Chances are, the words “Hell in a Cell” instantly conjure up the iconic images of Mick Foley hurling himself off the top of that steel structure and the unforgettable Jim Ross call that went along with them. “That killed him! As God is my witness, he is broken in half!” shouted J.R., cementing a moment in the minds of WWE fans forever.
That moment, those images, have been replayed countless times in the sixteen years since they took place. And rightfully so, if only to serve as a time stamp of the moment that the extreme “crash TV” style of the 1990s started to give way to a safer, more athletic in-ring product.
“With that one move, everything I’d accomplished during my thirteen years of wrestling became instantly obsolete, at least that’s the way it seems,” Foley said in his 2007 “Greatest Hits & Misses” career retrospective DVD.
In watching and re-watching Foley hurtling through the air, fans have inadvertently done themselves a disservice, as memories of both Foley’s storied career, and some of the greatest matches in WWE history are not nearly as clear as they should be.
With that in mind, and with the 2014 edition of Hell in a Cell coming this weekend, let’s take a look at some of the best matches that have taken place inside WWE’s signature structure.
Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker, Badd Blood, October 5, 1997
This was a great chapter in the legendary Michaels/Undertaker rivalry. The feud kicked off in earnest in August when Michaels inadvertently cost The Undertaker the WWE title with a chair shot.
Undertaker spent weeks trying to get his revenge, only to be clocked again and again with chair shots from Michaels. with each passing week, more anticipation was built for the moment when Taker would retaliate with a chair shot of his own, with the payoff finally coming on pay-per-view, inside the cell.
This was the first cell match in company history. With the angles leading up to it, the fantastic in-ring work, and laying the framework for years of storytelling after, with the introduction of Kane, it probably has not been topped from a creative standpoint.
Triple H vs. Cactus Jack, No Way Out, February 27, 2000
This was the first of a few Mick Foley retirement matches, and capped a months-long feud between Foley and Triple H that would cement “The King of Kings” as a top-flight superstar for life. The in-ring work here was quite good, as it took place before Triple H suffered the quadriceps injuries that forced him to adopt a less athletic style. And if a hardcore stunt show was more of your thing, there were also chairs, barbed wire boards and fire.
Batista vs. Triple H, Vengeance, June 26, 2005
As Foley had done with him five years earlier, Triple H took a guy on the rise and made him a superstar, giving Batista three consecutive clean pay-per-view wins over him, including this one. With his entrance, his look and his fantastic heel promos, it can be easy to overlook the fact that Batista is a far better athlete and wrestler than someone with his muscle-bound physique has any right to be. He might not have put the complete package together until years later, but you can see in this match that “Big Dave” is more than just a guy with a good look.
D-Generation X (Triple H and Shawn Michaels) vs. The Big Show, Vince McMahon and Shane McMahon, Unforgiven, September 17, 2006
You might find the inclusion of this match on a best-of list somewhat puzzling. I’m not going to claim that this was anything other than a goofy WWE comedy match that employed some tasteless humor. But it was a piece of the puzzle in one of the best pay-per-view shows the company has ever done, a show that was highlighted by a Lita vs. Trish Stratus retirement match and a John Cena vs. Edge TLC match that might have been the best match of Cena’s career.
The Undertaker vs. Edge, Summerslam, August 17, 2008
The Undertaker is another guy whose gimmick and look often overshadow the fact that he was a pretty great wrestler, and a good athlete for a guy of his size. That athleticism was on display here, as this match put an exclamation point on the Edge/Undertaker rivalry that carried the Smackdown brand for much of 2008. Their match at WrestleMania XXIV that year may have been slightly better, but this was not far behind that one.
I maintain that I never saw Edge have a bad match, something I’m not sure I can say about anyone else in my two-plus decades of watching wrestling.
The Undertaker vs. Triple H, WrestleMania XXVIII, April 1, 2012
This match was promoted as “The End of an Era”, and as far as great cell matches go, that may prove to be quite accurate. Few performers going forward will have the longevity or the goodwill of the audience needed to tell as profound a wrestling story as Triple H and The Undertaker did on wrestling’s biggest stage.
Adding Shawn Michaels as the guest referee gave this match that extra little bit of depth that made fans live and die with the near-falls in a match where the result was a foregone conclusion.
This was professional wrestling at its best, an athletic art form telling a simple story in a way that felt profoundly important.