Interview With Shawn Michaels

Shawn Michaels

Mr. WrestleMania, the Heartbreak Kid, arguably the greatest in-ring performer of all time. There are a lot of things anyone who has grown up watching wrestling will call Shawn Michaels, but the stars of NXT and NXT UK now get to call him “Coach.”

Inside The Ropes‘ Lead Writer Gary Cassidy recently caught up with Shawn Michaels to chat about the representation of Scotland in professional wrestlers for the BBC, and would ask HBK all about his career and some of the most infamous moments within, including whether Mr WrestleMania might consider one more match, how he’d coach a young Shawn Michaels and much, much more.

So, Shawn Michaels, you are widely regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest professional wrestler of all time. And your name is synonymous with WrestleMania. When I was growing up watching wrestling, the only representation of Scotland was Rowdy Roddy Piper, who is Canadian.

Last year, we saw the greatest moment for me as a Scottish wrestling fan when a Scotsman won the WWE Championship in the main event of WrestleMania and I’m sure Drew McIntyre’s not only Scottish person that grew up watching wrestling, not seeing Scottish representation, looking to “Who’s the greatest person…? Shawn Michaels!” Looking up to yourself and now he gets to work with you, gets mentored by you. I need to ask you, overseeing all these Scottish talents that are suddenly, with Scotland not being a big wrestling nation until a couple of years ago. What do you think is the secret to this insurgence of Scottish talent becoming big?

Well, first of all, I have to say, and I’m OK with saying, us dumb Americans… I can’t grasp how impactful that must be for y’all. For me, I’m there at the PC and we have international talent coming from all over the world and for me, once I start working with my groups and you get very close to these people, they are very important to, you establish relationships.

Drew was one of those guys. Drew is a young man who was in the WWE before, at such a young age, went ahead and took a huge chance, a huge risk, bet on himself to go out and establish himself, get more experience and then come back. He came back not having to have to… I don’t know, come in and train and do skulls and things like that. He was on a separate deal and he said, “No, I want to come in and work with you as much as I can,” which just speaks to the character of a young man, and the heart, and the desire that he wanted to grow and to learn and to honestly be the best that he could possibly be.

In that time, getting to know him, he is a guy that has worked. I mean, he’s a man’s man. I used to always tell him, because his first experience didn’t go the way he expected it to. When he came back and we started working together and I watched his his growth and his ability and I said, “Man, you’re a six five, 245-pound Scottish stud, man.” I said, “They are going to love you. You are going to get back there and you’re going to do well.” And honestly, it was. I was one of the first guys to congratulate him after he won the championship. So proud of him and everything that he’s accomplished.

Again, because I live here, I can’t imagine how important it was for you all. I can only liken it to what the city of San Antonio felt when I finally had my opportunity. I can imagine, even for him, realising just the impact that he’s had on Scotland as a country – and, of course, we have so many now Scottish talent. I get to work with them over in NXT UK and it’s just a blast.

I will say to you, and I’m not patronising. Absolutely, some of the sweetest, most hardworking young men and women that I’ve ever met. I’m very partial to Gallus, “Gallus Boys On Top!” And Kay Lee Ray. She, to me, is probably the greatest… I think, you know, NXT UK Women’s Champion, but she’s just now… She’s the best kept secret. If she ever chooses to come over and come to America, and be part of the WWE from a global standpoint, I see her having the exact same kind of success that Drew has had. She is very, very good and she has done unbelievable work for us over in the UK and I couldn’t be more proud of her because she is an absolutely fantastic young lady.

Most definitely. One thing for me and, you know, people will be able to hear, I’ve got a pretty strong accent, getting to watch people with the same or similar at least accents to myself. And I’m sure it’s the same for a lot of people in Scotland. You always think people won’t be able to understand you. What has it been like watching them learn how to cut promos and stuff? And have you ever had to adapt or get one of them to slow down and talk a little bit clearer?

You bet! Numerous times with both Kay Lee and Joe Coffey, I’m like, “What did you just say? I said, “You’ve got to slow down. I’m a redneck from Texas. Slow down for me.” But look, what I think is great, especially for the UK… Growing up in Texas, I spoke a little bit of Spanish, but I couldn’t do it as fluently. You speak a little bit and then people think, “OK, well, he can speak and then they start rattling off…” It’s like, “Whoa, slow down. I’m a novice at this.” So, again, it’s something that you all are used to.

