Stipulation/gimmick matches in wrestling have been around almost since the dawn of the industry itself. Some have even risen to such popularity there are entire PPVs dedicated to them (I’m talking to you Hell in a Cell, Royal Rumble, World War 3, Lethal Lockdown, TLC, Elimination Chamber, War Games, Battle Bowl, etc.). But for others, they are rare attractions, brought out only in the most severe of rivalries, the most heated of feuds, blood or otherwise. At TakeOver: Toronto, NXT makes history as for the first time ever (and the first time in WWE since 2013), Johnny Gargano and Adam Cole will battle over the NXT Championship in a Three Stages of Hell match.
One of the rarest match stipulations in all of wrestling, the Three Stages of Hell match challenges two wrestlers to fight in three different match types that are most often chosen and determined by the two wrestlers taking part. There have been just four in WWE’s history, dating back to the first in 2001, where Steve Austin and Triple H battled in a standard match, street fight and finally, steel cage.
The objective of Three Stages of Hell is for the match difficulty to increase with each additional bout. With there being no restrictions on what the individual stipulations used can be, this very well might be the toughest match to mentally and physically prepare for in WWE. It is also one that is not brought out lightly. Since its inception in 2001, only four times has this stipulation been used, and all of them came about as the result of incredibly heated feuds. Such will be the case at TakeOver: Toronto as Cole and Gargano’s three-match trilogy ends in the most brutal way possible. But before looking back at their rivalry, which reached a boiling point in no time at all, here is a brief look back at the other four Three Stages of Hell matches and how things got to the point of needing the rare stipulation.
No Way Out 2001: Triple H vs Steve Austin
While wrestling is considered to be an art form, it’s a vicious one as much as it is poetic. And when it comes to kayfabe, there are probably few things in the industry’s history that would necessitate a Three Stages of Hell match like, oh, I don’t know, paying someone to run someone else down with a car.
The year was 2001. The Monday Night Wars had come to an end and WWE was riding as high as it had been in years, behind three bonafide stars in the Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin and Triple H. Austin and Triple H first met at a house show in October 1996 when the latter was still Hunter Hearst Helmsley and the former had yet to deliver his career-defining “Austin 3:16” promo. Their first PPV match came at WWF In Your House 11: Buried Alive a few days later. By November of that year, the two engaged in a feud over Helmsley’s Intercontinental Championship that also featured Bret Hart. In July 1997, the two had their first match on RAW and continued to feud over the IC title, then held by Austin.
At the top at the same time, Austin and Triple H often headlined house shows in the late 90s, including a run in April-May 1998, when Triple H got his first shot at Austin’s World Heavyweight Championship. The two had their first SmackDown match against each other in 1999, main eventing SmackDown 1 as Austin teamed with the Rock to defeat Triple H and the Undertaker. From there, Triple H re-entered the world title picture against Austin, for the first time doing so on the TV/PPV circuit. Austin successfully defended against him, before losing the title in a triple threat also featuring Mick Foley/Mankind at SummerSlam. At Unforgiven 1999, with Austin as special guest referee, Triple H won the title and soon after entered a program with Austin over the belt. Notably, the two fought to a 35+ minute no contest at Survivor Series 2000.
The two remained in each other’s orbit, though Austin never got another world title shot against Triple H. It was just what the Game wanted, to keep Austin away from his beloved belt. And one way to do that was to keep Austin off TV and out of action period. So that’s what Triple H did. He paid Rikishi, who did not in fact “do it for the Rock,” to run Austin down with his car, an act that kept Austin out for almost a year. When the truth was revealed, Austin was, as one would expect, livid as all hell. And short of going full hardcore with stipulations (deathmatches, barbed wire ring, piranhas, etc), no match stipulation in existence would have done to justify his fury which saw him drop Triple H 20 feet to the ground from a forklift. So WWE created one and at No Way Out 2001, Austin and Triple H battled in Three Stages of Hell: standard match, street fight, steel cage.
Austin won the first stage of the match, a match which received a 4.75 Dave Meltzer star-rating and 9.47 across all of Cagematch reviews. Triple H took the second, using a well-timed slegehammer shot before hitting a pedigree to end the street fight. Finally, the steel cage. Both Austin and Triple H absolutely brutalized each other as the match came down to the finish. Austin hit Triple H with a barbed wire 2×4 at precisely the same time Triple H hit Austin with his sledgehammer. Both men fell to the mat but fortunately for Triple H, he fell right on top of Austin to pick up the victory.
