The Best and Worst Steel Cage Match Types in Pro Wrestling History
WWE's annual Hell in a Cell PPV is this Sunday. With WWE doing traditional cage matches very rarely, Hell in a Cell is positioned the way old cage matches were: No escape, there must be a winner, etc.
With cage matches traditionally being a popular attraction, bookers and promoters have tried a lot of ways to spice them up over the years. Some, like Hell in a Cell, have been major successes. Others were overcomplicated without redeeming qualities and were best left forgotten.
To celebrate Hell in a Cell, let's take a look at the very best and worst variations on the steel cage match, as well as some that are hard to rank.
Because You Can't Rank It: Traditional Steel Cage Match
Traditional cage matches don't really gain or lose as much from the gimmick as much as variations of it do. It comes down to the wrestlers involved and which version of cage-match rules are used.
Generally speaking, older WWF cage matches with escape rules weren't as good as other cage matches with regular pinfall or submission rules. There are exceptions, of course, but once Bruno Sammartino (the one wrestler who could get the escape stipulation over) retired, the WWF matches were usually races to escape the cage.
Anyway, I can't rank it among the other cage-match variation, but it needs to be represented. Please enjoy Ricky Steamboat and Jay Youngblood versus Sgt. Slaughter and Don Kernodle, which is possibly the greatest cage match in wrestling history.
Worst: 5. Steel Asylum
While TNA didn't invent this one (AAA in Mexico did when the two companies worked together), TNA made it their own...in the worst way possible.
It's already kind of awkward, as the cage is dome-shaped. Escaping the cage through the hole in the top is difficult even for the most athletic wrestlers in the company.
Then TNA put too many wrestlers in the match for anything interesting to be able to happen. The more wrestlers that are in a match, the less wrestlers can do, especially keeping their safety in mind. This is why the Royal Rumble is so much better than traditional battle royals.
Finally, they painted the cage bright red. Very, very bright red to the point it looked like a plastic toy. It was genuinely hard to watch.
Oh, and when TNA did its first Monday night special opposite Raw, it opened with this, a match that was hard to follow and is physically hard to watch. Oh, and Homicide fell down (and landed hard) when he was trying to climb out.
It's a mess and my TV has had a grid of bars burned into it since then.
Best: 5. Lion's Den Match
This one had a lot of potential and the first match was really cool. I just wished they followed up on it.
The Lion's Den was a faux MMA cage for Ken Shamrock placed in a separate part of the arena (or in the embedded match, a different arena in the same building). The first Lion's Den match was at SummerSlam '98 against Ken Shamrock. The previous month at Fully Loaded, they had a great "Dungeon Match" in the basement of Owen's childhood home, so they went from Owen's house to Ken's, so to speak.
With Dan Severn in Owen's corner, they had a really good match that was in interesting mix of submission wrestling and flying off of the slanted cage. Subsequent matches with Steve Blackman and Vince McMahon didn't live up to the potential, but they got off to a great start.
Worst: 4. Punjabi Prison Match
Theoretically, someone could have a good Punjabi Prison match. I mean, I suppose it's possible. The problem is that the stipulations were complicated....and it involved a giant man, usually the Great Khali, having to climb an even more gigantic cage.
The Punjabi Prison is a set of two cages made out of "bamboo." To win, you must escape both cages. There's a door on each side, and if you open it, you then have to climb out of the outer cage to win. The doors are only open for 60 seconds, and if they close, you can only get back into the ring by climbing the inner cage, which has spikes on top.
So yes, it's a complicated cage match with escape rules that almost always involves Great Khali (or Big Show when Khali fell ill). It's a recipe for disaster. There have only been two Punjabi Prison matches and the gimmick was presumably abandoned forever after 2007.
Best: 4. Exploding Barbed Wire Cage Match
While fans were lured in with promises of extreme danger, the various explosion matches that became the specialty of Atsushi Onita were not quite as crazy as they sound.
Onita was a guy who fell in love with doing wild brawls when All Japan Pro Wrestling sent him to the United States as a rookie, but when he got back home, he was just a charismatic junior heavyweight wrestler in a company that didn't really push junior heavyweights. After blowing out his knee, he retired and mostly worked other wrestling jobs like referee and trainer for smaller promotions.
Several years later, he returned to wrestling, starting Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling (FMW) and initially battling various karate masters in mixed matches. Eventually he graduated to the Jerry Lawler/Jackie Fargo/Tennessee style brawls he loved before he decided to take things further with variations on barbed-wire matches, eventually introducing "explosions" into the mix.
