Enter the Cage

Wrestledelphia's Brad Jones goes behind the scenes at Combat Zone Wrestling's Cage of Death 18.

Jeff Cannonball compared Combat Zone Wrestling’s annual spectacle to professional wrestling’s biggest stage.

“Cage of Death is — and I’m sure this is going to be cliché — but Cage of Death is the WrestleMania of CZW,” Cannonball said as we spoke a few hours before the December staple for a company built on “ultraviolence.”

Cliché perhaps isn’t the word, but over the course of my conversations with wrestlers, crew members, and fans at the Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees, NJ, there was certainly no shortage of comparisons to WWE’s biggest night of the year. Whether Cage of Death was being referred to as “the grandest stage of them all” or the company’s “Super Bowl,” the message was very clear: this is the big one and not just a marketing line.

Every single person that represented CZW on December 10 — from the students booked for the Dojo Wars Mega Event 3 in the afternoon, to returning legends of the Combat Zone like Sami Callihan, to the men and women taking photographs and shooting video, to the eight warriors that did battle in The Cage — every single person came to the arena with a clear conception of the importance of the event.

By the end of the night, I understood exactly why.

At Death’s Door

When I arrived at the Flyers Skate Zone, the afternoon’s Dojo Wars event was still a few hours away, never mind the evening’s main event. However, I was surprised to find that several of the competitors scheduled to compete in the main event of Cage of Death were already present at the arena.

CZW considers Cage of Death to be its marquee event, and the number of fans that came out to see the carnage in person is a testament to its status among the Combat Zone faithful. This particular show has been notorious over the past eighteen years. For fans and wrestlers alike, there’s a clear sense of history. Every single person I spoke to could easily rattle off memories of their most memorable Cage of Death experiences.

When I asked Conor Claxton — who was hours from attaining his fabled status as a CoD competitor — about the first Cage of Death event he attended, he listed the names of the wrestlers involved as naturally as he might reel off his closest friends. Matt Tremont, a veteran of The Cage, told me the date of his first Cage of Death without having to think for a second. Jeff Cannonball, also set to enter The Cage for the first time, could recall his first Cage of Death in an instant.

The memories of Cage of Death’s past  is what makes Cage of Death the biggest event on CZW’s calendar of ultraviolence and is a reason the company has last longer than the average independent promotion. Beyond that, it raises the expectations of every single fan entering the arena; assuming they aware of what they’re in for, they know that they’re going to see something even more brutal and punishing than the average deathmatch.

The Instrument Of Violence

“I’m not nervous at all,” Claxton said ahead of his first foray into the Cage of Death. “It kind of just feels like another match where I have the freedom to do the craziest, best stuff that I can think of.”

Claxton is a product of the CZW Academy; a Pennsylvania native who earned a spot on the promotion’s main roster last year after spending much of 2014 wrestling on Dojo Wars shows. In a relatively short space of time, he’s appeared in some of the most notable staples of the CZW pay-per-view schedule.

“I’ve been in the finals of [Tournament of Death], I’ve been in Tangled Web,” Claxton said. “I feel like I’m finally completing the deathmatch trifecta of CZW.”

A few days ahead of the event, I had spoken to CZW owner DJ Hyde about the competitors set to step inside the cage. “He’s put a lot of weight on his shoulders, because he’s been in these big matches at an early age, but he’s never been in this,” Hyde said when Claxton’s name came up. “This is the main event of the company that he always wanted to be at. This is where he wants to be, this is what he wants, and this is his first opportunity. I think he’s got a lot of pressure on his shoulders here with this match, and hopefully, he delivers.”

Cage of Death represented an enormous opportunity for Claxton. His association with the Nation of Intoxication came to an end at Tangled Web 9, when he was betrayed by his tag team partner Devon Moore in a match against the Young Dragons.

Conor Claxton slammed through a pane of glass at CZW’s Cage of Death 18. (Photo Credit: Chris Grasso.)

Heading into 2017, he’ll be an established singles performer with a point to prove, and a huge amount of support from the CZW fanbase. An appearance in the main event of the promotion’s biggest show of the year allowed Claxton to demonstrate the massive strides he’s made since his debut in 2014. “It’s my home, that’s the only way to really describe it,” Claxton said. “It’s played a huge, huge role.

