Hell in a Cell. There was a time when those four words would send chills down a wrestler’s spine. It was considered the ultimate punishment in WWE. To be condemned into a cell with someone that wants to destroy you with no way of escaping. It was only brought out on the rarest of cases, which made it truly special as far as match stipulations go.
Nowadays, HIAC is done basically every year, which has drastically tarnished the match type’s prestige and special aura. Cell matches are announced all the time and aren’t treated any differently from regular hardcore matches. Very few HIAC matches over the past decade have been any good, and none of them have been able to match the quality of the original.
Today, we revisit the original Hell in a Cell match from October 1997 between Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker. It was rated ***** by the Wrestling Observer when it first happened. Since then, there have been 42 HIAC matches in WWE in total. A lot of crazy things have happened in HIAC over the decades. Because it’s considered the craziest, most dangerous match in WWE, there has been an expectation of higher risks and incredible action in such matches each time they’ve been announced. Yet despite all the craziness (both good and bad) that has taken place in a HIAC match, the original one is the only one to ever get the 5-star treatment. Also, our TJRWrestling’s owner John Canton has also rated this match five stars as well and has written many times that it is one of his favorite matches ever.
Let’s see if such a rating is still deserved, knowing what has happened since then.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
The events surrounding this match are just as important as the match itself. This match was a convergence of two storylines. On one hand, you had the ongoing rivalry between Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart. It was a rivalry that was both professional and personal. At the time, Michaels was universally known as an incredible in-ring performer, and also a massive jackass as a person. He would do and say the stupidest of things, including cutting a promo on RAW alleging Hart was cheating on his wife with Sunny. That led to a real backstage fight and unending personal hostilities between them. Yet they briefly put their differences aside for business, as both of them were involved in a WWE title match at SummerSlam 1997.
On the other hand was the Undertaker, who was one of the top stars in the company and WWF/E Champion until SummerSlam. In his title defense against Hart, referee Shawn Michaels ‘accidentally’ hit ‘Taker in the head with a steel chair, allowing Hart to win the match and the title. ‘Taker blamed Shawn for his loss and wanted revenge. This led to ‘Taker being constantly attacked and harassed by Michaels and his new band of cronies, D-Generation X. They ganged up on ‘Taker many times, so ultimately it was decided that he and Shawn would face off inside the first-ever Hell in a Cell match. That way, Shawn wouldn’t be able to escape Undertaker, and Shawn’s flunkies couldn’t help him.
There was also another story taking place at the time concerning the Undertaker. After Undertaker left his former manager Paul Bearer, Bearer began threatening to reveal ‘Undertaker’s biggest secret’. He eventually did: Kane, the Undertaker’s long-lost brother, was alive, even though Undertaker thought him long dead. Bearer revealed more and more about Kane as weeks passed, and ultimately warned that Kane was coming to exact his revenge on the Undertaker. But that story was put on the side for Undertaker, as Michaels became his primary target going into Badd Blood.
The match took place at the Kiel Center in St. Louis, Missouri on October 5, 1997.
Michaels enters first and he has a worried look on his face. After Undertaker enters the cell, the door is locked with a chain. No one can get in or out. Michaels looks for an exit as the bell rings. In the ring, Michaels ducks a clothesline but goes flying from a big boot. Undertaker tosses him face-first into the turnbuckle three times and he goes flying again. Taker goes for a Chokeslam but Michaels escapes. He fights back with punches and whips ‘Taker, but ‘Taker reverses it and then drops Michaels with a clothesline. Taker goes for a pin but gets a two-count. He works the arm then lands his Old School forearm club. He head-butts Michaels and chokes him with his foot then lands a Hogan leg drop for another two-count.
