It’s February, and that can only mean one thing – it’s time to arbitrarily round up six wrestlers (one of whom may be a champion of some sort) and stick them inside a jumble of contusion-inducing steel known as the Elimination Chamber.
While WWE’s rigid scheduling of gimmick matches for specific months has drawn its share of criticism (“Look, I hate you, and it’s October, so, uh, lower that Cell…”), the Chamber in February is just right. Without a Rumble victory to one’s credit, a hellish sprint between would-be contenders inside the unforgiving structure makes for an appropriate second chance at the all-important “golden ticket”.
Like the Royal Rumble match, the Chamber isn’t necessarily contingent on a specific storyline. It’s just the cobbling together a half-dozen top guys for either a WrestleMania title shot, or the belt itself. And while there can be mini-stories in there to amplify the melodrama, the match itself (and its placement on the calendar) is story enough.
But the invention of the Elimination Chamber, and its first foray; well, that itself has quite a story to it.
It was in the autumn of 2002 that the Elimination Chamber was introduced to the world, instituted as the main event of that year’s Survivor Series at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
At the time, it wasn’t clear what to expect, since nobody had ever seen an Elimination Chamber before. And here, it was headlining in its first go-around.
Whatever WWE was expecting out of the first ever Elimination Chamber match, it’s safe to say that the final product didn’t entirely match their vision.
The inaugural group of entrants included a who’s who of Monday Night Raw stars: Rob Van Dam, Kane, Chris Jericho, Booker T, a returning Shawn Michaels, and World Heavyweight champion Triple H.
Though the championship was the nominal prize, there were plenty of scores to be settled. To that point, Helmsley had established beef with most of his opponents, whether it was the summer-long acrimony with Michaels, or the tainted win over Van Dam, or the “cheerleader mannequin” laugh riot with Kane. It made sense that everybody there wanted a piece of “The Game”, for more than just his championship gold.
Hence, the necessary invention of the Chamber.
Though it should be noted that the Chamber was actually a compromise.
Triple H himself had actually lobbied to bring War Games to WWE for Survivor Series, but eventual father-in-law Vince McMahon balked at the “outside” idea. The Chamber was created out of the yearning to have a cage-based gimmick match with timed entrants (satisfying Helmsley) and was an original WWE idea (satisfying McMahon).
And when you think about it, isn’t the Elimination Chamber just a hybrid of three famed gimmick bouts? The cage-based mayhem and timed entries of War Games, the every-man-for-himself and “allure of the next entrant” of a Royal Rumble, and the pinfall and submission eliminations of Survivor Series?
Talk about an ambitious hybrid.
Of course, Triple H eventually did get his wish of implementing War Games into WWE canon – just not on the main roster, that’s all.
As for what the first Chamber match would consist of, well, even the wrestlers themselves weren’t exactly sure.
Jericho admitted years later even with the ring generals and skilful talents involved in the match, it was extremely hard to put together a plan. There was no template to follow, because no such match had ever taken place before. He added that even after hours of trying to come up with ideas on that Sunday afternoon, nothing was set in stone, and they were still putting things together after the pay-per-view went live.
What was set in stone was that Michaels was going to be victorious, capturing the World Heavyweight title. The second match of his storied comeback was taking place six years to the day after his first World title loss (in the same building no less). After the feelgood performance he put on against Triple H at SummerSlam that year, it was decided to have the old gunslinger stand tall at the end, crystallizing his triumphant rebirth.
But even though the story was perfect, Michaels had to be talked into returning. He’d left the door open for a comeback after the SummerSlam one-off, but hadn’t been keeping himself in ring shape since then. Vince McMahon, however, felt Survivor Series was the time and place to cash in on the good vibes created by his historic return.
Michaels was hesitant, but later said, “What was I supposed to do, say no to the championship?”
After a pretty good Survivor Series undercard, the moment finally arrived. The domed structure lowered from the ceiling, and one by one, the contestants began filing out to take their places. Michaels, Kane, Jericho, and Booker each reported to a supposedly-bulletproof retaining pod, while Triple H and Van Dam began the contest.