“I’m grateful to CZW, because people always say like, ‘I trained at this place with this person’ or ‘I trained at this place, with this person,'” he continued. “I can’t name all of great trainers I had around CZW, giving me advice; Drew Gulak, AR Fox, Masada, Matt Tremont, Joe Gacy, Greg Excellent, BLK Jeez — there’s just so much talent around me. I can go to anyone in that locker room and be like, “What do you think of my match?’ and get good, sound advice. I’m really grateful for that. That’s a big thing, that a lot of people don’t have.”

Claxton continues to hone his craft as he works his way up the ranks of CZW. But now, given the platform of Cage of Death, he’s ready to show off what he can do. “I know exactly what I’m capable of, so it’s more like, ‘When is that torch coming?’ I’m ready. I want it,” he said. “I know what I can do, and I’m pretty confident that it’s something that people are gonna like for a long time.”

If there was ever a time to demonstrate your abilities, it’s Cage of Death. The event’s notoriety means that the live crowd is guaranteed to be bigger than a typical CZW show, and legions more fans are sure to watch the pay-per-view’s main event on the company’s on-demand streaming service.

“It’s the big stage. It’s the biggest stage we have,” he noted. “It’s the biggest match, on the biggest show. This is where you do everything you can possibly think of.”

A Veteran Of Ultraviolence

“He’s probably the most important guy on the roster at this point; a lot of people say he’s the heart and soul of CZW,” DJ Hyde said of Tremont. “When it comes to the deathmatch wrestling world, he’s the guy.”

It’s difficult to find someone with a bad word to say about the Bulldozer. Cannonball described him as one of the closest friends that he’s ever made in the wrestling business. “I’ve known Matt since the day I came into this business,” Claxton said. “There’s no other person you want next to you, to do ultraviolence with.”

Over the past decade, Tremont has established himself as one of the premiere deathmatch wrestlers on the planet. He’s an integral part of CZW, and the company’s third-longest-reigning world heavyweight champion behind Drake Younger and Masada. Speaking to him, it’s easy to see why; he’s a man that cares deeply about ultraviolence.

“This was always my goal, this was always where I wanted to be, in this company,” Tremont told me. “I was a die-hard CZW fan, and once I finally got to see the Cage of Death live, I was hooked even more. Right about that time, 2006, I was 17 or 18, and I knew that this was what I wanted to do, this is what I wanted to get into; to become a professional wrestler and be in CZW.”

Now, he’s at the top of the mountain in a company that he’s felt an attachment to since his teenage years. He spent the majority of 2016 as the promotion’s world heavyweight champion, before taking a lead role in the main-event feud of its biggest show of the year — but the Cage of Death is still an “overwhelming experience” for the grizzled veteran.

“I don’t really get the butterflies anymore, because this is a full-time job for me now,” Tremont said. “For me, it’s another day in the office. But every year Cage of Death is our biggest-drawing event, and when there’s 1,000-plus people in here, and when I walk through the curtain, that’s when I start getting those butterflies and that excitement again.”

Check out Mark Whited’s review of photographer Chris Grasso’s pictorial “Theatre of Blood.”

Of course, Tremont wasn’t always a CZW mainstay with bookings all across the country. His enormous passion for the the company first reared its head when he was a fan watching from the crowd, but it has been fortified by the fact that CZW helped him realize his dream of making his living as a professional wrestler.

“Before I came to CZW, I was just twiddling my thumbs, working small, independent promotions in the Tri-State area,” he explained. “Once I got here and got this platform, that was when I was able to build my name, build my brand, and be able to do this consistently elsewhere. But I know, at the end of the day, I’m still very loyal here. Because without the platform CZW gave me, I wouldn’t be able to do everything else.”

Tremont is a top guy in CZW, but he’s not the kind of man that uses that privileged position for his own benefit. As we discussed Cage of Death, he made it very clear that the show is a team effort, with every single staff member, academy trainee, and wrestler having their own part to play.

