#22 Shawn Michaels
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According to WWE's DVD titled "The 50 Greatest WWE Superstars of All-Time" Shawn Michaels is the greatest wrestler to ever lace them up for WWE. In 2014 a poll of WrestlingInc.com readers proved that readers believed that Michaels was the best North American wrestler of the last 25 years. A lot of people believe that Michaels deserves to be much higher on this list, and there is definitely an argument that he could be in the Top Ten at least. However, I believe there are some glaring errors in his career which ultimately have him slotted here, at #22, which by the way isn't that bad of a spot.
Michaels grew up in a military family that moved around a lot before settling in South Texas. The captain of his high school football team, Michaels started training with popular Mexican wrestler Jose Lothario who was a prominent star in the Texas territory. He made his debut in 1984 and by 1985 was working for World Class Championship Wrestling and different National Wrestling Alliance territories. In the Kansas City territory he began teaming with Marty Jannetty, a wrestler of similar build and athleticism. For the next several years Michaels would be almost exclusively a tag team wrestler, pairing with Jannetty to form one of the best tag teams of the 1980s.
In 1986 Michaels and Jannetty began working for Verne Gagne in the American Wrestling Association. Their tag team was called "The Midnight Rockers" a play on the popular tag teams The Midnight Express and The Rock n' Roll Express. The duo would end up capturing the AWA World Tag Team Championships from Doug Somers and Buddy Rose in January of 1987. The duo caught the eye of Vince McMahon and were brought into the World Wrestling Federation, but their time in the promotion would be short-lived. Michaels and Jannetty were notorious partiers, as famous for their late night antics as they were for moonsaults and superkicks. Following an incident at a bar, Michaels and Jannetty were fired from the WWF just two weeks after signing with the promotion. The team would go back to the AWA before being brought back into the WWF later in 1987.
The team's name was abbreviated to just "The Rockers" and their high-energy and athletic wrestling made them a popular babyface tag team, especially with women and children who made up a large portion of WWE's audience during the Hulkamania era. Despite their popularity, The Rockers rarely won important matches, instead being defined as an underdog team that tried very hard but were ultimately defeated by larger tag teams.
By 1990 the tag team division in the WWF was thinning out and The Rockers began to work with The Hart Foundation who were the WWF World Tag Team Champions. The team would actually win the championship from The Hart Foundation at a TV taping, but the match was never broadcasted due to Vince McMahon changing his mind on the decision to take the championships off of The Hart Foundation. The team would continue to work together until December of 1991, when Michaels turned on Jannetty and threw him through a window on the set of Brutus Beefcake's talk-show The Barber Shop.
Michaels would then strike out on his own as "The Boy Toy" and "The Heartbreak Kid" and was paired with Sensational Sherri who had recently left Randy Savage. It was as singles star that Michaels showed that he was undeniably going to be superstar for the company. While he was teaming with Jannetty it was acknowledged that Michaels was a good worker and a great athlete, but his ability to carry himself on the mic and his overall showmanship and charisma were virtually unknown.
Michaels quickly got over following his breakup with Jannetty and won his first singles PPV match, defeating veteran Tito Santana at WrestleMania VIII. Michaels was given a tremendous opportunity as a young heel in 1992, contending for Savage's WWF World Heavyweight Championship, coming up short at WWF's UK only PPV UK Rampage. Michaels would then make history, wrestling Bret Hart in the first-ever ladder match to ever take place in the WWF. Michaels would prove unsuccessful, but the match would soon become a staple for the WWF as an exciting way to settle title feuds. Michaels would capture his first singles title in October of 1992 when he defeated The British Bulldog for the Intercontinental Championship. Michaels then main evented Survivor Series against Hart and his WWF World Heavyweight Championship, coming up short.
Michaels would lose the Intercontinental Championship to his former partner Jannetty on Monday Night Raw in a match that was voted the Match of the Year by readers of the Wrestling Observer. Michaels would regain the championship shortly thereafter with help of his "bodyguard" Diesel. Michaels would get suspended for failing a drug test, and would be stripped of the championship. He returned at Survivor Series '93 when he filled in for Jerry Lawler in a tag team match against Hart.
Michaels would then begin a long feud with Razor Ramon, who had captured the Intercontinental Championship after Michaels vacated the championship. Michaels claimed that since he never actually lost the championship he was the rightful champion and began to wear his own championship belt. Eventually the two championships were hung from the balcony of Madison Square Garden in a ladder match at WrestleMania X. Michaels was absolutely spectacular in the match in what would become a theme for him on the big stage, coming up short against Ramon and yet still managing to be the real winner down the road.
