Nobody said there had to be a winner. Just ask Roman Reigns and Braun Strowman, whose no-disqualification Universal Championship match at last year’s Hell in a Cell ended in a no contest after Brock Lesnar ransacked the ring and ruined everyone’s night (he has a knack for that). Yet down rained the boos and out came the Twitter wolves (my own feed being Exhibit A), howling about the injustice and incoherence of “the Fiend” Bray Wyatt and Seth Rollins’s Universal title bout in Sunday night’s HIAC main event, which concluded with a match stoppage by referee Rod Zapata.
So, to be clear: The only way a participant can win a no-DQ match—be it in a five-sided steel cage or not—is by pinfall or submission. In kayfabe construction, the no-DQ match is a backstop against either competitor forcing an inconclusive outcome as an escape hatch, a kind of nuclear-option capstone to contentious rivalries. But there’s nothing in the rule book that disempowers an official from waving off the whole affair if it’s clear that one or both individuals is utterly incapacitated to the point where their personal well-being—or at least the apparent well-being of the person playing the character—is in jeopardy. In other words, it’s all part of the show.
But the paid crowd in Sacramento and, as was immediately evident, those viewing at home (how is “Twitter Upset With HIAC Ending” not an Onion Sports headline?) were not entertained. (Real-time crowd response and virtual audience opinion have, in a post–Roman Reigns landscape, become increasingly symbiotic and self-fulfilling.) The boo birds began singing their lament several minutes into the main event, at around the time Rollins started taking Wyatt to Stomp City, repeatedly planting his face into the mat with the whole of his boot, at a breathtaking pace and from bold heights and angles. (The boos might have been due in part to the red overhead lights making the action in the ring nearly impossible to see.) They deepened the moment Rollins kicked out of Sister Abigail (not a huge shocker, as the Mandible Claw has become Wyatt’s new, true finisher) and grew deafening once the Architect busted open his literal toolbox atop a prone Fiend, already unrecognizable underneath the contraband rubble of a ladder and steel chair (not to mention his creepy, Tom Savini–codesigned mask).
By the time Wyatt snapped upright, snatched Rollins by the throat, savagely attacked him, and left him bleeding like a fatality in a Dario Argento flick, the verdict has been cast: Everyone and everything that finish touched was “buried,” Wyatt was rendered either too ineffectual or too immortal, Rollins had assumed Roman Reigns’s role as Vince’s unstoppable “golden boy,” and the sum total of things made “literally zero sense.” (Although all WWE could presumably see was that its event broke through the clutter of NFL, Walking Dead, et al., and dominated social trends. All press is good press and all that.)
That last part could have been remedied had Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler instinctively clarified—or been prompted to clarify—Zapata’s ruling. Everybody, from X-Pac to the WWE on Fox Twitter account, thought the match had ended in a disqualification, and the commentary team did nothing to counter that notion. A simple, “Neither man was going to win without a pinfall or submission, but in this case referee Rod Zapata determined that Wyatt was in no condition to continue and needed immediate medical attention, so this is an official referee match stoppage. This war will continue another day, but just not tonight” would have sufficed. I’ll give the naysayers this much: In the bigger picture (and to my earlier note about no-DQs capping long-standing feuds) the stakes were too high too soon for these two combatants.
If anything, Sunday night might serve as a referendum on the matter of monthly PPVs, and whether this whole mess would have been avoided had Seth and Bray been able to work on their story for several more weeks before staring down the barrel of a crucial Sunday buy. Maybe the WWE decision-makers were distracted by new competitor AEW’s premiere and the company’s own SmackDown show moving to Friday nights on Fox, but they clearly weren’t prepared to reconcile Wyatt’s indomitability with the practicality of what that meant in terms of win-loss record.
The concept—Jason Voorhees–like monster with Candyman-worthy wits worms his way inside his antagonist’s head, plants himself there, and seduces him into madness—was high, but the end result felt a bit undercooked. (Had Rollins utterly spiraled into delirium, it may have more clearly telegraphed the match’s enigmatic impasse.)
This is ambitious stuff for Wyatt, for WWE, and especially for Rollins, who might be in over his head all around. And to its credit, the company has lavished an extraordinary amount of time and resources on rolling out the Fiend and his Firefly Fun House. It’s a far more fully realized character than swamp-bogeyman Bray, and it’s a good deal more exciting to see him set his sights on the promotion’s biggest babyface straight away rather than run roughshod over local talent well into the New Year. But that just ups the ante for Wyatt’s new incarnation—and raises the specter of another flop for the blue-chip baddie.
Putting aside partisan positions about Sunday night’s finish, it vividly illustrated the Fiend as someone (or thing) unconcerned with W’s and L’s, totems and titles. Wyatt could have won clean, but what would that have accomplished, other than refuting the perception that—going back to bogeyman Bray—he’s a perpetual runner-up? We’ve moved past that. This new, nastier Bray is less an inhuman being than a genuine sadist. He wants souls, not trophies. His and Rollins’s match was a horror show, but not because of any failure to toe the line of technicalities and fan expectations (if Twitter existed when the Undertaker debuted, what would it have made of the Dead Man never staying down?).
It was a bloody, bizarre, and brazenly committed bit of performance art that—if we’re being objective—did nothing to water down Wyatt’s cool or to compromise the conditional order of wrestling lore, let alone this singular, unresolved rivalry. What happened two days earlier on SmackDown between Brock Lesnar and Kofi Kingston—i.e., Kingston being sacrificed to the gods of corporate synergy—was truly outrageous and worthy of conspiratorial cynicism, or at least indignation. The conclusion of Hell in a Cell, on the other hand, was ultimately business as usual for a company that, as Vince McMahon loves to remind, is in the business of telling stories. Rules be damned.
Kenny Herzog has covered everything from wrestling and television to politics and pop music for outlets including Rolling Stone, New York magazine, Esquire, Paste, Bleacher Report, Slate, ESPN, Nylon, Mic, and many more for nearly 20 years. You can find him on Twitter @kennyherzog.