The NXT Fight Pit: The Legacy of the WWE Lion's Den
The Fight Pit
On the 27th May 2020 episode of NXT on USA, the WWE debuted its first ever “Fight Pit” match. New rivals Matt Riddle and Timothy Thatcher culminated their feud inside a ring bereft of ropes and turnbuckles. Instead the NXT canvas was surrounded by steel but, unlike the traditional wrestling cage match, there were no doors— instead, the cage was surrounded by raised platforms, and the only ways to win were submission or knock out.
Clearly, the Fight Pit match was designed as a riff on the legitimate mixed martial arts background of Matt Riddle. Timothy Thatcher, whilst having no experience in martial arts himself, has nonetheless built a reputation in the squared circle for being a rough no-nonsense fighter. A perfect match for these two skilled grapplers.
Naturally, the NXT commentary team hyped the bout as a “first time ever” for WWE, but what they chose not to mention was the obvious similarities between the Fight Pit and a previous match-type used in WWE— the Lion’s Den.
Enter the Dungeon
To understand the invention of the Lion’s Den match, we first have to understand the background involved. Prior to his involvement in professional wrestling, Ken Shamrock had an extensive mixed martial arts career as part of both Pancrase Hybrid Wrestling and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) between 1993-1996. In 1994, Shamrock was crowned the King of Pancrase, and in 1995 became the inaugural UFC Superfight Champion prior to the implementation of weight classes to the company.
When Shamrock made his debut with the then-WWF in 1997, he was given the moniker “The World’s Most Dangerous Man” based on his background in legit fighting. The WWF wanted everybody to know about Ken’s background, and initially positioned him as a top contender on their cards.
After winning the King of the Ring tournament in 1998, Shamrock moved into a feud with Owen Hart. Owen betrayed Shamrock by turning against him to join the Nation of Domination; he took exception to Ken being the King of the Ring— a title that Owen himself had held in 1994. The two would have a triple threat match with another King of the Ring victor, Triple H, but issues weren’t resolved between Shamrock and Hart. This led to the booking of a “Dungeon Match” based on the famous Stu Hart Dungeon where Owen and his brothers were all trained. The Hart Dungeon was known for brutal stretchings and submission-based training practices, and so it made for a perfect blend between the backgrounds of both men.
Refereed by MMA legend Dan Severn, the match took place in Stu’s dungeon, essentially an empty room with wooden walls and a rack of weights. Some elements of mixed martial arts were incorporated into the match, including full mounts, grappling and submissions, but otherwise this was a wrestling match complete with irish whips, powerbombs, and even a hurracanrana supported by a plumbing pipe. Owen defeated Shamrock by knocking him out with a dumbbell after Severn got knocked down and using his own arm to make Shamrock’s limp hand tap out.
Into the Lion's Den
This result led to Ken Shamrock challenging Owen Hart to a match in “Ken’s world”— the Lion’s Den match. The match setting was designed to look like a WWF interpretation of the UFC octagon. In the Madison Square Garden theatre, the match took place in a cylindrical cage with just a small amount of dodecagonal mat surrounded on each side by cage mesh and a walkable platform around the top for the referees and camera men. Even more so than their Dungeon Match, the Lion’s Den match resembled a normal pro-wrestling cage match despite being in the twelve-sided cage and lacking any kind of ropes or turnbuckles. Unlike the Fight Pit that would take place over twenty years later, the Lion’s Den competitors could not reach the scaffold around the cage, and so were unable to utilise any high-flying manoeuvres. This resulted in a more mat-based encounter, but both men were able to take advantage of the cage sides to throw their opponent into, springboard off for kicks, and even apply submissions against. Shamrock would win the match with his trademark ankle lock, and Jim Ross would proclaim him “the King of the Lion’s Den.”
WWF was keen to get its money’s worth from the new match setting. On the 7th June 1999 episode of WWF Raw, Ken Shamrock would return to the Lion’s Den to face off against none other than WWF Chairman Vince McMahon. Having joined The Union to rebel against McMahon’s Corporation group, Shamrock sought redemption against his boss who had earlier that night revealed himself as The Higher Power of the Ministry of Darkness.
Unfortunately, the match would never properly get under way. McMahon locked himself inside the Lion’s Den cage, and as Shamrock attempted to break in, Jeff Jarrett knocked him unconscious from behind with a steel chair. McMahon slapped the Ankle Lock on Shamrock, but the referee called the match with Shamrock being unconscious, awarding the victory to the nefarious chairman.
A Den of Weapons
Disappointed fans wouldn’t have to wait long for the next real Lion’s Den match. At SummerSlam 1999, Shamrock would participate in his third and final Lion’s Den, this time against rival Steve “Lethal Weapon” Blackman. With both men having a martial arts background, the third Lion’s Den seemed the most logical. Less obvious was the decision to include weapons on the balcony sections of the cage. This meant the introduction of nunchucks and kendo sticks to an otherwise slow affair, culminating in an anti-climactic knockout victory for Ken Shamrock following a kendo stick shot to Blackman’s head.
This would be the final Lion’s Den match in wrestling history, as Ken Shamrock would leave the company later that year. Surprisingly, it would take WWE almost 21 years to revive the concept despite having a number of former mixed martial arts competitors on their roster, including most notably Brock Lesnar, Bobby Lashley, Alberto Del Rio, and Cain Velasquez.
Despite WWE’s proclamations of “first ever”, the Fight Pit resurrects a long legacy within the WWE history books. Perhaps without the unexpected events of the COVID-19 coronavirus, it may never have been dusted off. Arguably, Riddle and Thatcher performed the best iteration of this match type to date, incorporating more mixed martial arts style as well as the fast-paced high-flying that NXT has become known for. With that success there remains hope that future Fight Pit matches will make their way onto NXT and WWE television, to continue a legacy started with the Lion’s Den.