On October 5, 2022, we will hit the 25th anniversary of the debut of a gimmick match we ended up seeing a lot of in WWE: Hell in a Cell.
Hell in a Cell would become so popular as a gimmick match, it would eventually spawn its very-own show. It’s a simple concept, a cage around the entire ring—including the outside area—topped with a roof. So simple you’d think it wouldn’t be enough of a difference compared to other cage matches in WWF at the time. Until you realize they could end up on top if they figure a way out of the ring. Like most WWE gimmick ideas, Hell In a Cell has unfortunately been used, abused, watered down, and no longer means what it once did, even though some gems can still be mined from 25 years of the gimmick.
One thing still stands true in the 25-year history of Hell in a Cell Match: it had a successful debut with Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker at WWF Badd Blodd In Your House.
Michaels and Undertaker had been feuding ever since Michaels cost Undertaker the title at WWF SummerSlam 1997. After a match that ended in a no contest at September’s WWF Ground Zero: In Your House, Michaels and Undertaker would be placed inside Hell in a Cell.
The result was magic. One of Michaels’s best performances of all time, and one of Undertaker’s greatest ass-kickings. Sprinkle in perhaps one of the pitch-perfect best debuts in wrestling history (Kane), justified interferences and combine it all to make one of the best cage matches of all time.
Before the match begins, there is a nice touch of officials checking under the ring to ensure no one is under there. Small and simple touches like this can add so much to the atmosphere and feel of a match. While this may not seem like much, it signals—falsely in this case—that nobody can interfere in this match and that it’ll remain one-on-one the entire time. This was important as fans were conditioned to anticipate bullshit and interferences. This squashed all that and let people focus solely on the match.
Wrestlers rarely get to be the first anything, so to be the first entrants into this new style of the match both men knew, understood, and comprehended they needed to make a statement. A statement that this match was violent, this match was brutal, and this match was meant for feuds that were built on hatred and disdain of their opponents. You didn’t get locked in the cage to shake hands afterward (although it has happened since… by The Undertaker himself!) you got locked in the cage to hurt your opponent.
In the case of the first match, Undertaker wanted to destroy Shawn Michaels.
Michaels, for his part, wanted to survive and somehow win. You went into this match knowing Michaels deserved everything he was about to get… and you wanted to see it.
Michaels does a masterful job before the match even starts showing concern as he pulls on the cage door as it is locked, and looks around, realizing he is trapped in there with The Undertaker. He’s a little shit, but make no question Michaels was a talented little shit and he pulls off fear, cowardice, concern, and hesitation better than anyone. When Michaels finally goes after Undertaker, he gets hit immediately with a big boot. Michaels sells his as off during this match and while Undertaker is slow and deliberate in his work bu you feel purpose in everything he does.
Michaels is a pinball. It is easy to mistakenly say this is a one-man performance as he ragdolls and stumbles around for The Undertaker. The Undertaker is playing his part though, perhaps a top performance for him, years before he was known for top performances. Undertaker hits his classics such as the rope walk (current school?) and stands over Michaels with cold confidence. He is the predator and will break apart his prey before feeding it. Very few, if any, of us felt sorry for Michaels at this time. His ego, his cockiness, his attitude, and his growing immaturity would eventually lead to D-Generation X.
One spot I’ll always remember is Michaels getting amazing height on a back-body drop. He almost hits the cage, and you can’t help but mutter “damn” at it.
Michaels makes EVERYTHING Undertaker does look devastating. This is true even with simple punches. He may be over the top about it at times, but it doesn’t change the fact that Michaels understands the point and meaning behind selling, to make your opponent’s offense look good, or in Undertaker’s case killing you. He knew this and applied it to the opening portions of this match. There is nothing complex about Undertaker’s offense on Michaels, it is straightforward as can be, but it comes off more brutal because Michaels reacts as if each shot is potentially the death blow.
At one point, he bears hugs Michaels and rams him back and forth into the post and into the corner of the cage. It is awesome looking.
Shawn Michaels can duck offense from Undertaker, who rams into the cage and gets the offensive momentum. He doesn’t give control easy, as he tries to fight back and cut off Michaels like he’s done several times in the match. In an awesome-looking spot, Michaels topes through the ropes, crashing into The Undertaker and smashing him into the cage. It looked like it could hurt, which is something a lot of tope these days are missing.
There is a hint of desperation in all of Michaels’s offenses. He knows if he gives Undertaker too much time, he’ll get back up, and he has to stay on him and continue to fight him to keep him down for good.
