A Wrestler You Should Probably Know Better: Shawn Michaels

It’s the First Day of #ShawnMichaelsWeek, a celebration of all things HBK and the eighth installment of our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week series. As always we’ll start by making Shawn a Wrestler You Should Probably Know Better. Tomorrow, we give you the finer points of the Michael Hickenbottom oeuvre with some Essential Viewing before marching through Wednesday with a GIF Parade paid for with Hidden Gems from the Showstopper’s catalog. After Hump Day we’ll make our Amazon.com-on-steroids dreams come true with “Juice Make Sugar Recommends…” before finishing everything off on Friday with a Difference of Opinion (where JMS HQ erupts in a Sweet Chin Music-fueled civil war.)

There’s a moment in the Undertaker-Michael casket match from the 1998 Royal Rumble when you actually see Shawn Michaels break his back. Whenever they used to play JR’s “bahgawd, he’s broken in half” in the Don’t Try This at Home montage, I never thought of Mick Foley flying off the Cell into a table. I thought about Shawn Michaels clipping the edge of that casket, and the disks in his back that were nearly caved in on impact. About him finishing that match without really being able to walk, of him going into Boston a few months later to help usher in the Attitude era by making Steve Austin look as good as he possibly could while also having to drag his own carcass around the ring.

I do that a lot with Shawn Michaels: processing things differently than they actually happened, trying to not let what was actually involved in the show that he and his co-workers put on change my mind about what I’m watching.

Ignoring that Michaels’s crippling pill addiction nearly cost the WWF the Monday Night Wars against WCW, that his stroke backstage did every bit as much damage as anything his buddy Kevin Nash did with the nWo, isn’t easy, though. It does, however, make marking out during his astonishing matches against The Streak feel less like watching mid-90s Bulls games, wondering how close this game was to one of the times Jordan gave a teammate a black eye at practice or lost a few grand at a blackjack table.

And looking back at him like that certainly does some good. Ignoring the things that went on around that period helps to make you love Shawn Michaels and all he’s given to the business. Seeing past his role in the Montreal Screwjob just months before that fateful Rumble match, or that it took Taker threatening to actually beat his ass for him to let Austin pretend to, helps you enjoy 2008’s Feud of the Year with Chris Jericho without reservations.

But those things did happen, and when you find out about them, they irrevocably shift the way you have to feel about him. You can still enjoy his work, still bask in his greatness. It just feels different. You go from asking the questions of him that we do of people like Gretzky and Brady — things like “What motivates them?” and “How do they keep at it?” — to the question that historians asked of Richard Nixon: “How can one evaluate [him], so brilliant and so morally lacking?”

***

There is, of course, a difference between the type of poor moral character that Michaels displayed backstage during the depths of his problems and, you know, breaking and entering in an attempt to rig a national election, but it still creates cognitive dissonance when looking back on his accomplishments.

That he’s so well respected by his peers — put at or near the top in most self-reflexive polls culled from his fellow workers,  including No. 1 on WWE’s 50 Greatest countdown — makes the situation even more confusing. Michaels is, by most accounts, the most gifted “ring general” in the history of the business. He’s “called” — planned out and relayed to his opponent upcoming spots, extemporaneously — nearly every significant match he’s ever been in, using (along with his opponents) a seemingly innate ability to read the crowd in order to improvise stories that the fans reacted to at a main event level for much of the last twenty years.

He is adored without reservation by most fans, beloved in a way most people  — like Hunter, his honest-to-God best friend — could only dream of, receiving a hero’s welcome every time he comes back. They know only of his considerable resume in front of the camera, that he’s Mr. WrestleMania, The Showstopper, The Icon.  And since the only goal of professional wrestling is to entertain us, it’s difficult to argue anything about his legacy and have people listen to you without making it clear that you are an idiot for even caring.

But Michaels serves, like many greats before him, a broader purpose. He was put on a pedestal, and nearly lost many people their jobs because of his inability to handle the pressure. Of his own admittance, he did many things he’s not particularly proud of, and when looking at his entire legacy, those things should be taken into account.

Do they define him? No. The entirety of anyone’s life is a complicated thing to discuss in 1200 words, and Michaels’ journey has assuredly not been an easy one, and he’s dedicated nearly the entirety of it to the business, something for which he should be commended. However, when people transcend the work they do, when they become an example for proceeding generations the way that Michaels has, there’s a responsibility to learn from the mistakes to make the future better. Whether you can do that and enjoy his work is up to you.

Just don’t think about it too hard.