Professional wrestling is one of those things that, if you're a sports fan as a kid, you probably dabble in at some point. I think at one time or another all of my childhood friends went to the matches at the Hartford Civic Center; somewhere along the way, usually as a teenager or young adult, professional wrestling either gets replaced with some other casual interest, or a percentage of us get hooked on the genre and it becomes the thing that we "dork out" for.
Everyone has something they "dork out" for, right? Something we know way too much about, where our knowledge and passion for it is a bit incomprehensible for those around us, but they just shrug and say "whatever." For example, my co-host John Harris and my buddy Lance Zierlein "dork out" for the NFL Draft. Nobody in my circle of friends knows more about the NFL Draft than these two; their knowledge is uncanny, but more importantly how much they enjoy seeking and expanding their knowledge is flat out abnormal. They're draft dorks, basically.
Well, as you probably know if you listen to my show or read this blog, I'm a professional wrestling dork. I grew up in Connecticut as a fan of Vince McMahon's WWF before it became the national gold standard and virtual "last man standing" in a war McMahon himself declared in 1984. Despite my enjoyment for the genre, the list of performers of whose careers I would actually sit down and watch a video chronology is not long. After 41 years on this earth, a lot of the matches start to blend together and you have to be pretty special to separate yourself from the pack.
One of those truly special performers retired this weekend at Wrestlemania 26 in Phoenix, AZ. "The Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels had what will probably be his last match (Unfortunately, in wrestling, you have to caveat every retirement match with words like "probably" and "hopefully"; nature of the beast, I suppose.), getting pinned by the Undertaker in the main event of the WWE's annual equivalent of the Super Bowl, complete with fans coming from around the world and massive economic impact for the host city.
That Michaels was pinned in a spectacular main event with Houston's own Undertaker (real name, Mark Callaway) in his final match is equal parts appropriate and ironic. It's appropriate in that nobody put on more spectacular Wrestlemania performances than Michaels in the history of the business. Period. In wrestling, your grade as a peformer is not so much the wins and losses, but how great a story you're able tell with match psychology, subtle moves, spectacular high spots, even a slight facial expression here or there. Michaels is/was off the charts good at all of these aspects of his craft.
In Wrestlemania matches alone, Michaels was able to get spectacular matches with a range of opponents that included athletic big men (Undertaker), sort of athletic big men (Kevin Nash), a legend pushing sixty (Ric Flair), and the owner of the company (VInce McMahon). He revolutionized the ladder match at Wrestlemania X with Razor Ramon in 1994, and set the standard for the first ever Hell in a Cell match with the Undertaker in 1997. I could go on, my point is that for Michaels to go out as anything but the main event on the biggest stage in his sport would have been a travesty.
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And yet those who have followed him since his much younger days know that there is a shred of irony in Michaels' getting pinned in his final match, because there was a time in Michaels' career where it was hard to get him to agree to be pinned by anyone. From about a year after he broke away from long time tag team partner Marty Jannetty to become a singles competitor (around 1993) until about the time he left for a four year hiatus after what was thought to be a career ending back injury (again ironically, suffered in a 1998 casket match against the Undertaker), Michaels was really good at two things -- having the best match hands down on any card he was part of and avoiding being pinned for whatever belt he was wearing at the time. Whether it was conjuring up an injury, "losing his smile," refusing to be pinned, or simply taking his ball and going home, it seemed that Michaels lost more titles via forfeit for something "bigger than a wrestling match" than suffering what to him was the real-life indignity of "losing" to a lesser performer.
Like most of us, though, eventually Michaels matured. During his four years away between 1998 and 2002, he got married, had his first child, and found God. He also started training aspiring wrestlers at his school in San Antonio which helped him realize that he could part of the solution after years of being, in some ways, part of the problem. When he came back to wrestle full time in 2002, you could tell he was more grounded and more willing to be a "veteran blending in" as opposed to the showstopper that he was in the late 90's. An appropriate comparison would be Michaels' fellow San Antonio resident David Robinson accepting the sidekick role to Tim Duncan for the Spurs' greater good around that same time.
It didn't stop Michaels from having great matches, and it didn't stop his fans from appreciating how scintillating he still was as a performer, it just made him less controversial. He still typically had the best matches on the card, whether it was as a babyface or as a heel, and he played both in his twilight years.
I had a chance to meet Michaels last year at a WWE house show in Laredo, TX. Ken Hoffman, Raheel Ramzanali and I went to the show the week before Wrestlemania 25 here in Houston, and we were given access to interview a few of the WWE Superstars. I was most looking forward to meeting Michaels just because he had always been one of my favorite performers and a guy who seemed, in that world, to be a pretty complex dude. Of the four or five WWE performers we spent time with that day, he was easily the most serious of the bunch. I say that not as being necessarily bad or good, just a final twist of irony for me -- the guy who helped keep me hooked on his sport by being the ultimate risk taker and, in some ways, an anti-authority figure was reflective and thoughtful, talking about order, priorities, family, and religion. Of course, three hours later, in front of 7,000 fans with no TV cameras anywhere to be found, he had the best match on the card. A week later, with millions watching on pay per view and 75,000 packed into Reliant Stadium, he had the best match on the card. It didn't matter when or where it was, a small gym on the border of Mexico or a the most watched wrestling card in the history of the sport, Shawn Michaels was going to have the best match. It's just what he did. *For fans of Shawn Michaels, thanks to the magic of Youtube, I've compiled a little video chronology of the Heartbreak Kid's career, all in one place! Right here..on Hair Balls!! * MIDNIGHT ROCKERS VS ROSE/SOMERS - AWA, 1986 * The last several minutes of a fantastic bloodbath in the old AWA, when Michaels was teamed with Marty Jannetty in their pre-WWF days....*