Shawn Michaels vs The Undertaker
Reliant Stadium, Houston, Texas, United States
(reviewed for entirely too much time between 07/04/2018 and 08/07/2018) Tragedies aren’t simple affairs. There’s no cut and dry explanation for why human disasters happen, no clean “A to B to C” chain of causality. Complete devastation unfolds all at once as a house of cards, one flimsy platform holding up the next and holding up the next and holding up still the next, all of it collapsing in a single moment stemming from countless influencing moments that came before.
The tragedy of Shawn Michaels cannot be traced to a single event any more than the tragedy that preceded his downfall: the financial crisis of 2007-2008.
Banks in the United States became increasingly deregulated in the last two decades of the 20th century. First, President Carter signed the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980, which eliminated caps previously applied to the amount of interest banks could seek on loans. Two years later President Reagan signed the Garn-St Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982, allowing banks to pursue adjustable-rate mortgage loans, which are predatory loans for the express purpose of buying a house that start with a low interest rate that would shoot up to a much higher rate after a number of years. Fifteen years later we arrive at the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, signed off by President Clinton. Among other effects this law removed taxation on the profit made by people selling their homes, up to $500,000 USD for married couples and $250,000 for single individuals. Over time this rate raised higher and higher, reaching $1,000,000 in 2006 and even higher for farmers and small business owners. Clinton didn’t stop there, signing the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 that fully removed barriers preventing commercial banks and investment banks from merging and doing business together, barriers that had largely remained in place since the Great Depression.
What’s the difference between commercial banks and investment banks? We’ll get to that in a second. First let’s talk about the country’s obsession with property ownership.
Only 6% of Americans were allowed to vote in the nation’s first presidential elections in 1789. From the very beginning, one had to be a property-owning white man in order to participate in the principle practices of the country. Though these restrictions loosened bit by bit over the centuries, this belief in power through property has always remained a cornerstone of the American ideology. The United States grew to be a world superpower by gobbling up the geographic bounty of a continent largely untouched by imperial rule, exploiting and exterminating the native population for their land, driving countless immigrants against the plow in their stead. By the late 20th century, after hundreds of years of white dynasties getting richer and richer off blood-soaked soil, that concept of property ownership being the be all end all was baked into the collective consciousness and the rest of the country wanted in, no matter the cost. Housing was thought to be a good investment, especially after the Taxpayer Relief Act removed capital gains tax from the equation. “Flipping” property became a commonplace source of not only wealth but entertainment, with a television industry that exists still today born out of that craze. In 2004, President Bush ran for reelection on the basis of creating an “ownership society” in the United States, in which people would take “a vital stake in the future of this country” by way of buying property. On top of providing safety and security, owning a home became a political act and a financial strategy. It became about pride. It became about pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, an American concept that in its earliest days signified a ludicrous, impossible feat and eventually changed to refer to difficult—but theoretically possible—tasks sometime in the early 20th century, in the heyday of Rockefeller and Carnegie.
So that takes us to the 21st century, where this housing bubble grew to burst. Imagine you buy into this idea and want to purchase a house back in 2003 so you can bump the national anthem as loud as you want without getting evicted. You probably don’t have a huge stack of cash lying around so you have to go get a loan from the bank. Picture your average bank, the one your parents dragged you to as a kid where you’d get a lollipop or some kind of candy for the mere act of being a child. That’s what we call a commercial bank. You negotiate a loan with them, getting a big stack of cash in exchange for promising to pay that money back over the course of several years, with interest. Due to prior deregulation banks had lots of incentive to give out these loans, even to people who had bad credit or a history of defaulting on loans, since they could just flip the property thanks to an ever-growing population looking to buy homes. Adjustable-rate mortgages were all the more enticing for these bad credit borrowers, as low interest rates promised them the life of luxury and the assurance of paying off later when things were better. These risky loans, given to prospective homeowners who were unlikely to pay when the time came, were known as subprime mortgages.
The thing about commercial banks giving out loans is that it wipes out the reserves of money in their vaults, which they need to operate. In these cases banks will usually strike deals with other banks that do have surplus reserves, getting stacks of cash in exchange for paying back those loans with interest. The interest rate in these inter-bank exchanges is regulated by the Federal Reserve, the central banking system of the United States. In the wake of the dot-com crash and 9/11, the Federal Reserve dropped these interest rates to historic lows, hoping to spur inter-bank loans and kickstart the ailing economy. This encouraged even more subprime lending as well as even more nefarious practices. See, commercial banks don’t have to borrow just from other commercial banks. After the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, commercial banks were approached by investment banks, which are private companies that advise and finance other groups and businesses. These investment banks gave the commercial banks the reserves they needed in exchange for their various mortgage loans. These loans were then bundled together into groups called mortgage-backed securities, with shares of these bundles sold to investors. The idea was that with interest accruing and defaulted properties being flipped, investors stood to make a lot of money off people trying to buy houses and were willing to pay top dollar for these shares. Even if so many of these bundles of loans contained subprime mortgages likely to default, it was thought that the scores of better borrowers would keep things afloat.
