Torch article on Shawn's knee injury, title forfeiture (2/97)

Torch Newsletter Archive

By Wade Keller, Torch editor

Headline: Michaels shocks WWF, forfeits belt on Raw

Originally published: Pro Wrestling Torch Weekly newsletter #428

Cover date: February 22, 1997

Thursday night on live television, Shawn Michaels turned in his badge. With no prior notice, Michaels showed up in Lowell, Mass. for the Thursday Raw Thursday special on USA Network and informed WWF officials and fellow wrestlers that he was in too much pain and decided to quit wrestling because of a knee injury.

The WWF announced Michaels's decision at the start of Raw, saying the title would be vacated and the winner of Sunday's Final Four match would become the new WWF Champion. Michaels handed the belt over to Vince McMahon and Gorilla Monsoon after a moving speech.

During his "resignation speech," Michaels didn't focus on his knee injury, but instead stressed the need to take time off. He said he needed to "fix himself" and "find his smile again." He walked out of the ring, perhaps never to return.

That much is known. The rest of the story has been anything but easy to decipher. Fellow WWF wrestlers were skeptical of Michaels's claim regarding his knee, including Bret Hart on the air the following Sunday. Michaels wrestled the previous weekend, his last date being Sunday, Feb. 9 in East Rutherford, N.J. at Continental Arena when Sid & Bret Hart beat Michaels & Steve Austin afteter Bret pinned Michaels after his own partner Austin gave him a Stone Cold Stunner. He did not complain of a serious knee injury after the match, nor was he favoring it that weekend. He didn't wrestle again and showed up Thursday saying his knee was in too bad of shape to wrestle. Since then, the WWF has clarified that the problem with his knees was a cumulative injury that did not happen suddenly.

It is well known Michaels has legitimate problems with his ACL and meniscuses in his knees and has worn knee braces on both knees for a couple of years. Lately they had been bothering him more than ever and surgery was considered. On the live Monday Night Raw, a taped interview aired with Dr. James Andrews who said Michaels doesn't necessarily need surgery, but he does need to rehabilitate his knee for about six weeks. At that point, a judgement will be made whether or not Michaels needs surgery or can wrestle again right away.

There is not skepticism that Michaels actually has problems with his knee. But the timing of the decision had led to quite a bit of speculation. Among that speculation, as expected, were reports that Michaels, on his own at the urging of Vince McMahon, was headed into rehab for pain killers or other drugs. Sources say Michaels is not, in fact, going into drug rehab.

Other speculation was that Michaels quit so he could immediately jump to WCW. Michaels, though, is locked into a five-year contract with the WWF which has several years remaining. It's conceivable Michaels would ask to buy his way out of his contract if he were unhappy in the WWF, but the WWF would have to be willing to let him go and absorb yet another major name jumping to WCW. Even though Michaels is still friends with fellow "Clique" members in WCW (Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Sean Waltman), Eric Bischoff has told poeple behind the scenes he doesn't think as much of Michaels as others. Publicly, in an interview with Prodigy last month, he said: "I'm not sure Michaels would ever fit on our roster/" If Michaels does eventually show up in WCW, it won't be anytime soon.

The WWF wants Michaels to remain a presence on television, including being a guest referee or ring announcer at Wrestlemania. While Michaels's future in the WWF is in doubt- and some sources say the WWF is not 100 percent confident he will return soon, if at all- the WWF has more pressing matters to deal with, that being Wrestlemania. The WWF had to scramble to change its plans for Wrestlemania and that scrambling led to one of the more hectic five day periods in WWF history.

Sunday night at the In Your House Final Four pay-per-view, Bret Hart won the four-way match to capture the WWF Title when Steve Austin, Sid, and Undertaker were eliminated by being thrown over the top rope. The title reign was a short one as the next night on Raw, Sid pinned Bret Hart to capture the title.

That sets up a Wrestlemania main event totally different from the one everyone assumed was slated, that being Bret pinning Michaels to capture the WWF Title to even the Wrestlemania score between them at 1-1. Instead, it appears Bret will face Steve Austin in the secondary main event and it is confirmed Undertaker will face the WWF Champion, who in all likelihood will be Sid.

Sources indicate that Bret is very upset with several aspects of the weekend, including that he is being used once again as a "transition champion" and that he has been booted from the Wrestlemania main event. Some suspect Bret is upset that Michaels chose such a "convenient" time to declare himself incapacitated to wrestle given it came so close to Wrestlemania. It's possible Michaels would have lost the WWF Title to Sid on Thursday Raw Thursday and that was part of his motivation for taking a personal leave of absence at this time. It's possible Michaels would have kept the title through Wrestlemania and has no avoided doing the job to real-life rival Bret Hart.

Michaels is financially secure due to a seven-figure inheritance he has (or is due to receive) and presumably does not need the guaranteed money remaining on his WWF contract. If he is as unhappy as he claimed to be during his live shoot-like interview on Thursday's Raw, he may not return to the WWF and Bret may not have a chance to get that rematch victory over Michaels, which even though it is a worked match personally means a lot to Bret.

