HBK Going the Distance
Originally published on January 15, 2005
Written by Kirsty Quested
Going the distance. Having recently seen Rocky I for the first time, it is this author’s opinion that the phrase accurately sums up the meteoric career of the Heartbreak Kid, Shawn Michaels. I must admit to experiencing a certain amount of trepidation when deciding to pen a definitive of this particular performer’s career. Those of you who have read my article on Bret Hart will recall that Shawn did not feature especially favourably, and it is true that he was involved in some fairly underhanded activity where Bret Hart was concerned. I was therefore a little anxious that I might not be capable of remaining objective on the subject of Shawn Michaels. As I delved further into his life and career, I was delighted to be proven wrong. Shawn Michaels is exceptional in almost every definition of the word, as I feel sure those of you who have followed his 20-year career will agree. From excitement to exasperation, from thrilling highs to frustrating lows, the Heartbreak Kid is destined to leave his very distinctive mark on the world of professional wrestling in ways no other performer has, or ever will.
Michael Shawn James Hickenbottom was born July 22, 1965, the youngest of four siblings. A United States Air Force Colonel, his father’s career took the family briefly to England before settling in Texas. “Being a military brat, I was always the new kid – every new school, there was a fight, first day.” Shawn discovered football, and he was good at it. “I liked the contact, I liked the physicality,” he said. However, from a very young age Shawn was a keen pro wrestling fan, even putting on a wrestling show with friends for a high school talent show. “That whole thing about me having the dream since I was 12, that’s all true,” Shawn has said, and when he graduated high school the dream was still strong. “I was going to wrestling shows all the time, but as I got older it was more as a student than a fan.” Shawn’s parents were, initially, wary of their son’s “obsession” as his mother put it. “We thought he would grow out of it,” the Colonel remarked with some asperity, but the teenager had made it clear that wrestling was what he wanted to do. One day Shawn’s father took him to meet a friend of his, who was a local wrestling promoter. However, at only 17, Shawn was too young to compete professionally, and it was decided that he should go to college until he was at least of age (19). A continuing education seemed like the more sensible choice. “I got a staggering 750 on my SAT’s,” Shawn said with a grin. It was enough – just – to admit him to South West Texas State University. His college education was, in the words of the Colonel, “a disaster.” Shawn himself was under no illusions about his ambitions in tertiary education. “I learnt nothing,” he said, “except how to drink.” Shawn appealed to his parents again to allow him to at least undertake wrestling training, to allow him to give it a shot. Given his parent’s rather firm reluctance previously, their reaction was somewhat surprising. “I thought about facing him when he was 35, and him saying to me ‘Dad, I could have done it, I could have made it, if you’d only given me a chance.’ I couldn’t face that thought.”
With his parents blessing – and financial backing – Shawn began immediately training under Jose Lothario. The promotion took Shawn to Kansas, where he met his tag-team-partner-to-be, Marty Jannetty. Marty was a few years older than Shawn and had been wrestling professionally for some time. He took one look at this kid barely out of his teens and there was a connection. “Marty unleashed what was inside of me,” Shawn has said. “Sounds corny – but there it is.” The Midnight Rockers were born. They worked initially for the AWA, which televised the shows for local cable channels. One day, who should be watching but Pat Patterson. His attention was immediately drawn to these two young, good-looking, high-flying wrestlers. “We couldn’t believe it when we got the call,” said Marty. “The WWF!”
Shawn recalls his first meeting with Vince McMahon vividly. “Larger than life,” he said. “It’s everyone’s first impression. The man is larger than life.” Unfortunately, Vince’s first impression of Shawn and Marty was not as favorable. “We kind of had a rep for partying a lot,” Shawn said. After a brawl in a nightclub – which Shawn says has been blown completely out of proportion (“the truth is never as exciting as the myth”) – word spread that the WWF’s newest recruits were troublemakers, and Vince sent for them. “Nice boots,” he said to Shawn when they met. “They’re made for walking.”
“Fired after less than a week!” said Marty. “Must be some kinda record.” A year later, they called Vince and begged for forgiveness. In the summer of 1988, they re-entered the WWF, this time to stay. They shortened their name to the Rockers, and experimented with different looks until they hit on the flamboyant style that would become their image. Their pay-per-view debut was at the 1988 Survivor Series, where they were teamed with, among others, the Hart Foundation. Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart were also making their mark in tag team wrestling, and they were frequent opponents of The Rockers. “We had some great matches with the Hart Foundation,” Shawn has said.
Although relatively small in stature, Marty and Shawn were able to produce good matches with all kind of opponents, demonstrating their versatility and innovative ability. Despite this, they weren’t given much of a push. As they started to get over, it was almost in spite of the WWF powers-that-be, not because of them. At that time, young pretty-boy performers were not seen as the WWF’s major stars. The fans, however, had other ideas – especially the girls. As their popularity increased, Vince started to unbend. “After a LOT of persuasion, he agreed to put the belts on us,” Shawn said. The Hart Foundation were the champions at that time, but Jim had been let go by the WWF and Bret was headed for the singles arena. Jim was filling out his contractual obligations by performing and dropping the straps, but from the beginning the match was destined to be a disaster. The top rope broke during the match, which caused confusion. “Bret had me in a headlock, and he says ‘we’re just gonna keep going, we’ll keep going, they’ll fix it’, and I was all for it, but the referee panicked. He had no idea what to do. We tried to get them to stop the broadcast and fix the rope, but they wouldn’t. Have you ever tried wrestling without a top rope? Damn near impossible.” The Rockers defended the title for a week, but eventually Vince had the title change annulled, citing an “unfair working environment” and the win was written out of WWF history.