WrestleMania X ended with Bret Hart dethroning Yokozuna for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship. Michaels and Hart's careers would intertwine until Hart left the company in 1997, and it was Hart who really opened the main event door for Michaels. The WWF and Vince McMahon were in a lot of trouble over allegations that his company was running rampant with steroid use, they needed to push wrestlers in the main event who were not noticeably on steroids, and Hart proved to be an effective drawing champion, making it clear that a wrestler of similar stature could be a major star in the company.
Following his loss at WrestleMania, Michaels would turn his attention to tag teaming with Diesel. The pair captured the World Tag Team Championships from The Headshrinkers, but the pair would soon dissolve after Michaels cost Diesel the Intercontinental Championship. The two would then engage in a long rivalry that saw Diesel capture the WWF World Heavyweight Championship. Michaels would go onto win the 1995 Royal Rumble, setting up a championship match at WrestleMania. Once again Michaels came up short, but once again Michaels stole the show, carrying Diesel to what was probably the best match of his career on a grand stage. Diesel was going to remain the champion, but there was no denying that Michaels' time was coming.
While Michaels' in-ring career was nearing its peak, he was working almost as hard behind the scenes as well. Michaels would cultivate a real-life friendship with other top stars, including Ramon and Diesel and two up-and-coming stars, Hunter Heart Helmsley and The 1-2-3 Kid. The group was known inside and outside of the ring as "The Kliq." While the group's members certain had a lot of talent, they drew the ire of many who were excluded from the group. The idea behind The Kliq was to form a coalition of the top names in wrestling, thus giving them more leverage when it came to dealing with promoters. A big part of that was to only work with each other, and since Ramon, Diesel and Michaels were arguably three out of the four biggest stars in the company that kept a lot of promising talent out of the spotlight.
With the political backing of The Kliq, Michaels returned to the ring after taking some time off following WrestleMania X as a big babyface. He defeated Jeff Jarrett for the Intercontinental Championship in July and then defeated Ramon in a Ladder match at Summerslam. However, right as Michaels' star was supposed to be reaching its zenith, Michaels' trouble outside of the ring began to catch up with. In October, Michaels picked a fight with a group of marines at a bar in Syracuse, NY, and was beaten badly. Michaels was forced to surrender the title and sat out until 1996.
Michaels won the Royal Rumble upon his return, setting up a championship match against Bret Hart at WrestleMania XII. Amid much fanfare, Michaels defeated Bret Hart after the two battled for over 60 minutes. For someone who had first contended for the championship back in 1992, Michaels had finally fulfilled his potential and became the WWF World Heavyweight Champion.
Michaels would hold the championship until November, but the downside of his title reign was that it came at a very difficult time for the WWF. Diesel and Ramon had left the company to go work for WCW and by the summer they had formed the NwO along with Hulk Hogan and usurped the WWF as the number one wrestling company in the world. Statistically, Michaels goes down in history as the worst-drawing champion in WWF history. Some of that is not the fault of Michaels, along with Diesel and Ramon heading to WCW, Hart also took time off following his match at WrestleMania, meaning the WWF was out three out of their five biggest stars. At the same time, Michaels over sexualized "boy-toy" gimmick was popular with women and children, but a majority of the wrestling fanbase was adult-male, and those fans were alienated by Michaels, and headed for the more mature WCW in droves.
Michaels would defend his championship against heavyweights like Vader and Mankind, and while he had some very good matches with both men, WWF was being killed by WCW in the ratings. Michaels would lose the championship to Sycho Sid at Survivor Series before regaining the championship at the 1997 Royal Rumble. Michaels was scheduled to drop the title back to Hart at WrestleMania 13 in a re-match of the previous years' epic, but Michaels had a knee injury and forced to have surgery and retire. Michaels dropped the title on RAW, famously saying that he "lost his smile". The speech was seen by many as Michaels excusing himself from putting Hart over, and it drove Michaels' support amongst his fellow wrestlers to an all-time low.
Michaels would manage to come back from his injury following WrestleMania and remained a big babyface, teaming up with Steve Austin to win the WWF World Tag Team Championships. Michaels would continue to feud with Hart throughout the summer, and their feud would carry over into real-life. Hart didn't respect Michaels and thought his attitude sent the wrong message as champion, while Michaels saw Hart as another political opponent trying to steal some of his success. The two had a very real backstage fight over some comments that Michaels made on RAW that indicated Hart was having an extra-marital affair with WWF valet Sunny. In the ring, Michaels would referee the main event of SummerSlam that saw him accidently hit The Undertaker with a steel chair while aiming for Hart, allowing Hart to pin The Undertaker and win the WWF World Heavyweight Championship.
After costing The Undertaker the championship, Michaels began to tease a heel-turn. At a special UK-only PPV event, Michaels defeated The British Bulldog for the European Championship after incessant cheating from Helmsley and Helmsley's bodyguard, Chyna. The victory solidified Michaels as a heel and soon he would form a stable with Helmsley, Chyna and Rick Rude, called D-Generation X. The formation of DX would mark a turning point in WWF, as the group specialized in lewd actions that pushed the boundaries of what was allowed on cable television at the time. The group got over with the audience despite being heels, and their extremism began to sway some fans away from WCW, which was seen as being old and past its prime.
