Moving on from a flurry of faltering PPVs – Battleground, SummerSlam, and Night of Champions all suffered from main event failures, and with the Live from Madison Square Garden Network special no more than a barely-glorified house show, only NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn and NXT TakeOver: Respect, headed by Sasha Banks and Bayley, have thoroughly satiated fans of wrestling in recent months – on Sunday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles WWE showed signs and sowed seeds of change. Some of the matches further down the card felt like throwaways, but bolstered by a main event exceptional in every facet, Hell in a Cell proved a thoughtful and hard-fought success.
With Brock Lesnar and The Undertaker headlining the PPV – to meet inside the cell in what was billed as a rubber match, as well the last chance to witness Taker within the confines of the structure he made famous – there was limited space on the undercard. So the pre-show featured a wealth of the company’s most capable talent, and most popular faces in the form of Cesaro, Dolph Zigger, and Neville. They teamed against the threesome of Rusev, Sheamus, and Barrett, still plugging away under the title of ‘King’ on the basis of his little-heralded King of the Ring triumph back in April. The faces took the win when a Cesaro-assisted dive from Neville onto Sheamus and Rusev on the outside was followed up by, in turn, a superkick, Cesaro Swing, and Red Arrow as Barrett succumbed for the 1-2-3.
So a lively start to the evening’s wrestling led into Hell in a Cell proper. And slightly unexpectedly, John Cena kicked things off with his open challenge for the WWE United States Championship. Eschewing a long and laborious RAW-esque opening promo, he immediately called for the reveal of his unannounced opponent. Speculation was rife as to who this would be, with a returning Daniel Bryan offered tentatively by some, while others mooted Samoa Joe, recent SmackDown debutant Tyler Breeze, or Cesaro on double duty. The opening slot seemed to instantly rule out Bryan – good to start the show hot, but not with a moment likely to surpass much of what follows – and instead out scooted Zeb Colter, previously manager to Jack Swagger.
But instead of Swagger, Zeb introduced Alberto Del Rio, a rare shock given the manner of his departure more than a year ago over an allegedly racist confrontation with a WWE employee, and considering his recent associations with AAA in Mexico and the critically acclaimed Lucha Underground. Del Rio emerged to a big pop, the LA crowd obviously pleased with the surprise, and happy to welcome back a supremely fluid in-ring competitor who has sometimes struggled to connect with the WWE fans.
With John Cena set for a timely break, presumably off to explore reality projects with Leftfield Pictures before a return scheduled for around Christmas, this match had a likely outcome. And after a concise, moderately paced back-and-forth contest, Del Rio won through courtesy of a stiff kick to the face: certainly painful, but a modest way to best the usually unbeatable John Cena. WWE are obviously keen to exert a hold on Hispanic viewers, but while Del Rio’s return was enjoyable, it is lamentable that such a clean victory over Cena wasn’t bestowed on deserving and organic superstars like Cesaro or Ziggler, or even Breeze, who needs establishing after his years spent in NXT.
Second up came the first of the evening’s two Hell in a Cell matches, pitting Roman Reigns against Bray Wyatt, a feud which has variously involved the Wyatt Family, Dean Ambrose, and Chris Jericho, finally reduced to something resembling its bare essence. The match was reliant on big spots, but the two men battled to make it work, and there was some innovative use of the cell as Wyatt wedged weapons in its mesh walls. After being beaten about with a Kendo stick, Reigns was thrown into its ominously hanging form, before reversing Wyatt into a steel chair.
Wyatt regained the momentum with a vicious uranage, which drove Reigns through one of the tables he himself had set up on the outside. Following several near falls, Reigns recovered by powerbombing Wyatt through yet another table, this one in the corner of the ring; and when he speared Wyatt through the second table on the outside, he might have had the match won, only by the time he dragged Wyatt in for the cover, his opponent kicked out on two.
In turn Reigns kicked out of a Sister Abigail, and he prevailed when he used Wyatt’s Kendo sticks against him, stunning his opponent against a stick propped in the turnbuckle, before hitting a decisive spear. This was a good match which demonstrated the toughness of both men, and it provided a solid climax to a storyline which has often felt like a fill-in. These two will surely meet again with more at stake, but this allowed them to go their separate ways with plenty of dignity.
The Dudley Boyz in ECW delivered some of wrestling’s great heel promos, expletive-laden tirades uttered with enough conviction to get under the skin of even hardened fans. But sixteen years on, in a PG environment and returned from long spells in TNA, The Dudleys are well loved and risk becoming something of a nostalgia act. The New Day are the preeminent promo group in today’s WWE: and like the Dudleys, respected for their complementary abilities in the ring and on the microphone, but sufficiently cloying to remain the subject of the crowd’s jeers. The WWE Tag Team Champions, Big E and Kofi Kingston were without Xavier Woods, hurt having been put through a table too many. They still cut a riotous promo, featuring unicorn horns, the LA Lakers, a ‘Caucasian Kamala’, and Woods’ forlorn trombone
As the face team up against such charismatic and overbearing heels, it has been hard for the Dudleys to find a rhythm, but this was the best match the two teams have shared so far, as the Dudleys equalled The New Day for in-ring personality. There was a botched double-team move in the early going, some flaw in the execution of a probable neckbreaker, but The New Day got back on terms as they worked over Devon, their spell of dominance highlighted by a huge splash from Big E.
