The WWE Hell in a Cell structure is one of the most famous gimmick matches in WWE history. This Sunday night in Detroit, WWE will hold the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view featuring the Smackdown Live brand with two Hell in a Cell matches. While I will have a preview column about that lineup later this week, today’s column is a look back at the first WWE Hell in a Cell match that took place nearly 20 years ago today.
The match I am talking about was a huge one, set up to put an end to one of WWE’s greatest rivalries in 1997 between fan favorite The Undertaker and the villainous Shawn Michaels, who had just started the Degeneration X group with Triple H and Chyna.
A year ago here on The Comeback, I ranked the 15 best WWE Hell in a Cell matches ever and what topped that list? Michaels vs. The Undertaker. While I wrote a few paragraphs about it there, I really didn’t go in-depth with it, so that’s what I’m going to do today.
This is a match I’ve seen dozens of times in my life. I remember seeing it live because my family had an illegal cable box back in those days and then I bought the VHS copy of it as well. This match, along with Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13 (also in 1997), are probably the two wrestling matches I’ve seen more than any others in my life.
Let’s take a look back at the first Hell in a Cell match in WWE history and the one that may never be topped.
Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker at In Your House: Badd Blood – October 5, 1997
This match was set up because of an event that happened two months earlier at SummerSlam 1997. Michaels, who was basically a tweener at the time, was the referee in a match that saw the babyface Undertaker defending the WWE Championship against the anti-American heel Bret Hart.
Shawn had issues with Bret at the time, some would say REAL issues (they had a legitimate fight backstage earlier that summer), so the stipulation for this match stated that if Shawn was impartial towards Bret then he could never wrestle in the United States again. Also, if Bret lost then that meant he couldn’t wrestle in the United States again.
At the end of the match, Bret spit on Shawn, which led to Shawn swinging a steel chair at Bret (it was brought into the match earlier), but Bret ducked and the chair nailed Undertaker right in the head. One of the most vicious chairshots ever. Bret covered and Shawn counted the pin because he was forced to as the referee, which meant Bret left with the WWE Title while Shawn had to deal with an angry Undertaker.
At the September PPV called “In Your House: Ground Zero,” Shawn met Taker for the first time. Leading up to that match is when Degeneration X officially started as well. It’s a pretty good brawl, but the match ends when Undertaker attacked a referee because he was frustrated with Michaels, who was fully a heel by this point. The match was officially ruled a No Contest.
The next night on Raw, Vince McMahon (still in his announcer’s role) announced that Michaels would wrestle The Undertaker in a Hell in a Cell match at “In Your House: Badd Blood.” The winner of the Hell in a Cell match would go on to face the WWE Champion at Survivor Series. Keep in mind also that we had never seen a Hell in a Cell match before, so it was a new concept to have a cage with a roof on it. While NWA/WCW did it in Wargames matches, that was with two rings and this was one ring.
On the Raw prior to Badd Blood, The Undertaker wrestled Triple H and was put in a body bag by DX (Michaels, HHH, Chyna and Rick Rude). As DX celebrated, Taker sat up, got out of the body bag and beat up Triple H. Shawn ran away to emphasize the fact that Taker was tough to keep down and Shawn was a coward who was scared of him. Inside Hell in a Cell, there was nowhere to run… at least in theory.
Another key part of the feud was Undertaker’s former manager, Paul Bearer, promising that Undertaker’s brother Kane (who was burned in a house fire) would arrive and the Undertaker’s life would never be the same. At the time, it was not universally known when Kane would appear or what he would look like. However, his music and a red light appeared in the weeks prior to this event to scare The Undertaker while teasing the audience with his eventual debut.
It should also be noted that Brian Pillman passed away in his hotel room in Bloomington, Minnesota and the talent only found out the day of Badd Blood. Pillman had no role in this match, but there’s no question his death affected the locker room because he was popular with a lot of the guys. Pillman was one of those guys who could get over as face or heel, cut a killer promo and then deliver a solid match. Sadly, he turned to alcohol and drugs and he died at 35 years of age.
