In American professional wrestling, it is not uncommon for a hotly anticipated match to take place in a steel cage. Such encounters are often the main attraction of a card, and thus the cage does not enclose the ring until the later part of the evening. The show proceeds as it normally would until that point, with one notable exception: the cage, fully assembled, hangs suspended above the ring. There are two reasons for this. The first, obvious, reason is that it will take less time out of the show to lower the cage into position than to construct it on the spot. The second is that the cage’s mere presence is an evocation of the brutality that will later take place within its confines. This is a well-worn trope in professional wrestling, of place with typical cage match imagery: men struggling to climb towards escape; the hero raking the villain’s face against the steel mesh; and the bloodied villain crawling toward the door to take the coward’s victory, only for the hero to grab his ankle at the last possible second and pull him back in for more punishment.
There have been so many cage matches in the history of American wrestling that relatively few are truly of note beyond the immediate time they took place, and few are of use when discussing wrestling as a genre or medium through which an audience consumes images. Few indeed are capable of rising to the spectacle suggested by the hanging cage. One, however, so transcends the trope of the cage match—transcends the tropes established by a normal match, even—that it is capable of serving as instruction for how one reads the images produced in a wrestling ring. This match is the June 28, 1998, “Hell in a Cell” contest between The Undertaker and Mankind.
To demonstrate this, I will focus largely upon one still frame from the match. First, it is important to discuss why thinking about wrestling in terms of the images it produces is of more use than interpreting a contest in terms of its narrative, or what is signified by the characters who find themselves locked in combat. It is tempting to analyze every wrestling match using the framework Roland Barthes established in Mythologies’ “The World of Wrestling,” as many who have written on the subject of wrestling have. In it, Barthes discusses the Hero and the Bastard, two immutable types who exchange holds and techniques, and whose function is unchanging: in the wrestling hall, the Hero battles the Bastard so that he may signify the idea of Justice through his struggle. This was true of wrestling in the time Barthes wrote Mythologies (and true of European wrestling for much longer than it was true of its American counterpart), but with the introduction of televised bouts and characters like Gorgeous George during the 1950s, the men and women occupying American cards became slippery and ambiguous, resistant to Barthes’s classification.
This became especially true in the late 1990s, as American wrestling crowds embraced as the Hero (or “face,” with “heel” being the opposite), men who cheated, swore, sported average physiques, and had selfish motives for their actions; the anti-hero. There were no Heroes and few Bastards, and many matches, like Hell in a Cell, are more famous for what happened to the men playing the characters than what those characters signified. Here, both men are garbed as traditional American heels: The Undertaker wears all black, Mankind a mask. They both fight dirty, favoring punches and chokeholds to the face’s technique and skill, and both are connected to the one true Bastard the genre offered in 1998, Vince McMahon. This match, in its telling, changes none of that. But when to see a clip or a frame or a photo of Hell in a Cell is to be arrested by wrestling in a way no other bout can manage.
A professional wrestling match is the theatrical exchange of punishment and suffering. The face punishes the heel and withstands his various torments. The tools a wrestler employs to depict this are numberless in variation, but their basic root forms are clear: punches, kicks, biting, eye gouging, choking, nerve holds, joint manipulation, and controlled impact onto the ring surface. Employed in reality, these are the implements of bodily assault and torture. But wrestling is a fictive genre, and these maneuvers are the foundation of a masculine fantasia that draws millions of eyes to witness a collaborative spectacle. The blood spilled onto a canvas wrestling mat is real, as are the majority of injuries a performer might sustain, no matter how well trained he or she is in the act of falling or pulling a punch.
In order to enjoy the suffering of fictitious characters, one watches real human beings suffer. Wrestling has long acknowledged the dangers the performers face as part of the routine of their profession, running advertisements during broadcasts assuring the audience that each wrestler is trained in their craft. But when the bell rings those same audience members are asked to believe that any given maneuver may have the concussive force of a heavyweight boxer’s uppercut or a linebacker’s tackle. Wrestling acknowledges the unique reality of its circumstances and, in doing so, creates a double image. In one, Mankind and The Undertaker are two characters battling for supremacy. In the other, Mick Foley and Mark Calloway are two men doing a job. There is an invisible membrane between the two, and for the most part wrestling matches do not penetrate that membrane: the audience is not encouraged to think of man-as-flesh, but of character-made-flesh. Any input from reality, even concern for a performer, has the potential to disturb the world a wrestling match constructs within our own.
Still, wrestling is sometimes helpless against the reality’s intrusion. The membrane between the images it projects is pierced, and the audience is witness to a melding of the two: the illusion of wrestling as a character-driven fiction where the performers are mostly safe is replaced with the realization of all the danger inherent to the execution of a match, but the match continues to function as originally purposed and tells its story despite the danger.
