In the world of professional wrestling there are a lot of rumours, backstage B.S. and controversy. More times then not, it gets more attention than what a wrestler has accomplished in the ring. One wrestler who has taken these controversies and made them a part of his career is Shawn Michaels.
Notorious for being outspoken backstage, Michaels has been a part of the most controversial actions, statements and even movements in the business. He’s also been a part of some of the greatest matches ever.
Unfortunately some won’t remember Shawn Michaels for his in-ring ability. Some will remember him for the childish antics of DX, his speech about losing his smile and the fact that he aided Vince McMahon in screwing Bret Hart.
Like him or hate him though, there’s no denying his impact on this business and on WrestleMania.
Putting backstage politics and controversy aside, Shawn Michaels is one of the greatest wrestlers who has ever stepped through the ropes in the WWE. He went from being the good AWA kid, to the WWF’s arrogant playboy, to the Degenerate, to the Legend, to a renown trainer and promoter in the independent circuit, to the comeback man, to…well…it seems unclear what people think of Shawn Michaels now except for his friends, foes and even his family.
“A lot of the guys don’t have his passion,” said Michael Shane, former NWA X Champion and Shawn’s cousin.
“He’s someone who goes out there and gives it his all,” said Rick “The Model” Martel, one of HBK’s storied foes in the ring and one of Michaels’ long-time friends outside of it.
Michaels first trained to be a grappler with Jose Lothario in San Antonio, Texas. His first tag team partner was Paul Diamond. On a show in the Kansas City area, he met and tagged up with Marty Jannetty. Jannetty was another high-flyer with similar fast-paced moves and an innovative style. At age 19, Shawn entered Verne Gagne’s AWA in Minnesota. It was natural to pair Jannetty and Michaels together again. The Midnight Rockers became a fast growing success.
“Years ago in the AWA, he was up and coming,” Martel said. “Everyone knew he was going to be a big wrestler. He knew it too!”
The Midnight Rockers took the AWA by storm. In spite of rumours that some people backstage were against them being there in the first place, they ended up grabbing the tag team belts. It was on to super stardom when they were offered jobs in the WWF as The Rockers in 1987.
Sadly, their debut in the WWE was short-lived. According to a report on the WWE Confidential program, Michaels said, he and Marty went to a bar on the advice of a head booker. The booker wanted them to mingle with the other boys, however, the wrestlers ridiculed them and dared them to live up to their party-hardy reputations. Shawn said he was a little immature back then and played into their hands by taking a bottle and braking it over his own head. He said, the next day a “fictional story” of them trashing the bar was invented and they were canned from WWE. Shawn said, Vince didn’t believe the story but did believe they weren’t ready for the WWE and when they were, they could come back. Shawn also admitted that their reputation for being party animals wasn’t out of left field and they liked having a good time.
Both ended up going back to the AWA but it wouldn’t take Shawn long before he learned the errors of his ways and ended up getting back into a WWF ring.
“Shawn is basically a good kid,” former NWA Champion, Harley Race said. “He worked for me in Missouri tagging up with Marty. He’s a very capable wrestler and quite inventive when it came to things he did in the ring.”
The Rockers made their WrestleMania debut at the fifth installment and lost. It was rumoured that no team wanted to job to them based on their size and style. When looking back at their time together in the federation, The Rockers were very popular amongst young children. Fans would show up to the arenas dressed up like them. Their merchandise was selling, they always came out to a big ovation, yet they rarely won a match. Even their WWF Best of Rockers tape only featured matches which they lost. If they did win, it was against the similarly sized Orient Express. All in all, they didn’t have much success.
Shawn’s career would sky rocket though after The Rockers were disbanded. He threw his old partner through a plate glass window on a Barber Shop segment with Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake. During the angle, he accused Jannetty of being jealous of him because he got to wrestle Ric Flair and other great wrestlers. With Jannetty bloodied and laying motionless, the moment was shocking for viewers. From that point on, Michaels would always be remembered for it. Jannetty went on a hiatus from the WWF after that.
From then on, Shawn pushed his cocky persona to the fullest. He became the Heartbreak Kid, a name given to him by the late great Curt “Mr. Perfect” Hennig, a wrestler he befriended in the AWA. He was a regular tyrant feuding with Jeff Jarrett, Davey Boy Smith, Razor Ramon and Bret Hart for the Intercontinental title. In 1992, he fought his first singles WrestleMania match against Tito Santana.
