Hell in a Cell - It’s What’s Outside That’s Worse follow @bigvinvader
Hell in a Cell is a unique show. The titular stipulation is easily one of the best in wrestling, but only when the build and participants are just right, and the match is a unique spectacle. Trouble is, with Hell in a Cell existing as a PPV card, as well as an outlying stipulation, it’s oversaturated and rarely delivers as it did in the past. Also an issue is how many matches on the show use the cell, diluting the sense of urgency and danger it once represented. Last year there were three HIAC matches, this year there were two, and both topped 2016’s offerings, while the overall card was far stronger as well.
The key to the success of the Cell matches was the quality of the feuds involved. The New Day and the Usos have been feuding for SmackDown’s tag titles for months, almost always stealing the show when they meet. After so many back-and-forth contests, the finality of Hell in a Cell seemed the perfect way to settle matters. On top of that, this was the first tag team title match ever held in the structure, meaning it would be fresh and exciting. On the other end of the card was Kevin Owens vs. Shane McMahon, in a feud that’s been building since before SummerSlam. This one promised to be a stunt show, but the story behind it was too good to simply write it off. Family man Kevin Owens took on the entire McMahon clan in the build-up, insulting Shane in front of his family and questioning his motives for interfering in his last match with AJ Styles. Then, in one of the year’s best segments, Owens took on Vince himself, bloodying the CEO and cementing his clash with Shane. Then there was the fact that the match could end in a number of ways which could all make sense for long-term. And it’s never a bad thing to see Kevin Owens in a main-event spot. There was little chance that this match would not deliver, and it definitely satisfied.
The problems with the show were more indicative of long-term issues within the company, and are unlikely to change. Randy Orton’s feud with Rusev is the same sort of bullshit that the latter has had to deal with for the past two years. Jinder Mahal is still champion because the company has yet to make it to India and see what he can do for business there. And even when two top-tier talents like Natalya and Charlotte are involved, women’s title matches are still booked as undercard filler matches. Don’t forget that Charlotte headlined this same PPV last year in the first ever women’s HIAC match (and first-ever PPV main event). So for all of the good moments, and there were plenty on the card, there were still a number of head-slapping parts as well. The bigger trouble, then, is the fact that these disappointments were so predictable going into the show.
The show kicked off with the Uso/New Day tag match, and it was the right call to start things off hot. Of course, the show also peaked with this contest, so it did set the bar too high for others to follow. Big E and Xavier Woods worked this one, and they made great challengers to the vicious Usos. No time was wasted as all four men went for weapons at the bell and got right to work. The fast pace was set from the start and really sold the hatred between the teams, while the immediate use of the no-DQ rules and cell itself proved the stipulation was the right decision. There was less of the expected high flying from either team, which meant that those moments really counted when they came. Instead, there was some of the most extensive and brutal-looking weapon work I’ve seen in a long time. Some of the stuff they did bordered on hardcore wrestling, sans blood, with a ton of Singapore canes in use, and the Usos busting out some handcuffs. The violent highpoint was the twins cuffing Woods over a ringpost and delivering stereo cane shots for at least thirty seconds. Also of note the first-time use of canes to trap Jay Uso in the corner of the cell like prison bars. Innovative stuff, and wrestling worth getting excited over, which has been rare as of late. The Usos pulled off a surprise victory, and it worked beautifully given how ruthless they had been throughout the match. This was the best HIAC match in a long time, and an absolute war of a show opener.
There was no chance in hell that anyone could follow that, and even less for Randy Orton and Rusev to come close. This has been a blip of a feud, saved only because its cumulative in-ring time up to that point had been less than twenty seconds. I have no clue who Rusev pissed off, but he’s been getting buried for two-and-a-half years now. It also doesn’t help that Orton is part of the old guard burial committee that includes John Cena. That said, this was way better than I was expecting, and was the best Rusev has looked in a very long time. There really was a sense that he could pull off a surprise win once things got going, and he held his own for the entirety of the match. But as always, Orton hit another RKO and put his victory-starved challenger away. That move is more protected than the Pedigree at this point, and given Orton’s advancing age and lack of purpose on the roster, it would be nice to see someone as deserving as Rusev kick out and claim at least one win.
AJ Styles was supposed to put his U.S. Title on the line against Baron Corbin, but a last-minute plea from Tye Dillinger (who’d just beaten Corbin on SmackDown) turned the match into a triple-threat. That was smart, as AJ vs. Corbin was likely to be a so-so match, so Dillinger’s presence was guaranteed to add some technical proficiency. The crowd was fully behind AJ, with Tye still a heavy cult favorite. Corbin caught a lot of heat, mainly relating to losing his Money in the Bank contract. From the start, it was clear that the three work well together, with AJ and Tye double-teaming Corbin before showing some real chemistry working one-on-one with each other. I would love to see them work a match with one another down the line. When he was in the ring, Corbin finally showed some of the dominance he brought with him to the main roster, looking like the bruising heel he is. Apparently he’s back in WWE’s good graces, as he snuck in a win to walk out with the Championship. Even though I hadn’t wanted that finish, I won’t complain, simply because the match itself was such an enjoyable spectacle on the card.