In their 7 years together, Shawn and Marty got on remarkably well, knocking heads only once. “We were TOGETHER,” Shawn said. “Other guys, like the Hart Foundation, they traveled separately and had different accommodation, but Marty and I were together all the time. Traveled together, roomed together, ate together, trained together. Considering we spent 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in each others company, I’d say one fight in all that time is pretty good.” In sharp contrast to their characters, it was actually Marty who was the firebrand and Shawn who remained level-headed when it came to real life stresses. It was Marty’s uncertain temper that eventually spelled the end of the Rockers. “We were doing a shoot with some other guys for a cereal commercial,” said Shawn. While the other performers were being paid $5,000 for the endorsement, Shawn and Marty were expected to split the $5,000 down the middle. Marty exploded. “Will you stick with me if I fight this?” he appealed, and Shawn agreed. “What I didn’t know,” said Shawn, “was that Marty was going to threaten to quit and move to WCW. I knew nothing about it until Vince called me and said ‘sorry to hear you’re leaving.’ WHAT???” Vince told Shawn that he would always have a career as a singles performer in the WWF, and that as soon as he felt the time was right, to let Vince know. “When he said that,” Shawn remarked, “I knew that the time was now.” Marty was understandably upset. He felt that Shawn would be given a singles push at his expense. “I tried to explain to him that he had as much of a crack at the singles arena as I did,” Shawn said, but admits that he feels he let Marty down. Marty himself may have been aware of their charismatic differences and knew that with Shawn’s theatrical flamboyance, he stood a better chance of making it in singles. The Rockers split on Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake’s “Barbershop” segment in 1992. Shawn ended months of speculation about the health of the Rockers relationship by hurling Marty through a plate glass window.
As if the launch of his singles career wasn’t enough, Vince turned Shawn heel, solidifying this status by pairing him with the notorious Scary Sherri, whose real life personality was somewhat akin to that of her character. “She was very protective of me,” said Shawn. “She was scary! She would intimidate these huge guys if they gave me a hard time or didn’t want to put me over.” During a Saturday Night Main Event in October 1992, Shawn had his first taste of singles gold after defeating British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith for the Intercontinental Championship. He later defended it successfully against Marty Jannetty, who was climbing the singles ranks at a much slower pace than his former partner. Their feud was inevitable. “The angle was never what it could have been because Marty was kind of in and out a lot,” said Shawn. “He was so easy to work with though. I wish we could have done more with that storyline.”
In 1993 Shawn introduced a new dimension to his character. He became increasingly known as the Heartbreak Kid, and eventually just HBK. After he and Sherri parted company, Shawn began appearing with a 7 foot, 317 pound monster by the name of Diesel. Kevin Nash was making his WWF debut as HBK’s bodyguard and he made a hell of a first impression. His sheer physical size was such a presence in itself that Kevin never really needed to open his mouth – and he slowly started overshadowing his flamboyant young charge, albeit unwittingly. It was the beginning of a life-long friendship that would survive storyline hatred and company-jumping.
It was about this time that Shawn failed a routine drug test for steroids. “I wasn’t using them,” he protested. Vince gave him a choice. Admit to the drug use and keep on working, or face a 6 week suspension. “I wasn’t gonna admit to something I wasn’t doing,” he said, and was thus stood down for 6 weeks. The scriptwriters scrambled to come up with an excuse. President Jack Tunney “suspended” Shawn and stripped him of the IC belt, citing Shawn’s refusal to meet contractual obligations. Shawn believes that Vince may have been testing him, testing his fortitude and strength of character. Whether this is true or not may never be known, but Shawn has said that after the suspension was lifted, Vince never presented him with an ultimatum again.
During his suspension, the IC belt was put onto Razor Ramon (Scott Hall). When Shawn returned, he claimed that since he had never forfeited, he was still the rightful champ. The dispute over the belt led to the now-famous ladder match, supposedly the first in the WWF. Inexcusably overlooked was the genuine “first” ladder match, which just happened to be between Shawn and Bret Hart at a non-descript house show in 1992. Bret had actually introduced the idea to Vince, the ladder component being an invention of his father, Stampede promoter Stu Hart. “The match Shawn and I had, that was just kind of testing the water, to see what the fans thought of the idea,” Bret has said. “When I mentioned it to Vince it was on the understanding that it wouldn’t be done without me.” The reaction of the fans to the new concept was such that Vince decided to give it a push, and over Bret’s protests, decided to settle the IC belt dispute between Razor and Shawn using the ladder match at Wrestlemania X. Both belts were suspended above the ring, accessible only by taking the ladder from the aisle into the ring, ascending it and grabbing the belts. Shawn was defeated after Razor locked his arms in the ropes, and despite the loss, Shawn has said that the match is one of his all time favorites.