Here it is worthwhile to consider the punctum, or a modification of it. In photographs, which were the subject of Barthes’ Camera Lucida, the punctum is described as a wound, a “detail … which attracts or distresses,” disrupting the most obvious readings of a photograph. The punctum moves the image beyond the clichés inherent to photography—poses, framing, convention—and marks itself upon the observer. Barthes is certain that this is not possible in cinema, a massive collaborative exertion of artifice and control, as the punctum works against control—its presence is never intended. This may be true of film, but wrestling is captured live, without the benefit of second takes or complex editing; there is artifice, but artifice is easily broken in wrestling, even in a tightly scripted contest. It is easier to see this within the context of a still frame from a wrestling match than by watching the match entire, so here, from the Hell in a Cell match, is the offered image:
The ring ropes, the cage, the WWF watermark, the frame established by the handheld camera, and even the blood filling and dribbling out of Mankind’s mouth are expected. The disheveled business attire was part of his regular look. A novice viewer would recognize all of these elements instantaneously as being part of the medium. Experts, though they may be nostalgic about how Mankind came to bleed from the mouth, would also concede that these elements are common, and lead to a common way of reading the match, the match as a series of fictitious images. But it is Mankind’s tooth, lodged snugly in his left nostril, which transfixes the eye and moves the match beyond the system of meanings established by an exchange of holds or the presence of a cage.
I have said that wrestling projects a double image. This might suggest that there is a punctum in every match, that, contrary to the notion of the membrane between the two images, one is always rushing to meet the other. In cinema, a visible boom microphone or the shadow of a camera or the key lights reflecting in the actor’s eyes a certain way might constitute a kind of punctum, because for the world that fiction inhabits to take root in the audience, the created space must not be broken by a technical gaffe. In wrestling, technical space and created space are the same: other cameras are visible and, when the heel uses its cord to throttle the face, take part in the action. The crowd surrounds the ring, and though their responses to a match are unscripted and capable of leaving a lasting impression, they frequently follow the rising and falling narrative created in the ring. Wrestling plays with the fabric of reality to the extent that even circumstances that would otherwise appear odd—the cage, for example, or two wrestlers grapping on the banks of the Mississippi River—are commonplace. Missing teeth and other wounds are also not part of this fabric.
Mankind, the character brought to life by Mick Foley in the Hell in a Cell match, is a creation whose foundation is the legitimate bodily harm wrestling perpetuates upon its performers: Foley’s ruined mouth, scarred flesh, hobbled gait, and the two-thirds of an ear he lost during a match in Germany, torment the Mankind character to the extent that he frequently tears out his hair mid-match and screams in agony, even when he has the advantage. But the tooth in question here is different. It challenges the established altered reality of a wrestling match because its presence in Mankind’s nostril cannot be accounted for using any other image from the match. In one minute, the tooth is not there. In the next, it is. Every camera in the arena is out of position and fails to capture the tooth’s journey, and its presence, though remarked upon over the course of the match, is trifling compared to the falls Foley took. But the tooth is there in Mankind’s nostril—in Mick Foley’s nostril—and it is the tooth that punctures the membrane: it is no longer Mankind’s battle against The Undertaker which matters, but Foley and his injuries, Foley and his struggle to see the match through to its conclusion.
If this image of Mankind’s tooth is to serve as instruction for how to read the images produced in a wrestling match, other images from the Hell in a Cell contest—many of them oddities even within the genre—must leave that membrane intact. The most famous image from the match is that of Mankind falling from the Hell in a Cell structure and landing on the announcer’s table below. On his stomach, Mankind’s head is covered by the demolished table, and his legs are under the security barrier, in the audience. The fall was planned, but it caused Mick Foley to separate his shoulder and bruise his kidney, and, in the opening minutes of the match, it seemed as though the scripted bout—and Foley’s career—were over. The presence of trainers, doctors, and WWF officials, each one concerned for Mick Foley as they pulled pieces of the table from his body and encouraged him to consider the match finished, seems like the moment the two images, wrestling and reality, become one. The cage, with The Undertaker still on its ceiling, is raised, signaling the end of the match, and replays show Mankind, now rendered Mick Foley by the force of his impact, falling from every available camera angle.
