The 10th Annual Hell in a Cell was one of the better main-roster WWE PPVs of the year so far. Then the Main Event happened…
Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
We have now had 10 of these. 10 yearly pay-per-views based around there being a guaranteed pair of Hell in a Cell matches. My time as a WWE wrestling fan has meant that I’ve never known a time before Hell in a Cell became a yearly occurrence because, “hey, it’s October and we’re not going to revive Halloween Havoc, so why not?” Yet even I feel like this annualization has devalued the concept, no matter how many times they trot poor old Mick Foley out to give the Creepy Harbinger speech from The Cabin in the Woods. Gimmick matches, after all, are supposed to be reserved for those times when a standard one-fall fight just isn’t enough to settle a feud, which makes Cell matches the ultimate be-all-end-all of things. These are fights that can’t be contained by an ordinary cage match, they need to be battled inside a bigger, tougher, taller, more reinforced structure known for bloodshed and terrifying injuries.
That’s how they’re supposed to go, anyway. Now, they’re just something that happens every time October rolls around – or September in this case because the WWE is currently in this hellish quagmire where they’re putting on lavish super-card house shows in foreign countries at all times of the year, pretending these have some kind of story significance in order to get people to buy WWE Network subscriptions, so their scheduling is all messed up. Plus, of course, the PG-era meaning that there’s really not a whole lot one can do with the Cell anymore without running afoul of management. And, as the final nail in the dread coffin, those who have been watching RAW post-SummerSlam will be aware of that brand’s expansion into experimental storytelling, as the supposed A-Show attempts to discover just how much bizarre, nonsensical, and contradictory booking it takes for the currently nigh-incomprehensible stories being told on the brand to loop back around into being good again. My hopes were not high for Hell in a Cell 2018.
But it turns out that my cynicism was partially unfounded! For the most part, this was a fun and entertaining showcase of the graps, featuring one of the better Cell matches of the PG-era, a pair of extremely satisfying women’s matches, and some quality wrestling from reliable standbys. As has distressingly become the case, however, the show overall was held back from greatness thanks to a bunch of cruddy finishes and a truly dismal main event. But, still, baby steps, y’know? Let’s get on with it, then!
But, first, the Pre-Show.
Look, I understand the point of the free pre-show is to entice casual browsers of the YouTube lands with reasons to go buy the PPV or (because it’s 2018 and nobody is going to drop $30 on a single PPV anymore) subscribe to the WWE Network rather than giving away the best stuff for free. I get that and I respect that, but I still wish they would do a better job at making that extra hour mean something, y’know? Allow whichever match(es) gets bumped to the stretch of time where the arena is noticeably half-empty to still work like a PPV match with the appropriate time and fire given to it, rather than forcing it to work at a hobbled TV level. Your entire pre-show is a commercial already, you don’t need to run actual commercials in the middle of your match necessitating everyone in the ring slow down and apply various rest holds to kill time until the cameras are back on them!
I’m being a downer because I was looking forward to seeing The New Day and Rusev Day tear it up for the SmackDown Tag Team Titles, since New Day are still hot after 4 years together and Rusev Day has been building up to a feel-good redemption story for the past month where Aiden English finally make goods in a high-pressure situation and puts some gold back around glorious Rusev’s waist after way too long. Then the match got bumped to the pre-show and any chance of it being the barnburner all four competitors deserve, along with the chances of a title change, sadly went along with it, both teams being forced to waste precious minutes on a pre-match comedy skit. As a testament to workhorses Kofi Kingston, Big E, Rusev and English, this was still an entertaining match with a great ending stretch – including some solid character work of English trying so hard to regain Rusev’s respect that he’s even busting out some of the big guy’s moves for himself, a tactic that costs them the match – but my heart longs for the version of this match that took place in a parallel universe where it got 30 minutes and stole the show instead of warming up the show.
Meanwhile, the panel was its usual tedious bust made even worse by Jonathan Coachman taking over the chair Renee Young used to command with authority and continuing to just be the dirt worst since coming back to WWE. Does Coach hate wrestling? Because ever since he returned he acts like a man who doesn’t want to set foot in his hometown ever again but has absolutely nowhere else to go and is refusing to hide his resentment and contempt for that sinkhole whilst stuck there. At least he’s not on commentary exposing the business multiple times a week anymore – Young has her own foibles, like her habit of starting a sentence or point and then awkwardly stopping halfway through for no reason, but she’s enthusiastic and convincingly selling the product at all times – but, my God, I feel like he was forever on the verge of announcing that one of my loved ones has died. Why is he here?
