November 9, 1997 was the date. Molson Centre, Montreal, Canada was the place. Survivor Series was the event. Heck, I’d even tell you what the time was; if only I knew. But it is immaterial in the end, for this night would forever be known by wrestling fans around the world as “The Screwjob.”
Now, you may well be reading this wondering why I chose to start this piece on Shawn Michaels the way I did—with the Montreal Screwjob. So, I’ll tell you. This isn’t just another typical article about HBK; in this article I will be putting forward my argument as to why Shawn Michaels is the greatest face of any promotion in history.
So, I thought there was no better place to start, than with a moment that in many ways summed up Shawn’s career, and defined a groundbreaking new era which Shawn lead forward.
Professional wrestling was at somewhat of a crossroads, there was a new number one promotion in town, and they were drawing fans and wrestlers alike.
World Championship Wrestling (WCW) had been around for a long time, but by 1997 they had established themselves as the top dog, and they were involved in a very hostile real-life war with the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), and WCW was comprehensively winning the ratings battle.
Of course, this hadn’t gone unnoticed by the wrestlers, and some inevitably wanted to jump ship to the dominant promotion. One of these wrestlers wanting to move to WCW was the WWF champion at the time, Bret Hart.
This is where the Screwjob comes into play.
Bret Hart had agreed to join WCW, and with WWF’s financial problems, it was a deal that suited everyone. But there was just one problem; Hart was still WWF champion, and he had no intention of giving it up. Hart's final match with the WWF would be a title match against his rival, Shawn Michaels at Survivor Series in Montreal.
Hart did not want to end his WWF career with a loss to Michaels in his home country; so WWF chairman Vince McMahon agreed to Hart's idea of letting him retain the championship and forfeiting the title at a later date.
But, as you all should know, things didn’t quite go down like that. Despite what Bret promised, McMahon was still worried that he Hart wouldn’t give up the title and that he would take it to WCW TV.
Therefore, Vince decided that he had to go behind Bret’s back and everyone else’s to ensure that Shawn Michaels left Montreal as the WWF Champion. But of course, McMahon couldn’t do it alone, he needed someone to pull the trigger, and the only man who he could ask to do that, was Shawn Michaels himself.
This put Shawn in a very difficult position; he had his boss asking himself to do something for the good of the company, but he knew that what he was being asked to do could have serious consequences for himself. Not many men would have the courage to do such a controversial thing just because it was the right thing, but then again, not many men are Shawn Michaels.
Of course, Shawn did do the right thing, and he did leave Montreal as WWF champion. He still receives a lot of criticism from some people for the Montreal Screwjob, but many of the people who condemn HBK for what happened are big WWF/E fans who would have hated to see them suffer during the Monday Night Wars with WCW.
The fact is, Shawn put his reputation and safety on the line just so the WWF would benefit, and they did. Once Bret Hart had left for WCW, Shawn Michaels finally took over as the face of the WWF, which was embarking on a new era; The Attitude Era.
Ok, so it wasn’t until after Wrestlemania XIV that the attitude era officially began, but the origin of this era was largely down to the events of the mid '90s, led by HBK.
In contrast to the usual, more traditional, family-friendly content WWF fans were used to, the Attitude Era sought to attract young adult viewers by transforming the product into an edgier and more controversial form of entertainment; and no one did edgy and controversial better than the Showstopper.
“We are D-Generation-X, you make the rules, and we will break them.”
They were D-Generation-X, they did break the rules, and they were the definition of attitude during the '90s. Now, the DX of the '90s was a far cry from the PG version of DX we see in the WWE today.
There were no lame fart jokes or leprechauns, they didn’t plug merchandise at every opportunity, and HBK wasn’t Triple H’s lackey. No, in the '90s DX were hilariously funny, shockingly controversial, and they completely revolutionized the world of professional wrestling.
The things they got up to were unheard of in pro wrestling at the time, and it shocked not only us wrestling fans, but the whole world.
They did everything from baring Shawn’s bare-a*s on live TV, to distasteful, borderline racist comments; they even accused Bret Hart of being a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Yes, sometimes they took things too far and crossed a line, but no-one could ever say that they failed to entertain, and their antics shaped the future of pro wrestling for the better.
Ok, so maybe it was a slight exaggeration to say DX shocked the world, but the USA Network, along with a lot of non-wrestling fans, didn’t see the funny side of their actions.
At one point Vince McMahon and the WWF were threatened that they would be taken off the air if the antics continued. Fortunately for Vince and DX, one moment changed everything; the DX election speech.
Following the authorities’ demands, DX responded in typically controversial style. When most would have apologized and promised to cut-down on the inappropriate behavior, Shawn and Triple H did the exact opposite; they just gave them more of what they didn’t want.
