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An oral history of the first Elimination Chamber: How everything went wrong, but still turned out alright at Survivor Series 2002

Eric Bischoff introduces the Elimination Chamber to the Madison Saquare Garden crowd before the start of the main event match at Survivor Series 2002. Courtesy of WWE

Fifteen years ago, on Nov. 17, 2002, six of the biggest names in WWE history stepped into Madison Square Garden for a match at Survivor Series that had never been done before. Equal parts steel cage, War Games and some kind of Mad Max-esque hellscape, the Elimination Chamber would eventually become a staple of the company as its own pay-per-view.

But on that particular Sunday night, six current and future legends of the business were walking into a complete unknown that would batter, bruise and bleed them and, in one particular case, do significantly more damage.

On this fifteenth anniversary of the first ever Elimination Chamber match, we look back at that monumental night through conversations with the superstars themselves. In addition to modern-day interviews with both Triple H and Chris Jericho, and a Shawn Michaels quote from a modern interview he did on the Sam Roberts Wrestling podcast, we've also reached back for thoughts from five of the six competitors, which aired in the immediate aftermath of the match on the Nov. 23, 2002 edition of WWE Confidential that aired on the Spike TV network.


The main focus of the six-way Elimination Chamber match for the World Heavyweight Championship was the long-standing war between Shawn Michaels and Triple H. After Michaels retired in 1997 due to a back injury, he made sporadic and often confrontational appearances on WWE TV as an authority figure in opposition to Triple H, mirroring real-life tensions between the two longtime friends.

After more than five years out of action, Michaels finally stepped back into the ring at SummerSlam 2002 for an "unsanctioned" street fight against Triple H. It was a physical war that lasted for 30 minutes, eliminating most doubts in the minds of Michaels and fans alike that he still had wrestling in him. Still, Michaels had walked into that event with the thought that it could be the happy ending he'd never gotten in the business, despite Triple H leaving him in a heap with several sledgehammer shots to the back.

Shawn Michaels: "Of course it went well, and I felt good, and before I could even really sort of make a decision, I got a phone call from Vince, asking how I felt, and of course [he said] "I've got an idea."

Michaels ultimately returned to TV and quickly found himself in the midst of a multiway war for the World Heavyweight Championship. Triple H had been awarded said title in September after Brock Lesnar made the WWE championship exclusive to SmackDown.

He successfully defended the title on five occasions, including wins over Kane and Rob Van Dam along the way, but in the lead-up to the Survivor Series, general manager Eric Bischoff introduced the Elimination Chamber concept on TV.

Triple H: When we got to the Garden and we stepped in the Chamber, was the first time any of us had ever seen it. It was a concept that I pitched and drew on a napkin, and then somebody else designed it.

Chris Jericho, 2017: We didn't see it until the day of the show in Madison Square Garden. And it's one of those things that 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 and sounds like s---.

Triple H: 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. We hadn't done much in the afternoon, we just talked a lot.

Shawn Michaels, 2002: First thing that started going through my mind was, "What can we do with this thing that maybe the fans haven't seen before?"

Rob Van Dam, 2002: I was trying to think of what I could do, and I also thought of ways that I could use it to my advantage.

The cage, suspended above the ring from the rafters of MSG, slowly lowered as the now familiar "cage match" music played and the lights dramatically flickered on and off. Jim Ross built the tension up on commentary. "Ten tons. Two miles of chain used."

Backstage, Terri Runnels tried to interview Shawn Michaels in the bowels of Madison Square Garden, only to be interrupted by Randy Orton's "RNN" news gimmick breaking in, as the young star continued to recover from injury. Then it was back to business.

A video package typical of the era, airing clips and highlights of the weeks and months of build up, focused particularly on Michaels and Triple H, their SummerSlam match and Michaels' return to TV. There were also clips of each of the participants attacking each other, without a single word of voiceover.

Jonathan Coachman gets a final word with Triple H, who stands alongside Ric Flair.

Coachman: Triple H, coming up just moments from now is the most inhuman, vile match in WWE history, as you must defend your World Heavyweight Championship against five other challengers inside of the Elimination Chamber.

Triple H: You know Coach, in September, I was deemed to be the world's heavyweight champion because I was the best -- because I am the best. In the past three months I have beaten everybody that was placed before me; gone through every obstacle. But was that good enough? No it wasn't. You see, I'm the object of a lot of envy, Coach. So what it comes down to is tonight. Inside of 10 tons of steel, Elimination Chamber, I will go up against five of the very best ever in this business. And the fact is, that when tonight is over coach, I will walk out of Madison Square Garden still the best. Still the game. And still THE world's heavyweight champion because I am that. Damn. Good. But for now? I've got a first-class ticket to hell -- and I just want to know who's coming with me.

