As the intrigue over the possible return of Bret ?Hitman? Hart gathers pace, this writer considered it?d be a charming irony to cast an eye over Bret’s nemesis and eternal rival, Shawn Michaels. Wrestling fans the world over will be contemplating the myriad possibilities and avenues the WWE could proceed down in the process of reigniting the competitive flame of the Hitman. Vince McMahon may be number one but undoubtedly, any such list would rank some sort of face-to-face altercation with (really) old HBK very highly indeed. The antipathy that raged between these two emotional and highly strung individuals burns as strongly as it ever did. In 2006 Bret claimed that if Shawn was anywhere near the arena during his Hall of Fame speech he?d boycott the presentation. Shawn was there, but Bret carried on regardless.
Much has been said and written of the aftermath of Montreal from a Hart perspective, but Shawn’s journey warrants equal scrutiny. Emerging from the Survivor Series with his integrity shredded, Shawn plunged still further into the licensed delinquency that was D-Generation X. With his loyal sidekicks Triple H and Chyna giggling in the background, Shawn pushed the envelope in a manner both crude and insatiable. From cancelling house show main events (in Memphis) to refusing to put anyone over – or even working with Owen Hart – Shawn was running riot. It was a relief then for the depleted morale of the dressing room when, in January 1998, Shawn resumed his feud with the one man he was utterly incapable of undermining: The Undertaker.
As a loyal friend and colleague of Bret Hart, ?Taker was particularly disgusted by the events of November 1997. It was Undertaker who ?persuaded? Vince McMahon to come out and explain his actions to the boys (by threatening to break the door down). This incident led to the unusual situation of Jim Ross coining a nickname for ?Taker based on a real life event, dubbing him ?The Conscience of the WWF?. ?Taker and Shawn had been feuding in the months leading up to Survivor Series and the resumption of their feud was woven expertly into the growing ?Cane and Abel? saga between Undertaker and his storyline brother Kane. Shawn defended the WWF Championship against ?Taker at Royal Rumble (in a casket match), retaining the belt after interference from Kane. The result of the match was secondary however to an incident that took place during the contest. Undertaker back-dropped Shawn over the top rope midway through the match. As Shawn landed he clipped his lower back on the casket. He did know it at the time, but he?d suffered a very serious injury that would ultimately claim the next four years of his career.
Though ostensibly the winner of the ?Taker/Shawn conflict, Michaels was beset by very genuine physical pain. Unable to participate in any sort of match prior to Wrestlemania XIV, Shawn once again became moody and obstreperous. He began loudly insinuating that he?d be unable to wrestle at ?Mania (and thus drop the WWF Title to ?Stone Cold? Steve Austin.) It was at this point that Undertaker took Shawn to one side and calmly informed him he?d beat him senseless unless he dropped the belt in the middle of the ring at the supershow. Shawn stowed his ego and did his job in Boston at ?Mania. The sight of Shawn, agony etched on his face as he worked with Austin, is a forgotten moment of the Attitude Era. Shawn went some way that night to erasing the unpleasant image of the man who had previously forfeited the Intercontinental, European and World titles. He worked as hard and as smoothly as possible and elevated Austin to the highest plateau in a manner becoming a champion. As he left for home that night, I wonder if Michael Hickenbottom knew the first fifteen years of the Heartbreak Kid were over?
Shawn appeared sporadically over the next four years in angles and scenarios involving the likes of Vince McMahon, the new (and improved) DX and The Rock. Though occasionally teasing a full comeback, Shawn appeared to be content in retirement. He launched the Shawn Michaels Wrestling Academy. His star pupil was one Brian Danielson, who would go on to become Ring Of Honor Champion and is presently employed by WWE. As Bret Hart’s life and career seemingly snowballed, the wealthy and relaxed Shawn married former Nitro Girl Rebecca and had a son (Cameron) and chose to appear on WWE TV in whatever capacity suited him, without formally returning. After an intermittent stint as WWE commissioner and the odd showpiece refereeing gig (at Judgement Day 2000 most notably) Shawn returned to WWE on a full-time basis as spokesperson for the anaemic WWE retread of the New World Order in May 2002.
The WWE version of the NWO was a pale and misguided mockery of the original. It was all but destroyed by Hulk Hogan’s abrupt face turn and eradicated entirely by the sacking of Scott Hall and torn quadriceps muscle of Kevin Nash. With its founder members removed the group was formally disbanded and Shawn shed the colours in favour of a reunion with original DX cohort Triple H. This was a primer for the in-ring comeback of HBK in a non-sanctioned street-fight. It’s important to set the scene here. This match was taking place at a time when Shawn had not wrestled a full match in nearly five years and Triple H was physically overblown and struggling with excess weight. It was optimism, not realism that defined their match at Summerslam 2002. Nevertheless, this writer was reminded of the adage ?talent is forever? as Shawn and Hunter tore the house down in an epic, emotional and gripping collision that exceeded every expectation and was a bonafide match of the year contender. For all the questions over his attitude and maturity, Shawn Michaels proved that night he still had the magic. Little did we know that this night marked the beginning of the second coming of The Heartbreak Kid and confirmation of a legacy unmatched in the history of professional wrestling.
Daniel R. Browne.
Note: I haven?t committed to a two-part piece for some time so I thought it might be a welcome change of pace. Part two will be with you next week. I?d like to take this opportunity to express my hope all those reading this, on both sides of the Atlantic, had a nice Christmas and holiday period. Regards and thank you all.