Michaels’ confidence starts to build into cockiness and nastiness as he piledrivers The Undertaker into the steel steps in another awesome spot that just sounds like it hurts. If you couldn’t figure out both men wanted to hurt each other by this point—it was spiked in your head now.
Despite this The Undertaker continues to move, and continues to get back up. The Undertaker is damn near unstoppable. Michaels has to resort to chair shots. Jim Ross makes a great call about Michaels doing what he has to do to survive.
The Undertaker fights back, though and back-body drops Michaels unto the outside onto a cameraman. HBK’s immaturity and temper come to a head as he kicks the cameraman’s ass in frustration.
Little did we know, this was a significant moment.
One superkick later, it seems like Michaels has done the impossible, but this is 1997 Undertaker, and he no sells the fuck out of the superkick. It seems it has done nothing more than wake him up and piss him off. Now, when not selling someone’s finisher you can only get away with it at certain moments. In 1997, inside this cell, and being The Undertaker, THIS WAS ONE OF THOSE MOMENTS IN TIME, and the crowd erupts to prove my point.
Michaels knows it’s time to run, and with the cameraman, he assaulted being taken out of the ring he now has an exit, EXCEPT THE UNDERTAKER GRABS HOLD OF HIM and goes out with him. Both men are outside. The cage has failed to do its job, but it was executed in a way that felt like it made sense.
Michaels gets slingshotted into the cage and does a now legendary blade shot as he catapults face-first into it. Shawn was busted open, the inevitable blood was now here. Michaels is stumbling and fumbling as The Undertaker continues to hit him, and then lawn darts him face first into the cage. The crowd is bloodthirsty and approves, I am bloodthirsty and approved. I don’t care what anyone says, blood in this kind of matches is necessary, important, and vital. If you are going to have violent, brutal matches, they needed to be paired with violent brutal imagery. Michaels is desperate and starts to climb the top of the cage in a desperate attempt to escape.
Now, this is not the future reinforced cage that we could get. This was a flimsy, easily breakable top; while I’m glad these setups are gone, it added to a sense of danger and hazard at the time.
Michaels gets back-body dropped onto the top of the cage as the crowd loses their minds. Shawn’s face gets racked into the cage as blood drips unto the camera.
Brutal, I love it.
Michaels continues to crawl away and escape, but there is none, not here, not now. Michaels gets gorilla pressed into the cage and then dangles from the edge of the cage trying to escape, but Undertaker doesn’t let him and then stomps on his hands and HBK crashes through the table.
He is a bloodied, beaten, battered, broken man.
Michaels is dragged into the ring, hit with a top rope chokeslam and then a brutal chair shot finally lays him out. It seems it’ll be all over for the Heartbreak Kid… BUT THEN THE LIGHTS GO OUT.
Eerie music plays and Paul Bearer walks out with a gigantic man dressed in red. Jim Ross’ iconic call “THAT… THAT GOTTA BE KANE!” introduces us to the brother of The Undertaker. Teased for months prior, Kane is finally here and he makes his presence immediately felt by ripping the Hell in a Cell door off its hinges. Kane enters the ring and fire comes out of the corners as he lifts The Undertaker up and drops him with his own move, the Tombstone.
Quietly without word, without explanation, without remorse, Kane walks out of the ring leaving a near-dead Michaels to make the cover and steal a victory in the absolute only way he could’ve won. Normally I would hate interference after everything we’d gotten, but it had been beautifully set up, it had been teased and promised for months, it made sense, and it worked, and it gave them a justified and much-needed out. It was just another element that added to what was now a legendary match that stands the test of time.
EVERYTHING about this match works.
The setup, the execution, the ending, everything. The match builds, the crowd builds, and it gets increasingly violent as the match goes on. There is blood, there is hate, and there is an epic debut. This match was 1997 WWF at its finest (except the Steve Austin vs. Bret Hart Match WrestleMania 13).
To this day, it ranks in my heart and mind as one of the top Hell In A Cell matches of all time for all these elements that combined to make a masterpiece. Hell, I’ll go ahead and say it, I put this ahead of both of Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker WrestleMania matches. If that’s a hill I die on alone, then I’ll gladly be buried in a visitor-less grave!
Despite being twenty-five years old, there are always newer fans who haven’t seen this match, or maybe non-WWF fans have never gone back to watch it. Or maybe it’s been so long since you’ve seen it that you’ve forgotten so much about it.
Whatever the reason, as we approach the 25th anniversary, I recommend seeking out this match. You won’t regret it. October 5, 1997 gave us pro wrestling history and gave us a legendary masterpiece.