(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Shawn Michaels vs. Mankind – WWE In Your House 10: Mind Games 1996
Many fans consider Shawn Michaels the greatest wrestler of all time. I’ve seen and heard countless fans and wrestlers praise him for his skill and charisma. Many wrestlers have modeled themselves after him and tribute to him in one way or another. Some would even put him on their Mount Rushmore of wrestling. But was Michaels really that good? For the most part, yes.
I have yet to see an outwardly bad Shawn Michaels match as part of this Match Reviews series. More often than not, his matches have withstood the test of time and in some cases they got better over time. And what we’re looking at today is another example of Michaels’ in-ring greatness. While many people have criticized Michaels’ backstage and out-of-the-ring behavior, his talent in the ring can’t be denied. So once again we’re revisiting a classic from Michaels’ first run to see if it’s as good as the other iconic matches in his extensive catalog.
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 retained his WWF/E title against Vader at SummerSlam while Mankind beat The Undertaker in their famous Boiler Room Brawl. Although Undertaker wasn’t champion, he was considered a huge star in WWE because he rarely lost. As such, Mankind’s win was a big enough deal for him to earn a world title shot, even if it came thanks to Paul Bearer betraying Undertaker.
This would be a unique match-up as far as PPVs went. This was the only time Michaels and Mankind would ever face off in a big match setting with such a coveted prize on the line. And while Michaels had experience facing bigger opponents – since winning the title he beat Diesel, the British Bulldog [twice] and then Vader – Mankind was a different creature altogether. He was bizarre, unpredictable, unhinged, and somehow, both primitive and clever. He had a dangerous finisher in the form of the Mandible Claw and had an incredible tolerance for pain, both from outside sources and self-inflicted. Worse still, Mankind had Paul Bearer to help him, and you knew that Bearer was just waiting to interfere in the match to help his charge. Needless to say the cards were stacked against Michaels, but he still vowed to leave IYH as Champion.
This match originally took place on September 22nd, 1996 at IYH 10: Mind Games. It was rated ****3/4 out of five by both the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and TJR’s John Canton. As we sit here about 26 years later, let’s see how well it holds up.
This is for Michaels’ WWE Championship. Michaels applies a headlock but Mankind quickly shoots him into the ropes and elbows him down. Mankind hits some punches and a back body drop, followed by a cactus clothesline that sends both of them to the floor. Mankind maintains control with a kick that sends Michaels into the barricade. Then Mankind starts ripping off the ringside mats to expose the concrete floor. But Michaels thinks on his feet and dropkicks Mankind, causing Mankind to fall onto the exposed floor back-first. Michaels jumps and stomps on Mankind and then hits a diving crossbody press from the second rope. But Mankind’s still moving so Michaels lands a diving press to smash Mankind into the concrete some more.
Back in the ring, Michaels hits a diving ax handle and goes for an Irish whip. Mankind reverses it but Michaels blocks a kick, ducks a clothesline, and lands some jabs and a clothesline. Then Michaels slams Mankind and lands his top-rope diving elbow drop. Michaels tunes up the band and goes for Sweet Chin Music. But Mankind sees him coming and bails to the floor. Mankind finds comfort in Paul Bearer and the urn and regains enough confidence to meet Michaels in the ring.
The two wrestlers trade corner punches until Mankind reverses a corner whip. Michaels looks to go for a crossbody but Mankind’s too far. Apparently that isn’t a blown spot but something intentional on Mankind’s part; he wants to rile Michaels up and make him make rash decisions. Michaels rushes Mankind but Mankind takes him down. Some brawling ensues and then Michaels teases an Ace Crusher but Mankind blocks with a Mandible Claw with bodyscissors. Michaels blocks the Claw as Mankind literally squeals like a pig as he squeezes Michaels with his legs, which is one of the most unsettling sentences I’ve ever written. Michaels eventually punches and elbows his way to freedom, but once he’s standing he hits one punch too many and Mankind elbows him down.
Mankind dumps Michaels to the floor and starts setting up the Spanish announce table when suddenly Michaels hits a running crossbody out of nowhere. Then Michaels smashes Mankind’s head into the casket in which he entered the arena and then suplexes him into the steel ringsteps. Mankind slowly returns to the ring but as he steps through the ropes Michaels clips his foot. Michaels follows with a knee crusher onto the top of the wooden casket at ringside followed by multiple kicks and stomps to Mankind’s right knee. Michaels shoves the referee for some reason (which doesn’t result in a DQ) which allows Mankind to hit a few punches to keep Michaels at bay. Mankind tries kicking with his bad leg (why?) but Michaels catches it and lands a dragon screw leg whip. Michaels follows with a Figure-4 leglock. Mankind’s stuck in a sitting position which puts more pressure on his legs and can’t lie back down lest he be pinned. But Mankind thinks on his feet and punches Michaels to break the hold. Irish whip by Mankind. Michaels answers with a dropkick to Mankind’s knee. Then Michaels lands a leg stretcher and a single leg crab. Mankind pulls himself to the ropes for a break but Michaels takes his time letting go. Taking out Mankind’s leg is his only option at this point so what he’s doing makes total sense.