THE DETAILS OF THE MATCH
We are in St. Louis, Missouri (and the announcers are Vince McMahon, Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler. In an interesting bit of trivia, this was the last pay-per-view where Vince McMahon was on commentary because everything changed the next month at Survivor Series 1997.
Video recap highlights the feud going back to Shawn’s chairshot at SummerSlam. They show when Taker sat up in the body bag while Shawn runs away. They show some close-ups of the cell as JR explains that the only way a match can be won is by pinfall or submission. There is also no way either man will be able to get outside of the cage, so the feeling is that Shawn will get his ass kicked.
Shawn delivers a very cocky speech backstage where he sarcastically makes fun of his “coveted” European title and delivers a very nice line: “Ain’t nobody crazy enough to do this gig ‘cept for the Heartbreak Kid.” Of course, the Bossman did the gig two years later and totally ruined the greatness that the HIAC match provided, but I digress. For those that do not know, the cage is 15 feet high and covers the entire ring leaving about five feet in between the ring apron and the cage itself.
“Sexy Boy” plays and Shawn is HATED by the crowd. Shawn had the European Championship with him, but it was not on the line in the match. Undertaker gets a big pop for his entrance.
Shawn is scared, so he runs outside the ring. Taker stalks him back inside where he nails Shawn with a boot to the head that Shawn oversells. Taker tosses him into the turnbuckle three times and goes for a chokeslam, but Shawn fights back with some stiff punches. Taker whips him into the corner, Shawn flips upside down and bounces off so he can be drilled by a clothesline that gets a two for Taker. Taker works on Shawn’s shoulder and proceeds to deliver his patented top rope clothesline on the shoulder he just worked on. He follows with a slam and a legdrop and that gets two. Taker whips Shawn into the buckle and tosses him over the top to the floor via a back body drop. Shawn hits the ground hard and hits his feet on the side of the cage on the way down.
Taker joins him outside as a small “make him bleed” chant starts. (I told you Shawn was hated.) He picks up Shawn and holds him up against the cage, Shawn begins to climb up, but Taker pulls him down again. JR mentions that there’s probably some idiot saying Shawn knows how to fall hard like that. Taker whips him into the cage, Shawn bounces off and is decked with a clothesline for another hard bump. Taker’s offense is described as a “physical dissection” by the announcers. He goes for a powerbomb, but Shawn fights it, so Taker decides to just ram his back into the cage twice as Shawn crumbles to the ground again.
Then Taker whips him into the ring post and punches him several times in the ribs, which sort of looks like a boxer hitting a bag in the gym. He picks Shawn up and tosses him around like a rag doll into the ringpost, cell, ringpost again and finally the cell once more. Taker lifts Shawn up again, but HBK tosses Taker into the cell, which leads to Shawn laying flat on his ass due to another clothesline because Undertaker was dominant. Shawn’s thrown into the steps, Taker sends him to the cage, but Shawn bounces off, ducking a clothesline and hammers Taker with several punches. As Shawn tries getting Taker inside the ring, he is met by a stunner over the top rope which Michaels sells as if he were shot out of a cannon. Taker is standing on the apron, Shawn gets up and shoves him into the cage, finally giving Michaels control of the match.
Shawn flies through the middle ropes with a plancha, ramming Taker’s head into the cell. Shawn climbs up the cage and drops an elbow in a very cool spot. He follows that up with a clothesline off the apron. Shawn goes for a piledriver on the steps, but can’t get him up and almost botches the move. Michaels recovers to deliver a VICIOUS piledriver on the ring steps. As Shawn makes his way up, he accidentally hits a cameraman yelling “get the f**k away from me!” This cameraman is stubborn and gets too close again forcing Shawn to say “get this s**t away from me!” Shawn climbs in the ring and delivers a double axehandle off the top to the floor as they finally get into the ring.