Bischoff walks out to the ring to hype the specs of the Elimination Chamber, hitting each element of the cage with a piece of steel in his hand to prove there are no gimmicks like plastic or rubber in this cage -- it's all real, and the clinks of metal on metal prove it.

Bischoff: Two miles of chain, over 10 tons of solid steel designed to punish the human body, and six Raw superstars willing to put themselves through hell for the ultimate prize -- the World Heavyweight Championship.

He ran through the rules, because fans had never seen it before. The now-familiar terms were simple -- adjacent to each of the four corners of the ring, there were "bulletproof plexiglass and steel" pods, with one man to be locked inside of each pod. The other two entrants start the match, and at timed intervals the pods will open one at a time, letting a superstar into the match. Eliminations happen by pinfall or submission, until one person remained.

The six competitors settled into their final rituals backstage, but something dawned on Michaels and Triple H just moments before they walked to the ring.

Triple H: It was the most complex match to put together ever. We'd never seen it before. And Shawn said "Oh my god, we didn't put together a finish." I was like, "Oh, I'll call it out there. No worries." He and I just had a chemistry together. We did SummerSlam, he hadn't worked in five years, we never talked about it, right? We just did it. It's where the business was then.

Bischoff made his exit, and Jericho is the first man out to the ring. Instead of his customary entrance theme, Jericho enters to a live satellite performance of Saliva's "King of My World" from "The World" in Times Square in New York, previously known as "WWF New York" -- a themed night club and restaurant in New York City.

Booker T came out next. The five-time (five-time, five-time, five-time, five-time) WCW champion looks apprehensive as he emerges from the video board doors serving as the entrance to the short ramp to the chamber.

Booker T, 2002: It was totally intimidating, just to see something like that. The architecture was totally unreal.

As he gets hyped in the middle of the ring, he triggers an explosion of pyrotechnic flames that dance up to the sky.

Kane is the next one out, and he summons fire of his own from the ring posts before quickly entering his own pod.

Kane, 2002: We'd seen pictures of it, but we hadn't actually seen it. People described it as interesting -- but I described it as awe-inspiring.

Then it was Shawn Michaels, out for his second match back from seemingly career-ending back surgery, to fill the final pod. He does his full pose, complete with pyrotechnics and shiny entrance gear on top of, what quickly became clear, were some very brown tights.

Triple H: Clearly he had gone to a wacky haircut and some weird gear. I remember there was a point in time when we were getting dressed backstage and I looked next to me. He had his hair down and he put on this brown stuff and he looked at me he's like "What?" And I'm like "Hmm, nothing."

With the pods filled, Rob Van Dam walked out as one of the first two competitors ever to have to move around and work inside of this chamber. Triple H soon followed, flanked briefly by Flair.

In an ominous fashion, Ross revealed, "Triple H is winless, 0-6, at Survivor Series." An earlier comment from JR also pointed to four title changes earlier in the night.

Triple H handed the title over to Earl Hebner, who handed it off to another official that then left and locked the structure. The bell rang, and the match began.

As the fans chanted for Van Dam, he took the early advantage over Triple H, who took the first bump on the steel as RVD hit a back body drop over the top rope to the outside.

RVD also slammed Triple H into the steel chain door four times; the last one actually caused the door to fly open. Triple H was already busted open and bleeding.

Triple H: I remember the first time I hit the chain wall, I crumbled to the ground, like "Oh my god."

They take advantage of the structure early, as Van Dam flips Jericho off and starts to scale the chain link. Jericho jumped up and pulled Van Dam's leg through the pod. Triple H climbed the adjacent turnbuckle, and they briefly work together before RVD gains control.

Appropriately enough, Jericho's pod was the first to open, and he and Triple H got to work on Van Dam for the next few minutes.

RVD eventually regained some measure of control, clotheslined Jericho to the outside, and jumped back up to the top rope again. In another of the famous spots in this match, he jumped at Jericho, missed, but grabbed the chain link to save himself "like Spiderman," as Ross put it. He then hit a flying cross-body on Jericho.

Jericho and Triple H would quickly regain control with a double team irish whip on RVD into one of the steel posts holding the chain link together, followed by three more shots into the chain link and post from both men.

