Words from the World of Wrestling (#15)
August 16, 2009
Although the Discussion Board thread ?Greatest SummerSlam Matches of All Time? hasn?t tempted a respondent for a few days now, I think it’s still worthwhile to take a look back at an important match that many posters mentioned: Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels, an Unsanctioned Street Fight from 2002. I call this match important for two reasons: (1) This year’s event marks the seventh anniversary of HBK’s return to action in 2002 (after a four-and-a-half year hiatus), and (2) I think the match exemplifies why Shawn Michaels’s best matches never quite sustain my interest for longer than a few months. In other words, this extended match review serves as a knot for a variety of issues ranging from the relatively local (whether the match itself is really all that good) to the relatively global (why Shawn Michaels’s matches [and potentially most WWE ?main event? matches] fail to maintain permanent spots in my Fanboy Subconscious).
To understand the significance of this match at the time, I think it’s important to remember how unlikely a Shawn Michaels return seemed in 2002. In a way, Shawn Michaels’s career felt like The Rock’s career feels to us now; Dwayne Johnson might make the occasional cameo, but most fans (who watched wrestling between 1998 and 2003, of course) have pretty much accepted the fact that he?ll never wrestle again. Likewise, if you asked me at any point between 1999 and 2002 whether or not Shawn Michaels would return to full schedules or half-schedules (i.e. more than the occasional cameo), I would have quickly answered, ?No. Absolutely not. He?ll never wrestle again.? Given my attitude at that time (an attitude that would stick with me well into 2003 . . . I would have never guessed he?d still be wrestling in 2009), one can imagine that all wrestling fans were surprised by joy when watching him not only wrestle in August of 2002 . . . more than that, he stole the show.
When I turn to the match now, I feel a bit of the same excitement that I felt seven years ago. JR and the King did a really great job selling the importance of the confrontation between Triple H and Shawn Michaels, and the crowd certainly played along, the same crowd that would turn against The Rock later in the night as he fell to the current UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar. My, how times have changed.
My excitement dissipates as the match begins, however. I certainly buy that Shawn Michaels would open with punches (and his pescado certainly made up for his wild dive six days earlier on Raw), but there is just something too easy about these opening minutes (did Triple H really have to sell such wimpy clotheslines!) . . . and certainly things get too cartoony as Michaels, of all things, pulls out trash cans and trash can lids in order to put a beating down on his new rival.
However, the match does get really good once Triple H counters HBK’s superkick attempt. The backbreaker that he hits in retaliation and the long ensuing beating (e.g. chair shots to the back, a backbreaker through a set-up chair, a side slam on the chair, etc.) forms one of those strange real/fake vortexes that make professional wrestling so fascinating. I remember asking myself in 2002 as I watched this match, ?I?m not sure this is such a good idea,? and I still feel the silence that pervaded my buddy’s living room as we watched Shawn Michaels carefully modify his selling from facial reactions of shock (after the backbreaker) to intense pain (when Triple H drops the elbows) to paralysis (after the second chair shot). I?m not sure I?ve ever seen Shawn Michaels do a better job than he did that night in drawing me into his match. This was far from the simple ?exhaustion? selling that we see in his major encounters with Triple H, Kurt Angle, and (most recently) The Undertaker. Drawing off of the very real fact that he had been gone for over four years from a career-ending back injury, he made me believe he was actually in pain. And that Triple H was the biggest jerk in the world.
Those ten minutes or so are absolutely beautiful.
And then Shawn Michaels manages to fight back a little bit, nail his flying forearm, kip up, and forget that Triple H even touched his back. I used to laugh at people who criticized Michaels for his performance against Kurt Angle at Wrestlemania 21, because when I watch Triple H deliver a long, deliberate beating to a guy who probably couldn?t have guessed himself that he?d keep wrestling for another seven years . . . and then that guy kips up and JUMPS UP AND DOWN and proceeds to wrestle the next ten minutes as if he hadn?t just received one of the coolest beatings in contemporary wrestling history . . . well, then I can?t help but feel that something has been wasted, that something has just been lost, that something special just got snuffed out. Perhaps I?m the only one who feels this way.
After HBK fights back, the match barely draws interest from me anymore. After a kick-ass middle portion, the cartoon antics return: a strange run-around-the-ring bulldog, more trash can fun, a catapult into a ladder, a table spot and ladder spot that just take up a bunch of time before hotshotting the end. Triple H (who looks bi-polar when we marry aggressive offense with Flair Flopping) gets splashed through a table, eats an elbow from the top of a ladder, and still manages to duck a superkick attempt? And attack HBK right after the flash pin? For shame.
But why do I press this point? Why must I be such a kill joy? Does it all really just come down to a complaint about selling (one of the most common and worst argued criticisms that any wrestling fan could make to half-naked men pretending to fight one another)?
In a way, I guess it does come down to selling . . . because selling is the thread that holds these performances together for us, and when that thread snaps, when that thread interferes, disrupts, and botches what should have been one of the most memorable moments in contemporary wrestling history, then I think I have a legitimate beef, and I think any fan that goes back to watch it has to notice just how disjointed and how inconsistent the opening and closing minutes are with the beautifully deliberate section in the middle.
For many fans this ?classic? might do its job, but it ultimately fails, I think, to do much more than any general street fight (replete with trash cans and a cursory table spot, etc.). Again, I?m thrilled to have enjoyed Shawn Michaels for seven more years, but I?ll remember him for matches far better than this.
Next month I think I?d like to take a broader look at the WWE ?main event? style, including a thesis on the difference between ?5 Moves of Doom? and ?1 Long Spot of Doom? and a question concerning why it is I always cool on big main events, especially matches involving Shawn Michaels and/or the Undertaker.
Take care all!