“It’s a very exciting day — it’s a long day, but you don’t hear anybody bitching or complaining,” he said. “Everybody’s excited, whether you’re a wrestler performing tonight, whether you’re taking pictures, you’re filming the show, or you’re staffing security. There is a buzz here, there’s an excitement here, and that’s why the Cage of Death is our WrestleMania.

“We all believe in this vision, so we continue to do this, every year,” Tremont added. “It’s a team effort. It’s a collective group of individuals with a mindset and a goal to put on the best effort possible. Just like ECW was — everybody did everything that they could because they believed — I think everybody here, to the best of my knowledge, believes in what we’re trying to do, so CZW can continue and run another 18 years after today.”

‘As Violent, Or As Painful, As I Could Have Imagined Or Hoped’

“This is my first Cage of Death,” Cannonball mentioned. “Ever since I started training with the company, it’s only my third one. I’ve been going live for so many years, but it’s only my first time being in it. As a fan, I can tell you every year I was always excited, no matter what.”

Cannonball started wrestling in 2010, working dates in North Jersey, largely for Johnny Falco’s National Wrestling Superstars promotion. At this time, he admits that he wasn’t really traveling all that much, although, the Combat Zone was already a goal for the future.

He took one step closer to CZW when he wrestled Corvis Pain, striking up a friendship. Pain began bringing him to the company’s dojo, where he worked on his fundamental among other trainees and academy students. “Then when he stepped away, I kind of stepped away a little bit,” Cannonball said. “Honestly, just kind of being lazy, almost.

“Then Joey Janela finally gave me the kick in the ass and was like, ‘Come on, get in the car, we’re going here, here, and here,’ Cannonball added. “So May of this year, 2016, was actually when I finally got to make my [CZW] debut.”

Cannonball stepped into the Cage of Death for the first time among good company. As well as his longstanding friendships with Tremont and Janela, he notes that he “hit it off right away” with Claxton. “It’s cool that I get to live out this dream with friends of mine,” he replied when asked about his teammates for the evening.

Jeff Cannonball screams as his head is carved by a barbed wired-wrapped baseball bat at Cage of Death 18 (Credit: Lyle C. Williams).

“Cage of Death is a big deal, for a lot of people,” Cannonball said. “And not just for people like myself who want to do the deathmatch thing and be in the cage, but for the people who can have the title shot, who can have the awesome opening round match, which is always some kind of crazy scramble with high-flying moves and things like that. Cage of Death is a big deal for everybody from the deathmatch guy, to the flippy guy, to the technical guy, and all in between.”

This is an important point, and something that’s easy to miss about an event like Cage of Death. Of course, there’s a proportion of the crowd who are there for the explicit purpose of seeing what carnage will unfold in the main event — but they’re also going to be exposed to everything else that’s going on in the company as of the end of the year.

“If you want to make a name, this is the show to do it on,” Hyde told me when I asked him about the status of the event. “They’re going to talk about you. This is a show that’s like, ‘Hey, I just wanna get booked, I don’t care what I’m doing, just get me out there.’ Cage of Death is designed to satisfy the sickest deathmatch fantasy you can imagine, but it’s also intended to grab the attention of new and lapsed fans as CZW enters the new year.

“People who might not normally watch CZW, they’ll come out,” Cannonball added. “Or people who used to sit out in the crowd and come month after month after month, and then had to slow down as they got older, they’ll come out to Cage of Death. They’ll come out to things like [Cage of Death], and Tournament of Death, and Best of the Best, but [Cage of Death] is always the one that feels special.

“It’s got that big fight feel to it,” he added. “I’m just throwing clichés out, now. But it does feel special to fans and to wrestlers, and all the staff. Everybody works real hard.”

The Build

It wouldn’t be right to cover Cage of Death without spending a moment discussing the time it takes to put the structure in place. Typically, The Cage only rears its head for the main event of the evening, which necessitates an intermission where staff members and academy students work feverishly to construct whatever design has been decided upon.