Still, wasn’t a total wash. Alexa Bliss burned David Otunga so badly he needs emergency skin transplants, so that’s something.
“You’ve got red on you.”
Weirdly, this year’s Hell in a Cell barrelled into San Antonio with multiple matches that would have been worthy of the Cell stipulation. Charlotte and Becky Lynch are in the middle of an emotionally-charged rivalry, Samoa Joe and AJ Styles are in a blood feud because Joe is researching material for his impending career change to a successful children’s novelist, and Roman Reigns and Braun Strowman need the cage because their respective Boys won’t stop mucking up this story’s attempt to make any goddamn sense. Of those three, only one got a Cell match. The other Cell match, bookending the PPV as per tradition, went to Jeff Hardy vs. Randy Orton for the simple reason that Jeff Hardy has yet to have a Cell match and may very well die soon so better to tick that box for the eventual Hall of Fame highlight reel now than put it off much longer. It was also the better of the two Cell matches – although that’s really not saying much, but we’ll come to that – would have been the second-best match of the night were it not for the finish, and would also have been the best Cell match of the modern era were it not for the finish.
Yes, it’s 2018 and I’m here sincerely praising Randy Orton matches. That sounds crazy, but this latest heel turn really does seem to have reenergised the former Legend Killer, re-sparking his passion for wrestling because this is the best I’ve seen him wrestle in years. He visibly connects with the action in the ring, making each move count and feel planned out instead of drawn out and bored (which is what normally happens whenever the commentary team are throwing out the word “cerebral” around Orton), and he’s clearly relishing getting to play a properly sadistic bastard again. Not coincidentally, this is also the best Jeff Hardy match I’ve seen all year, presumably laying every last scrap he has out in that Cell should it be his last major match for the time being. These two battered each other in a nice violent spot-fest that, yeah, was probably more of a Hardcore match that took place in the Cell than a true Hell in a Cell match, but it worked regardless and found some truly sick spots. The studded belt whippings and bloody welts on Orton’s back, Hardy’s Swanton Bomb onto a chair was nasty, and Orton sticking a screwdriver in Hardy’s earlobe was skin-crawling – I do not care that it probably doesn’t actually hurt in the slightest, it was unnatural and gross and I would rather never see that image again thank you.
There was one thing that ultimately prevents me from busting out the raves and that’s the aforementioned finish. Hardy sets up Orton on a table perched the other side of two different-sized ladders, making to bust out the trademark Hardy move of using the smaller ladder to vault over the bigger ladder and crash through Orton on the table, only to stop at the last second (likely because the Cell isn’t tall enough to pull the move off without braining himself on the ceiling). Instead, he monkey-bars his way to the top of the cell and makes to drop on Orton, who moves out of the way causing Hardy to crash and burn. Nice finish in theory… only Orton noticeably moves several seconds before Hardy lets go making the entire spot look incredibly stupid. And then they replay it! Tens of times! With a full unobscured view of Orton moving out of the way too early! Because if there’s one thing that really benefits a botched dumb finish, it’s replaying that botched dumb finish over and over again from multiple angles. A shame that this one botch sours an otherwise great match, but when that sour note is driven into the ground over and over and over again it’s really hard to not fixate on it.
Oh, yeah, and the Cell has been painted red now because what was missing from Cell matches up to this point was making the in-ring action even harder to see.
I could sit here and worry about what Becky Lynch defeating Charlotte Flair for the SmackDown Women’s Championship means and how Creative could still screw it up. I could fret about how the post-match confrontation and Byron Saxton’s insufferable commentary appear to be continuing the Charlotte = Face and Becky = Arrogant Heel dynamic despite that still making no sense. I could snidely side-eye Production obviously turning down the crowd audios for both Becky and Charlotte in order to hide the fact that Becky is the most over wrestler in the whole company right now and that Charlotte is on her way to cementing the position of Female Roman Reigns in the eyes of the fans. I could relate how I woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat over the thought that this might just lead to Charlotte tapping Becky out in a Submission match at Evolution next month (although a Submission match between these two should absolutely happen).