As wrestling goes, however, one minute you are beating someone to a bloody pulp in the first-ever Three Stages of Hell match, and the next you’re teaming with said person to win the tag team titles not even two months later. Austin and Triple H made up to form the Two-Man Power Trip and excluding house shows, never wrestled another singles match again. So really, Three Stages of Hell didn’t just put an end to their rivalry at the time, it closed the book on Austin vs Triple H altogether. Not a bad way to end the head-to-head between two of the best wrestlers of an era.
Armageddon 2002: Triple H vs Shawn Michaels
There is a great series on the WWE Network called Rivalries. One of its earliest episodes focused on Triple H vs Shawn Michaels and was perfectly titled, “Best Friends, Better Enemies.”
Perhaps having developed a taste for just how vicious and diabolical he could be, Triple H went from orchestrating someone else’s injury to causing one himself. At the 1998 Royal Rumble, Michaels took a back body drop that caused him to herniate two discs in his back and crush a third completely. Due to the injury, after WrestleMania XIV, Michaels announced his retirement. In November, Michaels, after making several non-wrestling related appearances on RAW, was named the new commissioner. Soon after, he joined the Corporation and began throwing around his new authority, impacting match outcomes to the benefit of his so-called favorites. In 1999, Michaels reunited with DX, who at the time were opposing the Corporation. Michaels continued to make sporadic television appearances before handing over the commissioner duties to Mick Foley.
In 2002, after being absent from programming for 18 months, Michaels briefly joined nWo. When the group disbanded shortly after, Michaels seemed poised to reunite with DX and Triple H. But Triple H turned the tables, when in refusal to go back to being in Michaels’ shadow and losing his top spot in the company, hit the pedigree heard round the world, turning on his former partner, and launching their incredible feud.
Playing to the narrative that he wasn’t cleared to wrestle and that this would be a one-night-only return, Michaels challenged Triple H to an unsanctioned match at SummerSlam, his first WWE match in four years. Their feud continued as at Survivor Series, Michaels defeated Triple H and others to win the world title in the first-ever Elimination Chamber match. Up next, was Armageddon, where things got so heated between the former friends turned enemies, that a Three Stages of Hell match was set.
Triple H won the first fall in a street fight, followed up by Michaels, despite interference on behalf of Triple H by Ric Flair, claimed the second in a steel cage match. Michaels jumped off the top of the cage to deliver a finishing blow to Triple H, who he placed on a table. The final fall was fitting, a ladder match, where the title was dangled from the top of the ceiling. Flair’s interference proved vital yet again as Triple H tipped over the ladder Michaels had been climbing, sending the champ crashing through tables Flair had stacked three-high. This allowed Triple H to climb the ladder and claim the title for himself.
Interestingly enough, Three Stages of Hell wasn’t the end for these two as they feuded on and off through 2004. Two years later though, DX reunited and have enjoyed various runs over the last decade-plus as a duo. The Three Stages of Hell match was the last time in his career that Michaels entered a match in defense of a world title.
The Bash 2009: Triple H vs Randy Orton
Evolution is a mysteryyyyy…Well, not really, at least not when it comes to Triple H’s intentions. Motivated by jealousy and a desire not to be surpassed, the events that led up to Triple H’s third and final Three Stages of Hell match happened four years prior to the match itself, when the Game decided that Randy Orton was getting too close to being in the position to challenge for his spot. And much as he did when he paid Rikishi to hit Austin with a car and when he threw Michaels threw a car window, Triple H took matters into his own hands to oust the newly crowned world champion from the group the two of them had formed alongside Batista and Ric Flair.
In 2002, Triple H was riding high. After defeating Michaels at Armaggedon, Triple H went on to hold the world championship for 280 days, the longest title reign of any variety in his career. From December 2002 to September 2003, Triple H defended against the likes of Scott Steiner, Booker T, Kevin Nash, Ric Flair, Kane, Rob Van Dam and more, eventually dropping the belt to Goldberg at Unforgiven. But in the midst of that title reign, Triple H assembled one of the finest groups in pro wrestling history, debuting Evolution in February 2003.
