The summer of 1997 was an exciting time to be a fan of professional wrestling. After slogging through the doldrums of 1995 and the rocky road of 1996, loyal fans were finally being rewarded with hot, exciting action each and every Monday night. By the time June rolled around, Raw is War had been fully transformed from a stale, occasionally exciting hour of wrestling to a two-hour car crash that featured twists, turns, anger and middle fingers at every turn. The dominant star that summer was Stone Cold Steve Austin, a manic, hate-filled villain that had become so rebellious and so damn enjoyable that the fans began to rally around him as 1997 dawned. His turn was officially cemented at WrestleMania XIII during a classic war with Bret Hart. The Austin/Hart war took center stage and became the crown jewel of the promotion, dominating TV and PPV time and helping to re-energize sagging business.
While all this was going on, the company ace from 1996 was sitting on the sidelines, brooding and claiming to be suffering from career-threatening injuries. After carrying the WWF throughout 1996 at a breakneck pace, Shawn Michaels had earned a break. For most of that year, he was all the company had to rely on, but by the time December rolled around, the cabinets were stocked with main event level talent and the bookers decided to transition to a wild west feel at the main event level, with a number of top stars duking it out over the title, which had quickly become a hot potato after four years worth of stable title reigns. That process kicked off at Survivor Series, when Shawn Michaels dropped the title to Psycho Sid in front of a rabid New York City crowd that wanted to see him destroyed. After 18 months of playing the white meat babyface, Michaels was looking to add an edge to his character just like everybody else was doing.
At January’s Royal Rumble, Michaels regained his coveted gold from Sid in his hometown and it seemed like a WrestleMania XII rematch against Bret Hart was lining up for the 1997 edition in Chicago. On that same night, Hart was screwed out of a Rumble victory by Austin but 24 hours later it was clear where the storylines were headed and that Hart would likely earn the Mania title match at the February PPV In Your House: Final Four. However, as would be the case often in 1997, just when things looked settled, it meant the mess was just being made. On a special Thursday edition of Raw just days before Final Four, Shawn Michaels shockingly limped to the ring and tearfully handed the title over to Vince McMahon, claiming a severe knee injury was forcing him out of the ring, possibly for good. While fans inside the Lowell Memorial Auditorium were welling up with tears, many others watching on TV were rolling their eyes. The rumor on the street was that Michaels had balked about returning a WrestleMania job to Hart and thus had fabricated the injury in order to lose the title without jobbing to his heated rival. Hart would hastily win the vacated title at the PPV before dropping it to Sid the next night. At Mania, Sid would quickly lose the title yet again, this time to the Undertaker.
When the Undertaker wrestled the strap away from Sid in Chicago, it was his first World Championship since late 1991, a reign that lasted a mere handful of days. Since then, Taker had turned face and been embroiled in feud after feud with monsters, giants and oddballs like Kamala, Giant Gonzalez, Yokozuna, an Undertaker doppelgänger, and King Mabel. By 1996, Taker was craving a return to the top of the card and the title picture as a whole. After a run-in by Diesel cost him a title victory over Bret Hart, the two big men would battle through the spring. On the night after WrestleMania, a new madman arrived on the scene and immediately targeted the Deadman. While Undertaker’s feud with Mankind, and off ramp battles with Goldust, reinvigorated his career and led to some fantastic matches, it still took him out of the title picture. When 1997 began, Taker made it clear that he wanted back in. After Final Four, Taker was named the number one contender to Sid’s title, and this time he made good and left Chicago as World Champion.
Barely four weeks after his tearful resignation as champion, Michaels was back in TV and walking around the ringside area with no visible signs of serious injury or pain. He would return to action in May, joining forces with Steve Austin to defeat British Bulldog & Owen Hart to win the tag team titles. While Shawn was once again looking great in the ring, things were at a fever pitch backstage where he and Bret Hart were constantly at eachother’s throats. The two had always been friendly since their early days in the company, but as they rose up the ladder and were consistently positioned against each other, things crumbled between them. Everything came to a head on June 9, when the two got into a brawl backstage at a Raw taping. Michaels would storm off and head home, vowing to not return as long as Hart was still employed by the company. Hart remained active on TV, the tag titles were vacated and the machine chugged along as the Austin vs. Hart war was molten hot.
In mid July, word began to spread that Michaels had signed a brand new fat five-year contract and was ready to return to TV, with the caveat that he would be kept away from Hart in a wrestling capacity. The two did share ring space at SummerSlam, when Michaels was the guest referee as Hart ended Undertaker’s five month title reign after an errant Michaels chairshot plunked the wrong man. Taker was not happy with the error and he immediately set his sights on gaining revenge on the Heartbreak Kid.
