For the better part of a quarter-century, Shawn Michaels made a living telling emotional and compelling stories inside a wrestling ring. Now, "The Heartbreak Kid" is telling his own story inside his latest book.
In "Wrestling For My Life," published by Zondervan, Michaels details his transformation from an immature and difficult drug abuser into a born again Christian, and how his faith helped guide him during his final years wrestling in WWE, from where he retired in 2010. The book, which comes out Tuesday, includes forewords by Triple-H and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.
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In this interview, Newsday's Alfonso Castillo talked to Michaels about how his faith changed his role in the WWE locker room, his famous feud with Chris Jericho, and another feud with a WWE legend that never happened.
AC: I enjoyed reading about your comeback match in 2002. That was in our backyard at the Nassau Coliseum. I was hoping to bring you back to that moment and ask you what were you feeling that night? From reading your book, it sounded like you were pretty collected that night and, even after a four-year layoff, confident that you knew what you were doing. But were there some nerves at the Nassau Coliseum that night?
SM: Yeah, there were. My faith is sort of where I got my confidence. And it was the confidence of, "It's going to be what it's going to be." But all of the nerves were certainly still there, because there were so many unknowns. You're sort of in this tug-of-war with yourself. There's part of you that feels like, "Come on. I've done this for the majority of my adult life. I'll still be able to do this." But four years is a long time. And coming back from a [back] injury that, at that time the doctor said you can't come back from, you can't help but to be a little nervous and wonder what's going to happen. And you're doing it on pay per view. You're doing it in New York, where they can be tough on you if they're not happy. So there were a lot of unknowns. I think because of where I was at in that time of my life, had I fallen flat on my face, I would have been OK. I would have handled it far better than I would have years earlier. But, I don't think I'd be being truthful if I didn't say that you're still very nervous, because you want it to go well and that audience is an audience that holds you to a certain standard. They're waiting to see, "Does he still have it?"
AC: You wrote about in your book, and I think many people would agree, that it was that last chapter of career when you had your best run. Can you talk about what role faith played in that? Was it your spirituality and that connection you found that actually made you perform better in the ring?
SM: I can't say that it's 100 percent because of my faith that it went well. I think I was given a gift to wrestle. And I think when I came back, I had a much better appreciation of that. And I believe the way I went about doing it made me better at it. I didn't identify myself with the job as I did so much in the '90s. In the '90s, I didn't know who I was other than "the wrestler." And when I came back, I had a much better appreciation of who I was. I think that made me better at my job and made me easier to work with. I was able to leave things at the office, so to speak. And I think doing that made me better at doing the job.
AC: I think of the match you had with Vader at SummerSlam in 1996. There was a spot that didn't go quite right. And in the middle of the match, you essentially threw a tantrum. When you came back for all of those years until your retirement, when something would go wrong, you handled it completely differently. Was it just realizing you don't have to kill yourself over this?
SM: I get in trouble for it now, because I don't express it correctly, even though I really try. It was still important to me to do a good job at my job. But if I didn't, it didn't bother me. I did not worry about being the best 24/7. I didn't worry about performing perfectly 24/7. I didn't put any pressure on myself 24/7, like I did years earlier. So all those things combined, I think had a great deal to do with my attitude going in. And obviously, my faith is what shaped my attitude. Because, let's face it: 10 percent of life just happens. Ninety percent is how you deal with it. And I think that's the biggest change I made when I came back.
AC: I was pretty touched reading your story about leading the locker room in prayer after Eddie Guerrero's passing. Was that where you really took on that role of a kind of spiritual leader in the locker room, and did that carry on through out the rest of your time there? Did you find people turning to you after the incident with Chris Benoit and other tragedies for some kind of guidance?
SM: Certainly, even prior to that, it was sort of going on. Anytime there was a tragedy or a difficult time, there was always somebody who came and wanted to talk. And that was a nice thing. I can't say that leading the prayer at Raw after Eddie's death, it's not like I became after that point the pastor, so to speak. I just think through all of that time, it just became a little bit easier for people to talk about those things, to talk about struggles. I'm just thankful that they felt comfortable enough to discuss it with me. I think that part of it is, if you're the first one to step forward and talk about things that are tough, then other people know that it's OK. I certainly didn't want to give the impression that after that prayer, I was the spiritual leader of the locker room. I just think when it came to those issues of one's own mortality, they knew that I was a guy that they could talk to about it. And, I guess, in some respects, I have some insight on it because of, obviously, how my own mortality brought it all about for me.
AC: You wrote about how nobody was forced to be part of that prayer circle. Not naming names, but were there people who didn't feel comfortable doing it? And was that actually OK with you?
