“No brakes down
an endless dark incline.
Most of the boys
won’t ever cross this line.
If they all want to die dead broke,
that’s fine, that’s fine.
Everybody’s got their limits.
Nobody’s found mine.”
-The Mountain Goats – “Choked Out”
This week marked the eighteenth anniversary of the Hell in a Cell match between Mankind and The Undertaker from WWF King of the Ring 1998. If you’re a wrestling fan (and if you’re reading this, I’m sure you are), you know this match well. Many people cite it as the first match they ever watched, or their favorite match, or the most influential match in wrestling history. There’s little I can say here that hasn’t been said before, but on some level, with the greater lesson still unlearned, I feel the need to say it.
If they excel at nothing else, you can’t say that the WWE doesn’t know how to set the mood. First, the massive Cell lowers from the ceiling, accompanied by its own ominous music. Jim Ross on commentary describes it as “a perverse, vile, diabolical structure.” His partner, Jerry Lawler, pipes in to call it “Satanic.” They do not view the Cell as simply an inanimate, hulking mass of steel. To them, it is far more sinister. “Ode to Freud” and “Graveyard Symphony”, the themes of our two competitors here, only further settle us into the atmosphere. The subdued, forbidding tones of the first send a wave of apprehension and excitement over the crowd, and the opening gong of the second is joined by thunderous applause from the crowd. The Undertaker is here, and a sea of humanity rises to its feet in preparation for his coming.
Before The Undertaker even enters the arena, Mankind (who, for sort of a more humane reason, I’ll now refer to by his real name) has already climbed to the top of the Cell, and dread spreads over the crowd. They can sense that they’re in for something big and also something very terrible, and they want it all the same. This dread is only heightened as both men nearly crash through the ceiling of the cage by accident. Nothing good can come from being sixteen feet in the air, atop a structure meant only to cause pain.
Without wasting any time, Undertaker tosses Foley off the side of the Cell and down through the commentary table below. I must have seen this spot dozens, if not hundreds, of times throughout the years, and watching it now I barely react to it at all. As the crowd cheers and then settles into a hushed murmur, as EMTs and officials and wrestlers and executives rush to ringside to check on Foley, and as they replay that moment again and again to fill for time, I scroll through Twitter. I suppose that scares the better part of me.
Jim Ross is a dream here. You can tell he’s angry. He’s almost sickened. He’s scared to death for this man he’s just seen plummet to the ground, this friend of his who’s done a terrible thing to himself. But above all else, he’s calling this match (what little match there is to call) and supplying a few of the most iconic lines in wrestling history, words and phrases burned into the very fabric of my memory. It’s hard to tell how much of it is acting, how much of it is pre-scripted, what lines are being fed to him (though that seems unlikely, with Vince McMahon here at ringside in the thick of it), as we’ve never had him break it down word by word with a stenographer. But whether it’s constructed or whether it’s “real”, that ever-elusive element wrestling chases decades after the truth came out, it’s tremendous commentary. This match and these moments would feel lesser were they called by anyone else.
As the EMTs wheel out a stretcher to take Foley to the back, a fan yells out “Finish the match, man! Do it!”, as if he’s not just seen this man nearly fall to his death. They pile what’s left of Mrs. Foley’s baby boy onto the stretcher and begin dragging him backstage, and the crowd chants the Undertaker’s name over and over. JR apologizes to those watching at home about the match coming to such an abrupt end. Lawler ridicules him for it, asking “why do you apologize for that?”. Flustered, JR tows the company line, although his true feelings are clear. They’re in the business of blood and violence and entertainment, and they’re meant to give the people what they want, no matter how he feels.
