When Shawn Michaels returned at SummerSlam 2002, it seemed improbable following major back surgery and five years off that the Heartbreak Kid could just hop back into the wrestling ring and not be a shell of his former self. I remember the conversation leading up to the match centered on discussions of how he could do the sweet chin music with a bad back, what his new finisher was going to be, how he couldn’t even climb to the top rope. My friends and I thought this guy was going to be a shell of his former self, a crippled mess who could barely get around in the ring.
Boy, we were wrong. I’d like to think the majority of people were wrong when Michaels went in there with Triple H and had one of his best matches ever. Better yet, it wasn’t a one-off for Michaels. No, for the next eight years Michaels wrestled fairly regularly and some, like Bleacher Report’s Justin LaBar, felt this second run was his best:
(Michael’s WWE Championship victory at Survivor Series 2002) would launch the second run/chapter in HBK’s career at age 37, and it was arguably his best run and string of matches ever.
Curious as always, I began to think if this was true. Was Michaels’ second run better than his first? Without research, I said yes. While I loved his early run, the level of opponents is night and day. Sure, he had Bret Hart, British Bulldog, Steve Austin and in the early parts of his solo career Tito Santana and Tatanka but this second run? This run featured Triple H, Chris Benoit, Ric Flair, Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho, Randy Orton and of course, his historic matches against The Undertaker. On paper, the second run blows away his first.
Or does it? I decided to study both runs using Wrestling Observer editor Dave Meltzer’s famous five-star rating system. What we’re looking at here is (for fairness) simply PPV singles matches — no Raws, no house shows, no Prime Time Wrestling just PPVs and only one-on-one singles.
That does take away a few of Michaels big matches including his stellar WrestleMania XX main event against Benoit and Triple H but it helps us keep context for both eras.
I’m starting the “first run” at WrestleMania VIII against El Matador, a clear beginning point of solo Michaels and ending conveniently enough at his retirement match against The Undertaker from WrestleMania XXVI.
Let’s start by examining the first run:
What we initially see is a pretty tough run to start his career including a few stinkers in his WrestleMania debut and a really awful “Don’t Touch the Face” match at SummerSlam 1992 that was essentially Michaels and Rick Martel carrying Sherri up the ramp, only to be attacked by the other from behind. This went on for what I believe was 45 minutes until the match ended and we never spoke of it again.
Things got on track shortly thereafter with a WWF Title match at Survivor Series 1992 against who else but Bret Hart. Things got lean towards the end of 1993 as Michaels regressed in both storylines and attitude including a suspension in late 1993 as a result of testing positive for steroids.
Michaels returned in a big way at WrestleMania X with his first ***** match against Razor Ramon in the famous Intercontential Title ladder match. His career then hits a consistent run with only three below *** matches until his retirement (King of the Ring 1995 vs. Kama, In Your House 8 vs. British Bulldog and Royal Rumble 1997 vs. Sid).
Michaels added an additional ***** in October 1997 against The Undertaker in the very-first Hell in a Cell match at Badd (yes, two Ds for some reason) Blood.
Overall in his first run, HBK averaged a star rating of 3.58 in 28 matches. Now let’s look at his second run:
This second run is a lot more interesting than I thought it was. I sort of assumed it was mostly smooth sailing for Michaels, unfairly so. He came in with a ****1/4 classic against Triple H but followed it with a ** Armageddon 2002 battle, also against Triple H. After that he settled into a nice consistent run in 2003 and 2004 with all ***+ matches except for a **1/2 match, again at Armageddon against Triple H’s Evolution stablemate Batista.
We see a huge spike at WrestleMania 21 thanks to a string of matchups against Kurt Angle. Michaels even pulled *** matches out of Hulk Hogan at SummerSlam 2005 and Chris Master (!) at Unforgiven 2005.
The gigantic drop at Judgment Day 2007 is a *1/4 match against Randy Orton. I don’t remember this one but apparently Michaels had a legitimate injury and this match was gimmick-y to cover for HBK, lasting a little over four minutes.
The rest of this run was a huge success averaging 3.69 stars and having above ***1/2 matches with the exception of a *3/4 clunker against JBL at No Way Out 2009. The two ****3/4 at the end are, of course, his battles with The Undertaker which even in retrospect, I’m shocked neither received *****.
Speaking of, you’ll notice this 2nd run features zero ***** after having two in the first run. In the end, Michaels averaged a star rating of 3.53 over 30 matches. Here’s a quick breakdown of the two averages:
- First Run: 3.58 in 28 matches
- Second Run: 3.53 in 30 matches
This may be breaking news but Shawn Michaels is a really good wrestler and more than that, Mr. Consistency. In almost the same amount of matches, he has an almost identical average star rating. With a difference of only 0.05 (standard deviation: 0.96) in average star rating.
After all this research, I’m not sure I have an answer on the better run. Purely on statistical level, you’d say his first run because of the higher average star rating albeit tiny. I’ll personally take the second run as I believe most would for a number of reasons. Not only is this entire run magnified because of his back injury, he was devoid of the backstage drama that permiated and clouded his first run. Second run Shawn Michaels was the backstage darling, a guy who didn’t care if he won the title or not, didn’t care who he was facing, didn’t cause any issues outside of a small issue with Hulk Hogan at SummerSlam 2005. Otherwise, he was a total professional and you can’t help but give him extra points for that.
And again, it’s hard not to be biased towards the second run when you know the tremendous drive this man had to come back from major back surgery, addiction and a five-year hiatus to put on a run nearly as good as his previous run when he was more clearly in his athletic prime.
Just for fun, here is a breakdown of his PPV opponents:
- Batista: 3
- Bret Hart: 3
- British Bulldog: 2
- Chris Jericho: 5
- Chris Master: 1
- Crush: 1
- Diesel: 2
- Edge: 1
- El Matador: 1
- Hulk Hogan: 1
- JBL: 1
- Jeff Jarrett: 1
- John Cena: 1
- Kama: 1
- Kane: 1
- Ken Shamrock: 1
- Kurt Angle: 2
- Mankind: 1
- Marty Jannetty: 1
- Mr. Kennedy: 1
- Mr. McMahon: 1
- Mr. Perfect: 1
- Owen Hart: 1
- Randy Orton: 4
- Razor Ramon: 2
- Ric Flair: 2
- Rick Martel: 1
- Steven Austin: 2
- Sycho Sid: 2
- Tatanka: 1
- The Undertaker: 5
- Triple H: 4
- Vader: 1