Doctor's Orders: A Countdown of the Greatest Hell in a Cell Matches (#1 - Undertaker vs. Triple H)
By The Doc
Oct 27, 2013 - 4:54:48 PM
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Arguments could be made for both sides of the “Hell in a Cell is worthy of its own PPV” debate. Some suggest that the gimmick has a history born of hatred between storyline characters so strong that its use should be no less than organic – the right feud with the right amount of disdain at the right time. Point taken. The most memorable Hell in a Cell match since the PPV’s inception – by casual and critical interest – has undoubtedly been the WrestleMania XXVIII bout between Undertaker and Triple H that “ended an era.” The minority has mentioned that, of all the popular stipulation matches in WWE history, perhaps none was better suited for its own PPV than Hell in a Cell. It got off to a wonderful start sixteen years ago and built a reputation that is better suited to sell tickets for a solo show bearing its name than the numerous variations of TLC (the “T” could as easily stand for “TV match” as “Tables,” the “L” being ridiculously overused, and then the “C” being common to nearly all gimmick matches) OR Elimination Chamber (cool concept, but never did become known for drawing people into its underlying story).
No matter your stance on the above conversation, the bottom line is that the next edition of WWE’s Hell in a Cell is nearly upon us and it promises to feature a match worthy of the gimmick’s original intention. Throughout the day, we will look back at the Cell’s history. In the past, I have put “Satan’s Structure” to the critical test, ranking each match in terms of star rating alone. Today, I am less interested in the discussion of “best” and more intrigued to discover the all-encompassing “greatest” Hell in a Cell match of all-time. Rarely when we engage in the topic of “Match of” do we in the critical community mean “greatest” – it is a matter of the “best.” There is a difference. The best match is the one of the most superior quality. In wrestling, that means the top notch flow of an in-ring story, selling for an opponent, execution of the moves, the facial expressions that accentuate the drama, the climax/finish, the false finishes, and the duration of the tale. The greatest match encompasses all of those same things, but then also accounts for the numbers that the definition of the word implies – size of the crowd, the historic intangibles, and the financial statistics. Best is a completely subjective statement. Greatest is an exercise an objective subjectivism – a blend of opinion and fact (learn that term well if you decide to read my book due out in January).
I have developed a formula that uses every little detail that makes a match great. The idea was born out of this year’s Match of the Year race being so tight between the trifecta of Daniel Bryan vs. John Cena, CM Punk vs. Brock Lesnar, and Undertaker vs. CM Punk. A month or so down the road, I will reveal the complete formula and use it to definitively name the 2013 Match of the Year. Today, I will use bits and pieces of it to create separation between Hell in a Cell matches that span a 16 year period.
The Greatest Hell in a Cell Matches
(Doc’s Note – Only 8 Hell in a Cell matches were considered)
#8 – Brock Lesnar vs. Undertaker at No Mercy 2002
With the worst buyrate of the Hell in a Cell matches considered, the bloody war between Brock and Taker failed to contend with the other candidates. It is historically underrated, though, in terms of performance. Broken down to the purest of elements, it really does not get much better than their story told. The fact that they managed to produce such a great match inside the Cell in an era in which it was almost a foregone conclusion that the participants would venture outside the structure is a testament to both Taker’s ability and Brock’s uncanny, prodigious rise to prominence in his first year in the WWE. I believe that it stands the test of time more so than do the heralded Mick Foley Cell matches. Taker vs. Brock was a brutal battle, but the violence was not about what one man was willing to do to his own body – a novelty that arguably wears off with repeated viewings. Rather, it was about one man beating the other to a pulp. Both wore the proverbial crimson mask like no other pair in Cell history, so it holds the distinction as the “bloodiest” Cell match.
It tends to get lost in the shuffle during these types of discussions. It is well thought of, but not overly so. It was historically memorable, but not to the extent of its peers. Perhaps it suffers from “awesome match on a card destined to be forgotten” syndrome given that it took place on a B-level PPV during a time when the buyrates were sinking has contributed. The 10,000 people in attendance (ranking 7th out of 8) did not aid its cause either. If only this match had taken place at Survivor Series in front of the Madison Square Garden faithful a month later. Had it, I believe there would never be a discussion of “greatest” Cell matches that did not include Brock Lesnar vs. Undertaker. Nevertheless, it is destined to hold its place amongst the elite, with critical numbers good enough to trump its relatively lackluster fiscally-geared statistics.