And again, it’s just something every now and then I’d have to go like… “I think I know what you said, but you might have to back that up a little bit for me,” and thank goodness I always have Jim Smallman there every now and then to let me know, you know, “They got it right, Shawn,” it’s like, “I trust you.” Move on from there. Again, to me, that’s the joy again of working with these young men and women. I can be silly with them and have a good time and then still watch them go out and produce such a phenomenal product.

Most definitely. You yourself have been to Scotland a few times. I think, I done my research and I think it was 11 or 12 matches you’ve wrestled here across, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen. But you also did a spoken word show here that sold out in ten minutes for Inside The Ropes. So obviously the Scottish people absolutely love you. I need to ask, have you got any fond memories of Scotland at all?

So I can remember doing Glasgow a couple of times. The building is just phenomenal. Those were always tours, and again, it sounds cliche, but when we went over to the UK, especially the first time and then we started going over there on a more regular basis, I had not experienced or seen success like that because, in the States, they sort of got used to us and now some of the events were not as big as they used to be. Then we went over to the UK and it was just… I can remember saying, “I feel like the Beatles.”

I mean, it was amazing and the energy was just so unbelievable. And again, that’s why when we started doing that, NXT UK, it was like, “I want to go over there,” and I was, I was all in after that. Like, can I do this all the time? Like, if nobody wants this, I’ll take it because it is, the fan base is fantastic, our talent is great to work with but no there’s also awesome memories and when I did the spoken word, I can’t remember… I wish I could remember the place we went, but just a great little venue, that nightclub. And it’s my understanding and they would do wrestling in there. Yeah.

It’s the Glasgow Garage.

This looks like a fantastic setup. And again, people hanging up around that balcony up there was just awesome. And so those are trips you just… We never get tired of going over there because the energy is just, you know, it makes you so appreciative because that’s why we do this job – to go out there and perform in front of people that are really, really enjoying it. And every time we’ve gone over to the UK, it’s always off the charts. And it hardly makes it feel like work.

I’m sure people will be bored of hearing Shawn Michaels talk about the UK and will actually want us to talk about Shawn Michaels! In an interview with WWE UK, Ric Flair recently named you as THE greatest in-ring worker in the history of the business. I think he said only Ricky Steamboat comes close. A point reiterated by The Undertaker. What do those words mean to you, and do you agree with Ric?

Well, I’m not… Yeah, look, it’s all subjective, right? Ours is not a line of work that deals with stats and things of that nature. I will say this, over the years, when I was younger, it was the drive, it was a passion, it was the desire to be the best or to want to be called, or at least grouped in with, the greatest of all time.

As you get older, you begin to realise that, the guys that I was in there with, I can only assume that in our world here, the Tom Bradys, the Michael Jordans… I never want to ever have it sound disrespectful. I greatly appreciate the people, the fans or even sportswriters or people thinking you’re the best of the greatest, which is very nice. But for me, it means the most to hear from the guys that I was in the ring with – because those are the people you feel truly know the difference, and could feel the difference.

I think that’s one thing that… I don’t know. I always wanted at least to guys’ experience with me inside that ring to be something they’d always remember. That, for some reason, being in there with me was, I don’t know, easy or special and a bit more, I guess, natural and comfortable – and, of course, something that they could look back on and be happy about.

So, hearing it from my my peers is clearly the best thing to me. But I also do know that stuff is here today and gone tomorrow, so it’s not something I really think about that much anymore. It’s just very nice to look back on what I think is a really wonderful career that I feel very fortunate to have had.

You used the word “had” there when talking about your in-ring career. During The Last Ride, Undertaker kept mentioning how “jealous” he was of you being able to walk away for good. Of course, you did compete in that tag team match with Undertaker, Triple H and Kane in Saudi Arabia – which you guys were all very vocal about your disappointment with. Edge and Christian have recently returned to end things on their terms. Does that match now being your last bother you? Could you be tempted for one more?

No, no! Like I said, I guess that’s the thing – I can compartmentalise that. I don’t know if it’s fair, but I can.

I think that’s one of the reasons I was able to walk away and be at peace, unlike a lot of people who have struggled with that. And I do understand it.

