It is March 29, 2010.
The fans jam-packed into the US Airways Center in Phoenix are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the man of the hour. Suddenly, the opening chords of "Sexy Boy" explode over the PA system and those same fans erupt into an humongous ovation.
Shawn Michaels, clad in a red dress shirt, blue jeans and a tan cowboy hat, walks the aisle just 24 hours removed from a second consecutive WrestleMania classic against The Undertaker. He seems different, more subdued as he slaps hands with the fans and enters the squared circle.
His face portrays many emotions as he prepares to address the fans, some of which were in the University of Phoenix Stadium the previous night for WrestleMania 26 and witnessed the final match of his career.
Tonight, Michaels bids adieu to an in-ring career that arguably is better and more celebrated than any other in professional wrestling history.
To gain a full appreciation for the spectacular legacy of the Heartbreak Kid, and to fully appreciate everything he accomplished between the ropes, one has to first understand the spectacular highs and the tremendous lows that dotted Michaels' career.
In 1987, Michaels and tag team partner Marty Jannetty signed with Vince McMahon's WWE. Shortly thereafter, thanks to a bad reputation in the locker room, they were fired and sent on their way. The pair would persevere and re-sign with the company a year later. They would become one of the most popular duos in the promotion for the better part of three years but, by late-1991, Michaels was ready to test the singles waters.
On an edition of Brutus Beefcake's Barber Shop talk show, Michaels shocked the world by delivering a superkick to Jannetty and throwing him head-first through a glass window. Marty bled and Michaels immediately became one of the most despised villains on the roster.
Adopting the moniker of the Heartbreak Kid and adding Sensational Sherri as his manager, Michaels rapidly rose up the ranks.
He scored his first major singles win over the highly-decorated Tito Santana in the opening contest of WrestleMania VII and almost immediately put himself in contention for the Intercontinental Championship.
On October 27, 1992, Michaels defeated "British Bulldog" Davey Boy Smith to capture the Intercontinental Championship in a match that would air on November 14's Saturday Night's Main Event broadcast. It was the first singles title of Michaels' career and a recognition of his talents as one of the top workers in the promotion.
A month later, he would main event his first pay-per-view, taking on WWE Champion Bret "Hitman" Hart for the title at Survivor Series. In an outstanding technical wrestling bout, Michaels pushed the champion to the limit, proving to even his harshest of critics that he was more than capable of hanging with the top guy in the company.
Hart would win the match with his famed Sharpshooter submission hold, but Michaels established himself as one of the most gifted workers on the roster.
He would enter 1993 with a ton of momentum following his match with Hart. It was clear that his future was as bright as anyone's, especially if Vince McMahon continued to take his company in the direction of smaller, faster and more talented wrestlers on top.
Before he could look to the future, however, Michaels would be posed with the threat of someone from his past.
Marty Jannetty made his return to WWE in late 1992 and wasted little time challenging his former partner to a match for the Intercontinental title. After all, what better way for him to get payback for the vicious assault nearly a year earlier than by taking the title Michaels worked so hard to acquire?
Michaels and Jannetty had several high-quality matches throughout 1993, including one at January's Royal Rumble pay-per-view and another on the May 17 episode of Raw, which was won by Jannetty and earned Match of the Year recognition from Pro Wrestling Illustrated.
The Heartbreak Kid would be without his title for only a few weeks, recapturing it with the assistance of his new bodyguard, Diesel, on June 6.
Just as Michaels continued to improve and evolve as a singles star, adding Diesel to his act and really thriving as one of the top heels in the sport, the first major controversy of his career reared its ugly head. Everything he had accomplished to that point was suddenly halted.
According to his autobiography Heartbreak and Triumph: The Shawn Michaels Story, published in 2005 by Simon and Schuyster, Inc., Michaels details a conversation he had with Vince McMahon, during which he was informed that he had failed a drug test. He did not test positive for recreational drugs or prescription medication, but steroids.
Michaels denied the charge but accepted the six week suspension. To be difficult, he refused to return the Intercontinental title. While it seemed unprofessional at the time, and it was, it inadvertently set in motion an angle that would result in one of the greatest matches in WWE history.
When Michaels returned from his suspension, he staked his claim as Intercontinental champion. After all, he had a title that he never rightfully lost while, at the same time, Razor Ramon had won the same championship by defeating Rick Martel on the September 27 episode of Monday Night Raw.
It would be announced that both titles would be strung from the rafters of Madison Square Garden and, at WrestleMania X, Michaels and Ramon would compete in a rare Ladder Match to determine the undisputed titleholder. Ramon would retrieve the titles but it was Michaels and his performance in the match that won rave reviews.