#7 - Triple H vs. Batista at Vengeance 2005
As time passes, the story of a match has to be the part that you best remember or it otherwise becomes dated. Novelty is what makes special effects fanatics go crazy at the movies to light up the box office, but if the film that features the modern graphics in one decade produces a plot that cannot match its visual artistry, then it will struggle to hold up against scrutiny as technology advances a decade later. The story of Batista vs. Triple H played out masterfully, culminating in a feud that remains one of the finest of its generation. Though their final clash – a wonderful edition of Hell in a Cell cut from the same mold as the Taker-Brock match – did not feature the financial rankings necessary to compete for the top spot, the cumulative match rating data surprisingly trumped some of its predecessors, coming in at #4. Batista showed us his full potential, providing one of his best outings (with only his work against Undertaker in its league).
Hell in a Cell has drawn some strong buyrates over the years, making it difficult for a match like HHH-Batista that performed well as the #1 bout on a PPV with good box office numbers to stand out. Trips and Bats had their big drawing showdown at Wrestlemania 21, but it did not receive high critical marks. The roles, compared to the other contenders, were reversed for their Hell in a Cell match. Vengeance ’05 was the benchmark for brand-only PPVs during the Raw vs. SD era, drawing a near equal buyrate (0.92) to that year’s Survivor Series. Unfortunately, the strong number for 2005 ranked just 7th out of 8 amongst Hell in a Cell matches over 16 years. It was also the worst attended HIAC in the conversation – an event that I missed in Las Vegas by about a week.
#6 - Triple H vs. Mick Foley at No Way Out 2000
For anyone that believes that Shawn Michaels could come out of retirement and it not significantly affect the memory of Wrestlemania 26, I point you to exhibit a) Triple H vs. Cactus Jack from 2000 with Mick Foley’s career on the line. Foley lost and rode into the sunset for all of a few weeks before coming back to wrestle the Wrestlemania 2000 main-event. Even then, the world did its best to rearrange the order of the February and April 2000 PPV bouts, putting the Fatal Fourway for the WWE Championship first in their minds. When Foley returned for a series of matches that did not stop until recent years, the legacy of No Way Out 2000 was forever tarnished. Yes, Foley gave us another spectacle the likes of which nobody else could match in his second and final Cell. No, however, it does not belong in the conversation anymore with the other ultra elite versions of Hell in a Cell. It used to be top 5. It is poised to be passed several times over in a way that HBK vs. Taker and Foley vs. Taker will not.
Part of the discussion of greatness is historical perspective. Steamboat vs. Flair holds up so well, in part, because the three matches that they had in the early part of 1989 were wrestled at such an elite level that critics almost unanimously agreed that the situation was unprecedented…despite half of the critics seeing those matches on tape! Perspective shapes reality. Had Triple H vs. Foley maintained the stipulation that Foley’s career ended, then this would be a totally different match. The finish, once the last gasps of life in a legendary career, now seems anti-climactic. Watched today, the bout appears structured only to get in Foley’s crazy bumps and lacks the story of the Royal Rumble Street Fight from a few weeks prior.
Foley vs. Trips was a great match, but it is a sinking ship. The only thing keeping it in the top 10 is the poorer quality of modern Cell bouts.
#5 - Triple H vs. Kurt Angle vs. Taker vs. The Rock vs. Rikishi vs. Steve Austin at Armageddon 2000
If ever there was an example of the difference between greatest and best, it would be the 6-man Hell in a Cell match from 2000. A match that does not sniff the top 10 when ranking the gimmick’s history on performance alone, it has qualities that made it a candidate despite my critical misgivings. Frankly, I will come right out and state that I really do not like this match. It was an era-specific garbage brawl with distracting involvement from Vince McMahon and, even thirteen years later, still screams of being “we need to pop a buyrate, so let’s bring back the Cell.” I would choose to watch Sheamus vs. Orton (the very wrestle-fi-cation of “middle of the road” when compared to the other Cell matches) over the 6-man. It was the 2nd longest Hell in a Cell, so it had plenty of time to play out and tell a thorough tale, but it was just too much Attitude Era junk for my tastes. However, this is not just about pure performance. The length of the match was more heavily weighted in this discussion than usual. It was the lengthiest of those in consideration. It featured huge names, including five of the greatest 20 WrestleMania Era stars. There were some intangibles unique to all its peers (Rikishi’s fall, Austin raking Triple H’s face around the entire Cell structure, the sheer amount of blood spilt, the huge fight around the ring). Though it does not rank well critically or historically, it did well financially. In accomplishing its goal of popping a buyrate (1.15), it boosted its Hell in a Cell profile considerably.