Mankind hits a throat thrust out of nowhere to send Michaels backwards but he moves so slowly to follow up that Michaels hits first with a crucifix into a sunset flip for a two-count. Michaels rushes Mankind but Mankind lifts him into the powerbomb position and hotshots him onto the top rope. Mankind uses that big move to stab his own knee to regain feeling in it and then chokes Michaels against the bottom rope and smashes his face into the casket.
Mankind’s knee isn’t yet fully recovered but it’s healed enough for him to begin attacking. He punches Michaels into a corner and hits a BIG running kneelift. Mankind targets Michaels’ head with punches and some facecrushers when suddenly Michaels hits a Backdrop suplex out of nowhere. Michaels tries a comeback but Mankind shuts him down with a single kick to the gut. Mankind lands more kicks (still with the bad leg, not sure why he won’t switch to the healthy one) and sends Michaels into the ropes. But Michaels ducks underneath and trips Mankind up. Michaels teases another comeback with punches but the much heavier Mankind reverses another corner whip and Michaels hits the turnbuckle hard. Mankind follows with some running elbow drops into Michaels’ face as Michaels is tied upside down.
Mankind follows with a guillotine leg drop to the back of Michaels’ head (still using the bad leg; use your right leg for more damage! It’s not rocket science; hit with your hurt limb = less damage to opponent and more damage to yourself. Even a braindead character like Mankind should be able to figure that out) and then kicks Michaels to the floor. Mankind charges for a knee into Michaels as he sits against the ringsteps but Michaels dodges at the last second. Mankind hits the steps knees-first and then Michaels drop toeholds him so he hits the steps again but face-first this time.
Both wrestlers make it to the ring and they do the over-the-rope suplex trade spot. Both try suplexing each other until Mankind overpowers Michaels and Michaels ends up on the apron alongside Mankind. Mankind charges for a knee but Michaels ducks back into the ring. Mankind hits the ringpost face-first. The two trade elbows in the ring but Mankind’s too slow to rush Michaels so Michaels manages a counter swinging powerslam for a two-count. Mankind blocks a back body drop with a kick. But then Michaels counters again, ducks down, and sends Mankind into the ropes. Then Mankind gets wrapped up in them. It’s a repeat of his famous ear-ripping spot with Mankind’s head squeezed in the ring ropes. Michaels goes after Mankind but Mankind applies the Mandible Claw. Michaels escapes the Claw and Mankind frees himself from the ropes.
Michaels goes after Mankind but gets caught in the Claw again. Michaels counters by shoving Mankind face-first into the barricade. Chaos ensues as Michaels grabs a chair while the ref’s distracted with Paul Bearer. Mankind goes for a punch but hits the chair. Now his Claw is useless. Michaels hits the back of Mankind’s weakened left knee with the edge of the chair. Then he smashes Mankind’s left hand with it. In the ring, Michaels bites Mankind’s Claw hand and smashes it into the canvas. It looks like Michaels is also trying to snap all of the fingers on that hand. Then Michaels rips off Mankind’s Claw glove and lands some huge stomps onto that hand as well. Michaels charges but Mankind ducks down and dumps Michaels to ringside. Mankind follows with a cactus elbow off the apron. He sees Michaels getting up slowly so he rushes to the floor and lands a swinging neckbreaker.
Michaels makes it into the ring but Mankind lands another guillotine leg drop as Michaels’ head makes it through the ropes. Mankind follows with a double-arm DDT but is slow to cover. One, two, and – Michaels kicks out. Pulling piledriver by Mankind. Three more kick-outs. Extremely frustrated, Mankind throws two chairs into the ring. The ref removes them right away and Mankind opens the casket. He tries to throw Michaels into it but Michaels fights back. Mankind reverses an Irish whip but Michaels hits his flying forearm smash. Then Michaels kips up and begins his comeback. He lands some punches, kicks, a slam, and a diving crossbody. One, two, Mankind kicks out. He climbs the top rope but Mankind bounces into the ropes, causing Michaels to get crotched. Mankind takes advantage with a back suplex from the top rope into the announce table. But both of them are up pretty quickly. Bearer distracts the ref again as Mankind grabs a chair again. Mankind climbs the turnbuckle but Michaels uses one chair setup in the ring as a stepstool and kicks Mankind’s second chair into his face. Michaels covers Mankind…but he stops when he sees someone coming in. its Vader! Vader attacks Michaels.