Even that second one, it felt like its own entity unto itself. It had nothing to do with, really, to me, “one more match.” It was about going out there and having an experience with my guys. I mean, it was sort of like just a… I don’t know. It’s like somebody saying, “You graduated high school?” “Yes. But I’m going to go back to my ten-year reunion,” and I’m still going to do that, but it doesn’t mean I’m going back to high school and I want to go through it again. So, I guess that’s how I looked at it was, it was an experience that I just wanted to have – special – with these guys.

As I say, I still look at my retirement and all of it, again, with nothing but complete joy and satisfaction. I have since, all those years, really begun to understand and appreciate how special that was for me, because so many guys have struggled with it in the past.

I love that analogy! So, I loved your retirement match but my favourite…not even WrestleMania match, my favourite match of all time was yourself and Undertaker at WrestleMania 25 – and I know that’s a very popular choice. For you, do you look back on that one particularly fondly, or was it just another day at the office?

Well, so – certainly not just another day at the office. I can say that.

It was very special and, again, those things that are the greatest – you ask ten different people, you get ten different answers. What I do know is that’s the one for me that felt… That’s what enabled me to walk away. That’s what enabled me to have that piece of going back. Even though, again, I did one more thing – but that was the one that just put everything in here in perspective, that gave me the ability to say, “This part of my life is done and I’m now looking at moving into the future” and so for that, it was one of the greatest moments, certainly professionally, that I’ve ever had, because that’s important.

You know, this line of work is awesome and when you do it, you do it for a reason – because it’s a part of you – and as we’ve discussed, it’s very hard to leave that behind. So, again, that that’s why that moment is very, very special to me.

There’s one thing I always wondered about that final match the year after – and hindsight is a wonderful thing, but you retired at WrestleMania 26 and, on the same card, was Vince McMahon vs Bret Hart. If you hadn’t been retiring, do you think you’d have ended up involved in that match? Or was there ever talks to have you involved in that match at all?

No, no, no. Not to my recollection. No, that was a 100 percent total separate thing and I’m sure, creatively, I don’t even think someone would have talked about that because, of course, you’ve got the I Quit Match or, I’m sorry, the career-threatening match, whatever it was we called it. So I’m certain they wouldn’t want to mix or have there be any confusion between the two. So, no. To me, again, it was just so great to have Bret back, to be perfectly honest, so I think that was kept totally separate than anything else.

And of course that allowed you to have the perfect retirement, really. One other perfect retirement you were involved in was Ric Flair’s, and arguably the most iconic moment in WrestleMania history of you saying, “I’m sorry, I love you” before you retired Ric Flair. How planned, or how spontaneous, was that moment?

Well, a lot of it. Again, it’s… When I know what I’m doing at WrestleMania, there’s always a point to which [clicks fingers] it’s something just, it comes to me. And so I just woke up in the middle of the night, at home, at two o’clock in the morning, and I just had all these thoughts – so I started writing it down. Truth be told, you get very emotional writing it down because it started flowing from this 15-year-old wrestling fan and what this guy’s impact was on my life and then ending up in being my career and then a friendship and everything else, so it just got really, you know, emotional at the end of that.

I was sitting there to myself and I’m looking at it, and I thought, “I don’t know if this is spectacular or if it’s just the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen,” because it’s a grown man writing a love letter to another grown man. So I just gave the overall concept to Michael Hayes and to Ric, and they both just got very quiet and they’re like, “It’s beautiful.” It was more conveying the emotion of all of that than ever actually saying it. It wasn’t like in my notes, “And then at the end, I’ll say, I love you, I’m sorry,” and kick him. A lot of that was again, it really was just a combination of – that’s what I was saying in my in my thoughts and then it just occurred to me, “How about I actually say it?” I honestly can’t remember if I recall telling anybody I was going to say that or not.

As you can see, Ric was crying in the match, he was crying right after, we were crying before. It was an emotional time anyway, so there was a great deal of realism to that because, again, it was taking me back to the 15-year-old guy that was watching him on TV and now having the opportunity to have his last match in the WWE. There are some aspects of this stuff where we get old and soft, and that was one of them.

It’s interesting you used the word “soft” there, as that word has made the headlines recently. You are one of the greatest wrestlers of all time and you’re now training the next generation in the hopes of, I assume, someone taking over that mantle. Triple H recently told me how he’s hopeful The Undertaker will be joining you as a trainer in NXT. He made waves with a comment on the current generation being a bit “soft” nowadays. As someone who acknowledged before that, despite being arguably the greatest in-ring talent of all time, you may have been a bit of a wild child. Looking back on that time in your current role, what advice would you have for yourself, and how would you have dealt with ’90s Shawn Michaels?

