Hell in a Cell 2018 was the third pay-per-view running in WWE that demonstrated a stronger creative product flirting with the consistency of quality the company enjoyed three to four years ago, though flirting is the kindest way to describe it.
Creative choices remain inconsistent, often unwise, and roster focus continues to demonstrate conflict at the heart of the company’s mindset, a mindset at odds with that of the majority fan base I dare say.
This means Hell in a Cell 2018 was a mixed bag. It didn’t possess the across-the-board ring quality we saw at Money in the Bank 2018, nor did it boast the same robust production wisdom we saw at the best Summerslam for five years. It did, however, have one of the best opening 90 – 120 minutes of any WWE pay-per-view in recent memory.
My name is Samuel ‘Plan, and this is the Performance Art View of Hell in a Cell 2018.
Apparently unsatisfied with only claiming every male Match of the Year candidate in WWE for 2018, my man Seth Rollins wanted to take his latest tag team opportunity to begin a possible domination of that category too – to call the Rollins and Dean Ambrose vs. Dolph Ziggler and Drew McIntyre Monday Night Raw (MNR) Tag Team Championship Match last Sunday the best main roster tag match of the year so far, if not the outright best tag match of the year so far, would not be an overestimation.
Proving just why those four men have become the real attraction in MNR’s main event scene since Summerslam, as opposed to Roman Reigns and Braun Strowman, together they crafted a match that, while arguably lacking the emotional heft of Rollins and Ambrose’s 2017 autumnal tag run, was nonetheless on par with, if not superior to the Hounds / Bar series of matches witnessed during that run.
A ‘lack of urgency’ was the criticism levelled at the MNR Tag Team Championship bout by my Aftershock podcast co-host, Steve Bell. There is certainly a truth to the idea that last Sunday’s MNR Tag Team Championship bout was one that built patiently and steadily, a frequent aspect of the work of Rollins and Ambrose in particular, unfashionable though it now seems to be. But without that early patience, the later freneticism (a word that barely does the final eight minutes justice) wouldn’t be half as effective as it proves to be.
The contrasts between styles is manipulated to great effect throughout, whether it be the polished exchanges between Rollins and Ziggler, the explosive suddenness of Ambrose’s new muscle or McIntyre bulldozing his way through the Kingslayer. The chaotic sequences in which the rules breakdown prove balletic in their precision, the heroes are given ample opportunity to demonstrate their earthy determination, the design is peppered with old school tropes of the format and the conclusion is as beautifully original, as beautifully organic a moment as you’re likely to see in a pro wrestling ring in 2018.
A fascinating subtext underpinned this phenomenal action too. The feud with The Bar last year centered heavily on the emotional tumult bred by the fractious relationship between Rollins and Ambrose, with the Hounds using the overwhelming tide of their reunion to carry them into a fresh stratosphere of competition the Bar struggled to follow them to. The feud with McIntyre and Ziggler amounts to what is ostensibly a power grab, to occupy the vacuum left in the wake of Roman Reigns defeating Brock Lesnar. At Hell in a Cell 2018, the bitterness of McIntyre and Ziggler’s frustrated past – in which the unapologetic success of The Shield played its part – similarly propelled the champions on Sunday into a fresh stratosphere of their own, one which the avaricious egos of The Shield couldn’t quite reach.
“You cast us into your shadow once,” Drew and Dolph are spitting, “and you’re not doing it again.”
Well, not yet at least – not until this war for power becomes a blood-thirst for Justice.
It seemed an odd choice for the relatively ordinary Randy Orton vs. Jeff Hardy storyline to be in receipt of last Sunday’s event’s titular match type, providing them with the challenge of justifying the promotion’s decision – especially considering the same card featured half a dozen non-Cell matches that could have benefited more from the cage.
Pleasantly, it seems the two veterans took that challenge in their stride and sought to rise to the occasion. Working a story that grew increasingly visceral the longer it lasted, the two men tapped into the secret of making the genre work today – in a sterilised PG product not conducive to the visual brutality of the Cell’s earliest years, it is striking a violent tone that results in the best efforts now.
