In each edition of Gimmick Some Lovin', we take a look at one iteration of a gimmick match available on the WWE Network. Some are iconic for their success, others for the extent to which they flopped, and some just... happened.
We defined a "gimmick match" as, in any way, adding a rule/stipulation to or removing a rule from a match, changing the physical environment of a match, changing the conditions which define a "win", or in any way moving past the simple requirement of two men/women/teams whose contest must end via a single pinfall, submission, count out, or disqualification.
To honour its 15th anniversary this past weekend, we look at the November 17, 2002, debut of the Elimination Chamber at that year's Survivor Series event. A slideshow-based article on a sports website is the contemporary 15th-anniversary gift, right?
How does this work, again?
Some gimmick matches are enhanced by their simplicity: the No Disqualification Match, for instance, simply removes a rule to allow two competitors to attack at will, or a ladder match (and its unloved stepchild the pole match) just asks combatants to climb for a (usually match-winning) prize, although those have had their fair share of unnecessary complicating rules.
Others, however, require an often absurd amount of rules, to varying success; the Royal Rumble match, the War Games match, and nearly any match where WCW built something in the 1990s (more on that later this week) are all known for pre-match promos or video packages explaining a complicated set of stipulations designed to enhance drama, but which often just confuse viewers at home and in the arena.
The Elimination Chamber belongs to the latter category of matches; when it debuted in 2002, it was WWE's first attempt to incorporate a wholly new structure since the birth of the Hell in a Cell cage and contest in October 1997.
Originally introduced to settle the dust in a crowded group of challengers to a particular championship, the Chamber has since fallen victim to having a pay-per-view event named after it, taking away some of what made previous contests special.
2002 was WEIRD
Before explaining the program that leads to this match, it's important to establish one really important thing: 2002 is one of the weirdest years in the history of WWE, if not the sport itself.
Immediately after the Wrestlemania X8 match we covered last week, Ric Flair and Vince McMahon split the company in twain, each man drafting his own roster to be specific to the Monday Night Raw or SmackDown (not live) shows, respectively.
Competition having pushed WWE to some of its most daring (but also some of its stupidest) creative ventures prior to their 2001 purchase of rival WCW, the brand split was to be a recreation of those Monday Night Wars between Vince and his southern counterparts. Despite lacking direct head-to-head competition, as well as narrative sense at times, the first draft placed a firm wedge between the halves of the roster, with champions floating between the two.
The ownership arrangement lasted all of two months, as McMahon defeated Flair to gain sole ownership of both television programs, largely due to interference on McMahon's behalf by a rookie Brock Lesnar (who made his Raw debut on the same Wrestlemania X8 fallout show which saw the brand split announcement).
That summer, Lesnar would win the WWE Undisputed Championship from The Rock at SummerSlam, and would establish himself as the sole property of SmackDown, leaving Raw without world championship representation.
Enter the other weirdest part about 2002 wrestling.
Upon gaining sole proprietorship of both shows, the power-strutting chairman of WWE needed to delegate the day-to-day operations of his two brands to a general manager; for SmackDown, he
shocked the world did the thing he almost always does in these situations, which is to give a prominent television role to his daughter, Stephanie (I wonder what the head of creative at the time had to say about that).
To fill the role on Raw, however, VKM made a move that few, if any, in the era before social media could have seen coming by hiring the man who was once nearly responsible for his children and grandchildren losing their inheritances, former WCW president Eric Bischoff.
Call it either a shrewd business move hiring a man who would immediately grab eyeballs and headlines, or call it McMahon rubbing his rivals' nose in WWE's survival, but Bischoff thrived in this role, making the competition between the two brands feel like a genuine rivalry at times.
Upon Lesnar's decision to keep the Undisputed Championship strictly on the blue brand, Bischoff (in storyline) created the World Heavyweight Championship with a piece of hardware familiar to him and anyone who had followed his career: the old Big Gold Belt from WCW, but with a WWE logo at the top.
The championship was awarded to
the winner of a gruelling 16-man tournament in Rio de Janeiro Triple H, by virtue of Trips looking good in a suit and having lost a street fight at SummerSlam to a man with a broken back who hadn't wrestled in four and a half years.
Thus began the sometimes-confusing "two world champions" era of WWE, which has persisted, more or less, minus a few gaps, for the past 15 years, introduced by and with the most notable remnants of a dead wrestling promotion.
