Shawn Michaels’ WWE legacy was already assured at the time of his forced retirement in 1998 but his 2002 return brought it to new heights, marking it down as the greatest comeback in history.
The Heartbreak Kid (HBK) was never meant to wrestle again. He had after all herniated two disks in his back taking a bad bump during a Casket match with The Undertaker at the Royal Rumble 1998.
He would muster up the strength to make it to WrestleMania 14 where he dropped the WWE Championship to Stone Cold Steve Austin, in what was a passing of the torch in every sense of the word. He was then knocked into retirement by main-event enforcer, Mike Tyson. Attitude Era ‘n’ all.
And with that, he disappeared from WWE television outside of intermittent appearances as the kayfabe commissioner of the company. Michaels missed the boom period of WWE that he had helped build, and such was the breakneck speed of storylines and the evolution of performers like The Rock and old buddy Triple H, he was quickly left in the rear-view mirror.
Fans had also consigned themselves to the fact that they would never see The Showstopper back in action, and by the time the summer of 2002 he had not been seen on-screen in 18 months. There was little talk of any form of a return, let alone an in-ring comeback for one of the most exciting performers of the 1990s.
In his time away from the ring, and particularly in those final 18 months, HBK set about cleaning up his act – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. In the process of this Michaels became a born-again Christian, and a changed and better man.
His full-time return to WWE TV came in June 2002, shockingly as a member of the New World Order, alongside his Kliq pals Kevin Nash and X-Pac. In his opening salvo as part of the renegade group, Michaels declared that he “was “attitude” in this place before it was a catchphrase!.” Both true and frustrating given his long-term absence.
The sight of HBK in the NWO black and white took time getting used to, not that fans ever got the chance. Due to a long-term injury to Nash and constant changes (already Hulk Hogan had turned babyface and Scott Hall had left the company), the group was disbanded by Vince McMahon in an on-screen segment.
This left HBK in no man’s land – he wasn’t a wrestler anymore and he had no group to manage and mentor, but the fans wanted to see him. A plan was crafted by HBK, Triple H and McMahon for one final storyline and performance.
With Triple H being one of his closest friends, fully aware of his prior injuries and a ring general to boot, he was the perfect dance partner for a comeback match. Not to mention the story wrote itself.
Michaels convinced The Game to turn his back on Smackdown and come to Raw, where the two would recreate the group they had co-founded in 1997, D-Generation X. On the night of their grand return, Triple H double crossed his old friend, putting him down with a Pedigree and tearing off the DX colours.
The next week, HBK was found facedown in a parking lot having had his head put through a car window – of course it was soon revealed Triple H was responsible. The Game declared that now he was The Icon and The Showstopper and that Michaels career was over, and deep down he knew it.
HBK’s retort to all of this was to tell his former friend that he would be medically cleared by Summerslam, setting the wheels in motion a comeback match for the ages. Given Michaels’ injury record, General Manager Eric Bischoff didn’t want to risk the potential legal issues, leading to it being an unsanctioned street fight.
No one expected Michaels to be the performer of old, and there were legitimate concerns about his health heading into the match, but he rolled back the years and if possible, was even better than before.
The two produced a 28-minute masterpiece, which culminated in Michaels stealing the win with a roll-up pin. However, he left on a stretcher as a result of a sledgehammer to his back from The Game. Triple H may have lost the battle, but he won the war, or so he thought.
With that, the comeback match, and the comeback itself, was over. One last match for the fans to savour, and Michaels to finally have peace with the end of his career. How wrong we all were.
Michaels returned to action in the first ever Elimination Chamber match at Survivor Series 2002, fitting given he participated in another first ever, the ladder match, all those years before. At Madison Square Garden, HBK did the unthinkable and won the World Heavyweight Championship, pinning Triple H of course.
That this was also his first Survivor Series since the Montreal Screwjob in 1997 made it even more poignant – World Titles won at both, but in circumstances that could not have been more different. A full circle for Michaels the performer and the man.
His title reign only lasted a month but the second act of his career continued until 2010, where he showed a new generation of fans who The Showstopper, The Icon, the Heartbreak Kid and Mr. WrestleMania truly was.
For this, and everything that came with it, ensures Shawn Michaels’ 2002 return is unlikely to ever be rivalled as the greatest comeback story in WWE history.