All things worthy of worry, I’m sure you’ll agree. Instead, though, I am just going to enjoy this moment. Becky Lynch is finally, once again, the SmackDown Women’s Champion. Can I get another image of her holding that title, please?
Aaaah, that’s lovely. But I didn’t just love this match for the fact that I got the result that I desperately wanted. No, the match itself was also brilliant. Maybe the best main roster women’s match of the year so far? I loved the ring psychology involved in it, despite most of us wanting Becky to just gun straight for Charlotte and truck her within three minutes. Becky does have a steaming resentment and grievance with Charlotte, true, but she’s not just concerned with taking back the title. Not anymore, at least. Becky wants to humiliate Charlotte not just by taking her title, but by outwrestling her because what good is being the champ if you can’t also sincerely call yourself the best? Charlotte’s frequently belittled and laughed off the idea of Becky being a better wrestler than her, despite Charlotte still being booked as the inarguable face of the two – she takes selfies with children, that means she’s pure-hearted and booing her makes you a monster(!) – so Becky is out to prove otherwise and that’s most of the match. Good old-fashioned chain-wrestling. Becky works the arms, Charlotte works the legs, they both trade counters and sequences, swapping momentum back and forth on an even keel.
And that last part is key: even keel. Both women are about equal with one another despite what Charlotte may have said and despite Becky taking advantage of referee five-counts and apron-based offense, which visibly eats away at Charlotte as the match goes on. Despite some sloppy moments here and there (that brief time off earlier this Summer for injury does appear to have taken a little spring out of her step), Charlotte does a phenomenal job at putting Becky and Becky’s offense over as not just a competitor, but as Charlotte’s equal or perhaps her superior. The finish is one of those out-of-nowhere pops that only feels more genius the more I think about it. Playing off of the fact that Becky and Charlotte were BEST FRIENDS YOU GUYS, Becky knows that Charlotte’s spear is weaksauce – somebody please rehire Kaitlyn to teach everybody on the roster how a spear is supposed to look, seriously – so she rolls it through into a modified powerslam and covers for the clean three-count. Becky didn’t just beat Charlotte, she beat her at her own game to leave little doubt that, of the pair, Becky is The Woman.
Again, there is every possible way that this could be royally screwed up going further down the line, but I am happy to just focus on the now. This moment, this excellent match, and this brilliant ending to the story I was told AND the story I wanted to hear.
A reasonable argument against WWE’s Groundhog Day booking strategy
Dolph Ziggler and Drew McIntyre vs. Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose for the RAW Tag Team Championships was objectively a great match. Rollins is the best wrestler on the main roster right now, Ziggler has been a dependable bedrock of the midcard for a full decade, McIntyre has turned into money since his sabbatical from the company – this man did a frickin’ kip-up after a flying clothesline despite being nearly 7ft tall, what more do you want – and Ambrose is locking up any Most Improved trophies for the year with this post-injury comeback. They all click well together, there’s a lot of great tag team psychology, and a lot of their spots and storytelling build off of each of the four’s previous encounters with one another. The last five or so minutes are absolute fire with the kinds of heart-stopping near-falls that are Rollins and Ziggler’s specialities in trade, and the finish even pays off the fact that Rollins’ cool-ass top-rope Falcon Arrow never puts anyone away by having McIntyre Claymore-kick Rollins mid-move and Ziggler cover on instinct to retain. Objectively, this was a great, even fantastic, wrestling match.
I wasn’t particularly interested until the last five minutes. Sorry. Look, it’s not for lack of trying on the part of myself and the guys actually doing the wrestling match pulling off the moves that my own garbage body could never even dream of performing. But the simple inescapable fact is thus: I have now seen some permutation of Seth Rollins vs. Dolph Ziggler more times in the past four months than I’ve seen my cousins in the past five years. I know basically all of the spots: the Falcon Arrow, the superkick trade-offs, the Curb Stomp tease, the Zig-Zig that gets a 2.9 every time, the point where Dolph locks in a sleeper-hold for eleventy billion years, the bit where McIntyre gets involved and its shiny new reskin “the bit where Ambrose gets involved to stop McIntyre getting involved.” Sticking all four into a tag match for the straps on PPV does add a few new wrinkles to the execution, but the core underpinning it all is the same as it ever was and I’m just tired by it all now. Seth and Dolph even wrestled again the very next night on RAW, and technically would wrestle again again barely two hours later when the main event of this PPV completely broke down!
