// cw: I feel like this one’s pretty obvious //
I like deathmatches. You’ll know that if you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time. I appreciate deathmatches not only for their one-of-a-kind spectacle but because they bring a lot of weight to an art form that increasingly desires to become weightless. The consequences of someone getting cut up by a bunch of light tubes is often more tangible than the consequences of someone being hit by an opponent’s finisher, both in terms of how the viewer perceives each action and how the wrestlers in question sell them. Call me old fashioned but I like it when the events in a story retain meaning over time, so I tend to like a lot of deathmatches.
Strictly speaking, inferno matches aren’t always deathmatches. Several have been, sure, namely those in FMW and BJW, but the WWE-branded inferno match is a different beast largely. It might share some similarities with other environmentally-based matches like no rope barbed wire or barefoot thumbtack matches but over their twenty year history WWE inferno matches have been approached in a variety of different ways in a company that’s changed quite a lot over time. Let’s spend entirely too much time talking about how and why these matches succeed and fail.
The Undertaker vs Kane
WWF Unforgiven: In Your House
Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, North Carolina, United States
So here’s where we start, with what I’d probably call the worst inferno match. These two can work well together but they both need room to knock each other around, room to bump for big moves, and that’s something you very much don’t have in this kind of match. What’s more these characters can’t sell the danger of this situation like other guys can. Taker still sells panic and flashes of fear (better than most any other monster guy in wrestling history, I’d say) but Kane is the blankest of slates so there’s almost no emotional stake in this match, no rising tension by which these bland spots are made to feel huge. Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler help tremendously on commentary, as do most all the guys who ever end up calling these matches, but there’s only so much they can do when the people in the ring barely react to the supposedly horrifying things happening. On top of everything else this is far and away the longest match of this style, with its sixteen minutes being twice as long as the next-longest inferno match. That’s always a factor in these plodding Taker/Kane matches and doubly so when they’re restricted as much as they are here.
Still, there’s an appeal to this. They haven’t figured out how to milk this gimmick to its fullest potential just yet and they aren’t legitimately death-defying stuntshows the way Japanese inferno matches are, but this is still a wild spectacle. In particular you’ll find a shot like this that uses forced perspective to make it look like Taker’s leaping straight into a wall of flame:
Stuff like that goes a long way if you’re willing to go along for the ride. I’m sure it felt huge back in the day, before these matches had developed a reputation as being hokey snores. Eventually Kane’s tossed over the ropes by his brother and runs afoul of Vader, who he injured recently. They fight at ringside until Taker hits one of the zaniest dives of his career:
Crowd pops huge for it, as they should. A seven foot dude leaping out of the ring onto two other monsters with a big wall of fire rising behind him is fucking awesome. Out on the floor Taker wallops Kane with a chair and stalks Paul Bearer up on the bandstand where Jeff Jarrett had performed with country band Sawyer Brown earlier in the night.
Attitude Era, baby. Bearer blades off that and it’s very silly. Kane tries to take control once Taker wanders back to ringside but he’s the one who finally feeds the flame.
Kinda goofy-looking but it makes good on the promise of the gimmick. I like how he reacts to the fire too, the way I’d expect a big freak to do so. Kane loses his signature matchup in what will quickly become a trend.
Kane vs The Undertaker
WWF RAW IS WAR
taped 02/16/1999, aired 02/22/1999
UTC Arena, Chattanooga, Tennessee, United States
(reviewed 05/30/2019) This comes from that brief period of time where Taker’s Ministry of Darkness and Vince McMahon’s Corporation were feuding before they joined up later on. Kane’s aligned with Vince, who booked this to punish Taker and sits in on commentary to watch it happen. As a match this is way speedier and more heated (ba dum tss) than the last match, as Taker attacks his brother even before the flames are lit. Both men are more willing to get physical this time around, really whipping each other into the ropes and going at it with strikes and slams. More great forced perspective, the one thing this stip always gets right:
As Vince is ranting and raving, Paul Bearer arrives and hands him a wrapped gift from the Undertaker. There’s a child’s teddy bear inside, which unsettles Vince for some as-yet unrevealed reason and he wanders off as the match continues. Action picks up in a huge way with Kane eating shit on a dive to the floor.
