Goodbye, Shawn Michaels: Why Professional Wrestling Will Never be the Same
image courtesy http://fans.wwe.com/shawnmichaels
The post-Shawn Michaels era officially begins tonight. What a sad day it is to be a wrestling fan.
Yes, professional wrestling is bigger than any one star and the sport always seems to find a way to endure. Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, The Ultimate Warrior, and Ric Flair all left the industry and wrestling survived.
But losing “The Heartbreak Kid,” Shawn Michaels just hurts.
Shawn Michaels was undoubtedly the greatest in-ring performer ever. He made wrestling fun to watch. I still remember the first time I saw Shawn Michaels wrestle. He was bleeding “profusely,” to use a wrestling announcer’s word, from the forehead. Michaels and his tag team partner Marty Jannetty, known as “The Midnight Rockers,” were wrestling the tubby “Playboy” Buddy Rose and lanky “Pretty Boy” Doug Somers, in a match at the Showboat Sports Pavilion in Las Vegas.
Long before ECW, the AWA ran shows in the original “Bingo Hall.” Michaels’ face was a virtual “crimson mask,” as he flipped and flew all over – inside and outside if the ring. The tag team match is legendary among professional wrestling fans, largely because it was broadcast on ESPN, back when the sports network showed wrestling. The blood in the middle of the day was also compelling (the show used to air five days a week at 1 p.m.)
Millions of people then saw a handsome, blue-eyed, and athletically gifted Shawn Michaels perform wonders in the ring, a true, “who is that guy?” moment. That was 1986. Michaels was just 19 years old.
Now, Michael Shawn Hickenbottom (birth name) is 44 years old. After last Sunday’s Wrestlemania, he left the business that he revolutionized.
If you don’t like or know professional wrestling, it would be difficult to understand what made Shawn Michaels so fabulous. In the world of wrestling, fans respond positively to three types of wrestlers.
— There’s the super muscular and freakish looking (Hulk Hogan, Andre The Giant, The Big Show).
— There are the great, charismatic talkers (The Rock, Rowdy Roddy Piper,
— And then there are the great in-ring performers who could make you believe the match was real. (Shawn Michaels, Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle).
Michaels was never super muscular. In fact, he was, by professional wrestling standards, downright small. At 6′ and about 225 pounds, Michaels was always in perfect shape, but never the kind of guy you looked at and said, “Wow.” On the microphone, he was mostly above average, with flashes of greatness. He was always better as a bad guy character, and some of his interviews in the 1990s as a member of D-Generation X, were simply unparalleled in terms of their realism.
But in the ring, Michaels had no peers.
Every wrestler wanted to be in the ring with Michaels because they knew he would make them look like they were superstars. When he was hit, he didn’t just fall down. He flew across the ring. When he was bodyslammed, he didn’t lay flat on the ground. He rolled on the canvas in excruciating pain. When he was in a submission hold, he didn’t just shake his head and say no. His face contorted. He showed fear. He displayed courage. He made it look real.
On offense, he could hang with the likes of younger, smaller, wrestlers like Rey Mysterio, Jr. When he did his moonsault (an off-the-top-rope backflip), it was never clunky. He glided in the air, even flew.
Quick as a cat, he could throw a flying forearm or a drop kick as smooth as honey. His famous nip-up, where he would lay flat on his back and spring to his feet without using his hands, is legendary. No one else can do it with such ease. Of course, his finishing move, Sweet Chin Music, (a superkick to the face) was probably the most believable move in wrestling. He always connected to the chin. You could hear the smack of the boot hitting skin from anywhere in the arena.
He made it look real.
What also made Michaels so great was that no matter what was going on in his personal life, he never had a bad match in the ring. Michaels had two careers, essentially. From 1986 to 1998, Michaels was the greatest in-ring performer. Young, brash and cocky, Michaels was famously beat up in real life at a bar after a wrestling show. Michaels was flirting with the girlfriend of a U.S. Marine and he got jumped.
