His nicknames include “The Showstopper,” “The Heartbreak Kid,” and “The Main Event.” He has been called “the best of the best,” “the greatest professional wrestler in history,” and “the most gifted sports-entertainer of all time.” He captured PWI’s Match of the Year record 11 times, headlined five WrestleManias, and was a four-time World Champ.
“Shawn Michaels is the most athletic, inspired and daring storyteller in the business; raising the bar for the entire industry with each match.” — IGN
But Shawn Michaels’ life behind the curtain was a wreck. His body was broken, he struggled with drugs and alcohol, and caught legitimate heat in the locker room for his attitude, arrogance, and what many considered a flagrant disrespect for the business and his peers.
Then Shawn Michaels found the Lord.
The fans were as dubious about his conversion as were his fellow wrestlers. Was it staged? Was it real? Could Michaels really change?
I sat down with the WWE Hall of Famer to discuss his new autobiography, out February 10, Wrestling for My Life: The Legend, Reality, & Faith of a WWE Superstar.
You wrote your first memoir back in ’06 — what made you want to do a second?
The first one was mostly the WWE’s idea. I had been saved a couple of years at that point, but you can’t really talk about God as much as you want in a book that’s predominately wrestling. My life was family, faith, and wrestling, but the wrestling side was so big and grandiose it always took the forefront. Faith and family are everything that’s real in my life.
Two things stick out when I Google your name: numerous sources call you one of the greatest of all time and there are many mentions of your previous reputation for being conceited, disrespectful, and disliked by your peers.
Well, one thing about the Internet is it will never let you forget your past. But the great thing about salvation is you don’t have to get tied down by the person you used to be. I know I’ve got a past. Everyday there are people who throw it in my face. I’m just thankful that from God’s perspective, he doesn’t count it against me.
The irony of the wrestling business — which you could say is based on fantasy — if you deny any allegations, everyone assumes it must be true. So there’s no way I could have been as bad as some of the stories out there. But at the same time, I’m certainly not as good as some of the stories that are out there either. So it balances out. I like to think it keeps me humble. With the exception of Jesus, everybody God used in the Bible was pretty messed up, too.
Oh man, one misfit after another.
Yeah! So I guess I feel like I’m in pretty good company.
I didn’t bring up the bad press to push it in your face. I just wanted to contrast those two because often our biggest liability can also be our greatest strength. Did that brash attitude help you to rise above?
You’re right. I’ve reconciled myself to it, but a lot of that attitude I had back then is also what drove me to be as good as I was. I won’t throw myself up in the categories that some people put me in, but, thank God, when I came back from retirement with a better attitude, I was still able to do it. Could I have done it from the start being a nice guy? Eh, I don’t know. I’m guessing no. I probably would have walked away instead of pushing as much as I did. I don’t want to glorify the bad, but I’m afraid it’s like a house of cards. You take one piece out and the rest falls down. Maybe that’s how God makes sure you know it’s for his glory?
When you started in wrestling, it was still shrouded in secrecy. Good guys were good, bad guys were bad, and you played that persona out in public. Nowadays, everyone understands you’re playing a character. Does that make it easier to be a Christian in the business?
I think so. Not at first though. When I went back after my injury, I got my fair share of mockery. There’s still some cynicism, but the openness in the locker room is far greater now than it was years back and part of that is because so much is out in the open now. But then again, I was also the guy who didn’t keep those secrets.
How do you mean?
Nobody started pushing that envelope before me and Hunter. The Madison Square Garden Curtain Call [in ’96] was one of the biggest exposés that wrestling was scripted. I was saying stuff on TV that I was not supposed to say. Maybe I wasn’t the only one, but that certainly happened in my generation and I think I’d be considered one of the guys who had a hand in that. But yeah, it’s certainly easier now that the business is more reality based.
Did you ever fear retaliation in the ring from the old school guys who were protective of the business?
Well, I didn’t do it until I was one of the main guys in the WWE. Sure, I got scolded here and there for, but I had such a bad attitude, that stuff didn’t bother me. So pardon my French — but that’s what gave me the cohones to put it out there years ago. To answer your earlier point, if I were a Christian during that time, would I have done it? I don’t think so. But you know, maybe God was using me even way back then. Who am I to say? Whether it was real guts or faux guts, it seemed to work.