Winner and STILL WWF/E Champion via Disqualification after 26:25: Shawn Michaels
Post-match, Michaels disposes of Vader easily but Bearer hits him from behind with the urn. Vader comes back for more but Sid comes in and brawls with Vader. Mankind gets up and applies the Mandible Claw on Michaels. Then he motions for Bearer to open the casket. But there’s a surprise waiting. It’s The Undertaker! Undertaker goes after Mankind and chases him to the back. Michaels gets his celebration but he doesn’t look too happy.
Twenty-six years have passed and this is still awesome, despite the crappy finish. Almost everything between the bells here was tremendous. The action, while primitive compared to what’s seen today, was smooth and exciting. The match had a great story. It was tense, back-and-forth, mostly unpredictable, and believable. It had terrific pacing that made those twenty-six minutes go by smoothly and without the viewer being left waiting for the next move impatiently. Michaels and Mankind earned respect for their work here.
The match had this great ‘win by any means necessary’ story about it. Michaels was at a disadvantage from the start because he had few moves in his arsenal that could really hurt Mankind, especially since Mankind loved to hurt himself. Michaels was cautious so he had to rely on ‘hit-and-run’ tactics while avoiding Mankind’s terrifying Mandible Claw. But Mankind caught onto Michaels and started going for the Claw frequently. The match soon turned into a dangerous game of cat and mouse with Michaels trying to slow Mankind down anyway he could. He found a mostly successful strategy in destroying Mankind’s knee, but it didn’t work completely as well get to in a moment. his other strategy of destroying Mankind’s Claw hand did work, however. With Mankind’s primary weapon taken away from him, he needed to do something else to win. And since his double-arm DDT and piledriver didn’t work he resorted to weapons use since that was the only way he could do enough damage in such a short time. But Michaels was once step ahead and kicked Mankind’s chair into his face.
That should’ve been the finish and it wouldn’t’ve hurt Mankind at all to lose like that. Michaels wrestled smartly and showed psychological know-how and tenacity throughout the match. Mankind did a great job of being the seemingly-unstoppable force that Michaels struggled to beat.
So for the match to end with cheesy and weak interference really put a damper on an otherwise excellent match.
It’s easy to see why people hated and still hate this finish; the interference led to precious little and made everyone involved aside from the Undertaker look a bit weak. Vader was disposed of quickly, Sid had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance, and Undertaker simply did his magic and slow zombie-like brawling to…send the crowd home happy, I guess? It added precious little to the match beyond some cheap pops. And while that was definitely a blemish on this match, there something else in it that kind of bothered me as I watched it. I mentioned it already but it was the nonsense with Mankind’s leg.
Michaels dismantled Mankind’s left leg like a pro; even the commentators mentioned that Michaels was wrestling perfectly and I agree. But Mankind’s idea of selling was to do two different things at the same time. When on defense he’s hobble around, struggle to keep himself standing, and even hit himself to sell just how badly Michaels had worked over his leg. But when the time came for Mankind to hit back, he used that same leg…instead of his perfectly healthy right leg that hadn’t been damaged at all.
I know this is wrestling and wrestling isn’t always logical but consider this. Vince McMahon has always had the mentality of ‘if it were real, what would happen’, even in the colorful world of pro wrestling. That’s why he pushed massive musclemen and giants instead of smaller and more agile guys for decades; he was convinced that bigger guys out-power and outfight smaller guys (even though that’s not entirely true). That’s why he got mad at wrestlers for holding the ropes when they were getting choked in the corner; in real life, anyone getting choked would reach for the choker’s arm to try and break free.
So with that in mind, if someone works over your knee or destroys one of your arms, why wouldn’t you switch to other one? If you have little time and can only hit your opponent when their guard is down, why would you risk doing less damage to them and hurting yourself more by attacking with a weakened body part? Mankind did just that many times in this match. He kicked, stomped, and hit leg drops with a bad leg when he could’ve used his other leg to do more damage. If his leg was supposedly intact enough to be used offensively, then he wouldn’t’ve had any problem shifting his body weight onto that weak leg and using his right one to attack. But by using that weakened limb as a weapon, he negated the good selling he had done earlier and he made Michaels’ legwork seem less important. So for all of Michaels’ excellent work and storytelling, the story faltered a bit because Mankind was inconsistent with how he worked with the material Michaels gave him.
Final Rating: ****3/4
Despite its notable psychological flaw and the asinine finish, this match does indeed live up to its reputation. Obviously, with the above-mentioned issues we can’t call this a perfect match; but with so many other positives it wouldn’t be fair to downgrade this match at this point.
This was and still is an awesome match that really elevated both wrestlers. Michaels, for all his flaws as a person, was an outstanding wrestler between the ropes. And Mankind managed to take a really strange gimmick and made it work well both in promos and in matches as well. Both of them really did incredibly well with the tools they were given here. And had the match finished cleanly and had more airtight selling from one of the two wrestlers involved, it would’ve earned a proper 5-Star rating.
Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.