"The boyhood dream has come true”.
When Vince McMahon uttered those words in the moments after Shawn Michaels pinned Bret Hart to win the WWF title at WrestleMania XII, it would complete HBK’s chase for the wing-eagled belt. With the chase over, Michaels would now be the leader of the New Generation. A responsibility that would produce some interesting results in the ring.
The first things you think of when you think of Shawn Michaels is his high-flying abilities and his technical prowess but his brawling has been something that has been under the radar when people talk about his legacy. His unsanctioned contests against Triple H at SummerSlam 2002 and Chris Jericho at Unforgiven 2008 plus his pair of street fights against Edge on Monday Night Raw in the 00’s tore houses down in the second stanza of his career post his back injury and subsequent four-year layoff. But it was during 1996 that his two most fascinating matches would be a preview to the WWF that would follow and see off the WWF and Vince McMahon’s greatest challenge.
SHAWN MICHAELS VS DIESEL- APRIL 28,1996
Shawn Michaels was labelled as the leader of the New Generation as WWF tried to find an answer to a WCW which was gaining momentum thanks to a main event group of stars who had a decade of experience working main events in both WWF and WCW. Shawn’s first PPV defence would be against Diesel at In Your House: Good Friends, Better Enemies in a No Holds Barred match.
The match would be set up with a Diesel heel turn on his best friend at an MSG house show two weeks before Michaels’ WWF title victory at WrestleMania. This night would also be Kevin Nash’s final television match in WWF before he would head to WCW along with Scott Hall and in the build-up to the main event, Diesel was promising “a surprise” for Vince McMahon who was ringside on commentating duty. With the No Holds Barred stipulation, just the second time a WWF main event would be worked with such stipulations only 5 months after the first (Diesel vs Bret Hart at Survivor Series), the promise was this would be different than the normal WWF main event match. That promise would be lived up to.
Michaels and Diesel's strike exchange at the start saw HBK ducking and striking, getting the better of his opponent. The champion would get in his high-flying offense in early, hitting a reverse crossbody from the top to the outside, his only high-flying move of the night. The first weapon shot of the match saw Shawn crawl under the Spanish Announce Table to steal Hugo Savinovich’s boot to nail Diesel getting a 2-count, just one of three pin-fall attempts in this match. Shawn’s shine would only last 2 minutes before Diesel gained control with an Irish whip sending HBK with force into the turnbuckle causing a Flair flip special then hitting a sledgehammer punch sending Michaels into the guardrail.
Diesel’s main control segment would start with the usual Kevin Nash fare. If you’ve ever watched a Nash match you can imagine what moves punctuated the early part of his domination. It was only when Diesel took off his wrist tape that things got very violent.
Diesel would use the tape to choke out referee Earl Hebner. The method of his madness would become clear. Taking off Earl’s waistbelt, Diesel proceeded to whip Michaels with it, then wrapping the leather belt round HBK’s neck hanging him from the middle rope. Michael’s selling of being hung is exemplary. He’s fighting for his life as it is being squeezed out of him. He frantically is trying to get his knees on the apron to save himself. Michaels selling of Diesel’s violence enhances the match. In a brief moment when Shawn tries to get control back, he holds onto Diesel’s tights while punching him but the bigger dog is always going to win a fistfight. Shawn would show Fighting Spirit with each time Diesel hits a punch, Michaels would get back up until he would run out of spirit with Vince McMahon’s pleas for him to stay down the soundtrack to the beatdown.
Diesel would then show his “surprise” to Vince McMahon. He would move the action to the outside setting Michaels up for his Jack knife powerbomb finisher. Diesel would pivot though and throw Michaels through the announce table where Vince was sitting. It would be the first time in a WWF match that someone would put an opponent through an announcers table in anger. Bret Hart would go through the Spanish announcers table in the Hart-Diesel match at Survivors Series five months earlier but in the story of the match that incident would be an accident. This was anything but an accident.
Vince McMahon would ask Shawn “to let it be over” as he struggled up from his position buried under the television monitors having gone through a thick table unlike the announce table that we see in modern day WWE but Michaels had a trick up his sleeve.
When Diesel reaches to grab HBK to pull him back into the squared circle, Shawn let off a fire extinguisher that he had pulled out from under the ring in Diesel’s face and would set off on his traditional comeback (kip-up after a flying forearm) but instead of going for a top-rope elbow drop, he would go for a chair at the table that broke a few minutes before. Attached was Jerry Lawler’s headset but such is Michaels' urgency at this time, he does not think to remove said headset before using the chair. Michaels attempt to end the match with Sweet Chin Music would be thwarted however when Diesel catches the leg hitting a clothesline.
