Category Archives: The Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels
At WrestleMania XXIV, Nature Boy Ric Flair, clearly crying on camera, demanded his biggest fan give him the Sweet Chin Music superkick to end his career. “I’m sorry, I love you”, replied The Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels, and he did it. The dirtiest player in the game, at 59, was finally done. After 36 years of evildoing, he got to go out fair and square.
Ric Flair is arguably the greatest professional wrestler of all time. Hogan and Austin made more money. Rock and Cena have more mainstream appeal. Shawn and Bret had better matches. But Ric Flair was successful for a longer period, the bulk of that time spent as a villain… who fans loved. His ascension was a clear sign of the times.
For years, wrestling fans knew to cheer good guys, jeer villains, and whistle at the pretty ladies. But by the mid-1980’s, the deaths of brothers David and Mike Von Erich, the beacons of wrestling purity, and Vince McMahon’s televised confession that wrestling was scripted, kayfabe- keeping story line continuity, even outside the wrestling enviroment- was dying.
Vince’s confession was what most fans already knew. The attempts by Fritz Von Erich to downplay his sons’ flaws were what insulted fans’ intelligence. In this atmosphere arose the self-professed dirtiest player in the game, Ric Flair. Above all else, Flair never, not even as he faced villains, pretended to be a nice guy. He was honest about his dishonesty.
Flair on the mic didn’t hold back and enjoyed himself. He wanted the fans to be the same way. Decked out in custom-made attire, a Rolex watch, and a ten-pound NWA World Heavyweight Championship, he played the dozens with fans and opponents like the guy at the barber shop. Love him, hate him, or imitate him, Flair was the life of the party.
He ruled the industry for over two decades, but the transition from a full-time wrestling career hasn’t been easy; to walk away from a 36-year career as spectacular as Flair’s seems impossible. After WrestleMania XXIV, he continued to wrestle in other promotions besides WWE. Financial and marital woes are easier to handle with a steady income.
Flair’s youngest son, Reid, died of an overdose at only 25 in 2013. Afterwards, Flair seemed to enter the darkest stage the public had ever seen him face. Yet he managed to survive it, just as he had all those years with the NWA belt. In the last few years, he’s seen his youngest daughter succeed in WWE, and made peace with old business rivals, including Bret Hart.
For all the triumphs and tragedies, Flair accepts the consequences of his own actions, and makes no excuses or expresses guilt or regret, which would change nothing. He may try to make amends with those he may have wronged, but he doesn’t justify his deeds with some fake, selfless motive, either. Richard Morgan Fleihr lives to be Ric Flair, and he admits it.
I can deal better with people who just say or do as is than somebody who pretends to be virtuous, and the Flair persona seems to play a role in that. He didn’t hide or get trapped behind some great and noble cause; he was Ric Flair,and he enjoyed being the villain, as did his fans.
The sight and sign fans thought they’d never see at WrestleMania… (Image Courtesy of 411mania.com)
At the 1990 Survivor Series pay-per-view, two major debuts occurred. One was the debut of the Gobbledy Gooker, a dancing guy in a turkey suit hatched out of a mysterious “egg” that the World Wrestling Federation had been promoting for months. The fans booed him, and Hector Guerrero, the guy who played him, out of the World Wrestling Federation in weeks.
The other debut was “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase’s mystery tag team partner. It turned out to be Mean Mark Callous, a 6’9″ 300-lb., former World Championship mid-carder. He was renamed Kane, the Undertaker. Later he was just called Undertaker, or ‘Taker.
The Undertaker was introduced as an invulnerable zombie that looked like a literal Grim Reaper. He also walked across the top ring rope and flew around the ring like a cruiserweight. He finished off foes with a tombstone piledriver. And with his new, even more macabre manager called Paul Bearer, he defeated “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka in under two minutes at WrestleMania VII.
At the time, no one could have guessed that to be the start of the longest annual pay-per-view winning streak, and the longest headlining tenure, in wrestling history. When one looks back throughout WWF/E history after 1993, there have been only two consistent entities: WWF Chairman Vince McMahon, and the man whose real name is Mark Calloway.
During the Monday Night Wars, ‘Taker wished those leaving for WCW well, but also galvanized the remaining WWF stars to tough it out. In rare mainstream interviews, he admits as much. Fans toughed it out as well. The Undertaker persona has evolved from a morbid mortician, an emissary of Hell, a straight-up devil worshipper, and a bad-ass biker. And he actually made the sh*t plausible.
Granted, many guys did get career-altering victories over ‘Taker (Mr. Kennedy, Randy Orton, John Bradshaw Layfield). But ‘Taker wanted to help up-and-comers become the future of the business; his legacy in the industry was set early. The only concession he ever kept was the “The Streak” at WrestleMania. It was pretty much seen as a token of respect from Vince and his fellow wrestlers.
‘Taker’s been part-time since WrestleMania XXVI, where he “retired” the event’s other iconic performer, “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels. Nonetheless, ‘Taker winning at his show has always been a given. Even more likely was his retirement from wrestling without ever losing at the WWE’s biggest event. At worse, he’d at least make it to 24 wins, and possibly lose match #25.
Going into WrestleMania XXX, he was an untouchable 21-0. Brock Lesnar made his WWE rep dominating ‘Taker when he burst on the scene in 2002. But there was no way he’d beat “The Dead Man” on his own playing field. Besides, Paul Bearer, who died just before WM XXIX, was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame the night before.