Taker whips Michaels and lands a back body drop, and his feet hit the cell ceiling. Good thing he rotated properly onto his back. Michaels tries to mount a comeback but Undertaker keeps him down with hard punches. ‘Taker tosses Michaels over the ropes and he lands hard on the ringside mats. Undertaker chokes Michaels but he tries to escape with a thumb to the eye. Undeterred, ‘Taker continues his punishment and whips him hard into the steel cell wall and clotheslines him down. Undertaker teases a powerbomb, but Michaels fights back with punches. But Undertaker no-sells them and smashes him back-first into the cell corner. Undertaker smashes Michaels into the steel ring steps and hammers away with hard punches to the kidneys, then lifts him up and throws him back-first into both the steel ringpost and the cell corner. That looked brutal.
Undertaker teases tossing Michaels head-first into the cell but Michaels escapes and pushes ‘Taker into it. But ’Taker’s un-phased and clotheslines him down yet again. Undertaker smashes Michaels into the steps again and lands a hard elbow to the bridge of the nose. Undertaker whips Michaels again but this time he ducks ‘Taker’s clothesline and ‘Taker goes down. Michaels starts firing away with his own punches as the fans boo loudly. Shawn punches ‘Taker as he tries to re-enter the ring, but ‘Taker drops Michaels head-first over the top rope, sending him flying yet again.
Taker tries again but Michaels is up first and catapults Undertaker into the steel cell wall. Michaels recovers and lands a suicide dive onto Undertaker, sending both of them into the wall. Elbow drop from the cell wall by Michaels. He follows that with an apron clothesline. Michaels grabs the steel steps and smashes them into Undertaker’s back, and then drops him on the steel steps with a piledriver. Damn, that looked brutal. Michaels cusses out a cameraman as everyone’s in shock over that big move.
Michaels hits a diving double ax handle onto Undertaker ringside and she’s now in full control. He pulls out a steel chair and the crowd starts getting louder. Vicious chairshot to the back by Michaels. He goes for a pin after a second chairshot but Undertaker kicks out at two. Undertaker starts fighting back with punches and the fans rally behind him. Michaels fights back and gets Undertaker tangled in the ropes. The ref warns Michaels to back off but Michaels remains defiant, only to eat a boot from ‘Taker.
Michaels charges but Undertaker sends him flying over the ropes. He lands on a cameraman and attacks him ringside. Shawn re-focuses on Undertaker as JR and Vince condemn Michaels attacking the cameraman. As Michaels prepares for a diving elbow drop in the ring, commissioner Slaughter comes out to help the unconscious cameraman.
As the cell door opens and Slaughter escorts the cameraman out, Michaels lands Sweet Chin Music on Undertaker. But ‘Taker sits up! He sits up right away! That kick did absolutely nothing. Michaels sees this and decides to leave.
They start brawling outside the cage. Michaels goes for a dropkick, but Undertaker catches him. Slingshot to the side of the cage. Michaels got smashed headfirst into the cage. He’s been busted open. ‘Taker picks him up. Javelin toss! Michaels went headfirst into the cell again. And again! Michaels fights back with a low blow. He starts climbing the cell and ‘Taker follows him. Both men are on the roof of the cell. The crowd has become unglued.
Michaels teases a piledriver on the ceiling, but it’s reversed, and Undertaker back body drops Michaels onto the ceiling. WOW! That was insane! Taker rubs Michaels’s face into the steel and his blood pours down onto the camera lens. Taker isn’t done. Military press slam onto the cell. This is brutal. He punches Michaels and tries to escape by climbing down. But Undertaker’s right on top of him and grabs his head. Michaels’s feet dangle beneath him. Michaels keeps trying to escape but Undertaker stomps on his hand. Shawn goes flying! From the cell through the announce table! Damn, what a terrifying landing!
Taker comes down and tosses Michaels through the Spanish announce table. Shawn’s still trying to escape and returns into the cell. Undertaker lands a running clothesline as the cell door is re-locked. Chokeslam from the top turnbuckle! Michaels is getting decimated. Taker grabs a steel chair of his own. Shawn turns slowly…and walks right into a chair shot to the head. Holy shit, that looked painful.