I don’t know. I don’t think I’d deal with them and I’d probably suggest that we let him go, he’s going to be nothing but trouble, no matter how talented he is. Either that or get him help. Honestly, that would be the the biggest thing. Especially, as I look at it, I think to myself, “Well, I… I was good at my job.”

So when you see that kind of ability and they’re young, and they are just angry at everything, and obviously have a problem – as opposed to getting rid of them, the first thing you probably should be doing is helping them. So, the more that I think about it, I think to myself that, again, “We should try to at least help him because the young man is going to end up hurting himself someday,” or he’s going to be one of those wrestling tragedies that we hear about.

So I think if he had all the drug issues and things like that, that I had, that’d be the first step. If it was just an attitude thing and there were no other circumstances, that’s when sometimes it may not matter how good he is, he’s probably more trouble than he’s worth.

One thing we hear a lot now is about how “kayfabe” is dead. When I think of Shawn Michaels, two of the first things that come to mind are very real, “kayfabe-shattering” moments IN the ring as opposed to outside of it. The iconic Kliq embrace and another with Undertaker and Triple H on the ramp. What was the thought process behind those, or was it just pure emotion?

Yeah, I mean, clearly at different points in my career, but again, the one was just saying goodbye to your buddies and certainly, for me, at that time, we had also spent so much time together and it was them leaving. Back then, we were on the road with each other 250-275 days a year. They’re family at that point. That was emotion. The one with Undertaker, same thing. Now we’re talking about all of us – older, mellowed out, grown, changed with each other but still intertwined in a very unique business and very unique situation. There are some times in this line of work where it gets to be real. And I guess, as you put it, the “breaking of the kayfabe,” that realness also works for the job. It also works for the fanbase, the entertainment, whatever you want to call it, the enjoyment of the viewer as well. I think those are times when those aren’t things that hurt the business. Certainly not with The Undertaker. I know that the curtain call and all that, years earlier, was seen differently by a lot of people and I do, I understand that, but I think now we’ve come all these years later, I don’t think that would be looked upon the same way now, because it’s not as if a lot of people don’t understand how the business works.

We are getting to talk, thankfully for me, because of technology – and it’s a wonderful thing. NXT UK. I’ve spoken to a few people and they say that the most bizarre thing ever is hearing your voice, you know, booming over the production that allows you to help them put out a product – which we’re all thankful for. What’s that like producing a wrestling show from the other side of the world and having your voice boom over a venue to all these people?

At first, it was pretty challenging. It’s very hard not being there, wanting to be there and to convey the passion. Again, we enjoy going over. I love our talent over there. I’m connected to them in a way I hope that they understand is unlike a lot of stuff. It is almost like family. It’s like estranged sons and daughters. You begin to really care about them and want success for them, want them to fulfil their hopes and dreams. I love being there, physically being able to do that, to convey that with them. But thankfully, we’re still able to do it in this environment. It’s just a little bit more challenging.

And yeah, sometimes the only way to do it is to hit the little switch and to call “the voice of God”. So it has to be shorter and sweeter, as you can tell by this interview, I can be long-winded. So that’s been the hardest part is we’re conveying our appreciation and our thanks for everything and all the hard work that you’re doing and trying to do it in a timely way that doesn’t sound too overbearing with them at the youth in that system. But again, it’s great to be still have to be able to be so hands-on with the UK. And we’re very happy with the relationship there at BT, and just a great success. And of course, the fact that you, the NXT UK Universe, enjoys it obviously is a blast for us as well.

Yeah, I’m just going to say I’m very grateful that you’re long winded because you’ve been very generous with your time. So thank you so much. It’s been an absolute pleasure. And can’t wait to hopefully see you back in the UK very soon.

Thank you very much. Thanks for having me. Yeah, we are looking forward to it. We can’t wait to get back.

Thank you so much to Shawn Michaels for taking the time to chat, and to WWE UK and BBC The Social for facilitating the chat.

You can watch WrestleMania live on the WWE Network on April 10th and 11th, as the Show of Shows emanates from the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.