There is a superb book, written by John F. Molinaro and released in 2002, called Top 100 Pro Wrestlers of All Time. Now, as you can gather from the title, it’s an in-depth look at the economic markets of central Europe between 1956 and 1968. Only joking; it is, of course, a ranking of the greatest wrestlers the world has ever seen. I’d imagine that the author’s choice of entrants would be universally agreed upon, even if the eventual placing of some would no doubt provoke debate. It’s a great book, marvellously written with some wonderful accompanying photographs. The Top Ten features some of the most accomplished and famous names in pro-wrestling history; Ric Flair, Lou Thesz, Rikidozan, Antonio Inoki, Hulk Hogan, Andre The Giant, El Santo, Giant Baba, Steve Austin and Buddy Rogers. Every single one of those names conjures up such incredible memories and unforgettable matches. However, every one of the Top Ten is either fully/semi-retired or, sadly, no longer with us. In fact, as you move from page to page in the book, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that the majority of the names before you are no longer entertaining us in the squared circle, for whatever reason; Bruno Sammartino, The Rock, Bruiser Brody, Verne Gagne, Bret Hart, Blue Demon; all retired or in a better place. Ditto Nick Bockwinkel, Dusty Rhodes, Freddie Blassie, Danny Hodge and Ricky Steamboat. But that’s before you get to number 47. And younger readers of the book, who may not have ever seen many of the entrants compete, or even heard of some of them, will be greeted not only by a face they recognise, not only a name familiar to them, but a wrestler that you don’t have to dust off the old video recordings to see. You can watch him perform by tuning into the WWE every Monday night.
For those of us who were watching wrestling in the late 80’s/early 90’s, our introduction to Shawn Michaels was as a tag team wrestler. With Marty Jannetty as his partner, The Rockers were possibly the most innovative, exciting and progressive tag team on the WWE roster. Jostling for position with other teams like The Hart Foundation, The Brain Busters, Strike Force, The Legion of Doom and Demolition, Michaels and Jannetty never held the WWE Tag Team Championship (with the exception of a bizarre title switch in Fort Wayne, IN involving champs The Hart Foundation. The Rockers won the belts in a 2-out-of-3 falls match, but the title switch was quickly annulled days later and the belts returned to Hart and Neidhart. The switch was never acknowledged on TV and isn’t listed in the official WWE Tag Team title history). Anyone who wishes to see just how great this team were should track down a copy of Royal Rumble 1991, and watch The Rockers battle The Orient Express. The four men involved created a near 20 minute classic, the very definition of terrific tag team wrestling, and the WWE has only produced a few matches since that are on a par with this effort. The Rockers split in late 1991 when Michaels turned on Jannetty, transforming into the cocky heel persona that would eventually carry him to the pinnacle of his profession.
What we essentially have is two separate eras in Shawn Michaels singles career; pre-1998 back injury and his 2002-present return. 1992, his first full year as a single, brought about good pay-per-view matches with Tito Santana, Rick Martel and Bret Hart. He also won the Intercontinental title from The British Bulldog in October and competed in the first ever WWE Ladder Match against ‘The Hitman’ in July (a taste of things to come). But from 1993 onwards, he really started to shift gears. What’s incredible about Michaels is his capacity to constantly knock up ‘Match of the Year’ quality bouts. I won’t list them all, but a few include:
Vs Marty Jannetty (Monday Night RAW, May 17th 1993) Vs Razor Ramon (WrestleMania X, March 20th 1994 [Ladder Match]) Vs Jeff Jarrett (In Your House 2, July 23rd 1995) Vs Razor Ramon (SummerSlam ’95, August 27th 1995 [Ladder Match]) Vs Mankind (In Your House: Mind Games, September 22nd 1996) Vs The Undertaker (In Your House: Badd Blood, October 5th 1997 [Hell in a Cell])
And this is just a few. They are all incredible matches, with a fabulous performance from Michaels. In fact, any of the above bouts would stand up today, nearly 15 years later. Considering how wrestling has so dramatically changed in the last decade or so, that’s saying something. But what is it about Shawn Michaels that makes him so special? What does he have that means his name is spoken in the same breath as Flair, Steamboat and Austin? He is an incredible athlete, with charisma and personality to spare. He knows how to cut a promo and can work heel and babyface. The true talent that Michaels has is his timing. This guy knows how to pace a match; he knows how to keep the audience constantly engrossed, wondering which way the contest will twist and turn. His bouts ebb and flow beautifully, his time to sell and time to make a comeback judged to perfection. This is his gift, and we’re the one’s that benefit. Like The Rock and Hulk Hogan before him, Michaels has the ability to hold an audience in the palm of his hand, and make them genuinely care about who wins and who loses. Despite being a perfectly convincing heel, I believe that he is better suited as a babyface. Track down his stunning performance at Survivor Series ’03, where he played his ‘against all odds’ persona to perfection. Michaels can elicit such sympathy from a crowd, and he sells a beating better then anyone on the roster.