Tremont told me that when he attended his first Cage of Death event in 2006, it took two-and-a-half hours to build the cage, thanks to the supplementary wooden structure that was being built for the first time. This year’s construction didn’t take anywhere near that long, but there was still a fair amount of heavy lifting, weapon arrangement, and even welding to sit through.

However, I’d argue that this downtime actually served to benefit the main event. The crowd had already had their appetite for ultraviolence whetted by a bloody deathmatch between Rickey Shane Page and Danny Havoc, and at this point, were ready to see more action in the same vein.

The placement of the match between Page and Havoc was perfect. The bout was a completely satisfactory deathmatch in its own right, contributing a bevy of truly disgusting spots to the evening’s entertainment. However, being a one-on-one contest, it had a very different feel and flow to the main event that it preceded.

Sitting in the crowd, waiting for the Cage of Death match to begin, there was a pervasive feeling of anticipation. The lengthy build only served to amp up this excitement; every time it seemed like The Cage was “complete,” that enough ways to harm an opponent had been introduced, there was another addition. If there was a way to have The Cage spring up from nowhere seconds after the bout between Page and Havoc, we in the crowd might have got home 30 minutes earlier — but we might not have had the time to properly digest the first deathmatch in preparation for the second.

Regardless, watching The Cage be assembled, I drifted back into the conversations I’d been having with men who either knew the structure well, or were about to become better acquainted with it.

“Every year, we know that there’s 1,000-plus people that are going to gather from all around the country — and the world — to come and see this event,” Tremont said. “The second Saturday of every December, for years, they know it’s Cage of Death and people from all over are going to come and see this.”

“I think expectations are just set so high, because people are so used to seeing the classics,” Cannonball told me. “Especially with something like CZWStudios, where you can go back and watch it all. You can see it. Last nigh,  you could have just sat up and watched every Cage of Death. I think it just makes the fans want more.”

“There’s so many people in this match who are willing to go to that next level,” Claxton chimed in. “It’s gonna be something. I promise you, you’re going to see some things that you have not seen in a while. There’s just so many people willing to go the distance. There are guys out there who are young, and talented, and good looking — but there’s only so far that they’ll go. However far that they’re willing to go, everyone in this match is always going to go a little bit farther. And that’s why this Cage of Death is definitely gonna be something.”

Finally, I thought back to the conversation I had had with Hyde a few days earlier.

“This is the big show,” he said. “Go home, close the year, come back and we’re gonna build from it in 2017 — and 2017 is looking to be the biggest year in CZW history. Everyone’s gonna walk in there and go, ‘It’s time to bring my A-game,’ and I think that’s what everybody’s gonna do.” Having spoken to three of the eight men stepping into The Cage, I had no doubt that his suspicions were correct.

“I’ve done deathmatches and crazy stuff — I’ve done stuff that nobody’s done,” Hyde continued. “Being inside The Cage is an entirely different feeling. No matter what it’s designed out of, no matter what it is that you’re doing, when it comes to that match, there’s nothing that’s like it. And as a competitor in that match, you’ve really got to have your A-Game on and your head straight. Because at any time, you could be lights out, something could go wrong, and you could be hurt very bad.

“It’s an intimidating structure unlike anything else I’ve ever been in, or anything else that you know,” he added. “And knowing also, that Cage of Death has been the show for 18 years, and you’re in the main event,  you’re the reason that this is all happening — it’s a lot of pressure. It’s a lot of pressure.”

Enter The Cage

A body slammed into the turnbuckle during the Cage of Death 18 main event matchup (Credit: Lyle C. Williams).

A little after midnight, The Cage was ready and the competitors started to enter. The first two wrestlers to join the fray were Drew Blood and Claxton — because this year’s Cage of Death match was a Four-on-Four encounter, the rules defaulted to the WarGames-inspired format where a new participant from alternating teams would enter after a given span of time.

I have to steal the sentiments of someone in the row behind me, who I overheard discussing the match format: I love that there was no countdown, just a buzzer when the next wrestler was due to make their entrance. The whole night had been building up to this festival of violence, what was the point of trying to wring any more suspense out of proceedings once the action was underway?