More so than anyone, Foley understands this, and as he fights through the throng of people escorting him backstage and limps his way back into the match, there’s a smile on his face. Foley has stated that he doesn’t remember most of this match and it’s clear that he’s not in his right mind throughout a good portion of it, but on some level you have to think that Foley wants this, that he wants to give these people this spectacle. You have to hand it to the Undertaker as well, as he sort of gets lost in this whole mess; the man is certainly willing to play ball. He tosses Foley off the Cell. He climbs right back up the cage when Foley stumbles his way back into the match. He slams the broken man, a friend and colleague of his, through the cage ceiling and down into the ring below. He drives Foley into the thumbtacks, and is himself driven into a chair. He does none of this out of malice or out of disregard. He’s simply a man doing his job, playing his role, giving these paying fans what they want.
All of this punishment, all of this long-lasting damage that Foley did to his body here, certainly endeared himself to the fans even more so than he already had. You could argue that, even though it took years off his life and livelihood, that it did wonders for his career. Foley would win his first world title six months later, and would remain in the main event scene until his first retirement a bit more than a year after that. Today, nearly twenty years later, he’s remembered fondly as a legend of the sport, a true everyman, as lovable a character as wrestling has ever seen. But was it really worth it, keeping in mind the state of his body and mind today? At what point do you have to tell a man doing these sorts of things to himself to stop?
After The Undertaker chokeslams Foley through the ceiling of the Cell and down to the ring below, JR, after a moment of shock, disgustedly pleads “Good God, good God, will somebody stop the damn match? Enough’s enough.” The crowd bellows, one of the louder pops I’ve ever heard in wrestling, and while no small part of me wants to join in with their jubilation, I’d like to think that the better part of me shares in JR’s sentiment. This is crossing a line. This is going too far. I think it’s silly to argue that something “isn’t wrestling” in a sport as varied and eclectic and malleable as this, but looking at the pain and torment and damage this caused for one of these men, I don’t think it’s too much to say that wrestling could use less of this.
Now, I most definitely need to illustrate that I love hardcore wrestling. My favorite promotion is CZW, and they, more so than any other fed, instilled in me a love of professional wrestling years ago. This past week, I spent hours of my time making clips and WebMs of spots from Tournament of Death XV to share on Twitter and on forums. I bleed black and yellow with the best of them. I would never call for an end to hardcore or deathmatch wrestling. Most of it is superficially harmful, little more than a bit of blood and pageantry, and it fills a niche, employing people all over the world. Sometimes they go too far, of course. Sometimes a man is pronounced legally dead in a helicopter. That’s when you have to step back and look at what you’re doing and think about it all. Is it worth it? Is there a line you can’t cross? What can we learn to make things better?
In some ways, this match is a point of pride with wrestling fans. When people jeer and say, “oh, but wrestling’s all fake, innit?”, you show them this match, that particular, brief moment that Foley takes to the sky. You tell them, “no, this isn’t fake, this is as real as it gets”, and you’re proud of yourself, and proud of this thing that you love so much and that you so desperately want to protect. Is that a little morbid, and does it say something about wrestling fans? Sure. But more than that, I think it illustrates how people (myself included) feel about wrestling. It shows the unbridled passion that people have for this goofy, inane thing we call a sport. But that passion shouldn’t mean that we can’t look at wrestling objectively and draw a line in the sand, or, maybe, that passion is evidence that we should in fact do so. If we love this thing so much, should we not try our best to make sure that the people who perform it can still walk when they’re 50 and make sure they can still remember what they had for breakfast? Should we not ensure that these performers don’t have to kill themselves for our pleasure? Should we not learn from the mistakes of the past?
At one point, late in this match, JR says “Hell is in Pittsburgh tonight” to describe the scene unfolding before him, and he couldn’t be more right. On some level, this match is a nightmare. But we love it. So many people, myself included, love this match. It’s a spectacle through and through, a perfect example of the insane, unexplainable allure pro wrestling has. This match has anchored a love of wrestling deep in the hearts of countless millions across the globe, and endless other matches have done the same for fans dating back well over a century. But our love should not prevent progress, should not prevent necessary change, requisite limits. Our love should influence the sport for the better, if only for the sake of those such as Mrs. Foley’s baby boy.