Evolution experienced tremendous success during their run. At Armaggedon 2004, a year after Triple H had won the world title for the second time, Evolution stood in all their glory, holding all of the gold. Batista and Flair were tag champs, Orton held the IC title and Triple H reclaimed his world title. It seemed no one could stop Evolution from establishing a WWE dynasty and asserting their dominance. Well, no one outside of the group that is. Triple H lost his title in March 2004 and Flair and Batista lost theirs a month prior. That left Orton as the only champ in the group as he held his first career WWE belt for 210 days, remaining champ through July 2004. Had Triple H managed to regain his title, he likely wouldn’t have minded, but as such, he failed in several opportunities.
Meanwhile, where Triple H failed, Orton succeeded as at SummerSlam that year, Orton defeated Chris Benoit to become the youngest world champion in WWE history. Triple H didn’t like that so the following night, Evolution moved on without Orton. At Unforgiven, Triple H got the full measure of his revenge, besting Orton to finally regain the world title.
For the next several months, Orton feuded with Triple H and Evolution, often teaming with Benoit, Michaels or Chris Jericho in house show tag team matches. In 2007, Orton finally defeated Triple H for the world title, though his reign lasted mere moments before the Game got it back. The two continued to wrestle on-and-off for parts of the next two years with the Viper and the Game trading victories. At Backlash 2008, in a four-way elimination match, Triple H once again bested Orton, this time for the Viper’s WWE Heavyweight title. Things didn’t really hit a fever pitch on this rivalry until 2009 however, as Orton had a faction of his own and set his sights on targeting Triple H’s family by law, the McMahons.
Legacy (Orton, Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase Jr.) vs the McMahons was a fantastic feud, one that brought out the most vicious side to Orton that he’s ever displayed. By the same token, it brought out a new fierceness in Triple H, as for once, he wasn’t fighting for himself, but for his family. Orton meanwhile was fighting for his own selfish reasons and despite constantly having back-up, wasn’t able to regain the title from Triple H at WrestleMania 25. In a rare, three-on-three for the world title bout, however, Legacy led Orton to victory. Following a draw in the last man standing match on RAW for Orton’s belt, the Viper and the Game took part in the third-ever Three Stages of Hell match.
In the shortest of the four Three Stages of Hell matches, Triple H purposefully lost to Orton in their standard match opener, getting disqualified by beating the champ mercilessly with a chair. This led into the second fall, falls count anywhere, which Triple H won by taking advantage of the bruised and beaten Orton. The third fall was a stretcher match. Triple H came moments away from winning before Legacy interfered, allowing the Orton to put his opponent on the stretcher instead.
Much as it was for him and Austin, this marked the last singles match between Triple H and his Three Stages of Hell opponent on PPV, up until Super Showdown last month. The two continued to feud over the title alongside John Cena for parts of the next two years. Soon, Orton rejoined Triple H in the Authority and later in an Evolution reunion against the Shield. Prior to their Super Showdown match of the night in June 2019, Orton and Triple H hadn’t met in televised singles combat since March 2010, which excluding house shows, was their only other singles match against each other following Three Stages of Hell.
Payback 2013: John Cena vs Ryback
For the first time in its history, Payback 2013 marked a Three Stages of Hell match not featuring Triple H. Instead, it pitted John Cena against Ryback following a heated rivalry the two had developed earlier in the year.
Everyone remembers Survivor Series 2012 as the night the Shield debuted and altered the pro wrestling landscape. It was the night three stars were born, but it was also the first time that Ryback and Cena shared the ring as opponents. Their first match together came a week or so before when Ryback and Cena teamed up to defeat CM Punk and Dolph Ziggler on RAW. At Survivor Series, Ryback was triple powerbombed through the announce table, ultimately setting up Punk’s win and setting a new course into motion.
Feeling cheated out of yet another opportunity, however (Punk low-blowed Ryback in their previous title match), Ryback primarily feuded with the Shield for the next several months. At the 2013 Royal Rumble, he entered 30th and finished as runner-up, being last eliminated by his occasional teammate in his war against the Shield, John Cena.
By April 2013, Ryback and Cena were on opposite sides as Ryback turned on his former partner, blaming him for not having his back against the Shield and also wanting to get out of Cena’s shadow. Ryback allowed the Shield to attack Cena and began attacking him as well. Leading into Extreme Rules, Ryback became #1 contender for Cena’s world title, but the match ended in a no contest. Ryback challenged Cena to a rematch, an ambulance match, but Cena upped the ante, announcing theirs would be the fourth-ever Three Stages of Hell match.