“It was fun working with Shawn,” Santana recalled. “I wish the match would have been longer. I have a lot of respect for his wrestling.”
When Jannetty returned to action, he met Michaels at the Royal Rumble in 1993. The bout was voted Match of the Year by fans. After that epic encounter the feud was never revisited other then a few tag matches throughout ’93.
In 1994, Shawn made his third solo WrestleMania appearance claiming to be the rightful I.C. champ. Shawn had briefly left the WWF but returned with the belt he said he never lost. The two belts were held above the ring for the first high-profile Ladder Match in the WWF. Of course, there were Ladder Matches before. Shawn had one with Bret Hart in 1992. Stampede Wrestling adapted ladder matches after one of the Hart brothers saw such a bout in Mexico.
The Ladder Match at WrestleMania 10 though was the first ladder match mainstream fans had witnessed. Wrestlemania 10 was clearly one of the greatest in the pay-per-view’s history. Bret Hart winning the WWE World Heavyweight Title belt and being hoisted in the air. Owen Hart finally beating his brother. “Macho Man” Randy Savage, even pulled Crush to a fantastic match. With that said, the Michaels, Ramon Ladder Match was the contest that blew everyone away. It made fans see HBK in a different light. The match made an impact on the WWF as well. It didn’t quite change the WWF completely but it definitely made them think differently about more edgier matches. Also, it was the first time Shawn couldn’t make fans boo him. Later that year Michaels would team up with his former body guard and best friend, Diesel. Together they were “two dudes with attitudes”. They were bad guys but everyone loved them anyway.
Diesel won the WWE championship belt after one year of working in the fed. As the storyline goes, HBK was upset and jealous. In 1995 at Wrestlemania 11 they faced off in Shawn’s first WrestleMania main event and his third fan voted Match of the Year for three years in a row. In probably one of the worst WrestleManias of all time, Shawn and Diesel, a wrestler not known for being the best worker, rocked the house.
Later that year, HBK would become the face again. In his second ladder match with Razor Ramon for the IC belt, he came out the winner to the fan’s cheers. He and Diesel then won the WWF tag belts, which meant they owned all the gold. Michaels, Diesel, Razor and their friends became the most influential force behind the scenes in the WWF. For good or for bad, they were “The Clique”. They used their power in unity, just like those before them and those after them, to better their own careers.
Depending on who you talk to, the “Clique” was reportedly difficult to work with when it came to working with other wrestlers. If you take a look back at that time, HBK competed in great IC bouts with Jeff Jarrett, Shane Douglas, Owen Hart, Mr. Perfect, Davey Boy Smith and Bret Hart, while his friends struggled only wrestling each other and Bret Hart over and over again.
“People can call him (Shawn) a jerk and a prick but unfortunately in this business, sometimes you have to be a prick,” Shane said. “He was a jerk and a prick to the business but that wasn’t him 24 hours a day.”
In late 1995, Shawn was attacked outside a club in Syracuse, New York. His tearful speech to fans turned HBK into a new man. One that fans wanted to see achieve his life-long dreams.
At Wrestlemania 12, Michaels performed in his best match ever, against the best there was in the WWF at that time: Bret Hart. Hart and Michaels went over one hour and kept fans interested the whole way in their Iron Man Match. They took to the mat and to the air. They thrilled, awed and had a technically sound match. It was another Match of the Year for Michaels.
The Clique said good-bye in an unplanned, unscripted farewell on a WWF house show. It didn’t impress Vince McMahon. Razor and Diesel headed down South to WWF’s rival, WCW. HBK was left to deal with all his enemies. On camera and off.
During the year that Shawn was champion Bret was entertaining offers from WCW. In late ’96 Bret decided his place was with the WWE and always would be. He made many references in Hitman character to Shawn lacking as a champion. Bret has said in many interviews since then that he didn’t feel Shawn should have been champion. In 1998 on Off the Record, he went as far as to say Michaels was over-rated as a wrestler.
In 1997 Michael’s ego and anger got out of control and he refused, like many did to him in the past, to drop the belt to Bret at Wrestlemania 13. He said in many media interviews that Bret (the person not the Hitman) never supported him being champion and he didn’t want to wrestle with Bret again. He went home after a speech about him losing his smile and blamed his decision to retire on an old knee injury. Later on, Shawn would do interviews where he would say that he loved being out in the ring but wasn’t happy backstage.
