|Sometime around here is where Michaels introduced the rot that infects wrestling nowadays
Photo Credit: WWE.com
What is your biggest pet peeve as a wrestling fan? Mine, by far, is wrestlers talking about having good matches while on the clock. When they’re on Twitter, out of character, it’s fine. They should want to take pride in their work. However, part of the work is making the fan believe in the moment that what they’re watching is real, even if as soon as the show ends, they remember that it is all staged. It’d be like Daniel Day-Lewis talking about his acting method while he’s playing Bill the Butcher. I need the wrestling character to talk about how they want to win, how they want to be Champion, how they want the bigger share of the purse. I don’t want to hear Seth Rollins talk about entertaining people. I don’t care if Kenny Omega cares about Dave Meltzer star ratings. It’s a dichotomy that at least wrestlers for the most part used to get. Do you know where that dichotomy started fizzling away? Probably around the time Shawn Michaels started calling himself “The Showstopper.”
The first wrestler who really, in-character, cared about whether you liked how he worked or not was Michaels. Unsurprisingly, he’s a guy Meltzer latched onto, because whether Michaels meant to or not, he pretty much gave Meltzer validation for his star scale. A lot of other wrestlers latched onto him as well, as he became quite the influence on a lot of fledgling workers. While I personally find a lot of his in-ring work to be overwrought to the point of parody, he is cited by many to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest American worker of all-time. Thankfully, that crop of wrestlers also took influence from Japanese junior heavies like Jushin Liger and Great Sasuke, Japanese heavies like Mitsuharu Misawa and Shinya Hashimoto, and well, the Japanese women that the former two categories ALSO took influence from like Megumi Kudo and Manami Toyota. So instead of a whole bunch of Michaels clones, the wrestling scene got a well-rounded mix of wrestlers who happened to also really like the Heartbreak Kid. However, that like influenced them in the wrong ways.
Michaels’ whole aura of being the best wrestler not by winning but by having the best matches leaked into other wrestlers’ brains and mutated. Calling himself “Mr. WrestleMania” despite having a losing record there and WWE backing it up (I can’t stress this enough, Michaels cannot be a destructive influence without the single biggest wrestling company in history signal-boosting him) inspired Dolph Ziggler to distill that message into the more ham-handedly simplistic message of outright saying “I’m here to have the best match on the show, even if I lose.” It mutated in Davey Richards’ mind when he decided he’d take all the tension and stakes that happened in the match preceding and throw it in the dumpster by telling his opponent that he did great in there and that he’s special and that this match was so good! It allowed the Young Bucks to get buddy-buddy with Meltzer and even name a move after him.
Hell, the effects started not shortly after Michaels innovated this trash. Rob Van Dam himself rose to prominence around the time Michaels was losing his smile, hurting his back, and getting too drugged out for his own good. He would call himself the “Whole F’n Show” and talk about how World Championship Wrestling and WWE are in bidding wars to have him on their rosters, not because he won a lot of matches, but because he was entertaining, flashy. He was a stark opposite to Taz, whose motto was “win if you can, survive if I let you,” perhaps the character most driven by the need to win matches in Extreme Championship Wrestling. RVD even called his finisher the “Five Star Frogsplash,” which was a direct reference to Meltzer’s scale. I guess you could commend him for taking that persona and weaponizing it against both WWE and WCW for the greater glory of ECW, especially since he didn’t jump to WCW when nearly everyone else in the company did, and he didn’t go to WWE when Vince McMahon finally allowed his relationship with the “renegade” outfit to become a full two-way one. Still, he was part of the sad revolution to take the most important thing, the wins and losses, out of kayfabe.
It’s why when anyone starts singing paeans to Michaels as one of the all-time greats, I start to convulse and leak pus from various orifices. Even if you ignore how bad a Champion he was or how he would conveniently lose his smile when it came to putting someone over or his drawing numbers, his biggest hallmark influence on the business will be divorcing importance in wrestling from wins and losses. It’s not even just that wrestlers are making it part of their character. WWE actively pushes guys both on main and in NXT who make that their calling card. Seth Rollins doesn’t fucking care about being Universal Champion as much as he does having the best match. Shouldn’t that bother you if your job as a promoter is to make that title mean something? WWE talking about “performing” or having categories for “best match of the year” for its various awards is all a direct result of Michaels being allowed to be the Showstopper and McMahon being so under his sway that he thought it a good idea to adopt for his company. For that reason, I can’t think of any reason to entertain arguments for Michaels as the best of anything, unless it’s the “best scumbag in wrestling history.” Even then, he’s got tough competition. Wrestling is historically full of awful people.