The steel cage match is the most enduring gimmick match of all time. Throughout the years, the premise of “lock two people in a ring with no escape and have them kick the snot out of each other” has always been appealing to wrestling fans.
Some reinventions of the match type have succeeded in becoming legendary in their own right. Other attempts have failed dismally and are relegated to the long list of wrestling’s bad ideas.
Today we will be focusing on the ever-changing history of the structures themselves, and not necessarily the numerous additions of match types and stipulations that go with them. Otherwise, we will be here all day going through every EXTREME BARBED WIRE ELECTRIFIED LAND MINE DEATH MATCH OF DOOM! and such. So I apologize Kennel From Hell fans, as that was literally a Hell In A Cell with a Cage inside. And dogs. And stupidity.
History of the Steel Cage – The Chicken Wire Match
The first steel cage match took place sometime in the 1930s, but the first one officially on record was between Jack Bloomfield and Count Rossi in Atlanta Georgia June, 25th, 1937.
The original cages were basically just chicken wire either wrapped around the ring, or constructions prepped up inside the ropes that resembled something of an MMA octagon serving the sole purpose of no escape and no interference during the match.
Of course, wrestling back then was presented as a faux sport, and a no escape bout inside chicken wire or fencing would be used as a brutal way to end a rivalry. The cages themselves wouldn’t really be utilized for any spectacular spots until a few decades later…
The Traditional Steel Cage
It was around the 1960s that the Steel Cage as we know it today took shape, using a more reinforced structure that resembled actual fencing. Some companies would fit their cages snuggly around the ring ropes, whereas others such as Memphis Wrestling, would have larger cages that engulfed some of the surrounding ring area. Being the King of Memphis Wrestling, Jerry Lawler would compete in a numerous amount of these match types, including a classic against Randy Savage in December of 1983 for the Southern Heavyweight Championship.
However, it was earlier that year on October 17th when the stipulation finally reached its full potential. During the climax of Jimmy Superfly Snuka vs Don Muraco, Snuka clambered up the side of the cage, stood at the top, then leaped onto his opponent to the amazement of the crowd. It was a very important moment in wrestling history and one that is recounted on this very website by Evan Ginzburg.
Mick Foley: “Jimmy Snuka created that moment for me – a moment that was about so much more than just an athletic dive from the top of a steel cage. It was professional wrestling as art.”
Although not necessarily the first leap off the cage (Snuka himself said it was a move he perfected on the indies and house shows) it was the first time it was seen on such a large scale, and transformed the cage match from not only being a brutal feud ender, but into an epic bout where amazing highflying daredevilry could take place. One person in attendance that night was a young Mick Foley, who described how the fight inspired him in his Facebook obituary of The Superfly.
“Had it not been for this moment in time in October 1983, it’s highly unlikely that I would have created any moments at all within the world of professional wrestling/sports – entertainment. Jimmy Snuka created that moment for me – a moment that was about so much more than just an athletic dive from the top of a cage. It was professional wrestling as art, and Snuka that night was the consummate artist, painting on his own unique canvas in the most famous arena in the world. He painted with his body language, his intensity, his facial expressions – especially with those eyes – so that the slightest glance to the top of the cage created a literal buzz among the 20,000 in attendance – like a fuse being lit, leading to a powder keg of anticipation, resulting in the rarest of explosions; a crowd pop so loud and emotional that all I need do is close my eyes and I can hear it all over again, as real to me now as it was that night at The Garden over 30 years ago.”
Despite having a redesign during the ’80s and ’90s (more on that in a second), the linked fence cage is still the basic design most promotions use as their blueprint when building a lethal lock up.
The majority of cages nowadays have a more structurally sound and supported rim on the top should any performer feel the need to take a leap of faith.
Ring of Honor take it one step further by adding boards to each corner of their Scramble Cage, a match type where you can’t win by escape and the cage is there to serve the sole purpose of something to jump off.
Then, of course, you have the all the added props needed to suit an events needs, such barbed wire, razor wire, electricity etc, but as I said previously, today we are just looking at the structures themselves.
