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Major wrestling events will always be defined by two factors: the wrestling and the booking. While the wrestlers can tell great stories and put on incredible athletic displays, often it is the booking of those matches that fans are left talking about the day after.
Whether it is a question of who won the match or how they won, these decisions can massively impact the quality of contests as well the overall pay-per-view. WWE Hell in a Cell has been a WWE event every year since 2009 and has certainly seen its fair share of good and bad booking decisions.
Overall, it has been a fairly solid event with great matches inside one of WWE’s most fearsome structures. However, each show has also been defined by one painful booking decision that let down the night, whether it be a title change or momentum-killing moment.
These are the eight booking decisions that let down each Hell in a Cell event, making sure it was not nearly as great as it could have been regardless of the work of the WWE wrestlers.
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In 2009, CM Punk was a good wrestler with a lot of promise, while The Undertaker was a legendary, unstoppable veteran. The result of their feud was inevitable, especially after Punk made Taker “tap out” at Breaking Point via a crooked referee decision. However, there was no reason to so decisively showcase how much bigger a star Taker was than Punk.
In a mere 10 minutes, opening the show, the WWE world heavyweight champion went down with ease. The Deadman barely broke a sweat as he took Punk’s chair shots and fired back with a Last Ride and ultimately a Tombstone Piledriver to begin his final reign as world champion.
Even with how impressive Punk had been in recent months, especially when paired with Jeff Hardy, this loss crippled him, leaving him floundering for so long that his sudden return to the top of the brand a few years later would shock many who had forgotten his first real main-event run in WWE.
Fans would not witness the true potential of this pairing until WrestleMania 29, three-and-a-half years later, when Punk and Taker would finally get the time to deliver a show-stealing effort that made Punk look great even in a loss.
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The Undertaker and Kane are the two most interconnected wrestlers in WWE history. The storyline brothers had been fighting since the day Kane debuted, and they always seemed to get in each other’s way in rivalries. However, 2010 was not a good year for either, as both were reaching the ends of their careers.
Taker especially was at the final hurdle of his last full-time run in WWE and had just recovered from a concussion and broken nose in a match with Rey Mysterio. It was the wrong time to pair up these heavyweights, and it showed, as Taker and Kane slogged through a Hell in a Cell match that felt much longer than its already ridiculous 21-minute length.
Even at their best, these two were never the perfect pairing in the ring. They were too similar and often worked best off younger, faster rivals. This match was such a mess it made both veterans look like they were out of their depth, stumbling around hitting chokeslams and Tombstone Piledrivers.
While both would go on to put on far better matches with other wrestlers in steadily reduced roles, this match was a terrible send-off for their longstanding rivalry and a mistake both on paper and in practice.
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In 2011, WWE was beginning to create numerous new stars all at once. Punk was just about ready to take a top role in the company, while Alberto Del Rio had been perfectly groomed for a world championship run. The two were on the same brand fighting for the championship, so they were bound to trade off championship reigns.
However, WWE chose an odd path in moving the title between the two, with Del Rio using the Money in the Bank briefcase to steal the title off Punk at SummerSlam, only to drop the title the next month to John Cena before winning the championship back in a triple threat with both Cena and Punk at Hell in a Cell 2010.
Cena certainly did not need the championship reign, but it also made little sense to put the championship back on Del Rio again after Cena had defeated him. The hot-potato approach to handling the championship continued on to Survivor Series, where Punk regained his championship and began a lengthy title reign.
This was a product of a time where WWE felt frequent title changes were a necessity to keep fans interested, but it does not excuse the notion that this was a completely unnecessary series of title changes to increase the number of title reigns Cena and Del Rio had on their resumes.
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How do you create an unstoppable monster in WWE? That question was answered years ago in wrestling with WWE’s booking of Andre The Giant. Supposedly undefeated for 15 years in the company, many believed he could not even be bodyslammed before Hulk Hogan managed it at WrestleMania III. Goldberg was also brilliantly built up by an incredible 155-win streak in WCW.
Ryback was the next monster up for WWE, and he quickly began a win streak that was garnering mixed reactions. However, when Ryback finally stepped up to a major opponent in WWE champion Punk, fans were much more willing to get caught up in the excitement. Punk had been champion for almost a year and was going to fight a force no one knew how to combat.
Unfortunately, WWE misfired entirely on the concept by killing Ryback’s win streak with a low blow by Punk and a fast count from suddenly crooked referee Brad Maddox in a match lasting a mere 11 minutes. It was a cop-out that killed Ryback’s momentum, even with Ryback furiously attacking and destroying Punk afterward, and it certainly did nothing for Punk.