Both guys take some nice shots at each other before a mistimed boot hands Kane another inferno match loss.
And finally, WWF BRAND MELODRAMA, BECAUSE FUCK YOU.
Triple H vs Kane
taped 09/21/1999, aired 09/23/1999
Reunion Arena, Dallas, Texas, United States
(reviewed 05/30/2019) Thankfully Triple H’s inferno match is the shortest of all of them. This is the second of five matches he’s wrestling tonight, as he was put in a gauntlet of sorts in order to retain his spot in the six-way match at Unforgiven for the vacant WWF title (which Vince vacated after beating Trips in screwy fashion). On top of it just being part of the most insufferable push for the most insufferable man in American wrestling history, this is some fragrantly harmful booking of what is pretty clearly a wild marquee stipulation. Shoving it in as a three minute match that goes third on a random Smackdown is just baffling to me, as is the way they were throwing out Hell in a Cell matches left and right around this time. Post-Attitude Era WWE gets all the press for devaluing big gimmick matches but shit man, this feels just as bad to me.
Trips is an interesting figure here. Thus far he’s the most human participant this stipulation has ever seen so he shows more tangible fear of the flames than Kane or Taker ever have.
Of course, he’s still Triple H and he’s just now getting the rocket strapped to him, so that fear only goes so far. The new top star can’t be afraid of something as silly as being burned alive, brother. Exacerbating this issue is how much worse WWF has gotten in shooting these matches in 1999. The first one’s fairly cinematic and harrowing but they’ve shied away from focusing on the emotions and reactions of the participants since then. In addition they’ve turned down the lights more and more to create a spooky atmosphere that looks great in some sense but also makes it difficult to see what’s happening at times.
Pretty soon Kane is distracted by the Ministry of Darkness dragging a beaten X-Pac out onto the stage.
Kane goes to help his friend, diving off the top onto Ministry members Mideon and Viscera. They begin to tussle and in the bedlam Kane again gets shoved into the flames.
He runs up the ramp, theoretically to attack Taker with a flaming fist a la wrestling god Corporal Robinson. But sadly Taker proves that IWA Mid-South is infinitely better than the mark-ass New York territory by just walking backstage, so Kane attends to his friend while his hand is still on fire. Real helpful, pal. Michael Cole says that Kane cares more about his friend than being on fire, which sounds dramatic in theory until you realize it completely undercuts any meaning this match is meant to have. Great stuff.
Kane vs MVP
WWE Armageddon 2006
Richmond Coliseum, Richmond, Virginia, United States
(reviewed 05/30/2019) Finally we get to a good inferno match. Revisiting this one in the midst of my Regal project is the reason I watched all of these anyway, because I wanted a reason to talk about why I liked it so much.
A lot of it’s just due to how everybody handles this gimmick. MVP’s a cocky young guy who’s found a lot of success in WWE thus far but of course he’s scared out of his mind here. Kane, who’s unmasked for the only time in this stipulation’s history, clearly takes some sort of demented glee in what he’s about to do to a guy he’s been feuding with. JBL is incensed on commentary, berating Teddy Long endlessly for booking this thing and endangering the life and career of one of Smackdown’s rising stars. It’s great. Instead of everyone acting all bad and/or brooding, people both in and out of the ring actually have stakes in how this match plays out. It sounds so obvious and obviously not every match can have the same life-and-death consequences this thing thematically has, but goddamn man this is a real breath of fresh air compared to the hundreds of heatless matches I’ll watch this year.
The other big thing I love about this match is the way it looks. At times this looks like the most expensive Antonio Inoki match I’ve ever seen or the most expensive Atsushi Onita match I’ve ever seen, where this madman had some creative vision and enough guts to attempt it and somehow created something so beautiful in its outlandishness that I can’t look away. A lot of that comes down to how much more polished WWE production has gotten since 1999 but some of it’s just the perfect accident of great art.