The key to all of these matches was Onita's charisma and selling. Once you introduce barbed-wire cages that "explode" when a wrestler touches them, the matches can very easily go wrong. Onita was talented and charismatic enough to build the matches around the drama of teasing the explosions, building to them so they happened at the right moment.
The above embedded match is one of his finest moments, his...uh...retirement match vs. Hayabusa at a packed Kawasaki Stadium in 1995. Pay attention to all of the little things Onita does.
Awesome and Awful: Thunderdome
This match is actually kind of awesome but is steeped in ridiculousness.
Ric Flair and Sting were in the midst of a heated feud with Terry Funk and the Great Muta throughout Summer of 1989. Their first tag match was supposed to occur during a live Clash of the Champions special on TBS, but Dick Slater had to replace an injured Funk, who eventually appeared to try to suffocate Flair with a plastic bag. Really.
Anyway the big tag match between the two teams was set for the first annual Halloween Havoc. It would be the first and only Thunderdome cage match. The cage itself was one that WCW used again in other matches, a barred cage like WWE was using at the time, but encompassing the ringside area like Hell in a Cell and curved inward at the top so nobody could climb out.
And if someone managed to do it? The top of the cage was electrified.
Anyway, the only way to win was if your opponent's second (or "Terminator") threw in the towel.
WCW had planned for a lot of cool special effects that ended up having to be eliminated, so it was really just a wild brawl with a bunch of wacky cage climbing. It also made use of some of the remaining decorations on the cage, including a rope that Sting used to swing into the ring to save Flair. The electrified top of the cage only came into play twice, once at the start of the match when it caught fire (and Muta used the green mist to put it out!) and later when Muta touched it for fun and got shocked.
I have no idea if it would have been a better match with the original wacky effects but it would have been interesting, to say the least.
Worst: 3. Asylum
WCW in 2000, ladies in gentlemen.
Vince Russo in charge most of the year, almost everything it did was awful, and it had four different specialty cages it cycled in throughout the year. Besides The Asylum, it had a traditional cage that also had a roof, a Hell in a Cell knock-off, and a triple-decker cage. It all had wacky names and I'm not going to try to bother to remember them right now.
The Asylum, which was Scott Steiner's specialty for some reason, was especially bad because it was a circular cage dropped in the middle of the ring. So not only was there less room for the wrestlers to work with, but they couldn't use the ropes. Oh, and the referee wasn't allowed in the cage.
It's hard to look at it as anything other than something Vince Russo came up with because he thought it looked cool even though it didn't make any functional sense. How else can you explain it?
Best: 3. Elimination Chamber
The Elimination Chamber is one of the reasons why "corporate wrestling" is great.
Steel cage matches have been done everywhere. In the Memphis territory, which had a dirty ring and low payoffs for much of the roster, a brand-new cage was introduced in 1987 that was basically Hell in a Cell without a roof. Anyway, my point is that doing something really unique and cool was limited to a company with a huge checkbook like WWE.
Introduced in 2002 and now an annual tradition to help set up WrestleMania, the Chamber itself adds a steel platform at mat height, places the wrestlers in plexiglass pods until they're randomly picked to enter the match and surrounds the ring with two miles of chains. The whole structure weighs 10 tons.
A wrestler can be eliminated at any time, so if only two guys are in, the winner of the fall can take a breather until the next wrestler enters. The whole scenario allows for a lot of creativity in both the story of the match and the type of crazy moves the wrestlers can do.
We've seen wrestlers dive off the pods, drop from the top of the chamber, come out from under the chamber floor, jump onto the wall like Spiderman and much more. It's become a dependably great match and has made WWE's February pay-per-view a must-buy most years.
Worst: 2. Tower of Doom/Triple Dome of Terror/Doomsday Cage/Ready to Rumble Cage
These all have different rules, but they're basically the same match: You take three or four levels of cages and stack them on top of each other. Since the floors of all of the levels that aren't the bottom are made of a mesh fence, the wrestlers' footing is bad. Most of the time (all but the embedded Doomsday match), the upper levels shrink in size as they go up higher, so the wrestlers also have less room to move up there.
Each version of this match had its own uniquely bad traits:
- The Doomsday match was eight on two and none of the wrestlers appeared to know the rules. The winners leave the cage as if they won, only to return to score a pin.