What elevates a wrestling match to art?
Emotion. People can tell. And I think people connect with real emotion, whether it’s fear, sadness, despair. Look, the majority of our audience is dudes. And no dude wants to admit his vulnerability. But the great thing about our business is they don’t have to if I will. For whatever else I might have been, I was always very comfortable showing vulnerability in the ring. A lot of wrestlers would simply go from “I’m hurt” to “I’m tough.” That was it — the whole range of emotion. I wasn’t afraid to dip into every facet of my emotions. That’s the joy of the wrestling business, to tell your story and make those people feel what you feel.
So in a sense, they live vicariously through you.
Oh yeah, I make it safe for them to experience those emotions. You might have a physically amazing match, but to take it to the next level — if you can combine action, drama, rise and fall, laughter, sadness, fear — all of those things coming together, that’s the difference between a match that might be good and one that takes it to that next level.
What was different about you? How were you able to consistently bring a performance in at that level?
As silly as it might sound, while I was in the ring, it was all very real to me. Later on, I took actual struggles and hurts and was able to use that as inspiration.
Give me an example.
When I had the retirement match with Ric Flair, it was easy for me to put myself in the place of a 15-year-old boy who is now a grown man and is about to end the career of someone he used to admire so much. Sure, I understand that Ric is going to resign and it’s not like he’s really never going to be able to work again. But I know him well enough to realize how much it would hurt him if that were to be the case. So that’s the guy I put myself in the ring with. That’s the character I became. And it was a heart-wrenching thing to do.
Stories change the world.
Yes sir. They do.
What’s the physical toll of 20-plus years in the wrestling business?
I never forget what I did for a living. I feel it every day. My knees hurt, my back hurts, my shoulder hurts. I know I’m going to have to get some work done in the not too distant future for all the bumps I’ve taken over the years. But on the other hand, I got to do what I always wanted to do and it’s given us the means to live a good life. It’s one thing to dream, but to look back and say you did it? Brother, I am just so thankful. And blessed. It’s hard for me to focus on the negatives.
Were you raised in church?
I was raised Catholic and we did go to church. I went to Catholic school, was an altar boy. So in that sense, yes. I think back sometimes and wonder — was it more religion than relationship with God? I really didn’t understand the Bible or salvation. Is that the reason I had some of the struggles that I did?
But yeah, I was trained up in the way I should go. And I knew when I was at my lowest that I needed something. I knew that something was God.
What was the turning point?
It was the night I was half in the bag (on pills) at home, struggling and having my son crawl up on me and say, “Daddy’s tired.” I wasn’t tired. It was the realization that he could tell. He knew. And that completely broke me down. That was the night I said, never again. I cried out to the Lord for help and never looked back.
What’s your biggest struggle these days?
Patience. Patience with my family. You know that scripture that says be angry and sin not?
Well, I’ve got the first half down . . . I still struggle with sarcasm, still struggle with first reactions, still struggle with just taking downtime to breathe. But you know, considering where I’ve come from — those are struggles and flaws I can live with for now.
Are you still a part of John Hagee’s church?
We went to Cornerstone for a while, but then moved from San Antonio to the middle of nowhere and looked for a new one. For a while we went to Pastor Joel’s church and then did home church for a long time and we just now found a new church, Beltway. It’s a bit of a drive, but we really like it. My son and I go on our first mission trip this summer.
Would you be all right with your son going into the wrestling business?
Yeah . . . He has no desire to do so and that’s probably why I’m so okay with it. He’s a bright young man, way smarter than his dad. But he’s big enough. Six-two, about a buck ninety. But he’s not interested right now.
How do you want to spend the rest of your career?
Keep working with the Outdoor Channel and doing my show there, MacMillan River Adventures. Just continue to make that better. Still do appearances here and there for the WWE. I retired to come home and help raise my family and that’s a challenge in itself. So I want to work towards being a better husband and a better father and that’s about the extent of it. That’s enough for me.
And you know, I enjoyed doing this book and telling my story. I’m not a pastor and I’m not a Bible scholar. I’m just some dude that used to wrestle and thankfully, the good Lord saved me from screwing up my life. If there’s something I can say or do might make a difference to somebody, I don’t want to miss that opportunity. I’m open to whatever God has for me next.
Lead image courtesy of the WWE.