The WWE seem absolutely paralysed by the idea that stories and feuds should have endings where somebody clearly won, another person clearly lost, and they both break away to find new people to wrestle and new stories to get involved in. Instead, WWE just run the matches back and run them back and run them back and run them back and run them back over and over and over and over and over and over again until the audience is so burnt out on the concept that they never want to see it again for as long as they live. Sometimes it’s through 50/50 booking – where one guy wins a match, then the other guy wins the rubber match, and both guys just keep trading wins for all eternity with no clear victor – other times it’s through shitty finishes that make everyone involved look garbage, and other times they just keep wrestling because nothing else is coming up those guys’ way anytime soon (a.k.a. the RAW midcard). But all of these are terrible and contribute to the jaded cynicism of your average online wrestling fan such as myself because it’s both terrible storytelling and terrible booking.
Think of when you gorge on a tub full of Starmix. It’s great but at a certain point stuffing all that Starmix into your body without stopping or variation just makes your stomach all sickly. You don’t keep gorging when that sensation sets in because that’s how you get messy furniture and a reticence to eat Starmix ever again!
Anyway, here’s an AJ Styles title match with a shitty finish that makes everyone involved look garbage.
Samoa Joe and AJ Styles are extremely good at professional wrestling. You know this, I know this, Blind Al from Deadpool knows this. These two have been able to turn the hilariously overwrought material that creative have given them both for their feud into something perversely compelling through sheer force of charisma – OK, Joe has because Joe was born to be a prizefighter heel and AJ is still unfortunately stuck in the thankless role of Stock WWE Babyface who spouts off his pair of catchphrases like a Woody doll with a pull-string; AJ being the least interesting part of his feuds has basically made him the Batman of WWE. They have now had two excellent in-ring displays of athletic storytelling, this second one stripped free of outside-the-ring shenanigans to allow focus on the in-ring story of AJ tapping into his emotional rage and Joe turning that against Styles to bait him into various traps, to add to their dozens of also excellent pre-WWE encounters. They’ve resuscitated the crowd after the prior tag match burned them down. They’ve traded near-falls, submissions, once again teased but been unable to land their biggest finishing moves, Joe’s attempted to convert AJ to The Power Game.
Then the finish happens and I am long past sick and tired of writing (mentally or otherwise) “then the finish happens” for AJ Styles title matches. Joe locks in the Coquina Clutch, falls down to cinch it in, only for AJ to roll through and pin Joe’s shoulders for the three-count. Good, solid ending, mainly because it’s the exact same ending to that of Shayna Baszler vs. Kairi Sane at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn 4 last month but whatever. Styles escaped by the skin of his teeth and that is an objectively fine ending even if I personally believe Joe needs that WWE Title yesterday. Except that Joe starts bellowing about how he got screwed out of the victory because Styles tapped out and, after such an agonisingly long delay that I genuinely thought Production had failed to catch the goddamn finish on any camera – WWE Production has been notoriously terrible for years, because Kevin Dunn edits and directs like he’s badly holding in a piss for the entire show in between chugging 52 bottles of Mountain Dew, but things were especially bad tonight missing so many vital spots and finishers – a replay came up that indeed showed Styles tapping before the ref (who was out of position and therefore couldn’t see) finished counting three.
It’s akin to when a wrestler in an Iron Man match taps out from a hold in the last second to even the score despite being able to see the timer being inches away from zero; it’s dumb there and it’s super dumb here. Especially when AJ sees the replay, shrugs his shoulders, and just poses with the belt some more. Bullshit like this is why I am growing ever wearier of an AJ Styles title reign and that should not be happening! If this keeps up, they’re going to turn Samoa Joe into the next Shinsuke Nakamura by the end of the month, which is also an observation that I should not be typing but I guess here we are! Distressingly, I think we’re in for another few months of this as WWE tries to finish erasing CM Punk from the history books by outdoing his record-breaking WWE Championship reign. Just please give me a proper non-shitty finish to a title defence before that day comes! Please? Just the one, literally just the one?
