WWE's PG Era has diluted the Hell in a Cell match.
When Daniel Bryan and Randy Orton go to battle over the WWE Championship and CM Punk looks to leave Paul Heyman broken at Hell in a Cell 2013, those men will get little help from the steel enclosure around them in terms of creating a classic.
The scaling back of violence and wiping away blood from WWE hasn't prevented Superstars from putting on great matches, but the Hell in a Cell bout is no longer the barbaric spectacle it once was. The period's limitations don't mean composing masterworks aren't possible in that steel stadium; it just means the gladiators inside have to go about entertaining with dulled weaponry.
"The Devil's Playground" feels like an anachronism now, a remnant from WWE's past that struggles to survive in the present.
A look at Dave Meltzer's ratings for Hell in a Cell matches post-WWE's move to PG in the summer of 2008 bears that out.
|PG-Era Hell in a Cell Matches|
|Opponents||Event||Rating (Out of 5)|
|Undertaker vs. Edge||SummerSlam 2008||4.5|
|Undertaker vs. CM Punk||Hell in a Cell 2009||2.5|
|Randy Orton vs. John Cena||Hell in a Cell 2009||3.5|
|D-Generation X vs. Legacy||Hell in a Cell 2009||3.75|
|Kane vs. Undertaker||Hell in a Cell 2010||0.5|
|Sheamus vs. Randy Orton||Hell in a Cell 2010||3.25|
|Mark Henry vs. Randy Orton||Hell in a Cell 2011||2.5|
|Alberto Del Rio vs. John Cena vs. CM Punk||Hell in a Cell 2011||3.75|
|Undertaker vs. Triple H||WrestleMania XXVIII||4.75|
|CM Punk vs. Ryback||Hell in a Cell 2012||1.5|
For every near-perfect bout inside the cell, there is a handful of average ones. SummerSlam 2008 and WrestleMania XXVIII's renditions of the Hell in a Cell earned nearly perfect ratings, but in between these we've seen letdowns like Undertaker vs. Punk and Mark Henry vs. Orton.
The fault of these matches not measuring up to Undertaker and Brock Lesnar or Triple H against Chris Jericho is not with the performers, but the setting.
In today's Hell in a Cell matches the steel surrounds the ring and it feels like an inconsequential backdrop rather than the ominous presence it was once was. Wrestlers can ram each other into the steel and are allowed to pull a number of weapons out from under the ring, but we will never again see the types of shocking violence that was once the match's trademark.
No one is falling through the cell roof again.
No one is leaving the ring looking like the floor of a butcher's shop again.
Instead, greatness achieved in today's Hell in a Cell is done with little help from the match's surroundings. Triple H and Undertaker's clash at WrestleMania 28 was WWE storytelling at its finest, but it could have just as easily been a No Disqualification match.
The drama these men generated was the result of chair shots, the referee's personal involvement and the high stakes of Undertaker either walking out still undefeated at WrestleMania or Triple H doing what no man had done before. The Hell in a Cell didn't help or hinder them.
The Hell in a Cell still offers rivals the most brutal setting to end a rivalry.
The brutality in the PG Era is vastly different from the brutality that preceded it, though. Foes are still locked inside, steel chairs and ring steps are still available for clocking one's enemies, but that's essentially the limit of the violence permitted in today's version of the match.
A match once famous for escalating danger will take the limits of wrestling violence nowhere new.
Had the Hell in a Cell begun with Undertaker vs. Edge at SummerSlam 2008, fans would see the gimmick match a lot differently.
The carnage that has ensued inside the structure since then wouldn't be viewed as tempered were there not a history of far more intense images occurring in it. Orton can swing a chair at Bryan's kidneys as hard as he can, but fans will still be thinking about Mick Foley crashing on the announce table and Jim Ross genuinely being worried for his life.
Heyman and Ryback can grind Punk's face on the walls of the Hell in a Cell, but fans will only compare Punk's non-bloody face to the smeared crimson mugs of Lesnar and Undertaker.
In that way, Hell in a Cell's past still haunts it present, regardless of what today's Superstars do inside it.
After the warriors who braved the cage had cut each other with barbed wire and thumbtacks, spilled blood and broken bones in career-threatening falls, the violence level of the match had nowhere to go but down. The PG-Era Hell in a Cell match is much safer and saner than the version that Foley, Undertaker and Triple H made famous.
Taking the hellishness out of a match that promises that very thing, though, leaves the structure a hollow facsimile.