especially true since even the basic, non-Big Four shows expanded to four hours. They’ve felt interminable.
Hell In A Cell was four hours and eight matches, and it felt like way less. The matches were better paced, and even the out of ring stuff felt better. As an example, they replayed a Samoa Joe video package of him reading a fairy tale about him killing A.J. Styles and becoming his family’s new patriarch. In a more crammed PPV, this might’ve been folded into a collage style video package or cut entirely; here, everything was allowed to breathe.
The one sour note was the main event, between Braun Strowman and Roman Reigns. Nothing about their match was memorable up until they inexplicably both lay prone while the tag participants from earlier in the night fought on top of the Cell. That bit was capped by Rollins and Ziggler doing a double spot where they both methodically fell off the side through side by side tables at the same time. It was everything the Hardy-Orton match wasn’t: perfectly safe (or as safe as pro wrestling can be) but feeling safe, which isn’t what you want from a Cell match but too often get.
And then Brock Lesnar showed up.
Lesnar is the guy Vince McMahon just can’t quit and is Ronda Rousey’s future, a legit athlete who has to be positioned as a demigod for all eternity due to WWE’s monomaniacal pursuit of mainstream acceptance. There was no need for him to be here, and once he beat up both Strowman and Reigns, with manager Paul Heyman macing guest referee Mick Foley on the way in, we were left with no doubt who the only actual star on WWE’s men’s roster is.
Yes, it was cool that Lesnar kicked the gimmicked cage door open, but note who didn’t get his usual crazy strongman spot. Braun Strowman did more or less nothing, they made him a heel rather than a cool tweener doing even cooler stuff, and in the process he’s less now than at any point since his debut. For what? You’d say to feed to Roman Reigns, except he wasn’t fed to Roman Reigns.
So now, who knows? The Universal title picture is more muddied than ever, Reigns still isn’t over, Strowman is becoming Just Another Guy after a year on the cusp of Next Big Thing, and the oxygen supply is being held hostage by a part-time, disinterested, middle-aged former MMA champion. It’s not good and WWE seems content with that.
But also, who cares? I was certainly bummed out by the way the main event went, but everything else was delightful. It may have been by accident—hell, it was probably by accident—but there was a template established of good pacing, fewer but more important matches, and cool spots which can make up for any gaps. Let’s hope WWE makes a lot more shows in the Hell In A Cell style to close out the year.