Meanwhile, Kevin Nash’s star was on the rise. It was time to give Diesel a push, and to do it the scriptwriters had him turn on Shawn. Kevin was booted up the ranks of the WWF with incredible speed, becoming the WWF Champion (a title as yet still held from Shawn) in a ridiculously short time, but such was his popularity that Vince and the scriptwriters gave him too much too soon. Kevin struggled with the whirlwind transition from sidekick to WWF Champ, and it became clear he would need rescuing. His real-life friendship with Shawn continued to grow stronger and it was to Shawn that Vince turned to help pick Kevin up. Shawn was given a shot at Kevin’s WWF strap by winning the 1995 Royal Rumble, despite entering at No.1. It is testament to Shawn’s incredible fitness and conditioning that he was able to “go the distance” in the only kind of pro-wrestling match that aside from the pre-determined outcome, demands almost 100% improvisation. At Wrestlemania XI, Shawn did the honorable thing for Kevin and put him over, allowing him to retain the WWF title. This led to the beginning of Shawn’s babyface turn, and the on-screen re-forging of the HBK/Diesel friendship.
Shawn and Kevin’s friendship branched out and they gathered around them a few other loyal friends. Together with Paul Levesque (Hunter Hearst Helmsley, later Triple H), Scott Hall (Razor Ramon) and Sean Waltman (1-2-3 Kid, later X-Pac) they became collectively known as the Kliq. It has been widely rumored that they became the “power behind the throne” in the WWF. Shawn insists that whatever power they had was exaggerated. “It’s a misconception,” he said. “If having power means making suggestions the boss likes, then I guess we had it.” What perhaps gave the Kliq the edge as far as Vince’s ear was concerned was the fact that these 5 performers ate, slept and breathed wrestling. They were all single men and they worked, literally, all the time. “We suggested ideas for other guys as well,” Shawn said. “At one time I was actually writing the RAW episodes. I guess that caused some of the guys to resent me a bit.” Bret Hart disagrees.
At this time, the WWF was heading in a new, raunchier, more adult direction. “Attitude” was born, a style Bret felt was not suitable for kids, and he blamed the Kliq. “Shawn only wanted to work with the Kliq. I remember sitting down with him and talking about guys we could work with. He mentioned Sean, Razor, Kevin and Hunter. I’m like – hang on – those are all your buddies. Shawn’s a primadonna but he was insecure about his own ability and I guess he felt more comfortable with those guys.” Shawn, of course, refutes this. “Bret got this bug up his ass, about the whole attitude thing. Maybe he felt threatened.” As the new style developed, Vince McMahon relied more and more on the Kliq’s opinions. “Vince liked us because we told it like it is. If an idea was bullshit, I’d tell him. I’d say, ‘Vince, you’re a 50 year old man. You don’t know what’s cool. I’m only 30, and I do.”
The new “Attitude” heralded the beginning of a real life feud that exists to this day. Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, initially good friends, were inexorably torn apart by what many (including Shawn and Bret) believe was Vince McMahon deliberately playing one off against the other. Bret and Shawn were of the same era, and were a fair match for each other physically, so it was inevitable that the WWF scriptwriters would bring them together. Initially, they worked together very well. “Shawn has amazing ring psychology,” Bret has said. “He knows what you’re gonna do before YOU know what you’re gonna do. That’s the kind of guy you want in the ring with you. He’s ready for anything.” For his part, Shawn has said that Bret was the guy he always looked up to. “He was never too busy. He didn’t interfere but if you needed help he always gave you the time. In the ring, the most professional, the soundest guy I’ve ever worked with.” The crowd enjoyed the matches between the high-flier and the technician, so their scripted feud was on and off for years. Bret was the WWF’s super hero, whereas Shawn was often turning between babyface and heel.
In 1996 the writers decided to try something not seen since the Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan set the benchmark in 1990 – a babyface title match at Wrestlemania. Bret’s title was on the line. Shawn, with the boyhood dream, set his sights on it. Bret and Shawn were given the decision by the (then) WWF President Roddy Piper – the first of its kind – a one hour Iron Man match. No count outs, no disqualifications. The most decisions won within the one hour time frame won the title. Bret and Shawn shook hands in agreement and treated the fans to a mutual admiration interview. In reality, things were not as rosy. Bret was highly disillusioned by the direction in which the WWF was heading, and his passion for the business was on the wane.
Keen to try something different, he had landed a recurring guest spot on the popular Canadian TV series Lonesome Dove. He wanted 6 months off to pursue his acting career. Vince agreed, on the condition that Bret drop the strap to Shawn at Wrestlemania XII. Shawn had been waiting for this his whole career and was – to put it delicately – miffed when Bret openly declared he did not think Shawn was fit to carry the title. Whether or not Bret’s reasons were sound, Shawn threw an immature hissy fit that he regrets to this day. “I was the most immature 31-year old that you could come across. To some extent, the obnoxiousness and arrogance and flamboyance of HBK was finding its way into my own personality. It’s easy to do because people are constantly feeding your ego. You don’t have to turn it off if you don’t want to.”
