“If you look at all the variables and look at it objectively, how do not say that [he] is the greatest to ever live?” – Jim Ross
“I have to say that from the all around standpoint professionally in the ring I really don’t think that [he] has any peers.” – Vince McMahon
It only takes one moment, one small mistake, to destroy a career. Professional wrestling is a dangerous sport where a man puts his life on the line in ways that simply cannot be completely safe. Even the greatest wrestlers of all time take so many risks that their body eventually just gives out.
On January 18, 1998, a man considered to be possibly the greatest wrestler in history, Shawn Michaels, felt just that when he went crashing onto a casket, causing a back injury that would force him to retire.
Ten years in the business all had come to an end. The fall had caused Michaels to herniate two discs in his lower back and crushed a third. It was an injury so severe that many believed it was over for Shawn. He would never wrestle again.
Of course, Shawn was still a wrestling man at heart, so, despite it all, he stayed with the company. He became the WWF Commissioner alongside helping out his DX friend Triple H on occasion, but he never stepped into the ring.
Shawn was in constant pain and battling with demons all around him. His drug addiction, mainly to pain killers, got him in more and more trouble. Despite starting a family with Rebecca Hickenbottom and having a son, Cameron, Michaels continued to be a wreck. So much so that he was taken off WWE programming by Vince McMahon for being too much of a mess.
After alienating many of those around him with his fall into drug use, Michaels realized he was just a few steps away from losing everything and was hit with a realization that he needed to change.
With that ingrained in his mind, Shawn stopped taking pills, and he became a born again Christian, finding peace and a new found focus in his life.
With that, Michaels began to refocus. He got back in shape. He took up the reigns to rekindle the friendships he had lost in all of his arrogance and personal issues.
And then, on June 3, 2002, he returned. Kevin Nash came out and promised to deliver a shocking reveal. He told everyone in attendance that there was a new member of the NWO, and, to everyone’s surprise, HBK’s music hit.
He came out in the signature black and white of NWO and stood tall with his friend and many times partner in crime, Nash.
While the actual scene of the return, coming back as a member of WWE’s NWO was a misfire, the importance cannot be understated.
Shawn Michaels had returned from a career-ending injury. He was back in the WWE after eighteen months off camera, and he wasn’t just back to be a figure. He was back to make a definitive statement.
Just two months after this return, Shawn would get back in the ring in what could be considered his true return. It would be the first time he had wrestled in four and a half years. It would be the beginning of what would change Shawn from being a great wrestler to the greatest of all time.
Despite four years away from the ring and his completely changed physical and mental state, in his first match back, Shawn Michaels stole the show with Triple H at Summerslam in a thirty minute match still considered to be one of the greatest match ever wrestled at the Big Four pay-per-view.
A few months later, he would win the World Title for the last time in his career, and he would continue to rack up more and more incredible matches with the best of the best.
If not for this return, WWE would not be the business it is today. When talking about what it means to be a wrestler, to steal the show, to captivate an audience every single night, no one can avoid the name Shawn Michaels.
Whether it was his legendary feud with Triple H, his WrestleMania matches that elevated WWE’s greatest night to even loftier heights, or just his ability to inspire the future wrestlers that we see competing to this day, HBK’s legacy lives through his unexpected and incredible return.
I won’t sit here and belittle what Shawn did in his first run in WWE. He was the face of the company for a time. He was stealing the show even then, but he was still growing, developing as a talent. He was great but not legendary.
Upon his return, Shawn may not have won as many championships or beaten as many big stars, but he spent those next eight years redefining wrestling. He spent those next eight years having seven consecutive matches of the year according to PWI.
If not for that moment on June 3, 2002, no one would be talking about Shawn Michaels in the same breath as Ric Flair, Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Undertaker, or any other great in pro wrestling. He would have simply been a great, popular footnote in history, a man who retired before his time.
Instead, Shawn came back better than he ever he had been, having some of the greatest matches of all time including at WrestleMania XXV when he not only took Undertaker to the limit but may very well have made the Streak as legendary as it is to this day.
He left a broken man who was hated by many including his own friends and was remembered for a great but brief run at the top, and he came back as a new man. Faster, smarter, stronger, and a better person, HBK returned to the ring as a true symbol for wrestling greatness.
That is why the return of Shawn Michaels in 2002 is the most impactful return of all time. No one return has been more important, more shocking, and more redefining on a man’s career and his life than when Shawn Michaels hit the ring on that night.
“The ability to be the most hated man in the business as a character and for real and live through it. Then to take a four year sabbatical to heal, to heal, and come back at the level he’s returned is nothing short of extraordinary.
And then to see the man that Shawn Michaels has become is truly the greatest success story of all. The man that Shawn Michaels has become is better than all his titles, all his WrestleMania main events, all his accolades, and even being the best ever.” –Jim Ross