Michaels 2002 comeback match against friend-turned-foe Triple H at SummerSlam was one of the most dramatic and engrossing bouts ever seen on a WWE pay-per-view. Their ‘Non-Sanctioned’ fight (essentially a renamed Street Fight) was the undoubted Match of the Year, and thrust Michaels back into the spotlight after a four year hiatus, and he continued on from where he’d left off in 1998; producing fantastic matches with just about everybody. We have been lucky enough to witness a renaissance in Shawn Michaels. We are seeing an athlete and an entertainer who is performing at a higher level than he had been before his injury put him on the shelf. Many thought, myself included, that the return of ‘The Heartbreak Kid’ would be affectionately nostalgic, but that his better days were past him. How wrong we were; his matches with Triple H, Chris Jericho, Shelton Benjamin, Kurt Angle, Batista, John Cena and Ric Flair, to name just a few, have all ranged from excellent to incredible. The Angle match stands out in particular; at WrestleMania 21 (2005) ‘The Olympic Hero’ and ‘The Heartbreak Kid’ knocked up the greatest wrestling match seen in the WWE so far this decade. It’s going to take something pretty special to top this near 30 minutes classic. You could even argue that, from a pure wrestling standpoint, this may be the best match ever to be held at a WrestleMania. Shawn Michaels has been a part of the WWE since 1988, and has been involved in his fair share of controversy. Many fans haven’t forgotten his involvement in the ‘Montreal Screw Job’ involving Bret Hart in 1997. His backstage attitude and association with The Kliq in the mid-90’s is notorious and ‘The MSG Incident’ in 1996 no doubt changed the entire course of the wrestling business. His apparent refusal to drop the WWE Championship to Bret Hart at WrestleMania 13 (1997) led to his infamous ‘I’ve lost my smile’ speech on Thursday RAW Thursday in February of that year and was followed by his relinquishing of the title. But the 21st Century Michaels seems to have had an attitude change. Whether becoming a husband and father, and a born again Christian, has mellowed him slightly, we’ll never know. But Michaels seems totally focused on business now, and is looking to establish as many of his co-workers as possible.
Number 47 does seem a somewhat low placing for an entertainer of Shawn Michael’s calibre. The book was written pre-2002, and so Michaels incredible achievements since his comeback had yet to be seen (he was involved in the PWI Match of the Year in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007). There are not many active wrestlers who could be considered for a position in the ‘100 Greatest’ listing; Triple H, Kurt Angle and Kenta Kobashi are the obvious candidates. And if Michaels can continue his current form, a final place in the Top Ten is surely not out of the question. On Sunday March 30th 2008, at WrestleMania 24 in Orlando, Florida, Shawn Michaels wrestled Ric Flair in ‘The Nature Boy’s final appearance inside the squared circle. It was a tremendously moving contest, one befitting a man of Ric Flairs distinction. It stole the entire show, and is a Match of the Year candidate. We watched the conclusion of Flair’s career, and I’ll admit that even a grizzled old wrestling fan like me had a tear in his eye. ‘The Nature Boy’s days in the ring are gone, and they’ll never come back. Those of us who were privileged to see him perform live were blessed, and future generations will only be able to see his incredible talent by watching him on video tape. Shawn Michaels is in this same category and we are honoured to still be able to see a true legend of the squared circle entertain us every week.
The day Shawn Michaels retires from the business will be a sad one for wrestling, so let’s enjoy his incredible talent today and appreciate all that he has given us, while we still can.