Exploring the Three Stages of Hell

Stone Cold Steve Austin and Triple H in the first Three Stages of Hell match

When John Cena and Ryback clash at WWE Payback, they’ll compete in a match that only four other wrestlers can say they’ve survived.  In a professional wrestling landscape that is littered with gimmick pay-per-views and match stipulations, it’s hard to believe a Three Stages of Hell encounter has only been done three times previously in a WWF/WWE ring.  At its core, the Three Stages of Hell match is a two out-of-three falls contest.  These “best out of three” matches have been around forever and were typically used in the past when a championship was on the line.  With the many match-types in wrestling, a dressed-up two out-of-three falls contest is a great vehicle to settle a feud and give fans an exciting main event.  Are John Cena and Ryback ready for this type of potential legacy-making match?  Let’s first take a look back through the previous Three Stages of Hell encounters to set the stage for what is at stake Sunday night.

Triple H vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin

No Way Out 2001
First fall – Regular Match
Second fall – Street Fight
Third fall – Cage Match

You won’t find many feuds that built to a boiling point like this one.  Four months had passed since Triple H claimed responsibility for being the mastermind that put Austin out back in 1999.  After a brawl at Survivor Series 2000 and a continued presence in interfering with each other’s title matches in the months to follow (not to mention Austin dropping HHH 20 stories in a car), the culmination of their lengthy feud was to be settled in Three Stages of Hell.  The drama in the ending of this saga was only heightened by a contact restriction leading up to the match.  Both men were frustrated by the pseudo leash they were on until the bell rang at No Way Out.  The crowd sensed this; a palpable buzz built up during the entrances, with the crowd losing their shit when the two finally locked up.  The layout of the falls was perfectly booked and the match seamless in its storytelling.  The first fall saw both men working a body part, setting the stage with an easy selling blueprint for the match.  The heat for even these segments is off the charts.  The crowd goes nuts for a figure-four reversal spot and it’s only the first fall.  After catching HHH with a Stunner as he was coming off the top rope, Austin picks up the pin and the match moves right into the Street Fight portion with Austin firmly in control.  Chairs are thrown in the ring and both guys brawl through the crowd.  There are two nods to continuity that are endearing here.  First Stone Cold finds a barbed-wire bat by the announce table, a callback to past HHH grudge matches and the assumption that, even though he was out of action at the time, Austin clearly watched the Royal Rumble in 2000 (scouting!).  HHH then keeps up the selling from the arm work Austin did earlier and is unable to unleash a Pedigree on said announce table, leading to a vicious backdrop through the Spanish table.  HHH sells like a champ for this entire segment until he goes back to where he presumably hid the barbed-wire bat and finds his sledgehammer.  A sledge-shot and Pedigree tie things up and the cage ominously lowers (complete with its own entrance music) for the final fall.  Both men are bloodied and beaten, giving an added emphasis to each shot they take.  The fight is so well done, you forget it’s a cage match with escape rules until HHH makes the lone attempt to climb out.  This all builds to a crescendo when HHH hits a Pedigree and Austin kicks out.  One of the better false finishes you’ll see, the under-use of finishers during the previous parts of the match made both this spot, and when HHH kicks out of the Stunner shortly after, really effective.  Both men hit each other with weapons at the same time, with HHH falling on top of Austin to win the match.

HBK drops the elbow as Ric Flair looks on

Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels

Armageddon 2002
First fall – Street Fight
Second fall – Cage Match
Third fall – Ladder Match

One of the best comeback stories ever is the back-story behind the second Three Stages of Hell match.  After winning his comeback match against HHH at SummerSlam, HBK was taken out post-match by HHH and was off TV until he was a surprise entrant in the first Elimination Chamber match at Survivor Series 2002.  Both men battled each other as the final pair in this World Heavyweight Championship duel, with Shawn Michaels (w/ worst haircut ever) coming out on top.  This didn’t sit well with the perennially-crowned Triple H and given both men’s history, a Three Stages of Hell match to settle their score (and decide the Championship) made a lot of sense.  With their previous SummerSlam match also a Street Fight, there is some logic to skipping the regular match here.  The first fall is split evenly between in-ring action featuring HHH working HBK’s knee and outside fighting that saw trash cans and chairs regularly used.  This fall is very long, which impacts the narrative they could tell in the later sections of the match (especially given Shawn’s history in ladder matches).  As things dragged, the crowd (and viewer) awakes when HHH thinks better of using a gigantic barbed-wire bat, instead opting to light it on fire.  So that was different and it resulted in Shawn using the flaming bat on HHH in a spot the match desperately needed.  HHH wouldn’t be down for long as he continued his work on HBK’s knee, hit the Pedigree and made the pin.  The cage portion sees Ric Flair come back out to the ring after being thrown out by the ref before the match even started (This, of course, made zero sense since the first fall was a Street Fight.  What stopped Ric from coming down earlier?  It was no DQ!).  Ric plays an important part here.  First he constructs four tables (two sitting on top of the other two) outside the ring so HHH can presumably throw Shawn Michaels off the cage and win the match.  This begs the question – is there some sort of general etiquette in blood feuds where a guy wouldn’t want to just throw his hated opponent to the hard concrete below?  Back in the cage, Flair gets involved, forcing HBK to fight off both men heroically.  He does so, even though HHH could have exited as he is literally right by the opened cage door as Flair takes a Superkick.  This is why triple-threat cage matches are a big exercise in suspending your disbelief.  HBK climbs and hits a big splash on HHH through a table to knot things up at one fall a-piece.  Things are pretty telegraphed here and the last fall is very short, with very little use of the ladder.  HBK climbs and looks like he’s going to retain until HHH dumps the ladder and Shawn dramatically crashes through the four tables outside giving HHH the belt.