He punches Taker again and slides out looking for a chair, which he finds under the ring. The crowd pops huge as Vince yells out “OH NO!” because of their history with the chair. Shawn drills Taker twice in the back with a chair and only gets two. That pisses Shawn off and causes JR to wonder what Michaels will need to do in order to get a victory. Shawn puts him in the corner, but Taker fights back (pops from the crowd). Michaels kicks him and ties him in the ropes. Shawn runs at him and is met with a boot followed by an Undertaker back body drop over the top rope landing on a cameraman who just happened to be filming there. (It’s a brilliant move that I will explain later). Shawn is angry, so he punches and kicks the camera guy as the announcers overreact saying the camera guy has a family. They say that he’s just a young camera man and he’s not here to take a beating. Shawn shoves the camera guy conveniently in front of the door so some EMTs could help the poor man out.
In the ring, Shawn nails Taker with the flying forearm, an elbow off the top (JR says nobody does it better. Randy Savage who?). As they open the door, allowing EMTs into the cage, Shawn drills Taker with the Superkick, but Taker sits up and Shawn practically shits his pants at least based on his facial expression. Great facial expressions there. Shawn runs out of the ring and out the door just as Hebner was trying to shut it. (Huge part of the match that only adds to the greatness of it.)
The excitement builds as they are outside of the cell causing everyone, from the announcers to the fans, to go absolutely nuts. Of course, the thought of fans watching is “I hope somebody falls off the top of the cell” because everybody enjoys seeing others in pain. Wrestling fans are sick! Shawn was in control with a dropkick sending Taker into the cell but he gets greedy, goes for it again and Taker stops him there. At this point, pause the match and watch as Michaels brings out a razor and cuts his forehead open (in mid-move, by the way) delivering one of the greatest blade jobs ever. Taker slingshots HBK into the cell, punches him stiffly on the open wound and rams him face-first into the cell. JR describes Shawn as a “human javelin,” while Michaels was a bloody mess.
Shawn hits a low blow and climbs to the top of the cage because that’s the only place he can go to get away from The Undertaker. As Shawn climbs, Taker follows right behind him as the crowd’s response gets louder with each step the men take. Taker hits Michaels with a back body drop ON THE CELL (big pop), which he follows up with the old fashioned “grind the man’s face into the cage” causing even more of Shawn’s blood to leave his forehead. He follows with a Gorilla Press Slam on the cell causing an even larger pop from the crowd. A punch sends Shawn flying about five feet, so Shawn is hanging off the side of the cage right above the Spanish announce table. Taker steps on his fingers and Shawn goes through the table back first in a HUGE bump that was about eight feet high.
Even if you have not seen the match I am sure you have seen the replay because WWE showed it 741 times in the months that followed. The crowd is as loud as they could possibly be as JR uses the now famous “He’s broken in half!” line. (This was the biggest bump in WWE history at this point. Once again, something I’ll get into more later.)
Taker hip-tosses Michaels onto the broken table as Shawn’s blood is everywhere. His whole face is covered in blood as JR proclaims that he has never seen anything like this in his life. Taker drags Shawn to the inside and they come back into the ring as the cage is locked for the second time. The crowd is hot as Taker delivers a chokeslam off the top rope in a move that I still think is very cool even today. Shawn is helpless now as Taker brings in a chair (another big pop) and absolutely demolishes Shawn’s brains with a vicious chair shot to the head. That was his revenge for the shot he took two months ago at SummerSlam. That’s called storyline continuity and they call it a “receipt” in the business too.
(The GIF is good, but if you watch the match you can hear how loud it was and the crowd popped huge for it.)