Brie Bella is the drizzling shits. Going straight for the jugular on this one. Brie Bella is a horror-show in the ring, Maryse birthed a child five months ago and hasn’t been an active wrestler since 2011, and Daniel Bryan and The Miz should have waited to throw hands until at least that Australian house show the WWE are adorably attempting to pass off as a mega-special PPV. Bryan & Brie vs. Miz & Maryse was Not Good and honestly, despite the feud between Bryan and Miz being red-hot and their SummerSlam match ruling, never had a shot at being good. Part of this is down to the WWE’s intergender tag match rules baking the forced killing of momentum into their very premise as a result of their continual efforts to atone for the more undesirable parts of the Attitude Era – the women can only wrestle the women, the men can only wrestle the men, whichever gender is tagged in must immediately get in the ring whilst the other vacates – although that didn’t stop the mixed-tag at WrestleMania this year from being excellent or the Mixed Match Challenge from being a barrel of fun. Part of it is because we just saw Bryan and Miz have Their Match last month and now they have to do Their Match again but in half the time and another half of that given away to their respective wives.
But, yeah, it’s mainly because Brie Bella is the drizzling shits at professional wrestling. She sucks at most basic moves (look again at how garbage those punches she throws at Miz are), she sucks at big spots (that running knee after her “BRIIIIIIIIIIEEEE MOOOOODEEEE!” yell could barely dent a cream cake), she sucks at displaying any emotion whether in the ring or on the apron, she sucks at setting up spots, and, dear God, she now even sucks at roll-ups despite that having been her entire character for the first few years she was on the roster! Meanwhile, Maryse, need I remind you, hasn’t wrestled a proper match since WrestleMania 33 and before that since 2011 so, whilst she may be multiple leagues above Brie in character work and acting, she is also an extremely sloppy worker incapable of taking any serious bumps on account of having given birth five months ago and, even if she didn’t have copious amounts of ring rust, would have been wrestling at a 2010 Diva’s Division level anyway.
Yet, despite all of these facts, this match was booked largely around Daniel Bryan getting his ass kicked until he could make the hot-tag to Brie whom was booked akin to Ronda frickin’ Rousey. And then they gave Brie and Maryse a roll-up finish that neither of the two could do so it was utter dogshit and ended with Maryse doing the world’s slowest post-match escape from the ring. Awful. Truly awful and, funnily enough, I shall not be tuning into Total Bellas and Miz & Mrs to find out how this blatant cross-branding exercise was worked into both shows.
Ronda Rousey had a proper competitive wrestling match!
Following the display that Brie Bella and Maryse put on, all Ronda Rousey and Alexa Bliss needed to do in their rematch for the RAW Women’s Title was perform literally any basic move halfway convincingly and they would have been showered in gold stars and multiple ceremonial wreathes. But even with expectations having been lowered down to the Earth’s molten core, this was a great match albeit one whose legs had been rather undercut by this being the pair’s second match instead of their first. I am on record as having really enjoyed Rousey’s squishing of Bliss back at SummerSlam and I do stand my feelings at the time – it was incredibly satisfying to watch the woman that had spent a good two years mercilessly burying the Women’s Divisions on both brands, despite how much I love her promo work, get mercilessly buried herself – but it showcases the damage that charging ahead looking for Moments at the expense of longer-term storytelling can cause. Even with kayfabe injured ribs, we’re supposed to believe that Ronda Rousey could be forced into a competitive wrestling match with Alexa Bliss, the woman who couldn’t even get a simple headlock on Rousey during their last encounter, and potentially lose?
Still, this is not for a lack of trying on both womens’ parts. Bliss brings her usual back-up, the perennially underrated and underutilised Mickie James and Alicia Fox wearing some rejected first-draft designs for Janelle Monaé costumes, and they get involved just enough that their presence doesn’t feel wasted but also not so much that it feels like overbooking. Rousey continues to just kill it at the character work and trash-talking (she is going to be a dynamite heel one day when she improves at promos), is continually learning new moves to expand her arsenal, and sells! Properly sells those ribs consistently throughout the match! They stop her from hitting her rolling Samoan drop early on, they stop her from being able to capitalise on a desperation gut-wrench powerbomb, and she keeps wincing and grimacing even during the ending sequence where she hits those moves and celebrates after the win! This all reads like damning with faint praise, I’m aware, but it’s something that many wrestlers nowadays surprisingly keep forgetting to do. If your opponent is targeting a specific part of your body, maybe keep selling that specific part throughout the match and post-match instead of conveniently forgetting about it when the bell rings again, SETH.