Vince McMahon agreed on this point. “Shawn would say and do some petulant things that would drive me up the wall. But just when you thought you were going to wring his neck, for some reason, you wouldn’t.” He was unmoved by Bret’s ego-driven protests and Shawn’s childish responses. “Looking back,” says Shawn, “I’m not sure it was entirely Bret’s own angle. I think a lot of it was motivated by Vince. He was telling me one thing and Bret another.” On this one point, Bret agrees. “In hindsight it seems stupid for neither of us to have picked up on the idea that Vince might have been playing us off against each other.”
As Wrestlemania XII approached, Shawn threw himself into a rigorous training regime that would see him in the best shape of his life. Under the watchful eye of Jose Lothario, Shawn took 3 months off to train for the one hour marathon. “I had no experience with one hour matches so the training and preparation were different to anything I’d done before,” he said. In sharp contrast, Vince put Bret on a relentless working schedule with monsters like Sycho Sid and Diesel. “I was getting jack-knifed and power-bombed all over the States,” said Bret. “I think they wanted to see me beat and sucking air during the Iron Man because I was leaving. So I trained like a maniac in all my spare time. Whatever differences Shawn and I had, he’s an incredible athlete. He’s an amazing performer in the ring. He was the guy I knew was nipping at my heels for the last 3 or 4 years.”
On his opponent, Shawn has said he would not have agreed to a one hour match with anyone but Bret. “The thing that was comforting was that I knew Bret could do it, do it and enjoy it. He would prepare as hard as I did. I don’t think I could have done it with anyone else but Bret – he was the ONLY guy around at that time who you could go one hour with.”
The match itself has gone down as one of the greatest in all WWF/WWE history. In order to last one hour, Bret and Shawn changed somewhat from the usual pro tactics and employed instead many amateur ones. With his extensive background in amateur wrestling, Bret was able to tutor Shawn in a very short space of time on how to combine amateur and professional styles. Thus, the match had an edge of reality never before seen. “Everything that went into that match was real,” said Shawn. “It was as real as this business is ever going to be.” As the match progressed, the levels of control were fairly evenly spaced. It’s difficult to see why, but with around 40 minutes to go Bret and Shawn both became short-tempered. Their demeanours became more tightly controlled with flashes of anger apparent. At one point, with Shawn in a headlock, Bret yelled at referee Earl Hebner to get out of his face. “This isn’t a godamned staring contest!” he bellowed, and the referee retreated, confused. A few minutes later, with Bret in a reverse arm-bar, Shawn drove his knee into the small of Bret’s back in the first potato of the match. Bret’s howl was genuine and he swore loudly enough for the microphones under the mat to pick it up. “He dropped on his knees beside me and whispered an apology in my ear,” Bret recalled. “He wasn’t though. He wasn’t sorry. I thought, OK it’s gonna be a brawl. Fine with me.”
Although apparently dishing out potatoes to each other throughout the rest of the match, it wasn’t noticeable to anyone but the closest observer. The match was a high-powered demonstration of the best that both these performers were capable of – and as they were both at the peak of their careers at this time, the best they were capable of resulted in what has been voted by fans and performers as one of the greatest matches of all time. After 60 minutes there had been no decision and the match was ordered into overtime. Two minutes later, Shawn delivered the sweet chin music and realized the dream he had had since he was 12 years old. He was the WWF World Champion. After celebrating with his fans in the ring, Shawn bounded backstage to thank Bret and try to let his old friend go with no hard feelings. Bret was nowhere to be found. He had left the arena directly the match had finished. Hurt, confused and angry, Shawn’s celebration was soured. It was the final insult and Shawn set his jaw and decided that when and if Bret returned to the WWF, things would be different.
During Bret’s absence, Shawn began his title reign. He successfully defended the belt against Diesel, Davey Boy Smith, Mankind and Vader. When he was defeated by Sycho Sid at the 1996 Survivor Series, the fans protested. Shawn had proven many people – Bret among them – wrong about his abilities to fulfil the duties of the WWF Champion. Reacting to the fans’ response, Vince hurriedly put the belt back on Shawn at the 1997 Royal Rumble. Professionally, Shawn was flying high. His personal life, however, was in tatters. As so many of them do, Shawn had succumbed to the pressures of the business and begun relying on painkillers and alcohol. Professional wrestling is physically a demanding career and a dedicated performer has to be able to shake off the inevitable bumps and bruises. Prescription drugs helped. So did booze. Shawn was on a downward slide. He wasn’t alone. Fellow wrestler Brian Pillman, on the same fast track to destruction, died suddenly in early 1997. “At that time,” Bret Hart said, “a lot of those guys were flirting with death. Shawn was one of them. It was just a question of who would go first.” The situation came to a head when Shawn, out for the night with Davey Boy Smith and Sean Waltman, ended up taking most of the punishment when the trio was set upon by a bunch of drunken marines. Badly beaten, and with his physical and mental health in tatters, Shawn took desperate stock of his life. First and foremost was a nagging knee injury that refused to heal. “I’d seen my own doctor,” Shawn said. “He told me I’d never walk again if I kept working. I went to Vince and told him my knee was f***ed. He sent me to the WWF doctor, who was the kind of guy who’d patch you up if you were paralysed from the waist down and tell you to get on with it. He told me I needed time off.”
