Since the beginning of his career, Shawn Michaels was always an undersized wrestler grappling in the land of the giants. The then-WWF was populated by wrestlers with bulging muscles with necks like tree stumps and veins as thick as garden snakes. Michaels was the exception to that rule, but his talent in the squared circle was unprecedented. In order to make up for his lack of size, The Heartbreak Kid would routinely engage in death-defying bumps and falls, and he would stream around the ring with breathtaking speed and agility. In 1997, Michaels was enjoying a run at the top of the federation as world champion, and his feud with The Undertaker was stealing the show every night. In a bloody battle with The Deadman at 1997’s Badd Blood, Michaels took what was at the time an incredible spill from the side of the Hell in a Cell cage, crashing back first through the announcers’ table.
HBK was used to taking risks in the ring against his usually larger opponents. Part of his act was stealing the show every night, a quality that earned him the moniker “The Showstopper.” In January of 1998, Michaels, who was fighting through nagging injuries after years of brutal wars, faced The Undertaker once again at the Royal Rumble. This time, though, the match was an Undertaker specialty… the casket match. Early in the match, The Undertaker back body dropped HBK over the top rope and onto the casket. While it’s hard to see the injury occur fully in the video, you can see Michaels clip his lower back against the edge of the casket.
Michaels was able to finish the match just fine, and said that he experienced no immediate pain. In his newest book, Wrestling for My Life, HBK detailed what happened after the match.
“A few days later at home, I woke up with my back in such pain that I had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance. An MRI revealed that I had two herniated discs and one crushed disc.”
Michaels was supposed to wrestle Steve Austin at the biggest show of the year, WrestleMania, but a doctor in New York told the champ that he would be risking paralysis if he even stepped back into the ring just one more time. Craving to put on one more match before he might have to retire for good, HBK entered into a two-month therapy program for his back to prepare him for the battle against Stone Cold. In the WrestleMania 14 main-event, you can see the moment that Michaels aggravates his back injury after taking an Irish whip into the turnbuckle.
Although he was able to finish the match, you can see the pain etched on HBK’s face throughout the final stages of the contest. Austin won the bout and the championship, and Michaels’ run at the top of the organization was over for now. He was beat up physically, but, mentally, he was also in a bad place. In his time off after WrestleMania 14, Michaels — who admittedly was popping 30 to 35 pills a day to cope with his physical pain — realized that his son Cameron was beginning to take notice of his father’s inebriated state. In his book, Michaels remembers the night that he asked for God’s help.
“For the first time, reality had set in: My son was beginning to notice who I truly was, and that was going to affect him. I was in the process of ruining not only my life, but also my son’s. ‘Lord,’ I said. ‘Please change me.'”
As the former WWF Champion began rehabbing his broken back, he also began reinstating a sense of spirituality though a renewed conviction in his faith. In the years between 1998 and 2002, HBK would make some appearances on WWE TV in the form of a referee or authority figure, but he had yet to get the itch to become a competitor again. Then, in 2002, a passage from the Bible convinced him to make a call.
“I was sitting on the plane, reading my Bible and the Book of Joshua, and this feeling came over me that I was back here for a reason,” he told WWE.com. “God built me to be a wrestler. The words ‘be strong and courageous, for I am with you’ jumped off the page at me.”
Michaels made the call to Vince McMahon, and at first pitched an idea to fight the chairman himself. But Vince had another idea: How about coming back to wrestle Triple H? HBK and Triple H had a storied history together. Behind the scenes, they were best of friends, traveling around the world on top of the WWF’s roster. On TV, they were both apart of D-Generation X, a group of bad guys who would spit in the eye of any authority figure. WWE set the stage for the comeback match by having Triple H turn on his friend during an episode of Monday Night Raw.
At SummerSlam 2002, the match was on: Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H in essentially what was a street fight. Many were wondering if Michaels’ back would be able to withstand another bout. Others wondered if HBK could still perform at the same level he was at four years earlier, when he would easily have the best match of every card he was on. All those who doubted a returning HBK were silenced when he and Triple H went out and stole the show in an unbelievable, and brutal affair. HBK, who performed in a pair of jeans, looked in top shape. He withstood Triple H’s assault on his back — several times, he was dropped back-first on a steel chair — and even dove from the top rope to the outside like the HBK of yesteryear. Michaels eventually won the match, but the win that night was largely symbolic of a greater struggle that he endured in his years away from the ring.
HBK was indeed back, just as good, maybe even better. This time, though, Michaels was spiritually intact, and his faith would carry him through almost another decade in the business.