Many people consider Shawn Michaels to be the best wrestler of all time; so what better way to see if that’s really true than by revisiting the better of his two big 1996 matches with Diesel?
When Shawn Michaels was in his physical prime during the 1990s it was said that he could have a truly great match with anybody and everybody. It didn’t matter how big they were or how they wrestled; Shawn was said to be as adaptive as he was charismatic.
It was said to be like Ric Flair in that he could have a compelling match with an inanimate object. And if you listen to certain pockets of the internet wrestling community, few people come as close to being an inanimate object as Michaels’ opponent here.
But was Diesel really just a bit player in the big story that was Michaels living out his boyhood dream in 1996? Or did he actually do more than expected and give Michaels a run for his money? Read on to find out.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
Michaels and Diesel had a long and storied past together. Michaels hired Diesel to be his bodyguard and Diesel fit that role perfectly. Over time Diesel went from being Michaels’ protector to his partner as the two won WWE’s Tag Team Championships together on two separate occasions. And for a very short while Diesel was also WWE Intercontinental Champion as well, which made it crystal clear that he was being positioned for a run at the top sooner rather than later.
The duo, known as Two Dudes With Attitudes, dissolved at Survivor Series 1994 after Michaels kicked Diesel accidentally and they could no longer function as a team. Three nights later, however, Diesel surpassed his now-former charge by pinning bob Backlund after only eleven seconds of action to win the WWE Championship. Diesel was positioned as such an utterly dominant force and even retained against Michaels at WrestleMania XI. Diesel spent most of 1995 as world champion and beat the likes of Owen Hart, Jeff Jarrett, Mabel, Sid, and Bam Bam Bigelow.
Things came full circle at one point as Diesel and Michaels reunited, and together, the reformed duo held the WWE, Intercontinental, and Tag Team titles all at once. That time of utter domination was short-lived, however, as the tag titles change was voided due to controversy in the match, Michaels lost the IC title in late October 1995, and Diesel lost the world title to Bret Hart a Survivor Series 1995.
After Michaels beat Hart to win the world title at WrestleMania XII, it was his turn to embark on a grand title reign. After retaining against Jerry Lawler on an episode of RAW, Michaels decided that he was going to have a dream rematch that many people wanted to see: champion Michaels defending against challenger diesel in an inversion of WrestleMania XI.
While this was promoted as a huge deal on-screen given the history between these two and Michaels being hyped as a true world-class wrestler, there were also backstage factors at play as well. Diesel’s days in WWE were numbered because he was rumored to be leaving for WCW. This wasn’t that well-known at the time because gossip and rumors weren’t as easy to find as they are today. So only a small percentage of fans went into this believing that Michaels was guaranteed to win while many fans still wanted to see if Michaels could retain against the man that, up to that point, had been closer to Michaels and had known him better than anyone else.
This match originally took place on April 28, 1996. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by both the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and TJR’s John Canton.
This is a No Holds Barred for Michaels’ WWE Championship, which he removes during his entrance to rush Diesel in the ring. A brawl is already underway as the bell rings and while Michaels can ducks punches from his much bigger challenger he can’t avoid a kneelift. Diesel sends Michaels into a corner and charges but Michaels flips over and dropkicks Diesel to the floor. Michaels follows with a baseball slide dropkick and a top-rope crossbody press to the floor.
Michaels pulls a boot from under a commentary table and uses it as a weapon in the ring. Diesel reverses a corner whip and then knocks Michaels off the apron with such force that Michaels hits the barricade. Back in the ring, Diesel slows things down with some forearm clubs and a short-arm clothesline, followed by Snake Eyes. He taunts Michaels’ manager Jose Lothario as he chokes Michaels in a corner and lands some kneelifts. Diesel pulls off some of his wrist tape and uses it to choke the referee, and then he pulls off the ref’s belt with which he whips and chokes Michaels. Diesel throws Michaels out of the ring and uses the belt to hang Michaels from the apron. Then he ties the belt onto rope which leaves Michaels trapped on the apron, with a leather belt around his throat. The referee frees Michaels, but not before Diesel smashes Michaels’ back with a chair.
Back in the ring, Diesel smashes Michaels’ back with the chair and taunts him as he teases a chairshot to the head. He swings, but Michaels dodges and the chair bounces off the ropes and into Diesel’s face. The crowd goes nuts as Michaels recovers and prepares to hit Diesel with the same chair. But before he can Diesel hits a low blow. Diesel follows with a big back body drop for a two-count and then he locks in a neck crank/chinlock. Michaels fights up as the crowd wills him on but a series of punches from Diesel shut him down and send him to the floor. Then Diesel Jackknife powerbombs Michaels through the Spanish announce table.
Diesel poses in the ring with the WWE title belt and demands the ref put it on him as Michaels slowly starts getting up. Michaels refuses aid as he crawls to the ring and then fires off a fire extinguisher as Diesel tries pulling him by his hair. Diesel sells like he’s semi-blinded and Michaels begins a comeback. Diesel reverses an Irish whip but Michaels lands his patented flying forearm. Michaels fires up and decks Diesel with chair-shots. Diesel blocks a back body drop and then lands a big boot. Diesel goes for another Jackknife but Michaels fights out with punches. The crowd goes insane as Michaels lands a diving elbow drop and begins tuning up the band. Sweet Chin – no, Diesel blocks and lands a clothesline. Both men collapse.
