When Shawn Michaels returned to the WWE in 2002, it opened up a wealth of possibilities for new matches and rivalries that had previously been in the realm of fantasy. His back injury had robbed professional wrestling of one of its greatest performers, but his recovery ensured that he would be able to tangle with another generation of competitors.
Whilst his immediate history and animosity with Triple H brought Michaels back into WWE in style, it wasn’t until he stepped into the ring with Chris Jericho that the Showstopper re-emerged with a flourish. His absence during the majority of the Attitude Era meant that he missed the rise of Y2J from a mid-card entertainer into the first ever Undisputed Champion.
Jericho and Michaels had their first personal confrontation on December 16, 2002, a moment that would launch a bitter, personal feud that would span the remainder of HBK’s storied career. It began as the tale of a young lion looking to make a name for himself by forcing the king of the pack to skulk away for good following years of hero worship. And over time, it would develop into a battle of two of the most versatile and entertaining wrestlers of all time.
2003: The Start of the greatness
Chris Jericho’s obsession with ending the career of Shawn Michaels began as a desire to prove that he was the better competitor in every way. Jericho had been inspired to become a professional wrestler due to his fascination with Michaels, who was arguably the greatest performer of the pre-Attitude Era 1990s. Jericho discussed how throughout his career he had been referred to as the next Shawn Michaels, but that was now no longer enough for him.
Y2J believed himself the greatest wrestler of the current era, the King of the World, and his ego’s girth was comparable to a young HBK. So, he naturally took offense to Michaels’ return, stating that he had no place in WWE anymore, and was simply a has-been desperately clinging on to relevance. It was the Showstopper’s job to teach this cocky superstar some respect.
After Jericho tasted Sweet Chin Music during their first confrontation, both men entered the Royal Rumble as #1 and #2. Michaels had previously gone the distance from the outset in 1996, but thanks to the underhanded tactics of his rival, it would not be anywhere near that marathon performance.
With Michaels waiting in the center of the ring for his opponent’s entrance, he was bemused to see Jericho’s tag team partner Christian dressed like the Highlight of the Night. Jericho meanwhile slipped in behind Michaels, first hitting a low blow, and then wrapping a steel chair over his head multiple times. Dumping HBK’s lifeless body over the top, Jericho would remain in the Rumble longer than any other competitor, before Michaels got his revenge by charging back into the ring and distracting the Canadian until he was eliminated by Test.
The feud was filled with excellent promos, sneak attacks and short brawls, but they did not actually meet one-on-one until WrestleMania 19, a match that would take pride of place in either of these superstars’ impressive catalog of contests. Despite competing against four main event caliber bouts further up the card, this was undoubtedly the match that stole the show and proved a fitting blow-off to the tension they had developed.
It was a technical masterclass in how to tell a story in a match. Shawn Michaels began the match, letting both the fans and Chris Jericho know that he had not lost a step. He took the approach of schooling his younger opponent and demonstrating that he had forgotten more about wrestling than Jericho had learned. However, this was brought to a screeching halt when Jericho locked in the Walls of Jericho outside the ring, preying on the damaged back of Michaels.
From that moment, Jericho’s arrogance grew to immense proportions, as he strutted around the veteran and reveled in his dominance. Among his own taunts and in-ring prowess, he began imitating Michaels, doing his rival’s signature pose and performing his own version of the Sweet Chin Music. It was a brilliant story they were crafting, and the crowd loved every second of it.
The closing minutes were back and forth, with HBK refusing to surrender to the submissions of his opponent, and Jericho kicks out of the original Sweet Chin Music. Yet, it was Michaels that proved to have one more trick up his sleeve, catching Y2J in an inventive roll-up to end this incredible encounter. Jericho was in tears at the disappointing conclusion and seemed set to reconcile with his one-time idol when Michaels extended his hand after the match. He was greeted first with a hug from Jericho but then felled with a kick to the groin, as the young lion refused to take his loss graciously.
2008: Taking the greatness further!
