Never has his moniker been more apt than on Sunday, March 30, 2008.
At WrestleMania XXIV, The Heartbreak Kid indeed broke the hearts of millions of fans, not to mention his own, when he delivered an astonishing third Sweet Chin Music for the pin in the most emotional retirement match in the history of professional wrestling.
Shawn Michaels gave everything he had in the ring, and outside of it, including unabashed, heart-wrenching emotion. Why?
To make, quite simply, the best and most sincere tribute he could conceivably give to the incomparable legend, "Nature Boy" Ric Flair.
For weeks, the slow burning build was powerful, impacful, and everything that it ought to be in the context of the storyline witnessed by fans of all ages.
It started with a respectful and heartfelt Michaels announcing the impending induction of his idol into the Hall of Fame. The next week, Flair came out into the center of the ring and challenged the younger wrestler to a match at WrestleMania.
A man who gave 35 incredible years to the business, the Nature Boy couldn’t think of a better opponent than his protege for the Grandest Stage in the industry.
Michaels is a man who grew up admiring Ric Flair and later patterned his own career after his hero; he is a man who states unequivocally that his passion for the business directly correlates to the inspiration given him by Ric Flair.
It is the belief of Flair that Michaels is the greatest in-ring performer of his generation, surpassing just about everyone who came before him and everyone who is active in the industry today. This sentiment is widely accepted by the most knowledgable professionals in the business.
Up to this point, Flair had survived the onslaught of the WWE Champion Randy Orton, Umaga, Triple H, MVP, and Mr. Kennedy. With such an impressive record of victories, the Nature Boy wanted to test his mettle against The Showstopper.
Michaels, however, was hesitant. So with the first of what would be several stirring promos from both men, Flair set the tone for this epic match with the most convincing of arguments.
If Michaels truly felt that Flair was the greatest of all time, if Michaels truly held the utmost respect for Flair, then The Heartbreak Kid could not deny him.
What followed the initial acceptance was a masterful play on the emotions of Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels, and the fans of the WWE.
Week after week, on both the flagship RAW and Flair’s home roster of Smackdown, the contest was built up, but not on the premise of a cocky youngster looking to claim a moment of glory. This match was to be about respect shared on the deepest level between two of the most spectacular sports entertainers in the history of professional wrestling.
Fans can look back and see that the WWE has taken this real-life idolization and love for Flair on the part of the wrestlers and made it part of a few storylines.
Notably, the feud between Rated RKO and Degeneration X saw Randy Orton and Edge viciously attack Ric Flair with a Con-Chair-To that left him bloody and in need of medical attention.
The response from DX included a searing promo in which Michaels and Triple H revealed the violent, vengeful side of the stable - particularly when unwarranted attacks were made on The Nature Boy.
The creative team at WWE continued this trend of taking the legitimate and genuine emotions of the wrestlers into the finale of the retirement storyline.
Flair began his final promo prior to WrestleMania by speaking both of his own doubt in himself and the faith that he thought Michaels had in him. Then, in true Naitch fashion, he called his opponent out to the ring for a little one on one verbal dance.
The fans around the world were treated to a fiery Nature Boy who cut off Michaels as the latter tried to pay homage.
Class was seamlessly called into session as Flair brought out the NWA title belt and catalogued his greatest opponents, including Ricky Steamboat, Dusty Rhodes, Sting, Harley Race, and Brusier Brody.
Michaels replied by displaying his authentic admiration and a dogged determination to deliver everything Flair had asked him for: He would be Mr. Wrestlemania, no matter what the cost. The men reached an accord.
Yet, after weeks of hearing his idol tell him to be nothing less than The Showstopper, Michaels treated the fans to a delicately balanced combination of The Heartbreak Kid of the 90’s and the beloved fan favorite he has been since his return.
Shawn loves Flair, and in that love, he had to come to the reluctant recognition that it was time for The Nature Boy to hang up the boots.