Some people love this match; I thought it was average. The goal of objective subjectivism is to strip away much of the emotion that skews historical comparison. Its place in the top 5 is not safe, but its intangible and fiscal statistics will keep it in the conversation.
#4 - Edge vs. Undertaker at Summerslam 2008
It was a fairly tight race for the top spot. Based on performance statistics, Edge vs. Taker ranked #3. It held up well as the main-event of a Summerslam which garnered a very respectable 1.19 buyrate (also good for 3rd amongst the chosen candidates). Where I think it shines brightest is in the intangible category of being the modern blueprint for how to blend the demands of the past with the present. When the WWE transitioned out of the Attitude Era, they did not so much rely on the hardcore elements that defined the late 90s, early 2000s main-event style, but they still pushed the envelope quite a bit athletically and aesthetically. If you go back and watch Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit, for instance, it was a great descriptor for the Brand Split Era style – really fast pace, lot of near falls, and a plethora of counters. That era was wrestling in fast forward, in many ways. I think a lot of that had to with the well-rounded, world-tested skills of so many of the wrestlers involved. When that generation got older and the generation that had come of age when the WWE as the only game in town took over as the lead stars, the style shifted again. They could not so much rely on the globally trained grappling ability, but they could accentuate the little details of the storytelling. It was actually Miz who put it best a few years back when he mentioned that the envelope had been pushed to such a degree in the past that his generation had to rely on telling more in-depth stories to maintain a level that could match their forerunners.
Edge vs. Taker was the perfect blend between the Hell in a Cell matches born of the Attitude Era’s body-punishing style, the Brand Split Era’s faster pace-counter-near fall-heavy style, and the PG Era’s emphasis on deeply layered storytelling. It is one of my favorite matches for that reason. It showed how to outside of the Cell without falling off the top of it and it really concentrated on circling back to the key points of their lengthy storyline.
Unfortunately, it fell short in one department considered for this column and, though a statistical outlier compared to its overall score, it stuck out like a sore thumb under historical scrutiny against the others in the top 4: attendance. A measly 12,480 packed the Indiana Pacer’s arena that night, leaving it 6th for a category in which the rest of the top 3 placed 1-2-3 respectively.
#3 - Undertaker vs. Mankind at King of the Ring 1998
This match is a good example of why we need to draw the line in the sand between “greatest” and “best.” Taker-Mankind was not even a good match, if we’re having an honest discussion. If you were to sit down and try to watch this match three times in a row, could you honestly do it? Is there something about it that makes you want to sit down and watch its 17-minute duration numerous times in a row? You see, I can watch Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” twice a week for a month and enjoy it on that last viewing as much or more than I did the first one. The reason is because of how well structured it is and the depth of the performance by its key players. “Stars Wars: Episode 1,” however, would be a real chore to sit through that many times. I love the pod racing scene and the Darth Maul vs. Obi Wan and Qui-Gon battle, but there’s another three quarters of movie I would have to get through to see those parts.
Though I hate to be harsh on another Foley Hell in a Cell match, the fact of the matter is that Mankind vs. Taker is a two move match. We are historically comparing greatness, which requires a certain firmness of stance. Minutes into the match, the most awe-inspiring visual in wrestling history takes place when Foley gets thrown off the Cell. From then on, Foley is only half there. It’s amazing to watch him gut his way through the match, particularly after the inadvertent fall through the top of the Cell just a few short minutes later (how did he finish that match, for crying out loud?). So, let’s be reasonable and call a spade a spade. This match simply was two unbelievable stunts and a fall on some thumb tacks. Incredible? Absolutely. Better than Edge-Taker? Hardly. Better than even Triple H-Batista or Brock-Taker? Good luck with that argument.
It is THE most memorable Hell in a Cell match; even more so than the original. When people think Hell in a Cell, most revert to memories of Foley falling off the top and through the announce table. “That killed him,” hollered Jim Ross. “As God is my witness, he is broken in half!” It ranked last among the eight candidates in performance, but it was #1 historically and intangibly. The fact that it had a decent buyrate and the third ranked attendance figure gave it a cumulatively solid financial gradient.