Michaels would be on the receiving end of some revenge from The Undertaker, as the two met in October in the first ever Hell in a Cell match. The match was another classic for Michaels, who sold his beating from The Undertaker with incredible realism. Magnificently, Michaels would go on to win the match when Kane made his WWF debut and tombstoned his brother, allowing a bloodied and beaten Michaels to pin The Undertaker.
The victory over The Undertaker would set up a championship match between Hart and Michaels at Survivor Series in Montreal. While Hart had become a heel in the United States, he was a Canadian icon and a massive babyface in Montreal. At the same time, Hart's contract was giving Vince McMahon financial trouble, and Hart decided to jump to WCW in December. McMahon needed Hart to drop the championship before he left, but Hart refused to lose to Michaels in Canada. This real life feud would lead to the infamous "Montreal Screwjob" that saw McMahon order the announced submission of Hart despite the fact that Hart never gave up. The incident would alienate Hart from the WWF for years, but it also gave Michaels his third world championship.
Michaels' first opponent as champion once more would be The Undertaker, who he met in a casket match at the 1998 Royal Rumble. During the match Michaels took a horrible bump outside of the ring where his back crashed against the edge of the casket, herniating two discs and crushing another completely. Michaels would manage to win the match, but his days as champion were numbered. Michaels was able to hold on until WrestleMania XIV, where he dropped the championship to Austin, thus passing the torch to Austin who was destined to become the biggest drawing champion in history.
Following his loss to Austin, Michaels was forced into a very real retirement due to his back injury. Michaels would remain on WWE television during his retirement, mainly as the on-screen commissioner for WWE throughout 1998 and 1999. However after handing over the commissioner role to Mick Foley in 2000 he would not appear on WWE television for around two years.
While Michaels was legitimately injured and needed time off for his back to heal, he was also suffering from significant substance abuse issues. While Michaels would eventually become healthy enough to step back into the ring, his troubles with substance abuse would delay his return to wrestling for a handful of years.
Michaels could in theory rank much higher on this list. If we are looking at a pure-match quality standpoint, maybe no wrestler has as great of a resume as Michaels. However, Michaels has two glaring marks on his career; the first being that his time as THE top guy in the company was a flop, the WWF was outpaced by WCW during his world title reigns by a significant margin. Michaels would prove to be a major asset for the company in later, more successful years, but never again was he given a world title for a major run at the top of the company. The second reason is that due to his substance abuse issues and his back injury, Michaels left something on the table. Some of that is his fault and some of it is incidental; Michaels has had his demons but he has gotten over those obstacles and has nothing to be ashamed of, but when comparing him to contemporaries like Bret Hart or The Undertaker, Michaels never reached his full potential as a star like those wrestlers because he missed such a significant portion of his prime.
Michaels would return to WWE in 2002 as a member of the short lived WWE version of the nWo. When the nWo disbanded, Michaels would begin to feud with his former partner Triple H. The rivalry between the two would be a staple of WWE for the rest of Michaels career, and Michaels eventually would have his first match in over four years against Triple H at SummerSlam, an unsanctioned match that saw Michaels, beaten and bloodied to a pulp upset Triple H in one of the finest performances of his career.
Michaels would continue to feud with Triple H and would capture the world title at Survivor Series when he defeated Triple H inside the first Elimination Chamber match despite wearing s--t brown tights and having a terrible haircut. He would drop the championship back to Triple H at Armageddon in December in a 3 Stages of Hell match. Michaels would then feud with Chris Jericho where Jericho claimed that Michaels was washed-up and that he himself was the new Shawn Michaels. The pair would have a terrific match at WrestleMania XIX with Michaels going over Jericho with a beautiful roll-up off the top rope in what is arguably the best match in both men's illustrious careers.
Michaels would then move back into a feud with Triple H and his new Evolution stable, working against Ric Flair and Batista. Eventually he worked his way into the main event of WrestleMania XX where he lost to Chris Benoit in a Triple Threat match for the World Heavyweight Championship that also had Triple H in it. Michaels would lose to Triple H again in a Hell in a Cell match at Bad Blood.
Michaels would miss several months with a torn meniscus before returning at the 2005 Royal Rumble and eliminating Kurt Angle. Angle and Michaels would then feud in a battle that highlighted the best "real" wrestler in the world and the perceived best. Michaels submitted to the ankle lock at WrestleMania 21 in another instant classic; but would defeat Angle at the next PPV. Michaels would then turn heel by superkicking Hulk Hogan after Hogan and Michaels tagged in a match on RAW and the two would have a match at SummerSlam. Hogan ended up defeating Michaels in a match that became known for Michaels comically over-selling Hogan's offense, allegedly because Hogan refused to lose to Michaels.