It would be the next and last weapon of choice would be the most controversial. Sitting at ringside was wrestling legend Mad Dog Vachon who was a resident of Omaha, Nebraska, the host of In Your House 7. Mad Dog’s career was ended prematurely after being struck by a hit-and-run driver which resulted in the amputation of his right leg. Diesel would make his way to Vachon grabbing him by the neck, choking him until Vachon went to the floor. Diesel would remove Vachon’s artificial leg with the intention of using it but Michaels caught him with a low blow getting his hands on the leg. Staring at the plastic limb, knocking it with his foot almost in disbelief, Michaels proceeded to use the object on Diesel and one Sweet Chin Music later and Michaels was still champion.
VERDICT: The beauty of this match is that it’s everything that the WWE was not at this time. The accessibility of every weapon made sense. Only once does a weapon used come from under the ring and unlike the barrage of weapons from under the ring which makes you wonder “why is that under the ring”, it makes sense as to why a fire extinguisher is where it is (health and safety is important guys). The David vs Goliath story being told is compelling thanks to Michaels selling and how aggressive he is when he gains the advantage. One underrated component to this match is Vince McMahon and his job getting over what was happening. The hanging spot and the Vachon moment brought out a different McMahon to the overseller during the New Generation Era and while the odd Vince cliché kept through, Vince does a tremendous job selling the chaos unfolding in front of him. Another layer to Vince’s performance in this match was his concern for Shawn’s wellbeing in his pleas for Shawn to stay down. He certainly did a better job in projecting his fear for the events unfolding than Jose Lothario, Shawn’s second at ringside that evening who mostly stood in the corner like a statue the entire match.
What would be noticeable as the night went on was the reaction from the fans. Boos could be heard whenever Shawn was on offense but while the cheers outnumbered those boos decibel wise. It wasn’t the norm for boos to be heard for a babyface champion while up against a heel in WWF history to this point.
Shawn was taking the boos however in the minority they were personally the more frequently they were happening, often reacting, shouting obscenities the way of this dissenters. The pressure on Shawn would be exacerbated by WWF fortunes going downhill. While house show box office was up by 66% on 1995, PPV numbers were down from the year before.
WWF PPV buy rates year-on-year.
Also, WCW’s less than a year-old Monday Nitro was starting to beat WWF’s Monday Night RAW in the ratings thanks the NWO storyline involving Nash and Hall.
Raw vs Nitro 1996
Shawn Michaels was turning into a failure as champion.
SHAWN MICHAELS VS MANKIND- SEPTEMBER 22, 1996
After his SummerSlam victory over Vader while a good match was remembered for its stop-start nature as the match had been restarted on two occasions after a count out and disqualification, Shawn Michaels next PPV defence would be against Mankind, who had come off a win against The Undertaker in a Boiler Room Brawl that same night after the shocking heel turn of Takers long-time manager Paul Bearer.
Mankind got off to a flying start, hitting a back elbow and a back body drop before hitting his trademark clothesline over the top rope to the outside, following through to the outside. Mankind would lift the ring mat with evil intentions intended for Shawn but a dropkick changed the momentum of the match for the champ which would start a control segment for the face.
3 minutes into said segment, Shawn tried to hit his reverse crossbody but Mankind retreated to the other corner. A visibly upset Shawn followed Mankind where the pair engaged blows with Mankind hitting a single leg takedown.
On Edge and Christian’s short-lived podcast, Mick Foley would reveal that this particular spot, which fans on internet forums for years after thought was a legit shoot between the pair after a conflict over a botched spot, was in fact planned out beforehand, suggested by Foley to play off the image that Michaels had someone with a short fuse who had once again had a meltdown, this time in the middle of a WWF PPV main event.
When things got “back on track” Mankind after throwing Michaels to the outside grabbed the Spanish Announcers table moving it before Shawn leapt over the table onto his opponent. Michaels suplexed Mankind with Mankind’s leg hitting the ring steps thus starting HBK’s attack on the knee which included a lot of variety in his offence, hitting a chop block, using a casket which had been part of Mankind’s entrance, which was still at ringside as part of his attack and using a Figure 4 and a single leg Boston Crab. It was when Mankind reversed a Michaels hurricanrana attempt into a stun-gun that he then regained the incentive.