Natalya vs. Charlotte for the SD Women’s Championship should have been one of the better matches of the night. They’re both two of the most solid technicians on the roster (regardless of division), and they have a history that extends beyond their legendary families. That said, this one was turned into a Hart vs. Flair rivalry, with Ric’s recent health issues playing into the angle. They were given a solid amount of time to work, but very little happened in that stretch. Instead, this was a totally one-sided beating, with Natalya targeting Charlotte’s leg in every manner imaginable. This was not good, because even though it was nice heel work from Natty. Charlotte’s selling was top-notch, but her ruthless streak is terribly missed at this point. The whole thing fell apart after a moonsault to the outside left Charlotte in even worse shape and Natty got herself disqualified by attacking her leg with a chair. Not the conclusion this one deserved at all.
It isn’t easy writing about Jinder Mahal vs. Shinsuke Nakamura yet again, and that isn’t even because this match was so similar to all of their other encounters. This isn’t even touching on the fact that WWE scripted Jiner (a Canadian-Indian) to cut racist promos on Shinsuke. The real trouble is in the fact that this match-up is occurring at all, and that one of the unquestionable top wrestlers in the world is losing face to a former enhancement talent for business reasons. Jinder has been champ a long time, and while he hasn’t had any outright bad matches, none of them have been good either. That said, this was his best showing as champion by far, even if that means very little. The positives were seeing how over Shinsuke still is, his taking an early lead in the match, and the Singh Brothers finally getting ejected from the floor. Then the predictable finish came, and Shinsuke lost even more momentum.
Bobby Roode vs. Dolph Ziggler was slotted in the death spot before the main event, but that made sense. They’re both good technicians, but Dolph is clearly on his way out while Roode is just getting started on the main roster. Ziggler’s current position is sad when you think of just how great his feud with the Miz was this time last year. His silent, blacked-out entrance was a nice touch, but the action in the ring fell short of doing the talking this time. It was more competitive than expected, but still nothing special and there wasn’t a lot at stake. It could have been very good if it had been built up, but something just didn’t connect, especially with anticipation for Shane vs. Owens around the corner. For what it’s worth, Dolph laying Roode out after the match was a nice touch.
The star of the show was clearly going to be Shane McMahon vs. Kevin Owens in Hell in a Cell. The build has been the best it could be used given Shane’s non-wrestler status, and it was a nice callback to the authority figure matches of the past. Owens has always been top-tier when it comes to promo ability, and he was able to show why he’s one of the company’s best talkers in the build-up to the match. His verbal attacks on Shane, his wife and children, as well as the McMahons themselves were vicious, the sort of ruthless heel promo work that’s missing from most of WWE’s programming these days. And it would be impossible to go any further without discussing his confrontation with Vince McMahon himself on SmackDown Live.
Having suspended Shane after a confrontation with Owens, Vince decided to take the situation into his own hands. The two exchanged words, and Vince backed up his son’s decisions, mentioning that he was disappointed Shane hadn’t taken care of Owens. Vince himself set the stage for the Hell in a Cell match between the two. After some tricky wording, Owens head butted Vince, drawing very real blood, and proceeded to superkick and frog splash his boss before storming out. It was unreal how well this worked, and a big reason was because of the real backstage history between the two. Owens, despite his amazing abilities in the ring, is not in shape by anyone’s definition. There has been talk for years now that Vince is upset with how he appears, preferring to take a purely superficial view of one of his most talented stars. So to see that kind of heated boss-employee relationship play out subtly onscreen, and come to such an explosive conclusion, was an example of near-perfect booking.
The match itself was very good, and even delivered some surprises, but not without some asterisks. As everyone will point out, Shane is not a wrestler, and throws terrible punches, but is exceptionally good at taking massive leaps of faith from tall structures. So this was always going to be limited in some regards, with Owens no doubt carrying much of the match’s workload. And that was the case, although the two did have some great brawling throughout the contest. On the SmackDown go-home show, Shane made the match falls count anywhere, which ensured his jumping off the cell yet again and possibly taking the win as a result. Also interesting was just how behind Shane the audience really was, which just proves to me that KO is doing everything right as far as generating proper heel heat. One unique angle coming into the match was the sheer number of possible yet logical outcomes. A victory for Owens would make the most sense and would advance his character so much further. But if Shane were to win, it would continue the feud, with the upcoming Survivor Series the perfect environment to settle the matter. Fortunately, the actual outcome was predicted by no one, and worked all the better for it.