Related to that Inoki/Onita idea is what MVP has to go through here. He’s not some supernatural being like Kane and the Undertaker both are. He’s not some dick-sucking demigod immune from punishment like Triple H, either. He’s a guy who has to fend off flaming turnbuckle pads.
He has to make huge efforts to defeat his opponent, efforts that can just as easily bring him into the fires of hell.
Shit, he has to deal with a goddamn psychopath who kayfabe immolated his own parents!
MVP just straight up tries to flee the ring after that, scaling the ropes in order to jump like someone caught in a high rise fire. Kane shoves him off the top and follows him to the floor, felling his man with a flying clothesline. Both men try to frantically drive the other into the flames but Kane’s strength wins out, as he slowly shoves MVP into the fire to win his first inferno match.
I even like this finish more than the other inferno match finishes. Up until now it’s always Kane getting a limb caught on fire. Obviously that’s horrifying and dangerous but it’s not exactly life-threatening in the way getting your torso caught is. From start to finish this match is just so much bigger and scarier than anything else and I love it for that.
HOW DOES THIS MATCH COMPARE TO SHAWN VS TAKER FROM WM25: It sounds crazy, I know, but think about it. Look beyond the reputation of these two matches, beyond what so-called canonical fandom urges you to feel. This inferno match has real stakes in it, life-changing consequences. Shawn/Taker dwells in legacy and pride, interesting concepts to be sure, but the physical manifestation of the struggle over those concepts is rather lacking to me. Outside of one epic chokeslam or one of the most famous botches in wrestling history, nothing in Shawn/Taker feels all that dangerous or climactic. There’s an outlandish goofiness inherent in presenting anything so literally dangerous in a fake sport but I think this inferno match sells the concept that every spot, every moment bell to bell is perilous. Some people prefer their entertainment to be larger-than-life but I like the stuff that’s grounded in life or death.
VERDICT: Better than Shawn Michaels vs The Undertaker from WrestleMania 25
Bray Wyatt vs Kane
Ring of Fire Match
WWE SummerSlam 2013
Staples Center, Los Angeles, California, United States
(reviewed 05/30/2019) This match kinda sucks. Or rather, this is a great example of how WWE’s shift toward washed-out production and back to family friendly programming undermines anything that’s meant to have the slightest bit of edge.
Like look at this. This looks less like the place where two men are going to battle between walls of flames and more like a very special episode of All in the Family.
Even when they turn on the mood lighting it just looks like I’m at Benihana. The atmosphere of this thing is just so off, because WWE is no longer interested in creating something that’s scary or dramatic, something that feels like a person is going to get hurt. The gimmick itself has changed to reflect that, as the “burn your opponent to win” stipulation of the inferno match has been traded in for the pinfall and submission finish of the ~~~Ring of Fire~~~ match.
Thankfully there’s still some stuff to enjoy here. Weirdly this is probably the best wrestling match of all these inferno gimmicks, as these guys incorporate some distinct spots in teasing going into the fire. They’re not the most thrilling spots, as 2013 Kane is not who I want to watch in an action-packed singles match, but it’s more than acceptable. Of greater interest to me is the comedy. Bray calls for his Family members Luke Harper and Erick Rowan to enter the ring but the sentient fire has other plans.
Rowan puts the fire out with an extinguisher but even then…
It’s a far cry from the TERROR of some of these earlier matches, sure, but I don’t mind. If this stipulation is going to be neutered anyway I prefer it to devolve into lighthearted yucks instead of something toothless and bland. Eventually Harper and Rowan smother the flames with a fire blanket and rush in to attack Kane, allowing Bray to hit the Sister Abigail to win his in-ring debut with this character.
Nice little visual to end what I have to imagine is the last inferno match WWE is ever going to run. Or hey, maybe I’ll be lucky enough to see Johnny Gargano lose an eyebrow or two here in a few years.