Professional wrestling is a sport that has spanned over a century. In fact, its foundation may well span to ancient times as early as ancient Babylonia from 3000 BCE.
Through all that time until the modern day, we have seen some of the greatest athletes and performers of all time come and go. We have seen these men and women fight in rivalries that have not only developed the business but molded it through the stories.
The greatest rivalries are so many and so numerous that is hard to limit them, to isolate them in such a way that we can truly find the one that exceeds all others.
So instead, we here at Wrestle Enigma have begun a series known as Wrestling’s Greatest Rivalries where we will be breaking sixty of the greatest rivalries over all of professional wrestling history.
Many of the best rivalries in wrestling past and present will be covered by some of the best writers here at WE.
Often times a feud is made great by how long past the seeds have been planted. In the case of this next feud, despite the year of it, it could be argued that the feud began in 1990 when Chris Jericho debuted as an independent wrestler.
It’s hard to say that Jericho was inspired by a man who was five years his senior, but Jericho certainly took a liking to what the former Rocker Shawn Michaels was doing in the WWF as he rose up the ranks in wrestling.
As Jericho became a big name in Mexico and Japan, Michaels was becoming one of the single most important cruiserweight wrestlers in history, showing the style and class of being a wrestler in spite of size. Many would say that Jericho took Michaels’ example and carried it forward.
In 1996, just as Michaels was achieving his boyhood dream and becoming WWF Champion, Chris Jericho was debuting in ECW where he won his first mainstream wrestling title, the ECW World Television Championship.
Jericho got a big break in WCW where he became one of if not the best cruiserweight the company had ever seen. Meanwhile, Michaels was on top of the world, making sure that everyone knew his name as he led the company to a new dawn.
Amazingly, the two did not crossed paths for a long time as Jericho jumped ship to the WWF a year after Michaels’ first retirement because of what seemed to be a career-ending back injury.
While Michaels was gone, Jericho achieved his own boyhood dream becoming WCW World Champion and then the first Undisputed WWF Champion in history. In many ways, by the time Michaels returned to the scene, Jericho has achieved more than anyone had ever expected.
In 2003, Jericho finally got to do what he always dreamed of doing, and that was test his mettle against Michaels. Together, they stole the show at WrestleMania XIX and, despite a rather unkind ending to the contest, would not face off again for a long time.
Michaels went on to solidify his legacy as a Hall of Famer while Jericho developed himself as an upper tier superstar though never quite reached the top, eventually leaving to tour with his band Fozzy for a while. When he returned in 2007, he saw a new landscape in WWE, most notably highlighted in 2008 by the end of Ric Flair‘s career at the hands of Shawn Michaels which is where the real story begins.
At WrestleMania XXIV in front of the world, Shawn Michaels did the unthinkable: he ended the career of Ric Flair. While Shawn never showed malicious intent, when push came to shove, he did the deed on the Grandest Stage of Them All which left many angry with Shawn. One of the people angriest with Shawn was the Animal, Batista.
In order to get to the bottom of the feelings between the two men who were once friends, Chris Jericho was his usual self as the host of the Highlight Reel. In between the two men, Jericho played the antagonist. He got both men going, firing shots at one another. Jericho didn’t let up until both men were at each other’s throats.
The two would have a match made for Backlash, but Jericho wasn’t quite done with playing the role of antagonist for these two. A week after his first Highlight Reel with the two, Shawn Michaels was interrupted by Chris Jericho using Ric Flair’s music. He would use it as a vehicle to blame Shawn for his actions and call Shawn an egotist. Jericho would only frustrate Shawn more who would eventually lay out Jericho.
He would be added to the Backlash match as guest referee, only using this as more reason to annoy Batista as well. This would get Jericho Batista Bombed. Jericho was inserting himself wherever he could to prove his point which turned out to more an annoyance to both men than anything. When the match finally happened though, all Jericho could do was watch as Shawn pulled out the victory over Batista.
Jericho wasn’t done though as the match only ended under controversial circumstances. Shawn had seemingly injured himself during the match which had allowed him to get Batista’s guard down and given Shawn his opening to win. Jericho called Shawn’s injury faked though backed out on the claim only for Shawn to admit he had faked the injury.
This left a lot of swirling emotions for Jericho as he ended up wrestling Michaels at Judgment Day and losing cleanly when Shawn rolled him up. Jericho would graciously shake hands with Shawn as a sign of mutual respect. Jericho was conflicted, and he still fought with his thoughts. On the Raw before One Night Stand (where Shawn had to face Batista’s wrath again), Jericho nearly destroyed Shawn but came to his senses and helped Shawn up.
Those conflicting feelings finally boiled over on the June 9th episode of Raw in another Highlight Reel segment between Jericho and Michaels. Jericho began the segment innocently enough, talking about how Shawn had inspired him, been a hero to him and now a mentor even friend.
The “great respect” Jericho had for Shawn slowly evaporated though as Jericho started pointing to how the fans always loved Shawn no matter what. He questioned the fans about their loyalty, saying that they were booing honesty just to cheer for HBK, leading to one simple question:
“How does Shawn Michaels, HBK, one of the greatest performers of all time and one of the most highly decorated superstars in the history of this business, turn into such a lying, cheating, pathetic little worm?”
With those simple words, Jericho attacked Michaels and ended up throwing him through the Jeritron 3000, leaving Michaels injured and Jericho standing tall, telling him that the worst was yet to come.
In the next weeks, Jericho’s demeanor changed though he would never admit to it. He no longer cared about saving the fans, calling them hypocrites and people who would connect with liars. Everyone around him was morally corrupt while he was punishing Shawn for his sins and those of every fan in that arena. Jericho was to himself a martyr with an honest message about the corruption of HBK.