At about this time Bret had returned to the WWF. He had been promised a shot at Shawn’s title at Wrestlemania XIII, but Shawn was not up for it. He had several reasons. “I didn’t know how to handle the situation with Bret,” he said. “I wasn’t about to step into the ring with my knee f***ed, with a guy I knew didn’t like me.” More importantly, Shawn felt he needed a break from the business. He felt things were spiralling out of control, and Brian Pillman’s death had shaken him badly. During an emotional RAW interview, Shawn forfeited his title, claiming he needed to go home and find his smile. “This was real life. Those were real tears,” Shawn said of his battered, emotional psyche. “My career was going down the drain. My life was right behind it.”
Annoyed at having been cheated out of the title shot, Bret scoffed at these excuses, backing up his statements by pointing out Shawn’s rather swift return to the business. The two former friends had been taking pot shots at each other constantly. Shawn claimed that Bret’s dogged refusal to lay off his family irked him. “Say what you want about me,” he said, “but stay away from my family.” Bret claims he doesn’t recall saying anything derogatory about Shawn’s family. He admits he was like a dog with a bone over Shawn’s saucy shoot for Playgirl magazine, and that he apologized to Shawn for it. Whether or not this is true remains unclear; what is certain is that things came to a head early in 1997 when Shawn snidely remarked on Bret’s “sunny days,” a thinly veiled reference to the sexy, bubbly blond valet Sunny. Backstage in the locker room, the pair had a genuine brawl, both performers threatening to quit, until Vince McMahon intervened, fined them both, and sent them home to cool off.
“So now,” said Shawn, “there’s this white hot heat. We don’t talk. At all.” Recognizing the volatility of the situation, Vince sensibly kept his two biggest stars separated and gave them both something else to think about. Bret was given some heavy storylines to work with Steve Austin, as well as creating a new Hart Foundation and turning heel, while Shawn formed D-Generation X with woman wrestler Chyna and Shawn’s old Kliq buddy Hunter Hearst Helmsley. (Kevin Nash and Scott Hall had jumped ship to the WCW.)
D-Generation X embodied everything new and raunchy about the WWF’s more adult programming. Speculation ran rife for a short time about the exact nature of Shawn and Hunter’s relationship, which they did nothing to discourage by making sexual innuendos about each other. On at least one occasion, Shawn planted a smacker right on Hunter’s lips in the ring. Chyna‘s sexual predilections were vague, to say the least, and before long storylines were becoming less about the wrestling and more akin to an aggressive type of soap opera. During this time, however, Shawn participated in the first – and possibly the best – Hell In A Cell match. His opponent was the Undertaker (Mark Calloway), a 6 foot 10 inch mountain of muscle. The steel cell had taken over the old blue steel cage. “Oh that old blue cage was so painful,” Shawn remarked. “It was too close to the ropes and completely unforgiving. You could feel your bones just creaking when you got slammed into it.” The riggers in the WWF agreed. One too many injuries caused by the blue steel forced them to rethink the design, and they came up with a steel mesh cell, which completely enclosed the ring (roof included) but was set further back from the ring itself. This allowed an aisle around the ring in which the cameramen could operate and would also lend itself to performers booting each other outside the squared circle. Shawn and Taker took this one step further by moving the match right up to the top of the cell and brawling on its uncertain roof. The climax came when Taker hurled Shawn off the roof and right into the announcers table. It was a superbly performed, dangerous stunt. Although a bloodied and exhausted mess, Shawn defeated Taker by pinfall after some interference by Kane.
When Shawn forfeited the WWF title before Wrestlemania XIII, a Final Four competition was held to determine who would carry it. Bret had returned to the WWF on the condition that the belt be put back on him, so of course he won. Shawn’s Hell In A Cell victory had made him the number one contender for the title, which behind the scenes he was demanding, telling Vince that with the new direction, he was a more contemporary champion than the more traditional-minded Bret Hart. An already heated situation was made worse when Vince decided he could no longer afford Bret’s unprecedented 20 year contract. Bret signed with the rival WCW and it seemed logical that before he left, he should drop the strap to Shawn. The next big pay-per-view was the 1997 Survivor Series in Montreal, Canada – Bret’s home country. Bret put his foot down. He would drop the belt, he told Vince, but not in Canada. He insisted that it had nothing to do with Shawn, who he tried to patch things up with by telling him that he had no problem putting him over, just not in Canada. Shawn, his back up and his ego bruised, told Bret rather shortly that he appreciated the sentiment but that he would not do the same for him. “Why,” said Shawn philosophically, “would I put over a guy who’s leaving?” This further solidified Bret’s refusal to drop the belt in his home country.
Aware of the increasing tension between Bret and Vince, Shawn uncharacteristically kept quiet as the Survivor Series approached. His storyline feud with Bret was at its peak, but Shawn tried to keep his personal feelings about Bret to himself. It didn’t work. The fans were aware of the real-life animosity and it only fueled speculation leading up to the pay-per-view that Bret had “sold out.” Bret’s columns in the Calgary Sun were becoming increasingly scathing towards Shawn; frustrated, Shawn nevertheless continued to bite his tongue. It would take years before his reasons for this became known.