Legacy fights off HHH at The Bash 2009

Triple H vs. Randy Orton

The Bash 2009
First Fall – Regular Match
Second fall – Falls Count Anywhere
Third fall – Stretcher Match

The Orton vs. McMahon story of 2009 comes to an end here, but the match itself is thrown together ridiculously late and feels disjointed as a result.  The go-home Raw before the pay-per-view had two gigantic developments.  First, Vince McMahon, who had just bought back his company back from Donald Trump, hastily declared a Three Stages of Hell match for that upcoming Sunday.  Later that same go-home Raw, Orton and HHH had a Last Man Standing match, which predictably went to a double knockout.  To give both Vince and HHH some credit, we did get a lot of gruff-voiced “You’re going to hell, Randy” lines which were played ad nauseam in previews for the match.  Orton deserved this match in a way too, as he had punted HHH at Backlash, knocking him out for a couple months.  Things may have been a little rushed also because of Batista’s arm injury (Batista had actually won the title at Extreme Rules and was then stripped, with Orton regaining it).  This could have been forgiven with a good match but the ominous lead-up was foreshadowing for some pretty horrendous booking.  Six minutes into the match, HHH decides he’s had enough so he grabs a chair and cracks Orton in the head, drawing a DQ and losing a fall.  Of course the next fall is Falls Count Anywhere so HHH continues the assault with the chair and quickly picks up the second fall with a Pedigree and we go right to the finish.  Here’s the deal though.  If this were the real sports world, with the assumption of some decent compensation going to the winner, than this type of match strategy makes sense.  Use the DQ to knock out your opponent, beat him up some more, pin him and then put him on the stretcher and go home.  But in a world where I pay $50 for the HD feed of a pay-per-view and choose to suspend disbelief for three hours, this kind of strategy and booking is the worst.  So eight minutes into the match, two falls are down and we start the terrifying grind of a stretcher match.  And this is the meat of this entire endeavor.  They brawl around the ring, use the stretcher as a weapon and pretty much have a no DQ match where you have to wheel your opponent (and 100% of the stretcher – its like the opposite of a NFL touchdown) across an imaginary line.  Honestly, the Three Stages of Hell tag is here to pretty much get a couple more buys and that’s it.  They should have just had a Stretcher match and been done with it.  As far as Stretcher matches go, this one was perfectly acceptable but the rushed lead-up and quick two falls make this a very forgettable entry in the Three Stages of Hell mythology.

John Cena and Ryback share a table moment in the lead-up to their match at Payback

This brings us back to John Cena vs. Ryback in the fourth-ever Three Stages of Hell match.  Their feud was kick-started after WrestleMania, presumably because The Rock wasn’t able to compete and extend his story with Cena.  Given the crux of the Extreme Rules show, Ryback and John Cena needed a stipulation.  Playing off Cena’s real-life achilles injury, they made the match a Last Man Standing match and it predictably went to a double knockout so their feud could be continued.  Ryback immediately came out the following Raw and demanded an Ambulance match, playing off the fact that Cena had to be carted off after their last encounter.  This made perfect sense and while Ryback struggles in verbal sparring with others (and Cena especially in this lead-up), this short declaration was solid, concise and actually logical.  If it wasn’t bad enough that their feud had to start with a Last Man Standing match (typically used to blow off a feud, although the WWE has abused this perception with how often they’ve ran this type of match recently), John Cena decided an Ambulance match wasn’t enough and that this feud had suddenly become so personal that it needed to be a Three Stages of Hell match.  In particular, a Lumberjack match, a Tables match and since he takes others’ opinions into consideration, Ryback’s Ambulance match.   The problem is, in looking at the feuds that previously used this Three Stages of Hell storytelling, John Cena vs. Ryback is hardly believable at all.  This isn’t in the same universe when it comes to the build up of HHH/Austin, HHH/HBK or HHH/Orton.  Cena wasn’t out for weeks after the ending at Extreme Rules, they showed him walk away on the pay-per-view postshow!  To their credit, they have done a good job building around the stipulations in the match.  Ryback has used tables in all his recent bouts, gladly taking a DQ loss in order to get over his ferocity and appetite for destruction.  The ambulance was a storytelling device earlier in the build, distracting John Cena so badly he took count-out losses, and giving viewers the paralyzing fear that Scott Steiner was returning whenever the sirens sounded.  The lumberjacks (a stipulation used because of Ryback’s penchant for walking out on matches) made their presence felt on the go-home Raw, separating the two men while they verbally spat at each other, before there was a very weak pull-apart brawl to close things out.

What will happen on Sunday?  Ryback and John Cena seem set to finish their two-month feud and I do not see the title changing hands.  There are a lot of ways to cover for guys limitations and keep both men strong here.  Will either guy take a pin as the first fall?  I could see Ryback tapping out, with the trope being that he didn’t want to risk further damage by being in the hold.  A DQ would be terrible but not unprecedented unfortunately.  The nature of a tables match makes a fluke fall very conceivable, although it would be nice to see Ryback cleanly put Cena through one (I do think Ryback takes this fall) to play off his strength and put some drama into the ending.  Given that Ryback introduced the ambulance aspect, it seems fair to think Cena will foil Ryback’s plan and win the match.  While both men have tried to shoehorn their history with each other into a feud worthy of the Three Stages of Hell, the narrative still feels like it is being forced on the audience and is not something natural like we saw in the previous feuds settled in this manner. Will we look back over time and see this as a career-making match for Ryback or just another footnote in a John Cena title run?  We’ll find out on Sunday.


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