This is not the vision fans thought they would see out of WWE when John Cena passed the torch at Summerslam.
Who knows where WWE is headed with Daniel Bryan at this point. No one can figure out their booking. It’s as if they are in a race with TNA to see which operation can run their reputation with fans faster into the ground. At this point, if you’re a paying customer who buys PPVs, you are feeling like crap right about now. Even Jim Ross is expressing his exasperation on Twitter.
For as much of a sacrificial lamb as Daniel Bryan may be right now with WWE management, the company managed to sacrifice something just as valuable at their 2013 Hell in a Cell PPV — the marketing purpose of the gimmick that sells the damn PPV in the first place.
A cage match. Really, one of the most simplistic gimmicks in the history of pro-wrestling. Two men enter, one man walks out out of the carnage the winner. It didn’t matter if it was the demon himself Rusher Kimura, or Atsushi Onita with exploding barbed wire, or The King in Memphis, a cage match was a cage match. A bloody & brutal way to end feuds. A conclusion. As time has passed, the evolution of the cage match brought us War Games, the electrified Cage Bomb match, and eventually Hell in a Cell. The point of the cage is simple — a tacit promise to the fans that no outside interference will impact the outcome of the participants beating each other to a pulp.
Now, a cage match has been reduced to merely a gimmick. Fans aren’t even ensured the promise of preventing outside interference. In fact, in today’s American wrestling scene, interference in cage matches is the norm. It never was supposed to be this way. Really, how hard is it to screw up a cage match? Even lousy bookers thirty years ago couldn’t screw up the psychology of a cage match. Not all cage matches are memorable or anything to write home about but at least it works as a final chapter in a feud. If you wanted to signal to the fans that two men really meant business this time around, you booked a cage match.
So, how did the wheels fall off so badly in terms of the credibility of the cage match in pro-wrestling?
Ironically, one can point to an incredibly clever & historic finish back in 1987. As Vince McMahon was decimating the territory system, one of the few remaining bright spots was Memphis. But even Memphis was struggling at the time and gasping for air after Vince McMahon hired away Jimmy Hart. One of those last gasps of air proved to be a show at the Mid-South Coliseum headlined by “The woman’s pet & man’s regret” Austin Idol w/ Paul E. Dangerously as his manager against The King in a hair vs. hair cage match. The idea of Lawler losing his hair was preposterous. Losing in his home town… and losing his hair, no less? Unthinkable.
Idol and Lawler fought in a heated battle at the sold out Mid-South Coliseum. After referee Jerry Calhoun took a bump, Idol flexed and posed on Lawler only to be reversed and then eventually given the pile driver. Lawler went for the visual pin and waited for Calhoun to recover, only for Tommy Rich to sneak out from under the ring and attack Lawler with a vicious lariat. He and Idol did a couple of double-team pile drivers and then crotched Lawler on the ring post. Rich had gotten underneath the ring before the show and basically drank away the time with a six-pack of beer. Everyone was shocked. How could Rich get inside the cage if no one could get in because it was locked? Lawler lost the match, got his hair trimmed, and the fans started rioting for real.
The finish was brilliant because it was the ultimate swerve on what cage match psychology was all about. In today’s scene? You would barely get a ho-hum from the fans if they saw it play out. Why? Because the psychology of the cage match has been ruined.
So, here came Hell in a Cell. It’s a cage but with a roof. Great idea. And even if the wrestlers get out of the cage, the roof makes the cage a weapon. Ask Mick Foley about getting thrown off the cage or getting slammed through the roof. The psychology of the cage match is back!
As quickly as that good psychology was reincarnated in today’s scene for the cage match, it’s now vanished (again). WWE is ruining the concept of Hell in a Cell by ensuring, through their booking, that there will be outside interference. Why have a cage match if you’re guaranteeing that the cage won’t stop outsiders from altering the match outcome?
26 years after the most clever cage match finish in American pro-wrestling, Paul Heyman found himself at Hell in a Cell not only getting beat up by CM Punk but also watching the marketing purpose of Hell in a Cell go up in smoke in the main event. I guess The Undertaker is the only one in WWE who still has a clue on how and why the match format works.
When I gave my Hell in a Cell 2013 predictions last week on The Podcast of the Immortals, I predicted that Hunter would interfere but that Shawn would stay as the good guy and not screw over Daniel Bryan. The fact that I even thought about interference in the first place with the HIAC match shows how busted the psychology for it is now. And so we got what we got on Sunday night with yet another title match in which Daniel Bryan got screwed over. WWE seems to be treating all their PPVs now as glorified RAWs and the folks who get screwed in the end are the ones who are actually loyal enough to pony up $55 or $60 to watch the show.
Look on the bright side: there’s always the UFC if you want to watch a cage match without outside interference.