The match that inspired Hell in a Cell: Tommy Rich, Buzz Sawyer and The Last Battle of Atlanta

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October 26, 2014

Every fan knows that Hell in a Cell first entered the WWE Universe on Oct. 5, 1997, when Shawn Michaels survived a vicious match against The Undertaker. However, the sinister bout began taking shape 30 years ago in arenas across the South.

Fans tuning into TBS each Saturday night had the date and time pounded into their heads: Sunday, Oct. 23 at 8:30 p.m. Two of Georgia’s biggest stars would collide for the final time. To ensure that the fight stayed in the ring, officials declared the ring would be fully enclosed in a steel cage with a roof.

After tearing the South apart with chaotic brawl after chaotic brawl for nearly two years, “Wildfire” Tommy Rich and “Mad Dog” Buzz Sawyer would be locked inside the hellacious structure to settle the score once and for all. The brutal battle that ensued inside The Omni set the stage for the Superstars of today. WWE Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels recalled the vicious encounter and came up with the idea that evolved into one of WWE’s most dangerous bouts: Hell in a Cell

This is the story of “The Last Battle of Atlanta.”

Exclusive photos of The Last Battle of Atlanta | Highlights of the Rich vs. Sawyer rivalry 

TOMMY RICH: I started in Tennessee and came to Georgia when I was about 19 or 20. It was the first time I’d ever been away from home. Shoot, the fans were great [to me]. Everybody liked me. There might have been some jealous boyfriends out there that didn’t.

SHAWN MICHAELS: My buddy Kenny Kent and I used to watch Georgia Championship Wrestling at his place [in San Antonio] every Saturday. We were watching channel 17, WTBS. When he came in [to Georgia] against The Freebirds, they showed him in a black Firebird Trans-Am. Oh my God, it was the coolest thing. “Wildfire” Tommy Rich was coming.

BILL APTER (veteran wrestling reporter/photojournalist): Tommy Rich was the perfect good guy. The women adored him. He had long blond hair and a charismatic smile. What made him great was the charm that he exuded. Not everybody can get in front of a microphone on live TV like he did in Georgia Championship Wrestling and exude something that people would want to tune in again to see. And when he got in the ring, he could let all that go and battle as rough as anyone else, which is where “Wildfire” came from.

PAUL ELLERING (Buzz Sawyer’s manager): He would wrestle and it looked like he’d never survive, but then a spark came.

MATT STRIKER: If you know your wrestling history, you know that Tommy Rich just captured the hearts of every single wrestling fan. They were completely emotionally invested in him. Buzz Sawyer, he was the antithesis, the exact opposite of Tommy Rich.

APTER: Buzz Sawyer was irrational, unpredictable, a keg of dynamite.

ELLERING: Buzz was very intense. He had one gear, wide open.

APTER: In contrast to Tommy Rich having charm that lured people to watch him, Buzz was so maniacal that you had to watch to see what he was going to do next. They nicknamed him “Mad Dog.”

ELLERING: The moniker “Mad Dog” was him. He could be vicious.

MICHAELS: He was a brawler, this little, short, stocky guy, but he had a wicked powerslam. He was a wrecking machine.

RICH: That was Buzz. He was what he was. He didn’t really have a nice word to say about anyone or anything. That was his personality.

APTER: Tommy Rich debuted in 1974. Sawyer in 1979. They crossed paths in Georgia early on when they got there. It just seemed to be a natural rivalry, with who was going to command the top spot in the company.

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