After The Monstrosity that was One Final Beat, a significant portion of the online wrestling community spoke up to blame a lot of the flaws of that match on Shawn Michaels. While no one can know for sure who agented the worst match of 2020, there’s good reason to assume that Michaels might have been involved. Some time in 2018, news came out that Michaels had taken a personal interest in working with Johnny Gargano’s matches. Soon after, Gargano matches began to populate themselves with verbose dialogue and hand staring. All the worst aspects of the NXT Morality Play.

Tropes that many have criticized Michaels for overusing and popularizing in the later years of his career.

For much of the last decade, I bore witness to how this anti-Michaels section of the internet began to gain strength. What started as a vocal minority pushing back against the WWE narrative of Michaels as an all time great has since bubbled up to the surface especially in marking Michaels as a scapegoat for a lot of the problems in modern NXT. This particular section of fandom perhaps found some of its greatest validation when recently Dave Meltzer pulled a 180 on one of his more controversial opinions and finally declared that he preferred Bret Hart to Shawn Michaels.

As someone who started watching wrestling in the late 2000s, this take always chaffed against personal memories and nostalgia. Several of my friends that I grew up wrestling with still count Shawn as one of the greats–a key player in our childhood viewings. Catching him at the peak of his post-back injury run, many of us got caught smack dab in the middle of the WWE narrative surrounding Shawn Michaels as a legend. But not just a legend in status and tenure the way The Undertaker was at the same time, but specifically as one of the great wrestlers in WWE history. WWE leaned hard on Michaels’ reputation as The Showstopper and often positioned him on WWE TV in the 2000s to be a bit of a workhorse among the younger generation. Fans like me were conditioned to expect good matches from Shawn Michaels.

It’s that conditioning at the hands of the WWE marketing machine that formed the foundation of my relationship with Shawn Michaels. Of course, that would soon be bolstered by personal experience–matching the performances I saw on TV to the reputation being built. I was definitely a Shawn Michaels fan. It was easy to be when the people on TV told you to be.

In recent years, I’ve hesitated to revisit a lot of the Shawn Michaels classic matches from my past. Simply because I’ve heard enough criticism of Shawn and his style of wrestling that I deem valid that I worry that going back simply isn’t worth my time. People who I greatly respect have gone out of their way to highlight what it is about Shawn Michaels that they don’t enjoy and it’s done a lot to keep me from attaching too much nostalgia to a lot of his work. When I have revisited his work, it’s been a mixed bag. Matches like the original Hell in a Cell hold up better than they did when I was a child and matches like the WrestleMania 21 encounter versus Kurt Angle lose a lot of their luster.

Which brings us to this match from Raw in 2007.

I watched this match again today for the first time in years, wondering just how it might hold up to my ever changing standards and aesthetics of pro wrestling. It features Shawn Michaels, someone who’s become increasingly hit or miss for me, against arguably the greatest WWE wrestler of all time in John Cena.

These two wrestled in the WrestleMania 23 main event a few weeks prior in front of a crowd that definitely skewed towards Shawn Michaels. At the time, the Big Four pay-per-views screened in local cinemas in the Philippines instead of on free TV as they had before. One of my earliest vivid memories of wrestling is watching that main event in a cold theater and for the first time in my life being disappointed that John Cena won.

At the time, John Cena was in the middle of a year long plus reign as the WWE Champion. Although he first won the championship in 2005, this run with the belt did the most to cement his status as the top man in the WWE for the next decade. At the same time, however, Cena also found himself in the middle of a fan rebellion against him. His feud with Triple H in 2006 plus his run against the smark haven of the ECW One Night Stand fans meant that Cena developed a reputation of being a bad wrestler. It’s around this time in his career that chants of “You can’t wrestle” got lobbed in his direction, a frankly insulting assertion given that Cena wrestled the greatest Last Man Standing match of all time just three months prior to this.