It was the first of many false starts for Ryback, with this perhaps the incident that would ultimately lead to Ryback’s fall into irrelevancy and eventual release. It is easy to speculate on what would have happened if Ryback had won this match or at least had been allowed to be more dominant before being cheated.
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Daniel Bryan’s rise to popularity was a rocky one, particularly during his feud with Randy Orton. No part of the feud emphasized this more directly than when everything went wrong for Bryan at Hell in a Cell 2013.
Bryan stepped into Hell in a Cell knowing The Authority had stacked the deck against him with Shawn Michaels as the guest referee.
The Heartbreak Kid was supposed to be an unbiased presence due to conflicting motives. He was a fan favorite, but he was best friends with Triple H. He also respected Daniel Bryan, who he helped train.
This was a situation that could easily have carried the match without taking it over. However, HBK ultimately was the deciding factor as he hit Bryan with Sweet Chin Music to give Orton the win.
What was the point of it all? Michaels left TV after that, and Bryan disappeared from the main-event scene, reappearing in a feud with The Wyatt Family. This could have easily been the nail in the coffin of Bryan’s rise to success, and it all came at the hands of a man who was retired and could never have faced his comeuppance or even take on any heat for his actions.
Bryan’s feud in the summer of 2013 with Orton rarely helped either man due to messy booking. This was the cherry on top that was luckily forgotten amid the build to WrestleMania XXX, where Bryan finally got his time to shine.
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The Shield was the hottest product in WWE from the moment the trio debuted in 2012, and its breakup was one of the biggest moments in recent memory. All three men would go on to have great success, beginning with the vicious rivalry between Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins that ultimately ended in the main event of Hell in a Cell 2014.
In a match that was physical and intense throughout, it looked like everyone would get a satisfying final chapter in this feud in one of the best Hell in a Cell matches for some time.
Then the lights went out and a hologram appeared to create a smoky haze. From behind the smoke, Bray Wyatt appeared to hit Ambrose with a uranage to give Rollins the victory.
After all this time, the end of this rivalry was used as a silly jumping-off point for a separate rivalry in which Wyatt would ultimately emerge victorious thanks to an exploding monitor. None of this worked, and it hardly felt necessary for the moment. Ambrose and the fans were both left without any payoff in a story that was quietly shuffled off.
While Wyatt costing Ambrose his ultimate retribution could have been an intriguing story thread, it was so poorly handled that it just came off as a cheap trick. The feud between Ambrose and Wyatt could easily have been started the night after, even if it still needed the hologram.
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Cena and Del Rio wrestled quite a few times at WWE Hell in a Cell, both losing their championships to the other man, but this was the most egregious of the booking decisions in their rivalry, as Del Rio ended one of the greatest U.S. Title reigns in a decade in the most wasted dominant victory of his career.
WWE had frequently tried to push Mexico’s Greatest Export to the top of the company, but it had never worked, even though he always flourished outside of WWE. Making his return after a year away, he basically squashed Cena, defeating The Face That Runs The Place in a mere seven minutes with a clean superkick.
Cena needed to take a hiatus and would soon also need shoulder surgery that would keep him out half a year, so the championship had to change hands. Putting it on Del Rio, though, ruined the excitement of Cena’s U.S. Open Challenges, with Del Rio floundering as champion before losing the title to Kalisto.
It was all a downward spiral that made many forget how just about every young WWE Superstar was once begging for a shot at the title. Before long, The Mexican Aristocrat would leave WWE again, and the U.S. Championship would pass through many more hands before returning to top billing on SmackDown Live.
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Charlotte Flair vs. Sasha Banks was one of the premier rivalries in 2016 and helped to finally begin WWE’s transition away from underutilizing its female roster.
The women had immense chemistry and had earned a chance to truly headline, which they did at Hell in a Cell 2016. It was expected to be their last match for the Raw Women’s Championship.
However, after a grueling 20-minute struggle inside the Cell, new champion Sasha was pinned clean and lost her title, continuing an awkward trend of The Boss winning the title on Monday Night Raw but losing it on PPV. This grand showcase of the women lacked its definitive exclamation mark because of a silly booking trend that made no sense.
Banks was more over on this night than any other time in her career. Fans wanted to get behind her and see her succeed. While her injury history, including a recent back problem, might have influenced the decision, this booking cut Banks’ legs out from under her and left the women’s division back where it was months prior.
The same booking would continue where Banks would win the title back only to lose it in an Iron Man match at Roadblock: End of the Line, finally ending the feud with Charlotte still on top and Banks quickly falling into the background.