The elimination chamber – a psychedelic ideology that is a distant relative of pro wrestling’s first ever gimmick match – the cage match. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of the cage match, but a multitude of wrestling historians have agreed on the date June 25th 1937. On this date, in Atlanta, Georgia, Jack Bloomfield and Count Petro Rossi brawled in a match that was billed as potentially being so out of control that the only way to ensure that the two men kept it in the ring was to surround the ring with chicken wire and lock them both in. Although there was not a repeat of the gimmick for another 5 years, on this night, the fans in attendance had witnessed the world’s first recorded (and somewhat primitive) cage match.
Now at this point I want to make clear that I am not going to try and give you a history lesson, but more look at selected key events in the evolution of the cage match and discussing some views on the psychology of the match. With the original chicken wire match, it seems the concept was put together because both wrestlers had been back and forth in a very lengthy feud with no clear cut winner. As the animosity had grown beyond that of any other feud at the time, the promoter billed the match as being the only way the two men could possibly settle such a war once and for all. Other theories suggest that the chicken wire match was actually put together because the heel was a coward (chicken) that kept running away from his superior opponent, stopping the baby face from coming out victorious. Therefore the only logical resolution to this plight was to lock the chicken up, like any other chicken, via chicken wire, inside the squared circle. These two theories have one thing in common – they both meant that there was a reason for this match to happen. It must highlighted that back in the 30’s kayfabe was not only still alive, but it literally did not cross the punter’s minds that the outcomes of the matches were predetermined. At this point in history wrestling was presented as, and was very much believed to be, a true athletic contest between two sportsmen. In fact, in the 1930s the secret truth about professional wrestling was so well kept that even the government were not aware. Promotions could not run shows in certain areas due to governments and councils not granting licences to allow ‘fights’ to take place. Not wanting to give the game away, wrestling promotions would just avoid these areas. As time went on, this naturally progressed into the fabled territory system throughout the US with certain areas becoming wrestling hotbeds. So, with wrestling at this point being such a graceful athletic sport, how on earth did chicken wire, never mind a solid steel cage, make its way into the sport? The answer to this is that of a wrestling angle that left no other option.
So when did an elaborate 1930s chicken coop become a modern day steel cage match? This honour has to be given to “Classy” Freddie Blassie during the 1960s when a match referred to, at the time, as the “Blassie Cage match” was invented. The reality was that Blassie actually came up with the ‘escape to win’ concept for a gimmick match, within a ring surrounded by four sides of cage, because he was involved in a storyline that meant this was a necessity. Not wanting to digress too much but let me give a little background. Before the (then) WWWF, and Vinny Mac Senior, ever presented him as “Classy”, Freddie Blassie was actually hardcore before “hardcore” was even a word. Blassie travelled the world working as “The Vampire” – a gimmick he took very seriously. So serious about his gimmick, Blassie would actually file down his own teeth to resemble that of a vampire and would bite his opponents until he drew blood. Talk about seeing colour the hard way. With the 1958 film adaptation of Dracula fresh in people’s minds, this was a genuinely scary visual at the time. Blassie’s world travels would eventually take him to the land of the rising sun, Japan, during the height of his vampire run. It was on this tour that Blassie gained the most notoriety, in a match with Japanese legend Rikidozan. The match ended when Rikidozan was left in a pool of his own blood by The Vampire, with Blassie relentless in his savage attack on the legend. Wrestling stories tend to get exaggerated; however numerous sources report that many viewers suffered heart attacks from the sheer intensity of the violence, and that some even died from witnessing it. Truth, exaggeration or 100% fabrication, this “news” came back to America with Freddie Blassie, making him the most feared heel in the country. Promoters obviously wanted to cash in on this, but needed to make sure that fans felt safe coming to a wrestling show with a vampire on the card. The only way to do this was to lock the vampire in a cage and feed wrestlers too him, with the contest not being about pinfall or submission but escape with your life.
So by this stage we can see the modern day incarnation of a cage match taking shape, and so far some very good reasons why these matches must take place in such an environment. Over the next two decades the cage match would become the linchpin of gimmick matches utilised to end long running rivalries. This started to become especially popular once the WWF started using the match on television with their iconic thick blue solid steel cage. This has had minor tweaks over the years both in aesthetics as well as the rules of the contests. Over the years the WWF/E added pinfall and submission rules along with the ability to not only escape over the top of the cage, but also though the cage door. But that is not the only changes the wrestling promotions have made to the cage match over the years. Since the mid-1980s there have been many incarnations of the cage match – many of which are used on television to this day. The most obvious change to the match was to add a roof to the cage. The WWF first utilised this in 1997 dubbing it “Hell in a Cell”, but this was not the first roofed cage match. The NWA/WCW had their annual “War Games” PPVs in which there were two rings surrounded by one giant cell. Both WCW and WWF tried to take this even further in their own rights.
WWF ended a feud between Al Snow and The Big Boss Man with a “dog kennel from hell” match. The concept was that the ring had a cage around the apron, a hell in a cell around the ring and rabid dogs between the two with the grapplers having to escape. Sounds fantastic right? Wrong. The match bombed, partially due to the dogs being on leashes and spending majority of the time licking their fellow K9s. WCW’s variant was the triple cage match which saw a number of wrestlers put inside a large cell, with a smaller cell on top of it and an even smaller cell on top of that. There would be a prize (usually the world championship) hanging above all three and the match rules mirrored a ladder match, except replace a ladder with three cages.
Other notable variations include the Punjabi Prison match – a huge bamboo structure with 4 bamboo doors that close as the match goes on where the winner must escape the prison. The dome of death, a Mexican concept of a dome shaped cage with only a small hole in the top for one wrestler to escape. Other Mexican creations include an electrified cage and (as TNA called it) six sides of steel. The final and most recent adaptation is WWE’s elimination chamber, a match that is a concoction of a cage match, cell match, royal rumble match and battle royal. A huge dome of steel flooring and chain surrounds the ring, with four “bullet proof” glass pods to lock the first four combatants into. Two more wrestlers start the match and the other four enter in five minute intervals with elimination rules.
Of these many, many adaptations of the cage match, some have died a death and some have became fantastic tools for wrestling promotions to make money. Aside from the standard cage match, both the Hell in a Cell an Elimination Chamber concept have became so popular that they now have their own dedicated annual pay per views within WWE – which leads me nicely to the point of my article. Has all of the above meant that we have forgotten what is important about these types of matches? The reason that we actually need to have this type of match? Shouldn’t a match of such magnitude be saved, only to be used to end the most brutal of rivalries? As it stands, WWE has a Hell in a Cell PPV coming up in October, therefore we know that whoever is holding a major championship at that time will be locked in the cell. Is WWE risking watering down their own creations with over exposure seemingly due to a lack of understanding on the psychology behind the match gimmick?
The cage match itself has come a long way since chicken wire surrounded the ring. But has wrestling gone backwards when it comes to booking such a match?
Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed it. I thought it would be timely with it being Elimination Chamber night. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts so drop me a line @CallingSpots on twitter.
Much Love – Rich x