It was an intriguing feud that had now launched, as these two WWF main event stalwarts had been coexisting since late 1990 and had never crossed paths at all. It was completely fresh and both men seemed energized by the prospects. Over the coming weeks, Michaels started mouthing off, showing some edge and just acting like the dickhead that fans assumed he was in real life. On the 8/18 Raw, Michaels teamed with Hunter Hearst Helmsley to battle Undertaker and Mankind in a tag match, setting up the first time the two legends would square off in a televised match. As the show was winding down, Michaels pasted Taker with a pair of nasty chairshots, ripping Taker’s face open and really cranking up the heat. They would battle at the September PPV, Ground Zero, capping off a wild, intense brawl with a locker-room-emptying melee that led to a no contest. This feud was far from over. The next night on Raw, it was revealed that the two men would officially settle this feud inside a steel cage at the October PPV offering, Bad Blood. However, this wouldn’t be just any ordinary cage: it would be a cell that circled the entire ringside area and would also be enclosed with a mesh roof. This new structure would be dubbed Hell in a Cell. And I decided I would be ordering the PPV the moment the gimmick was announced.
Steel cage matches have been around for over 80 years, as many wrestling historians believe the very first iteration occurred on June 25, 1937 in Atlanta, where the ring was surrounded by chicken wire. Over the years, the structure would change, but the concept always remained the same: keep everybody out except the two (or sometimes four) men that were to be locked up and fight to a finish. The chicken coop style remained in some smaller territories but the larger companies such as the NWA and WWF would begin to utilize a mesh chain based surrounding, which allow for flexibility and effect. As the WWF began to grow in the 1980s and their TV presentation became tantamount, the company switched to their infamous “blue bar” cage which allowed for up close camera shots to bring the viewers at home inside the action. However, there were some issues with this setup, as the bars were not wrestler friendly and due to the large, non malleable pieces, it was not easy to transport. With the development of Hell in a Cell, WWF also decided to eventually return to the mesh setup for all of its cages in 1999, a decision that stands to this day. While the HIAC structure was fresh for WWF fans, it was not a totally unique concept. The NWA (and eventually WCW) had been using an enclosed cage for years for their annual War Games gimmick match. Also, in the early 90s, they used a cage that enclosed the full ringside area as well, entitled Thundercage. An even wilder version of the enclosed cage was used back in the late 80s by World Class Championship Wrestling, but their version including two smaller cages stacked on top and was entitled the Triple Dome of Terror. As October 5, 1997 drew near, though, only one thing mattered: for the first time in WWF history, two men would wage war inside Hell in a Cell.
As if the stakes weren’t already high enough, newly appointed Commissioner Sgt. Slaughter decreed that the winner of the HIAC match would earn a WWF Championship match with Bret Hart at Survivor Series. Hart was still the champion but had been shunted to the background as the Taker/Michaels feud had fully captivated WWF fans. Unfortunately for the promotion, the show started off on a very somber note as Vince McMahon appeared on-screen during the preview show to inform the wrestling world that contracted performer Brian Pillman had been found dead in his hotel room earlier that day. That pall lingered over the show, which delivered a very shaky undercard and no standout matches. However, nothing else mattered when that cage began to descend from the heavens and Shawn Michaels marched defiantly to the ring. Undertaker would follow him out and the arena was buzzing with anticipation as to what was to come.
The match was a bloodbath as Undertaker mercilessly battered Michaels all around the ringside area, never once letting him stop for a breath. At one point, a cameraman inside the cage was wiped out, leading to medics and officials opening the door to attend to him. That decision allowed Michaels his chance to escape, which he did. As Shawn scampered up the side of the cage, looking for a place to hide, the fans in the arena and at home began to wonder how the hell he would get back down. The picture became more clear as the Deadman scaled the steel behind him and met him on the roof. As Michaels bounced around the top of the structure like a pinball, Taker continued to stalk him, cracking him with strikes until he was knocked to the edge of the cage. The Heartbreak Kid did his best to avoid Taker, but as he tried to make a break for it, he was knocked from the side of the cage and down through the commentary table below. It was an amazing spot that lives on til this day. Taker would drag Michaels back into the ring, where he wrecked him with a mammoth chairshot across the skull, a stiff receipt from the August 18 assault. Before Taker could cover, the lights in the arena went out and his estranged brother Kane made his WWF debut. Led to the ring by Paul Bearer, Kane ripped the door off the hinges and dropped his stunned brother with a Tombstone. A bloodied, battered Michaels draped his arm over the chest of the Deadman and somehow, improbably stole the match.
The legacy of Hell in a Cell would continue to grow, eventually developing past just a gimmick to end a bloody feud as it would eventually evolve into a yearly event on the PPV calender. There have been some great HIAC outings and there have been some really bad ones, but it will be hard for any two competitors to truly match the buzz, emotion, build and legacy that the first one provided. On that night in St. Louis, the Devil’s Playground was born and two all time legends of the business left it all in the ring, ensuring that this new gimmick would not only live on, but would also be tied into their personal legacies forever.
Be sure to check out Justin’s Hell in a Cell 2013 preview and also join us on Sunday night as Brad Woodling & Scott Criscuolo live blog the show!