“When he’s away from the business he’s a human being,” Shane said. “He’s got a family and when he got away from the business, he did his family thing.”
Later in 1997 Michaels returned. In October he and The Undertaker had the first Hell In A Cell. As the European Champion, Shawn, dangled from the top of the cage, fans yelled to see him fall. He did, through the announce table and after help from a debuting Kane, he crawled out of a pool of his own blood and made the pin.The WWF product was starting to look up again.
Later that year McMahon informed Bret that he could no longer afford him. According to Bret’s Wrestling with Shadows video, Bret didn’t want Michaels to be champion. He also didn’t want to lose his last WWE match in his home country of Canada. At the ’97 Survivor Series Michaels assisted McMahon in screwing Bret out of the belt.
After the Survivor Series Screw Job happened it opened the door to blending real life with storylines. Vince started taking a more active role as a company owner on screen instead of just a commentator. On WCW Nitro, wrestlers started airing their real life differences with Eric Bischoff on live air.
Despite Shawn’s grueling matches and serious injuries, every move Shawn made was under a microscope because of what happened at the Survivor Series. The man who cemented his career by jumping off a ladder would end it by receiving a back drop onto a casket by The Undertaker. The situation was a complete accident. Some wrestlers and critics didn’t believe that Shawn was really injured. They thought it was his way of not having to drop the belt at WrestleMania 14.
“People didn’t know. It killed me,” Shane said of the disbelief surrounding his cousin’s injury.
Michaels disregarded doctor’s advice and he went on to his final WrestleMania of the nineties against the new hot property in the WWF: “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
“Not only did I think he was the greatest worker in the world, but, you know, I am his cousin, he’s my family and it (the Mania 14 match) was emotional for me,” said Shane. “You could see how much it meant to him”.
The match itself was harsh and not technically the greatest, but it was still amazing to watch. It was the beginning of the new era for WWF and the ending of one of the greatest wrestlers. It told the story from start to finish.
Michaels would retire later that year in 1998 after having a four hour back surgery to fuse the ruptured disks in his spine with metal plates. In 1999 he teamed back up with Paul Diamond, his old friend Rudy Boy Gonzales and Jose Lothario to start their own training school. Along with the training, they had their own promotion, the Texas Wrestling Alliance.
The Shawn Michaels Wrestling Academy would produce some of the best wrestlers in the independent scene and the WWE. American Dragon, Paul London, Garrison Cade, Spanky and Michael Shane, to name just a few. Indy wrestlers like Low-Ki and Justin Credible would all work for Shawn at some point. Michaels would even wrestle one match for his hometown against Paul Diamond.
In 2001, media from San Antonio, Texas were reporting that Shawn was found face down, passed out at the back of a TWA show. They reported that he fainted due to dehydration. A few short months after Michaels was taken to hospital, Rudy Boy took over the company. Almost a year later Michaels came back to the WWE to face HHH in a “non sanctioned” match.
“That was emotional for me,” said Shane of Michaels’ return. “Just watching him out there but he didn’t miss a step. It was like he was doing it for the past four years.”
Michaels not only came back but at Wrestlemania 19 (his first WrestleMania in five years) he proved once again that he never needed a clique, had to be in the main event or be the champion to steal the show. He and Chris Jericho put on a classic encounter that some would say was the best match of the night.
This year, not only has Michaels made his way back to the main event of WrestleMania, but his student, Garrison Cade, will be appearing at his first Mania card too fighting for the World Tag Team title belts. The same way Shawn did at his first Mania 15 years ago.
“He’s had a great career with a lot of serious injuries,” Santana said of the success Michaels has had. “I’m happy for him. He’s still having a good career.”
Michaels will face HHH and Chris Benoit in a Triple Threat Match for the Raw Heavyweight Title at his 11th Wrestlemania tonight. Since his first run, Shawn has gotten married, settled down and became a father. He’s a born again Christian and devoted to his faith.
In 2002 he admitted that he knew what was going to happen at Survivor Series ’97 before it happened and that although he was and is sorry for what happened to Bret as a result, he’s not sorry for following what Vince asked of him. He’s also made several remarks that he wasn’t going to be the only bad guy and that it was time for others to take responsibility for their past actions.
“When they came to Montreal last June, I went to see him,” Martel said. “I’m glad that he’s come back. I appreciated the time that I had working with him in and out of the ring. I wish him all the best. He’s done a great job growing up in and out of the ring. Everyone benefits from that.”