The Undertaker signals the end with the throat slash. He approaches Michaels…but wait, the lights go out. What’s this? Some strange music starts playing. The arena is suddenly engulfed in an eerie red glow. Out comes Paul Bearer and a giant masked man. Cue Vince McMahon’s famous call: ‘THAT’S GOTTA BE…THAT’S GOTTA BE KANE! THAT’S GOTTA BE KANE!’ KANE HAS COME TO THE WWE!” The Undertaker – WWE’s most stoic wrestler – can’t believe it.
Kane rips the door right off its hinges, forcing his way into the cell. He enters the ring and the two monsters go eye to eye. Kane makes a gesture and fire erupts from the turnbuckles, which stuns Undertaker. Kane grabs The Undertaker and hits the Tombstone Piledriver on The Undertaker.
Kane leaves the ring as Shawn crawls to pin the Undertaker. The referee – who had also been attacked by Kane – starts counting ever so slowly. One…two…three. There’s the match.
Winner after 30:00: Shawn Michaels
On one hand, I personally didn’t like much of the in-ring action that unfolded early on. The first ten minutes or so were a bit slow, especially with Undertaker’s offense. I get that his shtick is to do more with less, but come on. All he did for the opening act was boring punches and clotheslines. And when Michaels was flying around the ring from those punches and turnbuckle smashes, it looked like he was over-selling Undertaker’s offense. I was getting vibes of Michaels/Hogan from SummerSlam 2005 when Michaels went into full exaggeration mode.
But then things really kicked into high gear once the cell was introduced as a weapon. Once that happened, things got so much better. Undertaker gradually became increasingly sadistic in his approach, trying to rip Michaels apart with anything he could get his hands on. Things got significantly better once the cell door was opened. It was no longer a game of cat and mouse; it was a game of ‘how badly can Undertaker destroy Shawn’.
As the first-ever HIAC match, they made the most out of it. From using the cell as a weapon to Shawn flying off the side, it was a sight to behold. Watching this left people on the edge of their seats because they had no idea what was going to happen. And when both combatants ascended the cell, things got even crazier. Would they fall through the cell? Would the match end up there on the roof? Who would be the first to be flung off of it, and how would they land? Those risks made this such an exciting, tense match that left you watching carefully to see what would happen next.
Those minor gripes on the early action are completely overshadowed by just how fantastic the story was for this match.
This was one of, if not WWE’s best example of great in-ring storytelling. Everything made sense here. Michaels sold the Hell in a Cell structure from the beginning, since he entered the arena not his usual cocky self, but worried and somewhat nervous. And Undertaker did everything right here as well. He took his time attacking Michaels because Michaels couldn’t escape or rely on the numbers game as he had done previously. Shawn was all alone and ‘Taker took full advantage of that to exact his revenge. And he beat the living hell out of Shawn, attacking the guy’s back, using him as a human javelin, and then bringing in the steel chair in one of the best examples of poetic justice ever seen in a WWE match.
And through all of this, there was nothing – absolutely NOTHING – Michaels could do. He was completely helpless in his war against the Undertaker. Sure, he got the advantage a few times with a piledriver and a chair shot. But that advantage was short-lived because Michaels had nothing that could stop the Undertaker from destroying him like the wrecking ball of a wrestler he was in this match.
That’s the key here. There was nothing Shawn could do. But Shawn was saved by a literal act of God, which came in the form of Kane.
As soon as Kane appeared, the convergence of these two different story paths was complete. Undertaker had made Shawn the target of his immediate focus, yet he had almost forgotten about Bearer’s ominous warnings. He was so wrapped up in the Hell in a Cell and destroying Michaels that he had neglected to take Bearer and his plans into consideration. So when Kane appeared, Shawn was no longer the Undertaker’s main problem. In fact, Shawn and all of D-X were pesky irritants compared to what now stood before him. And Kane proved just how dangerous he was in the span of two minutes.
