Starting this month and continuing each month thereafter I will be doing a column focusing on the career of a member of the WWE Hall of Fame. This month, being of course WrestleMania month, there’s no better wrestler to kick this series of with Mr. WrestleMania himself, Shawn Michaels.
When we think of the greatest performers in the history of wrestling you won’t go down the list to long before you see the name Shawn Michaels. HBK was the epitome of a wrestler. He had it all: style, flair, athletic skills, the look and great microphone skills. One other unique quality that Michaels had was the ability to reinvent himself on multiple occasions, while basically having two separate hall of fame careers.
Michael Hickenbottom was born on July 22, 1965. Being born into a military family, the Hickenbottom’s moved around quite often until settling in San Antonio, Texas. It was quickly apparent that that the families youngest child was quite athletic. Michaels excelled on the gridiron as early as the age of 6, and later as a star linebacker at Randolph High School. It was however at the age of 12 that young Shawn first became enamored with professional wrestling and thought it might be something he wanted to pursue when he got older.
Despite his successful high football career, Shawn quickly realized that college life was not for him and he decided to pursue his wrestling dreams under the tutelage of Mexican wrestling legend Jose Lothario, who was a big star in Texas, wrestling in various promotions across the state. Between 1984 and 1986, Michaels bounced around in various NWA territories including Mid Atlantic Wrestling, World Class Championship Wrestling and Central States Wrestling, where he and his Tag Team partner, Marty Janetty captured the NWA Central States Tag Team Championship. Michaels also achieved tag team success with Paul Diamond as the team captured the Texas All Star Wrestling Tag Team title.
In 1986 Michaels achieved his first success on the big stage when he was signed by Verne Gagne’s AWA promotion. Michaels was teamed up again with Janetty and the team was called the Midnight Rockers. the duo was part of the brief revival of the promotion in ’86 & ’87 which featured other young talent including Curt Hennig and Scott Hall and the Nasty Boys as well as established stars like Nick Bockwinkel. The teams biggest feud while in the territory though was against Playboy Buddy Rose and Doug Somers. While in the promotion The Midnight Rockers captured the AWA Tag Team Championship on two occasions.
The World Wrestling Federation signed the Midnight Rockers for the second time in 1988. The team had a short two week run in 1987, but were fired after a bar incident. The duo returned a to the AWA for another year before coming back for good to WWF in ’88. The newly named Rockers, would have a successful three year run in the WWF battling the likes of the Hart Foundation, The Brain Busters, Demolition, The Powers of Pain and The Fabulous Rougeaus Brothers to name a few. In 1991, legitimate backstage heat between Michaels and Janetty about the teams future was then played out in front of the camera as the two would cost each other singles matches, with the last straw being broken when Janetty caused Michaels to be eliminated at the 1991 Survivor Series. Ultimately the team split on an episode of Brutus Beefcake’s Barbershop show when Michaels super kicked Janetty then threw him through the sets glass window.
After having his initial feud with Janetty, the newly repackaged “Sexy Boy” complete with his valet, the mirror holding Sensational Sherri became one of the top heels in the business. Michaels also adopted a new nickname, The Heartbreak Kid, which was a name suggested to him by Curt Hennig. Michaels would become a top contender for the company’s singles titles, ultimately capturing the Intercontinental Championship from the British Bulldog on Saturday Nights Main Event in October of 1992. HBK held the title until May of 1993, before losing it to his former partner Marty Janetty. Michaels would regain the title 3 weeks later with the help of his new bodyguard, Diesel.
Soon after regaining the championship, Michaels would serve a two month suspension for steroid usage. During his suspension Razor Ramon would be crowned IC champ. After his hiatus Michaels claimed to still be the champ as he was never defeated for the title. The two would begin a feud that culminated in their legendary ladder match for the unified IC championship at WrestleMania 10. Despite losing the title, the match would go down as one of Shawn’s most memorable bouts. It was voted match of the year by Pro Wrestling Illustrated.
The next couple of years saw Michaels transform into a fan favorite, win the IC belt again, see the formation backstage of the influential group known as “The Kliq”, and the winning of the Royal Rumble two years in a row. It was after his second Royal Rumble win that Shawn became the opponent for Bret Hart and his WWF Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania 12. It would be another golden moment on HBK’s career as the two participated in a 60 minute Iron Man Match. Michaels would win the strap that night in what would become the first of many memorable moments against Hart.