“Umm… yes… I knew. I knew all along. How did I find out? I was told. Sat me down and said, this is the decision we’ve made.” The decision Shawn was referring to was that of Vince McMahon’s to strip Bret Hart of his title at Survivor Series in what would be forever known as the Montreal Screwjob. Until the very day of the match, Bret and Vince had been unable to find a compromise. “It was just, it was a really eerie day,” Shawn said. “Everyone was feeling it. Bret wasn’t there. All day he didn’t show up. He came in very late and it was like boom, they were behind closed doors.”
Unbeknownst to Vince, Bret was wired for that meeting. This was mostly due to the fact that at the time, the Wrestling With Shadows documentary was being filmed. “I don’t think Vince had counted on us being there,” said the documentary’s director, Paul Jay. Their presence meant that anyone who has seen the documentary has heard Vince agree that Bret did not have to lose to Shawn that day. They agreed on a disqualification, with a run in by both D-Generation X and the Hart Foundation. Satisfied, Bret located Shawn and they sat down to put together the match. None of it would matter. Vince had other ideas. “I was troubled and anxious all day. I had to make a decision where I knew someone would get hurt.” The decision was that no matter what anyone else thought about it, Bret was not taking the belt out of Montreal that night. When Shawn got Bret into his own signature hold, the sharpshooter, referee Earl Hebner indicated within a nanosecond that Bret had submitted. He hadn’t. And everyone knew it.
Vince was at ringside and he pointed Shawn in the direction of the belt. Shawn put on a performance, swearing at Vince and elbowing by him none too subtly before Gerry Brisco and Hunter manhandled him back down the aisle. The fans screamed their outrage. There would be no holding the belt aloft in the ring, victorious. Backstage, Shawn waited for Bret to come after him.
“It was a gutsy thing for Shawn to do,” said Vince. “I knew by asking him to do it he might have been compromising his values.” Shawn actually supported Vince’s decision. “He made the only decision he could make, from a company standpoint. People will debate it. I knew I was going to be the bad guy though. Whether I knew about it or not was irrelevant.”
Bret confronted Shawn in the locker room. The Shadows crew caught Shawn lying. “I had no f***ing idea,” Shawn protested to Bret. “I swear to God – my hands are clean of this one.” Shawn was present to witness Bret KO’ing Vince McMahon with a right hook that would have dropped a rhino. “The whole thing was just crazy,” Shawn said. “I mean this was a really big deal. I just wanted out of there.” Hunter and Chyna came for him and, along with additional security, escorted Shawn back to the hotel. “It was a mob scene outside,” said Shawn. “I mean it’s Canada, Bret’s hometown. They got me out of there and I just sat in the hotel with Hunter and Chyna, and you know… I can’t believe it. It’s done. It was very very surreal. It was one thing to talk about it, but it was another to, you know… it’s done.”
For several years after the screwjob, Shawn maintained he had not known what was coming down for Bret. In 2002, having become a born-again Christian, he owned up to his part in it. “Was I asked to do something by the man who has given me the opportunity to have everything I have in my life? That has stuck with me, that I’ve stuck with? He asked me to do it and I did it. And I’m not sorry for it.” Still later Shawn amended his comments, saying that he was sorry the entire incident had to happen, and that he regretted his part in screwing over “one of the boys.”
After the Survivor Series, the title belt back around his waist, Shawn continued working as hard as ever despite nagging injuries, which he tried to ignore. However, during the 1997 Royal Rumble, he took a back bump during a casket match with the Undertaker. The bump was an accident, but when Shawn went out of action until Wrestlemania XIV, there were those who believed he was exaggerating the seriousness of his injuries so he wouldn’t have to drop the belt to Steve Austin – after all, the same tactics had been employed one year earlier.
The back bump that Shawn had taken during the casket match would ultimately lead to his retirement. It was, literally, the straw that broke the camel’s back. “I’d had back problems going all the way back to the start of my singles career,” he said. The day after the casket match, Shawn woke up in bed completely frozen. “I managed to kind of fall onto the floor and call the ambulance,” he said. “They found me in my bedroom in the Fatal position.” Vince McMahon, said Shawn, was in denial about the seriousness of his condition, not wanting to admit the end was nigh. Shawn disregarded doctor’s advice and, with Mike Tyson refereeing, was defeated by Steve Austin at Wrestlemania XIV. “I sustained even more damage during that match,” he said. “At the end I was just crying with Steve and Vince backstage. We knew it was over.” In 1998 Shawn had surgery on his back to fuse the ruptured disks in his spine with metal plates, and announced his retirement from professional wrestling.
