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The Importance of Shawn Michaels

······································································································································································ Date: Friday, October 10, 2008 —— Comment: Reactions —— Discuss: Forum

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He is the Showstopper, The Main Event, The Icon, The Heartbreak Kid, the one and only Shawn Michaels. I am an unabashed Bret Hart mark to the core, and yet even I cannot deny what Michaels has meant to the business, as one of pro wrestling’s most important figures of the last 30 years.

Part of what is interesting about Shawn Michaels is that his career has followed the prototype for a star’s career from the get-go, right up until today. Michaels spent the better part of a decade as a part of an exciting young tag team in The (Midnight) Rockers, alongside Marty Jannetty. Together, the two brought a rousing, high-flying, fast-paced brand of performance to mainstream wrestling that made fans across the world take notice. They emerged as one of the most over teams of the late 80s and early 90s WWF, despite existing as a pair of little guys, living in the land of giants. From there, it came time for Michaels to embark on a singles career. In classic fashion, he superkicked his long time partner and tossed him through a window—the perfect pay off to slow-burn angle, which led seamlessly to his re-birth as The Heartbreak Kid.

Michaels’ career continued to follow the map as he took hold of the Intercontinental Title, and filled the role of secondary champion perfectly. He was clearly a talent on the rise, an impressive worker, and was booked just right to seem a bit more talented than the rest of the mid-card, but not quite ready for the main event, with which he flirted on occasion (see his Survivor Series 1992 world title shot).

But then, there would come a time for Michaels to rise. His partnership with Diesel, and Diesel’s meteoric rise to the top of the card, provided Michaels with a perfect bridge between the mid-card and main event status. Teaming with, then feuding with, then teaming with Diesel again, set Michaels up as a major player, en route to getting his first world title push.

Michaels hung around the main event scene for a number of years. He settled into a period of injury induced retirement, then came back for more, again rising straight to the top of the card. Pushing 40 years of age, HBK proved himself to still be among the best in ring performers, not to mention best promo men, in the business, and went so far as to headline his fourth and fifth Wrestlemanias, placing behind only Hulk Hogan and Triple H for most Wrestlemania main events. But while he still commands his share of the spotlight, Michaels has slowly, subtly slipped into a new role, one tier beneath world championships, with the upper-mid-card status of legend.

But what, aside from longevity, makes Michaels a legend? In ring performance, is, of course a huge piece of it. There is a very short list of men with careers as long and as consistently good as Michaels’s has been. And while I’m not sure it’s fair to call Michaels an innovator in the ring, there’s no denying his part in getting new concepts over. For example, it was performances by Michaels that helped get several of the WWE’s most celebrated gimmick matches over. Had Michaels not taken every chance he could think of in his Wrestlemania X ladder match, it’s quite arguable the concept would have caught on—at least not the extent that it has since this extraordinary performance. And what better man could there have been to pair with Bret Hart in reincarnating the iron man match at Wrestlemania XII. Some may call the hour plus match boring, or unrealistic, but the conditioning, creativity and intelligence the men showed in executing this match was off the charts, and paved the way for the same gimmick to be used for Rock-Triple H, Kurt Angle-Brock Lesnar and others. There was the first Hell in a Cell match. Michaels’ sacrifice of falling off the cage, through a table seems relatively tame in comparison to what Mick Foley did with the Cell, but the fact remains that HBK’s willingness to throw caution to the wind went a long way toward getting the concept over. Not altogether different was Michaels’ gutsy performance in the first Elimination Chamber match, where his title win over Triple H put the match over as truly unpredictable, truly dramatic, and truly a battlefield in which something important could occur. I could go on and on, including Michaels’ phenomenal work in Survivor Series elimination tags, his performance in the Wrestlemania XX triple threat match, or his showings in wild brawls against Triple H, Vince McMahon and others. The bottom line remains that he was so wildly successful in all of these domains that he got the matches, the concepts of the matches, and his opponents over every bit as much as he established himself.

Michaels has also been important in his ability to make long term programs work. Rarely before, and never really since has a tag team split program gone over quite so effectively as his long standing partnership, and subsequent war with Marty Jannetty, complete with great wrestling, wild brawls, and thrilling surprises in the form of each of Jannetty’s unexpected returns. Then there was Michaels’ longstanding feud with Triple H, which brought him out of retirement, and returned him to the main event scene. There have been numerous other entertaining, borderline inspired feuds along the way—from Razor Ramon, to Steve Austin, to Vince McMahon, to the Undertaker. And then, of course, there’s the program that perhaps most defined Michaels’s career, blurring the lines between what’s real and what’s a show in his historic rivalry with Bret Hart. As when I wrote about Hart, I’ll refrain from digging into the Montreal Screw Job, as it warrants a full column itself, and is a story told often enough. All I will say is that this was one of the most important moments in the history of wrestling, and Michaels’s participation in even that one night solidified him as one of the most important names in wrestling, if not for the noblest of reasons.

The Screw Job serves as a good segue into another piece of Michaels’s legacy, as backstage politician. I’ll refrain from a tirade against Michaels for being self-centered, only wanting to put over his friends, keeping down those who were not in his “Clique.” I believe most of it to be true, but the fact remains that I wasn’t there, and so, all that I know is hearsay. The fact that remains is that Michaels defined an era of WWF booking in the way no single performer (outside of Hulk Hogan) ever had before, and ever has since. What’s more, two of Michaels’s partners in crime, Kevin Nash and (to a lesser extent) Scott Hall moved on to use similar politics to rule the roost in WCW.

In considering Michaels’s importance, one cannot overlook the formation of Degeneration X—the on screen manifestation of The Clique by which Michaels formed one of the most notable stables in the history of the business, leading the group throughout his last heel title reign, and nearly a decade later, bringing it back together as the most popular face act of the 2000s. The merchandising revenue Michaels realized, alone, is enough to further cement his importance.

This all brings us to the HBK of today. Michaels is perhaps the most over performer in the world. Those who have watched for a long time know his many accomplishments, and his profound influence. Relatively new fans can still spot the glimmer of past greatness as he outworks men who are barely more than half his age. As I mentioned earlier, Michaels has settled into the role of legend, and as he fades progressively further from world title contention, he seems to rightfully passed a torch, and admirably taken on the role of man who will do whatever the business asks of him. Perhaps this is contrition for past sins. Perhaps it’s giving back to the business. Perhaps it’s just another step in the natural evolution of his career.

Kayfabe and in reality, on-stage and off, Shawn Michaels stands up front as one of the most important figures in wrestling history.

by Mike Chin of

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