In the match’s first “period”, the champion and RVD worked well enough with one another. After five minutes elapsed, Jericho became the first man in history to be released from an Elimination Chamber pod. Here, Van Dam created the first highlight reel moment inside the structure, as Jericho catapulted him toward the chained wall of the cage, and Van Dam simply clung to it like Spiderman.
Booker entered fourth as things moved along at a brisk, workmanlike pace. But it was here that the match began to unravel, as Van Dam climbed atop one of the elevated corner pods, with Triple H in his crosshairs.
What was meant to be a Five Star Frog Splash was compromised by low clearance for RVD’s head. He dove at a compromised crouch, and came down knee first across Helmsley’s throat.
Not only was Triple H’s throat nearly crushed (he ended up spending the night at a New York hospital, out of fear that continued swelling in his throat could cause him to suffocate), but the match was now robbed of its resident ring general. With but a loose plan in place for how the match was going to go, Helmsley could no longer really communicate, leaving Jericho to take over as de facto shot-caller, working to keep everything steady.
Then came the next problem.
The final two entrants were to be Michaels entering fifth, and Kane coming in last. With Van Dam since eliminated, Michaels was supposed to come in, and clean house with some “babyface fire”, while the Garden faithful hopefully roared with approval.
But when the countdown ended, and the strobe-show lights flashed to herald the next entry, Kane was highlighted instead.
So not only was one of the participants injured and barely able to communicate (the match’s general, no less), but now the participants had to improvise around an unexpected change in order of entry.
Jericho later lamented, “In a controlled environment, where we decided which pod opened and our referees were the ones unchaining the doors and opening them, we still managed to get it wrong.”
Perhaps out of frustration, and in desperate need for something eye-catching to distract from the match’s continued disarray, Jericho had Kane launch him through one of the retaining pods (which Y2J conceded was as painful as it looked).
Finally, Michaels entered the fray. The New York fans were damn glad to see “The Heartbreak Kid” back in action, even if his aesthetic wasn’t up to his usual high standards. Between what he called his “Dutch boy” haircut and his one-time-use fecal-brown tights (that were intended to be “earth tone”), Michaels admitted he didn’t exactly have a winning look that night in the Garden.
In his defence, Michaels’ participation in the match was sprung on him kinda late in the game by an ambitious McMahon.
But what are an uncharacteristic haircut and dubious set of tights, when so much clutter has already preceded your entrance? Helmsley was badly wounded, the pods opened in the wrong order, Jericho messed himself up badly in an improvised moment, and there was barely a match structure to begin with.
Brown tights weren’t going to compound the problems much further.
Fortunately, things stabilized a bit in the final stages. After the elimination of Jericho, the dance of death came down to Michaels and the champion. Over the final eight and a half minutes, the two wove a pretty good story in spite of Triple H’s hindrances.
After escaping a Pedigree, Michaels blasted Helmsley with some Sweet Chin Music to a mighty New York roar, and covered his rival to win the final singles title of his storied career.
While the description above may make the match sound like a complete disaster, critical reception for the first-ever Elimination Chamber match has been strong. Dave Meltzer gave it four and a quarter stars, and especially praised Michaels, writing, “His timing as far as when to do spots and how to do them for the most impact is still impeccable, and that’s what made the last part of the match so strong.”
Meanwhile, the aggregate match rating on Cagematch.net is an 8.97 out of 10, from over 150 voters. From the perspective of the fan, other than Helmsley’s noticeable predicament, nothing else seemed particularly amiss.
So what is the legacy of the first Elimination Chamber? Is it a blood-soaked masterpiece that defines the Ruthless Aggression era at its most unvarnished? Or is it a monument to coming through with a crowd-pleasing spectacle, despite a number of handicaps rearing themselves at inopportune times? One must concur that it’s both.
For many reasons, the original Elimination Chamber is a vital part of WWE lore, one that tells many stories – and not all of them carefully-crafted.