Shawn may have been down, but he was most definitely not out. In 1999 he married former WCW Nitro Girl Whisper (Rebecca Curci) who had been introduced to Shawn by his old buddy Kevin Nash, and in January 2000 their son, Cameron, was born. Together with Jose Lothario, old friends Paul Diamond and Rudy Boy, Shawn started up his own wrestling school, the Shawn Michaels Wrestling Academy. They had their own promotion, the Texas Wrestling Alliance. “I loved teaching,” said Shawn. “I felt I could provide more than what the other schools did, like teaching how to work on TV, and I was also able to make those connections and stay involved.” The Shawn Michaels Wrestling Academy would produce some of the best wrestlers in the independent scene and the WWE, such as American Dragon, Paul London, Garrison Cade, Spanky and Michael Shane. Indy wrestlers like Low-Ki and Justin Credible would all work for Shawn at some point. Even Bret Hart has admiration for Shawn’s teaching abilities. “When young guys come up to me and ask my advice on wrestling schools, there are a few I recommend. One of them, believe it or not, is Shawn’s.”
Though not working active storylines or wrestling, Shawn maintained his connections with Vince McMahon and the (now) WWE. In 2002, he hosted the Royal Rumble pay-per-view, igniting rumors that a comeback was in the works. Later that year, he made his full return, introduced by his old friend Kevin Nash (who had returned to the WWE with Scott Hall when WCW went belly-up) as the newest member of the New World Order (nWo). One of his main storylines has been with his old Kliq and D-Generation X buddy, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, now known as Triple H and sometimes The Game. Almost unrecognizable as the snobbish Hunter, Triple H had revamped his image and was now one of the meanest characters in the business. After he turned on Shawn by attacking him in a parking building, the two had a non-sanctioned match at the 2002 Summer Slam. Although Shawn defeated Triple H, it didn’t stop his new nemesis from bludgeoning him with a sledgehammer when the match had ended. Despite being stretchered out of the arena, fans were left in no doubt about one thing – HBK was back. Older, wiser, and maybe better than ever.
Shawn’s feud with Triple H continues to this day. However, in addition working storylines with Triple H, Shawn has worked with Chris Benoit, Randy Orton and Chris Jericho. At Wrestlemania XIX in 2003, fans were treated to HBK at his best when he pulled an upset victory over Chris Jericho in a grudge match. At Wrestlemania XX, Shawn participated in the Triple Threat Title match with Chris Benoit and Triple H, an exciting show-closer which saw Benoit taking out the strap.
Shawn maintains both his real-life and storyline friendship with Kevin Nash, who he says has always been there for him. In August 2004, Shawn and his wife Rebecca announced the birth of their daughter, Madison.
During a RAW taping in October 2004, Shawn tore the meniscus tendon in his knee, requiring surgery. The injury and its subsequent recovery have kept Shawn on the sidelines, but he is by no means ready for his swansong. He may be known as the Heartbreak Kid, but Shawn is now one of the veterans of the WWE. As agile and exciting a performer as ever, Shawn Michaels continues to prove why he is one of the most legendary entertainers in professional wrestling. The 12 year old kid from San Antonio, Texas, with the dream of becoming the world champion, rose to the very top of the ranks of the WWE. His flamboyance, athleticism and staggering wrestling ability have seen him through a 20 year career dogged by controversy and injury. Shawn Michaels – the Heartbreak Kid – has truly gone the distance.
Acknowledgments: The author would like to thank Matt “Morpheus” Whitaker over at Lords Of Pain for all his help and advice on this article, and to wish him all the best in his quest for three in a row!
Written by Kirsty Quested (January 15, 2005)
Brad Dykens wrote: Another amazing column Kirsty! For those of you just discovering Kirsty’s work, make sure you check out her other articles on Bret Hart and Owen Hart they are equally incredible! If OWW had an award for columnists, Kirsty would win!
RuthlessGattman wrote: THANK YOU!! THANK YOU!! THANK YOU!! THANK YOU!! I’m glad that someone had the nerve enough to actually search HBK’s career than to just go “oh he’s good” or “oh, he sucks.” HBK is one of the five reasons on why I’m attempting to become a superstar myself. Kirsty, you’re a great writer and you really go in depth, whether it’s copying from a magazine or any book, you let people know the true facts of the Heart Break Kid.
HorizontalJohn wrote: As mildly amusing as your inane pratter was, you neglected to mention a few thing in your blind phrase of HBK. Like telling of how you so eloquently put it “the boys” to call their spots out really LOUD. i.e.. Ken shamrock. It also seems odd that his “knee injuries” seemed to flare up when he supposed to job to someone or another. I am not going to mock his ring work as it is above reproach but him as a person or his character is very well documented as terrible. If you are going to report on such topics at try to do so subjectively.
Richard Bermingham wrote: Hi! First off, I love your work.I’m a big Owen Hart fan,and your column justified what a great career he had,and how it was over shadowed by his tragic death. Anyways,on your next project I’d like to see you write on the career of Edge.I think hes had an interesting career,and hes my fav wrestler!
Chris Freeman wrote: Kirsty, I want to say your columns on Bret and Owen Hart our the best two I’ve ever read on OWW. And whilst I’m a major HBK fan, I felt you did the legendary hgh-flier plenty of justice in the recent HBK column as well. Although I could see a slight bias towards Bret Hart, which was acknowledged at the beggining, but ont the whole it was great! As I say keep up the great work. I eagerly await your next column, personally I’d LOVE to see a Chris Benoit column, or one on my all time favouorite wrestler, STING!!! either way Im sure it’ll be great and I anxiously await your next column!!!!
