The women’s Hell in a Cell match was masterful storytelling, but not a classic wrestling match
The stories told by professional wrestling all boil down to tension. There’s a suspense involved, despite the audience knowing the general flow and outcome.
This is why matches don’t boil down to a someone hitting their finishing move in the first 30 seconds or why wrestlers go for multiple pins per match that obviously aren’t the deciding pinfall. The match is a tower, built in increments as the audience waits with bated breath for the whole thing to come tumbling down.
Alfred Hitchcock gave an American Film Institute Masterclass seminar in 1970 on filmmaking, specifically on the role of suspense and tension in storytelling. Hitchcock instructs that you can either show the audience a scene of a bomb going off under a table and killing those nearby, giving a momentary shock due to the inherent violence, or tell the audience that a bomb under the same table will go off in five minutes.
The latter builds tension, using information that the audience has but the characters on-screen do not, as the feeling of dread for the assured violence to come swells in the viewer and bursts in a crescendo of cathartic violence.
The best professional wrestling works off the same concept. Wrestling fans live for the moments of suspended belief and whether or not what they are watching is real.
You become caught up in the performance, becoming a true spectator of art. I experienced this recently during the AJ Styles/James Ellsworth title match on Smackdown, as the brutal beatdown of the underdog led to a moment of surprise, with Ellsworth super-kicking Styles for a near-fall.
I knew James wasn’t winning the match that way, but the tension built in such a way that the surprise attack created a pure and true moment of suspense released. Those moments where you find yourself shouting and exclaiming are created through the slow build of tension.
I sat watching Hell in a Cell this past Sunday with that same feeling of dread in my gut, as the event worked its way towards the main event of Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte, the first time women wrestlers would compete in a Hell in a Cell match.
The dread was twofold, stemming from the story build-up, as well as the danger and violence to come. I wasn’t initially sold on the bones of the match, with Foley’s idle warnings coming off more as WWE’s own style of passive-aggressive sexism than two women willing to do anything to take back a championship they both felt was their possession.
Foley’s impassioned promo the RAW before Hell in a Cell pivoted my position, showing us a side of Mick that we haven’t seen in years. The former hardcore legend extols the danger and violence awaiting both women, who, in his opinion were blinded by their desire to hold the Women’s Championship and ignoring the fact that the cell takes more than its pound of flesh from Foley and other performers.
The women’s Hell in a Cell match needed to stand out among the crowd, finding a way to separate itself from the other two planned Cell matches on the card. A big part of that was the brutality in Sasha and Charlotte’s previous matches. While sloppy, their past contests are especially violent, with both women going out of their way to do as much damage as possible and going to any length to win.
Their Hell in a Cell match needed to build a feeling of dread, leading towards what would seem like the inevitable, violent conclusion that happens with almost all Hell in a Cell matches. In many ways, the match was akin to waiting for a car crash to happen, knowing full well someone would get hurt while being unable to turn away from the collision.
That pit of worry in my gut built throughout the match, as Charlotte and Sasha didn’t so much wrestle as they did abuse one another. The pacing of the match was a slog, as each competitor waded through a murky bog of destruction; each step another face slammed into an unforgiving steel cage or a forceful knee strike.
The match was a slow walk to an inevitable death, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. As expected, their contest was sloppy, yet got across the feeling of violence better than a match earlier in the night involving Rusev, Roman Reigns, and a steel chain. Charlotte’s constant yelling and goading of the champion as she tossed around the smaller Banks was masterful, selling the scent of blood in the water from Sasha’s earlier back injury during a table spot.
Then, it was over in a thud and an exhausted pile of human remains.
Charlotte’s rag dolling of Sasha’s body onto the table before planting Bank’s skull with Natural Selection was ugly, abrupt, and perfectly fit the story being told, even if the match quality suffered. Don’t get me wrong: This match is not a classic and isn’t even the best match the two wrestlers have had this month.
Yet, there was something to the physicality of the story told. This match didn’t need to be a masterpiece; it needed to be a punch to the face. In that respect, they succeeded in building tension and crafting a storyline based on a willingness to do anything, even if that meant putting on a match that lacked grace and athleticism.
The failed table spots even play into this, as the planned spots felt less like inevitable conclusions but the accidental violence that comes from an actual fight. Charlotte being kicked off the apron and falling through a shattering table felt more real than Charlotte utilizing a moonsault in a match where the point is maximizing pain and suffering.
Charlotte and Sasha’s match doesn’t stand out for being the best match of the night; it stands out for the story told and the tension built. I believed in the willingness of both wrestlers to do whatever to win, wincing in empathetic pain each time Sasha landed like a crash-test dummy.
Wrestling isn’t always about the number of stars a match earns or the workrate involved. In the age of armchair criticism and instant reactions, there’s sometimes no room for the sheer physicality of a match telling the story. Yet, Charlotte Flair and Sasha Banks succeeded where many have failed, setting a proverbial bomb under the table and leaving us spectators to wait in horrifying anticipation of the inevitable, violent conclusion.