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Vive la revolution! Hell in a Cell reviewed

Is the so-called ‘Divas Revolution’ finally paying dividends? Maybe so, going by the impressive clash between new champ Charlotte and the dethroned Nikki Bella at last weekend’s Hell in a Cell pay-per-view (or special event, as they’ve now been branded in the WWE Network era). That came two months after the amazing Sasha Banks and new NXT Women’s Champion Bayley tore down the house in Brooklyn the night before SummerSlam, and again more recently in a superb 30-minute iron man — or rather, iron woman — match in the main event of NXT TakeOver: Respect.

But it also came after a middling few weeks for the Divas division on the main roster — the wrestlers that populate the weekly flagship Raw and the more lowly but still high-profile SmackDown — where the ‘Revolution’ has manifested in an awkward triangle of trios in lieu of any real character development.

Whatever individuality the likes of Charlotte, Becky Lynch (Dublin represent) and especially Banks, the wrestling savant, possess has been subsumed into these cumbersome combinations: two of the ‘Four Horsewomen’ linking pinkies with Paige — a damp squib as the ‘anti-Diva’ on the bigger stage — for no particular reason, while the third is aligned with the light-up-shoed Naomi and silent muscle Tamina most likely only because she happens to be a fellow person of colour. That’s how mainstream WWE booking goes (just ask The New Day, before they managed to shape the gimmick in line with their own vision).

The initial concept was a smart one: put the established ‘Divas’ like the Bella Twins against the brash up-and-comers from NXT. The problem, though, is one of expectations. WWE sees the established Divas as the experienced entertainers, with the newcomers as ingenues required to prove their mettle. Fans, on the other hand, see the newly promoted Horsewomen as the far better skilled wrestlers that they are, setting out to school their superiors in how ‘women’s wrestling’ should be done.

WWE Creative has mostly made a hames of it, vacillating between conventional Divas booking (short, inconsequential matches) and teases at real change to come. The lack of commitment either way, so that at least we as fans know when we stand, was severely detrimental to Charlotte’s Divas Title win at Night of Champions. After ‘winning’ the belt six days before on Raw, but having the result overturned on the night due to shenanigans, more shenanigans were expected in Houston. That Charlotte won the title clean, with no interference from the ostensibly heel Team Bella to save Nikki’s record reign, didn’t make any sense. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop; it was only after the following night’s Raw that it was clear there was no other shoe, as the story swiftly moved on to Paige’s sudden dissension with her NXT sisters in Team PCB.

While all of that’s going on, you’ve got Sasha Banks, the ‘Boss’ who isn’t even the boss of her own team, and who no one wants to see do anything but completely dominate any Diva on the main roster, because her fans know she can outwrestle every single one of them in her sleep. But in WWE logic, she hasn’t yet paid her dues. It makes one despair, it really does.

But then we get matches like the one last Sunday, which demonstrate that yes indeed, mainstream booking for WWE’s female wrestlers might actually be headed in the right direction. No throwaway bout to fill the piss-break slot, Charlotte vs Nikki Bella ran a solid 10 minutes — twice as long as Kevin Owens’ clash with Ryback for the IC Title later in the evening — with hard-fought Wrestling-with-a-capital-W throughout. Yes, both looked like wrestlers, not simply ‘Divas’. Even Nikki, someone I’ve never rated as a worker, who also wore new ring gear that sent the message ‘I’m here to fight’ over ‘I’m just here to look hot’. One can nitpick at issues with the match layout (Nikki dominated the champ for far too long; Charlotte locked on the match-winning Figure 8 submission literally 20 seconds after taking an apron bump) but in terms of the bigger picture, it should be applauded as a positive step. Only time will tell if it’s sustainable, however. WWE has a habit of turning gold into shit.

I mean, just look at the overall booking in the show-leading feud between the Undertaker and Brock Lesnar. I mean really look, beyond the crowd-pleasing Brock beatdowns between special events. Look at the creative failure of the ending to their SummerSlam main event, which I’ve complained about at length. Look at the persistent, deliberate ignorance of babyface Taker’s heel tactics against the ‘Beast’. Where’s the benefit in establishing your hero of 25-year vintage as completely unable to topple the conquering monster without giving him a dig in the balls? That’s nothing new in WWE, though — the kids’ favourite merchandise cash cow John Cena basically works as a classic heel much of the time, and even Hulk Hogan resorted to tactics like ‘victory power’ back in the day — but it never works in the end. There’s a reason why so many people chant ‘John Cena sucks’. There’s a reason why so many fans turned off the Hulkster as the 1990s progressed. True virtue means something, even if that virtue is nothing more than ‘I promise to beat the shit out of you, and I live up my promises’. We know where we stand with Brock Lesnar. He’s someone we can get behind.

