Formats Unpacked: WWE - Hell in a Cell

How a format already filled with drama, increases the intensity to epic levels

Hi all,

If you’re looking for creative inspiration or want to hang out with a group of smart and lovely people, join us for Proper Fancy tomorrow - Thursday 27th June at 1 pm (BST). Proper Fancy is a team show and tell that’s open to everyone. It’s very relaxed - you can join in and share stuff, get involved in the chat, or just sit back and listen. I’ll be showing a bunch of stuff that tickled my fancy from Cannes.

Speaking of Cannes, we tried out a format idea we’ve been discussing internally for some time. My hypothesis is that there’s a lot of people working in industries/sectors/large brands that want a daily briefing of everything that’s happening in that industry/sector/large brand every morning. So we produced Caught Up on Cannes, a 9-minute daily news podcast about the festival, published at 7 am every morning whilst the festival was on. Get in touch if you’d like to hear more about what we learned from doing it.

OK. On to the format. This week, our very own Chris Mitchell makes his debut, unpacking one of his favourite entertainment formats. Chris is a podcast producer at Storythings. He also devised and produced Redemption Man, the story of a mysterious man who has been seen carrying a large white cross throughout West London for almost 35 years.

Over to Chris…

What’s it called?

Hell in a Cell (a twisted evolution of the cage match)

What’s the format?

Hell in a Cell (HIAC) is a professional wrestling steel cage-based match introduced by the World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE) in October 1997. It features a large cell structure and a five-sided cuboid made from steel fencing that encloses the ring and ringside area. In traditional Steel Cage matches, the structure surrounds just the ring with an open top for wrestlers to escape and win.

In HIAC matches, the cage structure surrounds the entire ringside area, and a roof is attached. There’s no way to climb out legitimately. You enter through a side door; then it’s locked shut with chains and a padlock. Wins can only be secured by pinfall or submission - and there are no disqualifications. The match is closely associated with WWE Hall of Famer, The Undertaker. To date, there have been 52 HIAC matches, and The Undertaker has participated most - with 14 appearances and eight victories. 

What’s the magic that makes it special?

I've been a wrestling fan for 30+ years. I picked HIAC because if the intensity of wrestling already goes up to 11, this format takes it up to 15. The atmosphere is intense because the upgraded cage format provides a heightened sense of drama, danger and tension for the competitors and viewers. The match is often the climax of a long-standing beef between wrestlers and is excellent for decisively settling scores. Lastly, the emotional investment is high, but the payoff is always sweet - leading to increased emotional investment from the wrestlers and the audience. Whether it's a championship on the line or a personal vendetta, the match’s outcome often carries significant consequences. Overall, HIAC matches are revered by fans and wrestlers alike for their combination of spectacle, drama, and physicality, making them a staple of professional wrestling events.

HIAC flips the cage match format on its head by locking the competitors inside and putting a roof on the top of what legendary commentator Jim Ross calls a "demonic structure”. With the original cage match, matches can be won by climbing out of the cage, not in HIAC. By removing obvious paths to escape, the 'restriction' in movement increases physicality and creativity. By seemingly reducing the element of danger, the threat is only increased. Locking the wrestlers in the cage opens up many opportunities for impactful spots and innovative violence, such as throwing opponents into the cage walls and using weapons like tables and metal chairs, which are always conveniently placed under the ring apron. 

Over the years, HIAC matches have produced many iconic moments in wrestling history. From The Undertaker throwing Mankind off the cell (more on that later) to Shane McMahon's daring leaps, these matches create lasting memories for fans. HIAC is a staple of WWE programming and Wrestling in general.

Hell in a Cell Superstars

Favourite Episode

My all-time favourite HIAC match is between The Undertaker and Mankind because of its impact and influence. Taking place three days after my 16th birthday, at the 1998 King Of The Ring event, the match is a case study of chaos and unpredictability in perfect balance. The biggest reason why I love this match is because of the way it started. The two HIAC matches prior to this one always started INSIDE the cage. This one STARTED outside and on the top of the roof.  

Remember when I said that The Undertaker threw Mankind off the cage? Mankind climbed to the top of the structure from the outside while making his entrance before the bell. The Undertaker followed him up. Then... after a brief fisticuff, The Undertaker threw Mankind off the top of the 15-foot high cage into the announcers’ table below. 

This epic moment has remained a fixture in WWE highlight reels and promo packages. Another reason why this HIAC ranks as my favourite is the spontaneous “did that just happen?” energy displayed throughout. As the bout progressed, It felt like more bad things were going to occur… and they did. A few minutes later, The Undertaker chokeslams Mankind through the cage’s ceiling. Upon crashing into the ring, the back of his head hit a steel chair. Oops. That spot wasn’t planned and wasn’t supposed to happen. Later on, Mankind was chokeslammed again onto thumbtacks. Ouch.

Similar formats?

War Games is where two cages are placed side by side with teams of five wrestlers entering in five-minute intervals.

There’s also the Triple Cage match that was first introduced at Slamboree 2000. Three cages are stacked on each other, and each cage gets smaller the higher you go. The bottom cage encased the ring and had a trap door on the roof. Competitors had to climb through that trap door and enter the second cage on top of the first cage. The second cage was called the “hardcore cage” and had various weapons inside it. Competitors had to escape the hardcore cage and climb it to find the third cage on top of the second cage. The third cage is much smaller, but hanging from the roof of this third cage was the WCW World Heavyweight Championship. To win this match, all you had to do was climb all three cages, grab the “prestigious” belt and become the brand new WCW Champion.

Thanks, Chris,

Reading this made me think about one of my favourite episodes of Formats Unpacked from the archive. I had very little knowledge of cricket. I thought all cricket was cricket until Richard Gillis unpacked Twenty20 and explained that it’s cricket with all the boring bits taken out. Brilliant. We frequently talk about how restrictions are great for creativity. In the case of HIAC, it would appear that adding restrictions can also provide intensity.

If you’d like to unpack a favourite format get in touch. Or if you’d like to hear about how we help some of the world’s most respected B2B companies develop content marketing formats just hit that button below.

See you all next time,


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