It don’t take much to sink a ship, though. As housing prices increased in the 2000s, fueled by more and more people wanting to get in on the game, so too did household debt and specifically mortgage debt rise, all as wages stagnated. Eventually it was too much. People stopped buying houses and the prices dropped. Without the value of their houses rising and without higher wages, subprime borrowers defaulted on their loans. As more people defaulted house prices went further down, continuing the cycle and dragging down the value of mortgage-backed securities, which were central to the business practices of some of the world’s largest investment banks.
In the decade leading up to the bubble bursting, around seven and a half million people bought homes with subprime mortgages. Between August 2007 and October 2008, a total of 936,439 homes defaulted on their loans and foreclosed. That’s all it took to bring the whole thing down and kickstart a worldwide financial crisis. Less than a million people out of more than 300 million American citizens in 2007. 0.0031% of the population. It only took 0.0031% of Americans to send Lehman Brothers under, to have Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns sold off at a fraction of their previous worth. It took only 0.0031% of Americans to force the government to bail out remaining banks and other massive companies in order to avoid the collapse of the world economy, to the tune of trillions of dollars. It took only 0.0031% of Americans because an even smaller percentage of supposedly smart people sold them on a raw deal and banked everything on the idea that there would always be money coming in, that the system was too big to fail. In a sense they were right, as world governments had to take drastic measures to prevent the 21st century as we know it from caving in on itself. They were too big to fail in that, had they not been saved, everyone would have lost it all. So many people still did in the end.
John “Bradshaw” Layfield is a vile bully of a man but I’ll be damned if he ain’t good with money. At first glance he might be little more than a boorish cowboy but soon the oil tycoon suits give away his role as an investment banker out of the ring, a business commentator familiar with appearing on CNBC and Fox News. A self-made millionaire, Layfield has founded an energy drink company and a youth-oriented nonprofit along with being Senior VP of Long Island-based firm Northeast Securities. He is married to Meredith Whitney, a business analyst famous for correctly predicting specific banking failures in the lead up to the 2007-2008 financial crisis.
Three months after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and sent the whole world into panic, JBL stepped into the ring at Armageddon 2008 to announce his newest employee. Out walks Shawn Michaels. For weeks Shawn had described losing everything from the economic crash: his 401(k), his nest egg, his kids’ college fund. He didn’t have much, having only worked part-time for the last ten years and invariably struggling through serious injury and substance abuse problems during that time. Still, he and his family had been living comfortably and now that’s all gone. Now he doesn’t know how much time he has left and that’s why he had to take JBL up on his offer of employment. You see, Layfield needs a hired goon, a stooge to help him get ahead as he enters the later years of his career. Who better than one of the greatest WWE stars of all time?
Shawn sees this as something he has to do, for his family and for his pride.
“I will put my children through college, I will not let my brothers and sisters lose their homes, and more importantly I’m not gonna become one of those guys. You think we don’t hear about ‘em, but we do. We hear you saying it. ‘D’ya hear about HBK? He’s bagging groceries at the grocery store.’ ‘D’ya hear about HBK? I saw him limping into a high school gym to wrestle.’ I’m not gonna become a wrestling tragedy. I will not let that happen.”
While this gives Shawn the money he needs, his problems don’t end there. Unsurprisingly JBL’s one prick of a boss. He spends weeks accosting Shawn, taunting the man, holding the man’s finances above his head. He uses Shawn to win matches, to get in people’s heads, to earn title shots by nefarious means. For a man who’s tried to live the last ten years of his life on the straight and narrow, it’s morally painful on top of being utterly humiliating. Through a combination of bad luck, poor planning, and JBL’s own meddling, Shawn fails to help his employer regain the WWE Championship. Enraged at his lackey’s incompetence, JBL challenges Shawn to a match, as this is professional wrestling and all conflicts have to be settled in the ring. They’ve already agreed to a one year contract and if Shawn wins this match, he’ll still get his year’s salary but will be free from the responsibilities of the job. However if JBL wins, Shawn will have to work for him until the day that he dies.