When Bubba finally made the tag, his comeback was mischievously cut short: stealing a page from Eddie Guerrero, with the referee’s back turned, Kofi tossed Bubba the trombone and dropped to the canvas, rising to plead with the official for a Dudley disqualification. The referee contemplated calling the match, but uncertain, he utilised his better judgement and allowed it to continue. The Dudleys set up for a 3D. But another referee distraction saw Big E lump Bubba with the trombone, and with a Trouble in Paradise Kofi sealed the victory.
With the stipulation that none of their teammates were allowed at ringside, Nikki Bella faced Charlotte, hoping to resume her Divas title reign which ended suddenly last month at Night of Champions. The roughhouse style which defines Charlotte as a wrestler, melded with moments of elegant athleticism, also suits Nikki, and the duo provided an engaging encounter. Nikki worked on Charlotte’s back with a snap suplex, a half crab, and a spinebuster; Charlotte refocused with chops, a neckbreaker, and a sphere. But when she tried to exert pressure with her bridging Figure Eight leglock, her back gave way and she was forced to relinquish the hold.
In the midst of this there was a bizarre sequence as the women straddled the top turnbuckle, with Charlotte somersaulting backwards and not quite landing on her feet, and Nikki crumbling to the mat. It wasn’t clear whether they were looking for a suplex or some sort of hanging neckbreaker, but either way it presented a moment of genuine danger. And another, deliberately constructed, soon followed when on the outside of the ring, a brutal Alabama slam sent Charlotte’s back and neck lashing into the apron. Nikki rolled Charlotte inside and hoisted her for the Rack Attack, but a panicked reversal resulted in another Figure Eight, which this time brought the submission.
Such a strong match in a women’s division finding its feet after the bungled ‘Divas Revolution’, the only grievance was Charlotte’s effortless winning Figure Eight. The back pain which had been the story of the contest, developed and sold throughout, was entirely cast aside at the last. But this can be seen less as a mistake on Charlotte’s part, more as an unfortunate quirk of WWE, which over its thirty-five year history has always offered faces impervious to or shrugging off pain in the sudden endeavour for victory. This has been true of Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker, for instance, as much as for John Cena and Hulk Hogan. Consistent selling plays a distant second to superheroism.
The match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship was up next, the culmination of a feud which has been fomenting for more than a year, ever since Kane helped Seth Rollins to the Money in the Bank briefcase in June 2014. Especially after Rollins took the title at WrestleMania 31, he and Kane came increasingly into conflict, The Authority’s proclaimed ‘Future’ clashing with its longstanding Director of Operations, who had good reason to feel slighted even before Rollins stomped on his leg. But despite such a lengthy build, there has never been the sense that the issue between Rollins and Kane would amount to anything more than frivolity, a hearty bit of nonsense between more meaningful feuds.
However the split personality storyline which has played out since Kane’s return – a farcical coming and going between his ‘Corporate’ and ‘Demon’ personas – has ended up more than a touch too silly, in a direction Rollins can scarcely afford given the number of times he is beaten on TV. As World Champion his narrative has continued to lack coherence. Too cowardly by far, he convinces neither as a crafty heel nor as a put-upon loner-at-heart just waiting to strike out on his own. Rollins possesses an obvious edge which bleeds through into his characterisation, but it is an edge he infrequently gets to demonstrate, booked to lose every other week while his wins always seem sheer good fortune.
This was a standard singles affair, with the only stipulation that if Kane lost, he would be released from his role as Director of Operations. And as with the feud, the match never caught fire. Frequently venturing to the outside, Rollins went for a couple of dives, while back in the ring Kane landed a superplex before a chokeslam brought a count of two. Then Rollins slipped out of the Tombstone Piledriver, and the action spilled towards the Spanish announce table, which had been prepared by Kane in the opening phase of the contest. Crucially for the impression wrought by the match, when Rollins outmanoeuvred Kane and tried to powerbomb him through the announce table, it stayed firm, significantly reducing the impact for the audience despite Kane still taking a hefty bump.
Kane managed to avoid a countout, but a sequence of top-rope knees and stiff kicks followed by a Pedigree sufficed to end his challenge. So Rollins progresses with the belt, just about unscathed, although this feud added nothing to his title reign; and caught up in the stupidity of Kane’s twin characters, some of his trash talking during Sunday’s match was cringeworthy. Beyond a good storyline, Rollins also needs to find a new finisher: the Curb Stomp was ideal, but the Pedigree doesn’t suit his build and it is a move he seems unable to competently execute.
