It was 21 years ago today that a fresh-faced, 23-year-old kid named Shawn Michaels made his WrestleMania debut by doing the job to the massive Akeem, as the Twin Towers defeated The Rockers in the second match at WrestleMania V.
From that humble beginning to Michaels’ final show-stopping performance against The Undertaker in the main event at WrestleMania XXVI last Sunday, what an amazing career it has been.
As I think about the fact that I will probably never again see Michaels display his spectacular wrestling skills, I’m reminded of an interview I did with him in 2008 prior to his match with Ric Flair at WrestleMania XXIV. When discussing the mixed emotions he was having about wrestling “The Nature Boy” in what most everyone believed was Flair’s last match, Michaels said, “The idea of Ric Flair not being in this industry is something that I don’t even know if I’m prepared for.”
I know how he feels. As an admitted HBK mark, I’m having difficulty coming to grips with the fact that Michaels’ career as an in-ring performer is likely over. But on the other hand, I’m happy that he was able to go out on his own terms. Michaels, who is still as good as anyone in the business, has made it clear that he does not want to be one of the many guys who stayed around too long, nor does he want to retire and then go back on his word.
That’s why I sincerely hope he doesn’t ever give in to the temptation of having one more match. Michaels was a special performer who had a storybook career. It would be fitting if he turns out to be one of the select few who decided to walk away from the ring and not look back.
I’ve gotten a lot of grief over the years for being a Michaels fan, both from readers of this blog and even from friends and acquaintances. I was often told that I had a “man crush” on him. A lot of the needling was due to Michaels’ “Sexy Boy” entrance music and his on-screen character (especially the ’90s version). Most of it was good-natured, and I usually played along.
All kidding aside, though, I don’t understand how anyone who has an appreciation for the art form that is professional wrestling cannot be an HBK fan. He is the best all-around performer I have seen in 36 years of following the business. Beyond his superb athleticism, what made Michaels such a tremendous worker was his impeccable timing, ring psychology and ability to have great matches with all types of opponents. He also cut fantastic promos and had the “it” factor that allowed him to connect with the audience.
Moreover, he influenced a whole generation of wrestlers with his high-flying style and showed that you don’t have to be a muscled-up hulk to become a star.
I was impressed by Michaels after seeing him just a few times when he was one-half of the Midnight Rockers in the AWA when it was on ESPN in the mid-1980s. Despite being blatant Rock and Roll Express rip-offs and having a name that stole from both the R&R Express and The Midnight Express, Michaels and Marty Jannetty delivered the goods in the ring. They had a lengthy, entertaining program with AWA tag team champions “Playboy” Buddy Rose and “Pretty Boy” Doug Somers, which included a memorable bloodbath on ESPN in 1986.
A couple years later, Michaels and Jannetty – then known simply as The Rockers – made it to the WWF. After they had been there a while, it became apparent that Michaels had more of a star aura than his partner. It was a TV match that Michaels had with Flair in the early ’90s that convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had a future as a singles star. When Michaels turned heel, super-kicking Jannetty and tossing him through a window on Brutus Beefcake’s Barbershop segment on TV, “The Heartbreak Kid” was on his way.
Michaels officially arrived as an upper-card heel when he defeated Davey Boy Smith for the Intercontinental title in 1992 –back when the championship still was prestigious. At WrestleMania X in 1994, the legend of “Mr. WrestleMania” began, as Michaels and Razor Ramon (Scott Hall) stole the show with a ladder match that was ground-breaking at the time (there had been other ladder matches, but this was the first one on pay-per-view).
It was inevitable that Michaels would one day win the WWF title, and at WrestleMania XII in 1996, he took the championship from Bret Hart – the man whose career will forever be linked with his – in what still is the longest match in WrestleMania history (61 minutes, 52 seconds).
Michaels consistently delivered good to great matches until he career was cut short due to a serious back injury in 1998, including classics against Mankind (Mick Foley), Diesel (Kevin Nash) and, of course, The Undertaker in the first Hell in a Cell match.
In what would be Michaels’ last match for more than four years, he dropped the WWF title to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin at WrestleMania XIV in 1998. The final image of that show was of Michaels flat on his back selling a punch from special referee Mike Tyson, an “Austin 3:16” shirt draped over him as Austin and Tyson celebrated. It was symbolic of what the immediate future held for Michaels and Austin. While Austin took the torch that Michaels passed him and set WWE business on fire, Michaels’ career flamed out as he sat home a broken man both physically and emotionally.
It was sad to see it end that way for such a great performer, but the Monday Night Wars were in full swing and there was plenty for wrestling fans to be excited about. While watching the exploits of Austin, The Rock and the nWo, however, I always hoped that Michaels would wrestle again some day.
That day came in 2002 at SummerSlam when Michaels wrestled real-life friend and on-screen foe Triple H. Remarkably, Michaels hadn’t missed a beat, and he and Triple H put together a great match. What seemed at first to be a one-shot deal turned into another eight years of show-stealing performances. When looking back at his entire body of work, I think Michaels was even better from 2002 to 2010 than he was before he left in ’98.
Year in and year out, Michaels shined under the bright lights at WrestleMania. Even when he wasn’t in the main event at WWE’s signature event, his matches often were the most compelling and memorable on the card. His matches against The Undertaker at the past two WrestleManias are considered to be among the greatest in the history of the event. Additionally, he carried Hulk Hogan to a very good match at SummerSlam in 2005 and engaged in one of the best feuds of the past decade with Chris Jericho in 2008.
Michaels also proved to be a consummate professional in his second run. As he alluded to in his farewell speech on Raw, Michaels was not an easy person to be around when he was on top in the ’90s. In those days, he had a reputation for being a prima donna, refusing to do jobs and using his power backstage to keep certain wrestlers down.
That guy was nowhere to be found after his comeback, however. The list of wrestlers Michaels put over is a long one that includes Jericho, Kurt Angle, John Cena, Randy Orton, Batista, Edge, Jeff Hardy, Chris Benoit and even Mr. Kennedy. And in an era in which world titles change hands frequently and everyone who is anyone gets multiple reigns, Michaels had just one world title run after his comeback – a four-week stint in 2002.
As much as I am in awe of Michaels’ abilities as a performer, I’m just as impressed with the way he turned his life around and conducts himself out of the ring. It may sound corny to some, but I find his story to be inspirational.
Ever since it became public knowledge that Michaels became a born-again Christian in 2001, his detractors – including people in the industry, wrestling pundits and fans – waited for him to slip up and be exposed as a fraud. They’re still waiting. While some of those who have thrown stones at him have had their glass houses shattered, Michaels has been married to the same woman for more than a decade and has never had his mug shot posted on TMZ.
I’ve been fortunate enough to interview Michaels several times over the years, and I always found him to be humble and accommodating. Two weeks ago, Michaels spent a couple hours one morning doing one phone interview after another to promote WrestleMania XXVI. I arranged with a WWE media relations representative to get the final slot of the day and a few extra minutes since I was writing a lengthy feature story on Michaels for The Baltimore Sun.
Even with the additional time, I still had several more questions to ask when the WWE PR rep said that we needed to wrap up. I figured I’d just have to make due with what I had, but Michaels, who had to be tired of talking and likely answering the same questions over and over, said that he had more time and wanted to continue the interview. He ended up giving me another 10 minutes or so and answering every question. It may not seem like that big a deal, but not every guy at his level would be so gracious.
For that simple gesture, as well as all the great memories you provided and the years you put your body on the line to entertain us, thank you, Shawn.