In August of '94, Michaels would team with Diesel to capture the WWE Tag Team Championships. It was a nice cap to an otherwise disappointing summer that saw him accompany Diesel to the ring and host a talk show called the Heartbreak Hotel.
At the Survivor Series, Michaels would split from Diesel. Two months later, he won the 1995 Royal Rumble, the first Superstar to ever enter at number one and last the entire duration of the bout. The win set up a WrestleMania XI showdown between former friends over the top prize in the industry, the WWE title.
In his second opportunity to capture the most coveted title in wrestling, Michaels once again came up short. But as he had a tendency to do, Michaels came out of that year's broadcast looking far better than the champion who defeated him.
A face turn shortly thereafter resulted in Michaels becoming one of the top babyfaces in the sport. He would defeat Jeff Jarrett for the Intercontinental Championship at the July '95 In Your House event and would gain a measure of revenge by defeating Razor Ramon in a rematch of their epic Ladder Match at the following month's SummerSlam.
Just as Michaels was once again gaining momentum and appeared to be next in line for the WWE Championship, controversy made its return.
Over the course of the previous two years, Michaels and the Clique (Diesel, Ramon, 123 Kid and Hunter Hearst Helmsley) had become infamous for their backstage power plays that left many deserving stars out of the main event scene. They were despised by the rest of the roster but, in the ring, were delivering outstanding matches and showcasing a tremendous work rate.
Michaels, specifically, was garnering a negative reputation for his actions behind the scenes. By the time October of '95 rolled around, his attitude would get him in trouble outside the confines of World Wrestling Entertainment.
As he details in Heartbreak and Triumph:
Apparently, someone in the bar told me I was out of it. So I left to go out and sit in the car until Kid and Davey were done. As I went out, a bunch of guys followed me and as I was getting in the car, they attacked me and beat me up pretty good.
The assault resulted in Michaels handing over the Intercontinental title rather than dropping it to Shane "Dean" Douglas, as was originally the plan. He would miss just over a month of action before returning and shooting an angle on Raw that saw him on the receiving end of an enzugiri kick by Owen Hart. Michaels would pass out later in the match and his future in the industry was called into question.
Of course, he made a triumphant return in time for the 1996 Royal Rumble, won the glorified 30-man battle royal and earned a shot at the WWE title for the second consecutive year.
At WrestleMania XII, he won the title by defeating Bret Hart in a historic 60-minute Iron Man match. Now the torchbearer for Vince McMahon's promotion, Michaels put enormous pressure on himself to deliver on a night-in, night-out basis.
He defended the title for months against Superstars of all shapes, sizes and styles and quickly established himself as one of the top workers in the industry. He carried the company during a period in which ratings and business were down with little silver lining in the otherwise pitch-black storm clouds that had hovered over WWE.
He would lose the title in November of 1996 to Sycho Sid at the Survivor Series but would regain it two months later at the Royal Rumble in front of a hometown crowd in San Antonio.
The heat behind Michaels and Bret Hart was beginning to affect business. Depending on who one listens to on any given day, the plans for WrestleMania 13 originally called for Michaels to return the favor by losing the WWE title back to Hart.
In February, those plans were thrown out the window when Michaels suffered a knee injury that he thought would put him out of action for a significant period of time. He informed McMahon of his decision to take time off and, more than likely, undergo surgery for the injury. On February 13, 1997, during a very special presentation titled Thursday Raw Thursday, Michaels limped to the ring and handed over the WWE Championship.
He claimed "I lost my smile" and told the fans, both in attendance and watching at home, that he needed to step away for the time being.
There were many skeptics, and rightfully so. Most felt Michaels did not want to do the job for Hart at WrestleMania, their professional rivalry becoming far too real.
The performer, himself, claims in his autobiography:
The most prevalent rumor was that I quit in protest of having to drop the title to Bret Hart at WrestleMania 13. That is not true. This was not a scheme I concocted to avoid losing the title to Bret. Had I been asked to? Yes. Did I want to? No. I said it before and I'll say it again: there is no refusing to do a job. Ask Bret Hart. Ask the people in Montreal.
Whatever the case was, whomever one chooses to believe, it was somewhat suspect that Michaels appeared at WrestleMania and was dancing around and hopping on his supposed injured knee.
By September of '97, Michaels was back to competing on a full-time basis and had reverted back to his devious ways. The most hated villain in WWE, he had accidentally cost Undertaker the WWE title in a match with Hart at SummerSlam and was entrenched in a rivalry with the Dead Man.