There certainly wasn’t any effort to hold off on the ultraviolence once the bell rung. Just seconds into the match, Blood and Claxton each kicked their opponent through a pane of glass, setting a standard that would continue to be topped throughout the duration of the bout.

There was more restraint in terms of eliminations, which could come as a result of an ultraviolent pinfall or submission, or forcing an opponent to fall from the top of The Cage to the outside. Not one competitor was eliminated until all eight men were introduced to the match, which made for a chaotic situation inside the relatively confined cage.

As I was watching the match for a second time, I was surprised to find that the bout ran for almost 45 minutes. Sat in the arena, it had rushed by. The pace was non-stop, and the entire incident was peppered with events that demanded your attention; between competitors entering the match, being removed from it, and the cavalcade of hideous, horrifying acts of violence in between, there was truly never a dull moment.

Just about every individual elimination had something about it that stuck with me, but Claxton’s seemed particularly significant to me. As he somersaulted, lifeless, falling from The Cage through a barbed wire board below, there was no question of my “suspension of disbelief”‘ or the “reality” of the situation that was playing out in front of me. The man had got himself nice and fucked up for the love of professional wrestling, and the Combat Zone.

It’s important to remember than not even CZW is free from cries of “fake” and “phony” — earlier that day, I’d been speaking to a wrestler about the difficulties of getting friends and family members to appreciate just how much of a physical toll this style of wrestling takes. Even high-resolution photographs of stiff strikes at the moment of impact, or weapons tearing flesh from bone weren’t always enough to illustrate the reality of this kind of competition.

However, sitting thirty feet away in the Flyers Skate Zone, it was impossible to doubt the legitimacy of what was going on in the ring. Even if you couldn’t see every single detail of what the eight men were going through — indeed, my second viewing of the broadcast version illuminated several truly disgusting moments that I’d missed the first time around — the occasional shower of broken glass could convince even the most committed cynic.

It’s difficult to name an MVP for a match like this, as every one of the eight competitors gave everything they had to make the match such a success. By the end of the night, all eight man had raised their stock, whether they were an established veteran or a relative newcomer, a beloved fan favorite or a hated heel. Sacrifices were made, as the effects of such a brutal contest will surely be felt for a very long time, but the hotly anticipated main event served its purpose, set up a hot start to 2017, and sent the fans home happy.

I have to give special props to the humble five gallon water jug. Placed next to a barbed wire bat, or a bucket of thumbtacks, it’s easy to look down on this particular weapon as a Staples order for the office that’s way out of its league in the Combat Zone. That said, when it came into play, it looked every bit the weapon of war. Watch Josh Crane throw one right in CClaxton’s face and tell me that it’s any less hardcore a weapon than a steel chair.

Above all else, this year’s Cage of Death delivered on the ultraviolence.

A superplex onto a ladder than was already bent out of shape and broken. A mouthful of thumbtacks spat into another man’s face. A multitude of willing and unwilling falls from the top of the cage. That damn sound as Crane’s 5 gal. jug struck Claxton square in the face.

If you’re a wrestling fan who’s heard about the reputation of Cage of Death, but never watched the match itself — GIFs and highlight videos don’t count — watch this year’s event. You won’t be disappointed by the level of brutality on offer.

And if you’re a CZW fan, this year’s show is a must-watch for a very different reason. You simply won’t be prepared for 2017 until you see what went down on December 10.

Cage of Death 18 was a great show to attend live. Its undercard was very strong, with matches like the opening 6-man scramble and the excellent encounter between Sami Callihan and Lio Rush being unmissable. However, it’s main event was an accomplishment all of its own. It takes a special match to satisfy on the night, and still leave you itching to know what’s next. I haven’t spoiled the twist that left fans reeling on Saturday night, because it’s really too good to read about — you need to watch it go down.

That’s why Cage of Death is so important to CZW; even more so than WWE’s WrestleMania, it’s the resolution of one chapter of company history, and the start of a new one. With Cage of Death 18, CZW not only succeeded in putting the cap on 2016, but it laid the foundation for 2017 to be, as Hyde put it, “the biggest year in CZW history.”

Thumbnail Photo credited to photographer Chris Grasso.

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