Hell in a Cell comes early in 2021.
Four months early to be exact.
The reshuffling of WWE's annuals was done in order to push Money in the Bank into the range of events with attendees. But that only begs the question of why an event like Hell in a Cell has to fall back into the ThunderDome dead zone.
If the argument for saving Money in the Bank for live crowds was justifying the death-defying bumps by having a crowd there to react to them, wouldn't you also want to save a gimmick match with life-altering brutality like Hell in a Cell for that same scenario?
Not to say that Hell in a Cell matches haven't been watered down over the past decade, anyway.
Shoehorning the looming structure into a specific spot on the calendar takes away the spontaneity of the match, as it was best dragged out for settling hate-filled feuds at their boiling point (not all of which end in October or June).
The sponsor-friendly adherence that's been place since 2008 also neuters the matches. While there have been some enjoyable prop-based stunt shows within the Cell over the last 12 years (and an emotionally-charged Roman Reigns/Jey Uso battle from last year), the classic spirit of the pseudo-deathmatch has generally been absent.
In other words, Hell in a Cell matches have kinda lost the plot.
It's no coincidence that some of the most legendary Cell matches of all time took place prior to 2008. Undertaker pin-cushioning Shawn Michaels in 1997, decimating an indestructible Mick Foley the following year, Triple H and Batista ripping each other apart in 2005 - these more aptly fit into the category of "feud-enders".
Granted, those Cell matches weren't always kind to the performer's bodies (Foley himself legitimately cheated death in his outing). But when a match promises a grim spectacle inside "The Devil's Playground", these are the ones that best embodied the "Hell" part of the name.
As did one other match.
At the No Mercy pay-per-view in 2002, Brock Lesnar and The Undertaker put on a Hell in a Cell match for the ages. Months of animosity that included attempts at injuring each other, crossing boundaries with another man's family, and the alpha-centric will to be WWE champion, pitted two super-heavyweights against each other in a veritable fight to the death.
Given how much blood Undertaker ended up losing, "fight to the death" isn't too far off.
There was nothing cutesy or ironic about this match. Undertaker and Lesnar battered each other like the brutes they're portrayed as, and blood flowed like wine. Chairs, ring steps, and even a leather belt were all employed to inflict damage on the other. And yes, by the midway point, Undertaker looked like Carrie on prom night. At one juncture, on a failed pin-fall attempt on Lesnar, Undertaker log-rolled across Brock's prone body, dripping blood into his open mouth.
Not exactly Merlot.
Lesnar ultimately won using the WrestleMania 30 finish - a Tombstone dropback into a fireman carry hoist, followed by the bone-crunching F5. As far as star-makers go, that was one of young Brock's most impressive wins.
As a match, it was brutal, it was hellacious, it lived up to the expectations of the stipulation.
And it certainly didn't require a sequel.
But we got one in 2015, anyway.
Thirteen years and five days after the No Mercy melee, Undertaker and Lesnar were going to lock horns once more inside Hell in a Cell, at the appropriately-named Hell in a Cell pay-per-view.
They'd faced off twice in the preceding year and a half. Lesnar shockingly conquered the WrestleMania streak of Undertaker's in 2014, before a suddenly-more underhanded Undertaker eked out revenge at the 2015 SummerSlam.
This was the rubber match for the modern-era feud between heavyweight icons, and there were a few reservations to be had.
The first was the idea of "rebooting" the same gimmick match that the two had faced off in 13 years previously. Anyone who remembered that 2002 match (or those who, out of curiosity, caught it on the Network for the first time during the build in 2015) understood that it was going to be absolutely hard to top. In wrestling, some sequels can surpass the original, but it doesn't always happen.
A change in parameters was also going to make the 2002 match hard to surpass.
This wasn't the "Ruthless Aggression" era any more. Although Lesnar did manage (to everyone's surprise) to get color during some of his pay-per-view outings in 2015, we couldn't possibly expect a recreation of the 2002 gorefest. We could not expect The Undertaker to fulfill the Red Cross' monthly quota through an altruistic blade job, as he once had.