At the beginning of 2006 Michaels would begin another high-profile feud, this time with the McMahon family. Michaels was tortured by Vince McMahon who routinely put Michaels in unfair matches that led to Michaels getting beat down by a cavalcade of villains. Michaels would extract a measure of revenge by defeating McMahon in a street fight at WrestleMania 22, but their feud would continue after WrestleMania, with Michaels teaming up with Triple H and reforming DX, this time as fan favorites. The duo would defeat the McMahon family on several occasions, eventually defeating Vince, Shane and The Big Show in a handicap Hell in a Cell match.
The pair would then feud with another superteam, Rated RKO (Randy Orton and Edge) but the feud was cut short in early January when Triple H suffered a torn quadriceps muscle. Michaels would move on from DX, becoming the number one contender for John Cena's WWE Championship and losing to Cena in the main event of WrestleMania 23. Michaels would then feud with Orton, who had become the new WWE Champion. In several good matches Orton was able to retain the championship from Michaels.
Despite coming up short again, Michaels remained a top name in WWE due to his nostalgic popularity and his tremendous in-ring ability. He would feud with Ric Flair that led to a match at WrestleMania XXIV that would retire Flair if Flair lost. Michaels defeated Flair in an emotional match that managed to steal the show despite the fact that the combined age of the men in the ring was around the century mark.
Michaels would rekindle one of his greatest feuds against Jericho that began when Jericho criticized Michaels for faking an injury to defeat Batista at Backlash. Michaels would defeat Jericho at Judgement Day but Jericho avenged his loss by tossing Michaels through a television monitor on an episode of RAW. Jericho would win a rematch at The Great American Bash, defeating Michaels by referee stoppage when Jericho repeatedly attacked Michael's eye (he had suffered a detached retina when Michaels threw him through the TV). Michaels then announced his retirement at SummerSlam, but his retirement was short lived as Jericho punched Michaels wife in the face.
The rematch between Jericho and Michaels took place at Unforgiven ended when Michaels won via referee stoppage. Jericho ended up winning the World Heavyweight Championship later in the night when he replaced CM Punk in a championship scramble match. They would then have a ladder match at No Mercy, with Jericho defeating Michaels to retain the championship.
A bizarre storyline then developed with Michaels reportedly having lost all his live savings due to the global recession and thus had to sign a one-year personal services contract with JBL. The storyline was short lived as Michaels was able to get out of the contract by defeating JBL in February.
Similar to his feud with Jericho, Michaels would begin to feud with another enemy of his past, this time with The Undertaker. Michaels challenged The Undertaker to a match at WrestleMania XXV in a bout between two wrestlers many fans felt were synonymous with the event. In an epic encounter, The Undertaker defeated Michaels in another WrestleMania classic that many fans feel is the greatest match in the event's celebrated history. Following the loss, Michaels re-formed DX once again and feuded with two young stars, Ted DiBiase Jr. and Cody Rhodes and two veterans in Jericho and The Big Show.
The re-birth of DX came to an end when it became apparent that Michaels was obsessed with avenging his loss to The Undertaker at WrestleMania. Michaels eventually forced The Undertaker to agree to a match at WrestleMania XXVI after Michaels cost The Undertaker the World Heavyweight Championship at Elimination Chamber. In addition, Michaels agreed to put his career on the line in the match. In a worthy successor to their encounter the previous year, The Undertaker defeated Michaels and ended his career.
Out of the wrestlers in history, Michaels is probably the most beloved by hardcore fans of the current generation. During a poll of the best American wrestlers of the last 25 years on WrestlingInc.com, Michaels was voted the best wrestler. On Cagematch.de, a German website that ranks thousands of wrestlers from all time periods and all promotions, Michaels has the highest rating out of all performers. I don't think Michaels can be ranked much higher in the grand scheme of things simply because he doesn't have the lengthy run on top as the top guy in the company, and when he did he was a poor draw as champ. Coming in at #22 is not an insult to Michaels, he has as good of an in-ring resume as any other wrestler and remained a very popular wrestler for decades; even if he wasn't as tremendous of a draw as other wrestlers on the countdown.
Next week, #21 will be revealed, a babyface who would become one of the most dominant champions of all-time.
The Top 50 so far (click link for description of the qualifications of the list):
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger
35. El Canek
33. Jack Brisco
32. Shinya Hashimoto
31. Roddy Piper
30. Genichiro Tenryu
28. Abdullah the Butcher
27. Keiji Mutoh
26. Bob Backlund
25. Mil Mascaras
24. Nick Bockwinkel
22. Shawn Michaels