This year's WWE matchup will force a clash between pro wrestling's brutal past and its sanitized present.
They were fighting through the crowd of the Astrodome. The Undertaker chokeslammed Triple H from a scaffolding area about 30 feet from my seat. "Holy shit!" chants bellowed through the stadium.
This was WrestleMania, and that night in April 2001 was the unofficial end of pro wrestling's Attitude Era, a period filled with coarse language, sex, over-the-top storylines, and gruesome matches. I was a freshman in high school, and at the time, no athletic competition—not the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, Final Four, nothing—mattered more to me than WrestleMania. Minutes after the Undertaker's chokeslam, Triple H leveled Undertaker with a sledgehammer to the head, busting him open, as blood covered his face. Undertaker somehow won the match moments later, because, well, he doesn't lose at WrestleMania. (He's 19-0 at the event.) It was a night I haven't forgotten, an invaluable part of my childhood.
The landscape of World Wrestling Entertainment has changed drastically in the 11 years since then. An evolving audience consisting of more women and children and a couple of very public black eyes in the summer of 2007—the Chris Benoit double murder-suicide and the Signature Pharmacy bust that implicated about 11 performers for purchasing steroids—helped expedite a shift in the culture. By July 2008, the parental guidelines ratings system had classified all WWE programs as "PG programming," allowing for a greater potential range and quality of sponsors in the process.
But two things have remained consistent: the Undertaker (Mark Calaway) and Triple H (Paul Levesque). The men have vowed to fight one more match Sunday at WrestleMania XXVIII in Miami, putting an end to an era of when they were its two standard-bearers. (Three if you count Shawn Michaels, the special referee.) It won't be the main event—that will be reserved for the Rock and John Cena, an Attitude Era-versus-PG Era showdown a year in the making—though it's undoubtedly one of the main attractions. Both men, now in their 40s, have bridged generation gaps among pro wrestling fans, easing the transition process to today's family-friendly product. They'll do it inside Hell in a Cell, a structure that helped define the Attitude Era, known for some of the most brutal, physically challenging, graphic matches in the company's history.
The match could mean the return of something that has been lacking during the PG Era: blood. Even as the company continues to make itself attractive to more high-profile sponsors and remains popular among younger fans who haven't grown up with the Hell in a Cell match as a blood bath, the question of whether there will be blood in the final Undertaker-Triple H match will linger.
"You're talking about the two best in the business as far as psychology and storytelling," says Kurt Angle, a former WWE champion who is currently with TNA Wrestling. "It could very well be the match of WrestleMania. Everyone is looking at Rock and Cena, and that's going to be an awesome match. But Undertaker and Triple H will steal the show."
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The match's history speaks for itself. Thumbtacks, tables, ladders, chairs, hammers, sledgehammers, screwdrivers, steel steps, barbed-wire two-by-fours, and even barbed-wire two-by-fours that have been set on fire have inhabited the cell. Since the match's inception in October of 1997, Undertaker and Triple H have been in 19 of the 24 Hell in a Cell matchups, and history suggests that the likelihood of blood being reinserted into for these two Sunday is high. In the 19 Hell in a Cell matches that have included either the Undertaker or Triple H, there has been blood involved in 15 of them.
Whether blood does indeed come back, the possibility of its return to the ring for one night will inevitably place focus back on the company's no-blood policy, one of the more significant cultural changes amid the WWE's image overhaul. In 2008, the company implemented a no-blood policy, restricting performers from bleeding, or to subtly cut themselves open with razor blades, during matches. The company started stopping matches in which blood came about inadvertently. But for a match that has been historically gruesome, bringing back the blood isn't necessarily out of the question.
"I would think that with these two guys, they're performers, and in the back of my head, they may want to do it," says Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. "There's a policy, but those guys can kind of do what they want." The WWE would not make Calaway or Levesque available for comment for this article. "They don't do interviews prior to WrestleMania," spokesman Kevin Hennessy wrote in an email. Requests to speak to WWE officials about the evolution of Hell in a Cell and the no-blood policy were not immediately returned.