It was a risky tactic. If their plan had backfired then DX, along with Vince and the rest of the WWF could have been in hot water, but it didn’t backfire; it paid off big time.
The USA Network could have easily resented DX’s mocking of them in their explicit speech and pulled the WWF/E off the air, but instead they embraced it. The whole world loved the DX election speech, and it changed the way non-wrestling fans saw the world of pro-wrestling.
Before, everyone was ready to have a pop WWF, and demanding DX to be taken off their screens. Whereas after, everyone was DX crazy; that one speech completely changed the way the WWF was perceived, and it caused a major rise in popularity.
This is just another example of Shawn doing what’s best for the WWF despite the risks and danger. It’s one of the things that makes him great; he does the right thing for the company he works for, not the right thing for Shawn Michaels, or anyone else for that matter.
Now, I’m not saying Shawn was a selfless person during the 90’s, far from it. He was very selfish at times, and treated a lot of people badly, but he always made the right decision for the WWF.
I know someone will say it, so I might as well address it now. During Shawn’s short time as the very top dog in the WWF, one accusation that could be aimed at him is that as the face of the company he failed to get better ratings than WWF’s rivals – WCW. Although that is true, I still maintain that it is an unfair criticism on Shawn.
Everything was going for WCW at that time, and it was always going to be a struggle for WWF. In my opinion, WCW had the superior superstars on the roster overall at the time HBK was on top; Eric Bischoff certainly knew how to attract the best wrestlers from around the world.
In fact, I’d go as far to say they had arguably one of the most complete rosters any wrestling promotion has ever had. Any company would find it tough to compete with WCW at that time, and WWF was no exception. Despite their struggles, with the help of Shawn Michaels, WWF did pull through, while on the other side of the pond—WCW imploded.
After 83 straight weeks of winning the ratings battle with WWF, things started to go wrong for WCW. Finally, on April 13, 1998, RAW beat Nitro for the first time since June 10, 1996, and that was the beginning of the end for WCW.
Ultimately, among other things, it was the big egos of WCW which contributed to their downfall. A lot of the big names had clauses in their contract which gave them some creative control, and none of them wanted to give up their spot in the main event. There was a glass ceiling, and none of the big stars were willing to put over the younger talent.
Whereas, with Shawn Michaels, there’s no problems with putting people over.
I, like many fans, feel that HBK hasn’t had enough world title reigns in his career. It sickens me to see in my opinion, the best in-ring performer of all time—Shawn Michaels (four) with less world championships than a talentless steroid freak like Batista (five).
But more than anything, this just goes to show how much Shawn cares about putting over the future talent.
I’m sure if he wanted to, HBK could be in double figures with his world title reigns by now, but he doesn’t want that, because he realizes what is important. Of course, you have to deliver the best you can while your top-dog in a promotion, and that requires being champion, but unlike some others, Shawn realizes when it’s the right time to take your chance and get gold, and when it’s someone else’s time to become a star.
However, he was one of those young, talented superstars looking to make a name for himself once, so he isn’t short of championship reigns he picked up while climbing the ladder.
He is a multiple World, Tag-Team, and Intercontinental champion, as well as being a former European champion, and two-time Royal Rumble winner. He also became the first Grand Slam champion.
So many great achievements in his illustrious career, but the ones that stand out to me are the Slammy Awards for Match of the Year. HBK has won this Slammy Award on 4 separate occasions; in 1996, 1997, 2008, and 2009.
Those awards go to show what we already know; that he’s a phenomenal in-ring performer. His ability to put on a classic match is unrivalled, and for me, this is the most important aspect of a professional wrestler.
Forget about the merchandise, forget about the promos, forget about everything else, because while all of that is important, when it comes down to it—a wrestler needs to put on a great match, and HBK does it better than anybody.
“I will give you a show like you have never, ever, seen before...Why? Because I can,” a quote which sums up HBK to perfection.
It would be foolish for me to claim that Shawn wasn’t extremely arrogant at some points in his career, but it was never unjustified. In fact, it could be argued that he had every right to be incredibly cocky; after all, he always has been incredibly talented. That quote from Shawn wasn’t just some little show-off line, he said it because it was, and still is, the absolute truth.
That’s what makes him the greatest, what makes him stand out from the rest; the fact that he goes out every single night, from Wrestlemania to Waltham, and gives it his all just to entertain, and give the fans exactly what they want. And at the end of the day, that’s what draws fans to the arenas and makes them switch on the TV; and if he’s doing that, I’d say he’s doing a pretty great job as the face of a promotion, wouldn't you?