Jericho found solace in turning Lance Cade, Michaels’ former prize student, into his own protegee, and he seemed to stop Michaels at every turn, keeping the injured man down with a dangerous eye injury. After Shawn cost Jericho the Intercontinental Championship, Jericho was completely focused on the man he had destroyed once already.
While Shawn wasn’t much for talking with all his anger building up, he did have a particular message of his own to send to Chris, one that had plagued Jericho for as long as he had wrestled. Chris Jericho would never be Shawn Michaels. Never one to wear his emotions on his sleeve, Jericho tried to hide how much this affected him, but it was clear that this still resonated for the “honest man”.
At the Great American Bash, the two clashed, and it went exactly the way Jericho had foretold. Shawn’s pride had led him into a match he wasn’t prepared for, and Shawn’s eye left him a scarred man. The match had to be stopped by the referee as Shawn kept bleeding out from this eye, leaving Shawn unfit to continue.
The Reversed Message
Jericho’s triumph left Shawn beaten. In many ways, Jericho had won. Shawn would not return until Summerslam, and Jericho had every chance to simply move on. The problem is that he didn’t. Jericho kept pressing the point, over-emphasizing the success he had. It became more and more clear that something besides a message was leading Jericho.
That became even more clear at Summerslam when Shawn would decide that it was best he retire until Jericho came out and hit Shawn’s wife, allegedly accidentally though it was never clear if he had meant to or not. Regardless, Chris had gone out of his way to lure Shawn back in, and he had made things even more personal.
Despite his doctors’ and family’s insistence, Shawn decided he wasn’t ready to retire. Instead, he had one last match in mind. He would fight Chris Jericho in an Unsanctioned Brawl at Unforgiven. No one was ready to liable for what these two would do to each other, not anymore.
Jericho kept up his confidence, telling the world again and again that he was the martyr here. Shawn with his no-nonsense attitude allowed his emotions to boil over in one diatribe to Jericho.
“Take comfort in the fact that wife and children won’t be watching. Mine won’t either, but someday, someday, I’m going to tell them about all of this. I’m going to tell them of the day when their father was *this* close to walking away. And although it’s considered a strength to turn the other cheek, sometimes you’ve got to look evil right in the face and spit in its eye. All the pain and all the suffering that you have put me through is gonna rain down on you at Unforgiven, and it is going to rain down on you with absolutely no remorse. I will never apologize for the man that I am or the life that I have lived, and I’m going to have no regrets about what happens to you. Unforgiven, it’s an appropriate name, isn’t it, Chris? Because I will never forgive you for what you’ve done to me. My only hope is that someday God can forgive me for what I do to you.”
At Unforgiven, it was Shawn Michaels’ turn to be right. Despite a long and arduous fight with his great rival and some assistance from Lance Cade, Shawn won with absolute certainty, destroying Jericho absolutely. He was left knocked out on the mat as Shawn Michaels continued to punch Jericho again and again. It was only thanks to the referee’s insistence that the match ended. Afterward, Michaels was absolutely in shock at his own actions, showing the remorse for his violence.
The Hollow Victory
If that had been the end, it would have been appropriate, but there was one last bit of the tale to tell. See, Michaels had beaten Jericho to submission, but the bloody Jericho had still managed to rise back up just long enough to compete five more minutes.
In the World Heavyweight Championship Scramble, Jericho substituted himself in for CM Punk who was injured earlier and pinned Kane to become the new WHC despite basically just limping in and stealing the pin. Jericho would use the win to discount Michaels’ victory, calling it “nothing” as it was a win in a match that never even happened.
Instead of letting that stand though, the hero rose up to make one more challenge. Shawn Michaels got a shot at the World Heavyweight Championship, challenging Jericho to a ladder match. It would be Shawn’s final victory. He had destroyed Jericho in body. Now he had to destroy him in spirit by ripping away the title from Jericho before he ever had the chance to flaunt it.
However, in the end, the story followed its familiar path. Every time Shawn gained a victory, it was ripped away from him. No matter how valiantly he fought, he always ended up being the one to fall. So it was that Jericho used the World Title to knock out Michaels and send him crashing to the floor below.
The story ended not with Pomp and Circumstance, not with a procession of angels singing, but with the victory of the jealous and self-righteous man.
The Lasting Effect
Rarely do we see a story end with the villain rising above the hero especially in such decisive fashion. Jericho’s change from the hard nosed critic and antagonizing talker to the conniving villain seeking to show a half-truth while clouding his own faults was a success, yet, if you look deeper, he failed all the same.
As much as Jericho never wanted to admit it, there was one real reason he targeted Shawn, and that was because he had always wanted to be Shawn Michaels. Deep down, he hated how he couldn’t be the one to get the love of the crowd. He spoke truth and lost them to the power of Shawn even at his darkest.
No matter how many titles Jericho won and no matter how many times he maimed Shawn, HBK would always be the hero. Jericho could only be the villain. In many ways, Jericho had to resort to the lies and evil that he said Shawn had thrived through, yet Jericho never was able to use it become Shawn. Jericho would always be Jericho and nothing more.
Storytelling this defined and this personal is so rarely seen in the WWE. This is the last feud WWE has had that had so many deep layers to it that evolved over time. While some today could try to match it, there is little doubt in anyone’s mind that this was a once in a generation type of classic feud.
Two legends telling a story that has truly spanned their whole careers. Two generations clashing on equal footing one final time. The absolute perfect display of personal and physical brutality between two men who made their careers off being flashy. Simply one of the greatest feuds of all time.