That is not to say that last Sunday’s curtain jerker deserves ranking among the best Cells of all time. Far from it, thanks largely to the unoriginal clichéd grappling nestled in between the conversely head-turning stunt work. Neither man strayed far from their most comfortable of comfort zones when it came to the traditional action, which is perhaps why their match felt like a welcome over-achievement rather than an unadulterated success.
While passages still felt like a fairly typical No Disqualifications Match with a Cell surrounding the ring as so many Cells of today do, it was the genuinely disquieting moment that saw Orton try to tear Hardy’s ear off with a screwdriver in combination with a conclusion that, even if not in the most polished manner, attempted to break ground with a fresh idea we haven’t previously seen in Cell matches of the past that set Orton / Hardy above so many other efforts inside those four walls. Driving home the violence was the visual of Orton’s pot-marked back and flesh-torn leg, a rare example of stunning gore in a modern WWE environment often at pains to keep itself clean, and which can only stem from as unique a match as Hell in a Cell.
In the end it’s hard to shake off the persistent sensation that the Cell would have been better given to the likes of AJ Styles and Samoa Joe or even Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair, but it was satisfying to see Orton and Hardy actively seek to justify their having been given the stage instead, in the process creating a match that is likely to reward future revisits (I have now watched it three times and have grown to enjoy it more with each round!) and from which an important lesson can be learned: Cells in a PG Era can work, if the right violent intonation can be used to replace the explicit gore of ages past.
Becky Lynch vs. Charlotte Flair might be a feud engulfed in controversy because of Lynch’s fall to the dark side kicking it off to begin with, but personal opinions should not be conflated with dispassionate analysis. The latter should rightfully lead even the fan most upset with Lynch’s turn to accept this has been a well written storyline from the beginning, that has seen Lynch grow into a compelling and far more three dimensional character than we have ever seen from her before.
It is often said the best villains are those with sympathetic motivations. Lynch has sympathetic motivations. While I maintain her physical assaults on Charlotte were disproportionate at best, morally unwarranted at worst (let’s be frank – Lynch won a chance at the title, got a chance at the title and lost that chance at the title fairly), that Lynch has been fuelled by the perceived glory-hogging of her once-best friend has seen many a WWE fan side with her against the self-proclaimed Queen.
These same motivations certified Lynch’s win last Sunday as being an all-too rare example in WWE of justified resolution in a narrative. This was a story all about Lynch being as good as Charlotte but having her career stifled because of Charlotte’s love for the moment. Hell in a Cell 2018’s role in their story, then, became defined as Lynch’s opportunity to prove she was right. Through her victory, she did just that, and in doing that underscored her motivations as being more than sympathetic, but as being right.
The match that led to Lynch’s victory was as expertly-judged as her victory too. Though far from perfectly polished, with a couple of aspiring sequences watching as a little awkward early on in particular, the two put together a match that evoked more than a little of the physical, counter-heavy content familiar in any given Chris Benoit / Kurt Angle encounter – an influence seen in Lynch’s other great ring masterpiece, her NXT Women’s Championship Match against Sasha Banks at Takeover. That scientific grappling played to the core notion of Lynch’s motivation, to prove herself the better wrestler unfairly snubbed, while the more physical altercations, as well as the subtle body language of both throughout, played alternatively to the personal edge their feud has taken on. It’s a subtle synergy most frequently found in the main events of the very best performers in WWE’s history.
It is worth stating that, to my mind, this then was the second time in 2018 that WWE staged a pay-per-view at which the women could, should have rightfully main evented, the other being WrestleMania. The match, the result, the character development, the fan investment, even the pre-match hype package all screamed main event. That Charlotte and Lynch weren’t afforded that hard-earned spot meant that, though their storyline has had what felt like a justified climax (to this point at least), Hell in a Cell 2018 did not, and overcoming that remains the final obstacle for WWE’s female performers before this ‘Women’s Evolution’ is truly complete.
The last half of Hell in a Cell 2018 sadly began to dwindle in quality until ending on the horrifying realisation that, in spite of WWE mercilessly teasing us with something better for four weeks, we’re not out of the woods yet. Nonetheless, the first 90 – 120 minutes of the show were outstanding and reassured that to hope for a consistently better product in WWE is not yet an entirely fruitless task – even if it feels like it is.
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