The countdown clock hits again, the lights flash and Booker T is out and cleans house in the middle of the ring. Van Dam, Triple H and Jericho are each on different sides outside the ring long enough for Booker to hit an Elimination Chamber Spin-a-roonie.

Booker T eventually hit a scissors kick on Triple H, Jericho blindsided Booker and Van Dam sent Booker T flying out of the ring. It was at this point that everything started to go sideways.

RVD hopped up to the top rope to set up for a five-star frog splash, but then he turned around and instead hopped up on top of one of the pods. He crouched on the edge of the pod, grabbing the chain above him for support and did his best to stand up -- but he couldn't.

Jericho, 2017: The pods weren't high enough to really stand on, but they were high enough for you to try and stand on it. It was a disaster.

Van Dam, 2002: I jumped out a little too far and I crunched up into a ball, and my instincts told me to straighten my legs out -- and somehow, I think my shin came across his throat with the weight.

Triple H writhed around in pain, kicking his legs over and over again on the mat. It didn't take long to figure out he's not just selling the move.

Triple H: Van Dam lands on my throat -- completely crazy, random moment in time. He was at an awkward angle, and he couldn't stand up straight.

Van Dam, 2002: I had to alter my five-star frog splash because of the structure. When I looked down on him, I thought everything was going to be fine. I mean, I knew he was in a little bit close, but I thought that I'd just be able to drop right down on him.

Triple H: It seemed good when we put it together. He landed on my throat, and I couldn't breathe and I couldn't speak.

Hebner bent down to check on Triple H, and appeared to subtly signal to the back that something had gone very wrong while a replay of the moment aired on a split screen. After the replay finished, Hebner stood over Triple H and put his arms up in a deliberate X to again signal the injury.

Triple H: They sent a doctor into the ring, who was talking to me through the grates, and I was like "Do not stop this, I got it." But I couldn't talk.

There was still a match going on, and Van Dam was also selling a leg injury of his own. Booker T hit a missile dropkick on Van Dam and picked up a shock three-count for the first elimination.

Booker T then rolls over to try to pin Triple H, who is barely able to get his leg on the bottom rope to break the count. Jericho and Booker T battled it out for a bit, but then things got even crazier.

The countdown began, the lights flashed and another pod opens. Jericho thinks it's going to be Michaels, but then before he knows what's happening, he gets attacked from behind by Kane.

Jericho, 2017: They open the wrong door. They open the door for Kane to come out rather than Shawn Michaels, so all of the stuff that we had come up with in the back, and all this effort and time we'd basically wasted ... thrown out the window. We had to call it all on the fly.

Triple H: 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.

Instead of Michaels coming in and cleaning house, as planned, Kane does the work instead. Kane lawn darted Jericho into the steel chains and then, in yet another iconic moment, Jericho got sent headfirst through plexiglass that wasn't meant to be broken in that way -- busting Jericho open in the process.

Triple H slowly lifted himself up in the corner, only to eat three punches and a clothesline from Kane, followed by a Flair-esque face bump.

Triple H: I tried to get up and help [Jericho] and then Kane hit me and I went "Oh, I'm down. I'm going to go over here and lay in the corner for a minute."

Jericho low-blowed Booker T, followed by a chokeslam from Kane and a lionsault from Jericho, who climbed on top and eliminated Booker by pinfall.

As Michaels continued to hang around inside of his chamber, Triple H continued to have labored, audible breathing as he, Kane and Jericho kept at it.

Finally, the countdown clock hit one more time, and Michaels finally emerged from his pod.

Things briefly swung in Kane's favor as he hit a double-handed chokebomb on Jericho, a chokeslam on Michaels and, in a particularly rough bit of timing for Triple H, another chokeslam. After one final chokeslam for Jericho, Kane tried to get Triple H up for a tombstone, only for Michaels to recover and hit a superkick.

Kane sat up, but quickly got hit by a pedigree, and then a lionsault, and in the blink of an eye Jericho had eliminated Kane.

Three men remained, and Jericho and Triple H worked together on Michaels until he, too, was bleeding.

After several minutes, Michaels finally turned the tide on Jericho and then clotheslined Triple H back into the ring. Michaels appeared to set Jericho up for a piledriver, but then ate a back-body drop from Jericho onto the steel.

Jericho, 2002: Guys were falling on that grate constantly, and not just falling on it, but taking horrendous bumps on it.