The angle would conclude at the Badd Blood pay-per-view in October, in which a beaten, bloodied, battered Michaels capitalized on interference from Kane to defeat Undertaker and earn a shot at Hart's WWE Championship.
The Montreal Screwjob has been written about elsewhere on a number of occasions. It has been documented and dissected for the last fifteen years and will continue to be for the next fifteen. On that night, Michaels was part of a grand scheme to get the WWE title off of Bret Hart before the Hitman left for Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling.
Now the heavyweight champion again, Michaels would play a key role in the elevation of the man who would help to save World Wrestling Entertainment in its war with WCW, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.
A back injury suffered during a Casket Match against Undertaker at the 1998 Royal Rumble had done tremendous damage to Michaels' back. He rarely worked with the injury but, on March 29, he defiantly did what was best for business and dropped the title to Austin in the main event of WrestleMania XIV.
Little did fans know, it was the last time anyone would see Michaels compete in a WWE ring for over four years.
He returned on several occasions throughout those years, mostly as the fictional Commissioner of WWE, but it was clear that the Heartbreak Kid was fighting a number of personal demons. He had an addiction to prescription painkillers that had overtaken his life and had threatened his relationship with wife Rebecca and their child.
Early in the new Millennium, Michaels cleaned up his act and became a born-again Christian. With a new lease on life, he accepted an offer by WWE and friend Triple H to return to the company he had devoted so many of his early years to.
A feud with Triple H necessitated his return to the ring, and at SummerSlam in 2002, Michaels defeated The Game in Street Fight, which was immediately deemed a Match of the Year contender. Feeling pretty good after the match, he agreed to return for more in-ring action.
At the Survivor Series that November, he capped off one of the most improbable comebacks in wrestling history by defeating five other elite Superstars and winning the World Heavyweight Championship.
Over the course of the next eight years, Michaels would remind fans of a new generation why he was considered one of the best performers in the long and illustrious history of sports entertainment.
Matches with the aforementioned Triple H, Chris Jericho, Edge, Chris Benoit, John Cena, Randy Orton and Kane were oftentimes the best of any given show and he continued to rack up Match of the Year awards for his numerous outstanding contributions to Raw and pay-per-view events.
At WrestleMania 24 in March of 2008, Michaels met Ric Flair in a match when the legendary Flair's Hall of Fame career was on the line. The match was a masterpiece of storytelling, encapsulating everything everyone loved about Flair in one 20-minute match.
The images of Michaels telling Flair "I'm sorry, I love you," before delivering one final Sweet Chin Music and pinning Flair to end his career is as emotional a moment as anyone will ever see in a pro wrestling match.
The match was also the greatest example of what Michaels excelled at in the second half of his career. Rather than throwing his body around the ring without regard to his long-term health, he settled for a more story-driven style that showcased his completeness as a performer. Yes, he added the occasional top rope moonsault or dive off of a ladder but he was a smarter worker than he had been at his peak in '96.
Like his idol Flair, Michaels' career too came to an end at WrestleMania as a result of a loss.
After an instant classic against Undertaker at WrestleMania 25, a match that won every major Match of the Year award possible, a rematch was slated for the following year. This time, Michaels would put his career on the line for a shot at ending the Dead Man's undefeated streak.
He failed, as so many have before him, and his legendary career came to an end for a second time.
In 2011, he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
Like any other decorated and celebrated Superstar, he has made several appearances for the company since and will do so again this Sunday night at the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view when he officiates the Daniel Bryan-Randy Orton WWE title match main event.
If the length of this retrospective is any indication, Shawn Michaels is undoubtedly one of the greatest Superstars to ever step foot in a professional wrestling ring. An elite performer who rose to the occasion on the biggest stages the sport has to offer, he worked extremely hard to ensure that his name was spoken in the same breath as all-time great in-ring workers such as Flair, Race, Steamboat, Hart and Savage.
Throughout his career in World Wrestling Entertainment, Michaels was the company's most controversial figure and one of its most despised backstage figures. His antics behind the scenes are as infamous as his matches are legendary. When Michaels retired from the ring the first time in 1998, he was the furthest thing from popular among his co-workers and critics that anyone could imagine.
But Michaels overcame his demons, checked his attitude and reexamined his priorities and the man he wanted to be. He cleaned up his life, changed it for the better and returned to the industry that he helped carry for a decade. He was better and smarter than he had been before and plied his craft for the entertainment of an entirely new generation of fans.
Michaels retirement in 2010 was the happy ending many once believed he would never have but one he more than deserved.