For the next five years, both Chris Jericho and Shawn Michaels would continue to compete against each other and occasionally as allies, producing compelling matches whenever that happened due to their unique chemistry. Jericho would then go on hiatus between 2005 and 2007 and would re-emerge with an attitude that fans had never seen before. And the catalyst behind that transition was HBK himself.
Michaels was engaging in a feud with Batista over the former’s retirement of Ric Flair at WrestleMania 24, and Jericho was roped in as a mediator between the two. This appeared to re-fuel tensions between the pair, as Michaels superkicked Jericho after he had admitted to feigning an injury to defeat Batista at Backlash. He would then win a friendly but competitive match between the pair at Judgement Day, with the pair shaking hands afterward.
But, it was clear that something had snapped in Jericho. He seemed bewildered by the crowd continuing to cheer Michaels over him, despite cheating to win matches and kicking Jericho when he wasn’t provoked. Therefore, he took matters into his own hands, adopting a more calculating, aggressive manner as he smashed HBK’s face straight into the Jeritron 5000, severely damaging his eye.
This was the shift that dramatically altered Jericho’s later career, and made sure that his return was as compelling as possible. The shedding of his Y2J moniker and the entertaining gimmick was arguably the greatest move he ever made, as he evolved into one of his greatest characters ever. And the man that was called upon to give this new attitude its best possible start was Michaels, and this took their feud from 2003 to new heights.
It restarted at the Great American Bash, where Michaels returned far too soon from his meeting with the Jeritron. Jericho feasted like a feral hyena on his eye injury, busting him wide open in one of the most vicious battles before the beginning of the PG Era. This brutal assault caused the referee to stop the match and award the victory to Jericho, as he proudly bore the blood of Michaels on his fists.
HBK took to the ring at SummerSlam accompanied by his wife Rebecca and was set to announce his retirement due to the injuries to his eye. Jericho, basking in the glory of his accomplishment, could not help but rub more salt into the wounds by demanding that Michaels confirmed that the Canadian was the man that forced him to retire. He took a parting swing at the Showstopper for good measure, but missed and connected with Rebecca, which sent this rivalry into its greatest degree of animosity.
Michaels returned with a full-blooded vengeance on his mind, and he beat Jericho ragged in an Unsanctioned Match at Unforgiven. From tables, steel chairs, belts and closed fists, Michaels was virtually praying for forgiveness by the end due to the vicious assault in revenge for the pain of his wife. It was potentially the most brutal and personal match of their entire careers and left the crowd enthralled, astounded and dumbstruck by what they had just witnessed.
It would not prove to be an entirely disappointing night for Chris Jericho however, as he would later capture the World Heavyweight Championship in a Scramble match, and would set the scene for the final encounters of their storied rivalry. Shawn Michaels would immediately step up to challenge for the coveted belt and would look towards a match stipulation both were famed for a Ladder match.
At No Mercy, these two contested the greatest one-on-one ladder match in professional wrestling history. That is a bold statement, but I believe it is completely merited. The pacing was deliberate and perfectly balanced between action in the ring and time scaling the rungs of the ladder. It was a story crafted with ladders, and that is what made it so good – both Jericho and Michaels just knew how to make their contests more brilliant than others.
There were tremendous moments that left the fans to stand in awe, like when both combatants fell off the ladder through the announce table or the jaw-dropping sight of Jericho falling from the top of the ladder all the way to the ringside floor. But what sticks in mind the most is the final image of Jericho and Michaels grappling over the World Championship in the end. A fitting snapshot of the evenness and ferocity of their rivalry, and desire to be proven the best. Jericho won that night, but they both stole the show once again.
This feud between Chris Jericho and Shawn Michaels was awarded the “Feud of the Year” Award by PWI and it’s not hard to see why flicking through their amazing body of matches. Their chemistry was so natural, it allowed them to build upon their already amazing ring craft and be able to produce matches with each other that they could never aspire to with anyone else. The genres of pride, respect and ego were brought out anytime they fought, and this was how they brought out the best in each other.
They were two of the finest performers of the 21st Century, and if they were ever to lace up their boots one final time, it would be an honor to see them battle once more.