It’s a risky proposition with potentially devastating consequences, but that’s always what Shawn Michaels has been about. After months of ridicule and abuse, he beats JBL and frees himself from the fear of financial ruin and from the shame of demeaning labor.
Unsurprisingly JBL is humiliated by this loss and immediately tries to course-correct his image. The next night on RAW he states that while Shawn might now be financially stable, he himself remains ludicrously wealthy. “Despite the large check, you take a bucket of water and pull it out of the ocean and what do you have left?” After Shawn failed to get him to WrestleMania as WWE Champion, JBL says he had an epiphany. Those goals were too small and temporal. Now his goals are about achieving immortality. He wants to do what no man has ever done before. He wants to end the Undertaker’s undefeated Streak at WrestleMania.
Shawn Michaels has something to say about that. See, he’s got a long history with the Undertaker himself. What’s more, he ran into the Phenom back at the Royal Rumble in a bizarre backstage confrontation wherein Taker shared a bit of insight with him: “It’s hell trying to get to heaven.” The way Shawn sees it, he’s living heaven on earth after beating JBL and regaining his freedom. He’s undefeated in singles competition against the Deadman. No one has ever out-performed him on the grandest stage of them all. There’s no one with a better shot at ending the Streak than Mr. WrestleMania himself.
They do business again, with a shot at the Undertaker on the line. HBK comes out on top a second time and has to then face Vladimir Koszlov to actually earn his ticket to the big dance, because nothing in wrestling can be simple and direct. In the end, though, this is Shawn’s destiny. He needs to be the one to end the Streak.
In the build to WrestleMania, we hear from both men repeatedly. The Undertaker uncharacteristically speaks first. “The Streak is something I never speak of. It just so happens that WrestleMania is the night that I have chosen to show my peers and the rest of the world what it is the Undertaker represents.” He describes how ego drives men to try and make their names at his expense, with every contender falling short. Shawn claims to have found peace within but Undertaker asserts that he needs prayer now more than ever.
“You see Shawn, you concern yourself with being the Showstopper. You concern yourself with winning a match and breaking a streak. What you should concern yourself with is what I’m gonna do to you physically and even more importantly than that, Shawn, what I’m gonna do to your soul.”
The spiritual gesturing continues a few weeks later. Shawn digs a grave in a misty cemetery to bury an effigy of the Streak, defying Taker’s assertion that he suffers from a crisis of faith. That same week Shawn performs a twisted version of the Undertaker’s signature entrance, clad all in white, accompanied by white-robed druids, back lit by the glow of an LED crucifix. He quotes from the book of Genesis, framing his presence in the context of God’s creation of light and explicitly stating that he and the Undertaker represent light and darkness. At WrestleMania, Shawn vows to drag the Undertaker to the fiery depths of hell and ascend victorious.
Three days later a hearse rolls into RAW, where Shawn Michaels rises from the grave and emerges from the coffin inside. He stages a funeral for the Streak, stating that he’s proving how his light will forever outshine the Undertaker’s darkness. When the Undertaker arrives to put a stop to the charade, Shawn hides. He suckers the Phenom in for a cheap superkick and crotch chops above the man as he writhes on the mat in pain. Shawn smirks as he walks back to the locker room, a silver cross hanging around his neck.
These themes extend into the match itself. A supposed beacon of the Lord’s light, Shawn fakes a knee injury early in this match to get a cheap shot in. He targets the Undertaker’s own knee for a time, going after the weakest point on the body of a 44 year old professional athlete who has carried a seven foot, 300 pound frame for most of his life. Despite this the Undertaker controls much of the first half of the match. WrestleMania is his domain, after all. Still, he’s having trouble here. The brief knee work is simply the latest in a long history of physical trauma. He’s entering into the twilight years of his career. His very being is weary.
Shawn, too, is obviously weary but that’s where the match begins to wane in my eyes. Likewise in his mid 40s and feeling his storied career winding down, Shawn feels and sells a great deal of physical pain here, most of which is quality work of some sort. More than that, though, he’s known for selling the emotion of a big match and that’s what I tend not to like. Often I find that aspect of his work to be hammy and unappealing. We get a few good examples of it here, first with Shawn blubbering over the prospect of a countout victory…
…and later with the dramatic way he climbs up the ropes for a signature elbow drop.
For the most part the Undertaker avoids such theatrics, bringing a relative restraint to his reactions such as in this exhausted frustration after Shawn survives the Last Ride.
Even then he can’t avoid it forever, with the best example being his famous facials following the match’s sole Tombstone Piledriver kickout.