In that timeframe, he did many things. First, he ripped the cell door off its hinges, which in WWE’s storyline universe would take a superhuman amount of strength. So with that one visual we as fans could see he was dangerously strong. Then he stood toe-to-toe, nose-to-nose with the Undertaker, and the look on ‘Taker’s face was priceless. Undertaker had the biggest ‘WTF’ look on his face imaginable. He – a man known for never showing even the slightest hint of emotion – was shocked by Kane’s appearance. If Kane could do that to The Undertaker, one could only imagine what the fans were thinking. Then Kane summoned fire from the turnbuckles, which showed that he – like his brother – had some kind of supernatural powers. Sure, it’s ridiculous to think of such things happening in wrestling now. But in 1997, it was so surreal and fit in perfectly with the larger-than-life aura WWE wrestlers had at the time.
Lastly, and most importantly, Kane Tombstoned the Undertaker. Not only did this add a personal edge to their growing feud, but it also showed how powerful Kane was. Undertaker had taken way less damage from the Cell match than Shawn, yet one Tombstone from Kane put him out. Undertaker was down for a good sixty seconds, and Michaels had a visual pin on Undertaker for at least twenty seconds. Even with the slow ref count, Undertaker didn’t move. It took one Tombstone from Kane to do more to the Undertaker than what Michaels had done to him over a thirty-minute period.
This was the perfect ending to this match because of how it enabled the story to unfold. Here’s how each of those three wrestlers left this match:
Shawn Michaels: He entered the match at a severe disadvantage and left victorious. Even though the win wasn’t clean, to Shawn, the victory was all that mattered. That enabled Shawn to challenge Bret Hart for the WWF Championship at Survivor Series 1997, which led to the most historically-significant wrestling match of the last thirty years.
The Undertaker: He was robbed of his chance at the WWE World Title, but also vowed to never fight his own flesh and blood. He was protected in losing because it took a literal act of God to bring him down. Undertaker remained the seemingly-indestructible monster that he had always been, and going forward he had two major problems to deal with: Michaels holding what he believed to be ‘his’ World Title, and the omnipresent threat of his brother Kane being around.
Kane: This is the greatest wrestler debut ever. It was better than AJ Styles at the 2016 Royal Rumble, better than The Shield at Survivor Series 2012, better than Ronda Rousey at the 2018 Royal Rumble, better than Brock Lesnar, Goldberg, you name it. WWE had spent months hyping up Kane’s debut and he arrived in style. His debut was completely unexpected, but it fit the story perfectly. Kane came in and destroyed WWE’s most unstoppable wrestler with one single move, making him a top threat to everyone on the roster in the process. Everyone wanted to know what would happen with Kane going forward, to see what he would do next.
Final Rating: *****
They say the first of anything is usually the best, and that was true here. This wasn’t the best wrestling match from a pure in-ring perspective, but it didn’t need to be. It was a storytelling masterpiece. It was all about Undertaker getting his revenge on Shawn Michaels and Michaels weaseling his way to victory by taking advantage of Kane assaulting his brother.
The violence that Undertaker wreaked on Shawn up until Kane’s appearance was perfect. All of us watching lived vicariously through The Undertaker in this match. We all know someone in our lives that bothered us and weaseled their way out of getting what they deserved, and Shawn Michaels was the manifestation of that person. And to see Undertaker destroy Shawn for acting in that way was nothing short of fantastic.
The ironic thing about this match is that the fans ‘didn’t leave with smiles on their faces’, which has become a sort of sick mantra of Vince McMahon’s in recent years. Here, the superhero (Undertaker) was defeated by the chickenshit villain (Michaels) thanks to interference from his long-lost, vengeful brother (Kane). But that loss allowed the Undertaker character to evolve and become part of one of the greatest long-term stories WWE has ever executed.
This is a rare kind of match. It’s one that anyone can view and find absolutely exhilarating. Whether you’re a diehard wrestling fan, a lapsed fan, or have no idea what pro wrestling is, you can find something to enjoy here. It’s a perfect piece of violent theatre with an outstanding story told before, during and after the bell rings.
Hands down one of the greatest matches of all time.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.