I continue to remain convinced of Ronda Rousey’s preternatural brilliance at this whole pro wrestling thing, basically. Good stuff and a great note to end the show on! …hmm? “It’s not the end of the show?” Well, what follow…
*insert Cornette Face GIF here*
*long, deep, calming intake of breath*
One of the things you often see in criticisms of professional wrestling, my own included, is that of the writer inserting their own ideas of speculative booking into their write-ups of the show. How they would have booked this match, where this story could go from here, who should go over whom, etc. It’s not something you see in criticisms of, say, TV or Film – unless you’re reading or watching garbage criticisms by the kinds of garbage people who will spend hour-long videos explaining in excruciating detail how they would have written The Last Jedi – and I think it’s considered more acceptable in professional wrestling because the gap and artifice typically separating the audience and creative is effectively null compared to other mediums. Films and TV have definitive end points, but wrestling is supposed to go on forever and every week, without fail, brings the latest instalment to a live audience of fans that can clearly let you know whether they like or don’t like what you’re doing with immediate effect which means that, unlike with Film or TV, fixes for fumbled booking can theoretically also be immediate because wrestling needs people to come back every single week.
Now, there are a lot of justifiable arguments to be had about whether this kind of feedback and accompanying entitlement – fans need to be placated or else they’ll leave in droves – can negatively impact stories by fans simply never giving them a chance. Pushing back instantly because Their Guy is not the same as WWE’s Guy instead of giving WWE’s Guy a chance to prove himself, ditto with the story WWE wants to tell not being the story fans want to hear. After all, what the fans want isn’t always what makes the best story (see again: The Last Jedi) so there is value in ignoring their wishes and doing your own thing. The problem here, though, is that this only covers maybe 20% of the times WWE appear to drop the ball. The other 80% comes from them throwing total logic-free contradictory nonsense at the wall in search of either a nebulous Moment or stubborn-mule desire to get WWE’s Guy over that the results make for narratively and thematically unsatisfying and borderline incoherent storytelling. Roman Reigns vs. Braun Strowman for the WWE Universal Championship inside Hell in a Cell is firmly one of the latter two examples.
I could spend hours and thousands of words deconstructing this insulting train-wreck. How it finally finishes the job in trying to kill Braun’s momentum. How it was overbooked to absolute lunacy. How Roman actually looks weaker than before he started this feud. How WWE’s refusal to allow wrestlers to acknowledge any prior history that’s longer than 3 months earlier actively detracts from the potential power in a match’s storytelling. How Mick Foley added nothing to the match. How Roman seemingly forgot to kick out of a pin in time so everybody had to cover really badly for it. How even before the interference this wasn’t a patch on Strowman and Reigns’ previous hardcore matches. How Roman’s attempt to build up speed for a spear instead looked hilariously like a light jog. How the match effectively ended 10 minutes early after a table spot despite these two supposedly being unnaturally strong behemoths. How EVERYTHING to do with Seth & Dean and Dolph & Drew was just absolutely pointless and stupid and awful. How the return of Brock Lesnar caused me to let out a long drawn-out “oh, noooooooooooooooo…”
I could write about all of those, and would have were my deadline and word limit not already long gone. Instead, I am simply going to state the fact that this Hell in a Cell match, a match type with no rules and no disqualifications with the only way to stop the match being via pinfall or submission, ended in a No Contest. 20 years ago, Mick Foley nearly died repeatedly in one of these matches but he still finished the match. 21 years ago, Kane forced his way into the Cell, Tombstoned one of the participants and the match still ended in a pinfall by the other man actually competing in it. In 2018, Braun Strowman, who has survived being crushed in a garbage truck, and Roman Reigns, who kicked out of five F-5s at WrestleMania six months ago, were both knocked out from a table spear in the ring for 10 minutes and then rendered unable to compete after one F-5 each from a returning Brock Lesnar. The show would then abruptly go off the air before the entire crowd could boo this TNA-ass booking out of the state, which they did.
“This is bullshit” indeed.
Callum Petch is trying not to crack under the pressure.