The loud squeal of Brock Lesnar’s theme music often heralds impending doom for his chosen victims on any given night. At WWE Hell in a Cell 2018, however, it preceded a more unexpected and unfortunate destruction that was to come. True to form, both Roman Reigns and Braun Strowman were savaged by the Beast Incarnate even after having spent their match destroying each other. As Lesnar left both men laying, he departed leaving behind two broken men. Moments later, it became apparent he had also left behind a broken match concept.
Thirty-nine times prior, a definitive winner had emerged from the Hell in a Cell match regardless of the condition either man was in. In fact, in the build to the match between Strowman and Reigns, the 20th anniversary of the infamous Undertaker/Mankind Cell match was repeatedly referenced. On that night, Mick Foley suffered real and true injuries that should have caused the match to end. But, despite the damage done to Foley, the match only ended when Foley was finally pinned and put out of his misery.
The failure of WWE Hell in a Cell 2018’s main event to deliver a winner of any kind clearly damages what has been a strong gimmick that WWE has employed regularly over the last twenty plus years. Since 2009, they have marketed a pay-per-view around the gimmick and fans have come to expect a conclusion, satisfactory or not. You can argue why this was done—it was meant to set up a match between Lesnar, Reigns and Strowman for WWE Crown Jewel in Saudi Arabia–but the failure to provide a winner speaks to a larger problem with modern use of gimmick matches.
When I first began my fandom in the 1980s, gimmicks like Steel Cage matches, Texas Death matches or even the occasional barbed wire matches were reserved for hot feuds and big time grudges. The gimmick was used to serve often as the finale to a larger storyline. Growing up in New York and regularly watching WWF shows from Madison Square Garden, you could always count on a Hulk Hogan feud culminating in some form of gimmick match after previous battles had failed to produce a conclusive victor. Rivalries like Sgt. Slaughter vs. The Iron Sheik, Ricky Steamboat vs. Don Muraco and others would also feature gimmick matches to provide heat to their battles.
Things began to change in the 1990s with ECW producing a more hardcore, violent product and turning to violent gimmicks quite often. In both WWF and WCW, Vince Russo’s influence brought on even more frequent and often ridiculous gimmicks to both TV and pay-per-view. Russo’s propensity to overuse gimmicks continued in TNA as well with often cringe worthy results.
In 2005, TNA took the overuse of gimmicks to a new level by introducing Lockdown, a show where every match was contested in a steel cage.
While some of the matches delivered, the overuse of what was once a special gimmick left many wondering if it would completely render the gimmick meaningless. Strangely, of all the ideas to take from TNA, it was the concept of these ‘specialty’ shows that WWE chose to copy. And so, where matches like Hell in a Cell and TLC used to be reserved for special occasions that warranted them, they now became annual fixtures on the pay-per-view calendar. The matches took place not because a feud warranted them, but because it was the right time of year.
Today, the value of a gimmick match varies greatly, but the proliferation of all manner of gimmicks has reduced their value. Recently, ROH featured a much praised iron man match between World Champion Jay Lethal and Jonathan Gresham. While the match itself was very good, the gimmick seemed superfluous to the actual story being told in the ring. Traditionally, a title challenger would attempt to rack up multiple pins or submissions to ensure victory while the champion would strive to keep his challenger from scoring any victories at all. Here, the match was wrestled as if the first fall was the final fall until almost the end of the match. The wrestlers put on a very good match in spite of the gimmick rather than because of it.
Not all gimmick matches this year have felt tacked on. In July, Beyond Wrestling held its annual Americanrana show with a main event barbed wire match between Joey Janela and David Starr. The stakes for the match, the intense history and rivalry between the two and the action in the actual match were all accentuated by the gimmick. With Starr not typically involved in such matches and Janela claiming this to be his final match of this style, the use of barbed wire actually meant something. By the end of the match, those who witnessed it were left with indelible memories actively aided by the gimmick.
It is unlikely that WWE or any other promotions that utilize gimmick matches will pull back from their usage. Moreover, it’s not necessarily that fans want to see an end to these unique matches. My hope is that the gimmicks can be used for their intended purpose and not just ignored to push other storylines or gimmicks. Because if the gimmick is ignored, a match is better off being a straight up wrestling match.
No gimmick is needed for good wrestling, but good wrestling is needed for a good gimmick.