The crowd of 85K at New Orleans’ Superdome (and the Buffalo Wild Wings at Northgate Mall, where I was watching) was silent as Brock pummeled ‘Taker. He kicked out of two of Brock’s F-5 finishers, and kept the crowd into it. But then came the third. One…two…three. Complete silence. Gaping mouths. For many, it was the literal end of an institution that dated back to childhood.
The post-Mania Raw saw Brock Lesnar’s manager, Paul Heyman, tout his client as the “1 in 21-1” in one of the damnedest wrestling promos ever. Ultimate Warrior made his final, troubling televised appearance before dropping dead the next night. And ‘Taker, always on the post-Mania Raw, was nowhere to be seen. His absence just made the broadcast seem off kilter.
The decision to end “The Streak” was actually made hours before WrestleMania XXX was aired. ‘Taker was suffering from two decades of wear and tear. Both Vince and ‘Taker felt it best to begin the end. But nobody besides those involved in the match, not even those working in the blatantly scripted world of WWE, saw it coming. The response was legitimate, spontaneous shock.
Compare that to when so-and-so says or does this-or-that, and the media manufactures shock and outrage. Unless I pretended to be very naive, or really fake, a gay athlete, a third-world disease on American shores, an election win or loss every other November, or somebody drawing police attention to themselves with horrendous consequences can hardly qualify as shocking or controversial.
I was actually shocked more by that than anything else this year. The bulk of the brouhaha over most things, with the possible exception of international matters like ISIS, Kim Jong-Un, or Vladimir Putin, was far less spontaneous and more fabricated. But then again, when the focus is on self-affirmation, foreign aggression tends to rear its ugly head in times like that.
The key to wrestling’s longevity is that it combines numerous facets of all popular entertainment. The promos resemble TBN sermons. It has the glitz and glamor of a pop concert. It has some sex appeal for everybody. And pantomime as it is, it has the contact of sports. The most important part of wrestling, and all serial programs, is the predetermined story line. It’s the most socially adapted aspect of professional wrestling.
The civil unrest in America is due to everybody not keeping to the story line. People really do believe that others should act solely in accordance to what will please them. When people don’t comply, social media explodes. But story lines can only work if every single person involved “does their part”. With 300M people in the U.S., and an equal amount of possible conclusions, that “part” will never be officially defined.
Story lines only work in fiction, and sometimes not even then. I remember the most infamous meltdown in professional wrestling history. Ironically, it came from my all-time favorite wrestler. From Bret The Hit Man Hart, I learned to imitate his ring entrance and walk again. I learned how to celebrate a win, and survive a loss. Yet it was the one time he didn’t rebound from a loss that always stands out in my mind.
On November 9, 1997, the World Wrestling Federation held its annual Survivor Series pay-per-view. The show aired from Montreal’s Molson Centre. Unbeknownst to fans, the main event had no official finish until the show even started. The end of the match began a decade of turmoil.
WWF Chairman Vince McMahon wanted Bret to lose the WWF Championship belt to The Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels. The title change would segue into the new, adult-oriented direction Vince wanted the WWF to go. In protest, Bret refused to lose to Shawn. Both agreed that Bret should leave the WWF, and he signed onto Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling.
Bret’s publicized imminent departure made losing to Shawn a foregone conclusion to fans. Citing a creative control clause in his contract, and his iconic status in his native Canada, Bret still refused to lose. Two hours before the actual match, Vince told Bret he could go to a draw with Shawn, and forfeit the belt in a farewell speech later. Bret Hart just knew he had forced his employer, and by extrapolation, Shawn Michaels, to give him the sendoff he wanted.
Vince soon admitted he had already planned the night before the match to ensure that Bret lost the belt. He and Shawn told the match’s referee, Earl Hebner, the plan right as the match began. Bret wound up losing when Shawn got him in his own Sharpshooter leg lock, and Hebner (and Vince at ringside and off-camera) called for the bell. At first, people sympathized with Bret. Most people can relate to being humiliated on the job.
As the details of what led up to the now-infamous Montreal Screw Job emerged, public opinion changed. Hulk Hogan lost the WWF Title to Yokozuna before he went to WCW. In addition, it was the fans that showed, through the Nielsen ratings, that they enjoyed the new direction. He had been a moralistic hero at a time when fans wanted to cheer unrepentant guys like the cussing Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Shawn Michaels went on to lose the WWF Title to Austin at WrestleMania XIV on March 29, 1998. He retired from wrestling right after the match. Vince McMahon took the real-life hatred fans and even WWF wrestlers felt for him and created a new antagonist for Austin: Vince himself. Their outrageous on-screen feud would lead the WWF to Wall Street and eventually to Vince buying WCW for a mere $3M in 2001.
Bret Hart was already retired when Vince bought the company. Between horrible creative decisions on the part of WCW, the accidental death of his brother Owen at a WWF pay-per-view, and the success of the Vince/Austin story line based on Montreal, he, perhaps rightfully, became very bitter. In 2002, the same year Shawn returned to the now WWE, Bret suffered a stroke. Only when Vince called him in the hospital did the healing process begin.
In 2010, Shawn and Bret finally made peace. At WrestleMania XXVI, Bret beat Vince in one match, and Shawn retired in another. Shawn wanted to go out with a loss to the Undertaker, and did. At last, it seemed to be all over.
Bret Hart’s Hit Man persona was built around rising up from the pain of defeat over and again. To build such a legend, Bret had to lose. Yet the one time he confused fact with fiction, all hell broke loose. The entire wrestling industry changed when a departing wrestler thought others should follow his script. Reality, as usual, threw a wrench in things. And it took years to make peace with it.
Story lines only work in fiction, and sometimes not even then.