For as iconic of a career as he had inside of the squared circle, Shawn Michaels' work with WWE behind the scenes could prove to be more pivotal to his legacy than anything else.
The two-time WWE Hall of Famer is widely regarded as one of the best to have graced the squared circle. With countless championships and instant classics to his credit, it's a difficult claim to argue with.
Since retiring from the ring in 2010, though, Michaels has been fully focused on helping WWE build a strong foundation for its future through NXT and other avenues.
That alone makes the 57-year-old's present every bit as important as his storied past, and being an innovator has given him the ultimate advantage in that respect.
As a trailblazer for WWE's ladder and Iron Man matches, Michaels being the first Superstar to receive his very own NFT trading card thanks to the company's partnership with Candy Digital, WWE's digital trading card collectible partner, should come as no surprise.
"There's a whole new generation of WWE fans, because of the Network and the Peacock deal and now through NXT, who are growing up with the ability to still see Shawn Michaels," The Heartbreak Kid told B/R. "When something is new, original and relatively untested, that's the NFT trading card, and I'm the first guy. I'm the guy who grew up when there was no cable television yet. It's fascinating to me."
WWE's new line of trading card NFTs will closely mirror the trading cards of '80s and '90s fame and include a full body, silver statue of Michaels posing in the center of the ring accompanied by his entrance music, a 3D trading card NFT that will transition into a carousel of imagery featuring him throughout three different eras of his career, and more.
The winner of the auction for the exclusively-online 1:1 gold NFT will be Michaels' personal guest at an upcoming NXT event and have ringside seats, a backstage tour, a personal meet-and-greet and signed memorabilia.
WWE NXT's Constant Change Fuels Michaels
It would have been easy for Michaels to ride off into the sunset following his historic swan song in the main event of WrestleMania 26 against The Undertaker, never to be involved with the business again.
Outside of the occasional appearance on WWE TV, he did manage to stay away for several years, at least until a role as a coach and eventually creative consultant in NXT came calling in 2016.
Since then, HBK has bestowed his brilliance upon everyone who has come through the brand. As someone who led WWE into its New Generation period in the mid-'90s and broke the mold for what a headliner should look like, he is as aware as anyone that being on the cusp of change in wrestling is paramount.
"I pride myself on being one of the guys who's been around for a long time but also understanding and appreciating the business evolving and changing and being a supporter of that," Michaels said. "Like with everything else, the athletes get so much better, whether it's in our industry or others, and continue to be innovative and push the envelope. WWE never shies away from making those different innovations and merging them with what it is we do."
In a short span of time, Michaels went from an important influence backstage to the sole proprietor of NXT's creative vision when Triple H underwent heart surgery a year ago.
It was heavily rumored at the time that Vince McMahon and Bruce Prichard were essentially running the show heading into the brand's abrupt relaunch last September, but The Heartbreak Kid confirmed he's been in the driver's seat this entire time.
"When Hunter first left, it became all me, and certainly from a television standpoint," Michaels said. "Matt Bloom is the head coach and takes care of everything from the PC training standpoint, but when it came to NXT 2.0 television, that's something myself and my team took over creatively. I know a lot of people thought Vince and Bruce were doing that. I can promise you, they did not have the time to do NXT television. If it's good or if it's bad, that's on me.
"It's been a huge joy to run that show and work with these talents. Again, everyone was put in a real tough position, we all were, but that's where you learn to do things in WWE. That, to me, is a form of talent development, which is understanding that things can always change ... around here and you have to adjust to that. The show always goes on. It was trial by fire for a lot of us, but it's been an absolutely fantastic experience.”
Michaels feels that being a student of the game for over three decades perfectly prepared him for this opportunity, knowing that anything can change at the drop of a hat in WWE.
While it wasn't what he originally signed up for, he has thrived and survived in his newfound position of prominence and is fueled by the fun challenges each new day brings.
"As everyone knows, I came in just as a coach and then slowly moved into assisting in creative and things of that nature," Michaels said. "I was always the second guy right behind Hunter [Triple H]. I obviously never envisioned being the guy who had the final say on the show and what we do and don't do and the overall vision for what it is we're going to do and how we move forward."
DX Founders Aim to Bridge Creative Gap between NXT and Main Roster
Michaels is a big believer in taking chances, even if they don't always pay off.
Then again, going outside of one's comfort zone is all part of the development process in pro wrestling. That strategy has cultivated quite a few promising prospects in NXT 2.0 over the last year and seen others not reach the heights originally expected of them.
When Vince McMahon was in charge of creative on the main roster, no matter how successful someone was in NXT, there was a fear among fans that they'd be toyed with upon arriving on Raw or SmackDown and have everything that got them over in the first place altered.
With Triple H now calling the shots since Vince McMahon's retirement on July 22, Michaels promises there will be much more synergy between the brands going forward to better secure the company's future.
"He and I have always thought about things the same," he said. "That's what we're hoping for. We want things to continue to progress and get better and evolve, but I think there will be a more natural transition. And look: We also understand it's our job down here to adjust to everything else. It's Raw and SmackDown that really forge the way for this company. We understand that.
"I like the fire drill aspect of this job. I know at times it's challenging, and I know people will get upset when we have abrupt changes and changes in direction and it can be nerve-wracking, but it's also incredibly exciting and challenging. I guess that's something I still enjoy. At 10:05 on Tuesday night, we're going to have ourselves a live show, and if it didn't go perfect, not to worry, we've got one the next week and that's a good problem to have."
Fans have already started to see signs of change on Raw and SmackDown since Triple H took the creative side of the shows, most notably the returns of former NXT stars Dakota Kai, Karrion Kross and Dexter Lumis.
Michaels worked closely alongside Kai and Iyo Sky (formerly Io Shirai) during their lengthy stays on the black-and-gold brand. He's extremely optimistic about not only what's in store for them on WWE's main stage but also what the coming years will look like for Raw and SmackDown with D-Generation X's two founding members now at the helm.
“Dakota Kai knows she's absolutely one of my favorites and clearly Iyo is one of the most talented ladies in the world," Michaels said. "I can just say this: We have very comparable lists. Hunter and I kind of share the same brain. We have a little list we think about every now and then, so I'm very excited for what he's done and for what he's going to do in the future, and we're looking forward to helping him every step of the way."
WWE's Shawn Michaels NFT trading cards can be purchased starting August 15 at 1 p.m. ET through August 22 at 7 p.m. ET at candy.com/wwe.
Graham Mirmina, aka Graham "GSM" Matthews, has specialized in sports and entertainment writing since 2010. Visit his website, WrestleRant, and subscribe to his YouTube channel for more wrestling-related content.