The good old-fashioned gimmick match is slowly dying right before our eyes. Once used as a way to blow-off a big feud, the gimmick match no longer has that ‘special’ occasion feel. We have become so accustomed to them, they no longer hold that ‘big match’ spectacle. In short, the gimmick match has just become any other mach.
Some of the greatest matches of all time have had some sort of gimmick attached to them.
Who can forget the classic Hell in a Cell matches between The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker and Mankind, and even Triple H and Mick Foley? Who can forget the classic TLC and ladder matches involving The Dudley Boys, Edge and Christian, and The Hardy Boys? Who can forget classic ladder matches, such as Shawn Michaels vs Razor Ramon, and Triple H vs The Rock? I could go on forever.
The wrestling, the psychology, and the violence made these matches great, but there is one factor that many people seem to overlook. These matches meant something. They were blow-offs to long feuds, and the gimmick was brought in because the match REQUIRED it, not because the time of year called for it.
One of the most infamous and highly rated gimmick matches came 21 years ago at Wrestlemania, as Shawn Michaels faced Razor Ramon in a ladder match for the Intercontinental title.
The idea of a ladder match is that you have something hanging above the ring (usually a title), and the only way to retrieve it is to climb up the ladder and grab it. It is a simple concept, and one that has brought many classic matches.
In 1993, Shawn Michaels was suspended whilst holding the Intercontinental championship. While HBK was suspended, Razor Ramon captured the vacant belt on an episode of Monday Night Raw, defeating Rick Martel. Michaels returned with the original Intercontinental championship in November, claiming to be the real champion, as Razor Ramon had not defeated him for the belt.
After four to five months of build, the issue was to be resolved in a ladder match at Wrestlemania, with both titles hanging above the ring. The match is well known as a classic. It is full of drama, brutality, and the psychology is brilliant. However, it is not just two men showcasing their talent. There is a story behind it, and with that, you care more about what happens. It was about unifying the titles, done in a memorable way.
Over a year passed by before we next saw a ladder match. It ended up being a rematch between Razor Ramon and Shawn Michaels at Summerslam 1995. From then on, the ladder match would not feature on TV until 1998, with another memorable moment at Summerslam. The Rock and Triple H had been feuding as the leaders of two factions (DX and The Nation of Domination) over the Intercontinental title, and the blow-off was a ladder match. It too became a classic, and one of the main reasons was the novelty of the ladder match at the time. It had been three years since the last televised ladder match, therefore making this something we had not seen for a long time.
Unfortunately, the ladder match would soon become overused. The next one was only three months later. Then, in 1999, there were three, albeit one of them changed the landscape of tag team wrestling. In 2000, there were only two, but given that it was featuring Edge and Christian, The Hardy Boys, and The Dudley Boys, I will give it a pass. Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit had a memorable match at the Royal Rumble in early 2001, but from then on, the novelty was wearing off fast. The year 2006 had four ladder matches after August, which is nearly once a month, not including the TLC and Money in the Bank ladder matches.
Today, you will see multiple ladder matches in one night with the themed pay per views, such as Money in the Bank and TLC, on the schedule. This has meant that matches would be thrown together for the sake of the calendar rather than the sake of the feud. Did Dolph Ziggler vs Luke Harper really have to happen in a ladder match last December? Not really. It did because it was December and we HAVE to have a ladder match, because the PPV calendar says so.
The ladder match is not the only gimmick match to suffer from this. Perhaps even more alarmingly, the Hell in a Cell has lost the edge it once had.
Rewind back to 1997. Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker were locked in a feud because Michaels had cost The Deadman the WWE title at Summerslam. The Undertaker wasn’t happy, and wanted revenge on HBK, so they faced off in a match at In Your House: Ground Zero. The result was a war, with the referee being knocked out seconds in. The Undertaker tried to beat the hell out of Michaels, whilst Shawn tried to run away. It took nearly 10 minutes for the bell to ring, and the match was eventually stopped, as five referees had been used to try bring order. A host of WWE superstars came out from the back to break up the brawl, and Michaels seemingly had escaped, until The Undertaker broke free, and dove over the ropes onto HBK. The overall story of the match was that Taker wanted to destroy Michaels, but couldn’t get close enough to do so, mainly thanks to DX’s interference.
As a result, the Hell in a Cell was born. Michaels had no escape, and DX couldn’t interfere in the match. The Shawn Michaels vs Undertaker Hell in a Cell was the first of its kind, and in many people’s minds, the best of all time. The match had violence, drama, but most importantly, story. Undertaker beat HBK to a pulp for 30 minutes, with Michaels trapped in the confines of the structure, trying to escape. They weren’t thrown into a Hell in a Cell for the sake of the calendar, they were thrown into the Hell in a Cell because it fit the storyline.
The same applies to Mankind vs The Undertaker the following year. Of course, the King of the Ring 1998 Hell in a Cell is remembered because of the violence, but at the end of the day, it happened because it fit the two-year story these two had been playing out.
The Hell in a Cell brings two key stories into the fold. To trap a superstar, or the ultimate brutality. These stories were factored into the first two Hell in a Cell matches (I am not counting the tag team one from Raw, because it was moreso an angle than a match). Unfortunately the idea of the Cell being used for storyline purposes was thrown out the window. The vast majority of the following Hell in a Cell matches were brought together for the sake of having a cage. What should have been a special attraction gimmick became a match we would see often, and eventually, in 2009, had its own pay per view.
With the addition of the Hell in a Cell pay per view, the fans are showcased at least one Hell in a Cell match a year, more often than not for no explainable reason. Take last year’s Hell in a Cell pay per view. You had Dean Ambrose vs Seth Rollins and John Cena vs Randy Orton, both in the Cell. Now yes, Amborse vs Rollins in the Cell made sense, as it fit the story, but why did Orton vs Cena have to be in the Cell? There is no reason for that match to be a Hell in a Cell match, except for the fact that it is ‘that time of year.’
A lot of people attribute the decline in gimmick match quality to the WWE going PG, which has meant a tone-down in the violence and the blood. It might be a factor, but you can still have a great Hell in a Cell match or ladder match without gallons of blood. Look at Benoit vs Jericho from the Royal Rumble 14 years ago. It was a great ladder match that used psychology rather than violence to tell the story. The matches do not need to be violent in order to be good, although the odd bit of extreme violence can be very entertaining.
The decline of the gimmick match comes down to them being done too often. They mean a lot less today because more often than not, they are thrown together for no sensible reason. The schedule making the gimmick matches rather than the feud itself is crippling the matches, and we end up not caring about the gimmick. We can’t have a Hell in a Cell in May, because October is the time for that, and therefore, feuds that could have finished inside the Cell, or cage, or with a ladder match, are instead finished in other, less interesting ways.
In order for the gimmick match to regain its appeal, the WWE needs to cut these themed pay per views and have these matches when they are required, and not on a certain date of the year. Have these matches mean something, because right now, they are just there.
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