Kane, 2002: I don't think the people at home appreciate how hard the grid was outside the ring --or how unforgiving the chains that surrounded the ring were.

Michaels and Triple H battled in the ring, both men went down and Michaels got up -- only to eat a running bulldog and a lionsault. After the move had eliminated Booker T and Kane from the match, Jericho and the crowd appeared stunned after Michaels kicked out at the very last moment.

After countering in the corner, Michaels caught Jericho with a moonsault and then locked in the walls of Jericho. Triple H interrupted with a DDT. Triple H pulled Jericho off of Michaels as he went for the pin, though, because he wanted to be the one to eliminate his rivals -- and then they came to blows.

Jericho went for a top rope maneuver, nearly got caught in a pedigree, and then Jericho locked the Walls of Jericho onto Triple H. Triple H climbed for a rope break, though Jericho wouldn't have had to let go in this no disqualification match, but Jericho dragged him back to the middle.

They took just long enough for Michaels to pull himself back up, and he hit a superkick on Jericho to earn the pinfall.

It was down to the two bitter rivals, Triple H and Shawn Michaels.

Jericho, 2002: Thank god that he was able to walk out of the ring and able to continue the match. Once I was eliminated, it was just him and Shawn and they were out there for another five or six minutes.

They had reached the climax of the match, only there was one big problem.

Triple H: We got to the end and it's me and Shawn. Shawn hasn't wrestled -- it's his second time in five years. He's waiting for me to call it, only I'm like "I can't, really" and I'm trying to talk to the referee. It was a complete and utter disaster.

They battled for what seemed like ages, in and out of the ring, on canvas and on steel. Triple H eventually catapulted Michaels face first through another of the plexiglass.

Michaels eventually regained control, climbed to the top of the pod and successfully hit a flying elbow from there, to far less disastrous results.

He slowly went for the cover, but then thought better of it. He ambled over to the corner, and the crowd, in their emotionally exhausted state, goes almost entirely quiet except for some claps in time to Michaels tuning up the band for Sweet Chin Music, It turned to boos as Triple H countered the attempt and hit a pedigree.

After almost 30 seconds, Triple H got to Michaels, covered him with one arm and it only got him a two-count. Triple H argued with Hebner, went for another pedigree and got back-body dropped.

Michaels hit Sweet Chin Music from out of nowhere, and the crowd chanted in time with Hebner's count "ONE! TWO! THREE!!" Michaels is the Word Heavyweight Champion as he blows the roof off of Madison Square Garden.

Confetti flew into the air from all over the arena.

"I know it's been said before, but do you believe in miracles?!" shouted Jim Ross.

Michaels, 2002: I didn't really have time to absorb that it was Madison Square Garden, or that it was for the title or anything like that.

Triple H: It was just a mess, but it's one of those things, at the end of it. For Shawn to have that moment... for us, in our generation, in the freaking Garden, in this brand new match, in the Chamber, and now he's the world champion. It just couldn't have been any bigger, couldn't have been any more anything.

Jericho, 2017: It was all of this comedy of errors that you look back on and it's just like, "Holy s---, I can't believe it became what it became," because the first one, technically, was a disaster.

As Michaels draped the title over his shoulder, a quick replay aired as he finally took in the moment.

"Shawn Michaels is back in the record books. Shawn Michaels is back on top. Shawn Michaels is the man. Shawn Michaels is the world's heavyweight champion," shouted Ross.

Hebner briefly raised Michaels' hand, and Survivor Series 2002 faded to black.

Jericho, 2017: We had to watch it back, I think the second year, to kind of remember what we did. I thought, "Hey, this actually turned out pretty good." And it usually does. Within the cage, whatever mistakes happen, nobody knows except for the guys, and that's kinda how it goes. That's life.

It was just the start of a long night for Triple H.

Triple H: We came out of the ring, I gave him a hug, got on a stretcher, they took me to the hospital and I stayed there for 24 hours. I went to the hospital, and I was pissed that I even had to go. I wanted to leave, they wouldn't let me. The doctor tells me, "So, let me tell you what's going to happen [if you leave]. You're going to leave here and you're going to go to bed and then in the night, that's going to swell up and you're going to choke to death. So go ahead, you want me to get the paperwork?" And I was like "Yeah, no." So I stayed for 24 hours, they partially cut it, they medicated it, they got the swelling down, they did all this stuff. I left there, went to the hotel, picked up my bags, went to the airport and got on a plane.