He was forced to show up on TV a few days later, with a black eye (claiming in the storyline that he was beat up by “nine guys from Syracuse,” and give up the title.
In the ring, he felt he was so great and above everyone else, that he often refused to lose the match. He’d fake injuries when he was supposed to defend the belt, rather than “do the job,” or lose, to another wrestler.
And through all of this, he had terrible, well-documented and admitted addiction to painkillers.
In 1998, however, fate intervened. He broke his back in a match against The Undertaker at the Royal Rumble. He wrestled was, at the time, was believed to be his last match, against Stone Cold Steve Austin at WrestleMania. Mike Tyson served as guest referee. Michaels dropped the WWE championship, and went home to Texas, still suffering a from an addiction to pain killers.
Over the next four years, Michaels would make an occasional return to wrestling, to serve as an announcer or referee. It was a sad time. There was so much greatness in him, but it was stifled by the back injury and the drugs.
Many wrestlers have successfully beaten addictions through the help of treatment programs. In a story well-documented in his autobiography, “Heartbreak & Triumph,” Michaels eloquently tells the story of how he beat his own addiction.
His son Cameron was trying to play with him on the couch. Michaels, drugged up on pain killers, was rolling in and out of consciousness, and could not speak. Michaels heard Cameron ask his mother, Rebecca, “Why won’t daddy wake up?”
The next day Michaels kicked his addiction. Cold turkey.
He became a born-again Christian. With his personal demons gone, Michaels decided to return to the WWE. It was supposed to be for one match, against his best real-life friend, Paul Levesque (Triple H). No one knew what to expect. Could Michaels perform at the same level as he did years earlier? Michaels returned in 2002 at SummerSlam, where he not only outperformed Triple H—but he outperformed everyone else on the card.
He hadn’t lost a single step.
Eight years later, Michaels has consistently delivered the greatest performances on every card he has wrestled on. Whether is was against other great wrestlers such as Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho or Randy Orton, or an immobile broomstick like Hulk Hogan, Michaels has always had the best match on the show.
He rightfully earned his nickname, “The Showstopper.” And when he returned in 2002, he no longer cared about winning or losing. He didn’t need to be champion. All he cared about was putting on the best match of the night. And he always succeeded.
Shawn Michaels entered the ring for the last time in front of 72,000 people at WrestleMania 26 in Glendale, Arizona. Fans shouted Shawn’s name in the “Career vs. Streak,” match. The wrestling storyline was that Shawn Michaels would retire if he
couldn’t snap the Undertaker’s winning streak at Wrestlemania. The
‘Taker, was 17-0 heading into the match. But the match was merely a dramatic way for Shawn Michaels to exit. He’d been talking about leaving for years. He wanted to spend more time with his two children, his wife, and family church.
In his last match, Michaels tore the house down, again.
Yes, Undertaker moved his undefeated streak at WrestleMania to 18-0. But that’s a storyline. Michaels owns the real streak. In nearly every card Michaels has performed in, he’s always had the best match of the show.
The title of “greatest professional wrestler of all time,” is an honor that frequently is given to Ric Flair, who still wrestles, well into his 60s.
Move over Ric Flair. Shawn Michaels is the greatest professional wrestler of all-time.
After 25 years, Shawn Michaels retired on top of his profession. The only performer in the history of professional wrestling to retire at a time when he was indisputably still the best performer on the card. Sadly, Flair still competes, and is a shell of his one-time great self. In his retirement speech last week on Monday Night Raw, Michaels said he would do everything in his power never to wrestle again. Just about every wrestler who has ever retired has always returned to the ring. They get the itch. They need the money. The crave the spotlight.
Michaels appears sincere that he is leaving. Among his final words during his teary-eyed speech on Monday were, “Daddy’s Coming Home.”
Right on, Shawn. Even if professional wrestling just lost its greatest ever.