Gary “Stinger” Smith wrote: Absolutely fantastic job on the Shawn Michaels column. So well written, you get two thumbs up. Your Owen and Bret ones were great, but this one was just a bit better, though Shawn Michaels is my favorite wrestler of all time. You did a remarkable job, it was truly a pleasure to read. You should know that you have quickly become my favorite writer on the net, so keep it up. As for your next one, I wouldn’t mind seeing one done on Mick Foley.
Matty G (Sydney) wrote: I’ve just finished reading your column on HBK and I was very impressed. I’m a huge Bret Hart fan and read your work an him and Owen a little while ago, and I was impressed that you were objective enough in your column on HBK. Don’t worry about the comment from HorizontalJohn – he probably hasn’t read your other work. He’s probably horizontal from people putting him on his ass after comments like that ! Whatever you choose to write about in future, you have a loyal reader here in Sydney Australia.
L. Biggins wrote: I loved the articles you posted at O.W.W., especially the tribute to Owen Hart. I would like to see you write up an article on Kevin Nash.
Cory Hummel wrote: Your column on HBK was very well written and I applaud you on how the column turned out. I was wondering if you would write a column about Shane Douglas going the Distance. I am not for sure if he is a candidate that you would like to choose from but I feel like it would be a difficult challenge for you to write. And that is why I would like you to write a column about him. There are a lot of wrestlers who have so many great stories about them, I feel like Shane Douglas could make quite a story. He isn’t Bret or Owen Hart, and he isn’t HBK. However he has a story nonetheless especially as it deals with ECW, the Backstage Politics in Pro-Wrestling inside the WCW and the at one-time WWF which is now WWE. I believe Shane Douglas could make for a great topic for you to write and I hope you can consider such a topic as him. I wish you good luck with whatever wrestler that has won the most votes. I hope you have a great night.
Jeff Barna wrote: I just finished reading it. Another one knocked out of the park. And, you managed to perfectly shed light on the positives of HBK without getting tangled up in the whole Montreal Screwjob angle. A lot of people can’t seem to understand that Shawn did some great things, and has made amends for many of his blunders in the past. The more people that read your article, the more that notion will be understood. Kirsty, you continue to amaze me with your penchant for writing. And thanks for doing one of my personal wrestling heroes justice.
William McCracken wrote: Your columns are always a pleasure to read; keep up the excellent work!
Joseph Minuti wrote: hey kirsty, i just read your column on Shawn Michaels and all i can say is W O W! that was freaking awesome! are you going to do any more?? anyways i’m just letting you know that that was another brilliant column which i enjoyed reading.
Ben Chapman wrote: I have read your 3 columns and loved them all. I think the Undertaker would be the best topic of your next column.
Avi Krebs wrote: Hey Kirsty, just thought I would follow OWW and suggest the wrestler I think you could do your next article. I have seen all three of your articles and I think they were amazing to say the least. The one you did on Owen Hart is probably one of the best articles I’ve seen on all of OWW. Anyways, I don’t think it matters which wrestler you actually choose because the article will be fine but if I was to choose one wrestler from your list..I’d probably have to go with Kevin Nash. The reason being I think it’s about time someone wrote the Kevin Nash story and I’d think you’d be the right person to do it. I personally was thinking of doing my next article on either Ravishing Rick Rude or Mr Perfect. Anyways, good luck with your next article. Look forward to reading it.
Patrick Staal wrote: I truly enjoy your OnlineWorldofWrestling columns. And I recommend them to everyone at the Dutch forum WWEHolland.nl. For the next one I think you should have a go at Benoit or Foley. Although I would also like to know a little more about Taker, but Benoit and Foley get my sympathy vote. Or if you want to try somebody else. How about Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts? Whoever it will be, I’m sure it will make for an excellent read.
Oliver Newman wrote: Just read your Shawn Micheals Column again a SUPERB Article I learnt things I didn’t already know (ie The Drug suspension was the reason Razor v HBK Ladder Match happened!), one thing though I like how your emphaise HBK’s good points but facts state you left out some pretty bad points, (ie Almost casuing riots at house shows because he refused to Wrestle on occasions, Undertaker having to physically threaten him because he stated he wasn’t going to lose to Steve Austin at Wrestlemania broken back or not!) —- Just thought i’d fill you in HBK is one of the GREATEST of all time but his bad points do bring him down as a Wrestler still Great but it could be argued his Attitude wasn’t so!
Dizzykidd16 wrote: This was one of the best articles i ever read.I’m a Shawn Michaels fan and I did’nt even know some of the stuff written here. I think Kristy is a awsome writer and she really got in to the life of one of my favorite wrestlers:HBK.
Simone Hansen (New Zealand) wrote: This is one of the most exciting articles i have ever read in my live. I’m like a number one fan of Shawn Michaels i mean come on he’s the bloody man, he’s actually considered a wrestling god among me and some of my family members. There were actually a few things in this article that i didn’t even know Shawn did, but overall it was a excellent piece of work. Well done!!