Five of the six men involved in the contest all, more or less, had a legitimate claim to the championship around Helmsley's waist, a serious case of bad blood with its holder, or ongoing tension with a man who had a claim to the title.
HHH stopped a surging RVD with a combination of a Pedigree and interference by manager/mentor Flair at September's Unforgiven PPV event, then engaged in a bitter feud with Kane over
tasteless allegations of lewd and lascivious conduct with a corpse unifying the World and Intercontinental Championships at No Mercy (with the IC Title, thankfully, making a return in the following year).
Chris Jericho and Christian, meanwhile, had defeated Kane and his partner Shane "Hurricane" Helms for the tag team championships in October. Booker T, meanwhile, was present.
The most compelling storyline, though, was the story that had been told since the preceding spring: that of the return, rebirth, and resurgence of "The Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels, who warred with HHH in what seemed to be the culmination of 2002's standout feud at SummerSlam.
Michaels shook off over 50 months of ring rust after a broken back forced him to retire upon passing the WWF torch to Steve Austin at Wrestlemania XIV, turning in a bloody, brutal, and breathtaking performance where Michaels performed his high-flying spots like he'd never left (and in jeans, no less!).
That match had been teased as a one-time-only unsanctioned return for HBK, but Bischoff announced that Michaels would be the sixth man in the new Elimination Chamber Match; Shawn immediately made his presence known first by costing HHH a casket match against Kane, then a tag match pitting Helmsley and Jericho against Van Dam and Booker T.
While six men were involved in the contest, the writing on the wall was that this would be a continuation of the feud between Helmsley and Michaels, with four other guys to crank up the spectacle.
In a standout Thanksgiving episode of the Fox animated comedy King of the Hill, Peggy Hill constructs the ultimate party game using her favourite elements of other board, party, and television games called "Spin the Choice".
Elimination Chamber is the "Spin the Choice" of the wrestling world, combining the staggered entrances of War Games, timed elements of the Royal Rumble, and sole survivor aspects of the Survivor Series match.
The structure itself looks like a cross between Madison Square Garden, which plays host to this contest, and Shawshank State Prison, with bulletproof plexiglass pods adorning each ringpost; a participant in the match would fill each pod until the countdown clock and flashing spotlights freed him to fight.
Since the match owes so much to the three speciality contests that inspired it, it's only right to look at how Elimination Chamber compares to those match types and how it uses their elements to tell its story.
Beyond the match beyond
WarGames generously lends its two calling cards (a unique use of space and sheer bloody violence) to the Elimination Chamber, and it pays off well. Jericho, Michaels, and Helmsley bleed amply (HHH finds himself "busted wide open" before the first pod even opens, and he and Jericho call back to the two-ring spectacle by excruciatingly working Michaels's forehead to increase blood loss).
The grids of black steel chains that make the Chamber's walls add an extra "oomph" to the "throw to the cage" spots; Van Dam slams Trips into those grids repeatedly to get the red stuff flowing, then finds himself slingshotted into those same walls several times during a shocking (and short-lived) Jericho-Helmsley alliance.
In fact, RVD is the MVP of the structure, using an early Spiderman jump to (and from) the walls to launch his signature sidekick, then hitting a trachea-crushing Five Star Frog Splash to HHH off the top of a pod (after Jericho thwarts an earlier attempt by pulling Van Dam down through the roof of Jericho's pod).
Other classic uses of the Chamber itself include HBK's flying elbow off a pod during the closing sequence and, in the most enduring (and repeated) spot in the match, Kane sending Jericho through the plexiglass wall of a pod (showing more brutality in four seconds than the pair showed in their entire Last Man Standing Match).
Selfishly, though, I have to complain that the brutality the match promised isn't visited well enough (in kayfabe, at least) on the match's most heinous heel: The Game. That elevated frog splash did legitimate and serious damage to The Cerebral Assassin's throat, and it seems like a lot of the punishment his character was due didn't come because of legitimate concerns to Paul Levesque's trachea.
Handed a title or not, the man has twice wrestled with a torn quadriceps and once with a crushed trachea (not to mention other in-ring injuries, or that one time he willingly wrestled in pig faeces with a large cut on his back). Question his place, but never his commitment.