The Blue/Black Bar Steel Cage
The first appearance of the WWE’s blue bar cage took place on the 7th of April 1986 at WrestleMania 2 for Hulk Hogan vs King Kong Bundy.
Commentator Jesse Venture would inform the viewers at home, “This isn’t exactly a normal steel cage, usually it’s a cyclone fence but in the case of King Kong Bundy, he’s about 450 pounds, he needs a reinforced cage.”
This is actually partly true. Back in the day you could only win a WWF steel cage by escape only, so to avoid the anti-climatic spectacle of seeing Hogan and Bundy scramble to the door like two siblings fighting over who’s next in the bathroom, the fencing was swapped for large blue bars that the WWE standard of giant statured superstars could clamber up and over gracefully.
This was the WWF trademark cage for almost 13 years until it eventually changed back to the fencing. The trouble with the barred cages was that they were heavy and took time to set up. They obstructed the view of the TV audience and some superstars would complain about the stiff metal being too painful.
The change wouldn’t come until after the final barred cage match, now painted black to fit in with the company’s “attitude,” between Stone Cold Steve Austin and Mr. McMahon at In Your House: St Valentines Day Massacre 1999. Maybe it took the boss taking a few bumps himself in the agonizing structure to realize how painful it truly was.
History of the Steel Cage – The WarGames Cage
Dusty Rhodes came up with the premise of the WarGames match after watching the third Mad Max movie “Beyond Thunderdome”. In 1987, the NWA presented “WarGames: The Match Beyond” as part of its Great American Bash tour.
The first WarGames saw The Road Warriors, Paul Ellering and Dusty himself take on the Four Horsemen, and it was a huge success. It became a staple of NWA/WCW, Usually taking place at the Fall Brawl PPV.
The giant cage surrounded not one, but two rings, and had a roof on top. It was a perfect battleground for two large teams to have a faction war, and a premise so beloved it made a successful comeback in 2017 as an NXT TakeOver event, sans roof (not that the roof was really utilized anyway).
The Three Cage Steel Cage Match
Many people think the Three Cage Match was a Vince Russo idea from the dying years of WCW, used as cross-promotion for the Ready To Rumble movie, but the first “Doomsday Cage” debuted almost a decade earlier at the 1988 Great American Bash, intended as an expansion of WarGames.
The premise varies but usually involves three stacked cages of different sizes, with two wrestlers starting at the top and having to fight their way to the bottom.
Also worth mentioning is the 1996 WCW Uncensored cage, which saw the Mega-Powers do battle against an evil super faction consisting of members of both The Four Horsemen and The Dungeon Of Doom! This triple stacker was made of equal size cages over a ring at the top of the ramp surrounded by scaffolding. This meant that no one in attendance could actually see anything which, to be fair, was probably a good thing.
Very rarely have any potential high spots actually occurred during this match, the only one of note being on May 7th, 2000 at Slamboree (the one that WAS a tie-in with the Ready To Rumble movie) when Mike Awesome chucked poor old Kanyon off the first cage and onto a well-placed crash mat below.
The Dome Steel Cage
Legend has it WCW’s dome cage was inspired by the third Mad Max film. No dear reader, you haven’t just accidentally started re-reading an earlier entry. The Thunder dome, later re-named Thunder cage for legal reasons, was a round cage where the top would curve in, preventing any chance of escape, which could be mistranslated into preventing any high spots, which the fans could mistranslate as preventing any excitement.
It failed to be as beloved as WarGames, even with the dumb addition of an electric chair during Halloween Havoc 1991’s “Chamber Of Horrors” bout. Not even poor old Abdullah The Butcher pretending to be murdered by electricity could save that monstrosity.
The dome cage concept wasn’t a complete failure though, as it would end up working better for six-sided ring promotions, like AAA’s Dome of Death or TNA’s Steel Asylum.
Hell In A Cell
Rumor has it the Hell In A Cell was originally created because Vince couldn’t copy write the term “steel cage match.” The truth is Jim Cornette came up with the design based as a combination of the old Memphis Wrestling cages and the WarGames roofed cage.
It made its debut at Bad Blood 1997, serving as a battleground of a feud match between Undertaker and Shawn Michaels.