But The Undertaker is still The Undertaker, never Mark Calloway, and perched atop the cage he is still referred to as “The Lord of Darkness.” A fan sitting near where Foley landed yells for Mankind to get up and finish the match. When Foley does, and when the match goes inside the cage for the first time, the door is shut and padlocked to prevent further escape. The announcers insinuate that this was the doing of Vince McMahon, the Bastard, who had been seen just minutes before checking on the wellbeing of his employee. Today, were the same events to take place, the match would stop. Then one might call the image of Foley half in and half out of the crowd the punctum of Hell in a Cell. But the membrane between fiction and reality is so strong that it can accommodate even those aberrations which threaten to stop the show cold.
Other images, even ones of gruesome barbarity, have been similarly absorbed and are now within the limits of expectation. The ceiling of the cage, which sags under the weight of Mankind and The Undertaker, is broken by another fall. The viewer can see broken zip ties and fasteners, the broken panel of the cage. Though this fall was unplanned, Mick Foley would replicate it two years later as the finish of another Hell in a Cell match—the permeability of even this seemingly unbreakable prison has become part of the narration. Odder still, a pair of white athletic training shoes occupy the ring for some time. This was an image that struck me as the image for a long time—the action of this match is so out of hand that a non-participant’s shoes took on a heightened significance. But the image is the result of cause and effect: Terry Funk, an older wrestler and a mentor of Foley’s, is attacked by The Undertaker as he is checking on Mankind, and, in acting out the effects of the attack, his shoes slip from his feet. Even an implement of over-the-top barbarity, a sack of 6,000 thumbtacks scattered around the ring, builds the narrative tension of the match, moving the action away from the moment when the camera first glimpses the tooth. Rather than begging for the match to stop, the announcers comment upon how “unreal” the situation has become. It is unreal, but the unreal is the intended image.
Mankind’s tooth is also the result of cause and effect—when he falls through the cage, a steel chair falls, too, smashing his mouth on impact—but it is the detail that strikes the viewer because, for all the horror a wrestling match is capable of, a tooth making its way into a wrestler’s nostril is not one the medium intentionally conjures. Without the tooth, the iconic image of Mankind smiling into the camera (he is actually sticking his tongue through a hole beneath his lip, but the hole and tongue cannot be seen, and “smiling” is how the announcers call it) is no less powerful, but it fits rather comfortably into the range of images even the bloodiest wrestling matches are expected to produce. Mankind would remain Mankind; though Foley’s effort is no less Herculean, his injuries are invisible and part of the narrative, a story told to fellow wrestlers and nostalgic fans as something the character survived despite the limitations of the human playing him. The idea of control in a match like this is loose at best, but one can still see the frame of its narrative at work: even after the second, unplanned fall, Mankind manages to battle back against The Undertaker and grab his promised weapon, the bag of thumbtacks, from beneath the ring. The match shouldn’t continue to that point, but the men playing their roles are seasoned enough that one can help the other to the scheduled finish. Without the tooth, it’s all illusion.
When reading a wrestling match, it is not of use to poke holes in the offered narrative. The show has been evolving, minute by minute, for the better part of 70 years, and what appears to be a logical miscue one week will later be the crux of the storyline. Instead of hunting for flaws, one must gather the images unique to an individual match and see if they work to create that narrative world, or if they fold the image created by the story into the otherwise invisible image of the performers doing their job. Though the events of Hell in a Cell look and are gruesome, most maintain the fictional image. What’s more, they are capable of eliciting a pleasurable response from the viewer. Before Mankind is thrown from the cage, one of the announcers says this for the audience; it “makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” and “I like it!” Calling to mind Sontag’s claim that some who look at images of suffering have “the satisfaction of being able to look at the image without flinching” and “the pleasure of flinching” at once, matches like this Hell in a Cell contest give the audience an opportunity to withstand barbarity and revel in it.
Sixteen years have passed, and the stature of the match has only grown. Mankind’s suffering continues to elicit the pleasures of flinching: his first fall is still used to promote World Wrestling Entertainment, and the audio of the table breaking under him to the announcer’s cry of “He is broken in half!” is dubbed over footage of countless slam dunks and quarterback sacks. The match has been reproduced and repackaged in video games and with action figures, retold in numerous documentaries about that era, but the tooth has never been reproduced or repurposed. It is there, always, but it is not there, as though the audience wishes to look away from its meaning. But the cameraman will always walk around the ring. Mankind’s face will always fill his frame. The tooth will always be in the nostril. Reality will always rush through the hole that tooth punctures in the membrane between wrestling’s two worlds. One might flinch. One might find the flinching less pleasurable.
Colette Arrand currently lives in Athens, Georgia, where she is a student at the University of Georgia. Her work has appeared in Gigantic Sequins, The Atlas Review, CutBank, and elsewhere, and her criticism can be found online at Fear of a Ghost Planet.