Classic Match: The First Elimination Chamber, Survivor Series 2002

Kyle Fowle
Shawn Michaels (source: WWE)’s Classic Match series takes a closer look at significant and super cool matches from wrestling history.

As a fan, part of the beauty of pro wrestling—especially in WWE—is the ability to be invested in the spectacle of it all, to enjoy the athletic prowess, the anger and hatred of feuds, and to cheer for the catharsis of violence while also knowing that the performers are ultimately doing what they can to be safe. We understand that the wrestlers we love are—in most cases these days—not going over-the-top to deliver entertainment.

Still, a big reason why we love wrestling so much is that it does flirt with danger and pain. We know a chop from Ric Flair—or more recently, NXT UK’s WALTER—would hurt like hell. We know that a table bump would leave most of us in bed for a few days, and there’s simply the inherent risk of such a high-stakes, live, coordinated performance built on trust and training. Then, you add in stipulation matches and the flirting with danger becomes all the more real. That was the case with the first Elimination Chamber match ever, taking place at Survivor Series in 2002. It’s a match removed of the polish of latter-day events, instead earning the heightened rhetoric of pain, destruction, and chaos.

In essence, nobody had any idea what was going to happen in that first Chamber match. The unknown can be a lovely thing, and it’s the very absence of previous experience that makes that first Chamber match such a classic. It feels alive and messy and propulsive, and the behind-the-scenes stories only add to the aura of the match. Leading up to the pay-per-view, the Chamber was built up as the most unforgiving structure in WWE history, an experiment in bodily torture dreamed up by then RAW GM Eric Bischoff (in storyline at least; Triple H is credited with the actual creation of the match).

Triple H (source: WWE)

It proved to be true, as nobody expected the Chamber to be as unforgiving as it was. Bischoff kept the Chamber as a RAW-exclusive match and booked the first match for the World Heavyweight Championship. Triple H would be defending his title against Booker T, Chris Jericho, Kane, Rob Van Dam, and a returning Shawn Michaels. Back in 2017, ESPN did a great oral history of the match, and in that piece was the recurring theme of “what the hell did we get ourselves into?”

Chris Jericho, on first seeing the structure on the day of the show:

“…you can tell was made by somebody who’s not a wrestling person. It was very clunky, it was very dangerous. It’s made of real grated steel—you probably could have made it out of rubber and you wouldn’t have known the difference. The walls were very stiff, and they didn’t make any noise when you hit them, so it hurts like hell.”

Triple H had some thoughts too:

“We saw it for the first time and we were like ‘Oh god! Who built this?’ It was the most horrible thing ever. It took us all day to figure out, like, ‘How does this thing work? The doors are going to open…and what is this made of?’ Everything hurt, it was just hard, rigid steel. Even the chain walls. Everybody was ‘Oh yeah but it’s chain.’ Yeah, it’s chain, it moved them about a half an inch and then it was like hitting a lumpy bag of bricks.”

As much as you don’t want to see anyone get hurt, when you watch that first Chamber match there’s a sense of realism that undeniably adds to the match. Of course, that first match is also notorious for everything going off the rails in a hurry, and that kind of need for improvisation and spontaneity gives the match its energy as well. Jericho, Van Dam, and Triple H are the first three men in the ring, and that mostly involves Triple H and Jericho beating down Van Dam. Then, things start to shift, and we get our first unique moment of the match, as Van Dam climbs on top of the pod to deliver a Five Star Frog Splash to a prone Triple H below.

Again, the newness of the match and the build of the structure causes havoc. Van Dam can’t stand up properly on the pod, so he’s forced to shoot out further than usual, and he miscalculates his landing, his shin coming across Triple H’s throat. It’s one of the most notorious in-ring injuries in WWE history. He couldn’t talk for the rest of the match, and yet somehow lasts until the end with his esophagus and trachea crushed.

Kane, Triple H (source: WWE)

Things only get crazier from there. Booker T is in the match now, getting a near fall on Triple H, who’s clearly still recovering from the missed frog splash. Then, according to the oral history, the plan was for Michaels to make his grand entrance into his second match since returning from what was supposed to be career-ending back surgery and just clear everybody out. He was going to run roughshod over everybody and get the crowd even more behind him.

Instead, the wrong door opens. Kane is the next entrant, throwing a wrench in the booked plans. As Triple H recalls:

“Jericho and I laugh about this all the time. I had just gotten hurt, Jericho didn’t know it, and then they opened the wrong pod. Jericho rolled over to me and went ‘Oh my god, they opened the wrong pod!’ I’m like ‘I’m hurt!’ He’s looking like ‘Oh my god!’ He just freaked out—the worst possible scenario is happening at that moment.”

This was supposed to be Michaels’ big moment, something the guys built the match around in the back, and now they have to throw it all out and call everything on the spot. Michaels being forced to come out last, a total fluke, actually builds anticipation for his entry. Like the #30 spot in the Royal Rumble, where we all sit and wait anxiously to see who it’s going to be, that last Chamber spot is exciting. It’s an advantage in the match, but it’s also a great storytelling tool. We can see inside the pods, and that allows our anticipation to build. We all know that Michaels can’t wait to get his hands on Triple H, and we’re just salivating over the moment.

Sure enough, when Michaels’ pod opens, the crowd goes nuts and Michaels heads straight for the champion Triple H. Kane takes control of the match for a bit after that, laying out everyone with chokeslams before Jericho fights back and eliminates Kane with a lionsault. Booker T, who eliminated Van Dam earlier, gets eliminated by Jericho. The final three men, Jericho, Triple H, and Michaels, are clearly in pain. They’re continually falling on and slamming into the hard steel grates. Michaels and Triple H get severely busted open and spend the rest of the match with crimson masks. It’s visceral in a way that WWE would have trouble replicating and for good reason: Nobody should put their body through this, but as a historical artifact and a one-time dive into the unknown, it’s incredibly compelling.

Kane, Chris Jericho (source: WWE)

Michaels eliminates Jericho with Sweet Chin Music, and finally, the match is where it’s supposed to be: the former friends-turned-bitter rivals fighting for the World Heavyweight Championship. Michaels, who’s on his second match in six years, waits for the instructions from Triple H. No finish was planned beforehand. The problem? Oh, that whole crushed trachea thing. Triple H can’t call the match, so they just brawl. Eventually, Triple H throws Michaels through the plexiglass of one of the pods. Both men are bleeding profusely.

Then, the magic of a truly cathartic finish. Triple H dodges a Sweet Chin Music and delivers a Pedigree to Michaels. The crowd boos as he crawls for the pin, but he only gets the two-count. He argues with Hebner about the count. It’s a major mistake, as Michaels uses that time to recover, delivering a back body drop followed by a crisp Sweet Chin Music. Michaels falls into the cover, and the crowd counts along with Hebner: One, Two, Three! Shawn Michaels, after years away from the business, is back in WWE and back on top as World Heavyweight Champion as confetti falls from the ceiling. It’s a truly special moment, an image forever etched into WWE history coming on the heels of what could have been a disaster. Sometimes though, chaos creates beauty. It certainly did in the first Elimination Chamber match.

You can go back and revisit this match on the WWE Network.

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