1997 was maybe the most poignant year in Michaels career. In January he would reclaim the WWF title he had lost to Psycho Sid at the previous year’s Royal Rumble. Soon after winning the title he would have to vacate it use to a knee injury which lead to his “kayfabe” brief retirement announcement when he stated he had to “find his smile again”. By May he would come back to win the Tag Team Championship with Steve Austin, a title he’d have to vacate after he was suspended for a bar room fight he had with Bret Hart. He would come back at Summerslam to be the guest referee for the Undertaker vs. Bret Hart title match in which he cost ‘Taker the match by hitting him with a chair. Turn heel the next night and go on to win the WWF European Championship against the British Bulldog in September. Start the formation of D-X that fall, while headlining against the Undertaker in October’s In Your House Bad Blood Pay Per View in the company’s first Hell In A Cell match. As the fall pushed forward Michael’s D-X unit was feuding with a new version of the Hart Foundation. The feud reached its peak in November of ’97 when Michaels defeated Bret Hart at the Royal Rumble for the WWF Championship in the now famous Montreal Screw Job Match. Quite the year, huh?
In 1998, Michaels would suffer what looked to be a career ending back injury at the hands of the Undertaker in a casket match at the 1998 Royal Rumble. Despite the injury Michaels would continue to fight through the injury, until WrestleMania 14 when he would drop the belt to Stone Cold Steve Austin in a great match. When looking at the match it’s hard to believe HBK actually gave the performance he did despite having a crushed vertebrae. It was just another example of the great performer Mr. WrestleMania was. After the injury, Michaels would make occasional appearances as WWF commissioner, but as of 2000 he was basically done being seen on WWF television. He would begin to train young wrestlers, including the likes of Daniel Bryan and Brian Kendrick at his Shawn Michaels Wrestling Academy.
By 2002, rumors started to trickle in that Michaels may be making a comeback to the ring, and on an episode of RAW in June Michaels was announced by Kevin Nash as the newest member of the newly reformed NWO. Soon after the NWO disbanded Michaels and Triple H would look to reform D-X. It was when the two came out to celebrate their reunion on RAW, that Triple H turned on Michaels attacking him with a sledgehammer. The feud will build until the two met at that year’s Summerslam. The match was Michaels’ first match since WrestleMania 14. Of course the concern amongst the fan base and the officials backstage would be of how much ring rust HBK would have after a 4 year layoff. The “Showstopper” didn’t disappoint. In a classic old school good guy versus bad guy bout, Michaels would steal the show and the hearts of the fans with his dramatic victory. It was the official beginning of Shawn’s second Hall of Fame career. Later in 2002, Michaels would win the first Elimination Chamber match at Survivor Series at Madison Square Garden. HHH, Booker T, Kane, Rob Van Dam and Chris Jericho were also part of the match that night. To this day, I still think it was the best Elimination Chamber match the company has ever put on. I may be biased since I was at Garden that night, and also had the opportunity to meet Shawn earlier that day. To me though seeing Shawn win the Heavyweight Championship that night, after all he had been through, was a magical moment.
Michaels’ reign as champ would only last a month, as he would drop the title back to HHH. We would find out later, that Shawn didn’t want the day in/day out responsibilities of being champion. Michaels had come back to the WWE a changed man, with a new outlook on life. He wanted to be able to enjoy more time with his family, while still giving the fans magical moments in the ring.
Soon after losing the championship, HBK would start a feud with Chris Jericho. Y2J had grown up a fan of Michaels and now was able to go toe to toe with him. The two met at WrestleMania 19 in Seattle. The match to this day remains one of my all-time favorites. For any young or want to be wrestlers the match is a 22 minute clinic in telling a great story in and out of the ring, and must see TV. Despite Michaels battling Jericho, he still had the underlying feud continuing with Triple H, which reared its head again at WrestleMania 20 as part of a triple threat for the WWF Championship against Chris Benoit. While Benoit won the title, the HBK vs. HHH feud continued to boil beyond Mania with matches in June at Bad Blood and Taboo Tuesday in October. The feud would die down quickly thereafter after Michaels suffered a torn meniscus keeping him out of action for several months.