That’s why he got cheers from the thousands in Los Angeles’ Staples Center on Sunday night despite stooping to hit his own low blow; turnabout is fair play. But Taker, too, commanded respect from the same crowd, because for once in this feud he didn’t seek the cheap way out. He took on Brock in the Cell and the better man won. The end. We know it’s the end because the Wyatt Family surrounded the ring after Brock departed to lay waste to the Dead Man and carry out his limp remains. There’s your main event for Survivor Series right there.

As for Brock, we won’t be seeing him again for a while, I don’t think. It’s likely his limited dates for the year are up, and he’s got no feud left now anyway. Best to wait to hit the reset button in January at the Royal Rumble: Brock Lesnar as an unexpected entrant would make for a guaranteed pop, and he’d be a well-received winner, too, though that wouldn’t be necessary to set him on the right path towards WrestleMania. In any case, Vince McMahon was not best pleased with the Beast’s behaviour at Hell in a Cell. Conflicting reports have it that the WWE CEO was at once aghast at and unconcerned by the bloodletting (Brock needed nine staples to close a gash above his forehead) but everyone agrees that his shoving of the WWE physician (after he entered the cage a second time to check on Taker’s own head wound) was a major no-no.

Of course there would’ve been no doctor in the cage to begin with if we were still in the Attitude Era when this type of match was born. Blade jobs were par for the course in such violent battles, but the PG Era ban on blood — and, by extension, blading — has rendered most cage matches of any kind pointless. It’s bad enough having Hell in a Cell as the theme for a PPV (this year’s show being a semi-exception to years of match-ups by obligation rather than natural feud-ending combustion) but when you can’t even show the physical toll of the environment in the most direct visual way? The concept is moot.

(As an aside, while it’s pretty clear Brock was split open hardway, I suspect that Taker bladed. There’s a suspicious handoff to referee Mike Chioda towards the end of the match, minutes before that conspicuous rip in the canvas that signals the end sequence of the match. The blade as a tool for ripping the mat and not at all for slicing skin to draw blood, nosiree, makes for perfectly plausible deniability.)

There was another Cell match on the show, between Roman Reigns and Bray Wyatt, that fits more neatly into that pattern of the cage needing a match rather than the match needing a cage. But as it happens, they aimed to play a different kind of game to Brock/Taker, making use of chairs and kendo sticks as a diabolical extension of the Cell to put on a surprisingly gripping and conclusive battle, and another step on Roman Reigns’ road to redemption. That road continued in a mini-tournament on the following night’s Raw, whereby Reigns truly earned a shot at Seth Rollins’ WWE World Championship for the first time, if the response of the San Diego crowd was any indication. WWE Creative are taking their time with Reigns now, building him up slow and steady, and much like with the Divas Revolution, it’s finally starting to pay dividends. It’s about time, in my book, as I’ve never had a problem with Reigns as the WWE’s next big hope. He really needs to work on his promos, though. Charisma is not his strong suit.

Speaking of strong, a strong main event needs a strong mid-card to support it, and things are finally paying off in those respects as well. Can we thank The New Day for that? I think we should. I don’t remember having so much fun watching wrestling than when I see Xavier Woods, Big E and Kofi Kingston in action. Even with only two of them at Hell in a Cell they bring the unicorn power (the spot with the trombone has been cited as a nod to/rip-off from Eddie Guerrero, but I’m pretty sure Eddie wasn’t the first to do that kind of thing). I’ll concede their feud with the Dudley Boyz might be going nowhere fast, but if it leads to a final clash in December at TLC — in, and hear me out here, a ‘Trombones, Ladders and Chairs’ match, no tables allowed! — it’ll be worth it.

Meanwhile, alongside The New Day you’ve got the trio fans have taken to calling Eurotrash: that’s King Barrett, Sheamus and Rusev to you and me. Plus the debut of Tyler Breeze on the main roster? Stardust? Cesaro? Kevin Owens? NXT notwithstanding, it’s been yonks since us WWE fans have had it so good. And I’m gonna enjoy it while it lasts.