Angle knows the cell all too well, having been locked up with Calaway and Levesque during the only six-way match in the history of Hell in a Cell, winning it in December 2000. Looking around the cell that night in Birmingham, Ala., Angle, a bloody mess by the match's end, understood that the men involved were going to go above and beyond the call of duty in regard to multiple men bleeding and risky spots, noting how Mick Foley being thrown off and chokeslammed through the cell by the Undertaker in 1998 set the bar for fans' standards of what to expect in the match. Case in point: Undertaker would toss the 400-pound Rikishi off the top off the cell onto the bed of a truck, causing the Rock and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin to look up from inside the ring and take in the spot. It's a different match now, focusing more on telling a better story and using the cell for more than just death-defying spots, but the risks associated with the match have not been vanquished.
"If I could be exact about this, [Hell in a Cell] really has turned the business around," Angle says. "In pro wrestling, since it is so dangerous, safety is always first. But in this type of match, there is no safety. You go and do it, and God willing you don't get hurt."
The evolution of the match is not all different from that of the company's PG-friendly business model. When Hell in a Cell matches first began in October 1997, they served as the culmination of long-time feuds. But that has changed as recent Hell in a Cell matches have now sprung up at any time during storylines, especially since the company implemented an annual Hell in a Cell Pay-Per-View. Before the no-blood policy was implemented, the match was seen as a "spot fest," with performers such as Mick Foley taking risky falls from the top of or through the cell. There was also more emphasis put on the use of weapons. Though there was initial success in WWE's thinking to parlay the match's past success into its own Pay-Per-View event, there have been significant drops in domestic buy rates for the last two Hell In A Cell Pay-Per-Views. In October 2011, the event drew about 182,000 domestic buys, still making it an alright draw for a B-level Pay-Per-View despite being down from the 210,000 buys in 2010 and the 283,000 buys from the 2009 event.
"Ultimately, they're trying to serve a lot of masters," Meltzer says. "There are so many different types of people and fans who want so many different things, and you cant satisfy everyone. Hell in a Cell is a perfect example of that. What people wanted and what they were delivering, right or wrong, are two different things. Times change."
But there are more layers business and political ramifications involved in the decision-making for reinserting blood into a one-off event Sunday. The company is in the midst of a lucrative, multiyear deal with toy giant Mattel that saw the company rake in $52 million during the deal's first year, 2010, according to Variety.
Even with the increased safety concerns concerning the no-blood policy, the policy has also attracted other controversy. In August, a lawsuit was filed against WWE from Devon Nicholson, an Ottawa wrestler who claimed wrongful dismissal and breach of contract, saying he was discriminated against for testing positive for Hepatitis C. , Nicholson has accused doctors associated with WWE of telling him that he could wrestle with his positive Hepatitis C test given the company's no-blood policy, according to the lawsuit. Nicholson claims his contract was rescinded less than three months after it was offered when WWE discovered that he had tested positive for Hepatitis C.
There's also the second attempt at the U.S. Senate by former WWE CEO Linda McMahon—she's holding a nine-point lead in Connecticut's Republican primary race, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll. Even as she's almost three years removed from the company, WWE-related attacks from opponents during her first run in 2010—the culture of the Attitude Era, the Chris Benoit murder-suicide and the Congressional pressure against performance-enhancing substances allegedly used by WWE talent—are bound to spring up if she's able to win the Republican nomination.
"PG, because of Linda's campaign and more because of promises made to sponsors, is here to stay for the foreseeable future," says Bryan Alvarez, publisher of Figure Four Weekly. "But...I believe everything cycles in wrestling, and at some point in the future, maybe not next year but I think within the next decade, as a new generation comes up and wants something new and edgy, the blood will return."
Nostalgia. It's what WWE does best this time of the year even if everyone is getting older. Calaway hasn't been in a match since last year's WrestleMania, not being able to leave on his own accord. Levesque is a part-timer now. Yet there's a curiosity as to what kind of third chapter they can pen for their WrestleMania trilogy. A return to the culture that helped shape their careers in the match they made together may be the fitting farewell to an era we've been looking for since that night in Houston 11 years ago.
"The fans are going to want to see [blood] and demand it," says Angle. "Whether you're PG or not, in a match like this someone is going to bleed—whether it's the hard way or the other way. Sometimes, you have to defy the rules."