Taker signals for the end to the delight of the crowd, but the lights go out, the organ plays, the building is engulfed in red and there’s a familiar person. THROUGH HELLFIRE AND BRIMSTONE IT’S PAUL BEARER! OH MY GOD!! I mean, it’s Kane! Vince had a famous line here: “THAT’S GOTTA BE KANE!” Kane rips the door off its hinges (almost), tosses Hebner into the cage and stares the Undertaker down. Kane sets the ringposts on fire, Taker looks away (dumb move) and is met with a kick to the gut and a tombstone from the big red machine. Bearer throws water on the ref, so that he can count the pinfall. Shawn crawls on top of Taker out of a pile of his own blood and gets the 1…2…3, thus giving him the WWE Title match at Survivor Series. The match went 30 minutes exactly.
The show ends with DX carrying Shawn out of the ring while we are left to wonder what’s next for The Undertaker and his debuting “brother” Kane.
FIVE REASONS WHY IT’S A SPECIAL MATCH
There are a lot of reasons to explain why this match was so special. I’ll go with five reasons here.
1. The story going into the match was great
Whenever there’s a big match like this, the story is important. If you were a fan of The Undertaker as arguably the biggest face in the company at that point (Steve Austin was still on the rise), then you went into this match wanting to see him get revenge against Shawn Michaels, who cost him the WWE Title with an errant chair shot at SummerSlam. Michaels didn’t show much remorse for it either as he went from being a good guy wrestler to a conceited jerk that celebrated what he did to The Undertaker.
The match at Ground Zero one month earlier was a chaotic brawl that saw the locker room empty out to try to keep these guys apart while Shawn kept running away to break free. That’s why the Hell in a Cell structure was needed because the perception was that there was no way for either man to escape the cell. That means the people who wanted to see Undertaker get revenge would have to pay for Badd Blood to finally see it.
There was also the Kane factor. We knew he was going to show up at some point, but we didn’t know when that might be. It added another layer to the story.
This was good (Undertaker) vs. evil (Shawn) and good was finally going to get his chance for revenge after two months. It’s easy to relate to a story like that.
2. Using the cameraman “injury” to allow Shawn to escape the cage
This was brilliant storytelling. I don’t know if I appreciated it as a 17-year-old when I first watched the match, but looking back on it, I think this is one of the smartest things you could do in a match like this. They timed it perfectly too. The Undertaker gave Shawn a back body drop that sent him onto the camera guy outside the ring. Shawn was mad about it, so he kicked at the guy. Back in the ring, Shawn managed to hit the Superkick, Undertaker no sold it and Shawn freaked out, so it led to him leaving the cage that was only opened because of the camera guy getting hurt.
In the years that followed, we have seen other where wrestlers got out of Hell in a Cell. Mick Foley climbed up the cell before the match began. When The Undertaker faced Edge at SummerSlam 2008, they did a spot where there was a spear that broke the side of the cell open. Both of those are fine ideas, but I think the injured cameraman spot was the smartest of them all.
By the way, the cameraman was likely just an indie wrestler who knew how to take bumps and sell for Shawn in that situation.
3. The bloody beating that Michaels took and Undertaker’s chair revenge
This is two parts in one because it really covers the ass-kicking that The Undertaker delivered. Shawn bled in the match and it’s one of the biggest blade jobs I have ever seen. Shawn’s face was covered in blood and when he made the final cover for the win, you could see a literal pool of blood in the ring.
The reason blood is useful in wrestling matches is because it’s a visual aid to show pain. If it’s a heel bleeding, like Michaels, then fans are going to be happy about it because he’s a jerk who deserves to be in pain. When it’s a face bleeding in a match, fans feel sympathetic because he’s trying to fight back after losing a lot of blood. Blood has been banned from WWE since 2008 when they went PG, but there have been instances in the last few years where they still use it in some Brock Lesnar matches and Vince McMahon bled when attacked by Kevin Owens a few weeks ago.
Later in the match, The Undertaker was destroying Michaels and got a huge reaction when he nailed Michaels in the head with a stiff chair shot. It was payback for Michaels hitting him with the chair at SummerSlam and also on Raw a few weeks after that. The fans knew all about it, which is why it drew such a big ovation when Undertaker hit him in the head.