Mankind’s control of the match saw him rely on punches and kicks with only a flying axhandle while Shawn is in the tree of woe being anything of note. It’s when Shawn moves from a charge while sitting prone against the steps which resulted in more knee damage for Mankind that the match re-enters a higher gear.
A spot where they fight over a suplex on the apron resulting in another dodge when Mankind charges at HBK with Mankind hitting the ring post sees Michaels back in full control. We would then see the debut in the WWF of the" Mick Foley getting his head trapped in the ring ropes" spot which Mick had bust out at previous promotions. Mankind managed to get his Mandible Claw finisher onto Michaels while stuck in the ropes only to lose his grip when referee Earl Hebner freed Mankind from his own predicament.
Michaels would grab a chair but at first would have to use it as a defensive shield as Mankind attempted to punch him injuring his own hand. It was then, weary of the Mandible Claw that he had just endured that HBK shifted the focus of his assault to Mankind’s right hand, swiping his foe’s knee with the chair and then smashing his hand with the same object. A brief vicious assault on Mankind’s fingers would follow until a Michaels mistake when attempting a running attack switched the control. Mankind got his best period of offence in, hitting high impact moves including his elbow from the apron. A double arm DDT would only get a 2 count as did a piledriver and then a desperation cradle again getting 2. After a brief struggle, Michaels would go into his traditional comeback which got interrupted when crotched by his opponent. Mankind would try to hit a back suplex through the repositioned table which Michaels reversed crashing both guys through the table.
Back in the ring, Mankind would go for a chair shot off the top rope only to be met by Michaels hitting Sweet Chin Music leaping off a set chair.
In what was only the fifth attempt by either wrestler at a pin in the entire match, Shawn would be interrupted by Vader running in causing the DQ win for Michaels. What followed was a cameo appearance from Sycho Sid to thwart Vader and The Undertaker who appeared out of the casket that had remained throughout the match.
VERDICT: Dave Meltzer gave this match ****¾ in the Observer and would say if it wasn’t for the lack of decisiveness finish, it would have got the full 5 stars. To be honest, with the idea that you wanted to protect Mankind who had yet to suffer a clean loss since his WWF debut 6 months earlier for the next PPV match, a Buried Alive match against The Undertaker, a clean decision was neon impossible. The match doesn’t suffer for its lack of definitive ending. It’s an all-time classic which brings out the best of Michaels and shows his strength as a brawler. The limb work from Michaels is aggressive and varied and also switches limbs upon the changing dynamic of the match, making it a very interesting view. Mr. Perfect on commentary says at the start of this match says that “This is going to be the weirdest WWF World Title match of all time” and he would end up being right. The change from the usual format of a professional wrestling match in this match is glaring but is better for that change.
What sets these two matches apart is the difference in the usual heel/face control and how it plays into the story of each match.
The two brawls that bookended Shawn Michaels first WWF Title run tell a story of two Shawns. He is the ultimate fight from underneath babyface in his match against Diesel. Taking a beating for 85% of the match, Shawn has to cling on, literally on Diesel’s tights at times when he is fighting back in the limited opportunities he is afforded and would need to be clever to gain back the control when it seems all is lost.
The Mankind match sees a more frenzied Shawn who has to fight fire with fire. The moment the more unorthodox Mankind makes a mis-judgment, Shawn is there to capitalize dissecting his opponent with limb work to ground his unpredictable opponent who relies on running attacks and focuses on neutralizing Mankind’s dangerous Mandible Claw finisher when the chance is presented.
The 54% of control the champion has in his Mind Games match is unlike any other a babyface champion has a in WWF Title defence in company history until that night. It was a departure from the WWF style that the audience had seen for the 10 years since the national expansion. A lack of change showing a staleness in the product that was one of the reasons why WWF would struggle to keep up with WCW in 1996. It would take a change of Attitude for WWF to overtake WCW with the brawling style of wrestling being a major focal point at the main event level. Those thumbprints of the style being seen in two main events on the B-PPV shows which has flown under the radar in the talk of WWF classics.
Shawn Michaels 1996 would be remembered for his off the field antics from the Curtain Call to his backstage behaviour which alienated his colleagues at the time. The A&E documentary focused on Michaels career is a stark, unnerving look at his life at that time but when it came to his in-ring work, when the bell rang, Michaels was unmatched in North America at the time and while the results at the box office were poor and a source of rightful criticism, his part in the eventual change of emphasis of WWF should never be forgotten.