The first act of the match feels like a direct response to that section of the fandom. Michaels works as a heel aggressor, trying to use Cena’s arm to control him on the mat only for Cena to constantly counter his way out of each hold. With each attempt Shawn makes to ground Cena, the champion has an easy answer to frustrate Shawn. Multiple times in the first few minutes, Cena also goes for the STFU which tapped out Shawn at WrestleMania. Shawn does a good job conveying a fear of the hold as he scrambles to the ropes each time.

From there, the match paces itself wonderfully well. This match famously goes close to an hour long–a rarity for non-stipulation singles matches in the WWE–and it honestly doesn’t feel its length. It segments itself pretty clearly from babyface shine to heat segment into a comeback and finishing stretch.

Instead of wild, crowd-popping offense to mark his shine however, Cena instead relies mostly on a headlock in the early goings. It serves to depict his progression as an all around performer as he gets to dominate Shawn on the mat. Props to Michaels here in this segment as well, he does a lot to put over just how much of a mountain Cena is to him at this point. There’s a part of Michaels that definitely underestimated Cena both at Mania and here tonight and he’s discovering just how much of a mistake that is. It’s honestly delightful to see how cool Cena remains in control–never really rubbing it in the faces of the fans that disdain him. It’s the kind of calm certainty on top that would mark other great performances of his such as the Money in the Bank 2011 classic.

Shawn tries to find a way out of Cena’s grasp but the champion’s technical soundness and inhuman strength allow Cena to maintain control. He works over Michaels’ back with a series of big powerslams and suplexes spaced out between sections on the mat.

Michaels finally catches a lucky break when he’s able to dodge a Cena shoulder tackle. The fall damages Cena’s left shoulder which opens an opportunity for Shawn to attack. He rams that same shoulder into the steel steps outside to set up a neat control segment here. He doesn’t do too much in the way of brutal or creative arm work but the big hits to the steps and Shawn’s follow up justify Cena’s selling of the arm.

And oh boy can that man sell.

Cena’s five moves of doom comeback arrives but it’s elevated by delightful arm selling from Cena. It’s nothing too blatant but it’s there for the people watching. The arm bothers him and the champion strikes that perfect balance between expressive and subtle selling that’s the mark of the truly all time greats.

Shawn for his part gets the time to sell as well. Cena really works over his back and Shawn bumps hard for him even an over the turnbuckle to the floor bump off a hard Irish whip. Michaels always leaned towards the more expressive and theatrical side of physicality in wrestling, very much just a few steps behind Kenny Omega in that regard. There’s nothing here about it that’s too annoying and he even throws in some moments of subtlety as well such as struggling with the follow through to his famous kip up comeback.

Things even escalate into floor spots quite nicely as Shawn knocks Cena off the apron ribs-first into the announce table. He goes for a piledriver to the steps like he did at Mania only for Cena to reverse it this time, dropping him back first onto the floor. A commercial break later and things have escalated into a punch out on the announce table as Cena goes nuts trying to beat Shawn into the dirt.

What follows is a pretty standard WWE finishing stretch from that time–teasing finishers until one guy finally nails it flush. This time, Shawn gets the Sweet Chin Music after escaping an FU attempt to get the three count on the champion.

This is a great match, one of the best of 2007. It’s matches like this that do validate a lot of Shawn’s influence from Flair in the 80s. The pacing and execution of this match very much reminded me of a Flair championship defense with Shawn, of course in that role. Perhaps if Shawn had actually worked as a full heel instead of the tweener role he winds up with here, it could tip this into the realm of all time classics but as it stands now, it’s still one of the better matches from either man’s career. This stands up just as well now as it did years ago and I’m glad to have come to that conclusion.

As much as there’s good reason to hate Shawn Michaels and his work, there’s a childish comfort in knowing that I can still pick and choose to find gems like this in his repertoire. At the same time, it makes the thought of tackling his more divisive matches all the more daunting. After all, Shawn gets to work this match against the greatest wrestler in his company’s history. What might the result be when left to less capable hands? Questions best left for another day.

At least we’ll always have London.

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