Check out the clip above of The Undertaker talking about how this match with Shawn Michaels was one of his favorites because of the story. This clip was probably in the early to mid-2000s, but you can tell you really loved being a part of this event.
4. Shawn Michaels going off the cell through the announce table
If you were watching WWE live in 1997 like me, then you would probably agree with me that Shawn Michaels getting knocked off the side of the cell and crashing through the announce table was the most impressive bump in the history of WWE at the time. I can remember Bret Hart going through the announce table after getting shoved off the apron at Survivor Series 1995. There was also Shawn Michaels taking a Diesel Powerbomb through the announce table at the April 1996 “Good Friends, Better Enemies” PPV. However, this one took things to another level.
Once again, the story of the match was Shawn trying to get away. First, he left the ring to get away. Then when outside the cell, he climbed up to get away. Undertaker followed, so when Shawn tried to get down on the other side of the cell, Undertaker stomped on his hands and Shawn fell about 10 feet onto the announce table below. The announcers were screaming, the fans were shocked and I guarantee you people at home were chanting “holy s**t” for it as well.
In early 1998, after Michaels beat The Undertaker at Royal Rumble, thanks to Kane interfering again, Michaels suffered a serious back injury. It led to Michaels retiring after WrestleMania 14 in March 1998. Thankfully, Michaels managed to come back four years later and wrestled another eight years after having major back surgery. Did bumps like this help contribute to that back injury? Most likely.
At King of the Ring 1998, Mankind climbed the cell at the start of the match and the Undertaker threw him off in a move that sent Mankind through the announce table. Later in the match, Undertaker gave Mankind a Chokeslam on the cell that broke the cell and sent Mankind crashing into the ring.
They are two of the worst bumps in wrestling history because Mankind (Mick Foley) felt like he had to top Michaels and as Michaels said in that clip above, he definitely “won” for doing the craziest bump. However, at the time of Shawn’s bump, this was the craziest bump I had seen in WWE.
5. The debut of Kane was unforgettable
I have already called this match the best Hell in a Cell match in WWE history and part of the reason for that is because of how Kane made his presence felt. Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen Kane wrestle hundreds of matches, but this was our first time seeing him after months of hearing about him. Kane showed up wearing black and red with a mask. What stood out the most was how big he was, nearly as big as The Undertaker.
Kane got in The Undertaker’s face and it shocked him while Michaels was out on the other side of the ring after taking that brutal chair shot to the head. Kane set the ring posts on fire, which we had never seen somebody do before, that stunned Undertaker and Kane hit Undertaker with a Tombstone. It was so shocking to see something like that.
Did Kane’s appearance hurt the match quality? I don’t think so. It helped add to the story of Michaels escaping the match as the victor even though he only won because of Kane. It was one of the cheapest heel wins I’ve ever seen. It was brilliant too because it fit Michaels character as a cheap heel, Kane was presented like a huge star right away and it set Undertaker on a path of revenge for the next six months leading to a WrestleMania 14 showdown against Kane.
When I review matches on my website TJRWrestling (cheap plug) I use a five-star rating system with five stars being the highest it can go for a “perfect” match. This is a five-star match to me. No question about it. Everything was there to make it feel like a perfect wrestling match from the story involving the two men leading up to the it, their actions in the match and the finish was memorable.
While the Mankind/Taker HIAC match may have been more memorable, thanks to the two crazy bumps by Mankind, there wasn’t much of a story going into that match and the quality was just average. This is clearly the better match.
Enough time has passed that most fans won’t say this is their best match and I agree. Their match at WrestleMania 25 was the best match in WWE history while Michaels’ last match ever against Undertaker one year later at WrestleMania 26 was also outstanding. Those were different kinds of matches than this with both guys in face roles. At Badd Blood 20 years ago, it was a history-making blood feud that delivered in every way possible.
If you’ve got some time this week, take 30 minutes to re-watch Michaels vs. Undertaker in the first Hell in a Cell match because it’s a true classic that deserves all the praise I have given it today.