Both men get up and Diesel clotheslines Michaels to ringside. Diesel drops Michaels onto the barricade and then tosses him back into the ring. But before returning, Diesel skulks around the ring until he finds Quebecois wrestling legend Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon in the crowd and rips off Vachon’s artificial leg. Diesel teases using the leg as a weapon. Michaels hits first with a lwo blow of his own. Michaels hits Diesel with Vachon’s leg and then connects with Sweet Chin Music. One, two, and three! Michaels retains and the crowd goes wild!
Winner and STILL WWF/E Champion after 17:53: Shawn Michaels
I’m sure there are some readers out there expecting me to make some joke about Diesel, what with him being something of an odd choice given the nature of this review series. After all, few men have as polarizing a reputation among modern wrestling fans as Diesel/Kevin Nash given his output as a wrestler relative to his push, his promo time, and how much he was paid over the years. But I’m a fair reviewer and don’t put much stock into online rumors and outside factors that have little impact on the matches themselves. With that out of the way, I can honestly say that this match was good. Very good, in fact. Not as good as many of the other epics that took place throughout 1996, but way better than I expected.
Going into this I presumed it was going to be an overrated match filled with underperformance, especially from Diesel who, based on what has been said about him, was more about hype than anything else. So imagine my surprise when he and Michaels actually worked a compelling match that not only told a great story and made the most of Diesel’s relatively limited physical capabilities. Michaels was such an excellent underdog babyface that he basically did most of the heavy lifting by working around Diesel. He bounced off his much larger opponent, sold for Diesel as much as he could, and generally did everything in his power to make it look like his title reign was in legitimate jeopardy.
Diesel, for his part, did few things but made the most out of them. He went after Michaels’ back over and over with the few moves he executed. He got plenty of heat when he hanged Michaels outside of the ring. His attacking Mad Dog Vachon was equal parts dastardly and hilarious. This wasn’t a workrate match because it didn’t need to be; it was a David vs. Goliath encounter with Goliath in this case being as much of a jackass as possible by being both physically imposing and taking cheap-shots whenever possible. Given all of threat, it’s no wonder that the crowd absolutely loved Michaels and rallied behind him like almost no-one else.
It was a match reminiscent of some of the older ones I’ve reviewed like Jerry Lawler vs. Terry Funk in which the wrestlers did less but got more out of what they did. There was more of an emphasis on storytelling and selling than there was going more than what was necessary or pushing limits to the point of excess. The craziest moment in the match was when Diesel powerbombed Michaels through the table since that was still a very big deal at the time. In a way, this match makes you appreciate that sort of stuff more. Not only was that Jackknife so devastating because of Diesel’s height, but because broken tables weren’t so ubiquitous and overplayed as they are now, Diesel was actually able to convince people that he stood a legitimate chance of winning, regardless of any rumors of his departure.
All of that said, I think this match could’ve still been better had Michaels and Diesel added a few things. While Diesel’s slow pace made sense given the story, he could’ve gone a bit further in brutalizing Michaels to make his performance even more convincing than it already was. Much of his stalling and slow walking could’ve been replaced with some mounted punching, walking over Michaels’ back Big Show-style, or other small actions that would’ve kept Michaels on the defensive which in turn would’ve made his heroic comeback even more impressive and satisfying.
I also think that Michaels’ offense on Diesel was a bit too abrupt and lacking depth to make it really convincing. Watching the match one can see that Michaels landed far fewer and far weaker hits on Diesel, including both the chair-shot and the hit with the fake leg. Even adding a few minutes to have Michaels at least find a way to slow Diesel down or take away his power game and then begin his comeback would’ve given this match a bit more depth. The sudden turnaround in this match hampered Michaels’ ability to be truly convincing in his offense, and made the match come across as less competitive and more of a lopsided case of survival for Michaels. If this was supposed to be Michaels’ big, cathartic, and decisive win over Diesel to finally prove that he was the better of the two of them, then he didn’t do as good of a job as he could’ve to make people believe that. The way this match ended made it seem like a rubber match was going to happen somewhere down the road, but it never did for obvious reasons.
Final Rating: ****1/2
I don’t always agree with Meltzer or John and it’s rare for all three of us to come to the same rating conclusion but this is one of those rare cases when we do. I enjoyed this match and think most modern fans might as well. Shawn Michaels put on such a brilliant performance as the heroic underdog babyface champion that he more or less created the template for many guys like Daniel Bryan, AJ Styles, and Seth Rollins, to follow in later years.
As for Diesel, by no means was he just another token lumbering giant that did f**k all in the ring. Yes, he was slow and plodding at points, but he actually showed personality and played his role incredibly well. His work wasn’t as airtight as it could’ve been, but he was still entertaining and got so much out of what he did.
Many fans have said that this was the best singles of match of his career and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. Though when you’re in the ring with Shawn Michaels when he actually cares to put in the full effort to make the match about his opponent and himself in equal measure, having a career-best performance isn’t that hard to do.