Ryback won the first fall, in a lumberjack match, escaping the STF and hitting Shell Shocked instead. The second fall was a tables match, a stipulation the two had been wrestling with during a recent house show circuit prior to the PPV. Cena claimed the fall. The third and deciding fall came in Ryback’s desired ambulance match. Ryback put Cena through the announcer’s table before the match started but in the end, as the two fought in and around the ring, Cena won, putting Ryback through the roof of the ambulance.
Cena and Ryback continued to wrestle on the house show circuit and in dark matches, as well as a handful of TV matches, but their feud was effectively over. Cena went on to feud with Mark Henry and Ryback with Jericho. In 2015, the two briefly teamed up again as Ryback joined Team Cena at Survivor Series 2014 against Team Authority, who threatened to fire every member of Cena’s team should they be unsuccessful.
TakeOver: Toronto 2019: Adam Cole vs Johnny Gargano
On July 23rd, 2010, Adam Cole defeated Johnny Gargano at EVOLVE 4: Danielson vs Fish. It was the first time the two NXT superstars ever wrestled, but certainly not the last. Cole and Gargano would wrestle singles matches four more times on the independent circuit, including for the Pro Wrestling Guerrilla world title, prior to both joining NXT.
In September 2017, the two met for the first time in the black-and-yellow brand as Gargano teamed with various wrestlers to take on Cole’s Undisputed Era (Cole, Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly) during the live event circuit. The following year, the two shared the ring on the live event circuit yet again, this time alongside Tommaso Ciampa in a series of NXT title matches. At Halftime Heat, that triple threat turned into a trio as Cole, Gargano and Ciampa teamed up against Aleister Black, Ricochet and Velveteen Dream.
Having briefly faked a reunion with Ciampa, Gargano finally got revenge several years in the making, turning on his former partner. It was meant to set up a final chapter in the rivalry between the two #DIY mates but unfortunately, an injury sustained by Ciampa forced a change of plans. That opened the door for Cole, who defeated Black, Dream, Ricochet and Matt Riddle to become the new #1 contender for the vacated belt. His opponent would be Gargano, who was already slotted for the match prior to Ciampa’s injury. Despite the two having little to no history in NXT, their title match was contested in a two-out-three falls stipulation that received 5.5 stars. Cole found himself on the losing end and demanded a rematch. And after two months of hounding and torturing Gargano over it, finally received his show at TakeOver: XXV. In another 5+ star classic, Cole defeated Gargano to win his second championship in NXT.
With Gargano seemingly waiting in the shadows, Cole took full control over his new Undisputed NXT. A few weeks after their title match, he began to provoke the former champ. Cole’s BAY BAY Championship Celebration Tour saw him visit some of Gargano’s old Cleveland haunts including a restaurant owned by Gargano’s dad and a local wrestling school where he talked trash about Johnny Wrestling. This past Wednesday, following Gargano’s showdown with Cole at the end of EVOLVE 131, Gargano returned to NXT where the two brawled around the arena. In the end, Cole tapped out to the Garga-No Escape as Gargano put up three fingers, signaling he wanted the third match in their trilogy.
Of all the Three Stages of Hell matches on this list, Gargano/Cole has the least amount of history and perhaps the least amount of venom. But here’s the thing, it’s likely going to be the best such match in history. At the very least, it should be right up there with Austin/Triple H. Building off their two-out-three falls match with what is effectively a two-out-three falls match on steroids, makes a lot of sense. As does Gargano’s desire to finally shut Cole up once and for all. But more than that is the possibility of Ciampa’s return (he’s been strongly hinting at coming for the champ) or the Era getting involved or both. With the way that NXT books and the track record Cole and Gargano have for putting on epics, there’s no doubt this is going to be every bit worth the stipulation.
Stay tuned to the Last Word on Pro Wrestling for more on this and other stories from around the world of wrestling, as they develop. You can always count on LWOPW to be on top of the major news in the wrestling world, as well as to provide you with analysis, previews, videos, interviews, and editorials on the wrestling world. You can watch NXT every Wednesday night and can catch replays of all four Three Stages of Hell matches on the WWE Network.