Contrary to popular belief, professional wrestling wasn’t always scripted or predetermined. Over a century ago, it was still “real.” Two men would get in a ring and have a legitimate athletic contest with a winner and a loser.
The shenanigans came later, when the promoters realized that by fixing all the matches, they could ensure that they promoted the most reliable, talented, and charismatic performers in their stable. And over time, this match fixing evolved into the current-day kayfabe we see today, with its larger-than-life characters and theatrical presentation.
But as unrealistic as modern professional wrestling can often seem, the core idea behind it remains the same: that when you book the matches and you book and how they end, it should be a near-guarantee that the audience will go home happy. And that’s why it’s impossible to view the main event of 2019’s WWE Hell in a Cell as anything other than a massive failure, on multiple levels.
The live audience booed the result, and continued booing even after the lights came up for everyone to go home. Many in the crowd chanted chanted “AEW,” the name of the new rival wrestling promotion on the block. And wrestling Twitter set itself ablaze, ranking the main event as one of WWE’s worst in recent memory.
To briefly summarize the match that has fans in an uproar: Seth Rollins, the current WWE Universal Champion, took on Bray Wyatt in a title match at the Hell in a Cell PPV on October 6. Rollins is the good “babyface” of the feud, and Wyatt is the evil “heel” of the feud.
Regardless, Wyatt is getting lots of cheers, because his new character, “The Fiend,” is the coolest looking thing to come out of WWE in quite some time. Fans also see Wyatt as a likeable underdog. From 2012-2018, his character was a backwoods cult leader with a silver-tongue. And although he was pegged for great success, Bray Wyatt never received the push or definitive win necessary to becoming a next-level performer. Would this new Fiend character finally break through where his prior character couldn’t?
The title match took place inside Hell in a Cell. A match stipulation innovated by long-time booker/manager Jim Cornette, Hell in a Cell was inspired by the steel cages of the Memphis territory days, which encompassed the immediate area outside the ring. Cornette added a roof to the cage like the ones in NWA WarGames, and the result was Hell in a Cell.
A wrestler wins the match by pinfall or submission; there are no disqualifications. The no disqualification rule prevents any sort of screwy finish, such as when a champion gets himself disqualified in order to retain a title, while the cage itself prevents people from fleeing the ring and forfeiting. Traditionally, a Hell in a Call took place at the end of a feud, when one wrestler’s cowardly tendencies could longer be tolerated, or because the acrimony between two wrestlers had reached such a fever pitch, that they seemed ready to kill each other.
But in 2009, WWE created an annual pay-per-view called “Hell in a Cell,” where at least one one of the show’s matches would take place inside of the structure. And thus, the match to end all matches, the most dangerous possible stipulation for when feuds got intensely personal, slowly became ‘that thing we do during October.’ If the feud hadn’t reached the animosity necessary for this sort of extreme match, it didn’t matter. It was October, which meant that the title match needed to be inside of the Cell.
So that was the first problem. When built properly, a Hell in a Cell match could be the final chapter of a long, angry feud, with escalating, dangerous stipulations. But Wyatt sneaking up on and spooking Rollins for three weeks did not equate to a match this extreme. This was the first match between Rollins and this brand new character (Rollin has fought Wyatt, but not his Fiend alter-ego). It was only the second match for the Fiend. Where do they go from here?
Also concerning: Seth Rollins just won the title from Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam on August 11. This was a landmark victory; Rollins won cleanly to a man who has lost only a handful of times in his entire professional wrestling career, and almost never without his opponent cheating. To have Rollins lose the belt so quickly would cheapen the value of this win, and by proxy, cheapen Lesnar as well.
So WWE’s writers were left with a no-win scenario heading into SummerSlam. Did they hand The Fiend his first loss in his second match (which would make narrative sense) but toss six months of brilliant character work into the garbage? Or did they give Wyatt a too-soon win and title reign that wouldn’t make much narrative sense but would keep the audience happy in the short-term?
For much of the match, it seemed like WWE was going for the latter, wiser option. The company has rocketed wrestlers to the main event before, and it can work if the performer is talented enough to hang tough. Wyatt withstood multiple Curb Stomps (Rollins’ finishing move), steel chair shots, and more. Wyatt, however, would not stay down. It was a little cartoony, but worked in a Michael Myers-ish sort of way—so long as Wyatt ultimately made the comeback and scored the win. It wasn’t ideal, but WWE could work on this in the aftermath.
Rollins didn’t win. Wyatt didn’t win. Instead, the WWE writers booked an ending that made no one happy: A referee stopped the match because it was getting too violent. Seth Rollins had just smashed a sledgehammer onto a pile of steel chairs covering Wyatt’s head when the referee called for the bell.
A lack of a finish defeats the entire purpose of having the Cell; a definitive finish is the entire point of the match. Also part of the Cell’s mythos is the violence. To ask that the Cell match be violent, but not too violent, is a tricky line to draw, especially if it’s not clearly defined.
And that’s ultimately the takeaway. Much of the criticism has been around the closing seconds of the match. But what has been lost in entire debacle is that the match was doomed to fail from the start.
It’s often been observed that wrestling fans are an impossible bunch to please—people will complain no matter what the finish is. But in this case, the finish was the result of poor matchmaking, and of the WWE writers trying to fix something broken from the moment the match was booked. They were given an impossible task: to keep the title on Rollins and also have Wyatt emerge from the match looking strong. There is no logical, reasonable way to do that in a no disqualification match, where all conventional “challenger wins, but champion retains” finishes don’t exist.
The Friday, October 11 episode of Smackdown is the first night of the WWE Draft. The best thing that could possibly happen, at this stage, is for Rollins and Wyatt to go to different brands. WWE needs to leave well enough alone; rehabilitate the Fiend character to be an unstoppable threat, who doesn’t need to be saved by the referee, before having these two fight again—maybe at WrestleMania, this time with a definitive winner?
In the meantime, there’s enough blame to go around. Sure, blame WWE for picking a terrible option out of a number of bad ones. But there’s a larger discussion that needs to be had about booking stipulation-themed PPVs and building feuds in a logical manner—for making sure the storytelling elements of a match stipulation coincide with the dynamic between the two competitors. Instead of asking how WWE could have booked the match better, fans should be asking why the match had to exist in the first place.
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Author: Kevin Wong