SM: I honestly can't remember anybody having any problem with it. It was obviously something that just came about organically, which was very fortunate. I think if it became something that was almost a scheduled event, that's when it might make people uncomfortable. It was always just something that individuals did if they wanted to. I don't recall a time of someone objecting or being uncomfortable that I could see. Certainly, nobody ever said anything. I remember having conversations with guys who were really at a place where, "I sort of get the way you feel and there are times that I think about that. But there are some real practical things that don't allow me to go down the same road you're going down." And I always thought just having that conversation was awesome. I don't think there's anybody that doesn't sometimes struggle with those things. I can't describe to you verbatim those first seven days [of creation]. There are Christians who think there were seven actual days, or that creation was over time. They have answers for dinosaurs and things of that nature. And I don't claim to have any of those answers. And I understand people wanting to have discussions about it. I don't pass myself off as a bible scholar or a pastor or someone who knows all the biblical facts cover-to-cover. I'm just a guy whose life was changed by it. And that's about the extent of it. So I'm not easily offended when people struggle about where they're at with their faith at all.
AC: Speaking of being offended, that storyline in which you tag teamed with "God" at Backlash 2006, --was that something you were OK with it? Did you just see it as having some fun, or did you have any concerns about it? Was it your idea?
SM: No, it was not my idea. It was obviously Vince and creative. And, no, it never really bothered me. I guess, from my standpoint, it was so far over the top that it was absurd. I laugh at a lot of stuff. Humor and joy are a big part of our life. We, as a family, laugh a lot. We have a lot of fun. We poke fun at each other a lot. There were a lot of people who were offended by it. I'd never argue with people who thought it was stupid. Of course it was stupid. I'd also argue that there's a lot of stuff in wrestling that we'd consider stupid. It can be a pretty silly job. I get it from the Christian standpoint. It's one of those things that I still get in trouble from what I'd consider some purists or hoity toity Christians. But then there were others who thought just the fact that we were talking about it was pretty amazing. Who'da thunk it? I chose to look at it from that perspective.
AC: One thing that was not absurd was your feud with Chris Jericho. He wrote about it in his last book as the best piece of work he's ever done, and how it really was the handbook on how to write a WWE angle and carry it out. Was doing that work late in your career something that you were very proud of?
SM: Yeah, for sure. Chris and I talk about it. It was fun. And that's what makes doing the job more enjoyable. You do it with someone you like. You do it with someone you get along with. Chris and I are a lot alike. We view the business, the ring work and things of that nature, a lot of it the same. And we enjoyed that process. So it wasn't difficult. Chris and I always had a really good relationship. We can disagree. We can jump on each others' cases. We can apologize. And neither one of us is immediately offended if the other one doesn't like an idea. We're quick to get past it and move on. And that's really what that entire process is. And that's what made it so fun. We came in every Monday and would get thrown a lot of curveballs. And it was fun seeing if you could hit them. And I think that's what made it work out so good, because it was pretty darn challenging every step of the way. There was really no direction or no real ideas going into it. It was like having a big old plate of Play-Doh for two guys to mold into what they want.
AC: Have you sold the indoor playground in Texas yet?
SM: You know what. It's too funny. We actually did on the last day of this last year, 2014.
AC: Congratulations. So we really won't be seeing you back in the ring.
SM: (Laughs) I've certainly made sure I've kept my word on that. And, heck, it's not even really about keeping my word. I just felt I had a good career. There's no reason to try to mess with it.
AC: I was just listening to an interview with Lanny Poffo talking about his brother Randy Savage. Somebody asked him about his departure from the WWF back in 1994. I don't know how much you know about this, but Lanny talked about one of things that really burned his brother was that he was so anxious to have a feud with you. He talked about wanting to have a two-year feud that would be kind of his masterpiece, the last thing he wanted to do in his career, culminating in a big blow-off match in which he'd put you over. And this was in the beginning of your singles run. When you hear about something like that, do you think of it as a lost opportunity? How much would you have liked to have done something like that?
SM: I've only just recently from my Twitter feed learned about that. I knew absolutely nothing about that. Obviously, that would have been a blast. Gosh, I think that would have helped me immensely at that time. I think there's so much I could have learned and would have learned. But I have to say that's one of those things that's been news to me. I guess all these years later you think, "Oh, that's nice to know." I'm flattered. Randy was a very keep-to-yourself kind of guy. And I guess I'm making assumptions, but for him to think I was even ready to do something like that with him, I think is a wonderful compliment, and I'm thankful to have it. I always tell people how he'd give me these short little pieces of advice every now and again. It's nice to know that he thought of me in that respect.