By themselves these examples of over-the-top acting aren’t awful, match-ruining moments. Compared to the histrionics you’ll find in subsequent Streak matches or any number of popular matches around the world today, this almost feels tame. Where it all falls apart is how these moments are coupled with the match’s incoherent narratives.
As I’ve mentioned the build to this match centers around the idea of it being a clash between light and dark, a Biblical battle of good vs evil. More than any level of pious offense taken at the sacrilege of the thing, I find the story’s hollowness to be the real issue. Taker’s long since been established as a mystical being whose grim powers lie somewhere between the occult and the supernatural but it’s been a long time since that has been framed as evil in any way, especially by other babyfaces. What’s more Shawn’s no saint himself. He cheats in this match and takes dirty shortcuts. He directed vulgarities at the man he cheap shotted less than a week before this on RAW. His ego and arrogance is what got us here in the first place. Hell, he’s still using the “Sexy Boy” theme. With all this shit in mind, how on earth am I supposed to view Shawn as an upstanding, God-fearing man for whom I’m meant to feel sympathy as he struggles against a supposed agent of the devil?
A sub-story within the match revolves around the history these two have with WrestleMania itself. I like the idea of the Streak confronting Shawn’s perception as Mr. WrestleMania, as not all of those supposedly show-stealing performances yielded victory. It’s an interesting concept that adds a lot to Shawn’s role in this match. But the thing is, Taker gets in on that performance-driven egomania too, repeatedly stating that WrestleMania is where he proves to his peers and the world that he’s the best. It’s such a weird thing for a character like the Undertaker to care about, this legacy of great match quality and personal performance, and while it’s hardly my chief complaint here it’s another barb that adds to the growing list.
Even more than weak narrative themes, the WWE approach to myth-making is what ruins this match for me. An argument could be made that this match, above maybe all others, would theoretically deserve the WWE’s “instant classic” seal of approval but I don’t think the match itself backs that belief up. The story is a mess, with neither man actually inhabiting the role the Biblical trappings suggest they do and with the course of the match only further blurring those lines. The emotion isn’t quite there either, as this pales in comparison to the hyperdrama of last year’s “I’m sorry, I love you”. Even the in-ring action doesn’t exactly warrant the overwhelming reaction this match gets on all fronts. Outside of two or three legitimately tremendous spots, this isn’t more thrilling to me than what these guys were doing in the late 90s. Despite all that, we have commentator Jim Ross losing his goddamn mind in the booth. After the aforementioned Tombstone kickout he shouts, “I just had an out of body experience.” He repeatedly asks the audience if they can believe the classic they’re witnessing. It’s yet another spirited call from one of the sport’s best commentators but I couldn’t relate less to what he’s feeling. So too with the audience themselves. As fans in the third row are standing and bowing to the two wrestlers in the ring and as JR is screeching about losing feeling in his extremities while Shawn scrunches up his face real hard and pretends to be super tired, I can’t help but be turned off by it. It’s a sort of instant, requisite mythologizing that simply does not match up with what I’m seeing in the ring.
I don’t mean to make out like this match is all bad. In fact, I do consider it to be great on some level. The big moves are big big big, better than just about any example of each spot elsewhere in either man’s career. In particular the two ill-fated dives and the chokeslam that follows them are huge, breathtaking moments that I’ll treasure forever. This match manages to navigate the waters of kickout-heavy WWE main event level “classics” better than most, especially in comparison to subsequent Streak matches. I just don’t think this match in any way approaches the level of career-defining, fandom-defining excellence that it’s been treated to for nearly a decade. I think this match aims too high and misses its mark. I think it builds upon a foundation of incomprehensible storytelling and decades of good will from fans that ultimately isn’t strong enough to carry its top-heavy weight. It’s a match that thinks it is too big to fail.
Along those lines, this is also a tragedy of ego. Shawn got into this mess by believing that he was too good to bag groceries. When the roof caved in on his finances he of course thought of his family’s wellbeing, but “more importantly” he thought of himself. “More importantly” he didn’t want to stoop to blue collar work or slumming it on the indies. “More importantly” he wanted to leave behind a legacy as some impossibly great performer. “More importantly” he didn’t want to become a wrestling tragedy and in the process of trying to ensure that, he sold away his career in 2010. It’s a powerful story of hubris, one that I think is inarguably the best of Shawn’s career. But the real tragedy comes from the fact that in aiming for immortality he was unable to achieve a compelling reality.
12 How you have fallen from heaven,
morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations!
13 You said in your heart,
“I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon.
14 I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.”
15 But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,
to the depths of the pit.
Isaiah 14:12-15, NIV