- The Tower of Doom involved wrestlers abandoning their team to help win the match.
- The Triple Dome of Terror in World Class Championship Wrestling tried and failed to fit a "Texas Roundup" battle royal in.
- Wargames 2000 made no sense (two teams of five competed but the WCW Title was on the line) and was subtitled "Russo's Revenge."
- The Ready to Rumble cage match was actually pretty good but had David Arquette.
Yet WCW went back to that well on and off for 12 years. Oy vey.
Best: 2. Hell in a Cell
Not a lot to explain here, but I love Hell in a Cell because it's largely a traditional, violent cage match nowadays. There's no blood since there's no blood in WWE anymore, but it's still the one match where two wrestlers can really go to war.
In hindsight, some of the early Hell in a Cell matches were kind of misguided, in a way: While the first one, a 1997 classic between The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels, found a logical way to get the cage door open (injuring a cameraman), it became expected for the wrestlers to brawl outside the cage. It was five years later, when The Undertaker and Brock Lesnar has a classic bloodbath, that Hell in a Cell turned back into a basic cage match where wacky escapes and dangerous stunts on/off the top of the cell weren't expected.
While the matches can't be quite as violent now, it's still the superior version of the match. Instead of raising the bar too high with big bumps, they're full of hate and other good storytelling. For example, I really enjoyed John Cena vs. Alberto Del Rio vs. CM Punk match from 2011. While it did involve wrestlers going outside the cage, it was done logically (Ricardo Rodriguez mugging the outside referee for the key) and was used for drama (Cena being locked out) instead of big stunts.
Awesome and Awful: Chamber of Horrors
The cage from Thunderdome is brought back with a much, much stupider gimmick.
There are two teams battling inside a cage filled with all sorts of weapons and Halloween paraphernalia, including caskets propped up that zombies pop out of. On the ramp leading to the ring, a group of ghoulish paramedics carry out a stretcher. A few minutes into the match, the "Chair of Torture" is lowered into the ring. To win the match, you put an opponent in the chair and flair a switch on the side of the cage.
Yes, the goal was to execute one of your opponents via the electric chair. The switch kept falling down during the match without electrocuting anyone. Also, the referee was wearing a helmet cam dubbed "the Refer-eye Camera."
It's actually a really fun match with great performances by Sting and Mick Foley. It ends with Abdullah the Butcher trying to execute Rick Steiner with Foley at the switch, Steiner reversing him and Abby getting fried because Foley flipped the switch without looking because he was waiting for no apparent reason.
Then Abdullah wakes up and attacks the ghouls.
Worst: 1. Kennel from Hell
Right at the end of Vince Russo's run in WWE, he gave Al Snow a pet dog named Pepper. The Big Bossman, then a cartoon villain, kidnapped Pepper and tricked Snow into eating him.
The big blowoff to this feud was WWE's first ever Kennel from Hell match. The ring would be surrounded by two cages: The old blue-bar cage on the apron and Hell in a Cell on the floor. To win, you had to escape both cages, but there were guard dogs on the floor.
The match was awful. Worse, the dogs didn't really do anything other than use the protective mats on the floor as a toilet. Snow mercifully won and WWE never tried anything like this match again.
Amazingly enough, this match was not originated by Vince Russo. It was used once by Portland Wrestling for a Rip Oliver vs. Matt Borne match in 1981. While the winner was determined by pinfall or submission, it was otherwise the same gimmick, just with the dogs there to prevent any attempt at escaping.
Best: 1. Wargames
Not just the greatest type of cage match in wrestling history, but probably the greatest gimmick match of all.
Set up two rings side by side and enclose them in a cage with a roof. Take two teams of four or five wrestlers. After a five-minute period, the winner of a coin toss sends their next wrestler in and each team alternates every two minutes with the coin-toss winner having the advantage. No decision can be rendered until everyone has entered and "The Match Beyond" begins: At that point, you can only win by making an opponent "submit or surrender."
They never explained the difference between submitting and surrendering.
Aside from a couple times where it was completely screwed up by lousy wrestlers or lousy booking, it was always an amazing, epic brawl. It was best kept simple: The heels win the coin toss, the babyfaces fight back from adversity, and usually the most cowardly of the heels submits when he's isolated.
It's hard to explain Wargames. You have to experience it. WWE has released a complete Wargames set on DVD and Blu-Ray that is well worth your money, and the Blu-Ray even includes some Wargames-style matches from other promotions.