The majority of the match was brawling within the cell and power moves hit against the cage or through tables from under the ring. They had a surprising amount of chemistry, and Shane again pulled off flying and submission moves no non-wrestler nearing fifty should be able to do. After an expected table spot, Shane called for the cage to be opened, was turned down, and went under the ring for some very conveniently-placed bolt cutters. The action spilled out onto the ramp, and before long, Owens had laid Shane out on one of the announce tables and climbed the cell. What came next was pretty brilliant for KO’s character. Several times he ran to the edge and teased jumping, and each time he stopped short, looked down and reconsidered. It was the perfect reminder that Owens is not like Shane, a middle-aged stuntman looking to make a statement by putting his body at risk. Owens is a family man, first and foremost, fighting only because it is the best way to support those he loves. To take a leap and put himself at risk would have been wholly at odds with his gimmick, and was a wise move.
Naturally, this gave Shane the chance to ascend the cage, and the succeeding action was some of the most intense the company had presented in some time. Combined, Shane and Owens are a hair under five hundred pounds, and men of less weight have taken hair-raising bumps through the top of the cell before. That didn’t stop them from pulling out all the stops and using a variety of power moves atop the cell. Owens powerbombed Shane and hit him with a senton, while Shane pulled off a suplex on his opponent. The whole thing was nerve-wracking, and I’m amazed nothing went wrong to send them both to the mat. It was brutal stuff, and befitting such an intensely personal feud. After escaping and deciding he’d had enough, Owens made for the edge and started to climb down, another brilliant move that turned the crowd against him again. Shane followed and knocked him off halfway down through the Spanish announce table. He dragged Owens over to the main announce table climbed up to the top of the cell once again, ready to make his long-anticipated leap of faith.
Just as Shane took to the air, a man in a hoodie appeared on the floor and pulled Owens off the table, sending Shane through it alone and putting him totally out. The hooded man turned out to be Sami Zayn, who pulled Kevin over to get the pinfall, making good on the falls count anywhere stipulation. That was about the most shocking thing they could have pulled off, especially since Zayn and Owens had faced off yet again a few weeks back, with Owens destroying his former best friend/lifetime rival. That seemed to have settled their matters once again, but apparently Zayn was awoken by the beating he took, and realized that becoming aligned with Owens was the way to go. Sami was one of the few people I never expected to turn heel, but given the way he’s been treated on TV lately, it sort of makes sense that he would turn his back on the company and his eternally well-wishing fans. This story arc will be interesting to watch play out.
It was a very good show, clearly stolen by the bookending cell matches, but also not bad at any point in-between. There’s a case to be made that the whole concept of a HIAC-centric PPV is unnecessary and the stipulation should be reserved for extreme cases. However, this year’s show really did seem to call for the cell to bring finality to each of the feuds going on, and both matches really did bring some new things to the table to justify their inclusion. Not only that, but the bookending of the show (and limiting it to two matches only) with the cage matches allowed the midcard matches to shine a bit more than they would have scattered about with the cell matches yet to come. Oddly enough, after a considerably shaky start to the year with PPVs, WWE seems to be making a lot of necessary improvements and has been delivering some very solid shows as the year comes to an end.
Kevin Owens is one of the top five performers in WWE at this moment, and as I’ve said plenty of times before, my current favorite wrestler in the company. He’s had a lot of success, holding the NXT championship, and, since his main roster promotion, the Intercontinental, Universal, and United States championships. It seems inevitable that he’ll win the WWE Championship at some point in his career as well. His first PPV match on the main roster was a barnburner against John Cena, which saw Owens get a clean pinfall victory over the company’s golden boy. Even though he lost two rematches (still great encounters), he was one of the few people who seemed not to lose momentum in being sacrificed to Cena. The thing is, Kevin Owens did all of this despite being the near-polar opposite of a top WWE star. That he has prospered so long, and accomplished so much is a testament not only to his abilities, but the great business changes the company has made in the last few years.
Owens (wrestling as Kevin Steen) was a stalwart of the indie wrestling scene, escaping WWE’s notice and toiling away in small arenas for far longer than his friends and colleagues such as Seth Rollins and even Sami Zayn. This was no doubt due to his look and weight, despite the unquestionable talent he has in the ring. Despite being able to pull off back and front flips, perfect superkicks, and move with the agility of someone fifty pounds lighter, the fact that Owens is not toned and in-shape has always stuck in the company’s craw. No one more so than body-builder elitist Vince McMahon, who was recently rumored to want Owens to wrestle in a full suit in order to hide his gut. Despite that, Owens got the last laugh on his boss, with their bloody confrontation being one of the highlights of weekly TV this year. While it’s not entirely related, Owens is also owner of the best TV segment of the year, with his “Festival of Friendship” alongside Chris Jericho standing as one of RAW’s best moments in a long time.
The fact that his non-wrestling segments are just as great as his in-ring work places Owens near the top of the company as far as full-time, allround performers go. There are few people who can work a match as well as a promo just as well, and even fewer still who can match KO’s natural wit. And all of this from a native French speaker who learned English from watching WWE. On top of all that, Owens is one of the few career heels who can generate actual heat, as he did against Shane at HIAC, while also winning over the crowd with his impressive workrate. Everything about him is suited for the top of the cards, and in any other era, his look would have kept him from realizing that potential. Keeping Owens near the top of the card for most of this year has been an incredibly savvy and beneficial move, and the returns have been fantastic for fans and the company alike.