Michaels made a comparison to Old Yeller. Flair, in classic intensity, slapped the younger man twice and screamed for Michaels to end it right then and there.
The moment was all the more striking due to the calm sympathy projected by Michaels as he walked away. No more needed to be said.
The expectations for the match were off the charts. Despite the factors working against these two men, it was highly regarded as a battle between the acknowledged greatest in-ring performer of all time and the man considered by most to be his successor.
Yes, Flair was nearing 60, and his best years were behind him.
Yes, Michaels had returned to the ring in 2002 after a four-year absence due to a debilitating back injury that required reconstructive surgery and was supposed to keep him out of the ring permanently.
And yes, there were a few spots in the match that were not executed perfectly, but that's a topic that deserves its own discussion. Here it is necessary to suspend any over-critical tendencies and just absorb and revel in the moment.
From start to finish, the match exuded a potent story and tremendous ring psychology.
Michaels delivered the characteristic high spots that define him as a worker, including a sick Asai Moonsault onto the announcers' table.
Flair incorporated many maneuvers that contributed to his reputation as the "Dirtiest Player in the Game," including a low blow, a thumb to the eye, and a pin attempt with tights.
There were times when it appeared that The Nature Boy might just live to fight another day. Michaels hesitated to deliver Sweet Chin Music, and Flair capitalized with a Figure Four.
And when Shawn's signature finisher finally connected, he couldn’t make the cover right away. Flair was able to get his shoulder off the mat before the count could reach three.
A second superkick failed to result in a successful pin. Instead, Michaels stumbled back into the corner, resting against the turnbuckle as the weight of knowing that the end was near played over his features and settled into his eyes.
He pulled himself to his feet. For the first time, he did not tune up the band as he prepared to deliver a third Sweet Chin Music.
Flair rose to his feet, fists raised, tearing up and begging his dear friend to bring it, Michaels allowed his regret and sorrow to emanate from his countenance and in his body language.
In the most poignant moment in wrestling history, Shawn said, “I’m sorry. I love you.”
And just seconds later, the final Sweet Chin Music found its fateful mark and the three-count was made. With a hug and a kiss to the forehead, Shawn left the ring, leaving Ric to the adulation of the fans.
Shawn paused only once during his exit, sitting on the apron with his head in his hands before walking out of the arena. Ric stood in the ring, one last time, and the ovation was more than tremendous.
Unable to stem the tide of his tears in the face of the adoration raining down from the fans, The Nature Boy spent a few moments with his family before walking up the ramp to leave the arena, and his active wrestling career behind him.
The fans were still on their collective feet, still cheering, still “Woo!”-ing, and still shedding tears with their hero. In fact, the ovation continued even after Flair had blown a kiss to the fans and disappeared from sight.
Tears would be no stranger to my cheeks on that WrestleMania weekend. They came first during the Hall of Fame Ceremony, then in the match in the Citrus Bowl, and finally through the heart-wrenching Farewell Address on RAW.
Had the men that surrounded me not also been unashamedly crying, I might have had a moment or three of feeling out of place as a wrestling fan that happens to be female.
Instead, I was able to sit back and immerse myself in the raw, unadulterated emotion courtesy of two wrestlers considered the greatest of all-time.
WrestleMania XXIV may not have boasted the strongest card in history. It may not be considered the preeminent WrestleMania to grace the WWE annals.
What Wrestlemania XXIV did offer, however, is the overall most impactful story ever told in wrestling history. It was nothing less than an emotionally wrought instant classic predicated on a balance of story and reality that touched the hearts of everyone in the locker room and millions of loyal fans.
Thank you, HBK.
Thank you, Naitch. Woooooooooooo!!!
Author's Note: I wrote this last year following the emotional weekend of WrestleMania XXIV, but had not yet discovered Bleacher Report. With no outlet to share my thoughts, I saved the document and forgot about it. As I was cleaning out my documents folder, I found it and thought I should brush the dust off and let it shine.
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