Michaels took a four-year break from the ring between 1998 and 2002 due to a back injury. He still made on-screen appearances for WWE at the beginning of those four years. However, around the same time, he also developed an addiction to pain medication.
Speaking on the WWE Network show Ruthless Aggression, Triple H said The Rock, Steve Austin, and The Undertaker could all see that Michaels had issues. Although he does not know for sure, the NXT founder suspects that someone spoke to WWE Chairman Vince McMahon about Michaels’ problems:
“There was a moment where it was like ‘Taker, Rock, me, Austin, and Shawn came in and he was a mess, embarrassingly stumbling his words and falling over himself. I’m imagining those guys went to Vince and were like, ‘Enough is enough,’” Triple H said.
The narrator of the episode, SmackDown color commentator Pat McAfee, explained that Michaels left WWE following a conversation with Vince McMahon. The Heartbreak Kid returned home to San Antonio, Texas, where he set up a wrestling school.
Bruce Prichard witnessed Shawn Michaels’ progress away from WWE
WWE Executive Director Bruce Prichard used to travel to San Antonio to visit Shawn Michaels at his wrestling school. During that time, the five-time WrestleMania main-eventer recovered from his back issue and became a born-again Christian.
Prichard recalled how Michaels’ attitude drastically improved during his time away from WWE:
“I would travel to Texas to go to Shawn’s wrestling school and see his students and be around him in a completely different light, and there I saw Shawn, I saw Michael Hickenbottom [Michaels' real name]. I saw a different guy that was having fun, that loved the business and wanted to give back,” Prichard said.
Shawn Michaels returned to WWE in 2002 and became a full-time in-ring competitor again. The two-time WWE Hall of Famer now coaches the company’s up-and-coming superstars at the Performance Center in Orlando, Florida.
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