Michaels has put himself in a position similar to what Bret Hart did a year ago in that he is taking a personal leave of absence at the end (or, in Michaels's case, a bit before the planned end) of his run as a main eventer. If the WWF struggles without him, Michaels may end up in the same catbird seat that Bret was in last summer. Michaels also gets to, in a sense, one-up Bret by leaving Bret to be the top babyface in the promotion even before doing a job for him.

Michaels made it very clear as he concluded his live interview on Thursday's Raw that the knee wasn't the only, or even the primary, motivation behind his sudden departure. "What I'm going to do is go back home and see what's left for me whether it be in this ring or out of this ring," he said. "I know over the last several months I've lost a lot of things and one of them has been my smile. I know it doesn't mean a whole lot to everybody else, but it means a lot to me. I have to go back and fix myself and take care of myself and I have to go back and I have to find my smile because somewhere along the line I lost it. I don't care if it's unpopular, if people want to make fun of me because I'm an emotional guy, but this is all I've ever wanted to do and over the last year I've got to do it. Whether you like me or not, the last year was the most wonderful year of my life. If I never get to do it again, it'll be okay because I got to live one full year being the number one guy in this business. It was the single greatest year of my life. I have you thank (looks at Vince McMahon) and I have everybody here to thank and it means a lot to me. I'm going to go home now, okay."

Michaels hugged McMahon and Monsoon. He left the ring, and as he cried he took a final lap around the ring as fans grabbed at him and hugged him. As Michaels walked away, Jim Ross said it takes a "man's man to do what Shawn just did." Lawler broke from his heel persona and said he bet Michaels would be able to come back from this.

Michaels began the speech by syaing, "It seems like we've done this before." Two times in the past he has forfeited the Intercontinetal Title, once due to a real-life WWF suspension, the other time because of an angle built around the real-life Syracuse, N.Y. beating. "This time unfortunately for me it's much more serious than it was last time," he said (although last time the storyline was the head injuries were career-threatening). I've never had a doctor look me in the face and say I may never be able to wrestle again. I was told that the other day. Of course, it's not something I believe, but the fact is it's something I have to deal with. Time has taken its toll on my body."

Early during the moving speech by Michaels, fans in the arena chanted "We want Sid" loudly, clearly not understanding the gravity of the announcement Michaels was making. By the end, they caught on and were silent for him.

"There's one thing about me and that is I can't do anything half way," he continued. "I come here tonight and I hear people chant Sid's name, Bret's name, they chant a lot of people's names. One thing's for sure, you're going to have a lot of that in the future. Depsite what you may think about me, what I wanted for these people is for them to have a good time, to enjoy themselves. I've always tried to be the one to provide it whether it was ont he good side or the bad side. What was always important to me was the performance so that these people, each time they reached in their pocket to buy a WWF ticket they didn't regret it because when they saw my name on the card they could come and cheer or boo or do whatever they wanted as long as they had a good time."

After losing the title to Sid last November, backstage in a corner in the locker room he openly cried. The crowd reaction, McMahon asking him to give up the title after such a successful year, and seeing the handwriting on the wall that Bret moved ahead of him again in the hierarchy took its toll on Michaels. Michaels had fun when Clique buddies Hall, Nash, and Waltman were around. When they left, he became a virtual recluse according to other wrestlers, hanging out almost exclusively with Hunter and otherwise being off-putting to other wrestlers and road agents. He had shown severe signs of mental and physical fatigue from various aspects of his lifestyle and schedule on the road.

Said Michaels: "Over the last couple of months there's been a lot of talk of people having bad attitudes and a lot revolving around this belt. All I know tonight is one thing that's not going to revolve around this belt is Shawn Michaels. I don't know where I'm at right now. I have to have everything checked. I may be beyond reconstructive knee surgery. I may or may not be able to fix it, but if I can't come back and perform at the level I performed at before, I can't perform. I can't come out here and just go half-assed. I have to come out here and romp and stomp and have to get tossed around and toss people around and have fun.

"The schedule over the last year I took on because I didn't feel I could say no. I felt could do everything. I wanted to enjoy my life as the WWF Champion. I wanted to ride in leer jets and ride the limousines and be on TV shows and do autograph sessions. I got to do every bit of that. If nothing else I have all of that to take with me. I know right now we're in the middle of a time where toughness is really big here in the WWF. Unfortunately all I have for you right now is a lot of tears and sorrow and emotion. I don't have toughness for anybody. So I guess here you go, here's your belt."

The WWF did not bad-mouth Michaels at all and in fact Vince McMahon, Jim Ross, and Jerry Lawler went out of their way to gush over what Michaels had done in the WWF the past year, talking hopefully that he would return. They said they would follow his progress during his rehabilitation of his knee.

Michaels's indefinite leave of absence came at an inopportune time for the WWF since they just expanded Raw to two hours. Already under the gun due to a relatively thin roster, especially in the category of good-to-great workers who can carry longer bouts, the WWF now faces even more pressure to create some new stars out of wrestlers they already have or available free agents. Their premier event of the yaer now has a make-shift main event rather than a match that has been built up for over a year.

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