Trying to equal the 2002 match on a visual level was likely not going to be possible.
Another issue was the age of the performers. After all, thirteen years can be a long time for a wrestler, especially a heavyweight that's worked a lot of hard-hitting matches.
Lesnar hadn't changed *too* much going from 25 to 38. He was still functionally the same physical freak he'd always been, but with a little more roundness around the middle. Not even a serious battle with diverticulitis six years earlier could rob him of his ability to deliver in a big match.
Undertaker, however, went from 37 to 50, and there lingered a few questions. His performance at WrestleMania 30 was lacklustre, owed to a concussion sustained in the early going. He didn't wrestle for a year afterward.
His comeback match against Bray Wyatt at WrestleMania 31 was decent, but one wondered if "Big Match Taker" was now a thing of the past.
The SummerSlam match provided some hope (as well as an immortal meme of the two laughing like demented loons at each other). Certainly, it was part-time Undertaker's best match in almost two and a half years, and an indication that at age 50, he still had something left in the tank.
But how would that translate to Hell in a Cell, where expectations were high, and the pair had a historic prior outing to live up to?
The answer: it translated very well.
What we ended up getting was the best of the two eras - a bit of the early-2000s carnage, and a bit of the MMA-influenced style that both men had become more known for in their later WWE acts.
Each man ended up a bloody mess in the early going, as Lesnar bonked his forehead on the ring post, but fought back with a chair shot aimed for Undertaker's head (which Taker did get his hands up for), and some bare-knuckle punches. Lesnar in particular wore quite the crimson mask, blood mixing with sweat to paint his face fire engine-red. In all, Lesnar would require nine staples to close his wound.
At a couple junctures, a doctor entered the cage to administer care to the bloody combatants (standard modern protocol). The second time, however, Lesnar violently shoved the doctor away, and followed up by hitting Undertaker with an F5.
As the war ground down, Lesnar began tearing up the canvas, removing the thin layer of padding that separated the surface from the wooden beams. The exposed planks became weaponry, as Lesnar survived a chokeslam and a Tombstone on the boards, before polishing off Undertaker with an F5 onto them.
In an era where many Cell matches go past 25, even 30 minutes, Undertaker and Lesnar told their barbaric tale in just 18.
Post-match, Undertaker received a thunderous ovation, and chants of, "Thank you Taker", for what was clearly his greatest match since the Streak was still alive and thriving. He was then abducted by The Wyatt Family, to segue into the following month's Survivor Series (and Undertaker's 25th anniversary festivities).
The level of violence was surprising for a WWE match in 2015, but not exactly unwelcome. TV specials, video games, action figures, and other WWE properties are packaged with enough nostalgia trips to satiate aging fans. With that idea in mind, a bloodbath straight out of the turn of the century was nice infiltration upon modern complacency.
Critically, the match was widely-praised. WWE fans voted it Match of the Year in the Slammy Awards, while Dave Meltzer awarded it a rating of ****1/4, a quarter star higher than what he rated the 2002 Cell match. Users of Cagematch would flip the two, as their community rating for the 2002 match is a full 9.00 (out of 10), compared to 8.26 for the sequel. Both are still impressive ratings, of course.
The consensus, though, seems to be that both matches exist in the same neighbourhood. That's pretty high praise for the 2015 bout, given advancing age, wear and tear, and having to live up to the lofty original.
It's appropriate that of all the Hell in a Cell matches that have taken place since the match earned its own namesake pay-per-view in 2009, that Lesnar vs. Undertaker was most faithful to the classic Cell matches of old. When modern-age protocol interjected itself (a doctor exercising discretion), one participant violently rejected the latter day way (hopefully Brock bought that doctor something nice, like a cut of steak the size of a duffel bag).
Granted, it's not a match you'd want to overuse. But when a pair of old dogs were given the appropriate outlet, they showed why you don't need new tricks to deliver in a different time.