Strange that the world title bout prefaced the rematch between Kevin Owens and Ryback for the WWE Intercontinental Championship. The cell and the seriousness of the main event were enough to distinguish it from the Rollins/Kane silliness, and for whatever reason this match seemed misplaced and tossed off. It lasted just five minutes. Early brawling gave Ryback the advantage, but Owens regrouped until Ryback blocked a cannonball in the corner and followed up with a spinebuster then a powerbomb for a two count. Ascending the top rope, Owens kicked Ryback out to the floor, and the challenger only just made it back into the ring before the referee’s count reached ten.
Ryback sought to lift and drape Owens for a Shell Shocked, but the reigning champion held onto the ropes, and a frustrated Ryback fell victim to a rake across the eyes. He stumbled into a pop-up powerbomb, and that was all, with Owens swiftly retaining his title. With John Cena out of the picture at least for a couple of months, there is the opportunity to focus on reinvigorating the Intercontinental belt, but neither Owens nor Ryback appear capable of inciting much passion. Ryback has lost all momentum, and Owens flatters to deceive when it comes to compelling microphone work or well constructed matches.
The main event, as a result of the shortened Intercontinental title match, was afforded plenty of time in which to serve as a fitting finale for The Undertaker’s Hell in a Cell career. The contest didn’t disappoint: this was by some margin the best of the three matches in Taker’s series with Brock Lesnar. After a staredown notable for its contrasts – Taker running his thumb across his throat, while Lesnar looked on with a mocking grin – the two men opened up with punches, knees, and clotheslines. And when Lesnar attempted a German suplex, The Undertaker forced him between the ropes as the action rumbled out into the narrow space between the ring and the steel of the cell.
Lesnar was soon busted open, colour covering his forehead after The Undertaker sent him into the ring post: as WrestleMania 31 indicated, Lesnar is a master at covertly opening up his scalp. Back in the ring, a slam gave Brock the advantage, and between crunching chair shots a doctor appeared to wipe away his blood. A suplex reversal on the floor allowed Taker to once again tilt the balance, and now bloody himself, he drove a chair into Lesnar’s gullet. But three german suplexes were succeeded by an F5 for the first close call of the match.
The doctor intruded again with The Undertaker laid out, but an agitated Lesnar sent him flying from the ring before hoisting his opponent for a second F5. Even this wasn’t enough to put away The Undertaker. This incident with the doctor was a nice touch: it is unclear whether it was scripted, but it certainly added realism to an already intense and punishingly physical match. Lesnar brought the steel steps into play, and after nailing The Undertaker in the corner of the ring, still managed only a near fall. Now Lesnar was incredulous.
He stalked the ring with the steps, but finally The Undertaker raised his legs and reversed the situation. With Lesnar dazed, he locked in the Hell’s Gate. Lesnar faded momentarily, but came right back, pummeling his foe on the canvas. And then in one of those slightly surreal moments which can still shift the experienced spectator from his or her comfort zone, he began pulling the canvas apart from its centre, exposing the wooden boards underneath. Yet it was The Undertaker who immediately benefitted, with a chokeslam then a Tombstone down onto the exposure.
Lo, Lesnar kicked out, and Taker’s time was almost up. He gestured across his throat, but Lesnar clobbered him between the legs, with a low blow fair payback for events at SummerSlam. An F5 onto the exposed ring resulted in the pinfall and a monumental 2-1 series triumph for Lesnar. The cell was raised, and The Undertaker acknowledged his opponent as Lesnar staggered to the back, with a look that said, ‘Well played: you got me’. He rose manfully to his feet, to warm applause and chants of ‘Thank you Taker’. This was Hell in the Cell ending on a respectable high, and it was a roaring triumph as the close to the angle between Lesnar and Taker, which has floundered over the past few months, but wound up providing us with a stellar match and adding substantially to both men’s legacies. Then the lights went out.
Here was Bray Wyatt, out now and circling with his Wyatt Family: Luke Harper, Erick Rowan, and Braun Strowman. The Undertaker swayed in the centre of the ring, but he was inevitably manhandled as the Wyatt Family rounded on him, clawing, punching, and kneeing at his midsection as the four big men took turns stretching their target. Harper, Rowan, and Strowman held The Undertaker up for Wyatt to kick and mock, before carrying him crucifix-style out of the arena.
This, not the other, was the right way to end Hell in a Cell. It ruined the moment, but with months to go until what will presumably be his last match at WrestleMania 32 in Texas, and seemingly up for the challenge, it is right that The Undertaker has a run with a younger superstar, a passing of the torch of sorts between two men who share dark characterisations and only scratched the surface in the build up to their previous encounter. Some quibbled that surely someone in the back should have rushed out to make the save: but Lesnar was tending his wounds and besides, he’s not really the type to help; Kane had also recently competed; and Reigns and Ambrose had been shown earlier backstage preparing to celebrate Reigns’ victory. The lack of support was sensibly and tenably woven into the show. So Hell in a Cell ended with a fantastic match and the promise of more to come.