HBK would then go on to have another great feud with Kurt Angle. The promos and subsequent matches between the two at WrestleMania 21 and Vengeance were pure artistry. Following these matches with Angle, Michaels would get involved with the duo of Muhammad Hassan and Daivari. After being attacked by the tandem on more than one occasion, Micheals was in search of a partner to take on the two antagonists at Backlash. Enter Hulk Hogan. I was fortunate to be at the RAW in Madison Square Garden the night Hogan came to Michaels defense after being attacked by Hassan and Daivari and when the Hulkster’s music hit, the sound was deafening. Shortly after HBK and Hulk won their tag match against the pair, they would have a falling out on a July 4 episode of RAW when after winning a match and celebrating in the ring, Michaels super kicked Hogan to the shock of the fans, Michaels appeared to turn heel again. The two would finally meet at Summer Slam. Michaels lost to Hogan, and sadly never received a rematch, which according to most people in the business was because Hogan didn’t want to return the favor and job to Michaels.
Soon after his Hogan feud we started to see HBK buddying up with his old friend/nemesis HHH with the two eventually reuniting as a newly formed version of D-X. One of the earliest hi-lights of their reunion was their feud with Mr. McMahon, Shane and their hired guns the Spirit Squad. At Vengeance in 2006 D-X defeated the 5 man cheerleading squad as well as at a later Saturday Nights Main Event, while the McMahon’s also fell victim to the crotch chop duo at Summer Slam and then defeated Vince, Shane and the Big Show at Unforgiven that year. They weren’t done though, as their next victims were the team known as Rated-RKO (Edge and Randy Orton). D-X would go on to defeat the tandem all three times they faced them (Cyber Sunday, Survivor Series and New Year’s Revolution).
While D-X would always be together in some form or another moving forward Michaels still had some unfinished business with some of the biggest names in the industry. First was John Cena, whom he briefly held the WWE Tag Team Championship with. Mr. WrestleMania didn’t disappoint again as he brought out the best in Cena at ‘Mania 23, having one Cena’s best complete matches up to that point. The two would square off again as part of 4 way title match with Edge and Orton at Backlash. After a brief feud with Orton, Michaels would then be thrown into the mix with Ric Flair. Flair was in the crosshairs of Mr. McMahon who had threatened Flair that the next match he would lose would be his last in a WWE ring. In February of 2008 Flair challenged Michaels to a match at WrestleMania 24. Michaels was very reluctant to fight Flair, and initially refused but eventually he would be coaxed into meeting the Nature Boy one on one on the wrestling world’s biggest stage. The match would prove to be epic. He was the perfect opponent for Flair. Shawn was able to carry the match in a way that few, if not none, of his peers at the time could. Michaels handled the whole thing with class and sent the Nature Boy out in style.
The last major feud of Michaels’ career would of course be against the Undertaker. The two Texans, whose age are separated by just 4 months, would embark of two of the more magical rides we saw over the past 10 years. Their matches are WrestleMania 25 and 26 are considered by many, including myself, as two of the greatest matches in ‘Mania history. The last of the two of course was Shawn’s last in the business. Undertaker’s win in WM 26 ended Shawn’s career, similar to how Shawn ended Ric Flair’s career just two years earlier. One of the more amazing things about their matches were these two guys were stealing the show and they were both in the mid 40’s! While ‘Taker won both matches to keep his streak at ‘Mania alive, it just showed how great ring generals both were. Think about this, when Shawn wrestled Undertaker, did he look 9 inches shorter than him? Nope he wrestled “big”, he wrestled so well that you forgot there was a massive size difference between the two. The bumps they took, the time each match went, the story they told, the promos they gave and the overall buildup and matches were truly a thing of beauty.
As we reflect on the career of the Showstopper, Shawn Michaels it is one of sheer amazement. Let’s face it he wasn’t the biggest dog in the fight or the strongest, yet he had the unbelievable ability to pull off a great match with a wrestler of any size. Mr. WrestleMania has the distinction of taking part in the initial versions of some the biggest matches in WWE history as he took part in the first Hell In A Cell Match, Title Ladder Match, Iron Man Match and Elimination Chamber Match. In total, The Heartbreak Kid won 9 singles titles and 13 tag team championships. His imprint on the business is undeniable. At his recent appearance at WrestleMania 32, he looked in great shape, donning his wrestling attire. It made us believe that, even at the age of 50, Shawn Michaels, if he wanted to, could give us “one more match”.