Icon. Showstopper. Legend. The greatest of all time. These are words that have been used to describe the Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels. It is very easy to find someone that doesn’t like Shawn Michaels, but it is harder to find someone who thinks he was anything less than a great wrestler. Michaels has his share of critics for sure, but so many rank him at the top of their short list for all time greats. One generation of fans only know Michaels as the veteran with a prominent role on Raw for the last few years. Others know him for his earlier work, before he had to step away due to a back injury. When HBK came back in 2002, he came back as a legend. He was a guy who had been champion and had some memorable matches, and now he had a second chance. However, HBK’s second chance lasted several years. He lived off that legendary status for nearly nine years. When you look back at his prime there was really only a short time that he was on top. There was the seven month reign in 1996, and then the brief run after Bret Hart’s departure. When looking back at Shawn’s time on top, particularly the fist tile reign, there is a forgotten story that shaped HBK’s reputation and ultimately led to a character transformation as the business began to change.
When Bret hart dropped the title to Shawn at WrestleMania XII, Hart’s character went through a phase of reluctance to accept that things were changing. A naïve Michaels was awarded with the title as Bret looked on. It was like Bret was both in and out of character at that moment as he looked at HBK wondering how he was going to carry the company once he realized once he had gotten himself into.
HBK’s first big title defense was against his former friend Diesel. The match had been building since Survivor Series of 1995 when Big Daddy Cool started a tweener phase before becoming a heel during his feud with the Undertaker. Given their history, there was no reason not to have Diesel as HBK’s first opponent. They had an alright brawl that proved Michaels could beat other top guys than Bret Hart, and it was a nice sendoff for Diesel as he left the company a few weeks later.
Michaels would then go into a series of matches with Davey Boy Smith. The first was at the May pay per view Beware of Dog. Michaels has said this is one of his worst matches. Things turned around as they headed for a rematch at the King of the Ring in June. Michaels got the win over the Bulldog, after which, a brawl ensued between Bulldog, Owen Hart, Vader, HBK, Ahmed Jonson and Ultimate Warrior. The brawl led to a six-man tag match at the July pay per view which served as the transition for Michaels to go from Bulldog to Vader. Since Vader had debuted at the Royal Rumble earlier that year, it was only a matter of time before he headlined a pay per view for the WWF Championship. That would happen at SummerSlam. When looking at Vader and Michaels, it seems like a no-brainer that Vader would take the win easily. The WWF made Vader look very strong going into the match and many thought this was the end of HBK’s title reign. That was not the case. WWF was strongly behind Michaels as their top guy and built up Vader so strong because it would only make Michaels look better once he picked up the win over the big man. There were a couple of false finishes. First, Michaels was counted out, and then he was disqualified. Each time the match was restarted with Jim Cornette calling Michaels out, claiming that HBK was intentionally trying to end the match without having to beat Vader. The match continued until Michaels picked up the victory.
Up until this point Michaels had a fairly uneventful reign. The Bulldog feud put out some good matches, but the story just wasn’t there. Having them feud because Bulldog’s wife made an accusation was a little lame. Vader became just a big guy for HBK to beat. Things began to get interesting in September. HBK was slated to face Mankind at the Mind Games pay per view. For fans that haven’t read Mick Foley’s autobiographies, Foley put a lot of thought into this match. He was very worried about being able to keep up with HBK, but was able to pinpoint his strengths and used those to make the match better. HBK was under a lot of pressure at this point. He was frustrated and on edge. The match with Mankind was where that inner torment was utilized. In a way, wrestling Mankind was like wrestling an inner demon for Michaels. He became more aggressive as the match went on. The side of Michaels everyone knew existed, but had been locked away, was coming out. Most top guys in WWF/WWE had characters that served to them in a way. Michaels had finally found that first character that served him and they really gelled. The match was fantastic, one of the best of both men’s careers.
After several months Michaels was just getting to that point the he needed to be as champion. However, the decision was made to take it off of Michaels and put it on Sycho Sid. The two met in Madison Square Garden at the Survivor Series pay per view. Again, the more aggressive Michaels came out swinging. This time it was not part of a plan, HBK snapped. The crowd had turned on him and he fought back. Shawn has said himself he should not have done that. It made the ending a little strange considering that Michaels’ mentor, Jose Lothario, was hit with a camera by Sid, and the sympathy that was supposed to be there was nonexistent.
Things changed that night for the company. Bret Hart also made his return to the ring. Hart’s absence was the reason HBK now the top guy. Now that he was back and Shawn was no longer champ, there were two kings at the top of the mountain. As everyone knows, there is only room for one. In their king of the hill game Shawn was pushed off, and Bret was on top. Something very similar happened in 2000 when Steve Austin was out with an injury. The Rock was now the top baby face, but when Austin came back, the show was turned back over to Stone Cold. It was not until Bret would leave for good in 1997 that Michaels would get back on top of the hill, but once he was up there his time was limited before injuries and a rising star pushed him off again.
The Michaels title reign was a tragic one. Not tragic in that it was awful, but the story of his reign was tragic. It was about a young man with a dream to be champion. When he got there, things were not as easy and fun as he had hoped. He began to feel the pressure and slowly lost his smile. A few months later HBK made a speech where he said he lost his smile in an angle that is still resented by many to this day. But it does go with what happened while he was champion. Real life and story paralleled one another for HBK. It was like he lost his innocence and in the process became a tarnished angel. It was a sign of things to come. The 1996 title reign of the Heartbreak Kid was the last of the squeaky clean baby face runs for a long time. Michaels was not necessarily the catalyst, but he was certainly one of the most prominent victims of a changing landscape as the Attitude Era began to dawn.