Countdown to a Clash
The staggered entrances and countdowns work well, but mostly because the MSG crowd adding their voices to the addition of superstars also adds to the anticipation.
HHH and RVD start and the War Games inspiration hits again as Jericho enters to give the heels an advantage; Booker T follows up, then Kane, and by the time The Big Red Machine tears up and tears through the remaining men in the match, The Garden is practically beating down the door to get Michaels into the ring.
Like with a Royal Rumble, each entrance is greeted with a flurry of big spots and ring-clearing assaults; also, unfortunately, another Rumble trope rears its ugly head as the competitors tend to sell exhaustion like Flair at the end of a sixty-minute Broadway after mere minutes out of the pod.
Michaels uses this most flagrantly, as a single Flair flip in the turnbuckles seems to sap all of his energy after literally flying all over the ring mere minutes before (although the story of his back injury excuses it somewhat).
The first elimination in Elimination Chamber history is met with a resounding chorus of boos, and it's not hard to figure out why. RVD is the first to go, having been dispatched by a Booker T missile dropkick moments after the top-of-the-pod splash; eliminating a favourite of the "smart" fans that early costs this one some serious goodwill that doesn't fully build back up until Michaels enters.
Jericho then gets successive eliminations with his patented Lionsault, over Booker T and Kane; the second is particularly impressive because The Big Red Machine was roughly six feet from one set of ropes but Jericho flips off the opposite side of the ring in a great display of acrobatics.
With the match down to Y2J, HHH, and HBK, some odd booking decisions lead to Michaels eliminating Jericho with the Sweet Chin Music, set up only because Helmsley prevented Jericho from eliminating Michaels so that Trips could do it himself; one of my pet peeves in elimination-style every man for himself matches is when elimination attempts are thwarted by another competitor. It makes little to no storyline sense, and Triple H's hatred of Michaels doesn't seem like it would outweigh his desire to leave The Devil's Playground with his championship.
At this point, the match has lost its younger up-and-coming talent to pare down to a part-timer with only two matches that calendar year versus Triple H, a pattern which nobody would be foolish enough to ever replicate later on, right? Michaels and HHH set a template which Helmsley and Daniel Bryan would replicate to perfection at Wrestlemania XXX as the plucky babyface kicks out at two after a Pedigree before reversing a second to rush to the nearest corner and set up his signature strike to The Game's ample chin.
Confetti falls on a bloodied Heartbreak Kid while my 17-year-old self-joins with my 32-year-old self in elation at a childhood favourite returning to golden glory.
When talking about his 1997 Hell in a Cell contest on his DVD set released shortly after this contest, Michaels talks about how freeing it is to originate a match type because the tropes and expectations have not yet been established.
That dynamic is on display here, as it's easy to see how some of the signature spots from this contest became Elimination Chamber mainstays. The clanging slams on the steel grating that makes the ringside area, pod-crashing power moves, and RVD's aerial assaults set an effective blueprint for this match type.
Further, the mix of styles and personalities lends itself well to some great match dynamics; Van Dam's schtick was still novel for WWE audiences (although he'd been doing it for six years, dating back to his ECW days), and Jericho exudes pure heel charisma throughout (the fact that the size of the chamber allows him some up close and personal insults to crowd members while still leaving him on a pedestal is not lost on Chris Irvine).
I don't know, though, if it's because of his damaged throat or if it was the plan all along, but Triple H doesn't seem to get enough punishment in this contest. The first WarGames match saw Ric Flair get decimated by each member of the babyface team, and the contest was nonstop comeuppance for its heel entrants.
Triple H loses, yes, but it's not in the fashion of someone who'd spent the summer and fall making outrageous accusations against his fan-favourite opponents while torturing them with barbaric schemes. His destruction of Michaels after the pair's August street fight begged for revenge, and Shawn's Spirit of '76 celebration among spiraling confetti could have been much grander with a greater release of aggression on his former best friend.
It's a brutal blueprint for future cell matches, to be sure, but it doesn't quite go far enough. 7.5/10
Dave puts this one in WWE's top ten for 2002 with a 4.25-star rating; that puts this contest on par with HBK's return match from SummerSlam in terms of star rating, and just below the 2017 contest which saw Bray Wyatt take his first main roster singles title at 4.5 stars.