In an interview with the now-defunct shootinginterviews.com, Jim Cornette explains how the idea of Hell In A Cell came to be.
“It was the blowoff match between Undertaker and Shawn, but at the same time Shawn needed to come out as the champion, and he was the heel, so how do we have a blow-off cage match…
“I have always loved the ring they had in Memphis, in later years, which encompassed the ring area too, so you could come out from under the ring, or you could fight outside on the floor and I also liked WarGames because it had a top on it.
“So what about we combine those two? What if we had a giant cage, plus I got a budget now. I’m able to throw out ideas and people would pay to have this shit made.
“The Undertakers brother shows up. To get his power over he rips the god damn cage door off, that’s the only way to get in or out.”
Although the spots may not be as famous or as life-threatening as Mick Foley’s legendary escapades a year later, Michaels vs. Undertaker laid the blueprints for all Cell matches to come. Brutal action, the fencing being used as a weapon, dizzying brawls on the roof and of course, the plummet off the side through a table. It’s a match some people consider the greatest of all time and this writer’s personal favorite.
The structure grew bigger and less flimsy during the 2000s and got a new lick of red paint in 2018. To this day, Hell In A Cell remains the brutal feud ender that the original fence cage matches were used for back in the day.
WCW Asylum Steel Cage
In 2000, when WCW was trying everything they could to keep the ship afloat, Scott Steiner started giving out weekly challenges to anyone who had the courage to face him in an Asylum Cage! (Not to be confused with TNA’s Steel Asylum dome cage)
It was effectively a giant birdcage, one that resembled ye old-timey 1930s chicken wire cages. The reasoning behind this particular set-up was to invoke an MMA feel, as Big Poppa Pump was feuding with legit ex-UFC fighter Tank Abbot at the time. However, the short bouts not only looked worked, but they also looked more scripted than a normal wrestling match! If you think an Irish whip looked hokey enough against the ropes, you should wait until you see it performed off regular fencing.
The Elimination Chamber
The Elimination Chamber is a mash-up of everything that made previous cage matches successful. The timed entry format was clearly influenced by WarGames, but the climbable pods, the “bulletproof” glass, and the steel chain fencing gave the structure it’s own brutal element.
Six wrestlers, two to start and the other four locked away. Every five minutes a wrestlers chamber is unlocked at random. Last man standing wins.
The first chamber debuted November 17th at Survivor Series 2002 and was an extremely harsh and painful environment to work in.
In episode 74 of the Something to Wrestle podcast, Bruce Prichard mentioned, “It is the most unforgiving, painful thing in the world, and the guys got on it and where like, oh my god, this thing has no give at all. Very unforgiving and difficult to work in.
“I don’t think anybody really took into consideration the unforgiveness of the damn thing, but kudos to the talent, they did the best they could with what they had.”
After almost fifteen years of ignoring superstars agonizing screams, WWE finally constructed a new, more human flesh friendly chamber in 2017.
The added height gives more room for jumps and bumps off of the chamber pods, and those out of rings falls to the steel floor are a little less bone breaking thanks to the new black matting.
The Punjabi Prison steel cage match
I have never been to a Punjabi Prison, but something tells me they resemble our western prisons more so than they do this bamboo monstrosity.
Originally a concept for monster heel The Great Khali to battle against The Undertaker at the Great American Bash in 2006, Khali was eventually replaced by the Big Show, so the match had no South Asian connections whatsoever other than the name (Khali would eventually enter the construct a year later at No Mercy against Batista).
For ten years, we thankfully have only had to endure two of these matches thanks to how stupid, and frankly slightly racist, the idea is. Two cages made of bamboo, one around the ring apron and a second, bigger cage around that. First one to escape wins. The Punjabi part? I guess that’s all down to the competitor’s ethnicity, which explains why it made a comeback in 2017 for Randy Orton vs. Jinder Mahal. You know, what with Jinder being Canadian and everything.
And that’s all folks! I hate to end this article on a down note, so bare witness dear reader to the five-star classic that is Cheif Jay Strongbow vs. Don Kent in a SHARK CAGE MATCH! Thanks for reading!