On Sunday, WWE hyped up its now annual Hell in a Cell pay-per-view event as the 20th anniversary of Mick Foley’s famous match with The Undertaker, where the former was thrown off of the top of the titular cage in one of the wildest stunts in wrestling history. This is not exactly true—the actual anniversary was June 28th and we’re closing in on the 21st anniversary of the first Cell match period, with Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels. For our purposes, though, it’s a nice excuse to examine the history of what’s become one of WWE’s signature gimmick matches, even if its utility has shifted dramatically over time.
The titular cell itself has been cited by both Michaels and then–WWE creative team member Jim Cornette as being inspired in large part by “The Last Battle of Atlanta,” a 1983 feud-ending bloodbath that happened to be the first match in a fully enclosed cage. In WWE in particular, this was a drastic change from the standard steel cage match because the industry leader had a fairly unique take on how the gimmick was executed. Almost everywhere else, cages were treated as impenetrable barriers surrounding matches that required a definitive winner, but in WWE, it was almost the opposite: The first wrestler to escape the cage won. Originally, it worked, but only because it uniquely suited the persona of then-top star Bruno Sammartino . After he was phased out, WWE cage matches didn’t usually feel like violent feud-enders as much as they did climbing contests that were occasionally disrupted by flukes where someone was sent flying through the door. So when Hell in a Cell first showed up in 1997, an actual cage designed to keep everyone out and keep the wrestlers and referee in, with the match going to a decisive conclusion, it was as if there were an entirely new way to do grudge matches in WWE.
The resulting match was a glorious piece of pro wrestling spectacle, easily the greatest cage match in WWE history up to that point and one of the best (at least on video) in the genre’s history, period. The match makes perfect use of the Undertaker and Michaels personas, with the imposing “Dead Man” stalking the cowardly “Heartbreak Kid” around the cage, slowly dismantling him and scaring the shit out of him because he has the space (it encompasses the ringside area) and time to do so. Both men put in career-level performances, with Michaels having the most memorable moment to a critical eye, cutting himself in mid-air to draw blood while being catapulted into the cage. And when they did need to get in or out of the cage, it was done logically (at least by wrestling standards): first with the in-cage cameraman being injuredm and then later with Kane, The Undertaker’s debuting baby brother, using his superhuman strength to tear the door off its hinges. It’s a brilliant, must-see match, but it also set a dangerous precedent: The expectation of leaving the cage and someone falling off of it through a ringside table, with Michaels taking the plunge after dangling off the edge of the roof.
That set the stage for the June 1998 Undertaker-Foley (in his Mankind gimmick) match at the King of the Ring pay-per-view show. The story has been told ad nauseam for 20 years in Foley’s writings and numerous interviews, among other places, with the definitive version likely being the 2013 oral history published at WWE.com. Mankind and The Undertaker had been feuding on and off for over two years, with the Cell match being the first singles bout of the 1998 iteration. Coming on the heels of Michaels setting such a high standard both dramatically and athletically, Foley, who was particularly beat up at the time, was at a loss for how to put together a match that could meet expectations, and it didn’t help that The Undertaker was nursing an ankle injury, either. So when he put the question to hero/mentor Terry Funk, the suggestion was to start the match on the roof of the cage, with Funk “jokingly” adding that Mick should then get thrown off and climb back up after that.
When The Undertaker tossed Foley off the top of the Cell through the Spanish announcers’ table, it basically came out of nowhere. Unlike today, when WWE telegraphs that kind of thing by partially clearing the table, Foley smashed into a normal, fully operational broadcast setup, complete with pointy CRT monitors. Compared to the already impressive Michaels bump, Foley came down from higher up and with arguably less control, and it was legitimately shocking Lead announcer Jim Ross, a longtime friend and supporter of Foley’s, was clearly not informed of the spot in advance, screaming “GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY, THEY KILLED HIM!” in a bit of a pointed slip. After a bit of a delay with Funk, Vince McMahon, shiatsu masseur Francois Petit (billed as the WWE doctor), and others hitting the ring to see Foley out on a stretcher, he popped back up and started climbing the cage again. Moments later, that led to Undertaker chokeslamming him through the roof of the Cell and into the ring.
Exactly what happened at this point has been debated for two decades. In the first Cell match, Michaels took various moves on the roof and it held up fine. Here, even before the first fall, there was a moment where the corner of one of the chain-link panels making up the roof gave way in a bit of a scare. While Foley has always insisted that the second fall was an accident, when he hit the mat, zip ties were visible all over the ring, suggesting that something had been planned. That said, a chair was left atop the cage panel that gave way, so when Foley went through, the chair followed, speeding downward, and smacked him in the jaw, dislocating it and knocking him senseless. That clearly wasn’t planned.
Somehow, after all of this, Foley got up again and finished the match, taking a bump onto thumbtacks for good measure. For better or worse, this match—well, really the first big fall over the edge—came to define both Foley’s career and the Hell in a Cell gimmick. The former, aside from a few one-offs, was done a little more than a year and a half later. That Foley was a legitimately gifted in-ring storyteller and an ever more gifted talker fell to the wayside for fans who didn’t see the big picture. More than ever before, he became an inspiration for fans who, due to a lack of a “superstar” look, felt they could become pro wrestling stars by falling off of things because hey, Mick Foley did it.
For the Hell in a Cell match, it bolstered the expectation of unsustainable falls from great heights. A few were buttressed by strategic crash pads, but it was rare, and most are largely forgotten. Hell, just weeks after the famous Undertaker match, Foley had another Hell in a Cell match, this time with Kane on Monday Night Raw. And yes, he fell off the cell, though this time it was from about halfway down, which was still higher than the top ring rope.
Around 2002, someone came to their senses, and an Undertaker-Brock Lesnar match was seemingly designed as part of a reclamation project for the Cell match. It was just an old school, very un-WWE style cage match, complete with Undertaker hitting a gusher and noticeably bleeding into Lesnar’s mouth at one point. The match never left the cage, there wasn’t even a teased big fall, and it was awesome.
When blood was banned five years later, as WWE went in a more family-friendly direction, Hell in a Cell gradually became more reliant on stunts again. It took time; there was a limit to what you could do inside the cage, and before the change in direction, WWE got a new, much taller cage, which seemed high enough that nobody would ever jump from it. That eventually changed, too, with Shane McMahon coming off of the very top with an elbow drop to a (very narrow) crash pad carefully disguised as a table at 2016’s WrestleMania. Sponsors may find wrestlers cutting themselves with sterile razors to be barbaric, but the CEO’s son playing backyard wrestler in the stupidest ways and repeatedly jumping off 20 foot high cages is just fine.
But the biggest blow to the grandeur of the Cell match was undoubtedly when WWE decided to make Hell in a Cell the centerpiece of an annual, eponymous event. It’s been that way since 2009, so for a decade now, feuds don’t organically build to epic cage matches. No matter what, there are usually a couple matches stuck inside the titular cell, and with so many stemming from storylines that don’t warrant the high stakes, they all run together. Why put your body on the line for that?
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.