#2 - Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker at In Your House: Badd Blood
As mentioned earlier, it requires a step back when attempting to rank and file the greatest matches of a particular gimmick. HBK vs. Taker will always be my favorite Cell match. It featured the story that the Foley-Taker bout lacked, the novelty that the Foley-Taker bout had (just to a lesser extent), the historic distinction of being the very first of its kind, and the incredible quality that had critics piling on the elusive 5-star accolades.
This is what happens when you compare it, point-by-point, with the more recent Cell matches:
-The finish is specific to the debut of Kane. Several of the candidates offered finishes that were, at the very least, better suited for the feud that was being completed. Nevertheless, it was still very good and holds up well enough to keep in the conversation with the others.
-Taker was still at a point in his career where he relied on the guy across the ring to do most all of the expressions and selling to tell the story (due to his gimmick). HBK was great, but Taker did better in the bouts with Lesnar and Triple H.
-It still shines in the length of the match and the thoroughness of the story. Of all the candidates from the early days of the gimmick, the original gives by far the best overall performance. It also provides the incredible, never-seen-before stunt expected of the early Cells. In essence, it tells the story that you might see today, but features the visual awe-inspiration of the late 90s/early 00s.
-The attendance held up against just about every other Cell match in history, not just of the eight that were included in this discussion, but period. Over 21,000 people packed what was back then the Kiel Center in St. Louis. It is opposite of the Edge-Taker match, which suffered from a very good buyrate but lousy attendance figures. HBK vs. Taker ranked 7th in buyrate with just a 0.64.
All in all, the original Hell in a Cell is still an outstanding watch – not quite the incredible candidate for best match of all-time as it once was, but still a story that you could pop in the DVD player and watch a few times a year without getting bored. I have yet to try this exercise, but I am not sure that HBK vs. Taker would not maintain its old spot atop my “best of” rankings if you watched it back-to-back-to-back with the other top candidates. Cumulatively, the gimmick starter’s fiscal data should hold up moving forward given its outstanding, non-Wrestlemania attendance, helping to counter balance its less than stellar PPV buyrate. Intangibly, it will likely remain in the top 5 forever.
#1 - Undertaker vs. Triple H at WrestleMania XXVIII
The mere fact that Taker-Trips took place at WrestleMania skews the data in its favor, financially. So, let’s be fair. If we were to take the buyrate and the attendance and split it in one third, suggesting that Trips vs. Taker drew 1/3 of the total (hypothetically – this is not what I actually did), it would still rank near the top financially amongst its peers. There was just something about seeing that Cell lowered from a structure built above the ring in an open air stadium, wasn’t there? That was quite a sight. The fact that the men enclosed within the Cell were its two most successful combatants – the two wrestlers that made the gimmick their own – added a sense of history to it. HBK offered the penultimate example of how to be the special guest referee, as well. WrestleMania added quite a bit to it, going beyond just quantifiable economics. The crowd in Miami was going nuts for the entire match, adding an element that has made lesser matches just as (if not more) memorable. Unlike the lesser matches, Taker vs. Trips was a thrill ride that flawlessly pressed all of the right emotional buttons. It was the second-longest Hell in a Cell under consideration, featured the most false finishes, had arguably the most dramatic climax, and featured two of the best performances by two of the greatest of all-time. They even added a little bit of blood in an era where you almost never see anyone get juiced. It was an unbelievable spectacle for reasons that should stand the test of time.
So, Taker vs. Triple H is tough to top. It was a near-universally beloved critical success that took place on the most watched WrestleMania of all-time. Though it had fewer intangible qualities than its predecessors, it only has two real peers in the historic department – Taker vs. HBK and Taker vs. Mankind. It may never be regarded as highly as those two will in the memories of fans, but will it matter? The only real knock that I can find is the argument that they had an incredible match that just happened to be surrounded by a Cell rather than an incredible Hell in a Cell match. I do not subscribe to that theory. It was an unusual use of the Cell, I will admit. For that edition of the gimmick, the Cell acted as a representation of the two combatants’ notable careers, but it was still fitting given the Cell’s reputation as “the end.”
Bottom line: if a match can make its case for being the greatest WrestleMania match of all-time, then it is not a difficult stretch to assume that its case for greatest Hell in a Cell match is secure.
QUESTION OF THE DAY: What do you think is the GREATEST Hell in a Cell match? How about BEST?